Introduction to Tarot
Basic Tarot methods are easy to learn. Beginning techniques on reading layouts and card meanings are covered on this website, and a number of good books are available for more detailed information on the Tarot.
How Tarot cards work is a topic with many interpretations. Some claim the great number of people meditating on the cards and using them creates a collective energy around the cards. Others consider the cards to be tools of intuition, psychic phenomena, or a method of communication from spirit guides, among many other theories. Generally the cards are used in a "Tarot reading" or "psychic reading," where a reader will use intuition to select cards to lay on a table, and then allow those cards to guide the reading, using established card meanings and card imagery to guide psychic intuition or spiritual communication. There is no need to be "psychic" to read Tarot successfully, or as some claim, everyone is psychic by nature and those innate skills become available with training and practice. Using very little intuition, the cards seem to work by themselves, especially when card definitions and layouts are interpreted correctly. This topic will be detailed in the page on creating and reading spreads and layouts.
Standard Tarot decks have 78 cards. Their most common meanings are detailed on the page on card meanings. The Rider-Waite deck (designed by Pamela Colman Smith in the early 1900s) is considered to be the standard in the U.S. Several authors recommend that new readers learn on the Rider-Waite deck, and then branch out to look for other decks later, if desired. The Rider-Waite deck has a cryptic, somewhat mysterious look to it, but most of the cards aren't particularly attractive.
Personally, I prefer to read with decks having artistic pictures. I feel that it's more enjoyable for people when they see their reading coming from beautiful cards, and it's easier for seekers to rest their eyes on attractive cards while I read for them. But I also use the Rider-Waite deck and its various derivations at times, and many excellent readers use Rider-Waite exclusively.
Spreads or Layouts
In addition to meanings of individual Tarot cards, card placement also has interpretive meaning. During a reading, cards are laid out in different patterns called "spreads" or "layouts," where the position of each card has meaning. The most common layout is the Celtic Cross. I cover one variation of the Celtic Cross layout in the page on spreads. For example, the first card drawn in the Celtic Cross spread, placed in the center of the cross, represents the seeker (the person who is the subject of the reading, namely the person receiving the reading). This card gives insight into certain attributes of the seeker, especially those related to the topic of the spread. The final card in the Celtic cross spread, usually the tenth card, represents the outcome or answer to the seeker's question.
The term "reading" is used for many different techniques, such as "palm reading," "psychic reading," "astrology reading," "numerology reading," and so on. Tarot readings involve the interpretation of Tarot
cards in a somewhat structured setting. Generally one person, called the "reader," lays Tarot cards on a table and interprets their meanings. One or two people (such as a couple), called the "seeker(s)" or "querent(s)," are seeking insights from the reader through interpretation of the cards. When reading for the self, the reader and the seeker are the same person.
The "reader" must know card layouts and meanings, although experienced readers sometimes create their own layouts or add their own insights to card meanings. Most readers charge a fee for their time and service. Some readers try to create a certain ambience, for example with candles in a dark room. However, privacy is probably the most important comfort factor, as querents need to feel at ease
discussing their personal issues.
Every reader develops personal techniques and preferences over time. Numerous books have been written on the Tarot, and it is important to explore different techniques to decide which work best
for each reader and his or her own special circumstances. Two techniques are especially important in giving a good reading -- intent and concentration. The reader should have strong intent while concentrating on the seeker and his or her question(s). Concentration is often the difference between a good reading and an amazing reading. Additional meditation on individual cards and developing at least some psychic skill can also help with interpretations for individual readings.
Tarot and religion
Tarot cards are a method of divination, an aid to assist in psychic intuition. People of any background or spiritual belief system can use Tarot cards as a psychic aid.
Because the history of Tarot has little hard evidence beyond a few centuries ago, it's difficult to know whether any religion was originally affiliated with Tarot. Some Tarot card artists put letters of the Hebrew alphabet on the cards, possibly trying to affiliate the cards with teachings of the Kabbalah (seemingly a practice of the occult, after Tarot cards were already in use). However, what historical accounts exist usually trace divination cards back to Europe, then Egypt, and before that, possibly somewhere around India. If the cards-for-divination method had been affiliated with any one religion originally, one of the Asian religions with a psychic element seems logical. Card divination could have been developed by people surrounded with those skills; however solid documentation is lacking, and many sources disagree.
More recently, Tarot cards were associated with gypsies or the occult over the past few centuries. Then during the past few decades, Tarot was adopted by "flower children" and "hippies" of 1960s and 70s counterculture, and then the New Age/religious eclectic movement of the 70s and 80s. Every generation put its own influence on Tarot divination. The turn toward numerous beautiful, diverse decks seemed to coincide with the New Age movement of the 1980s, and then the self-help publications industry as it followed the market trend into the 1990s and beyond. Flower children found that reading Tarot could be fun, and then the New Age movement's acceptance of Eastern religion and psychic abilities made Tarot a serious pursuit, which then created a market for new products.
Different religions may use or change card divination/Tarot through the centuries, but no one religion can lay claim to it exclusively. Many people have added their own techniques and inventions through the years, and so Tarot is really more of a community effort, one without a clear religious affiliation. Some may think I'm dismissing the role of major influences like the occult too quickly, but I think all would agree that if Tarot had stayed an obscure trade limited to gypsies and occultists, it would have zero appeal to the suburbanites who study and use it today. Tarot became recently popular by evolving into its modern form -- a core technique taking the form of many products in order to satisfy many divination preferences. The Tarot doesn't belong to any one person or religion. Simply put, it's just another psychic tool.
For those readers whose sensibilities are offended by any sign of the Kabbalah, the occult, or any other religion, there are many types of divination card decks to choose from -- not all have references to the Hebrew alphabet, not all follow numerology or any other system claimed by anyone other than the deck's author. It's important to choose decks that make the reader feel comfortable while giving readings.
Some media personalities have said that psychic intuition comes from the (Christian) devil, and others cite bible scriptures to claim that the Christian bible forbids psychic methods or even seeking a psychic. However, two of history's best-documented psychics -- Edgar Cayce and Emanuel Swedenborg -- were both Christian psychics and considered their abilities to be a gift from God. Cayce read the entire bible once every year, and many of his psychic readings were explanations of various bible stories. The A.R.E. in Virginia Beach houses a library of his transcribed psychic readings, with countless books written about them. Swedenborg was also known as a phenomenal and well-documented psychic. He claimed that God had sought him out, actually developed a relationship with him, in order to convince him to document what was then revealed. Before that, Swedenborg was an engineer with no intention of spending the better part of his life documenting bible symbolism or a method of Christian dream interpretation. The amount of work he left behind was encyclopedic in volume, and many early Americans read and believed Swedenborg. Both Cayce and Swedenborg tried to serve God with their psychic abilities, and their success seems to indicate that God was satisfied with their work. Both left behind vast amounts of printed material. Both still have a substantial following in the United States.
Some books cover what is thought to be the history of cards used for divination, playing cards, and specifically Tarot. Accounts disagree, but most have solid evidence tracking Tarot cards back to European countries like France and Italy, then similar cards to Egypt prior to that, and other similar cards to India before that. It's unclear when or who started using the cards for divination -- whether they started as game cards that some started using for divination, or vice versa.
Accounts tracing the cards to earlier than a few hundred years rely on spotty evidence, and so they won't be included here. Many books on Tarot can be consulted for what is thought to be the cards' history.
Reading for self
Reading for self can be helpful as a learning tool, but the technique is generally thought to lower the accuracy of a reading. It can be challenging to remain objective while reading for people you know, but with reading for self, hopes and fears can easily influence the interpretation of future events.
In general, Tarot instructors recommend against reading for self. However, I find that self-readings can occasionally provide good practice, and allow at least some real insights to be gained. Yet I'd have to agree that for accuracy, it's better to consult a good reader. Allowing yourself to be sit back and enjoy a reading can be fun, too. A good reader can usually be found through referrals by friends, and using intuition can help, too.
The learning journey
Think of yourself as the Fool on the Fool card -- learning the Tarot is like taking a spiritual journey. It can be both fund and enlightening. Developing your own technique and intuition will take practice and study, but the journey can be very rewarding.