Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn in 1943, educated at Amherst, the Sorbonne, and Yale, and de-educated through intensive Zen practice. His many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, Meetings with the Archangel, Gilgamesh, The Second Book of the Tao, and The Iliad. When he is not writing, he likes to (in no particular order) think about writing, think about not writing, not think about writing, and not think about not writing.

Origins of Tarot

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

This system of divination now known as Tarot first became popular in card form in Europe during the early fifteenth century, assisted by the invention of the printing press. Early images of twenty of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards (Arcana means “secrets”) can be seen in an Italian deck of A.D. 1440. The Visconti family’s decks, forebears of Tarot decks in use today, appear to have been created as a recreational pastime for the nobility. Across five centuries, the structure of the modern deck of Tarot cards remains identical to the game decks enjoyed in the fifteenth century. The Marseilles family of decks, still in print today, is the oldest of the standard Tarot deck pattern.

Even though Tarot may have started as a card game, members of secret societies assigned mystical meanings to the cards, adding corresponding astrological, numerological and kabbalic symbols over time. There is no doubt that the images on modern Tarot cards have roots at least as old as Western civilization, going back as far as Egypt and maybe China. Because Tarot now incorporates a synthesis of Astrology, Numerology, the Jewish Kabbalah and harmonic theory, our Tarot scholar, Christine Payne-Towler, refers to Tarot as “the flash cards of the Western mysteries.”

The highly symbolic Tarot deck provided a way to secretly preserve ancient teachings and divination systems during a period when the Christian church was hell-bent on repressing such knowledge. The Church’s persecution of so-called heresies, which was sometimes represented in Tarot images, caused the esoteric information to be sheltered by small groups of like-minded people, by whom it was carefully preserved, and selectively shared in the guise of a card game.

Frenchman Antoine Court de Gébelin deserves much credit for the establishment of modern Tarot, including its use as a means of divination. In 1781 he announced that he had discovered the mythical teachings of Thoth, the Egyptian god who invented magic and writing, in the symbols on the Tarot deck. Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known as “Etteilla,” was the first to create a deck of thirty-two cards to be used specifically for divination in 1770.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Eliphas Lévi had expanded Court de Gébelin’s work by joining it with the Jewish mystical system, the Kabbalah, although he did not abandon Egyptian symbolism in his deck. Lévi’s work was key in fueling a Tarot revival. Lévi does not get as much credit as he deserves, largely due to the efforts of A.E. Waite, the English Tarot scholar of the early 1900s who translated Lévi’s works from French to English. Various members of England’s Order of the Golden Dawn went so far as to rearrange the order of the traditional Tarot deck, assigning some different astrological correspondences, as well as making other small changes. In order to establish its own reputation and influence, it was in the Golden Dawn’s interest to discount Lévi’s more traditional teachings, even to deny the validity of all Tarot knowledge that had come before. Waite’s translated texts included many notes encouraging the reader to dismiss Lévi’s ideas.

To a large degree, these efforts were successful. Today it is not uncommon to hear claims that Tarot originated in England, when in fact the French, Italians, and Spanish were using it over 100 years earlier than the English. Most decks in popular use today are derived from Waite’s ‘Rider-Waite’ deck—or the Book of Thoth Tarot, an even more creative deck designed by Aleister Crowley, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn society.

History of the I Ching

Excerpted and adapted from the book Divination: Sacred Tools for Reading the Mind of God by Paul O’Brien

The I Ching is the oldest of all the classical divination systems. It is also one of the oldest books in the world. Its first interpretive text was composed around 1000 B.C. The I Ching’s actual discovery and much of its early history are the stuff of legends.

There are a number of myths surrounding the origins of the eight trigrams and the development of the I Ching divination system. In one tale, Fu Hsi, the first emperor of China (2852–2737 B.C.), is said to have observed a turtle emerging from the Yellow River. Knowing that true wisdom came from the direct and close observation of nature, he had a sudden realization of the significance of eight symbols he saw on the turtle’s back. He saw how the sets of three solid or broken lines, the trigrams, reflected the movement of energy in life on Earth.

A similar myth describes Fu Hsi’s contemplation of other patterns in nature, including animals, plants, meteorological phenomena, and even his own body. These myths describe how he identified the trigrams that arose from his understanding of the connection of all things, through the interplay of yin and yang.

There is evidence of early Chinese divination where tortoise shells were heated over a flame until they cracked, with the emerging patterns (presumably trigrams) being read. In some cases the shells were marked with their interpretations and stored for reference, and I have had the privilege of seeing a few of them preserved at the National Museum in Taiwan, China. Fu Hsi was the mythical First Emperor of China. He is reputed to be the inventor of writing, fish-ing and trapping, as well as the discoverer of the I Ching trigrams on the back of a turtle. He lived around 3000 B.C.

Another version also involving tortoise shells describes descendants of the “many Fu”—an ancient clan of female diviners—who read the shells of live turtles. According to the legend, they became the queens and royalty of the Shang Dynasty—which had been considered mythical until archeological evidence proving its existence was unearthed in 1899. Some say Lao Tzu, the enlightened forefather of Taoism and the author of the Tao Te Ching, was a descendent of this clan.

The Taoist/Confucian tradition posits that juxtaposing a set of the possible permutations of yin and yang with the elements of Chinese creation mythology produced the foundation of the I Ching. Pairing up the various combinations of yin (the literal ancient meaning of which is the shady north side of the hill) and yang (meaning the sunny south side of the hill) gives you four primary symbols. With the addition of another yin or yang line, the eight trigrams emerge.

The earliest composition of I Ching interpretations is attributed to King Wen. Toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, when the unjust emperor Zhou Wang imprisoned Wen, he reportedly used his confinement to meditate on the trigrams, pairing them up to produce sixty-four possible hexagrams. Each pair of trigrams took on a meaning specific to their combination. In what we might assume was an enlightened state of mind, King Wen assigned each of the sixty-four hexagrams a name, adding a few sentences to explain its meaning. It is said that his son, King Wu, added additional interpretative text, bringing the I Ching closer to its current form.

Confucius, who came a few hundred years later, was possibly the I Ching’s greatest patron, taking the interpretative texts to the next level with the addition of his extensive commentaries. Confucius was primarily interested in the I Ching as a manual for how to live a life of the highest virtue, as opposed to its usefulness as a divination system. According to his Analects (VII, xvi), Confucius, who lived to be an old man, is reputed to have said, “If some years were added to my life, I would devote fifty of them to the study of the oracle, and might then avoid committing great errors.”

Historical evidence substantiates the theory that the Book of Changes and its sixty-four hexagrams were part of an ancient oral tradition that predates recorded history in China. The basics of the I Ching text—the names of the hexagrams and their judgments—were likely composed in the eighth century B.C. However, the practice of using the hexagrams to refer to specific interpretations probably didn’t occur until the fifth century B.C. Between 475 and 221 B.C. (known as the Warring States period), the I Ching texts were consolidated into a book to make it easier to consult and share with others during that time of extreme upheaval. Shortly after, the I Ching was spared in the Ch’in Dynasty’s massive book burning because it was considered one of the five “Great Classics.”

The Book of Changes was canonized and studied intently by scholars during the Han Dynasty of 202 B.C.– A.D. 220. Between the third century B.C. and the turn of the millennium, significant additions, known as the ‘Wings’, were written regarding the individual lines in the hexagrams, and the meaning of the trigrams. These commentaries are generally attributed to Confucius, who lived around 500 B.C. More work was done, and the I Ching we use today is not substantially different from the 168 B.C. version. The main difference is that the hexagrams appear in a different order. The order in use today was first proposed around 100 B.C., but was not the standard until the third century A.D. Throughout what we know of Chinese history, the rulers of China, as well as the general public, used the I Ching as best they could before printing was available. It is woven into the fabric of this ancient culture and its influence has been fundamental to the Eastern world-view as a whole. It has only been in the last 150 years or so that Western culture was even exposed to basic Taoist concepts—such as German and English translations of the I Ching and Tao Te Ching. Carl Jung’s explanation of the I Ching’s psychological validity and value, and the widespread open-mindedness about all things spiritual during the 1960s, made using the I Ching a common experience in the Western world.

Nowadays, the most common method for casting the I Ching involves tossing three coins six times to create the six-line pattern, or hexagram. A traditional technique for deriving a hexagram, dating from about 500 B.C., involves a fairly complicated process of selecting and sorting fifty sticks, usually yarrow stalks. The best yarrow stalks for this were the ones that grew on Confucius’ grave, but the supply was limited! After the coins or stalks are tossed and sorted out, one looks up the interpretation in the sacred book.


Stephen Mitchell is a renowned translator, scholar, and author best known for his ability to glean the wisdom and spiritual themes of sacred texts. Although Gilgamesh is considered one of the masterpieces of world literature, until now there has not been a version that is a superlative literary text in its own right. Stephen Mitchell’s lithe, muscular rendering allows us to enter an ancient masterpiece as if for the first time. Listen to realize how startlingly beautiful, intelligent, and alive this classic can be and what it has to teach us.