Every once in awhile, an individual will email me, requesting an introductory article on Tarot or how to choose the right deck. This article was written for those curious about the Tarot, as well as Tarot beginners.
Over the centuries, the Tarot has evoked fascination, curiosity, and fear. Deemed a “wicked pack of cards” by the poet T.S. Eliot, the Tarot has emerged from carnivals and the back rooms of fortunetellers into the hands of therapists, writers, and business consultants. From clergy to homemakers, teenagers to TV, the Tarot is enjoying an upswing in popularity today.
The orthodox strains of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) demonize divination as the “work of the devil”. This rigid stance is interesting in light of divinatory methods used by priests and “holy” men throughout the Bible, including the disciples casting lots when replacing Judas Iscariot and high priests consulting the Urim and Thummim on important issues.
However, foretelling the future is but one aspect of divination. The classic definition of divination is to foretell the future, and terms such as fortunetelling, augury, and prophecy are often interchangeable with the word divination. Many use divination to uncover insight into past events, as well as those of the present. In that case, divination does not foretell the future, but is “forth telling”. For example, in the New Testament, Jesus encountered a woman at the well and said to her “the man you are now with is not your husband.” He was not foretelling events, but rather, declaring what was true in the present.
One form of divination is Cartomancy, which is reading cards. Tarot is the most well known form of Cartomancy, but its usefulness stretches well beyond the stereotypical practice of consulting the cards to inquire about a soulmate or the future. In fact, if Tarot piques your interest, the primary aspect to consider at the beginning is not which deck to choose, but why you want to work with this tool in the first place. However, before we explore the various ways to use Tarot, let’s delve into the structure of a typical deck in the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition.
The Tarot is comprised of the Major and Minor Arcana, totaling 78 cards. The Major Arcana (which means “Greater Mysteries”) consists of 22 cards and usually addresses the big picture events of our lives. The Emperor, Wheel of Fortune, Chariot—these are archetypal forces largely out of our control and represent various life cycles. For example, children must face the Hierophant when introduced to formal education, religion, and cultural heritage—as well as “fitting in”. However, we encounter these forces at other times in life, too. The “Fool’s journey” through the Majors is not straightforward or linear, but a circuitous route based on our unique life path.
The Minor Arcana (“Lesser Mysteries) usually address day-to-day events that we have some measure of control over. Like a deck of playing cards, the Minors span from Ace to 10 and are comprised of four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Generally speaking, Wands governs matters of the Self and personal will, Cups deal with emotions, dreams and relationships, Swords address communication, thoughts and beliefs, while Pentacles reflect the material realm of work, money, and health. In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (and RWS “clones”), the Minors are “illustrated”. This means that instead of illustrating bare-bone pips—a picture of 3 actual cups or 10 wands, for example—the image instead captures people, animals, and other characters engaged in a variety of situations.
The sixteen Court Cards, usually named Page, Knight, Queen and King, often exemplify personality patterns—both in us and in others. In fact, if we disown parts of ourselves—traits both positive and negative—we tend to project them onto others. The Court Cards display those traits quite clearly. These cards can also describe stages of events, such as risking (Pages) and maintaining (Queens).
The striking images of the Tarot often appear mysterious, beckoning us to draw closer and learn of their secrets. While some choose to use the Tarot for predictive purposes, the metaphorical symbols can do so much more. In fact, most who work with Tarot do not use the cards for prediction at all! Here are but a few ways to enjoy and utilize the Tarot:
•Problem Solving and Self Development – Tarot cards provide an excellent springboard for identifying, analyzing, and working through challenging situations. Draw a card and have an imaginary conversation with it. What advice might it give you if it could “speak”? Alternatively, look through a deck and pick a card that represents how you’re feeling now; then, pick another representing how you’d like to feel. How might you get from here to there? You can also use Tarot for brainstorming and planning. (Mark McElroy has written several excellent books using the cards for this purpose; What’s in the Cards for You? is my favorite.) Tarot allows us to “freeze” different aspects of a situation, promoting objectivity, awareness, clarity, and empowered choice. •Creativity – Are you a writer, artist, or musician? The cards can inspire ideas, plots, and direction. For example, draw a card and write a song or create a painting based on how the image makes you feel. Or, write a short story based on three cards drawn at random: Card 1 represents one person, Card 2 represents another person, and Card 3 represents the nature of the conflict or situation involving them both. Alternatively, draw several cards and tell a story based on what you see. •Dream Interpretation – The rich symbolism of the Tarot can provide helpful clues to the meaning of dreams. You could choose a Tarot card for each of the elements contained within a dream, or draw several that specifically address the theme and its relevant message. •Meditation and Visualization – If your spiritual path uses rituals or altars, you can use one or more Tarot cards as a sacred tool for meditation, contemplation, and intention. For example, if you’re feeling vulnerable, you could meditate on the Strength card. If you feel pulled in a hundred directions and long for time alone, you could cultivate an atmosphere of spiritual retreat and social withdrawal by meditating on the Hermit. •Education and Intellectual Stimulation – The Tarot can be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be, depending on your preferences. When reading the cards you can simply “say what you see” as author Wilma Carroll encourages, or you can explore esoteric Tarot symbolism, numerology, astrology, Qabalah, western magickal traditions (such as the Order of the Golden Dawn) and much more. The internet is an amazing resource for learning about Tarot, with hundreds of websites, online groups, and bookstores dedicated to the subject. •Divination and Psychic Development – Asking questions of the Tarot and using spreads (card layouts) can help you tap into the collective unconscious, develop symbolic sight, and stretch your intuitive potential. Testing the Tarot—and yourself—increases trust in innate abilities, creates personal meaning, and demonstrates the power of co-creating reality. Determining the ways you’d like to work with the Tarot can help you decide on which deck or decks to work with. Tarot decks span hundreds of themes—from baseball to dragons, saints to fairies, cats to Halloween. Selecting a deck can be an overwhelming task in light of such a vast array! The internet is a great portal for discovering and purchasing decks, especially when you get to see many of the cards. The Encyclopedia of Tarot Volume IV features artwork from 850 tarot decks and reproductions of more than 11,000 different tarot cards from the 20th century. Because most decks cost around $20 to $30, a book such as this one can help you save money in the end by learning more about various decks.
So which deck should you ultimately choose? Even some long-time Tarotists are still on the quest for the “perfect deck”! Purpose, attractiveness, and theme are the three main considerations when looking for a deck. For example, if your primary purpose for using the Tarot were storytelling or creative writing, you would want a deck with illustrated Minors. It’s much easier to tell a story about an individual standing on one foot and holding (juggling?) two pentacles than trying to glean meaning from an image of merely two pentacles.
Attractiveness is also an important consideration. If you like the theme of a deck but abhor the illustrations or coloring, then working with it won’t be enjoyable. Choose a deck that appeals to your sense of touch (including size). Some New Age and occult bookstores display sample cards for you to examine. If you’re ordering online—precluding the ability to touch the deck—join a Yahoo Group dedicated to the Tarot and ask questions. In addition, read reviews of decks (such as those on my site) and scrutinize the images. How do the pictures make you feel? Do you like the artistic style?
Theme is another element to consider. If you don’t resonate with the Christian symbolism of a RWS deck, then you may prefer Tarot decks with pagan imagery, such as those with Wiccan or Druidic themes. If you practice feminine spirituality, you may choose a deck reflecting goddess themes. Whatever your passions and interests, allow them to guide you as you choose an appropriate deck.
One of the fascinating elements about Tarot is there is no “wrong” way to read the cards. Each person brings his/her unique life experience and frame of reference to the cards. For example, although most individuals interpret the 3 of swords as heartache or grief, others may see the three swords piercing the bright red heart as symbolic of “the three musketeers”—three friends joined by the bonds of love.
Whether you use the cards for journaling, self-discovery, creativity, brain storming, or spiritual practice, the Tarot provides a vast array of symbols and metaphors for inspiration, clarity, and insight.
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