The Tarot: Divination Tool or Mystery Tradition?

by Kate Warwick-Smith

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If you already have read the article,  What Is the Western Mystery Tradition? you will have realized that there are many traditions and expressions of the Western Mysteries—dare we say that the tarot can take its place as a tradition among them? Or, is it merely divination tool with little depth beyond fortunetelling, and a pliable medium that other traditions can bend to their purpose? If you have an interest in the tarot, then you probably know that there are hundreds of decks to choose from. Many of them are expressions of a particular tradition. For example, you can find decks dedicated to the Alchemical, Celtic, Wiccan, Norse, Masonic traditions just to name a few.

With so many faces, it's easy to be glamoured and distracted away from the beauty that is the soul of the Tarot and the pathway it offers into the heart of the Western Mysteries. (Tarot-the tradition vs. tarot-the tool.) So, back to our question, can we consider the tarot as a mystery tradition?

To help answer this question, I'd like to use Antoine Faivre’s criteria for recognizing legitimate "western esotericisms". In his book Access to Western Esotericism he considers the many streams that make up the Western Mysteries and arrives at four characteristics that identify a stream as a “Western esotericism,” or in the terms we are using a tradition. Once we look at his criteria it becomes clear that the tarot more than meets his criteria. However, we must move beyond using it simply for divination. Here are Faivre’s four essentials:

1. “Correspondences”

The axiom, “as above, so below” succinctly describes the concept of correspondence. Correspondence has to do with the relationship between the various levels of existence. What occurs on one level causes change on another level. In this there is no randomness; all is interconnected. If we follow this line of thinking, we can know the higher levels through knowing the world around us. The tarot as a divination tool works exactly on this principle by showing you with the cards (below) a reflection of yourself and your life on many levels.

2. “Living Nature”

This concept follows naturally from the one above. Nature is alive and intricately connected to many levels of existence, not just the physical: “Multilayered, rich in potential revelations of every kind, it must be read like a book.” (Faivre, p.11). The early Visconti-Sforza cards of the Sun, Moon and Star depict female figures holding the stellar entities. The pairing of stellar body with human form speaks to this very concept. All of nature is alive, with a living essence that has a capacity to evolve as we do. The tarot images if we open our perceptivity come alive in the world around us—brining us to the next criteria.

3. “Imagination and Mediations”

Imagination and mediations refer to methods we use to experience “Living Nature” and to read its signs. Faivre defines mediations as, for example, angels, inner guides or rituals—things that aid in our participation. Our imagination, an “organ of the soul” is the key to using mediations and being able to perceive the spiritual within the mundane. With regard to the tarot, mediations are the symbols on the cards. They are the angels (like upon the Lovers Cared) or the archetypes like the Empress, Temperance and the Fool who have both an inner plane collective presence and a presence in the personal psyche. If we use our imagination in combination with the “mediations” offered within the tarot, the tarot may be transformed from a tool for divination into a tradition in its own right.

4. “Experience of Transmutation”

Transmutation is defined as a process of change in form, character or state. The story of the tarot is the tale of transmutation. The major arcana cards tell of the transformative journey of the Fool and of the resulting transformation of the World. This is our own story if we choose it. This story told in symbols is the carrot the tarot offers enticing us into its world. When we begin to work the tradition of the Tarot, we begin to consciously work at our own transformation.

Faivre identified two additional characteristics that are often present in Western traditions:

5. “Transmission”

This is the passing of the light of the tradition from teacher to student in what might be also termed initiation.

6. “The Praxis of the Concordance”

This is the idea of a primordial tradition that underlies all traditions and of a harmony between traditions. The spirit of the tarot embodies this idea. To confirm this all we have to do is look at the myriad of Western traditions that have embraced the tarot—bringing us back to where we started, but perhaps on an altogether different level.

Join me and others as we pursue the Tarot as a tradition within the Western Mysteries.

Please feel free to comment on this article or ask a question.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dena Donaldson June 5, 2013 at 3:25 am

THE TAROT OF THE HOLY LIGHT Reviewed by Paul Holman ( ) The Tarot of the Holy Light , currently available in an edition of some twelve hundred copies, is a deck designed and published by Christine Payne-Towler and her partner Michael Dowers. She has written extensively on what she terms the “continental tarot “—that is, decks in the tradition of Etteilla, Levi, Papus and Wirth—while he is an underground comic artist, editor and publisher.


Selma Dunlap June 8, 2013 at 4:35 am

Whatever aspersions have been cast by the dubious upon the name of Eliphas Levi, esoteric tradition reveals his steadying influence in the chaos that the Secret Societies were experiencing during his tenure as Supreme Grand Master. For one thing, he served as Grand Master for over twenty of the most difficult years the combined orders had faced in his century (the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War). Further, his name and writings mark a turning point for esoteric Tarot, making it more accessible for the masses after the century of Etteilla’s confusing tarots. Clymer also names him as a Kabalistic and Magean Initiate, and a member of L’Ordre Du Lit.


Earnest R. Weaver June 9, 2013 at 10:28 am

A historical and interpretive study of three aspects of Western esotericism from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.Not only does this book present the current state of research in esotericism, but it also explores three main aspects of the field from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. Previously published in French and now available in English for the first time, Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition traces the history of the theosophical current, its continuity and shifts, against the background of social and cultural events. The book also covers the Paracelsian course, the romantic Philosophies of Nature and the Occultist movement. The book provides glimpses into the notions and practices of the so-called “active” and “creative” imagination, and questions how they serve as a bridge into certain kinds of mystical experience. It also examines the place that the notion of “tradition” occupies in some major exponents of western esotericism.”A pinnacle of achievement. A colossal work. Before such an accomplishment, one hesitates between the Titanesque and the Benedictine. A remarkable book in every respect that may be consulted as individual essays, each of which may be read with pleasure and interest…” — Pierre Zimmer, Sources et Meridiens”A true history of western esotericism was sorely lacking, and a large gap is now being filled thanks to the important work of Antoine Faivre. He has endeavored to open up many fascinating areas of research. Through this scholarly work, an entire long-neglected domain of the western imagination is brought to light by Antoine Faivre.”– Francois Sturel, L’Action FrancaiseAntoine Faivre is Professor at the E.P.H.E. (Religious Studies), Sorbonne. He has published extensively, including Access to Western Esotericism, also published by SUNY Press.


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