Tarot Basics

The exact origin of the Tarot is unknown, but from my understanding they started as a set of playing cards in Italy in the 1400’s.  Some people say they come from ancient Egypt or India, but in my opinion the archetypes are too Eurocentric.  For example, the Devil is an evil, Christianized version of the Horned God, not coming from Egyptian pantheons but rather Northern European ones.  The first accounts of their use for divination came in the eighteenth century.  There have been many changes over the years, including the perception of the Minor Arcana, but the symbology has stayed largely the same.  For a brief history of origins of the tarot and certain popular decks, here is a good article to read.  In the twentieth century, their popularity has exploded in conjunction with the Neo-Pagan and New Age movements.  Also while many states had laws on the books well into the ’80s making tarot reading illegal, persons such as Z Budapest have gone to trial to change these old regulations.

The Tarot have 78 cards and is divided into two categories:

The Major Arcana

  • The Major arcana are archetypes regarding the path of life or a journey.  They are in a numbered order in correspondence with a natural progression. We start with the Fool and end with the World…or back to the Fool depending on how the deck is numbered.
  • When these cards show up in a spread, they generally indicate a major point in the question.  For example if doing a spread for someone on a business venture and the Magician makes itself known in the Present place in the spread, then that card represents the quitrent’s progression on that path at that moment.  When multiple Major Arcana show up, then the person tends to be in a transition.
  • These cards are the easiest to learn, but sometimes make the asker panic.  While the Tower and Death are ominous cards, they don’t actually mean a literal death and literal destruction.  The Major Arcana is full of metaphors.

The Minor Arcana

  • Similar to playing cards, the Minor Arcana come in four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles.  Also, they are numbered from 1 to 10 with court cards.
  • Numbered cards represent an attribute, whereas court cards stand for a person.
  • Associated with the element fire, Wands are the mental card.  Its aspects include creativity, inspiration, ambition, goal-setting, and dreams.
  • Cups deal with relationships and emotions and relate to the element water.
  • Swords come from the element air.  Action, intellect, power, conflict, and change rule this suit.
  • Pentacles deal with the material world, career, possessions, and material comfort.  The element earth relates to these cards.

For specific card meanings, there are plenty of comprehensive books on the subject.  My favorite is Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis.  However, never discount instincts and personal interpretations of the cards.  These can be more valuable to the reader than memorization.

Reversed Cards: This is a debated topic among tarot readers.  Some believe that each card has two meetings depending on the position of the card (i.e. right-side up or upside down).  I disagree and say the tarot was designed in balance and therefore there is no need for reversed card meanings.

© Ariadne Woods


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