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The Character of Tarot

Subject: The Character of (Occult!) Tarot

Orig-To: private email

# ...history and iconography often require hard work.

this is certainly true, and there are different routes by which
one might derive significance for one's assertions about at
least the *latter* (something I tried to outline recently in
the list as a speculation on manivaried derivation methods).

since my interest is in

	a) discerning the line between game Tarot and
           the (occult) Tarot that comes from it, and

	b) identifying the (occult) Tarot as rarefying
           toward occult signification which may not
           rely upon history for its derivation but
           instead upon crafted, present-centered
           and diagrammatic-centered implication

history is truly more of a side-issue where my studies
and expressions are concerned....
# ...Tarot is something originally created for people of 
# the 15th century and reflects Christianity ....

in the sense you mean it, yes. in the sense I am promoting,
this is not true. (occult) Tarot is an ever-shifting Wave
of significance which does not depend specifically upon the
imagery and symbolism of gaming decks so much as use it as
a springboard for additional occult activities in pursuit
of evermore useful technology toward mystical ends. as such
it quickly separate itself from rootedness in the symbols
used to to fashion it, regardless of what occultists or
gamesters may contend. contrary arguments are overlooking
the clear syncretic and malleable attitudes that occultists
have had for centuries, thrown into slight disarray by the
development of anti-orientalist academic knowledge seats.

# ...why specifically do you think that the religious 
# content of early Tarot is trivial or only decorative?  

it seemed moreso than the later (occult) Tarot decks, especially
as they progress to incorporating occult symbols on them and set
up easy sefirotic tree mappings within their construction. in
those instances it was much more obvious to me that ornamentation
(for a game) was taking a back seat to the purpose of the deck 
(not for a game).

my interest is in distinguishing between the cards used for
gaming which others are making a good case for incorporating
religious imagery and the cards used for occult purposes that
may or may not have done so, typically extending far beyond the
found significances by virtue of temporal change and in some
cases intentional or misguided interpretations to alternatives.

# ...the common, fundamental meanings of the Tarot Trumps 
# within the culture that birthed it.

which I find only tangentally of interest as it forms the backdrop
for later occultist creation and speculation. practicality and the
immanent significance within mystical constructs takes precedence,
where I sit, and I don't see a need to restrict the significance of
occult tools to art and gaming history precedents. :>

nagasiva previously:
#> as it becomes an occult device rather than a cute entertainment.

this bit being the extreme position adversarial to purists who
want all the modern symbolism to conform with previous usage in
some way rather than completely redefining as we go.

[another piece of email to same follows, this to TarotL]

my notions about Tarot are still themselves being formed,
and I'm attempting to lock into a defensible position that
separates Tarot-created-for-gaming (no matter what kind of
symbolism it included) and Tarot-created-for-occultism 
(in its complexity and overtness a manner of refinement).

...the point I'm trying to make is one which requires
more than forming a projection-screen, and in particular
one which forms a part of an extensive occult construct
usable for mystical purposes (rather than mere divination).

fortune-telling decks do the job of layout well enough,
and the motif of the Book of Thoth requires a greater
expanse of usability, as I see it.

#># ..._Thoth_ and RWS aren't "all over the map"?  
#> no, I think that they are less vague in most areas and more
#> consistent interior to each card. the other decks you mention
#> are SPARSE of symbolic complexity, 
# Because an image is sparse does *not* mean that it is vague.  

in general, agreed. however, I'm talking about CONTEXTLESSNESS
here. outside the context of the time period of their 
construction, these early gaming decks are sparse *and* vague
to those coming new to them. for this reason that function
very well as projection-screens, as others make clear.

I'm not defending projection as a means of verifying past
intentions of deck-fashioners, I'm saying that absent any
notion of art history, the sparseness *becomes* vague to
the student of the occult. complexifying the imagery upon
a card allows the occult writer (who provides a book for
hir emblems) to wax prolifically about the signification
which she intended, whatever its basis in cultural history.

#> the later (occult) Tarot more succinct 
# I don't think it is necessarily succinct at all.  

by virtue of proliferation and specificity of symbols.
my impression is that the Book of Thoth requires a kind
of Decoding Manual that should accompany the cards (its
form is sometimes the Little White Book, but more often
from good occultists extends to an entire corpus like
"The Pictorial Key to the Tarot" by Waite, "The Book 
of Thoth" by Crowley, and "The Tarot" or even "Tarot
Meditations" by Case.

# In fact, decks like RWS and _Thoth_ have may layers 
# and an enormous number of design elements in any Trump.  

agreed, and they are therefore more specific in their
overall signification, particularly when all of these
layers and symbols are supposed to be pointing to a
single Mystery-theme (the trump name).

'succinct' is probably not the best word to convey what
it is I'm trying to point out here: not so much brevity
of expression (which obviously multiplexing symbolism
complicates and makes less succinct) but *potential
meaning*, which numerous symbols must somehow INTERSECT
at smaller and smaller areas and are therefore refined.

where this is changing over time toward attribution-
schemes using as a rudimentary art-set the game-images
you have helpfully identified as at least partly
religious in significance, I'd place a primary emphasis
on the intention of the occultist using the symbol,
with background study that of its previous meaning to
others and to cultures in which they were found by the
occultists and artists designing occult devices.

agreed. sometimes what at first seems a need may 
yield a full-fledged and intention. rather than 
projection, we may be talking about 'found art'
and novel constructions which the occultists in
question feel a need to justify by falsifying.  

# ....your views on the development of Tarot over 
# time reflect the fallacy that what comes later is frequently 
# better, more sophisticated, more *evolved* than that which 
# preceded it....

there are distinct advantages I'd ascribe to it, though not
strictly on account of its more recent origins. I'm not of
the opinion that by virtue of its novelty alone it achieves
a greater 'evolution'. that said, my impression is that the
longer (occult) tarotic tradition covertly crafts and shapes
the imagery around their symbolic attributions, the more
cohesive and integrated a Tarot may become. its tenability,
what people (conventionally adhering to doctrinal standards
of 'ancientness' and 'authority') are willing to swallow 
is in part the limiting factor in these transformations. 
one can only go so far (and in particular directions) before
one's audience throws up their hands and abandons you.

this is one of the main problems with the Thoth deck,
actually: that it attempts to incorporate Crowley's very
peculiar and apparently fabricated religious system (his
Egypt-hits aren't enough to believe he was conversing
with ancient Egyptian gods -- they would have corrected
him somehow ;>). in his "Book of Thoth" he convincingly
supports the Golden Dawn adjustment (pun intended!),
but fails to make the comparable case with regard 
to his religious scripture and revelation.
# ...Just because _Thoth_ comes later than other decks 
# doesn't necessarily mean it is better, more sophisticated 
# or more evolved, and its predecessors are somehow inferior.

agreed, I hope I'm making a stronger case for why I think it
is better (in some respects, worse in others) than other decks.
#># A good argument can be made that _Thoth_ and RWS (which you 
#># later cite as exemplary) are far more eclectic than, say, 
#># the TdM or Visconti-Sforza.  At least these decks are fairly 
#># strongly grounded in the particular culture and spirituality 
#># of their day, 
#> that is not what I meant, and I agree with you here. their
#> conservation of symbolism combined with contextual inference
#> allows an *easier* determination of cosmological interest.
# Perhaps, but *only* if you are familiar with the underlying systems
# and philosophies.  If you don't grasp these systems, and some are 
# darn complicated, you will have problems if your goal is to 
# understand these decks as their inventors intended.  

and where intellectual comprehension of these things is important
(at a secondary, rather than primary level), I would agree and
very strongly. where it becomes a matter of *interaction* with
the symbolism in trance, keys to some mystical ascension, then
such comprehension is a plus, but arguably not at all essential.

# Similarly, if you don't grasp that decks like the TdM and 
# Visconti-Sforza are far more mainstream Christian than occult, 
# you'll have problems as you try to understand them from the 
# historic perspective (as opposed to projecting any number of 
# things onto them).

I'm not sure that such comprehension of their content is
primary in either gaming decks *or* occult deck: the former
seem to be intended as a game, the latter as an occult device
with a variety of purposes but the one which I think interests
occultists most is as a compendium of progressive Mysteries.
#> a refinement over time of the
#> complex symbolism included in each card, keyed to certain
#> internal associative structures which at first is difficult
#> to plaster over the game decks and later comes into greater
#> elegance and succinctness. 
# So, who says this is essential in a good Tarot deck?

that's my working premise. of course it will depend on what
one wants to do with it. if one wishes to tell fortunes and
enchant along with palmistry and crystal balls, then certain
thematic and symbolic considerations may be paramount where
for purposes of initiatic ceremonialism this will fall flat.

# ...Any Tarotist is free to project anything they want on 
# any deck (including the revered _Thoth_).

of course, but that isn't quite the point when it starts 
to be plainly spelled out on the card itself. decks which 
feature the composite of symbolism which forms part of
the initiatic or visionary encounter (basically what can
be found in Agrippa or Crowley's 777 and elsewhere) tend
to prevent such projection by virtue of their integral
specificity. it becomes more *difficult* to project over
the top of it convincingly because one has to somehow make
use of diverse symbol-sets that are, in some good portion,
accumulated and defined by the occultist themself, with
whatever measure of reference to precursors the artist and
occultist felt important to secure attention and authority.

#> for those just coming to the cards without any notion 
#> of their origins (i.e. *not* as an art historian such 
#> as you, but as a student of the occult, provided with 
#> the Tahuti Book and attempting to make heads or tails 
#> of the thing -- the sparseness of symbol leads to many 
#> possible cosmological inferences based merely on the 
#> limited figures of those game decks). 
# True, but this is the fault of their own lack of knowledge 
# or discipline, or the fault of the folderol they read, or 
# that they have needs that have little to do with the 
# original intent of a deck's inventors.  

I'm trying to say that this isn't a *fault* at all. the
symbol-complex invested into the Tarot cards doesn't
constitute a cultural message per se, but a composite
with which the aspirant *interacts*. it is of secondary
import whether they intellectually understand the parts
of the cards so much as that they surf the expressions
of the occultist about that card and use this to launch
into self-development. art history be damned. ;>

# It is not the fault of, say, the TdM.

the lack of cohesive specificity given unto intersecting
symbolism by virtue of its sparseness isn't a fault unless
a pointing or focus is being attempted. when the focus is
blobby because only one trajectory of symbolism is defined,
then this is problematic or less valuable to that application.
#>#> and don't
#>#> specifically relate to occult traditions we know, etc.
#># Actually, the content of early decks, especially the TdM, is very
#># related to common occult traditions from the 18th through 20th
#># centuries.  
#> cohesively? that's what I've been looking for in the gaming
#> decks: some actual logic to their Trumps, sequence, and
#> other card content that matches up with something occult.
# Well, that, as I think both you and I will agree is a forced marriage.
# Not without merit, but forced.

and forced *after the fact*. I don't mind the forcing or
fabrication of symbolic meaning, personally, though it will
be more difficult to be persuasive without *some* grounding
in at least modern contextual significance. the point I'm
attempting to underscore here is that the *design* of the
deck should be fulcrum of force, not the interpretation and
fabrication after the fact (which I don't find convincing,
and therefore useful).
# ...When I say the TdM is used as an occult
# deck I look at it from an empirical point of view.  A zillion
# Tarotists have said that it is occult and use it as an occult device.
# However, from a historic point of view, it almost certainly had
# nothing to do with occultism until the 18th century.

that bit of data is *extremel* important to me in my premise
and approach to the subject, because it keys into how much
influence occultists actually had to its composition. this
becomes more visible amongst occult Tarot decks than in their
gaming precursors without tortured arguments and falsified

#> also, I think it fair to say that occultists can only put so
#> much over on the public encountering their decks. 
# Oh, I don't know.  Many Tarotists enjoy all manner of 
# mystery when it comes to Tarot.

it is becoming more and more difficult as communication about
its rudiments spreads out via cyberspace and in print. I'm not
just talking about origin-legends, but about how, for example,
the fact that typical Strength-trump motif coincides more
readily with the sign LEO than the sign LIBRA (more people 
are hip to the astrological symbolism) where one encounters
this in particular occult traditions.
#> popularizing the Waite-Smith allows for *densification* 
#> of symbolism after the work of persuasion as to its 
#> exalted nature is put over.
# What does this mean?

I explained some of this above. the differentiation lies in
either broadening (inclusiveness) or deepening (preciseness 
of symbolic intersect) symbolism. the wrapper of the whole
enables exposure to the variety of purpose. the most common
contention about decks of cards is their divinatory aspects,
as Etteilla appears to have been keen to emphasize and Levi
to dispute.

Waite laid the foundation for this in publishing his book
and promoting the device as something worthwile to the world
-- no small feat for an author of his repute. 

Crowley's well-placed emphasis on building-blocks and 
overall character (he called his book "The Book of Thoth" 
for good reason) served to underscore the myriad poetic and 
sociocultural facets with which he was familiar and was 
most inclined to value (in part a function of his repressed 
Christian, English upbringing and his response to this, and 
in part informed by his classical education of the time).

the lightning-rod of Egyptomania and Jewish-fetishism amongst
Hermetics and Christians makes identifying the Tarot as
some kind of fabulous Tahuti Magic Book endearing and serves
to popularize it amongst those interested in Protestant and
transgressive reform. Crowley takes this further but in 
ways that might be said to be 'over the top' (which is why
I won't argue that the Thothbook is the pinnacle of Tarot).

#> my aim is an evaluation based on visual content, not on some
#> kind of historical evaluation of usage.

now I hope this makes more sense.
#># You also strongly imply that the TdM is, therefore, inferior 
#># to decks like RWS or _Thoth_.  However, this is a very 
#># subjective view.
#> there are objective factors one may take into consideration:
#> 	* the Harris-Crowley Thoth is arguably superior on
#> 	  account of its designers' intent to integrate a
#> 	  variety of occult symbols into the cards; 
# No, the above is based on a highly subjective assumption that 
# occult Tarot = especially good Tarot, or occult Tarot = 
# especially spiritual Tarot.  

I don't think that's the assumption, but I do think you can
make a counter-argument that holds more water. :> my assertion
is that one *may* examine truly objective factors like plain
references to occult symbol-complexes, attribution-schemes
which are utilized with the deck. in this case, the Tarot de
Marseilles (and arguably the Smith-Waite to a lesser extent)
are inferior. that's all I was saying.

whether or not one *must* take this approach is beside the
point (ultimately all valuation-standards are selected based
on subjective results), the objective symbols may be *seen*.
I can produce them and point you to them, in particular the
letters, astrological signs, and numbers (and colours!)
which are conclusively objective.

# Suppose this supposition or opinion is dead wrong?

the supposition that good Tarot = occult Tarot is not what
I've been purporting. good occult Tarot = cohesive and
symbolically-integral Tarot is more akin to it, and even
then I'm omitting divination in a general sense as part of
this evaluation (i.e. the Book of Thoth is not used for
bibliomancy, it is consulted!).

#> 	* the Small Cards of TdM are simplistic icon-caches
#>        whose geometric symbolism I have yet to discover
#> 	  as anything classic in occultism or religion
#> 	  (what some claim are "sacred geometry" instances;
#> 	  whereas the Smith-Waite uses Sola Busca scenery
#> 	  to represent Planet-Sign associations; the Thoth
#> 	  takes this further and specifies the associations
#> 	  within impressive artistic geometries and collage;
#> this also appears to be an overt and objective improvement 
#> (from the standpoint of occult usage).
# Again, only if you believe occult Tarot = especially good Tarot, 

and again, my focus is occult Tarot. in fact, I have persistently
argued that to a good number of us who come to this forum, the
equation should be 

		Tarot = (occult) Tarot!

despite protests from those who want attention paid to its
gaming and art backdrop. what matter that occultists used
the found game to begin an aeons-long composition of an
occult device which could be keyed to its organizations
and to mystical development? it's *history*, man, and only
secondary to the fabulous developments occultists made just
yesterday and that into which we are ourselves initiated!

# or occult Tarot = especially spiritual Tarot.  Suppose 
# this supposition or opinion is dead wrong?

the 'especially spiritual Tarot' portion I don't think I
really understand in your expression. could you elaborate?
#># So, I personally think it makes more sense to create a dichotomy
#># wherein we class decks as 
#>#	(a) those probably *not* originally intended as occult 
#>#	    (e.g., TdM and Visconti-Sforza) and 
#>#	(b) those clearly originally intended as occult 
#>#         [devices] (e.g., RWS and _Thoth_).  
#> agreed. I'd go further and suggest that at that point the 
#> category *(b)* is early (occult) Tarot proper, 
# Probably, so long as one acknowledges that lots of folks 
# still use early decks to this day for occult purposes.

indeed, plus many still use Tarot/Tarocchi for gaming.
#> and the stretch from decks like Smith-Waite to 
#> Harris-Crowley and others includes major and 
#> important improvements as regards occultist purposes.
# This would have to be examined on a case by case basis, I think.

not in terms of practical use that I've been laying out:
as regards cohesive and obvious symbol-lattices for the
use in ceremonialism. that can become *objective and
plain for all to see*.
#> since I maintain that most of those who come to Tarot 
#> do so for reasons of attempting to use it for occult 
#> purposes, 
# If you include divination and fortune-telling as 
# "occult" you are probably correct....

I *do*, plus I'm stipulating that these constitute a
*subset* of overall occult usage and their variability
for use in this way makes my main focus ceremonialism
which incorporates a self-consistent symbolic structure
(not that this is necessary for divination and fortune-
telling but that in order to be fulfilling to *all*
occult purposes, this kind of integrity and composure
is a necessary feature).

#> the default
#> (occult) Tarot *as* Tarot seems the most sensible to me to advance, 
#> despite how this may irritate art afficionados or gamers. :> given
#> this orientation, stipulating where and when (occult) Tarot does
#> begin and end becomes much easier, as exemplified within the very
#> good history offered by Decker and Dummett in "A History of the
#> Occult Tarot", Duckworth, 2002.
# And Decker et al.'s _WPC_, which is far more concerned with the 
# actual beginning of occult Tarot, including how you define the 
# term.

thank you very much. I'm setting about getting "Wicked Pack of
Cards" and "The Game of Tarot" as supplementary material. :>


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