The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols by Angeles Arrien

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It may sound silly, but I avoided this book for a long time because of its somewhat unattractive typeface. Also, I was intrigued but intimidated by the Crowley Thoth deck, whose symbolism it discusses. Having finally bought and read it, I’m delighted with it and count it as one of my very favorite Tarot books.

In her interpretations Arrien ignores what Aleister Crowley had to say about his own deck. Crowley’s interpretations are heavily steeped in his particular brand of esotericism and occult philosophy. Arrien looks at Lady Frieda Harris’s wonderful pictures with a fresh eye, interpreting the symbols from a straightforward, personal growth perspective which provides a welcome relief for those who like the pictures but may be put off by Crowley’s esotericism. Her interpretations are down to earth and fairly simple. Snakes always mean regeneration and transformation; the color green means creativity; the winged Eye of Horus means vision; bees mean perception, and so on.

The only reference point for her interpretations, besides the pictures themselves, is astrology, which figures heavily in her explanations of the Majors; for example, the Magician is taken to represent communication, because his astrological association on the card is Mercury. This leads to some interpretations which are radically different than those of most Tarot authors.

However, the reliance on astrology becomes a real benefit for the Minor cards. In the Golden Dawn system, which Crowley follows, each numbered card (2 through 10) is assigned a planet and a sign. Most books which describe this system presuppose a thorough familiarity with astrology on the part of the reader, and don’t explain the astrological symbolism. Arrien not only supplies an astrological explanation for each numbered card combination but also helpfully includes a glossary listing short definitions for the planets and signs. Experts in astrology will probably find the definitions given superficial and simplistic, but I appreciated them, since they make it possible for someone unfamiliar with astrology to at least begin to understand the cards from an astrological perspective.

What I like most about this book is how it deals with the negative Minor cards. (No Major card is given a negative interpretation.) She likens the 13 negative cards to the 13 Egyptian Bardo states or challenges, and describes the other numbered cards as ways of counteracting their effects. Her interpretations of these negative cards are marvelous. The 3 of Swords ("Sorrow"), for example, is described as the mind’s tendency to rework past sorrows. As far as I know Arrien is the only Tarot author to come up with a valid reason for why this card should be a Swords card rather than a Cups card. The 7 of Swords ("Futility") is described as the sabotaging mind which plays the "yes, but" tape, when we constantly tell ourselves why we can’t do something. I find that this system fits the negative cards into a valid and useful conceptual framework.

I like this book so much that I hate to criticize it, but I do have several caveats. First of all, Arrien spends a lot of time on Personality Symbols, Growth Symbols, et cetera, all of which are cards derived from numerological manipulations of your birthday and name. I find it odd that on the one hand Arrien interprets the cards completely from a personal growth perspective and generally ignores the divinatory or fortune-telling aspects of Tarot, and yet we are expected to swallow the idea that numerological operations on our birthdays yields a card that has some special objective significance. It seems to me one could find one’s Personality or Growth symbols just as easily by pulling a card from the deck without bothering with all the mathematics.

Some may find Arrien’s interpretations too positive. Even the negative "Bardo" cards are given positive twists by saying something like "in the near future you will deal succesfully with this issue." However, the general thrust of the interpretations can still be used without putting what some may find to be an overly positive spin on them.

I was a little put off by Arrien’s statement in the introduction that other Tarot books offer interpretations which are based on "the particular author’s viewpoint or bias," as if hers aren’t. She implies that her interpretations are better because they are based on cross-cultural mythology, but on closer inspection this proves not to be the case. For example, the Sun is interpreted as teamwork, with no cross-cultural symbolism cited. I think she came up with "teamwork" simply because the picture features two figures dancing together.

I also think too much is made of the book’s supposed cross-culturalism. There’s really nothing cross-cultural about it, aside from occasionally pointing out Egyptian, Indian or Oriental symbols, and often saying that such-and-such is a cross-cultural symbol for so-and-so, without providing examples. I think Sallie Nichols’s Jung and Tarot and Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom provide more of a cross-cultural perspective than this book does.

Finally I must note that, while I suspect Arrien is a gifted speaker, she is not a very good writer. The text is filled with mangled syntax, repetition, and infelicitous phrases. I also didn’t appreciate that several chapters were apparently compiled by other people who I assume were Arrien’s students. Perhaps this is a standard practice in academia, but if I were writing a Tarot book and was lucky enough to have it published, I would want to write every word myself, and would read it over several times to check for consistency. At the back is a glossary containing summarized meanings for the cards (compiled by a student from class notes), but the summarized meanings often differ from the meanings given in the regular text.

Despite all this, I definitely feel this is the best book for a beginner who wants to approach the Thoth deck. The cards can seem dark and forbidding at first (they certainly seemed that way to me), but after reading this book they are much more friendly and approachable. I would recommend working with this book first for a while, and only approach Crowley’s book, The Book of Thoth, when you start to become curious about Crowley’s approach to his symbols.

I have not been overly impressed by the other books available for this deck. Gerd Zeigler’s Tarot: Mirror of the Soul seems to me to be completely derivative (not to say a rip-off) of Arrien’s work. If you like Zeigler’s book, try Arrien’s -- it’s more of the same but much, much better done. Many people seem to like Akron and Hajo Banzhaf’s The Crowley Tarot: The Handbook to the Cards by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, but I found it difficult to extract a basic meaning from the plethora of information given for each card. And for all its thoroughness, it doesn’t discuss the astrological assignments for every numbered card as Arrien does.

The Tarot Handbook: Practical Applications of Ancient Visual Symbols by Angeles Arrien
Jeremey P. Tarcher/Putnam
Penguin Putnam Inc.
200 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
ISBN 0-87477-895-6

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

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