Pick up a Tarot deck. In general, you'll have a large,
thick deck of 78 cards, bigger than playing cards,
somewhat clumsy to shuffle. Twenty-two of these will be the
Trumps, or major arcana; each with a picture, a name
and a number. The remainder are the minor arcana, and are
more like playing cards.
These are divided into four suits, often
named Swords, Cups, Wands and Pentacles. Each suit has
number cards one to ten, and court cards named Page, Knight,
Queen and King.
Or you may find something different entirely. The cards may
be small, they may be circular, they may be home-made,
they may have completely different suits, they
may have pictures of film stars or sporting heroes. You may
also find someone shouting furiously at you: it's
considered a very bad thing to handle someone else's
cards without their permission.
The first physical evidence of the Tarot dates from the
fifteenth century. An elaborate, hand-made deck called
deck survives from Italy in 1440. More
decks survive from Marseilles, France,
in the same period. An Italian sermon describes the major arcana
in detail, criticizes them as blasphemous, warns against
gambling with them.
It is believed by many that the Tarot is far older than
this. Based on similarities of the imagery and numbering,
some associate the Tarot with ancient Egypt, or the
Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety
of other origins.
However, if you rely on physical evidence alone, it must
be said that the Tarot began in Europe in the Renaissance.
In the Anglo-Saxon world today, the Tarot is usually
seen as a means of fortune-telling. However, early references
such as the sermon refer only to the use of the cards for
gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany; this is still seen
as the primary purpose of the Tarot today.
The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is
unclear, since for centuries there was no standard for
playing cards, just a variety of different decks.
Some maintain that playing cards are the descendent of
Tarot cards, with all the major arcana cards but the
Fool/Joker stripped out. There is also an
view that the major arcana cards (trumps) were added to
playing cards as a novelty.
Whatever their origins, Tarot cards eventually came to be
associated with mysticism and magic. In the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries mystics, occultists and secret societies
used the Tarot.
The breakthrough into mass popularity began in 1910,
with the publication of the
Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic
images in the minor as well the major arcana.
In the twentieth century, a huge number of different
decks were created, some traditional, some wildly
Varieties and Artwork
Tarot artwork is a fascinating subject in
itself, in several different ways.
From an art-history point of view, it's
intriguing to watch the images evolve
over five centuries, and to judge how artists have
attempted to convey the same concepts to
From a folk-art point of view, you can
compare and contrast hundreds or thousands
of amateur decks. In recent years, hand-making
your own deck has been popular.
Notably, Salvador Dali used collages to
create his own
Tarot has an interesting art-deco feel.
The most popular deck today is probably what is confusingly
known as the Rider-Waite-Smith, Waite-Smith, or simply the
deck. The images were drawn by artist
Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur
Waite, and published by the Rider company.
While the images are deceptively simple, almost child-like,
the details and backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism.
The subjects remain close to the earliest decks,
but usually have added detail. The chief aesthetic objection
to this deck is the crude printing of colours in the original:
several decks, such as the
simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more
Other decks vary in their conventionality. Cat-lovers have the
of the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with
cat in every picture.
of the witches and
Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying
The witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970's for its use in
the James Bond movie
and Let Die.
Other decks change the cards partly or completely.
Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle:
the mainly male characters have been replaced by females.
of Baseball has suits bats, mitts, balls and bases; "coaches" and "MVPs"
instead of Queens and Kings; and
major arcana cards like "The Catcher", "The Rule Book" and
"Batting a Thousand".
Geeks might find the
Silicon Valley Tarot most
intelligible, which offers
Major arcana cards include
The Layoff and
the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court
cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.
The significance of the cards is their most mysterious aspect.
Even the early decks
have complex imagery. Look at
The World (Le Monde) or Strength (La Force) in
Strength shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion.
This might just be interpreted as an image of physical
strength: some modern decks just show a muscular man with
a barbell. But look at The World: a dancer or posed figure,
in a flowery wreath, with four creatures at the corners.
All kinds of symbolic explanations can be, and have been,
presented for this.
But was this just a standard symbolic representation of the
concept "the World" in Marseilles in 1450, or were there deep
levels of meaning even then?
If these cards were just for card-games, why were these peculiar
symbols chosen for them? Was there a spiritual or magical
significance to the cards, or was it just that the random whims
of a dead artist found themselves incorporated into a standard?
The answers are frustratingly lost, not just in
the mists of time, but the fogs of contradictory analysis.
Regardless of what the cards meant originally, meanings are
attached to them now. Interpretations have co-evolved with the
cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the
pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the
meanings in turn modified by the new pictures.
take a look at the Rider-Waite-Smith
We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here,
since he conveniently wrote
on the subject.
As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding
the jaws of a lion, but this picture
is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card
has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate:
the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card,
this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a
chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white
robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background
demonstrate another kind of strength.
Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is
sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over
desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion,
sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.
The twenty-two cards most often in the major arcana are:
Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress,
Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers,
Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death,
Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World.
Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings.
Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the
journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the
Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.
There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the
Tarot. The four suits are associated with the four elements:
Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles
with earth. The numerology is usually thought to be significant.
The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various
systems such as astrology, the Kaballah, the I Ching and
Uses of the Tarot
Jung was the first psychologist to
to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing
archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation
embedded in the subconscious of all human beings.
for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father
The theory of archetypes gives rise to several
psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to
identify how a patient views himself or herself, by asking
the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with.
Some try to get the patient to clarify his ideas by imagining
his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images:
Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the
of Swords perhaps, or
keeping the world at bay.
The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the
subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious
Storytelling and Art
The Tarot has been known to inspire writers as well as
visual artists. Novelist Italo Calvino described
the Tarot as a "machine for telling stories", writing
Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters
constructed through the Tarot. T.S. Eliot's poem
Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards,
a few of which are genuine.
Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to
construct stories for writing exercises and writing games.
Divination and Magic
Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and
well-known use of the Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an
extension of the psychological use mentioned above. It can
be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events
subconsciously only. For instance you might be
subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble,
before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be
said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future
without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all.
Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as
chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd
normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough
that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.
That point of view is rare. Tarot diviners generally believe
that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate
psychic ability to see the future.
It's popularly believed
that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone
who touches them. The cards are therefore "insulated" by
wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and
only touched by the diviner and person for whom the reading
is done: the "querent".
There are many variations, but in a typical reading the
querent shuffles the cards, then the diviner lays out the
cards in a pattern called the
The most popular spread is the
The cards are then analysed according to their positions,
and whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card
has its own set of modified meanings; sometimes
opposite, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.
Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the
word "magic" usually refers to the use of Tarot cards in
a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is
much less common than simple divination, however.
The symbolism of the Tarot in general, and the Fool's
Journey in particular, is seen as describing spiritual
progress and growth. Contemplation of the Tarot is
believed by some to aid this.
It is also common to meditate using a particular
card as a focus.
Believers in this approach, who include Christian
mystics as well as assorted New Agers, sometimes regard
divination as a somewhat immature use of the Tarot.
Christianity and the Tarot
The relationship between Christianity and the Tarot
has been ambiguous from the beginning. Neither gambling
nor fortune-telling are encouraged by Christian churches:
a device that does both was never going to be popular.
In addition, the religious imagery of the early decks
was regarded as blasphemous. Not only was the Pope himself
present, on the card often known now as the Hierophant;
but the card now often called the High Priestess was
originally known as La Papessa: the female Pope. Together
with cards like the
the Tarot has often been seen as positively Satanic by
There is of course no evidence that the earliest Tarot
decks were created by or for Satanists: there's precious
little evidence of any kind. However, there's little
evidence even for later associations between Satanism
and the Tarot.
Church of Satan website
claims to have found a single, out-of-print deck
called "Satan's Tarot", but there is little
Tarot FAQ strongly denies a link with Satanism.
In fact, the Tarot is more closely associated with
The nineteenth-century Golden Dawn group, since
splintered into a variety of sub-groups, incorporated the
Tarot into a specifically Christian mystical framework,
as did other contemporary groups.
In the present day, the rejection works both ways. The
Tarot has been adopted by the Pagan and Wiccan movements,
who dispute a Christian origin to the Tarot. To them,
Christian symbols in the Tarot are considered either
coincidental; universal symbols that cross the different
traditions; or just Christian corruptions of originally
The best book I've read on the Tarot is
Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack.
It's comprehensive, covering and the minor
as well as the major arcana; and taking several angles
on the Tarot. It's also well-written and intelligible:
the author is also well known as a fantasy and SF writer.
A classic text is Eden Grey's
Guide to the Tarot, which concentrates on classical
divination, but has some information on the more spiritual
Key to the Tarot, while highly influential, is confusing and
incomplete; and is also hampered by a lack of illustrations.
Even though he invented the Rider-Waite-Smith
deck, it's best avoided by newcomers. Interestingly, Waite's
habit of describing the picture of each cards in words seems
to have been widely carried over even into illustrated books;
many of which are padded-out versions of this one.
Every library or bookshop will have a selection of Tarot books,
mostly aimed at divination for beginners.
There is an interesting
guide to divination using the tarot, which discusses each
card, and has
of actual readings.