Many books have been written on the topic of Tarot, so this is only a very general summary – essentially, enough to make some sense out of the questions “Why might I be interested?” and “When I read conversations about it, what are these terms people are using?”
What is Tarot?
The word ‘Tarot’ (generally pronounced either TA-row or ta-ROW, but not rhyming with carrot) is used to describe a particular configuration of a deck of 78 cards.
These cards are something like a deck of playing cards with bonus additions – the bulk of the deck is divided into four suits (just like playing cards) though with different symbols.
The Tarot came into being through several sources, but the earliest decks similar to modern ones mostly date from Renaissance Europe, and the most widely used deck structure/symbology (the Rider-Waite, drawn by Pamela Coleman-Smith) comes from the turn of the 20th century.
A deck generally includes:
- Two main divisions: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
- 22 Major Arcana cards, sometimes called trumps, provide larger, more important, overarching ideas for the deck. These have a general order, but different decks sometimes change specific pieces of the order or symbology.
- Four suits (of 14 cards each) make up the Minor Arcana. These are often designed as swords, wands, cups, and pentacles (each tied to a particular element), but some decks vary this too.
- Each suit has the ace through ten cards you’d expect from a playing card deck.
- But each suit also has four court cards – most commonly described as page, knight, queen, and king (but again, there are lots of variations.)
The Rider-Waite deck, the many decks using it as a base, and many other decks have pictures or scenes relevant to the card meaning on every card, but some decks do not (and only have pictures for the Major Arcana and court cards).
More loosely, the term Tarot can get used for any deck of 78 cards broken into Major and Minor Arcana. There are many other divination decks out there (commonly called oracle decks) that have different structures.
How do you use a Tarot deck?
One way to use a deck is for meditation or reflection – you select a card (either randomly, or with a particular goal in mind) and then meditate on it, reflect, or otherwise use it to focus your attention in some way. Some people draw a card every day, for example.
Perhaps a more common way is by doing a reading. In this, you:
- May begin by framing a specific question (“What should I be aware of today?” “What should I know about this job interview?” “What might my next year hold?”)
- Laying out a number of cards, often in a specific pattern (called a spread). Spreads may assign a particular meaning or area to each card, and by looking at which cards end up in which places, you can get a more precise reading.
- You then interpret the cards in various ways, generally by looking at what’s there, how they interrelate, and also, in some cases, what isn’t there that you might have anticipated.
It’s often considered bad form (and not very useful) to do multiple readings on the exact same question over and over (many people find that the cards start producing nonsense after a while), but you can adjust your question, draw clarifying cards, etc. if a reading doesn’t initially make sense.
How you interpret the cards is often done by combining various information from the individual cards and the spread as a whole. Different readers will use a wide range of tools – some will use the same approaches every time, others will vary depending on what’s useful. (However, in general, a common goal is to get beyond needing to check the book about a deck’s meanings every reading…)
Some approaches include:
Traditional card meanings:
Each card has some traditional or common meanings. A reader can look at these in relationship to the other cards in the spread – for example, that the Ace of Pentacles might be the beginning of a new project or creation, especially something tied to money or prosperity or growth.
Intuitive reading relies more on the reader’s sense of each card, which may be quite different from the traditional meaning. This can be done with almost any deck, but it’s particularly popular with decks that have moved away from the Rider-Waite structure
Reading based on symbols
Symbols are often used to convey the meanings of a card. A pomegranate on the High Priestess card calls to mind the descent and return of Persephone. A particular flower might be drawn on a card to remind the reader of trust or love. Particular colors might encourage someone to think of activity and engagement, or of rest and relaxation.
Numerology is a subset of symbology – some people pay particular attention to the way numbers interact in a spread (for example, fours are normally considered a number of stability, but not always in a way that makes growth or change easy.)
Suits can also indicate relationships within a reading. For example, a spread with many Cups in it might indicate that the issues are about emotions, intuition, relationships, etc. rather than, say, intellectual understanding, prosperity, or direct action.
Nuances of reading
Reversals happen when a card is upside down when it shows up in the spread. (from the normal position for that card.) Some people ignore these entirely, but others read them in various ways – depending on the person, they may be read as an opposite meaning to the card’s upright position, may indicate a block or limitation in that card’s energy or focus, or may have some other adaptation of the upright meaning.
There are some more advanced approaches, too. Elemental dignities look at how the elements of each card in the spread interact with each other. Some people assign an astrological sign to each card, and look at how those signs and their ruling plants interact. Some people look at the images on each card – for example, if a figure is pointing or gesturing, does that point at another card in the spread?
Predestination or advice?
One thing that can be confusing about divination what to do with the information. Most modern Tarot readers (and other users of divination tools) consider that what we learn in divination tells us about ourselves and our situation, and shows us the choices that are most likely right now. However, it doesn’t tell us what will happen – just what seems most likely at the moment we did the reading.
Of course, we can change our situation by making different choices – and often, the simple act of doing a reading and getting information or ideas to think about may change the situation in various ways
Myths about readings:
There are a lots of myths and superstitions out there about Tarot and doing readings – some people have very specific routines they do before doing a reading (laying out a cloth, shuffling in a specific way a specific number of times.) Some people find these very helpful for setting an intention, but there are lots of ways to do good readings.
One note is that some people are fine with people handling their cards, but many people prefer to be asked first. Some decks may be out of print or fragile. Other times, people want to be careful that the cards are only handled for a specific reading. Asking first is always polite.
- Books I’m particularly fond of include Barbara Moore’s Tarot for Beginners, Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Wisdom, and books about specific decks I’m using. (I started with the Robin Wood, which I still like, and am currently working a lot with the Shadowscapes Tarot. )
- Aeclectic.net has a great FAQ and other information on their website (which is massive – everything from deck reviews to book reviews to articles, to extensive forum archives.)
- Joan Bunning’s LearnTarot.com site also has some great information to get you started.
If you’re starting with Tarot, you’ll have an easier time if you start with a deck that uses the Rider-Waite symbols or something close to it (because this is what most books will talk about.)
If you dislike the colors on the original Rider-Waite (I can’t deal with the yellow!) there are a number of other options. I like the Robin Wood deck, but she does have some symbology differences.
These days (2020), my go-to decks are the Shadowscapes Tarot, the Wildwood Tarot (which has some differences from the Rider-Waite structures), and the Light Seer’s Tarot but I also use others from time to time.
Last edited December 24, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.