A LITTLE HISTORY
The Tarot is one of the oldest cartomancy decks in existence. The first documented Tarot deck dates from between 1440 and 1450 A.D. in Milan, Italy. Who was the genius who designed them? No one knows. Maybe the printer whom the Italian noble commissioned, decided to delight his high-ranking customer with an excitingly-different playing-card deck. The western version of the moveable-type printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. The Tarot’s emergence around the same time meant the use of these (and other) cards spread rapidly around Europe.
Some occultists have maintained the Tarot cards pre-date the standard playing card deck. Lineage to ancient Egyptian mystery schools, the Kabbalah, or the I Ching have been claimed. The fact is, first four-suit playing card deck in Europe emerged circa 1365 A.D., so circumstantial evidence dictates the regular playing-card deck came first.
In fact, the first three centuries the Tarot cards existed, they were used mainly for card games! Even today, you can find organized groups in parts of Europe that still use the Tarot as a playing-card deck. What they do with the major arcana in these games, I have no idea. Perhaps the major arcana suit is the ‘community chest’ pile.
Within the first fifty years of the Tarot’s existence, clergymen were denouncing its use from pulpits, calling them things like ‘the devil’s handbook.’ Not because they objected to the Tarot specifically–they thought all card-playing encouraged sin. The First Tarot deck designed specifically for occult use was published by the French occultist Eteilla (pseudonym for Jean-Baptist Alliette) in 1789, so by then, clerical hatred for the Tarot was already well-established.
The deck considered the ‘gold standard’ of Tarot decks today is the Rider-Waite deck, also known as the Smith-Waite. Commissioned by English occultist Arthur Edward Waite in the very-early 1900s and illustrated by artist Pamela Coleman Smith under Waite’s direction, most Tarot decks produced today are based on Smith’s design. Until Pamela Coleman Smith’s design came along, most Tarot decks had the four suits (wands/batons, swords, cups, and pentacles/coins) designed as ‘pip’ cards, like a regular playing card deck. Rider-Waite designs have a unique and distinct design for each card in the four suits, making it much easier to discern the meaning of that card in a reading.
WHAT IS THIS WORD, TAROT?
The French word ‘tarot’ and the German word ‘tarock’ both derive from the Italian word ‘tarocchi’. The word ‘taroch’ was used as a synonym for foolishness in the late 1400s to early 1500s A.D. So the name can interpreted two ways: either the deck is named after the first card, the Fool, or its use is a foolish waste of time. I have never found the Tarot a waste of time.
CHOOSING A TAROT DECK
I recommend starting with the Rider-Waite deck, if you’re new to Tarot. It’s an excellent training deck. I don’t recommend using any of the ’pip’ decks until you have a good mental recall of the image and meanings associated with that card. One example of a pip-style Tarot deck is the classic Marseille pack, with its woodcut illustrations dating to the mid-seventeenth century. The Marseille deck is still in-print and purchasable today.
Once you’re confident you have a good grasp of the Tarot’s meanings, you may want to browse on-line or in an occult supply shop or bookstore for other Tarot decks. There are now hundreds of Tarot decks in existence, so the interested learner has a wide variety of decks to choose from. Look at the artwork on the deck. Does it speak to you? Hold the packaged deck in your hand. Does it ‘feel’ right? Let your intuition be your guide when choosing a Tarot deck.
Each Tarot card has a host of potential meanings. Artists who design their own decks usually include a booklet describing the meanings of each card upright and reversed. Because each artist will interpret the card their own way, their design will often slightly alter the card’s meanings, emphasizing some meanings, introducing new ones, omitting others. For this reason, you may find you ‘click’ with certain Tarot decks immediately, and others leave you cold. Do shop around.
Many card readers never use the pip decks, preferring to use the full-image cards. It can also help the person you’re reading for. A friend once told me that when I read for her, she wasn’t looking for a definitive answer about what was going to happen in the future–sometimes, it just helped her to see her problem in a set of images she could relate to. Pip decks aren’t as good at helping the inquirer with that as full-image decks. Then again, you may come to find your preferred deck is a pip deck. It will depend on your inclination. The more you ‘resonate’ with a particular deck, the better readings it will give you.
THE TAROT’S SET-UP
The Tarot has two fundamental parts: the Major Arcana (‘arcana’ meaning ‘secret’) and the Minor Arcana, which are the four suits of wands, cups, swords, pentacles. The twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana is considered by some to represent the Fool’s life journey and the lessons he picks up along the way, from his own card to the culmination of achievement represented by the World card. When a large number of Major Arcana cards, say three or more, turn up in a reading, that indicates powerful outside forces are at work, and that the outcome is more in the hands of others, than in the inquirer’s. The more Major Arcana cards in a spread, the less the inquirer will be able to control the outcome.
The Minor Arcana, with its four suits, cover more mundane issues like home, family, work, money, conflicts, love, enemies, friends, and so on. The four suits tie into the four directions, the four elements, and all other sacred groupings of four. Each suit has fourteen cards, four court cards and ten pip cards.
The Tarot cards have both upright and reversed meanings. Some Tarot card readers just don’t do reversals and use the Tarot only right-side-up. This is fine, and it will be up to you to decide if you want to follow their lead. I prefer to consider both the upright and reversed meanings of the cards, because I think using the reversed meanings give you a more accurate reading.
I am attaching a separate document below, listing the meanings of the Tarot cards as I understand them. These meanings are based on my 40 years of reading the Tarot, plus two books I regularly refer to, Mastering the Tarot by Eden Gray and Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis. I’ll include the details and a recommended Tarot bibliography at the end of this lesson. I don’t claim the attachment is a definitive list by any means. Numerous books have been written on the Tarot; reading several will help broaden and deepen your understanding of the cards. The key thing to remember about reading the Tarot cards is, what is the image on the card? How does it relate to your situation? After using the Tarot awhile, you may not even need a guidebook anymore, because you’ve thoroughly-internalized the meaning.
READING THE TAROT
The three lay-outs are I’m going to cover in this section are so inextricably-associated with the Tarot in my mind, I’ve held-off on covering them until this particular lesson. They’re both very useful in their own ways and after this, you won’t want to be without them.
THE CELTIC CROSS METHOD
The first lay-out pattern is the Celtic Method, and it’s an excellent spread to use when you want a good overview of a specific question. The cards are laid out in the pattern of an equal-armed cross and a wand beside it, as is shown below:
The first step with the Celtic Layout is choosing a significator for the person you’re reading for. This is supposed to help you establish a sort of ‘navigational fix’ for the reading while you’re shuffling, but I’ve done this reading without a significator, if I’m certain I’ve got the subject firmly fixed in my mind. This card goes directly under card number 1, which indicates the general atmosphere at the time of the reading, a how-things-stand-right-now influence.
Card number 2, the crossing card, is always read right-side-up and represents opposing influences to the first card. This isn’t always bad, as sometimes the ‘crossing’ card is actually a good influence, such as the Sun or the Star. Card number 3 is called the foundation card, as it discloses the underlying matter at the heart of the question being read about. The late Tarot expert, Eden Gray, said this card can also reflect something which has become a part of the inquirer’s experience, something which has become incorporated into who they are.
Card number 4 can represent an event or influence which has happened in the recent past, or is still present and on its way out of the inquirer’s life. When laying card number 5 down, some Tarot readers will say, ‘this crowns you.’ It sits atop the spread and sheds its light on everything else in the reading. Think of the ‘Crown’ card as the rotating light on top of a lighthouse. According to Eden Gray, it can represent something which may happen in the future, but I’ve found through personal experience that the ‘crown’ meaning makes more sense. Card number 6 is something that will happen in the near future.
Eden Gray said card number 7 is supposed to represent the inquirer’s fears about the matter, but really, I’ve found it most often reflects their own role in the matter, and can even show how the inquirer themselves contributed to the problem. Card number 8 is supposed to be the opinion and influence of family and friends on the matter, but it often just shows the general environment in which the inquirer is operating at the time. Card number 9, the ‘hopes’ card, is where I’ve found the inquirer’s fears most often show up, so I’ve long-since taken to calling it the hopes-and-fears card.
I’ve even seen a Tarot card reader who will lay down two cards in this spot, the left card representing the inquirer’s hopes, and the right card representing their fears. I’ve taken to doing this myself. When people ask you for a reading, they are often a bundle of both hopes and fears; the two sentiments walk hand-in-hand and I think a good card-reader makes allowances for that. Card number 10 is the culmination card, how the whole matter will resolve itself, good or bad. I would say, the Celtic Cross lay-out can give you a view of things up to two months ahead of time, depending on the question asked.
The Tarot cards and the Celtic Cross lay-out are special to me, for they marked my entry into the whole subject of divination nearly forty years ago. They’ve never failed to enlighten and help.
THE HOROSCOPE CHART METHOD
This is a good layout for general-overview questions, such as asking once a year on New Year’s Eve or your birthday, ‘what can I expect in every area of my life for the year ahead?’ Or, ‘what is the coming year going to be like for the country?’
It’s not good for specific questions, unless you want to see your issue from every conceivable angle. Some questions are that huge, such as, ‘how will this proposed move across the country to take a new job affect me and my family?’ Or ‘if I marry Jane, what will it mean for me and everyone I know?’ Or ‘how will my grandparents naming me their sole heir affect my life after they are gone?’ The Horoscope method can provide valuable insight into how important life decisions will shape the landscape of your life.
THE THREE-ACES SPREAD
This is one of my favorite yes-no card spreads, because it gives you a little more information than simply designating certain cards with the meaning of ‘yes’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ It’s good for yes-no questions such as ‘should I _________?’ or ‘will __________happen like I expect?’ The Ace of Pentacles is encouraging for financial or material acquisition matters. The Ace of Swords is encouraging for military or legal questions or any issues of truth. The Ace of Cups is a very encouraging sign for emotional and romantic matters. The Ace of Wands is an encouraging sign for the beginning of a business enterprise or project.
To perform this reading, shuffle the cards while asking your question. Then, turning the deck image-side up, start dealing out the cards from the deck into three piles, starting on the left. You’re supposed to stop when you arrive at an Ace. You deal out no more than thirteen cards in a pile. Deal out up to thirteen cards in the center and the right-hand piles, stopping when you get to an Ace or the thirteenth card.
Variation: after shuffling the cards, with the deck face down, cut the deck into three piles in a row. Pick up the first pile, turn it over, then start counting off thirteen cards, stopping when you get to the thirteenth card, or an Ace. Do the same with the other two piles.
What I like to do with either Three Aces Spread method is, if I get to an Ace before I get to the thirteenth card in the pile, I continue dealing out/counting out cards until I get to the thirteenth card. It has happened that more than one Ace will turn up in the first thirteen cards in a pile! I think such instances are significant and the second Ace must be taken into consideration as well. If you stop counting once you get to an Ace, you could miss a second Ace hiding in the first thirteen cards.
With either Three Aces Spread method, the results are interpreted as follows: If all three piles turn up an Ace, then the answer is a resounding Yes! and the three Aces will tell you what is involved. If only one or two Aces turn up in the three piles, then there may be a delay before any action can take place and the Ace or Aces will show what sort of action that will be. If no pile turns up an Ace after thirteen cards are counted out, then it is a question the Tarot cannot answer at present. Also take note the first and thirteenth cards in each pile, as I think they sort of ‘bracket’ and augment the Ace’s meaning.
The Tarot is a classic divination tool with a long and honorable pedigree. May it bring you and all you read for, enlightenment and helpful guidance!
- Try the Celtic Cross spread. Once for yourself, a second time for another subject, who need not be present. Given your knowledge of the situation for you and the other subject, did the cards accurately reflect the matter as you understand it? Note the future and final result cards, then come back to your reading notes in another month or two. Did the two separate readings accurately indicate how things ultimately turned out?
- Try the Horoscope Spread, for either yourself or another subject, and note which cards turned up for what house. Return to your notes six months to a year later. How much of the reading was accurate?
- Try the Three Aces Spread, both methods. Dealing out the cards from the deck into three piles, then shuffling and cutting the deck into three piles, then turning them over and counting off thirteen cards, or until you get to an Ace. Which Three Aces Spread method did you prefer?
These books are just to get you started. There’s a whole host of books on the Tarot out there:
Louis, Anthony. Tarot Plain and Simple. Illustrations by Robin Wood. St. Paul, Minn: Llewellyn Publications, 1999. ISBN: 1-56718-400-6. 312 pages.
I personally own this one and it deserves the five stars it’s gotten on Amazon. It’s a good run-down of the meanings behind each card, and it gives a good bit of useful information about the numerological and astrological associations of the Tarot cards, plus some spreads I didn’t cover.
Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: A Beginner’s Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-1592336579. 240 pages.
I don’t own this one, but this is another five-starred introductory book on the Tarot which many Tarot readers have in their personal library.
Pollack, Rachel. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness. New York: Weiser Books. 3rd ed. 2019. ISBN: 978-1578635655. 368 pages.
This forty-year-old modern classic on the Tarot, now in it’s third printing, has been read and loved by many Tarot readers, who credit it with deepening their knowledge of the Tarot. It too has a five-star rating on Amazon.
Eden Gray. Just about any book by her on the subject of Tarot.
The book of hers I have, Mastering the Tarot, is brown with age and all but out of print, but there are other books by her, available through Amazon, which are worth considering. Eden Gray’s life spanned almost all of the twentieth century, and a good chunk of it was devoted to the Tarot. An early expert on the subject, in 1997, at 96 years old, the International Tarot Congress honored her with a lifetime achievement award for her efforts in the advancement of the Tarot. You could do worse than to read Eden Gray’s take on the subject.