Do We Need a New Tarot Paradigm?
At the Bay Area Tarot Symposium (BATS) last weekend, I nearly fell off my chair during the Sunday afternoon panel discussion when Mary Greer asked rhetorically, with a slightly exasperated tone, if we’re ever going to get beyond the Rider Waite Smith paradigm. This is like the Pope asking if we’ll ever get beyond going to mass every Sunday! I think Mary has done more than anyone, except perhaps Eden Gray, to enshrine the Waite Smith deck and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn astrological correspondences as our unquestioned tarot paradigm.
I haven’t used a Waite Smith type deck for many years, so when I attend Tarot events I often feel like a Russian Orthodox monk at a Southern Baptist convention. We have the same God, but our imagery, vocabulary and style of worship are so far apart, we seem to be on parallel tracks.
If I hadn’t used the Robin Wood deck for years before immersing myself in historic decks, I would have been out of my league in some of the workshops at BATS last weekend. I speak Tarot de Marseilles now, but fortunately Waite Smith was my first tarot language, since several presenters assumed we all had a Waite Smith deck in our mental file cabinets.
I’ve never understood why so many “little white books” give card meanings based on Rider Waite Smith images, when the decks they accompany bear no resemblance to the RWS. Barbara Moore’s adventures working for Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo helped explain that phenomenon. In her presentation at BATS last weekend, she told us her first assignment at Lo Scarabeo was to write a booklet for an Italian deck. She said she spent hours torturing the deck to conform to the Rider Waite Smith paradigm because she couldn’t think about tarot any other way. I was shocked to hear that writers of little white books rarely consult with the deck’s artist. Barbara said she was expected to churn out a booklet with only two or three hours of rapid-fire free association on a deck’s images. No wonder most booklets are confusing to the point of being worthless.
The Golden Dawn’s system of astrological correspondences was even more ubiquitous than the Waite Smith deck at BATS last weekend. I came home with two sets of handouts mapping these correspondences – and I didn’t even take the workshop on the system.
Our current tarot-astrology dogma got its start in the 18th century when an occultist had a flash of insight and said “OMG! There are 22 major arcana cards and 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There’s got to be a mystical connection!” Tarot hasn’t been the same since.
Then in the late 19th century, the folks in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn lined up the Hebrew alphabet with the major arcana cards, starting with Aleph and the Fool. Since each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a zodiac sign or a planet associated with it, these astrological correspondences were slapped onto the corresponding cards. Never mind that Justice and Strength had to be switched from the positions they held for 400 years to make the system work. And don’t get me started on some of the really incongruous pairings like Temperance as Sagittarius and the Chariot as Cancer.
Eden Gray included this system in her 1970 book A Complete Guide to Tarot where she goes Kabalistic with charts and lists of correspondences. Mary Greer gives us a more contemporary and psychological take on the same system in her 1984 book Tarot for Yourself, reissued in 2002.
The beauty of this system is that you don’t need to actually know anything about astrology or understand the archetypes that are being forced into an arranged marriage. With the help of your handy one-page printout, you can state authoritatively that the Devil is Capricorn, with the assurance that centuries of Kabalists are behind you.
The planets actually show up in 15th-century Italian decks, but not in the way Golden Dawn devotees would have us believe. Personified images of the seven planets and the people born under their influence were widespread in medieval culture. In the image above, from a 15th century engraving, Children of the Moon are being duped into playing a shell game with a travelling magician, another lunar type. With these images as a starting point, I believe it’s possible to construct a system of astrological correspondences that is less arbitrary than the Golden Dawn system, and more respectful of both tarot and astrology.
If we didn’t have the Waite Smith paradigm and the Golden Dawn astrological dogma, would the tarot community be hopelessly Balkanized into specialized enclaves? Does the Waite Smith deck unite the tarot community with a common vocabulary, or does it stifle innovation?
What are your thoughts on the pervasiveness of the RWS deck?