The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards

The Tarot: A Short Treatise on Reading Cards

by S. L. Macgregor Mathers


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Revised and expanded edition of Mathers' original treatise. Three methods of reading cards are included, along with instructions for the game of tarot, which can be played by two or three people. This is a classic text that will be appreciated by anyone interested in the study of the tarot.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780877287544
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 03/01/1993
Series: Short Treatise on Reading Cards
Edition description: REVISED
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.23(d)

About the Author

S. L. MacGregor Mathers (18541918) was a prominent scholar and leader of the occult movement in Britian at the turn of the century. A lifelong fascination with mysticism and Celtic symbolism led Mathers to hold high office in the Rosicrucian Society of England, and eventually to become a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He is also well known for having been a key tutor to Aleister Crowley.

Read an Excerpt

The Tarot

A Short Treatise on Reading Cards

By S.L. MacGregor Mathers

Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Copyright © 1993 Samuel Weiser, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87728-754-4


The Tarot

To enter, within the limits of this short treatise, upon any long inquiry into the history of cards is utterly out of the question; and I shall, therefore, confine myself to examining briefly into what relates to their most ancient form, the Tarot, or Tarocchi Cards, and to giving, as clearly and concisely as possible, instructions which will enable my readers to utilize them for fortune-telling, to which they are far better adapted, from the greater number and variety of their combinations, than ordinary cards. I shall also enter somewhat into their occult and Qabalistical significations.

The term Tarot, or Tarocchi, is applied to a pack of 78 cards, consisting of four suits of 14 cards each (there being one more court card than in the ordinary packs—the Cavalier, Knight, or Horseman), and 22 symbolical picture-cards answering for trumps. These latter are numbered from 1 to 21 inclusive, the 22nd card being marked Zero, 0. The designs of these trumps are extremely singular, among them being such representations as Death, the Devil, the Last Judgment, etc.

The idea that cards were first "invented" to amuse Charles VI of France is now exploded; and it is worthy of note in this connection that their supposititious "inventor" was Jacques Gringonneur, an astrologer and Qabalist. Furthermore, cards were known prior to this period among the Indians and the Chinese. Indeed, Etteilla gives, in one of his tracts on the Tarot, a representation of the mystical arrangement of these cards in the Temple of Ptah at Memphis, and he further says:

Upon a table or altar, at the height of the breast of the Egyptian Magus (or Hierophant), were on one side a book or assemblage of cards or plates of gold (the Tarot), and on the other a vase, &c.

This idea is further dilated upon by P. Christian (the disciple of Eliphas Levi) in his Histoire de la Magie, to which I shall have occasion to refer later. The great exponents of the Tarot, Court de Gebelin, Levi, and Etteilla, have always assigned to the Tarot a Qabalistico-Egyptian origin, and this I have found confirmed in my own researches into this subject, which have extended over several years.

W. Hughes Willshire, in his remarks on the general history of playing cards, says:

The most ancient cards which have come down to us are of the Tarots character. These are the four cards of the Musee Correr at Venice; the seventeen pieces of the Paris Cabinet (erroneously often called the Gringonneur, or Charles VI cards of 1392), five Venetian Tarots of the fifteenth century, in the opinion of some not of an earlier date than 1425; and the series of cards belonging to a Minchiate set, in the possession of the Countess Aurelia Visconti Gonzaga at Milan, when Cicognara wrote.

W. A. Chatto, in his History of Playing-Cards, says that cards were invented in China as early as A. D. 1120, in the reign of Seun-Ho, for the amusement of his numerous concubines.

J. F. Vaillant, in Les Romes, histoire vraie des vraies Bohemiens, Paris, 1857, says that the Chinese have a drawing divided into compartments or series, based on combinations of the number 7.1

It so closely resembles the Tarot, that the four suits of the latter occupy its first four columns; of the twenty-one atouts fourteen occupy the fifth column, and the seven other atouts the sixth column. This sixth column of seven atouts is that of the six days of the week of creation. Now, according to the Chinese, this representation belongs to the first ages of their empire, to the drying up of the waters of the deluge by IAO; it may be concluded, therefore, that it is an original, or a copy of the Tarot, and, under any circumstances, that the latter is of an origin anterior to Moses, that it belongs to the beginning of our time, to the epoch of the preparation of the Zodiac, and consequently that it must own 6600 years of existence.

But, notwithstanding the apparent audacity of this latter statement, it must be evident on reflection that the Tarot, consisting, as it does, of the ten numbers of the decimal scale counterchanged with the tetrad, and of a hieroglyphical alphabet of twenty-two mystic symbols, must be relegated to a far earlier period in the history of the world than that usually assigned to the introdution of cards into Europe; and we may take the fact of the Tarot being the origin of the modern cards as being now pretty well established by general consensus of opinion.

It was Court de Gebelin who, in his Monde Primitif (Paris, 17811, wrote:

Were we to hear that there exists in our day a Work of Ancient Egyptians, one of their books which had escaped the flames which devoured their superb libraries, and which contained their purest doctrine on most interesting subjects, every one would doubtless be anxious to acquire the knowledge of so valuable and extraordinary a work. Were we to add that this book is widely spread through a large part of Europe, and that for several centuries it has been accessible to every one, would not it be still more surprising? And would not that surprise be at its height were it asserted that people have never suspected that it was Egyptian, that they possess it in such a manner that they can hardly be said to possess it at all, that no one has ever attempted to decipher a single leaf, and that the outcome of a recondite wisdom is regarded as a mass of extravagant designs which mean nothing in themselves? Would not people think that one was trying to amuse oneself with, and to play upon the credulity of one's hearers?

Yet this is a true fact. This Egyptian book, the sole remains of their superb libraries, exists to our day; it is even so common that no savant has deigned to trouble himself about it, no one before myself having suspected its illustrious origin. This book is composed of seventy-seven leaves or illustrations, or rather of seventy-eight, divided into five classes, which each present objects as various as they are amusing and instructive. In one word, this book is the PACK OF TAROT CARDS.

Let us now examine this word TAROT, or TARO, and discover, if we can, its true derivation and meaning. Court de Gebelin states that there are three words of Oriental origin preserved in the nomenclature of the Pack. These are TARO, MAT, and PAGAD.

Taro, he says, is pure Egyptian; from TAR, Path, and RO, ROS, or ROB, Royal—the Royal Path of Life. MAT is Oriental, and means overpowered, murdered, crack-brained; while PAGAD, he adds, is also Oriental, from PAG, chief, or master, and GAD, Fortune. Vaillant says, "The great divinity Ashtaroth, As-taroth, is no other than the Indo-Tartar Tan-tara, the Tarot, the Zodiac." My derivation of the word, which I have never found given by any author, is from the ancient hieroglyphical Egyptian word taru, to require an answer, or to consult; ergo, that which is consulted, or from which an answer is required. This appears to me to be the correct origin of the word, while the second t is an Egyptian hieroglyphic final, which is added to denote the feminine gender. The following are interesting metathese of the letters of TARO: TORA (Hebrew) = Law; TROA (Hebrew) = Gate; ROTA (Latin) = wheel; ORAT (Latin) = it speaks, argues, or entreats; TAOR ( Egyptian) = Taur, the Goddess of Darkness; ATOR (Egyptian) = Athor, the Egyptian Venus. A Mr. Lumley tells me there is a Zend word tarisk, meaning "to require an answer."

There are Italian, Spanish, and German Tarot packs, and since the time of Etteilla, French also, but these latter are not so well adapted for occult study owing to Etteilla's attempted "corrections" of the symbolism. The Italian are decidedly the best for divination and practical occult purposes, and I shall, therefore, use them as the basis of the present treatise. Unfortunately the old-fashioned single-headed cards are obsolete now, and the only ones made are double-headed, which circumstance alters the symbolism in a few instances. I shall, therefore, wherever necessary, describe the omitted portion of the design, enclosing it within brackets to mark the same.

As I before observed, the Tarot pack consists of seventy-eight cards—namely, four suits of fourteen cards each, and twenty-two symbolic numbered trumps. The four suits are—

Each suit consists of Ace, Deuce, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten; Fanti or Valet = Knave; Cavallo = Knight or Horseman; Dama or Reine = Queen; Re = King.

The Kings, in each instance, wear a cap-of-maintenance beneath the crown; the Queens wear the crown only. The Queen of Pentacles and the Knave of Sceptres are the only ones represented in profile. In the suit of Sceptres the King bears a wand akin to that represented on the small cards of the suit, while the other three akin bear a bludgeon similar to that which is shown for the ace. In the suit of cups, that only which is held by the Queen is covered, thus showing the essentially feminine properties of this suit, while the sceptre held by the King of the preceding suit shows its more masculine character.

If we examine the small cards carefully we shall be struck at once by the comparative similarities of pattern of the Sceptres and the Swords, which are only distinguished from each other by the former being straight and the latter being curved. We shall also notice that the Deuces have pecularities of their own, which distinguish them from the rest of the suit. The Deuce of Sceptres forms a cross with two roses and two lilies in the opposite angles; the Cross between the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley. The Deuce of Cups shows a tesselated pavement or cloth whereon the cups stand; between them is a species of Caduceus, whose serpents are replaced by Lion-headed foliations, which recall the Chnuphis Serpent of the Gnostics, and certain familiar forms of the Elemental Spirits; practical occultists will know to what I allude. The Deuce of Swords forms a species of Vesica piscis enclosing a mystic rose of the primary colors. The Deuce of Pentacles is bound together by a continuous band in such a manner as to form a figure 8, and represents the one as being the reflection of the other, as the Universe is that of the Divine Idea.

The four Aces stand out by themselves from the rest of the pack, each forming, as it were, the Key of its respective suit. The Ace of Sceptres recalls the Club of Hercules; it is surrounded by eight detached leaves, whose shape recalls that of the Hebrew Letter Yod, or I, and is crowned with the Symbol of the Triad represented by the three lopped branches; it is the Symbol of Almighty Strength within the cube of the Universe, which latter is shown by the eight leaves, for eight is the first cubical number. The Ace of Cups is of Egyptian origin, which can be more easily seen in the Spanish Tarot. The figure, like an inverted M on its front, is all that remains of the Egyptian twin Serpents which originally decorated it. It represents the Waters of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis. It is the Symbol of the Power which receives and modifies. The Ace of Swords is a Sword surmounted by a Crown, from which depend on either side an olive and a palm branch, symbolic of mercy and severity; around it are Six Hebrew Yods, recalling the Six days of the Mosaic Creation. It is the Symbol of that Justice which maintains the World in order, the equilibrium of Mercy and Severity. The Ace of Pentacles represents Eternal Synthesis, the great whole of the visible universe, the Realization of counterbalanced power.

The 22 trumps are the hieroglyphic symbols of the occult meanings of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They are numbered from 0 to 21 inclusive. (See Table 1 on page 8).

I will now describe carefully the symbolism of each of these hieroglyphical keys.

The Major Arcana

1. The Juggler or Magician

Before a table covered with the appliances of his art stands the figure of a juggler, one hand upraised holding a wand (in some packs, a cup), the other pointing downwards. He wears a cap of maintenance like that of the kings, whose wide brim forms a sort of aureole round his head. His body and arms form the shape of the Hebrew letter Aleph, to which this card corresponds. He symbolizes Will.

2. The High Priestess, or Female Pope

A woman crowned with a high mitre or tiara (her head encircled by a veil), a stole (or solar cross) upon her breast, and the Book of Science open in her hand. She represents Science, Wisdom, or Knowledge.

3. The Empress

A winged and crowned woman seated upon a throne, having in one hand a sceptre bearing a globe surmounted by a cross, while she rests the other upon a shield with an eagle blazoned therein on whose breast is the cross. She is the Symbol of Action, the result of the union of Science and Will.

4. The Emperor

He is crowned )and leaning against a throne, his legs form a cross, and beside him, beneath his left hand, is a shield blazoned with an eagle). In his right hand he bears a sceptre similar to that of the Empress. His body and arms form a triangle, of which his head is the apex, so that the whole figure represents a triangle above a cross. He represents Realization.

5. The Hierophant or Pope

He is crowned with the papal tiara, and seated between the two pillars of Hermes and of Solomon, with his right hand he makes the sign of esoterism, and with his left he leans upon a staff surmounted by a triple cross. (Before him kneel two ministers.) He is the symbol of Mercy and Beneficence.

6. The Lovers

This is usually described as representing Man between Vice and Virtue, while a winged genius threatens Vice with is dart. But I am rather inclined to the opinion that it represents the Qabalistical Microprosopus between Binah and Makuth (see my Kabbalah Unveiled), while the figure above shows the Influence descending from Kether. It is usually considered to mean Proof or Trial; but I am inclined to suggest Wise Disposition as its signification.

7. The Chariot

This is a most complicated and important symbol, which has been restored by Eliphas Levi. It represents a Conqueror crowned and bearing a sceptre, riding in a cubical chariot, surmounted by four columns and a canopy, and drawn by two horses, one of which looks straight forward, while the other turns his head towards him. (Two wheels are shown in the complete single-headed figure.) It represents Triumph, and Victory of Justice and Judgment.

8. Justice

A woman crowned and seated on a throne (between two columns), holding in her right hand an upright sword, and in her left the scales. She symbolizes Equilibrium and Justice.

9. The Hermit

An old and bearded man wrapped in a mantle, and with his head covered with a cowl, bearing in his right hand the lantern of occult science, while in his left he holds his magic wand half hidden beneath his cloak. He is Prudence.

10. The Wheel of Fortune

A wheel of seven spokes (the two halves of the double-headed cards make it eight spokes, which is incorrect) revolving (between two uprights). On the ascending side is an animal ascending, and on the descending side is a sort of monkey descending; both forms are bound to the wheel. Above it is the form of an angel (or a sphinx in some) holding a sword in one hand and a crown in the other. This very complicated symbol is much disfigured, and has been well restored by Levi. It symbolizes Fortune, good or bad.

11. Strength or Fortitude

A woman crowned with crown and cap of maintenance, who calmly, and without effort, closes the jaws of a furious lion. She represents Strength.

12. The Hanged Man

This extraordinary symbol is almost unintelligible in the double-headed cards. Properly, it represents a man hung head downwards from a sort of gibbet by one foot (his hands are bound behind his back in such a manner that his body forms a triangle with the point downwards), and his legs a cross above it. (Two sacks or weights are attached to his armpits.) He symbolizes Sacrifice.

13. Death

A skeleton armed with a scythe (wherewith he mows down heads in a meadow like grass). He signifies Transformation, or Change.

14. Temperance

An angel with the sign of the Sun on her brow pouring liquid from one vessel into another. She represents Combination.

15. The Devil

A horned and winged demon with eagle's claws (standing on an altar to which two smaller devils are bound by a collar and cord). In his left hand he bears a flame-headed sceptre. He is the image of Fate or Fatality, good or evil.

16. The Lightning-struck Tower

A tower whose upper part is like a crown, struck by a lightning-flash. (Two men fall headlong from it, one of whom is in such an attitude as to form a Hebrew letter Ayin). Sparks and debris are falling. It shows Ruin, Disruption.

17. The Star

A nude female figure pours water upon the earth from two vases. In the heavens above her shines the Blazing Star of the Magi (surrounded by seven others), trees and plants grow beneath her magic influence (and on one the butterfly of Psyche alights). She is the star of Hope.

18. The Moon

The moon shining in the heavens, drops of dew falling, a wolf and a dog howling at the Moon, and halted at the foot of two towers, a path which loses itself in the horizon (and is sprinkled with drops of blood), a crayfish emblematic of the sign Cancer, ruled over by the Moon, crawls through water in the foreground towards the land). It symbolizes Twilight, Deception, and Error.

Excerpted from The Tarot by S.L. MacGregor Mathers. Copyright © 1993 Samuel Weiser, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Tarot          

The Major Arcana          

Reading the Major Arcana          

Meanings of the Cards          

Special Insights          

Reading Court Cards          

Laying Out the Cards          

The Game of Tarot          

Occult and Qabalistic Symbolism          


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