The Tarot is very old, but it isn’t ancient, contrary to what you’ve probably heard.
Conventional playing cards were brought to Europe from Mamluk Egypt in the 1370’s, probably as a result of the Crusades. Initially, the first decks were called tarocchi, an Italian word whose origins are unclear, but which may be based on the word taroch, which meant “foolishness” in late 15th and early 16th-century France.
The first decks that we would recognize as Tarot were created between 1440 and 1450 in the Italian city-states of Milan, Ferraro, Florence & Bologna. It was at this time that the Major Arcana were added to the existing deck. They began to be called carte da trionfi, or “triumph cards,” and they were hand-painted for wealthy families and used in gambling and parlor games.
The oldest surviving deck is actually only partial. There are only 15 remaining cards from the Visconti-Sforza deck, which was made for the Duke of Milan in the middle of the 15th century. Two other decks still in existence from this time frame are the Sola-Busca and Boiardo-Viti decks, both of which date to the 1490s.
Tarocchi, which was still a gambling game, spread to France and Switzerland during the Italian Wars (1494 – 1559). The most common deck in use at that time was made in Milan, and it’s still in existence today: the Tarot of Marseilles. The gambling game spread throughout Europe, and France, Germany, Italy and Portugal all had their own regional variations and their own versions of the four suits.
It wasn’t until 1781 that the Tarot became associated with divination and the occult. That year, a man named Antoine Court de Gebelin, a French freemason and occultist, published a book claiming that the Tarot had originated in ancient Egypt. There was absolutely no historical evidence to support his claim, but the whiff of the exotic turned heads, and people began to see the cards as mystical objects. The first deck created explicitly to be used for fortune telling was made by a Frenchman using the pseudonym Etteilla (real name: Jean-Baptiste Alliette) in 1785.
The Victorians got hold of the Tarot, and they added the myth that the Kabbalah was the root of the Tarot’s symbolism, again showing great indifference for fact and historical truth. As with Egypt, there is no evidence – historical, allegorical or archaeological – supporting the idea of playing cards or fortune telling cards being used by the ancient Hebrews. Nevertheless, the idea stuck.
Tarot decks have been almost exclusively associated with the occult since the Victorian era, and the methods and manner of reading them have developed in ways that can sometimes be surprisingly accurate. I believe that the Tarot are a tool for unlocking the reader’s own inner wisdom, rather than being somehow magical in and of themselves. Other witches will disagree with me, I’m sure. The cards take on whatever level of magical power you seek to imbue them with, and I have encountered decks that fairly buzzed with the energy their users had stored inside them. This energy imbuement, sort of like a spell in action, might explain the sometimes-surprising things that happen when you read the cards.
The modern Tarot deck is made up of 78 cards. There are 56 suit cards, or “pip” cards, and 22 pictorial cards featuring artistic renderings of certain archetypal figures. The suits are called the Minor Arcana, and the allegorical cards are the Major Arcana.
The Major Arcana
The Major Arcana are the celebrities and big shots of the Tarot world. From card 0, the Fool, through card XXI, the World, the cards taken in order can be said to tell a story. They follow the path of the human spirit and the human experience from birth through to the achievement of psychic attunement with the universe, which is the ultimate goal of esoteric and occult study. When they appear in a reading, the Major Arcana bring a heavy hand to whatever message they’re bringing. It’s said that the Major Arcana only appear when something life-changing or very, very important is about to happen, or has recently happened. They’re not going to talk about losing your car keys. They’re going to talk about losing your way of life or finding a new path to walk in your spiritual development. They are heavy-hitting, long-term signposts of big things coming.
The 22 Major Arcana cards are as follows. The Fool is sometimes unnumbered, and sometimes it’s numbered XXII (all Major Arcana cards are assigned Roman numerals instead of Arabic numbers), but I prefer to consider it card 0. After each card, I’ll briefly describe the traditional image and meaning.
- The Fool – A young man and a dog are dancing on the edge of a cliff, oblivious to the danger they’re in. The Fool card stands for, naturally, foolishness, lightheartedness, and non-conformity. He is the archetypal child.
- The Magician – A man stands before an altar on which a cup, a coin, a wand and a sword rest. He holds a candle in his hand and has an infinity symbol over his head. The Magician represents initiative, intellect and willpower.
- The High Priestess – A crowned woman sits on a throne between two pillars, one dark and one light. She stands for study, mysteries, and knowledge.
- The Empress – A pregnant queen sits upon her throne. She is Mother Nature, interconnectedness, compassion and nurturing. She is the archetypal mother.
- The Emperor – A king in armor and a crown sits on his throne. He stands for strength, stability and security. He is the archetypal father.
- The Hierophant – The Pope sits on a throne with two supplicants before him. He is crowned and carrying a staff. He represents advice, wisdom and spiritual guidance.
- The Lovers – A naked man and woman stand side-by-side beneath the protective gaze of an angel in the clouds above them. In addition to the obvious, the Lovers card can also stand for choices and decisions that must be made.
- The Chariot – A chariot is being pulled by two sphinxes, one white and one black, and the driver is a regal young man in armor. He reminds me of a Roman general at his triumph. He represents victory, success and honors.
- Strength – A lady holds open the jaws of a lion. She is more than physical strength – she is the strength of spirit that will get you through the challenges in your life. She stands for courage, energy, morality and integrity.
- The Hermit – An old man in a hooded robe holds a walking stick and holds up a lantern to light his path. He is about going inside yourself, not about withdrawing physically to a hermitage somewhere. He stands for inner search, solitude and spirituality.
- Wheel of Fortune – A wheel emblazoned with symbols and topped by a sphinx sits in the center of the card, while the four animal symbols of the Evangelists occupy the corners. Fairly obviously, the Wheel is about the passage of time, cycles, changes of seasons, and luck.
- Justice – The robed figure of Lady Justice holds a scale in one hand and a sword in the other. She is about the law, about being level-headed and about not fighting what cannot be escaped.
- The Hanged Man – A man hangs upside by one foot from the Tree of Knowledge. His hands are bound behind his back and his free leg is bent at the knee. Despite his predicament, he looks calm. He represents suffering, sacrifice, and testing yourself to see what you’re really made of. This card might be based on the story of the god Odin hanging himself from the Tree of Knowledge in his pursuit of wisdom.
- Death – A skeleton in black armor rides a white horse like the Horseman of the Apocalypse that he is. He carries a banner of a white rose on a black field. He is not about physical death, but about the end of a cycle or a phase in life. He stands for things ending so that new things can begin. He is change and transformation.
- Temperance – A robed angel stands with one foot in a stream, pouring water from one chalice into another. The card represents moderation (of course), care, patience and harmony.
- The Devil – The typical cartoonish image of the Devil sits on a throne with a naked man and a naked woman, both of them bound to by chains around their necks. He stands for excess, charm, deceit and superficiality.
- The Tower – A tower is being struck by lightning, and two people are falling out, probably to their deaths. Not a happy image. The Tower represents arrogance and narrow-mindedness that sows the seeds of its own destruction. It is disaster.
- The Star – A naked woman kneels in the same stream where Temperance had been standing, and like Aquarius (which is probably who she is) she pours water out of two jugs, one in each hand. A huge and brilliant star hangs in the sky over her head. The Star stands for hope, optimism and far-sightedness. (Fun fact: when I was in college, a Tarot-reading friend always had the Star show up in readings that mentioned me. She still says it’s “my” card.)
- The Moon – Two dogs and a crayfish (?) stand between two pillars, this time both of them white, staring up at the moon, which has a woman’s face in it in profile. The Moon represents vision, dreams, hopes and fantasies.
- The Sun – A chubby, happy baby rides a pony under a smiling sun. This card means clarity, decision, sincerity, and good tidings.
- Judgment – An angel (probably Gabriel) blows a trumpet and a man, a woman and a child stand up out of their graves. It’s judgment day. The card stands for news, announcements, tests, and an ultimate achievement.
- The World – A naked woman dances inside a wreath of greenery. The symbols of the four Evangelists are in the corners again. This time, the card stands for perfection, completeness and happiness.
The Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana are usually focused on more mundane, every-day concerns. They’ll talk about your life, your relationships, your health, even your emotional wellbeing. Their focus is on the here and now, or the very near future. They’re not far-ranging like their big siblings, the Major Arcana.
Like regular playing cards, the Minor Arcana are divided into four suits with Ace through Ten plus court cards. Unlike playing cards, there are four figures in the court – King, Queen, Knight and Page. The four suits are Swords, Wands, Cups and Pentacles, and each suit is associated with a particular element. The numbered cards all have specific meanings derived from numerology.
Swords = Air
Swords as a suit represent character, principles, communication and intellect.
Wands = Fire
Wands as a suit represent energy, inspiration, desire, planning and design.
Cups = Water
Cups as a suit stand for emotion, romance, love, creativity and the subconscious mind.
Pentacles = Earth
Pentacles stand for the environment, money, security and the material world.
Each of the “pip” cards has a meaning based on its number. These are:
- Aces: Raw power. This card carries the seed and the spirit of everything its suit has to offer.
- Twos: Will, purpose, initial understanding.
- Threes: Conception, manifestation.
- Fours: Production, mastery, achievement.
- Fives: Surrender, release, destruction.
- Sixes: Solution, exaltation, far-seeing.
- Sevens: Feelings, deepening mysteries.
- Eights: Repose, consideration, retreat, ripening.
- Nines: Understanding without words, strengthening the inner spirit.
- Tens: Processing lessons, moving on to another level.
There are two ways of reading the cards in a spread: face up or reversed. Some readers don’t like to include reversals in their interpretations, but I find that they’re actually pretty informative. They represent the meaning of each card stood on its head, indicating an area that needs work or has trouble brewing. If a card means companionship and friendliness when it’s right-side-up, a reversed reading would say that one of your friends might be false, or that there’s something in one of your friend relationships that requires your attention.
The way that the cards are laid out to be read is called a spread. There are hundreds and hundreds of different Tarot spreads that people have created, and you can find dozens of books and websites on the subject. I personally have a Pinterest page dedicated to different Tarot spreads.
Each card has a meaning on top of the card’s intrinsic meaning, based on its position in the spread. Confusing? Sometimes. Thankfully, there are really easy spreads that you can use.
Probably the easiest spread in the world is the three-card spread. Shuffle the deck while concentrating on the question that you want to have answered. Usually, yes-or-no questions are too limiting and don’t work very well, so try to ask questions that might require a narrative answer. A good general question if you can’t think of anything specific is, “What do I need to know for my best good at this moment in time?” When you feel like the deck is sufficiently shuffled, including any topsy-turvy movements that you want to make to allow for reversals, then you’re ready to lay out the cards.
(A quick word about shuffling: To me, shuffling the cards like you would at a poker game is disrespectful. Don’t. Try to shuffle them hand over hand, lightly holding them so that the cards can intermingle as they may. Also, sometimes cards will jump out while you’re shuffling. These are volunteers who have something to say but don’t belong in the spread. Consider the cards that jumped out and their meanings, return them to the deck, and keep shuffling.)
Anyway, back to the spread. You can take the top three cards, or if you prefer, you can cut the deck and then take the first three cards thereafter. Either way, lay them out from left to right. The card on the left means “past”. The card in the middle means “present”. The card on the right is “future.”
While I was writing this, I cast a three-card spread for myself (which is actually sort of a no-no – you’re not supposed to read for yourself. You’ll be biased and see what you want to see rather than the message that’s really there). This is what I got:
Left card (Past): Strength. My past has been difficult. I’ve been through a lot of crap, especially recently, and this card is telling me that I’ve overcome it because I was strong enough to pull myself out of my tailspins.
Middle card (Present): The Hanged Man. In the present, I’m in a kind of limbo, paying my dues and working on building my skills and my craft (and my Craft). I’m learning, and it’s uncomfortable, and at times it’s unpleasant, but it’s what I need to do right now. My future demands a sacrifice from me today.
Right card (Future): Knight of Cups. I need to take my creative dreams and the knowledge I’m gaining now and apply them as action in the future. I can’t allow myself to keep my head in the clouds – the time will come when I have to put these lessons into motion.
There’s so much that I could say about Tarot. I’ve been reading the cards since I was a little girl, and I dearly love them. Cartomancy enthralls me. I hope this has given you a taste of the fun and wisdom that you can find in a Tarot deck. Everybody should have one.
Love and light until next time!