I am often asked, “What is tarot?” At its core, tarot is a system of divination that uses a deck of 78 illustrated cards to guide someone into insight about their current situation and their future. Reading tarot cards is many people’s first foray into the psychic realm.
Psychic tarot readings are both great fun and powerful tools for self-discovery. A good reader will offer their client solid insight into their current situation, a clear path for the client to take action, and some idea of what outcome this action will bring. The hardest part of any tarot reading is defining what will happen in the future because what we do today will affect that future.
A good tarot reading will provide guidance about what to do today or in the near future. It does not necessarily tell you what to do, but it can make planning your life decisions easier.
How to use Tarot Cards
There are many tarot books that help teach how to use tarot cards. Very briefly, you use tarot cards by randomly selecting one or more cards from the deck. These cards are then interpreted based on the imagery on the card. Some readers also use numerology, astrological correspondences, sacred geometry, Qabala, or other complex systems to derive meaning from the cards. I have personally found these to be unnecessary complications, but others have found them useful.
The two most common methods of learning tarot are the traditional method and the intuitive method.
In the traditional method, meanings have been assigned to the cards by the deck’s creators. This is a common method of learning when using a Waite-Smith deck or the Thoth deck. The meanings of these decks are listed in the Pictorial Key to the Tarotand the Book of Thoth, respectively. It is the traditional method that is most likely to incorporate sacred geometry, Qabala, astrological correspondences, and similar methods, but some decks lend themselves to intuitively incorporating these systems.
A more common method of learning tarot today is the intuitive method. In the intuitive method, the card’s meaning is interpreted based on the imagery on the cards. To practice the intuitive method, it is necessary to have a solid understanding of the meaning of all the symbols in the deck. While a more labor-intensive method of learning the tarot, the intuitive method often yields better results. You can learn the Intuitive method of Tarot reading from Stephen Fabal’s Psychic Development Using Tarot and Oracle Cards course.
“What is Tarot?” vs “What are Oracle Cards?”
To understand “What is tarot?”, it is important to understand “What are oracle cards?” Oracle cards are any deck of cards designed for use as a divinatory or transformational tool. There are oracle decks for virtually every tradition or belief system. Some common oracle decks are angel oracles, rune cards, animal oracles, crystal oracles, and of course tarot cards.
The tarot is an oracle deck that consists of 78 cards, divided into a 22-card major arcana and a 56-card minor arcana. The minor arcana is further divided into four suits. These suits are generally cups, swords, wands (or rods), and discs (sometimes called pentacles or coins). Each of the suits has fourteen cards; an ace, numbered cards 2 through 10, and four court cards (or face cards).
The exact suits and court cards vary from deck to deck. For example, the Thoth deck labels the court cards Princess, Prince, Queen, and King, while the Waite-Smith labels these cards Page, Knight, Queen, and King. The Halloween Tarot by Kipling West has suits labeled Pumpkins, Imps, Ghosts, and Bats.
Some decks labeled “tarot” may not match this design exactly, but most of them do. Most modern tarot decks are based on one of the three “traditional” decks: the Marseille deck, The Waite-Smith deck, and the Thoth deck.
Tarot Card Meanings
Tarot cards’ meanings are defined by the imagery on each card. This imagery is often influenced by its suit and position in the deck. Each tarot card is designed in such a way that, ideally, the meaning may be intuited by looking at the imagery on the card. For those times you are unable to find the meaning in the imagery, each tarot card has a keyword that helps to unlock its deeper meaning.
You can find a tarot card meanings list on many different websites. Some of these websites include:
The Major Arcana
The tarot cards’ major arcana carries meanings based on the Fool’s Journey. The Fool’s Journey is the central metaphor behind the arrangement of the cards in the major arcana of the tarot. This is especially true in the Waite-Smith and Thoth decks, although the Fool’s Journey applies to most modern tarot decks. It is based on the idea of the Fool traveling through each of the other cards and learning the lessons of each.
The Marseille Tarot Deck
The Marseille tarot deck is a reproduction of one of the oldest complete tarot decks known to exist. It is a design that dates back to the sixteenth century. There are several variations of the Marseilles tarot available today.
This deck has a simplified minor arcana, often lacking illustrations. The cards simply show the suit and number of the card. The ten of cups, for example, will show ten cups but nothing else.
These decks were not originally intended for fortune-telling. Instead, it was used in a game of trumps similar to the modern game of bridge.
The Waite-Smith Tarot
The Waite-Smith deck is believed to be the first tarot deck designed for fortune-telling. It was designed by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was first published in 1909 by the Rider company. The many names of this deck include the Rider-Waite, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Rider deck. This deck has been republished many times, including the current Rider-Waite deck by US Games. Variations on this deck include Universal Waite, Black Gold Tarot, Morgan Greer, Robin Wood, and Aquarian decks.
The Thoth Tarot
The Thoth deck was created by Alistair Crowley and first published in 1943. It was created to address perceived flaws in the Waite-Smith deck. Among these changes were the inclusion of the prince and princess court cards, and a rearrangement of the major arcana cards. The Thoth Deck is currently published by US Games.
There are literally hundreds of tarot and oracle decks available for purchase today. One of our favorite decks is the Sacred Circle Tarot. This deck replaces much of the Christian symbolism of earlier decks with Celtic pagan symbolism. Some of the other tarot and oracle decks we use are:
- The Well-Worn Path Oracle (Pagan, witchy oracle/ritual cards)
- The Halloween Tarot (seasonal Samhain imagery)
- The Radiant Rider Waite Tarot (beautifully illustrated classic deck)
- The Gummy Bear Tarot (just for fun)
- The Cat Tarot (For feline lovers)
Reading for Yourself
While some people use the tarot as a tool for self-reflection, it can be a real challenge to get an accurate tarot reading when you are reading for yourself. In most cases, it is difficult to separate what you want from what the cards are telling you. In these cases, it can be best to find someone else to read the cards for you. This could be a friend or associate, but the best readings come from professional psychics like Hecate’s Raven.
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