What are tarot cards? Some think they are trusted advisors, while others consider them tainted with evil. In truth they are neither. Tarot, in a nutshell, is a series of images on card stock. These images are designed to mirror the whole human experience. In essence, the cards themselves are completely neutral and only when they are viewed through the lens of life experience do they reveal their meaning.
The origins of the symbols of tarot are shrouded in mystery. There are most certainly depictions of the archetypes in Ancient Greece and even earlier but tarot cards, as we know them today, started as a card game, called ‘Triumphs’ or ‘Trumps’. The physical cards were known as tarocchi. The oldest existing decks are attributed to the Visconti-Sforzi family in Italy during the 15th century.
Later, in the 18th century tarot cards were adopted by occultists and scholars and became a means of telling fortunes. It was likely that card reading gained its dubious reputation when used by charlatans and cheats. An early version of the decks we are familiar with now was called the Tarot de Marseilles and versions of it are still available. In modern times, as well as fortune telling, tarot is a valuable tool used by many as a means of shining a light on problems, situations and to examine a person’s outlook on life.
The structure of a tarot deck
A typical tarot deck will consist of 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana cards which include 16 Court cards. The Courts and Minors are divided into four suits, very much like playing cards. The suits are commonly named Cups, Swords, Wands and Pentacles. Wands and Pentacles are sometimes called Staves and Coins.
The Major Arcana represent important influences and stages in a person’s life.
The suits represent aspects of our lives; Cups equate to emotions and feelings; Swords to intellect and communication; Pentacles to practical matters such as work, health and money; Wands are ideas, action and inspiration.
The court cards are the tarot personalities – Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages – each demonstrating traits connected to their suit and status.
The images on tarot cards are full of symbolism and mystery. The Major Arcana are often depicted as VIPs… there is the silent, aloof High Priestess, the sensual Empress, the strong, controlling Charioteer and the wise, solitary Hermit. Many are surrounded by symbols and tools of their trade. In complete contrast to these august persona, there is the Fool. The Fool is a key part of the tarot and it is his journey through the other cards that illustrates the progression all humans make through life. This is called The Fool’s Journey and has been used as the basis for plots in countless books and movies.
The court cards are shown in various locations with surroundings that often mirror their particular personality. For example, the King of Swords is frequently accompanied by birds, wind-blown trees and clouds, indicating that he is the ruler of the element of Air. The Knight of Cups is shown bestride a handsome horse (beauty) and usually near calm water (emotions), indicating that he is bringing love; your knight in shining armour. The Page of Pentacles can be seen, feet firmly on the ground intently examining a golden disc. She represents the eternal student with an enquiring mind and a lifelong curiosity about everything in the world.
The Minor Arcana are illustrated by people engaged in various activities that represent daily life. The exceptions are the four Aces which are shown as the fundamental representation of their suit. In some decks, most notably, the famous Rider-Waite, each Ace is depicted as a hand holding, respectively, a Cup, Sword, Coin and a Staff. These objects have been important icons for at least 3,500 years – for instance the Greek Goddess Nemesis carried a chalice, an apple bough, a sword and a wheel. Like the Majors, the Minor cards also incorporate symbolism to help the viewer determine and relate to the meaning of the image. Older decks did not have illustrations but merely displayed the appropriate number of the suit emblem, such as seven cups. These cards were known as ‘pips’.
Each card, apart from the Courts, is numbered. The Major Arcana from zero (The Fool) through 21 (The World). The Minors from one (Ace) through to 10. The 22 cards of the Majors are said to be connected to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and many scholars have attempted to cement the tarot to the Kabbalah with varying success and much controversy.
A knowledge of basic numerology is helpful when interpreting tarot cards, especially the Minors:
- Ace – primal force; beginning
- Two – receptivity; waiting, planning
- Three – creativity; collaboration, growth
- Four – stability; materialism, security
- Five – information; challenge, unbalanced
- Six – love; equality, balance
- Seven – spirit; seeking, disquiet
- Eight – law; infinity, karma
- Nine – mystery; knowledge; cycles
- Ten – culmination; new beginning
Anyone can learn to read tarot cards. There are accepted given meanings for each card, and an in-depth knowledge of these will enable the average person to deliver a competent reading. However a good tarot reader will have several other skills to make it into a much more useful and enlightening experience. He or she will combine their knowledge of the cards with their own life experience, wisdom and a dash of intuition. A good reader will involve their client in the reading and be sensitive to his or her feelings. They will use their skills to interpret a card modified by the other cards surrounding it. They will use a ‘spread’, a layout, which will also aid their reading of the cards. You can learn to be a competent reader in a fairly short time but a really good reader continues to learn over a lifetime.
Going back to the original question: what are tarot cards? Well, they are not evil unless used for nefarious purposes. In the right hands tarot is a tool for self-understanding. It is a reflection of human endeavour. It is both serious and full of humour. It can help and occasionally hinder. It can be learned but will never be fully known. It is surprising and sometimes confusing… just like a very good friend.