Tarot cards have always fascinated people, and even people who otherwise have no interest in divination or esoteric sciences can find themselves drawn to the world of tarot cards and tarot readings.
Tarot reading and tarot cards, a source of wonder
C.G. Jung would say that the strong Archetypes found in the tarot cards are the main reason why they became so popular with the general public. Even people who don’t have much faith in tarot readings, in general, can still find themselves entranced by a picture of a person of concept that “speaks” to them.
Indeed, when other unusual sciences like numerology or astrology tend to have extremely precisely defined structures, having multiple understandings of a single tarot card (minor arcana or even major arcana) is rather common. This uncertainty can be confusing at first but soon offers the realization of the incredible amount of freedom it can provide.
What is the structure of the tarot cards?
In order to be called a genuine tarot (and not merely a tarot-like oracle), the deck must follow a well-defined structure. In a tarot deck there are 22 major arcana (numbered 1 to 22 sometimes, but traditionally numbered from 0 to 21), and 4 suits of 14 minor arcana (numbered from 1 to 10 with four court cards, usually the page, knight, queen, and king).
This structure is quite interesting because a lot of patterns and common points can be found when studied through this lens. Between the various minor arcana bearing the same number, for instance. Learning to recognize these patterns is the best way to constantly improve your own enlightenment.
List of tarot cards
In the most commonly used tarot deck (the Rider Waite Smith, or RWS), the major arcana appear in that order: The Fool (0), The Magician (1), The High Priestess (2), The Empress (3), The Emperor (4), The Hierophant (5), The Lovers (6), The Chariot (7), Strength (8), The Hermit (9), The Wheel of Fortune (10), Justice (11), The Hanged Man (12), Death (13), Temperance (14), The Devil (15), The Tower (16), The Star (17), The Moon (18), the Sun (19), Judgment (20), and finally The World (21).
In the minor arcana, the suit cards are sorted chronologically from 1 to 10, adding four court cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King), but the structure is the same between the four suits. These suits are usually called swords, wands, pentacles, and coins (or pentacles). The regularity of these four suits is probably the reason why several tarot scholars have tried to combine tarot reading with numerology, to various degrees of success.
Tarot card meanings
While it is possible to draw up a list combining all the accepted tarot card meaning associations, it should be noted that this is only a basis on which each reader and deck will eventually grow (and maybe even outgrow completely). There can be wild differences to the meanings attributed to similar cards from one deck to the next (or from one reader to the next), even for the major arcana.
Learning how to read tarot cards thus means learning the proper associations between card and meaning, and then make them your own if you need to. This last point is quite important. If you find a concept that particularly appeals to you, you can switch in that concept somewhere else. Likewise, if you feel like some interpretation is missing, you can add it to the list of keywords for your particular reading and understanding of that card.
Tarot decks can personalize your readings
Several completely new tarot deck designs are released and sold every month. Not all of them should be considered useful or even usable (some tarot are designed as merchandize for a movie, a game, or a series, and are so symbolically confusing that they are pretty much unusable.), but there is a large and extensive selection of tarot decks to choose from.
Each tarot reader will eventually gravitate toward a specific deck (or more!) that will be used regularly, strengthening familiarity with the tool and enhancing the overall level of details provided during a classic reading.
Some people might gravitate towards the classics (the three most purchased decks last year were the Rider-Waite tarot, or Rider Waite Smith, the Marseille deck, and the Thoth tarot deck) and others might simply want something different and unique. These days you can find tarot decks suited to a multitude of concepts and overall themes (Cat People tarot, the Egyptians tarot, etc.).
How to read tarot cards?
Once you have started to learn the tarot meaning of the various cards that compose it, you are ready to try becoming a reader. If you feel incredibly lost at first, you can read appropriate resources or find one of many different tutorials online that will give you the basics on the way to use what you need, lessons in tarot cards for beginners or advanced subtle meanings found in deep-rooted compositions.
The best piece of advice that you should keep in mind if you ever try to learn how to read tarot seriously is that you should almost treat it as a person, as a friend. Learn to develop instinctive responses to certain situation and hone your empathy to its finest point. Soon enough, your favorite deck should become second nature, and you will more easily analyze each of the cards you draw, and their connection with one another.
Last, but not least, practice! Draw generic readings for yourself, offer free tarot readings to your close friends, and see what you can draw from it.
Using and designing tarot spreads
The various shapes designed and used to display tarot cards one by one when they are drawn is called a spread. Some of them are rather basic and extremely commonplace (4-card spread, Celtic cross spread…), but others are constantly being imagined up by readers to suit their needs (like a heart-shaped tarot spread for Valentine’s day).
Sometimes you get a very clear idea about the kind of spread you want or need, so you can simply go with the flow if necessary… Determine how many cards you will need for them of the reading, and what each card position within the spread will represent (example: card number 3 might represent the connections between the Querent and the outside world, and card number 4 might represent the Querent overall point of view regarding the situation. When you have narrowed down your concept to the handful few elements you will need to solve, you need to arrange them on the table according to a pattern that will match the question.
But ultimately, if inspiration doesn’t come, you can always find a multitude of available spreads online and choose one that will be a good match for the situation and problem at hand. As you grow more familiar with your deck and the kind of wisdom it can share, it will be easier and easier for you to try designing one from scratch again.
Heart-shaped spread and love tarot reading
Love might be one of the most commonly requested themes when asking someone for a tarot card reading. There are many tarot spreads for that, some of them going as far as literally “drawing” the shape of a heart using the tarot cards. While it should be taken with a grain of salt, it can help you navigate through the evolution (or beginning) of a relationship by providing advice well suited to that person and to your connection.
A love tarot card reading usually does not require the active participation of the other person in the relationship, because it provides the Querent with an answer that is tailored to their specific needs and adapted to their own point of view. Context particularly matters in that regard, and personal empathy will help the reader make a meaningful connection with their consultants and do their best to help them when they need it.
However, especially in matters of the heart, no one should follow a love tarot reading blindly or take it as immutable facts set into stone. This kind of reading is meant to offer wise suggestions and shed some light on what might be some grey areas in the relationship. But this is a tool that should be used as is, with its strengths and limitations, and no matter how useful it is, the Querent should always make any final decision for him or herself.
Tarot cards and secret societies
The modern revival of tarot reading practices can be attributed to the end of the nineteenth century, following the work of the Golden Dawn society, and of course of Arthur Edward Waite. They studied tarot intensely, trying to connect the discipline of tarot reading to other occult practices (like tarot horoscopes and tarot numerology) to various degrees of success.
The artificial popularity of the Victorian era regarding anything closely related to the occult helped create a boom and sparked enough curiosity and interest in tarot readings to keep it alive through the worst that twentieth century history had to offer, and is still going strong this very day even when formal secret societies with an interest in tarot reading have pretty much disappeared from society.
The History of the tarot: a highly debated matter
Part of the mystery that surrounds the esoteric tarot is echoed in its own history. Most outside scholars trace the invention of tarot back to the 15th century, mainly in Italy, France, and Austria. Initially just designed as playing cards, the powerful imagery used soon turned it into an ideal tool for divination.
However, some tarot readers and scholars claim that modern incarnations of tarot decks can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, and the knowledge was supposedly handed down in secret from one generation to the next between initiates until the swift occult revival of the nineteenth century where they made their knowledge public without fear of being caught.
Tarot cards as living art pieces
Outside the realm of strict reading, tarot is also often used as a source of inspiration for artists. Having a copy of one of the major arcana tattooed on an arm or leg is actually a very common request for a tattoo. Tarot readers often feel a particularly stronger connection to one of the arcana over the others, and they might want to have it permanently on their skin.
There have also been a number of art performances centered around tarot cards, like miniature theater plays based on the major arcana. It is a source of inspiration for writers, movie producers, comic book artists, and more.
An endless source of mystery and wonder
All in all, there are so many things that can be done with tarot cards, and tarot card readings can be so widely different, that you are never truly done learning how to read tarot cards. This is probably why this is a practice that has stood the test of time and has always found people interested in learning about the tarot and keeping the flame alive.