When you think of tarot, you might picture a wise fortune teller, peculiar artwork, or even the occult. You know that it involves cards, but where did these mysterious tarot cards come from? What meaning, if any, do they hold?
Anatomy of a Tarot Card Deck
A standard 78-card tarot deck is made up of 22 Major Arcana or “trump” cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards. Major Arcana cards represent “big picture” themes such as significant life lessons, hopes for the future, and deep desires. Examples of Major Arcana cards include the Fool, the Magician, and the Emperor.
Minor Arcana cards relate to the day-to-day issues that impact our lives, including fleeting emotional states, decisions, and people. Examples of Minor Arcana cards include 4 of Wands, 2 of Cups, and Ace of Swords.
The Minor Arcana’s 56 cards are divided into four suits:
- Wands represent creativity, will, and passion.
- Cups represent emotion, love, and connection.
- Swords represent reason, action, and power.
- Pentacles represent material possessions and the physical body.
In short, the Major Arcana represents the universal human experience, and the Minor Arcana encapsulates the more intricate details that make each of us unique.
The Origin of Tarot
The history of tarot is shrouded in mystery. In the late 1300s, some of the earliest known tarot-like cards were painted by Jacquemin Gringonneur to entertain Charles VI of France. Circa 1450, the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck was created. 74 of its cards remain intact today, making it the most complete of the earliest known tarot decks.
Early in the 15th century, the opulent, hand-painted cards became popular among wealthy families like that of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. At this time, tarot was called carte da trifoni, or a deck of cards including triumphs. “Triumphs” in this case may refer to the “trump cards” included in the deck. It wasn’t until 1530 that the cards were referred to as Tarocchi, which serves as the origin of the word “tarot” as we know it today. The origin of the word Tarocchi is unknown, but it may relate to the Taro River in northern Italy.
Although most tangible evidence points to tarot cards having originated in Europe, some theories suggest a connection between tarot symbolism and the Book of Thoth, a series of texts written by the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge.
The Evolution of Tarot
What started as a card game similar to bridge gradually evolved into something more profound by the 18th century. A French author named Antoine Court de Gébelin is credited as the first writer to introduce occultists to the concept of tarot. Later, Jean-Baptiste Alliette (sometimes referred to by the pseudonym “Etteilla”) released the first tarot deck explicitly used for divinatory purposes.
Tarot Cards as Divination Tools
Divination is the process of seeking knowledge through supernatural means. Tarot cards use symbols and pictures to evoke emotion and stimulate intuition. In a way, intuition is supernatural. After all, what exactly is responsible for our good or bad “gut feelings,” if not intuition? Tarot cards can help us learn more about a loved one’s deepest fears, decide between two potential career paths, or find a romantic partner by guiding us to find answers hidden within our subconscious.
Reading Tarot Cards
The enigmatic nature of tarot is precisely what makes it so fascinating. One person might look at a deck of tarot cards and dismiss it as a series of meaningless pictures and phrases, while another might approach it with an open heart and a curious mind. This latter group stands to gain the most from a tarot card reading.
A tarot card reading is about more than just interpreting one card at a time. Instead, great consideration must be given to how the cards relate to one another. For example, one basic tarot “spread” or card arrangement is the three-card past, present, and future method. This approach typically involves two participants: a seeker and an interpreter. The seeker hopes to gather insight and wisdom from the interpreter who reads the tarot cards.
Someone who walks into a tarot card reading expecting an interpreter to guess what they ate for breakfast or what their favorite color is will be swiftly disappointed. Instead, tarot card readings should be viewed as a partnership between the seeker and the interpreter. Both are open-minded and eager to receive knowledge.
A good tarot card reading starts with a thoughtful question.
- Weak question: Will I be rich?
- Strong question: How can I strengthen my financial knowledge and stability?
In a past, present, and future spread, the left card represents the past, the middle card represents the present, and the right card represents the future. The interpreter will not only consider the meaning of each card, but they’ll read into the overarching themes that bind them like progress, direction, and growth.
Tarot Cards Today
Thanks to countless horror movies, tarot has earned a spooky reputation. The idea of attempting to connect with unknown, unseen forces for the purpose of gathering knowledge can be intimidating! However, tarot cards can be extremely helpful in strengthening self-awareness, viewing challenges from a new perspective, and encouraging creativity.
Think of mastering the use of tarot cards as a journey rather than a short-term goal. To get started, begin each day by drawing one card from your tarot deck. Reflect on its imagery and use a journal to record your thoughts. How do you connect with this card? Could it provide you with a spiritual lesson that might benefit you today? Find a deck of tarot cards that inspires you and start your own tarot journey!
Bright, S. (2018). Tarot: Your Personal Guide. Wellfleet Press.
Place, R. M. (2005). The tarot: History, symbolism, and divination. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.