Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hidden in Plain Sight

Here is an item that almost everyone has in their house, yet it is laden with symbolic significance that most people do not notice. It is invested with significance that is intertwined with another famous (or infamous) item, the Tarot. What is this? A deck of playing cards.

People have always debated whether the Tarot began as a repository of ancient wisdom or as a game. Because of the presence of the major arcana cards (Magician, Devil, Lovers, Justice, Death, Temperance, Strength, etc) the case looks strong for this as a metaphysical invention. All of the major arcana cards easily serve as teaching tools for major life lessons. But when we look at early Tarot decks, they greatly resembled playing card decks. They consisted of court cards and pips (the cards that simply have the numbers and suit symbols on them)with a major arcana. Nobody knows who devised the major arcana and added it to the playing cards (which in Tarot are called the minor arcana), but the first Tarot decks appeared in Italy in the 14th century.

The first deck to have a picture on every card is the Rider, which is about 100 years old now. That fact alone is what made this deck the modern standard. So if we go back to looking at the ordinary playing card deck, there is no major arcana, except for the Joker, who is the Fool in Tarot, and the only holdover between the two sets.

I wish that modern playing card manufacturers would go back to more colorful Jokers, like they had in the recent past. The jacks in playing cards replace the pages and knights of Tarot. Why, I do not know. Fascinating aspects to the playing cards include the fact that those kings and queens were representations of historical figures, such as Julius Caesar, Alexander, King David, Judith, Joan of Arc, Ruth, or Elizabeth of York. Designs varied a little, with maybe one designer adding Charlemagne, Solomon, Arthur, or Guenivere. Why include these historical mythical personages in a game? Did this thought ever even occur to you in all the hours you used decks to play games? Why does the deck consist of 4 suits? Do they stand for the 4 seasons or 4 elements? Why 13 cards in a suit? Becasue this is the number of moons (months) in a year in the old calendars? Why 52 cards in the deck? Because this is the number of weeks in a year? If it is only a game, why not 3,5,6,7,8 or 9 suits? Why not 5 cards or 25 cards in a suit?

Makes you wonder about intentions of the designer of the deck, doesn't it? Game theory advocates say that the major arcana were merely trump cards in trick taking games like pinochle, hearts or spades. They speculate that these trumps (short for triumph) also used familiar power symbols for winning hands, like the Pope, Emporer, Empress, Devil, Death, Magician, High Priestess, etc, which might provide a similar rationale behind the use of historical kings and queens in the playing card deck. After all, who has never heard of Caesar, Solomon, Alexander, Arthur, David, Joan, Guinevere, Elizabeth, or Esther? They would certainly be power symbols of a winning hand. I have had excellent readings from people who used playing cards, and I use them myself.

They do work as well as Tarot, because all of the cards we use for readings are simply tools for accessing different levels of consciousness. In other words, the physical tools are simply gateways. My mother, who does not like the images in the Tarot, remembered how when she was little, her mother used to get readings from a woman who lived in the neighborhood who only used playing cards. Using playing cards for readings was a very practical step not so long ago because Tarot decks were harder to come by, but playing cards decks were always around. I think that people prefer Tarot over playing cards for readings because they like the pictures. Today, there are literally thousands of decks because so many artists have created their own versions, and many of them are fabulous works of art. Since there are many different tastes in art, everyone can find pictures that appeal to them.

Even though I own several decks and use them to read for people, there is something very magical about being able to pick up something that is always around the house and use it for purposes of eliciting wisdom and insight. There is magic in the fact that something that everyone in my family and all my friends used as simply a game playing device can now be seen in a whole new light. The cards are right there on the table, beckoning to us. Almost no one is turned off by the mere sight of a deck of playing cards, and those who know more about them can pick them up and shuffle and read the game of life. Since they are such common objects, someone like my mother is not put off by seeing them on the table. So they are both a familiar form of amusement, and a mystical magical tool, hidden in plain sight.

It kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it? What other magic is hidden from us in plain sight?

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