The art and science of trying to read the future using a deck of cards is called cartomancy. There have been many different techniques and methods throughout the centuries, but the most famous and enduring one is probably the discipline of tarot reading. There is a lot of mystery around the tarot, and overuse in pop culture references has somehow blurred the difference between facts and fiction. So what is a tarot deck, and what can you do with it?
Tarot card reading: an overview
Even complete neophytes can usually conjure a mental image when the concept of tarot reading is brought up, because this is an archetype that has been used a great many times in art and fiction, from mysterious tarot readers visited by many protagonists in novels, to the dark figure using a worn-down deck to issue dire warnings from the back of a circus trailer.
While the tarot is indeed still used these days by some readers as a focus for fortune-telling and divination, believing this is the be-all, end-all of what you can do with a tarot deck would be a tremendous oversimplification. Tarot spreads and daily tarot use can be very useful in a personal development path. Using random cards of a weekly or monthly basis can help you pay attention to important aspects of what you are experiencing, like a kind of tarot horoscope. A love tarot reading can help you sort out your romantic life. And finally, countless scholars and academics have studied tarot and the various tarot decks throughout the centuries for purely cultural and historical purposes.
Structure of a tarot deck: What are the 78 Tarot cards?
While several of the modern divination decks of cards you can find on the market sometimes use the word “tarot” quite loosely, there is actually a well-defined structure which separates genuine tarot decks from what should be called “oracle” divination decks.
Tarot card decks, those deserving of the name in a strict sense, are made of 78 cards, called “arcana”. These 78 arcana are divided up into the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
The Major Arcana is a suit of 22 cards that all bear a name or concept, with a number usually written with Roman numerals. While most tarot decks almost universally use the same arcana (with but the slightest differences between the two most commonly used tarot decks, the Rider Waite tarot and the Marseille tarot), technically a divination deck can still be a tarot even by changing these concepts wildly, as long as there are still 22 major arcana.
The 56 Minor Arcana are further divided into four 14-card suits, numbered from 1 to 10, with four court cards in each suit. The traditional names used for the suits are Swords, Wands, Cups, and either Coins or Pentacles. But just like the major arcana, any deck that still follows the “four 14-card suits” structure can still be considered a tarot, no matter how these suits are named.
Any deck of card that follows this 78 card structure can be considered a tarot deck in the strict sense of the term (and there are thousands of different tarot decks that can be found on the market), but nowadays the term is used quite loosely and many oracle decks (an oracle is a deck of card used for divination that does not follow the traditional esoteric tarot deck structure) are now marketed using the tarot keyword.
How do tarot cards work?
The basic principle behind a tarot card reading is that each of the different arcana card has a specific meaning that is unique within the tarot deck. Just like the actual names of the arcana and suits, there is not a single hard set of rules for the tarot meaning, and while there are common elements found from one tarot to the next (and tarot historians and scholars have been discussing and debating these elements for centuries), in truth each different deck usually provides the reader with a short summary of its own keywords and meanings associated with each of the various cards. Additionally, becoming a tarot reader is an ongoing process, and while a daily tarot reading will eventually change you as a person, likewise every tarot reader slightly alters the traditional meanings and readings associated with each card, creating a unique bond between each tarot reader and the decks they use, so drawing up a comprehensive list of meanings for every tarot card and every tarot deck would be impossible.
A lot of modern tarot designers deliberately color their own design with a certain bias or point of view. They structure it around a theme, or alter a few details from the commonly accepted meanings of the cards, so even experienced tarot readers should always pay a little attention to the book or booklet usually found within the tarot deck box in order to learn the appropriate tarot card meanings for this deck (often with a few suggestions for newly designed spreads that make the most of that tarot deck) and integrate it to your tarot reading process.
Reversed tarot card meanings
Another common variance (though not systematic, and especially rare among tarot readers focusing on the Marseille deck or using non-illustrated suit cards) is to attribute a different meaning to a single card during a tarot reading, depending on whether the cards were drawn in the “right” side (the illustration clearly facing the tarot reader) or if it was drawn “reversed” (illustration upside down for the tarot reader). While harder to master and longer to learn, this technique can add even further depth to a classic or psychic tarot reading, multiplying the already vast number of potential card combinations.
Obviously, this can only work with a fully drawn deck (if suit cards only have a geometric rendering of X times the symbol of the suit, you cannot really tell whether or not a card is reversed) and considerably lengthens the time needed to be confident with your tarot reading technique.
Additionally, be very careful when buying a deck (in a shop or online). If you used reversed meanings in your spreads, it might be a good idea to take a look at the back of the tarot cards you want to buy. Some of them have a great design, but are asymmetrical and so cannot be used in a reading that uses reversed meanings, because you would know right away whether or not a card was reversed before you drew it.
Tarot reading and tarot spreads
Online tarot reading sessions proceed according to the same principles as a psychic tarot reading you might get face to face. You either ask a specific question or provide a general theme for the reading (love, money, work…). Then the reader will draw, or ask you to draw, a certain number of cards. He or she will then arrange them in the order they were drawn into a specific pattern of cards called a spread. This process is common to most tarot techniques, even for tarot astrology or tutorials teaching the use of tarot cards for beginners.
The most common tarot spreads used are the cross spread, the Celtic cross spread, the 4-card spread (usually shaping a line going up or down), and the heart spread. You can find many other examples of tarot spreads online. Each spread is taught by learning what each card position within the spread is supposed to mean, how they interact with one another, and then the tarot reader will interpret the overall message by using the spread to filter the more generic information of the cards that have been drawn (some spread only use the major arcana, others use the entire tarot decks).
For instance, one minor arcana could be a sign of some upcoming celebration. If within a spread, it is drawn in a position connected to the family of the Querent (the person asking for a tarot reading), it might be a reminder for an upcoming anniversary within the family.
The Rider Waite Tarot
There are thousands of tarot decks in existence, and more are created each month. But if you were trying to single out the most iconic tarot deck, the answer would most likely be the Rider Waite tarot deck. This is a deck that was designed in the nineteenth century and it has since become so widely popular that this deck is the most commonly used as reference (in books, essays…) or as props for Hollywood movies and series.
This deck is the result of collaboration, though in all fairness not all collaborators have been treated equally by the test of time. Indeed, this deck should more rightly be called the “Rider Waite Smith”, and as a matter of fact the use of the full name is currently getting traction and slowly overtaking the shorter “Rider Waite” name, due to rehabilitation efforts by tarot scholars and other feminist movements.
The deck was designed, for all intents and purposes, by a British academic and mystic: Arthur Edward Waite. He was a member of the Golden Dawn secret society and a freemason who studied tarot intensely, initially through the works of Eliphas Levi. In the early twentieth century, he designed all the occult symbolism and scenery of his upcoming deck, and sent a detailed brief to an illustrator, asking to keep every explicit detail and symbol mentioned in the brief.
That illustrator was Pamela Coleman Smith, a young British artist and occultist. She provided detailed black and white drawing that would then be used and colored in the final printed tarot deck. Though she was following detailed instructions from Waite, she drew all 78 cards that are now used in the deck.
So where does the name come from, and why has it so long been known as the Rider-Waite tarot and not the Waite-Smith tarot? Well, originally when it was published it was simply called “tarot cards”, provided along Waite’s book. That book was The Key to the Tarot, later revised into the famous Pictorial Key to the Tarot that was published about a year after the deck was first released and sold.
But when a U.S. publisher bought the right to publish the deck, they initially called it “The Rider Deck”, because the initial publisher of the deck was called Rider. Later editions turned it into the Rider-Waite, to give due credit to the deck designer and not just his publisher. The current upward trend deliberately calling this deck the Waite-Smith or Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) comes from the same drive to try and offer some due credit to both designers of one of the most widely used tarot decks around the world.
The use of tarot decks in movies and series
As noted above, the Rider Waite Smith deck is the most commonly found as a prop in Hollywood movies and series, because it is colorful and recognizable even by neophytes. It should be noted, however, that a recent trend has seen many series using tarot cards in more than one episode likely choosing to design their own tarot deck, probably for copyright and merchandising purposes. The tarot deck used in the Penny Dreadful television series was designed from the ground up… and copies were sold from the studio to eager fans of the series.
Today, the tarot is a very recognizable prop, one that can easily conjure feelings of wonder and dread, and will automatically ensure that the character that uses it will be seen as mystical, mysterious, or somehow related to the occult. Most witches seen in movies and series use a tarot deck or have a visible one somewhere around them.
Is it divination or personal development?
Tarot reading is a rather broad concept that can mean very different things to different people. This is one of the greatest assets of tarot: it is so varied that it can be used for many different things.
Scholars into the occult and arcane usually practice a form of esoteric tarot, using the cards as a focus to try and divine what the future holds, or to provide practical answers to specific questions.
Psychiatrists using the tarot as a tool for projection or to trigger a conversation probably follow the works of C.G. Jung who defined the concept of archetypes, something that strikingly echoes the very nature of the scenes and characters drawn in a traditional tarot deck.
Some meditation experts use the tarot as a way to gently guide the mind onto a specific thematic during a meditation session. The bright and evocative imagery of the tarot cards can easily be used to try and reach specific altered states of consciousness.
Finally, there are plenty of resources for people that want to use the tarot as a tool for personal development, using the wisdom of the cards or the unpredictable nature of a random drawing to work on themselves and reflect upon some aspects of their behavior or personality they can infer from the drawn card or cards.
As such, when asked whether the tarot is a tool for divination or personal development, the answer is neither, and both, at the same time. It is a complex and multi-faceted tool, and its actual use depends more on the user than on the deck itself.
The Fool’s Journey: the tarot as initiation
People who get an interest in tarot reading and start using the Rider Waite Smith deck usually learn about something called the Fool’s Journey. This is a story written using all the characters and situations of the major arcana and combines them into a sort of initiatory journey through the various lessons of the tarot.
Learning about this story can be one of the most effective ways to quickly learn and understand the most important aspects of each of the major arcana, as well as see how they often interact in their own way.
In the Fool’s Journey, the Fool major arcana acts as the protagonist, candid and unafraid, starting an initiatory path through every card of the tarot deck in succession, in the order in which they are numbered in the deck. The Fool will meet many strange characters and situation on his journey, and will eventually learn about the great mysteries of life and grow to reach enlightenment in the final card on this path, The World.
A parallel can easily be drawn between the Fool’s Journey and the journey of the potential tarot reader who wishes to use the deck for something more, as a personal path of initiation and enlightenment.
The Fool’s Journey is detailed in various books about the tarot, and you can find details about the specifics of each encounter in the appropriate major arcana page on this website.
Should you perform a reading for yourself?
At one point or another, every tarot reader eventually wonders whether they should use their newfound tarot reading skills on themselves, lifting the veil of fate from a certain number of futures to help you choose the best one for yourself. There is no simple answer to that. Some will willingly agree that we should not live with the knowledge of what has yet to happen. Other will readily use any tool at their disposal to meet their own goals.
Regardless, every answer to that question has to be unique, and suited to each reader’s personal views and beliefs. But if you do choose to ever perform a tarot reading for yourself, keep in mind that is it much harder to be fully objective when you are reading information about yourself. Try to distance yourself from the reading and to truly, genuinely read what you would read for anyone else, even if it is bad. Listen to what the cards have to say, do not try to mold them into a narrative close to what you would like to read. This would be a slippery slope: never underestimate the power of denial.
Should you perform a reading for your friends?
This is another valid question, especially because if your friends eventually learn you have started reading the tarot, there will most likely be at least one or two curious minds among them, asking you for a reading, “just to see”.
Again, this is a decision you have to make for yourself. It might be easier to keep an objective point of view compared with a self-reading, but there might be some unexpected downsides too. Indeed, to be fair, not every tarot reading you will make in your life will be positive. Some of them might offer dire warnings, or draw your attention to rather serious problems for the Querent. This kind of reading is always harder when you are doing it for a friend. Should you dismiss it? Keep it for yourself? Discuss it with them and help them through these problems when it happens? It depends on your character, but you should get ready for it if you choose to read for your friends too. It is better to define a pattern of behavior beforehand in order to know how to handle it when it eventually happens.
Tarot deck cleansing and safekeeping
No matter how carefully you use them, your tarot cards will eventually start wearing down with use. There are a few things you might do to delay the inevitable if you want to keep a pristine condition tarot deck. While this should not be considered an option for esoteric and occult practitioners of the tarot, those who use is with a more psychological approach or as light entertainment might protect individual cards using professional, acid-free card sleeves.
With or without sleeves, you can take your tarot deck out of the original box and put it in a tarot pouch. Always put it back in its box or pouch after a reading, don’t leave it under direct sunlight (or the colors might fade), and don’t use it next to any kind of food.
You might hear some people tell you that they won’t let you touch their tarot deck (reasons can vary, but often they will tell you it might alter further drawings, or endanger their own connection to the deck). While this is something that became common in some parts of France and the south of Europe, this is a rather modern corruption of initial tarot esoteric studies and does not seem to have any basis, in fact, other than the beliefs of those who keep their decks to themselves. As such, there is no relevant reason to advise you to do the same and keep your deck undisturbed and untouched. Use it as you see fit, but respect the beliefs of those who think otherwise.
Online tarot: a modern revolution
There are more and more websites devoted to tarot decks and tarot readings. The advent of the Internet has truly changed the community of tarot readers and enthusiasts. First, anonymity brought a lot of freedom and connections were made between tarot enthusiasts all over the world, including “closeted” tarot lovers who might have thought that revealing their interest for tarot decks could bring them problems, when in fact they have a chance to join a friendly and judgment-free community.
Then several tarot readers have started to provide services online, and it was even easier for people interested in getting a reading to find someone qualified to assist them, when finding a trustworthy reader used to be harder, especially away from the largest cities. Now it is much easier, and user feedback and tarot communities can help neophytes choose a competent reader that will be well-suited for them.
There are many different kinds of online tarot readings. Some of them happen through video conference calls, others via a website form or by email. Sometimes the reader will pick the cards him- or herself on behalf of their client. This does not affect the reading negatively, as many techniques make it possible and just as effective (case in point, some tarot readers will pick the cards for you even when you are standing face to face).
Tarot decks and everyday use
When tarot becomes a part of your life, it is hard to spend even a single day without a tarot at hand. A daily tarot reading can soon muddle any advice provided by the cards if it is done to thoroughly. However, if you still want a tarot prediction, a good daily tarot exercise would be to draw a single card when you wake up, and let this “card of the day” offer you advice for the day ahead. You can think about that card when you face a problem in your day, to see if the archetype or tarot card meaning associated with that card is relevant to your problem, and might help you solve it.
The book of Thoth
If modern tarot reading revival started gaining traction around the nineteenth century, historians and scholars sometimes disagree about the origin and nature of the divinatory tarot. Many argue that divinatory studies using tarot derived from the Italian tarot decks that were nothing but playing card by then. Other scholars postulate that it might be the other way around, with the tarot deck being an ancient artifact that was rediscovered. This theory often traces back to ancient times, including ancient Egypt. The most commonly used deck designed using this structure is probably the Book of Thoth, designed by the (in)famous Aleister Crowley.
This is objectively one of the hardest decks to master, even with the book Crowley wrote to add sense and depth to this. As such, it might be a good idea to provide some advice and maybe discourage such an impulse purchases. .
Tarot readings and you
Whether it comes from a very long inherited legacy or from a fairly recent reimagining of a game into something more, regular tarot use inevitably alters the person reading the deck. It usually helps you to further open your mind and develop your empathy. Spreads and the various tarot decks used can be extremely varied, and you can either look for a single deck that will match your personality and style, or change between several decks according to your mood or to the question at hand. You might also simply be interested in the history and practice of the tarot, but leave the actual reading to tarot professionals.
Regardless, you can find many tarot-related resources on this website as you keep walking on a path of wisdom and personal growth provided by the multitude of stories and advice that can be found with nothing but a 78-card deck…