New Tarot, Old Tarot

Article by Michele Jackson

I have recently been pondering the different schools of thought on Tarot and how it should be studied. There seem to be two main schools of thought on this. One believes that Tarot is based on the Qabala and should be studied from that vantage point. The other believes that Tarot is largely a personal and intuitive experience and should be approached as such. There are things to be said for both approaches. The Tarot/Qabala school of thought was started by Eliphas Levi, picked up by MacGregor Mathers and hence found its way into the Golden Dawn. The most popular and widely known deck, the Waite-Smith was conceived by one member of the Golden Dawn and painted by another. Aleister Crowley was a member and his Tarot deck is largely based on Golden Dawn teachings as well. Most of the modern decks we have available today use the Golden Dawn system as a starting point. Decks don't usually deviate too much from the Waite-Smith standard with a large percentage being little more than reinterpretations of Pamela Coleman Smith's work. Because most of our modern decks are derived from or based on this standard, many Tarot readers feel that it is in fact "the standard" from which all serious Tarot study should derive. The other school of thought maintains that Tarot is an intuitive tool and as such should be interpreted from our own impressions of the cards and what they say to us. Some base this believe on the fact that Tarot is a symbolic system and that symbols speak to each individual in a unique way. Each reader must interpret the symbols in light of their own point of reference, experience and intuitive understanding. To them the cards are not meant to be studied within a rigid framework of esoteric teaching, rather they should be studied from a personal and intuitive vantage point.

For many years I avoided any and all reading or study of the Qabala. When I got to the usually short section on Qabala in a Tarot book, I would try to read it, but usually my eyes glazed over and I fell asleep. The words were too foreign, the structure too difficult to understand, and I had been reading Tarot quite well for many years without it, thank you very much. Recently I have been devoting some time to the study of Qabala. While I do not believe that Tarot was derived from the Qabala, I must acknowledge that the creators of the Waite-Smith and Crowley decks, from which most of our modern decks are derived, based their decks on the assumption that it was. An understanding of the framework on which they based their decks can only enhance ones understanding and interpretation of the cards. On the other hand, while most modern decks are derived from the Waite-Smith and Thoth decks, they have also evolved and branched out in many different ways. There is a deck for every interest and every cause. There are decks based on comic book characters and decks based on Shakespeare and the Arthurian Legend. There are feminist decks, new age decks, decks based on Jungian psychology and decks based on Native American and Pagan spirituality. While they may pay some homage to the Golden Dawn standard, they are not dependent on it. In many cases an understanding of the Qabalistic basis of the Golden Dawn school will not aid in the interpretation or understanding of these decks at all. Tarot purists will dismiss these decks as "pop" Tarot or New Age nonsense, but there is a large segment of the Tarot reading population who use these decks exclusively. They certainly can not be ignored. Most modern Tarot books offer only the skimpiest of chapters on the Qabala and many do not mention it at all. A large percentage, if not the majority of the Tarot reading population, myself included, are self taught, having learned from the books available on the market and from what information I could glean from other readers. There are some books available on Tarot and the Qabala, but few that are not a struggle to get through. Lets face it, most of these books could be used as a cure for insomnia.

What troubles me is what I see as a widening gap between the two schools of thought. The number of Tarot enthusiasts is growing by leaps and bounds. I would venture to say that the majority of Tarot readers today are from the "New School" of Tarot thought vice the time honored Golden Dawn/Qabala based tradition. In my travels through cyberspace I see intolerance from both sides. Rather than endeavor to share their knowledge with each other to the benefit of all, I see I see members of the "Old School" dismiss modern readers as "fluff" and I see members of the "New School" dismiss those who base their understanding of the Tarot on the Qabala, as "dogmatic, and hide bound". In this scenario, no one gains. That is a shame, because both sides have much to offer the other. The widening gap is not helped by the dearth of introductory material on the Qabala, written in a manner which makes it understandable by the layman. Learning Qabala is hard. Perhaps that is why those who have invested the time and effort necessary to understand this subject tend to look down on those who have not disciplined themselves to do the same. Because it is hard, many Tarot readers will never take the time to learn it and will therefore miss out on an important interpretive source. Whether one believes that the Tarot is based on the Qabala is unimportant, learning this material can not diminish your understanding of Tarot, it can only enhance it. By the same token, dismissing those who have not taken the time to learn this material will not make them see the error of their ways, it will only harden them against ideas presented by those who seem rigid and over zealous in their belief that they have found the one true set of interpretations. Both sides need to stop and listen to the other. Those who have struggled long and hard to understand the Qabala should endeavor to share their knowledge in a non-judgmental way. Those who rely on an intuitive and personal approach, should endeavor to listen and apply a little elbow grease to learning other aspects of their craft. In any profession, the underlying theories and historical background must be mastered before one can call oneself a professional. One can then branch off into any specialized area of study one likes. I do see more Tarot books that endeavor to teach Qabala in a way that makes it more palatable. Amber Jayanti's "Living the Tarot" and Madonna Compton's "Archetypes on the Tree of Life" are long overdue steps in the right direction. A friend of mine on CompuServe is currently editing his draft of a book that attempts to do the same. Hopefully more books of this nature will be written and published. Those who have already learned this material would do the Tarot community a great service by trying to share the knowledge they have gained, rather than dismissing those who have not. Those who have not learned this material should endeavor to gain at least a basic understanding of the Qabala and its impact on modern Tarot. As Tarot becomes more popular, those who are not newcomers to the art have an obligation to share what they have learned, whichever school of thought they subscribe to. They also have an obligation to become familiar with and show respect for other schools of thought, whether they agree with them or not.

Article Copyright 2000 Michele Jackson