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Misc: Finding The Tarot's Solution

How The Tarot's Solution Was Discovered 

by Nathan Cate (author of Sanctuary of the Gods)



“What songs the sirens sang, or what name Achilles

assumed when he hid himself among the women,

though puzzling questions, are not beyond all


                Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia.

A number of readers have asked me how I came to find a definitive solution to the Tarot puzzle when so many others had failed. Looking at the end result this may seem like a difficult achievement, however I don't consider it to be. Really it was a simple matter of paying attention. The question that intrigues me is not how I found it, but rather why no one else did. Nonetheless, for those who are interested, the following should layout my early grappling with the problem.

In September of 1984 I was browsing the dusty shelves of a secondhand bookstore when I came across a used deck of Tarot cards. The pictures intrigued me so I bought the deck, along with a few books detailing the history and use of the cards. From time to time in the weeks that followed I studied the strange symbols the cards bore, and slowly the conviction grew in me that there was a furtive pattern hidden in them. I resolved to attempt discovery of that pattern, but let the matter slide for several more months.

Then at dawn on February 3rd 1985, after a night of fitful sleeping, it occurred to me to get the cards and to try and make the intuitions I'd felt more concrete. Sitting up in bed that morning I managed to discover the lost pattern and bring the Mysterion back to life. Of course, that was only the beginning: few things of value come to fruition after several hours spent at ease in bed. What I found so casually on that morning has led me many thousands of miles across the world, through countless books from bygone times and many hundreds of years into the past as I sought to understand the full meaning of what I had discovered. I was following an extraordinary trail of clues that wove its way through the cards themselves and ultimately beyond them, deep into the heart of Western civilization and the minds of our ancient ancestors.

Those are the basic facts, but what about the specific steps that I took in the days leading up to the discovery? What reasoning and intuitions led me to the original spread?

As I began to confront the Tarot, knowing nothing about it but growing ever more curious, I found it was a difficult subject to master. For much of its history, the Tarot has existed in a twilight world away from the mainstream of human knowledge. Hidden in a romantic haze, shrouded by superstition and intuitive license, the cards have apparently shunned the light of reason in favor of the more secretive pleasures of magic and mystery.

Though they have been in the shadows, the cards have been ever-present. Few people reach adulthood in the western world without having heard of them, at least in passing, and a considerable number have paid money at one time or another to hear whatever the cards might tell them. However, not many of the general public have suspected that there was more to the Tarot than the offer of a glimpse at the future, or taken the time to become intimately familiar with it.

Despite considerable historical research over the years by enthusiasts, little is known of the early history of the Tarot cards. They first came to light in a largely illiterate age, and all early references are casual, lacking in information which would help us to fully understand their development and spread across late medieval Europe.

The first mention of cards which, like the modern card deck, ignores the Major Arcana altogether comes to us from a Swiss monk writing in 1377, but the first surviving Tarot deck dates from about half a century later, circa 1425. The earliest surviving association of cards with card reading did not occur until the mid-sixteenth century.

On the surface this seemed to suggest the Tarot was preceded by the ancestor of the modern playing cards, and the Tarot's prophetic role was a rather late development. However, given our ignorance of events in that far-off time, most experts aknowledge they have insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions based on historical references. An alternative explanation (and one which my work later came to support) is that card reading, playing cards, and the Tarot all came into existence about the same time: the earliest card readers were a small minority, with references to them unlikely, and playing-cards were more popular with the public in most parts of Europe, spreading faster and more visibly than the Tarot.

There are a great many Tarot decks in existence. Most variations in the design of cards can be put down to one of two creative impulses. Some decks show the marks of artistic license, inspired by the possibilities of a series of paintings executed in miniature, while others originated in an attempt to make sense of the subject matter suggested by the peculiar illustrations of the Major Arcana. It is not uncommon for both rationalization and art to play a role in the design of single deck and it is not always easy to isolate these two factors.

One deck has been singled out by many researchers as the nearest thing we've got to a facsimile of the original deck. The Tarot Of Marseille, as it's called, is a pack originating in the French town of Marseille in the mid-eighteenth century. Despite its late date, it is similar in design to the few surviving cards from many earlier packs and the clothing depicted in its illustrations were current in early renaissance times. The style of the art work is very similar to that used in most playing card decks, which as I've said was derived from the Tarot the earliest period of the history of the cards.

The occult role of the Tarot cards remained relatively obscure to the reading public until 1781 when Court de Gibelin precipitated an explosion of occult interest with the publication of his book The Primitive World. In it he maintained, without substantive evidence, that the Tarot was a long lost book of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of writing and wisdom. His theory was badly undermined several decades later when the discovery of the Rosetta stone allowed scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the idea that the Tarot was linked to the lore of bygone times became firmly rooted in occult circles where it lingers to this day. This does not necessarily mean that Court de Gibelin was the first to make the connection, but he was the first to do it publicly and in print, so his book represents a watershed in the history of the cards.

Many theories followed and with them a plethora of new varieties of Tarot cards. Over the past two centuries the Tarot has been viewed at one time or another as the long-lost key to virtually every vanished or secret faith, real or imagined, that has ever aroused the modern imagination. Perhaps in response to this, some occult authorities have argued the cards were designed to reflect the wisdom of all the secret creeds known to the human race.

What is it about the Tarot that encourages people to think of it with such unabashed romanticism? Certainly the atmosphere surrounding card reading has played a role, as have the unanswered questions about its history and the evocative illustrations on the Major Arcana. But there is yet another factor worth exploring.

There is a legend which has accompanied the Tarot through much if not all of its history. It is said that the designers of the deck intended that it be laid out in a particular pattern or spread which would reveal what they felt were the “mysteries of the universe” to whoever discovered it. Presumably the allegorical pictures of the Major Arcana would relate to one another according to their position in the spread, and this would convey a series of observations about life and nature. Although an apparently extravagant claim, even a cursory analysis suggested that the Tarot may could indeed harbor a hidden pattern.

In the months before I discovered the secret spread I had noticed that the sequence of the Major Arcana has at least two parts which clearly constitute some sort of order. The cards numbered seventeen through nineteen deal with subjects of an astronomical nature; The Star (17), The Moon (18), and The Sun (19), while cards two through five are concerned with rulers; The Papess (2), The Empress (3), The Emperor (4), and The Pope (5). This last pattern was somewhat intriguing because it places the two spiritual rulers on the outside of the set and the two temporal rulers on the inside. Furthermore, the female figures precede the male. Whoever gave them this order must have had some reason for doing so, but the reasoning is not immediately clear.

In itself this did not provide overwhelming evidence of a hidden spread, but it did seem to indicate that the ordering of the cards was not random: they were given a particular sequence, presumably to express some rational impulse lying behind them. If this was so, then why was it that most of the cards follow an apparently chaotic order? What, for example, is the rationale behind the sequence of cards nine through eleven; The Hermit (9), The Wheel of Fortune (10), and Force (11)? Although some creative efforts have been made to justify this and other bewildering portions of the set, for the most part they have been unsatisfactory, relying on supposition to the point where ultimately only faith can justify their arguments. Realistically then, I had to acknowledge that the Major Arcana seem to move freely between order and chaos as they progress through the sequence from (1) to (21).

It is this peculiar attribute of the cards which most strongly suggested to me that the cards were designed to form a secret pattern. Why would some portions of the spread be ordered and not others? It seemed to me that if order guided some of the card's relative positions, then it might well have guided all. How then could I account for those sections in the sequence of cards which appeared disorderly? On reflection this proved fairly easy to explain.

Suppose, by way of example, that we were to isolate a line from a page in a book and cut it into pieces. Depending on how we cut the line some words or letters would be solitary while others would share a fragment of paper. Those which are solitary would seem random while those kept together would not, forming words or even phrases. Could a similar principle be at work in the Tarot's extraordinary progression of images? Those cards which have an obvious association could be grouped together in the original spread. The more chaotic portions of the Major Arcana may reflect a set of relationships between cards that is only apparent when the spread has been found and the cards have been laid down in their proper positions. If this is so, then the way to make sense of the otherwise random associations is to find the original pattern.

Clearly, the existence of a spread does not of itself guarantee that it can be found. For instance, one theory suggests that the Tarot was created in order to train novices in the secret beliefs of an underground religion. If this was true, then we could expect no clues to assist us in finding the spread. Indeed as outsiders our intrusion into the cards would be unwanted, and steps would have been taken to make our task impossible. Anyone approaching the task of making sense out of the cards must aknowledge that there are any number of other scenarios which would be equally devoid of opportunities for decoding.

On the other hand I reasoned that if the spread existed and was capable of being found, it wouldn't be unless the effort was made to look for it. Therefore I decided very early on that it would be better to act as if success were possible and to work towards it, rather than be guided by a failure which might yet be avoided. Knowledge is best advanced when we adopt neither impatient, wishful conjectures nor refuse stubbornly to observe.

I quickly realized that in dealing with the Tarot I had come face to face with a mystery which had defied resolution for hundreds of years, so it made sense to think about the problem a little before I actually attempted to solve it. As the saying goes, “less haste; more speed.” I was becoming “hooked” by the problem, and I was willing to take some time to be sure I got things right: I didn't want to fail for lack of serious effort.

Some things were rather obvious and quickly settled. For example, on the one hand the evidence provided by card reader's traditions could not be dismissed out of hand. It seemed reasonable to propose that the traditional meanings of the cards reflected their true meaning when they were placed in the context of the original spread. It was even possible that the card's designers intended them to be used as clues to the hidden spread, supplementing other indications incorporated into the illustrations of the deck. On the other hand, until this had been shown to be the case, I decided I had to be very cautious. The traditional meanings could have been a later invention, and in any case had existed largely in oral form. They might well have been subjected to some change in meaning over the centuries, so it would have been foolish to rely on them too much regardless of their origins.

Other matters demanded far more research and reflection. Two in particular absorbed my attention at those times when I puzzled over the Tarot in the months leading up to the discovery.

To begin with, I felt I ought to explore the assumptions and initiatives of previous observers to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their attempts. A clear understanding of past failures might spare me from the danger of repeating past mistakes.

Then too, I needed to give some thought to the sorts of clues the card's creators might have decided upon and how these could have been hidden in the cards. I was operating under the assumption that the card's makers were faced with the problem of concealing their meaning pictorially and spatially in the cards. The ways this could be achieved were finite, and I hoped that by placing myself in the maker's shoes, I could look at the problem much as they must have done and so prepare myself to follow their reasoning back towards the source: the hidden spread.

Some may find my emphasis on deduction unsettling, perhaps even offensive. The long tradition of relying on intuition and inspiration where the Tarot is concerned may be a hard habit to shake. The only reassurance I can offer is that this method bears fruit if it is given the opportunity, and those readers who take the trouble to put themselves into the mindset of the Tarot's creators will be rewarded by a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of a work which in my opinion is one of humanity's more remarkable achievements.

Little would be accomplished by attempting a comprehensive survey of my progress through past investigations, because in terms of their method (that is, a little observation, and a lot of intuition bolstered by spiritual insight) there is virtually no difference between them. A single example, and to my mind the best previous effort, will be sufficient to summarize what I observed.

The Kabalah is an ancient Jewish mystical tradition which describes the path of creation away from God, and of wise human beings towards Him. A diagram known as the Tree of Life summarizes its metaphysics. The Kabalah maintains that ten Sephiroth or intelligences came from God; the first one gave birth to the second, which gave birth to the third and so on, until all ten had come into being. Twenty-two paths are said to connect the ten Sephiroth, one for each of the letters in the ancient Hebrew alphabet. There are also four worlds associated with the four letters in the name of the Hebrew God, the four elements (earth, air, fire and water), and the four directions (north, south, east and west). The theory is complex, but these are the essential details.

So far so good, but at this point the theory runs into trouble. The only way to fit the cards to their precise positions in the Kabalah is to relate the meaning of each Greater Mystery's card to the meaning of a given position in the Tree of Life. Unfortunately, neither cards nor Sephiroth's positions have precise definitions, so it is possible to associate them in a number of different ways. Different schools have sprung up to argue a particular set of associations, but none has ever managed to make their case strongly enough to persuade a disinterested observer.

It appeared to me that no definitive solution was possible using this method. If this was the approach intended by the card's designers, they had failed to make their full meaning known.

A metaphor can be used to show the essential weakness of the Kabalahian explanation of the cards. If we view the Tarot as a map designed to lead us to a treasure (its hidden meaning), then the map has been shredded, broken up into fragments. Rather than begin by piecing together the map, past investigators have first located the treasure (the underlying meaning of the cards) and only then gone back and attempted to rebuild the map; a peculiar and surely pointless exercise: what value is there in decoding a message if the only way we can do so is by knowing its meaning in advance? Yet this is precisely what the Kabalahians and others seemed to be claiming to have done. I began to suspect that for some investigators the Tarot is simply a tool adopted to justify their own opinions and to “prove” the superiority of their spiritual insight.

This is not intended to suggest that past investigations have no merit; on the contrary. But arguably their value can be found primarily in the clarification and expansion of the thoughts of the investigators, not in the meanings they ascribed to the Tarot. Some theories are quite fascinating in their own right and interested readers are encouraged to look into them elsewhere.

There were two other details of the Kabalahian approach I noticed at the time which ought to be commented on here.

Unlike the Kabalah, many theories ignored the Minor Arcana when seeking the original spread. There seemed to be some justification for this, given the uncertainty surrounding the evolution of the cards and the question of whether the Major and Minor Arcana were originally part of the same deck. However, little harm could come from an attempt to place them in the original spread: if they didn't belong, this should become apparent as I proceeded. In the meantime, I determined to guard against assuming a lesser significance for the Minor Arcana merely on account of their name or lack of stimulating pictures, an obviously unwarranted presumption, but one I encountered surprisingly often.

I learned that the Kabalahians associated the four suits of the Minor Arcana with the four elements (fire, water, earth, and air) a detail not agreed upon by all investigators, but one with a fair degree of circumstantial support in that the emblems of the suits are suggestive of the elements. Sticks, being wood, absorb the heat and light of the sun in order to grow, but then when they are rubbed or otherwise put in contact with heat they release their stored up fire. Cups are designed to carry liquids like water. Coins are made of metal, a form of earth, besides which, every kind of material wealth we possess ultimately comes to us from this element, whether it be food, clothing, shelter, or luxury goods. Swords have a less obvious association with air, but it is not all that hard to come up with metaphors relating the wind to cutting and stabbing, or to see a symbol for invisible air in the thinness of the business end of a sword. In any case, here I took my leave of the Kabalah.

Many traditions associated the elements with sex. The emblems of the suits bare this out: air and fire were said to be masculine and both swords and sticks had a distinctly phallic shape. Water and earth were feminine and this seemed to be indicated in the openness and roundness of cups and coins respectively. All in all, it appeared reasonable to propose that the four suits were indeed related to the elements as follows:

Readers familiar with some alchemical traditions may wonder at the absence of a fifth element, ether, which is often considered to be the substance souls are made of. The word ether comes from the ancient Greek word Aither, meaning “blazing” in reference to the bright blue of the Greek sky. Aither was thought to be a rarefied form of the element air, a sort of mixture of fire and air. It was possible  that the Tarot represents one of those traditions that did not find it necessary to distinguish between spirit and air, or at least not when things have been stripped back to their most fundamental natures.

If the Tarot's designers had provided the cards with sufficient clues to allow a definitive discovery of the spread, what might those clues be? In order to answer this question I had to look at things from the maker's perspective. What would I do if I had the completed spread in front of me and it was my job to conceal it yet provide for its ultimate rediscovery? Obviously my first step would involve breaking the spread into its component parts, each of which could be given a card. What next?

Careful assessment of the problem lead me to anticipate three possible types of clues that could be incorporated into the cards. I thought of these as numeric, schematic, and symbolic clues.

The most obvious clues would be numeric. These might involve numbered sequences as well as simple numeric parallels.

If the spread had sections consisting of several cards in a row these might be given successive numbers, provided that by doing so the solution was not made too obvious. This unwanted eventuality could be avoided by, for instance, numbering the first part of a sequence and moving on to other, nearby sets, before completing the second part of that sequence. As long as such jumps involved a logical process, they would be retraceable.

In order to understand clues taking the form of numeric parallels, two examples seemed useful. If it happened that the four suits were associated with four particular cards in the spread then these cards might be grouped together by the sequence of numbers. Likewise it might be possible to provide hints in the diagrams of the cards, by incorporating numbers in them that demonstrate their associations. For example, if the sixteen court cards are linked to The Sun (19) in some way, I might decide to show sixteen sun's rays in that card.

One numeric feature forced on the makers by necessity involved any cards or components of the spread which might be in motion. Because their numbers would have to change as they moved in relation to other cards, mobile portions of the spread could not be assigned a numbered position. None of the courts are numbered and neither is The Fool, so in looking for the solution I had to be aware of the possibility that their positions might not be fixed. This conflicted with the custom of letting the court cards tag along after the pips. In card games it is a useful habit because it helps to fix values to each card, but I realized it might prove misleading in re-constructing the Tarot spread.

The second type of clue which suggested itself were those of a schematic nature. In creating the cards, I might surreptitiously include the design of the completed spread in the illustrations of some of the cards, not only to assist in finding the solution, but to provide the finder with some corroborating evidence once it's been found. For example, if the spread had a circular section, it might have been possible to indicate the fact by depicting one or more round objects suggesting as much in the illustrations of the Major arcana.

Finally I might be tempted to offer symbolic evidence to steer the finder towards the spread. I would obviously have to be very careful in doing so, because if I relied on such clues too heavily I might create a lot of confusion, given that the finder might not share my particular symbolic perspective. It is this method that other Tarot investigators assumed was followed almost exclusively, an assumption which led to predictably chaotic results. To be of any value, symbolic clues would have to be very straight-forward, limited in their scope, and demand no specialized knowledge. For example, if the suits are related to the elements as has been suggested, then any Major Arcana associated with the suits might contain clues which hint at the elements by depicting some of their more basic properties or attributes. In any case, it was obvious it would be a great mistake to rely on such evidence exclusively. Although this is especially clear in hindsight, any moderately intelligent card maker would have been able to predict the results of over-reliance on symbolism.

I made one final observation before attempting to discover the spread. I noted that simple clues are by their nature transparent and conclusive but subtle clues are not definitive, requiring others to back them up. As a rule of thumb, the more subtle the evidence provided, the greater the quantity which would be needed to support an irrefutable solution. Given the failed attempts of the past, it was clear that the original Tarot spread was not intended to be found easily, and I came to expect many subtle clues would be involved in its discovery, and anticipated that definitive proof would only be possible when all the details had been found and fitted properly into place. I would have to move very subtly and tentatively in pursuit of a solution.

Up to this point I had adopted a number of cautious assumptions.

Ultimately the only hope of verifying these assumptions was to find the solution.

To this list can be added a few additional guesses that seemed reasonable if far from certain as yet:

The suits could be representative of the four elements.

Though of course I didn't realize it at the time, nothing more was required for finding the solution beyond a careful observation of the cards and a little intuitive problem-solving. My assumptions and guesses would in the end turn out to be valid.

Although the foregoing description of my reasoning may give the impression of careful, conscious enquiry, that is not actually accurate. Although I took the logical steps described, the process was slow and somewhat chaotic since intuition mixed with logic during this preliminary process. It should also be mentioned that I did not work with any clear notion that I could or would stumble across the solution as a result--quite the contrary, given the efforts of so many others. When I eventually succeeded I was frankly stunned, so that it took quite some time for me to become firmly persuaded my solution was right. The reason I followed these steps in the months preceding the discovery was that I simply couldn't think of any other approach to take. The alternative to this approach was blind faith and wishful thinking, which do not suit my character. I wanted either to find the Tarot's creators original intent, or to find nothing.

Here is the crux of it: my goal was to understand the intention of the Tarot's makers, if that was something they had chosen to share. Understanding the Tarot was a straightforward matter of shutting up and listening to what the card's makers had to say, which meant giving them the same respect I daily give to others when it is their turn to speak. I had no idea at all whether I would like what they said, and it didn't matter to me if I did. All I wanted was to understand the makers because they had succeeding in making me very curious.

It seems rather strange to say so, but I may be the first person in the last six centuries to really hold my tongue and actually let the cards speak for themselves. I was surprised and delighted when I discovered that the Tarot's makers turned out to have plenty to say, and when, in the end, I found myself walking in the footsteps of genius.


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