reported by John-Peter Gernaat
This is a two-part series of talks delivered on 14 and 21 August 2022.
The first thing is to establish a historical context for the Tarot. There is evidence throughout human history of the use of objects in the playing of games. These include playing cards and the moving of objects on a board of some description. These games were generally played for amusement or distraction, sometimes involving wagers and the exchange of money, but there also existed what were considered to be sacred cards that had a purpose in some form of ritual. These sacred cards carried symbols that had a deeper meaning and may have been restricted for use to priests and initiates.
Playing cards akin to the cards we still use today, arrived in Europe in the early fifteenth century. The Tarot can be traced back to about the same time in Europe. Playing cards, as we know them, are divided into two types, the pip cards and court cards. The pip cards have a numbered sequence of symbols depicted on them while the court cards depict members of the royal court. Decks of playing cards are divided into four suits and there are thirteen cards in each suit of which three are court cards and ten are pip cards. This makes up fifty-two cards and there are typically two additional cards that are known as Jocker cards that may, in some instances, be used as wild cards (i.e., the Jocker may be used to signify any other card in the deck).
The symbols depicted to represent the suits and the pips differed from culture to culture.
The cards that we still use today were largely influenced by the symbols used by the French. The tiles becoming diamonds and the pikes becoming spades while retaining the point of a pike that explains the shape we see on the suit of spades. This array of different symbols influenced the symbols that became used for the Tarot.
Playing cards were extensively used in games by soldiers and were used by patrons in taverns. The Arabian army had battalions of foot soldiers that were non-Arabs who were working off some form of servitude who were known for playing card games. There are references in Turkey predating the fourteenth century of playing cards that may be as early as the eleventh century.
It appears that from the earliest use of cards they were also used as a way of gaining insight into peoples lives and events through different methods of randomly selecting cards from the deck. This was very distinct from people who seriously used the stars and constellations, their placement and alignment at birth, and on a particular day, to determine how these may speak into the destiny of a human being.
It is only in the nineteenth century that the Tarot came into its own. These cards pre-existed their incorporation into the Tarot as Italian playing cards. The name derives from the Italian tarocchini which is a diminutive of the tarocchi that was a deck of 68 or 72 playing cards. The French called these cards ‘tarot’ which is why the word still has a silent ‘t’ on the end. The Germans had a game that used the full 78 card deck called Großtarock. The tarot then used the standard deck of cards, the ten pip cards and four court cards, as the minor arcana (minor secret cards), a total of 56 cards and developed a separate set of 22 cards that are known as the major arcana. The cards of the major arcana do not belong to a suit and each card represents an archetypal image.
By the time the tarot came into use as a means of figuring out something for a person’s life, using the cards as a way to answer a question or revealing as aspect of life, i.e., ascribing to the cards a deep understanding of number and archetype, the suits in the minor arcana were presented as wands (not clubs), cups, swords and coins. Wands are interesting as the wood from which they are made were considered to imbue the wand with a particular character. Wands are a symbol for change. They represent the human being in their ‘I’-ness. The human being is the agent of change. The human being can change something out of themselves out of their uprightness.
The wand suit is associated with the element of fire and passion; therefore it is associated with action and the will. My wand can only perform magic for me. I am the wand that brings about change in my life.
The cup, that can contain liquid, is associated with water and the idea of one’s cup being full and therefore this suit is associated with the expression of the human being in their feeling life.
The sword represents truth as we have in the Book of Revelation which presents the image of the two-edged sword coming from the mouth of the Son of Man. The word has the power of a two-edged sword, it can cut both ways. This is possible through clear thinking. The suit of swords belongs to the element of air and is associated with thinking or the intellect.
The suit of coin represents the physical reality or the element of earth.
The four suits represent the three qualities of soul: willing, feeling and thinking, and what it means to have a physical body. Therefore, the cards are a way of understanding ourselves and what we may need to wake up to at any time.
Firstly, here is an understanding of number. This comes from work on the tarot and also from the work of Rudolf Steiner. He did not speak on the tarot but on The Esoteric Book of Ten Pages. Only one of the two lecture he delivered on this book remains in existence, but this first lecture provides a lot of clues of what the second lecture would have included. One can consider that each of the pages in The Esoteric Book of Ten Pages is a card.
The first number in the deck of cards is the ace which stands in the place of the number one. One is usually the number associated with birth but it also represents, more importantly, according to Rudolf Steiner, the idea of wholeness, of integrity. In other words, when we are born, we are born whole; all of us is there, not yet developed but all of it is present. We do not have to wait for something to be added to us, it is all there in the child at birth. It still needs to develop and unfold, but there is nothing that still needs to be added. This unfolding occurs within and is expressed outwardly.
The number two for many who use the tarot signifies a pair, twins. This should bring to mind the constellation of Gemini. Twins, a duet, a polarity in balance, yin and yang, male and female. These are the two sides that make up the whole. This takes us from wholeness to what the two elements are that make up the whole. Steiner speaks of the important idea of polarity in balance. There is one side but then there must always be another side otherwise we are out of balance. This brings two into association with balance and this concept reappears at two times two and two time two times two. At four and eight we return to the idea of balance. There is a connection between two, four and eight.
The number three often represents growth. For Steiner the number three is connected with the extraordinarily important idea of three-foldness. The human being is three-fold: body, soul and spirit. When we study the Old Testament, we are reminded that the temple of Solomon is made up of three spaces: the vestibule, the long room and the Holy of Holies. Many theologies have read into this the model of the human being: body, soul and spirit. We have become as St Paul states, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity also reminds us that the idea of three-foldness is all around us. The three-foldness of the Divine is represented in the human being and in so much of what has been created. The concept of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit has taken on a very masculine identity and it is important to take it back to the very Ground of Existence, the parent-stock out of which generation and creativity and birth comes about and the relationship between the two that brings something new into being. Therefore, it is possible to imaging in the Divine Trinity that the Holy Spirit is that which lives between the Father and the Son: that which lives between the Ground of All Being and the Creative Force of All Being. Therefore, when we pray and place ourselves within that connection, much like Christ in Jesus prayed, and we open ourselves up to the Ground of All Being, we are living within that connection and living in the Spirit between the Father and the Son.
The number four is balance in solidity: the square. This is a very solid form. It is the base from which a cube can appear and is an exceedingly solid structure, well balanced and really holds itself.
The number five, Steiner says, is one beyond four. We experience ourselves today as a four-fold being: physical body, formative life force, soul-sentient body and a sense of one, the I-ness of myself. But, the number five is also a representation of the human being as was illustrated in the Vitruvian Man or a child’s stick drawing. The number five brings about the idea of a challenge, an additional element, something new. It represents a new element: quint-essence (quintessence); the fifth essence. Shakespeare speaks of the human being as the “quintessence of dust”. The number five is connected with challenge, dynamism, of coming into something: the human being, one might say, on the earth, not just the human being as a spiritual idea. It represents a grounded reality.
The number six, Steiner says, has something to do with ideals. In the tarot it is often considered the number for resolution. When something is resolved, an ideal has come about. Steiner says that whenever there is an ideal one can find it represented in a three-foldness with a resonance in another three-foldness that has been elevated to a higher understanding. Three forms the base of an idea with the resonance at an elevated level forming six. An example is the philosophical cry of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity that find resonance in freedom in our thinking, equality in our feeling and fraternity in our actions. Ideals are combined in six and they resolve something, they bring it to its own stage of resolution.
The number seven, Steiner says represents the four-fold human being in its three-foldness as a seven-foldness. Steiner speaks of the centrality of the number four in the number seven that we can see represented on the altar, three that takes us to a central understanding and then three that flow out from this central understanding. There is a connection of one to seven, two to six and three to five with 4 as the central point. The theme of the number seven is possibility, because of this centrality. We also see it in the description that Steiner gives of the whole human being in his book Theosophy:
Seven is also the number for time. This was the understanding of the ancient world. We experience this in our lives in that with every seven years we complete a span of time: Birth to seven years, seven to puberty, fourteen to twenty one, etc.
The number eight is balance in stability.
The number nine is the number of accomplishment: three squared. Three represented a three-foldness, six represents resolution and nine accomplishment. In Theosophy Steiner also describes the human being as a nine-fold being: having accomplished the full expression of being human. There are also nine Hierarchies of Angels. This is an accomplishment.
The number ten has always represented completeness. The entire law is in the Ten Commandments. The ten plagues that the Egyptians suffered meant that they were completely plagued. Ten means that it is done. The cards do not figure the number eleven and twelve. Twelve would be a wonderful number but ten represents completeness.
We can now begin to combine the numbers with the suits. A five of wands would represent a challenge for the will. Five of swords would represent a challenge to be thought about and spoken. A five of cups would represent a challenge in the emotions: how full can I make my cup?
The court cards are the page, the knight, the queen and the king. Some people work with the page and queen cards as representing feminine energy and the knight and king cards as masculine energy. The picture presented here is one picture and is presented in terms of the suits. The page represents a certain intellectualisation. The page must be wide awake. The knight must be passionate. The queen carries deep, well-grounded emotion – the heart forces that are strongly feminine. The king must be centred.
Herein one can see that every card speaks to some aspect of our lives. The cards open up for us the reality of what it is to be human; they are all a part of our journey of our life.
The major arcana is about the journey.
The numbering in the traditional system is quite extraordinary, and it is possible to align each card with the year in the human development from birth to adulthood. After 21 our whole journey is in us, and we can go back to each moment of development and how that stage of unfolding continues to live in us.
The first card on the journey is the un-numbered card, the Fool. Much of literature, such as the story of Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, has the main character start off life as a fool. Parzival is even dressed in fool’s clothing. The fool goes forth where angels fear to tread. The human being undertakes the journey. We begin our lives foolishly; if we knew all that we would face in our lives we might chose to not incarnate. We have a trait of going forth with foolish abandon and as human beings we make a fool of ourselves a lot. When we look into the mirror it is the fool that looks back at us, essentially. The fool is the only card of the major arcana that has survived into the normal deck of playing cards, as the jocker.
The number I (Roman numeral) is the Magician and represents the power of the journey. If one observes a one-year-old it is magical what they can do, in comparison to what they were at birth: the magic of standing, the magic of speech (mama, dada).
The number II is the High Priestess. There is something quite glorious about a two-year-old when they are at their best. One can begin to see the beginnings of an inner journey. There is a little high priestess in all of us. The two-year-old has mastered the magic of walking. They are proportioned differently and now look more like a child and less like a baby. They no longer wish to be referred to as a baby; they have come into a new space.
The number III is the Empress which represents the conception of the journey. At three the child conceives of something and for the first time is able to say “I”. Three-year-olds assert their independence and will push a guardian aside to go to school: “I go!”.
The number IV is the Emperor which represents the authority of the journey. Four-year-olds begin kindergarten school because they can now stand in their own authority.
The number V is the Hierophant which represents the observer of the journey. A five-year-old has developed the capacity of observation. In schools the five-year-olds will watch the six year olds with amazement because they now are able to realise that this is their future. The four-year-old cannot yet conceive clearly of a future self.
The number VI is the Lovers. This card may represent romantic love, but it is more useful when it represents what a lover must be able to come to terms with; which is the choice. This card represents the choice of the journey. In love one has a choice; one can choose to go with the feeling of love or to reject the feeling to remain where one is. Thereafter there are choices when one progresses in the journey of love. For the six-year-old it is a year of choice, the lover, to be in love with oneself and with life. It is the choice to say yes and sometime to say no.
The number VII is the Chariot which represents the vehicle of the journey. What is going to be the vehicle that will take the person to where they wish to arrive? What is the motivation in life and how will this motivation result in action? Will the person act quickly or slowly and steadfastly?
The number VIII is the Justice which represents the responsibility of the journey. It is clearly possible to see a new sense of responsibility enter into children of the age of eight. In the Waldorf curriculum this is the year in which the children hear all the fables (Aesop’s fables, La Fontaine’s fables) but without the children being told the moral. This is unnecessary because they understand the meaning of the fables, they are able to respond to the fables and live the moral in their lives.
The number IX is the Hermit. Most nine-year-olds will withdraw whenever they find themselves in crisis. It is year of discovering things about oneself. It is a real threshold. Once the Hermit has secluded himself he also realises that the great guiding light is not out there but within.
The number X is the Wheel of Fortune which represents the luck of the journey. The ten-year-old is the heart of childhood. They are expansive and happy and open. They appear to enjoy life.
The number XI is Strength and represents the trial of the journey. The eleven-year-old is quite strong realising there is something to prepare for, something that comes at twelve.
The number XII is The Hanged Man. This is a man hanged upside down by one foot. He is having to pause and his life is turned, in that moment, upside down. That is the life of the twelve-year-old, their life is turned upside down; but they are able to cope with it. It requires the sacrifice of something of childhood to take on the new role. In the Waldorf curriculum everything changes for this age and the child is presented with a pair of compasses with which to draw a precise circle. They sacrifice their free-hand artistic capacity in order to draw the circle precisely. Precision enters their lives and with it new subjects such a physics and chemistry: the subjects that present the basis of a material knowledge. With it the twelve-year-old sacrifices their childhood imagination while taking on new insights through the power of imagination. The picture of the hanged man reminds us of an ancient Phoenician myth of a god who is hung upside down by one foot and drowned in order to be reborn. It is a card that has a connection to the ancient, pre-John the Baptist concept of baptism or initiation.
The number XIII is the card of Death which represents the end of a part of the journey. It may be the origin of a lot of the superstition that surrounds the number thirteen. It represents having to end something through a conscious choice. The thirteen-year-old has a lot of dying to do as it is about to be born with an astral body that is free as a teenager. This is quite a process that the thirteen-year-old goes through.
The number XIV is Temperance which represents the balance of the journey. Fourteen-year-olds struggle to find balance. Physically their rapid growth upsets their sense of balance.
The number XV is the Devil which represents the temptation of the journey. In the Waldorf school the fifteen-year-old is in a curriculum of ideals. It is a curriculum in which they may be tempted to stay, but idealism is not real. The ideal is important but it needs to brought into reality with that which must be faced by what is represented by the number XVI.
The number XVI is the Tower, it is the tower being struck by lightning and crumbling with people falling from it. It is, one can say, the destruction of the tower of Babel. Ideals may face difficulty, even destruction. It represents the grave reality of coming to terms with having landed on the earth. The Waldorf curriculum is strong on groundedness in practical terms for the sixteen-year-old. The ideals were buily at fifteen and now it is the age to ground the ideals which results in the towers of ideals crumbling. This is the great soul question of ‘how?’
The number XVII is the Star which represents the inspiration of the journey.
The number XVIII is the Moon. Eighteen is the year known as the moon-node year when the moon is in the same position within the heavens as on the day of birth. This represents the reflection of the journey.
The number XIX is the Sun which represents the light of the journey. For many people it is the first year out of school with greater independence and having to manage by oneself. In a Waldorf context this is the year of self-management as one tackles academic examinations for the first time.
The number XX is Judgement which represents the realisation of the journey.
The number XXI is the birth of the “I”-organisation and the integration of the journey. It is the card of the World.
The archetypes in the major arcana are extraordinary in the way they follow the development of the first twenty-one years of life. Thereafter they continue to resonate in adulthood is different ways at different times of life. One aspect may be more prominent than the others at one point in our life journey. Sacrifice in order to continue the journey may occur. At another point we may need to take hold of the authority we have to continue on the journey of life. Sometimes we may need to reflect on where we have come in our journey.
Life is a journey and the tarot have been used esoterically to look at the wisdom of this journey of life. Esotericists used the tarot especially to uncover the wisdom of the Kabbalah which was a developing esoteric stream at the same time as the tarot made an appearance. The tarot aligns with human development and with the sense of how we grow up; how we relate in our thinking, feeling and willing; how we can take up the essential elements of our humanity to lift ourselves above the animal.
If we consider that the major arcana, as presented above from the Classic Tarot found in the Rider-Waite pack, represent not only aspects of the journey, but that we can identify ourselves with the aspects described, then we can truly say that in a particular experience we are the Hanged Man, or The Tower, or The Star, or The Chariot – one can experience oneself as the vehicle in a certain situation. We can have the experience that our earthly “I” experiences itself in the aspects of the journey as described.
From about the middle of the nineteenth century the tarot began to be used for divination: trying to determine something of where an individual was in their specific journey. It is possible that this development in the use of the tarot had its origin in the understanding that at the same time as the tarot was being developed the esoteric stream of the Kabbalah was developing. One of the main themes in the Kabbalistic stream was an understanding that the Divine manifests in many different ways. An example is in the Kabbalah Tree of Life where the ten Sephirots or emanations speak to the attributes of the Divine which are also attributes with which we can connect and on which we can reflect in our lives. The idea of the Divine manifestation manifesting in us became an essential aspect of understanding the tarot.
Michaël suggests that when one works with the cards of the tarot that the cards reveal something to one about where one is at. This requires that one begins with an intention. One would then read the meaning of the cards based on the intention one holds seeking to find what one can connect with that opens up something for one’s life in respect of that intention. When we open ourselves and use a tool, which may be the Bible (if we open it to any page and believe that on that page we shall find an inspirational verse for our lives today) or the tarot, that we believe has value it can be useful in revealing something that may indeed be meant for us as a truth that speaks into our lives. Because the use of the tool is personal and not communal it has a lot more meaning, certainly a lot more meaning than a daily horoscope that is intended to apply equally to one twelfth of the world population. The use of the tool, the Bible or the tarot, relies on the personal connection the user makes to the message.
Michaël proposes that in working with the tarot there are four principal questions with the potential to reveal something to us. The cards of the tarot differ from playing cards in that the image on each card has a right way up. This means that when the cards are placed and then turned over they may be right way up or upside down. This also has meaning. A card that is upside down can mean the opposite to its usual meaning or it may mean that the very thing the card represents is blocked in our lives, or in need of special attention. This may that be indicative that we are required to do something that will ‘turn the card around’ in our lives, so to speak. The interpretation of the cards is not set by rules but rather it is sensed through the events of our lives. The cards provide a vehicle through which we can focus, be in on our day, or a particular life situation. It is an opportunity to become conscious of where we are on our journey. The tools one chooses to use cannot predict what is going to happen, they can open an awareness of the possibilities or potential that are open to one. It is then up to the person themselves to take action to realise the possibility or potential that has been revealed. Nothing happens without our activity in the matter.
One uses the tarot in the way described where the suit of Coins represents the physical reality, the Swords the thinking, the Cups the feeling and the Wands the will. Expressions of the earthly “I” came to light through the major arcana.
The questions that have value and the layout of cards that are common to these questions are as follows.
The major arcana holds a fascination for us. Certainly for Michaël it was uncanny how some of the cards of the major arcana matched exactly with the development of the human being from birth to twenty one. This may be a perspective unique to Michaël and it stems from the description of Rudolf Steiner of the developing child. The card numbered XVIII being The Moon matches the moon node exactly and is followed by The Sun and finally The World at XXI when the individual arrives as an adult in the world.
How do these cards relate to things that manifest later in life? The major arcana can reveal something of where the inner self happens to be. Here is what the cards may reveal:
One can also use the cards to provide an affirmation:
0 - The Fool could affirm that one is not afraid to start again.
I - The Magician can affirm that one has the ability to manifest something. The “I” in me is the magic wand that can transform my life and my situation. Another person may assist one in accompanying one or even offering suggestions or guidance, but it is Christian to leave one free to do it oneself. A community of Christians is one of care and not one of direct instruction. With the coming of Christ the centre of authority shifted from an external source of authority to an internal source of authority. We will find Christ in us.
VI - The Lovers can affirm that every essential aspect of life should be about love. The sacramental consultation ritual includes two important words. The first is ‘learn’, the second is ‘love’. Rudolf Steiner said: “The earth was created so that human beings can learn the lesson of love”.
The major arcana can be used as an opportunity to discover where one is and to affirm where one is in life. Each card in the major arcana speaks to what it is to be a human being. Ultimately, all twenty-two cards must appear in us. Even when one has The World and one is The Emperor and one is one’s own guiding Star, one is also always The Fool on the journey. It brings one back down to earth and reminds one that one is “a clown for God” in the words of great spiritual writers. It is profound that The Emperor is not the twenty-first card, but The World: the world in me and me connected to the world, that is the final card.
The cards must reveal something to one that is consistent with all the other understandings one has of life. The tarot can therefore, as revealed in the description above, be related to an aspect of Anthroposophy, to the world view that supports the way in which our community works. Present in the tarot is a design that stems from an esoteric knowledge. There has always been a human understanding that there are many different expressions of life that are archetypal to which one can connect. They make sense to us and we can understand them. In the images and numbers of the major arcana and in the suits and the pip and court cards of the minor arcana is a whole world of meaning that tells one that we have a body and a soul capacity and an essential sense of self as the spirit grows and learns on the journey to love.
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