I was an active member of the OTO for about 10 years. Here is an extract from the notes I put together for a short workshop I presented to the local body.
I thought a lot about the best way to use our time today and I think there is very limited value in me telling you that The Chariot means this and the 10 of Cups means that. I thought it would be better if I gave you:
There are two approaches to Tarot and they are both equally valid. One is a more cerebral, analytic approach and the other is more intuitive. One is not better than the other we’ll be looking at both approaches today.
I’m assuming that as you are members of the OTO that you are, or want to be, a student of the occult and Hermetic sciences, therefore this workshop today is tailored to someone who wants to broaden their occult education. I will assume a familiarity with certain terms and ideas and a willingness to research them further these up for your self rather than giving detailed explanations today.
I’m also going to try and focus on the least you need to know at an introductory level and not muddy the waters with complicated Hebrew words and so forth at this stage of learning.
Tarot is the gateway drug of choice for many people interested in the Western Mystery Tradition. The correspondences and meanings of the cards are drawn from various Hermetic and occult disciplines such as astrology, numerology, Qabalah and alchemy. It provides an endless series of symbols designed to be meditated and reflected upon in order to awaken the sleeper within.
The myth of Tarot’s origins as being in ancient Egypt is just that – a myth. Tarot is more likely to have come out of Italy in the 13-1400’s, and also from Christian esotericism. The oldest surviving reference to Tarot that I am aware of is in 1367 and it was in reference to a ban on Tarot cards and playing cards in general as they encouraged gambling – not because of any occult connection.
The oldest surviving fragments are from 1392 in France. In the mid 1400’s decks were created that are the descendents of the cards we have in front of us today. It wasn’t until 1540 that there is any reference that I am aware of to the cards being used for divination.
In 1781 we see the first mention in print of the link to the 22 Hebrew Letters of the Hermetic Qabalah, and then to the Tree of Life in the 1900’s. When I say Hermetic Qabalah, I do so in order to differentiate it from Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Cabala. The Tarot structure we recognise today was developed and popularized by the Golden Dawn. The Qabalisic structure is adapted from a Jewish mystery tradition described in the Sepher Yetzirah. This is an important source text but there are conflicts with the GD adaptation. Crowley took the GD system and adapted it to fit his philosophy of Thelema.
There are different systems of correspondences for different Tarot decks. The main ones you’ll need to be familiar with if you seek a broad education in Tarot are the Rider-Waite and Crowley’s Thoth tarot. Another deck for study purposes is the Marseilles tarot, which is modeled on the early woodcut prints before the advent of printing. It’s perfectly fine to just stick with one deck and not pay any attention to the others.
The key thing to remember about the background of Tarot is that it’s not some pristine system of ancient knowledge handed down by bearded sages, like the 10 Commandments. It’s a collection of information, molded and adapted by occultists to be a visual reminder of Hermetic and occult principles. It’s an instruction manual for the evolution of the soul. It’s a map to the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. Qabalistically, it’s the recipe for the creation of the Universe, and everything within the Universe. A Tarot deck is, in fact, a Universe you can hold in the palm of your hand.
‘Astrology, Aleister and Aeon’ by Charles Kipp examines astrology using AC’s natal chart as demonstration. It’s also contains a very apt description of the initiatory journey inherent in Tarot.
“The first order of business for the program of spiritual development employed by various schools and disciplines of religious philosophy, as distinguished from the doctrinaire approach of societal religion, has been to foster the realization of the part of a candidate that one’s persona or ego, as the focus of consciousness, is not the whole of one’s person; that there is a deeper spiritual entity that animates the personality and participates in a greater order of being than that given to the perception of the bodily senses and taken as the material world that one inhabits. The traditional method employed for the development of this realization is that of initiation through progressive degrees of inner awareness leading to ever greater insight into the nature of one’s whole being. Disciplines of this sort have been practiced from time immemorial and such practice is the true and serous meaning of the word “magic”.”
The serious study of Tarot is an exploration of one’s spirit, opening to new levels of consciousness and contacting that part of ourselves which is beyond the logical, rational mind. The soul must experience whatever is in its path, be it objectively good or bad, in order to reunite with All. The initiatory journey back to All is filled with danger and heartbreak, as well as light and joy and all these experiences are reflected in the Tarot.