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    Tarot and Divination

    As discussed in more detail below, the Tarot is usually a deck of 78 cards composed of:

    • The major arcana, consisting of 21 trump cards and the Fool card;
    • The minor arcana, consisting of 56 cards:
      • Ten cards numbered from Ace to 10 in four different suits; traditionally batons (wands), cups, swords and coins (pentacles) (40 cards in total); and
      • Four court cards, page, knight, queen and king in the same four suits (4 per suit, thus 16 court cards in total).

    The earliest extant specimens of Tarot decks are of North Italian origin and date to the early to mid-15th century. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterwards, the cards were used for the games called Tarocchi.

    In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cards became popular in occult studies, initiated by occultists such as Etteilla and Antoine Court de Gebelin.

    The Fool The unnumbered card
    in the Tarot deck,
    from the Tarot de Marseille

    The Tarot Deck

    The typical 78-card tarot deck is structured into two distinct parts. The first, called the Major Arcana, consists of 21 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps", plus a 22nd card, The Fool. The second, called the Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups.

    In modern tarot decks, the Batons suit is commonly called Wands, Rods or Staves, while the Coins suit is often called Pentacles or Disks. (Arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "key".)

    The 14 cards in each suit consist of an Ace, nine cards numbered 2 through 10, and four court cards (not dissimilar from the structure of 52-card bridge/poker playing card decks, except that bridge/poker playing card decks have three court cards rather than four).

    The four court cards face cards) of the tarot deck traditionally consist of the King, the Queen, the Knight and the Page (or Knave). In bridge/poker decks, the court cards typically consist of the King, the Queen and the Jack. The Jack corresponds to the tarot deck's Page.

    In the Western world today, the Tarot is usually seen either as a means of divination, the practice of ascertaining information from supernatural or other sources, or, in a more modern view, as a psychological tool for accessing the unconscious. However, early references such as a sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, Tarot is still a widely played game.

    The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is well documented. Playing cards appeared quite suddenly in Christian Europe during the period 1375-1380, following several decades of use in Islamic Spain. Early European sources describe a deck with typically 52 cards, like a modern deck with no jokers. The 78-card Tarot resulted from merging the 21 Trumps and the Fool into an early 56-card variant (14 cards per suit).

    Death: The tarot card
    from the
    Rider Tarot Deck

    Origin and History

    The Tarot Deck

    As an institution, the Roman Catholic Church and most civil governments did not routinely condemn tarot cards during tarot's early history. In fact, in some jurisdictions, tarot cards were specifically exempted from laws otherwise prohibiting regular playing cards. However, some sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 14th century.

    No mention of playing cards in the context of gambling and other marks of dissolute life precede the sudden appearance of a barrage of hostility in the 1370's: a sermon by the Swiss Johannes von Rheinfelden, Tractus de moribus et disciplina humanae conversationis states that "the game of cards has come to us this year" (said to be 1377, in the 15th-century surviving manuscript) without inveighing against them, but prohibitions against cards were issued by John I of Castile and the cities of Florence and Basel that same year and by the city of Regensburg the following year and in the Duchy of Brabant in 1379. Bernard of Siena gave a sermon reviling cards as the invention of the Devil in 1423. However, other sources praised cards as an educational tool.

    In Pietro Aretino's witty 16th-century dialogue Le carte parlanti ("The talking cards: dialogue in which gaming is discussed in a congenial fashion") there are frequent references to tarot symbolism: "The temptation of the hermit is the devil," and some irony on their uses: "...They reveal the secrets of nature, the reason for things, and explain the causes why day is driven out by night and night by day."

    The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three early to mid-15th century sets, all made for members of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. The oldest of these existing Tarot decks was perhaps painted to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding joining the ruling Visconti and Sforza families of Milan, probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school.

    Of the original cards, 35 are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, 26 cards are at the Accademia Carrara, 13 are at the Casa Colleoni, 4 cards (the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords, and the Knight of Coins) being lost or possibly never made.

    This Visconti Sforza Tarot Cards, which has been widely reproduced in varying quality, combines the Minor Arcana (suits of Swords, Staves, Coins and Cups, and face cards King, Queen, Knight and Page) with Major Arcana that reflect conventional iconography of the time to a significant degree.

    More simply drawn decks survive from various cities in France at various times (the best known in this context being the city of Marseille, in southern France) perhaps from the early 16th century, though actual surviving examples are no earlier than the 17th century.

    Much speculation surrounds early tarot cards, including the notions which follow. There is no reason to be confident that the surviving set of Major Arcana is complete. Of the four Classical Virtues, only Fortitude, Justice and Temperance remain. Can Prudence have always been missing? The Christian Virtues that would ordinarily complete them (i.e., Faith, Hope and Charity) are missing, however.

    The presence of the Fool and the Magician has often suggested a portable catechism for the illiterate, which survives in cartomancy.

    All the heavenly sources of Light, so important to Dualist heretics, are present in the Major Arcana, without any planets that would have been required for any meaning associated with astrology, the usual context for heavenly bodies.

    Indeed, of any possible signs of the Zodiac, only the dual-natured Twins are present. It is unlikely that their Zodiac context is being referred to, in which case all the others would have to have gone missing.

    Traces of medieval dualist heresy, such as the Bogomils taught, or the Cathars, whose centers were precisely where the earliest Tarot surfaced in Piedmont and Provence, can be also detected in the paired balance, not merely of Emperor with Empress, but, significantly, by Pope with Popess, with echoes of the Pope Joan myth and of the gnostic Pistis Sophia.

    The substitution of a more neutral "Hierophant" designation for the nameless high priest is a modern one. Steven Runciman, in The Medieval Manichee (1947), doubted the Catharist connection: "There seems to me to be a trace of Dualism in the pack, but it has since been overlaid with debased Kabalistic lore."

    He recognized the traditional interpretation of the Devil as the embodiment of the evil natural forces of this world, holding a naked man and woman in chains, and suggested in the Tower struck by lightning, a Cathar view of a Roman Catholic church. However, historians have found little evidence to substantiate many such speculations.

    Study of the iconography of the earliest tarots via standard comparative-historical methods suffices to pin the origin of the depiction of Death as after the Black Death, because the skeletal-death-with-a-scythe motif found on effectively all versions of Trump XIII does not predate the plagues. Before then, (mythology)">skulls in pictorial art were primarily symbols of scholarship and learning.

    Use of Tarot Cards in Divination

    Since the Egyptianizing ruminations in Le Monde primitif by Antoine Court de Gebelin (1781) which soon inspired the occultism of "Etteilla," it has been believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on purported similarities of imagery and reinforced by the added numbering, some claim that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety of other exotic places and times. Such ideas, however, are speculative.

    In fact, although much of imagery looks mysterious or exotic to modern users, nearly all of it reflects conventional symbolism popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Nearly all of it may easily be interpreted as a reflection of the dominant Christian values of the times. Thus, the earliest Tarots may have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the Christian season of Lent or the related motif of hierarchical powers found in Petrarch's poem I Trionfi.

    These trionfi or triumphs were elaborate productions which layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption. Notably, the earliest versions of the World card show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine's "Heavenly City", and it is not coincidence that it often closely follows the Judgement card.

    Several other early Tarot-like sequences of portable art survive to place the Visconti deck in context. Later confusion about the symbolism stems, in part, from the occult decks, which began a process of steadily paganizing and universalizing the symbolism to the point where the underlying Christian allegory has been somewhat obscured (as, for example, when the Rider-Waite deck of the early Twentieth Century changed "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess"). It is notable that between 1450 and 1500 the Tarot was actually recommended for the instruction of the young by Church moralists (reference is urgently needed here); not until fifty years after the Visconti deck did it become associated with gambling, and not until the 18th century and Gebelin and Etteilla with occultism.

    The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century.

    The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world.

    De Gebelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille asserted represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth.

    Gebelin further claimed that the name "tarot" came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning "royal", and ro, meaning "road", and that the Tarot therefore represented a "royal road" to wisdom. Gebelin asserted these and similar views dogmatically; he presented no clear factual evidence to substantiate his claims.

    In addition, Gebelin wrote before Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that supports de Gebelin's fanciful etymologies, but these findings came too late; by the time authentic Egyptian texts were available, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice.

    Although tarot cards were used for fortune-telling in Italy in the 1700's, they were first widely publicized as a divination method by Alliette, also called "Etteilla", a French occultist who reversed the letters of his name and worked as a seer and card diviner shortly before the French Revolution.

    Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseille designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. Etteilla Decks, although now eclipsed by Smith and Waite's fully-illustrated deck and Aleister Crowley's "Thoth" deck, remain available.

    Later Marie-Anne Le Normand popularized divination and prophecy during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was due, in part, to the influence she wielded over Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. However, she did not typically use Tarot.

    Interest in Tarot by other occultists came later, during the Hermetic Revival of the 1840's in which (among others) Victor Hugo was involved.

    The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Levi and passed to the English-speaking world by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

    Levi, not Etteilla, is considered by some to be the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic)introduced an interpretation of the cards which related them to Cabala.

    While Levi accepted Court de Gebelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot, especially the Tarot de Marseille, to the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy. On the other hand, to this day some of Etteilla's divinatory meanings for Tarot are still used by some Tarot practitioners.

    Tarot became increasingly popular beginning in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images related to divinatory meanings on the numeric cards. (Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Golden Dawn).

    In the 20th century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some vastly different. Thanks, in part, to marketing by the publisher U.S. Games Systems, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been extremely popular in the English-speaking world beginning in the 1970's.

    Differences Among Decks

    Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Traditionally, a variety of styles of Tarot decks and designs have existed. A number of tyical regional patterns emerged. Historically, one of the most important design is now usually known as the Universal Tarot of Marseille (French: Tarot de Marseille). This standard pattern was the one studied by Court de G├ębelin, and cards based on this style illustrate his Le Monde primitif.

    The Tarot of Marseille was also popularized in the 20th century by Paul Marteau. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseille design go back to a deck of a particular Marseille design that was printed by Nicolas Conver in 1760.

    Other regional styles include the "Swiss" Tarot; this one substitutes Juno and Jupiter for the Papess and the Pope.

    In Florence an expanded deck called The Minchiate Tarot was used; this deck of 96 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional Tarot cards.

    Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such "art decks" sometimes contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) sometimes bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. However, under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, decks used in the English-speaking world for divination often bear illustrated scenes on the numeric cards to facilitate divination.

    The more simply illustrated "Marseille" style decks are nevertheless used esoterically, for divination, and previously for game play. (Note that the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th-century design. Such Tarot decks generally have 22 trumps with genre scenes from 19th-century life, a Fool, and have minor arcana that closely resemble today's French playing cards.)

    An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). (See also discussion of the general expression "Rider-Waite-Smith" below, to indicate a category of decks that includes the "Rider-Waite" deck as well as decks which use the line drawings of the Rider-Waite deck, such as the Universal Waite deck.) (In contrast, in French-speaking countries, the Marseille deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.)

    The images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company in 1910.

    While the deck is sometimes known as a simple, user-friendly one, its imagery, especially in the Trumps, is complex and replete with occult symbolism.

    The subjects of the trumps are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from 'Marseille'-style decks is that Smith drew scenes on the numeric cards to depict divinatory meanings; those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and others) and from divinatory meanings first espoused by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Smith were members. However, it isn't the first deck to include completely illustrated numeric cards. The first to do so was the 15th-century Sola Busca deck; however, in this case, the illustrations apparently were not made to facilitate divination.

    Some individuals object to the Rider-Waite deck due to its relatively small selection of colors and "flat" appearance. However, several decks, such as the Universal Waite Tarot Deck, copy the Smith's line drawings, but add more subtle coloring and three dimensional modeling. The limited number of colors and "flat" appearance in the original Rider-Waite-Smith decks were virtually unavoidable due to the limits of printing technology in the early 20th century.

    In Internet tarot discussion groups, the Rider-Waite deck and very similar decks, e.g., the Universal Waite, are sometimes referred to by the collective term "Rider-Waite-Smith", "RWS" or "Waite-Colman-Smith" (or similar expressions).

    Numerous other decks that are loosely based on Rider-Waite (as noted below)have been published from the mid-20th century through today. They are sometimes called Rider-Waite-Smith clones; however, the term is misleading. They are not exact copies as the term clone would imply. Instead, they are variations.

    A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot.

    Crowley engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck. That said, many consider the Rider-Waite deck and the Tarot de Marseille also to be 'esoteric' decks.

    In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case's Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.) Tarot Deck deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be coloured by its owner.

    Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot Deck, which is apparently based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers and clearly based on the teachings of the Golden Dawn.

    Numerous other decks exist, including the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot

    The Marseille style Tarot decks generally feature numbered minor arcana cards that look very much like the pip cards of modern playing card decks. The Marseille numbered minor arcana cards do not have scenes depicted on them; rather, they sport a geometric arrangement of the number of suit symbols (e.g., swords, rods, cups, coins) corresponding to the number of the card (accompanied by botanical and other non-scenic flourishes), while the court cards are often illustrated with flat, two-dimensional drawings.

    Other modern decks created since the time of the first publishing of the Rider-Waite deck in 1909 vary in their card imagery. The variety is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Tarot of the Witches Deck became famous/notorious in the 1970's for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die.

    These modern decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly male characters have been replaced by females.

    The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; "coaches" and "MVPs" instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like "The Catcher", "The Rule Book" and "Batting a Thousand".

    In the Silicon Valley Tarot, major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.


    The Tarot has a complex and rich symbolism with a long history. Such history is not impenetrable. Contrary to what many popular authors claim, its origins are not lost in the mists of time. In fact, much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one studies sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the occult interpretation of Tarot. We will do some dispelling further on; in the meantime, the most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context.

    Some people find that modern Tarot decks are more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant than their ancestors. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with meanings assigned to the cards by their creators. In turn, the meanings come to be modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually re-shaped, in part, to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument and to respond to modern needs.

    See, for example, the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject on occultism and symbolism and a handbook specifically for this deck titled Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910).

    As with its Marseille-deck ancestor, the Strength trump shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The woman's hat of the Marseille card has frequently been interpreted as a lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representing infinity, or, according to Waite, the Spirit of Life. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.

    The twenty-two cards in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings.

    Altogether the major arcana are frequently said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom. This idea was apparently first suggested by tarot author Eden Gray in the mid-20th century.

    There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation based on that of the Golden Dawn, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth.

    The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.


    Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He may have regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.

    The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analyzed at the conscious level.

    Interestingly, some people view the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseille as crude and limited when compared to some modern ones. This may reflect their belief that Tarot symbolism has evolved, especially since the early 20th century, so that it has become increasingly universal.

    Storytelling and Art

    The Tarot has inspired writers as well as visual artists. Italo Calvino described the Tarot as a "machine for telling stories", writing the novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed through the Tarot. T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards, a few of which are genuine. Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to construct stories for writing exercises and writing games.

    The Greater Trumps (1932), a supernatural thriller by Charles Williams, involves a struggle over "the Original Deck," which has come into the hands of an English civil servant.

    Tarot decks play a significant role in Roger Zelazny's Amber fantasy series, where most major characters carry a magical deck of Tarot cards whose Trumps represent other characters (and enable communication with them) or locations. A Tarot deck inspired by the Amber series has been published.

    Tarot cards also play a role in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. At the end of Book 1, The Gunslinger, Roland finally catches up to the Man in Black, who reads Roland's future with a deck of Tarot cards in a golgotha: "Death. Yet not for you."

    From 1977 to 1980, Piers Anthony published the "Planet of Tarot" series, which included God of Tarot (Tarot, No. 1), Vision of Tarot and Faith Of Tarot. On the planet Tarot, nightmares, visions and fantasies become real, and sometimes tangentially, sometimes on-target, the protagonist lives through myths and stories, e.g., the moment Jesus of Nazareth "dies" and accepts his spiritual journey as Christ the savior, related to Tarot cards.

    In John Crowley's novel Little, Big (1981), characters use a Tarot deck with non-standard major arcana ("the lesser trumps") for divination.

    Tim Powers' 1992 novel Last Call: A Novel depicts Tarot decks used for magic beyond just divination, particularly in a variant of poker, and alludes repeatedly to The Waste Land.

    In the 1999 movie The Red Violin, the journey of a perfect red violin is divined by a woman utilizing the Major Arcana cards of a Tarot deck.

    Tarot also features prominently in Alan Moore's Promethea (1998-2005), forming one of the central motifs of the series. Alan Moore himself has been quoted as claiming his single cleverest piece of work is Promethea #12, a playful, multi-level rebus in which a set of Major Arcana of Moore's own design (in homage of Crowley's Thoth Tarot Deck) is used to explain Life, the Universe and Everything to Sophie (Promethea).


    Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot in the English-speaking world. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. Alternatively, it is sometimes seen as a less sophisticated use of tarot. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance, you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.

    That point of view may be unusual among those who use Tarot for divination. Tarot card readers sometimes believe that Tarot cards allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. Still others routinely follow the divinatory meanings assigned to each card by popular books and other authorities. Further, some individuals believe that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore sometimes "insulated" by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and only touched by the reader and by the person for whom the reading is done (the "querent").

    There are many variations, but in many readings the querent shuffles the cards, then the reader lays out the cards in a pattern called a "layout" or "spread". A well-known spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analyzed according to their positions, their individual divinatory meanings, their relationships, and whether the cards are upside-down ("reversed"). If the reader uses the interpretation technique of reversals, a reversed card has its own set of modified meanings and/or modified energies; a reversed card's meaning may sometimes be the opposite of the upright card meaning, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.

    Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word "magic" often refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is probably much less common than simple divination.

    Layouts or Spreads

    In Tarot divination, results can be achieved with analysis of just one card, but, for more thoroughness, combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads or layouts. There are many different spreads, although the Celtic Cross is one of the best known, and is often taught to beginners as their first spread, despite the complexity of it and the availability of simpler, more easily manageable spreads. More experienced practitioners will sometimes use their own spreads, assigning their own meanings to the relevant positions represented.

    The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout

    This layout generally consists of 10 cards, or 10 cards plus an optional, 11th card [as a significator card]. The significator card represents the person or the situation. The first 6 of the 10 cards are laid out in the shape of a cross. (If there is a significator card, the first card of the 10 is placed atop the significator card.) The final 4 of the 10 cards are placed in a column to the right.

    The Romany Draw Layout (or Past/Present/Future Layout)

    The card-reader shuffles the deck, then spreads out all of the cards, asking the querent [the person for whom the cards are being read] to pick three cards, one at a time. The card-reader then flips the cards over, the one on the left telling of the past, the middle one telling current events, and the one on the right telling the future.

    Crowley's Thoth Layout

    The Thoth Tarot Deck was created by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris. Those who buy the deck are instructed as follows. The deck is shuffled by the querent. The querent concentrates on the question and then returns the deck to the reader. The reader lays out the cards in five categories. The center category (three cards) represents the motivations of the querent. The top right hand category (three cards) represents things that will happen in the near or most likely future. The top left hand category (three cards) represent what will happen in the distant or less likely future. The bottom left hand category (three cards) represents forces that help the querent. The bottom right hand category (three cards) represents forces beyond the querent's control. Many readers avoid the Thoth deck because of Crowley's alleged affinity for black magic

    This layout does not in fact have anything to do with the way Crowley read the deck he designed. In any case, this spread was invented by the publisher of the small book accompanying the U.S. Games Systems version of the deck. Crowley used the Opening of the Key spread developed by the Golden Dawn which consists of five stages.

    The reader invokes IAO, then HRU, then traces the unicursal hexagram upon the deck, before shuffling and handing it to the querent. The querent "asks" the deck a question, then cuts it into four piles. These four piles represent the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, or, if you will, the four elements. The reader turns these piles over and gets a general feel for the situation.

    The reader looks through the piles to see which pile the querent's significator is in. This is determined by their birthday, and would correspond to a Queen, Knight, or Prince card. When the reader finds the significator, tell the querent for what s/he has come, and continue. If in the fire pile, the matter concerns energy, quarreling, and force. If in the water, the matter has to do with pleasure, enjoyment, and emotions, etc.

    The reader spreads the pile containing the significator in a horse-shoe formation upon the table, from right to left. Then s/he looks for patterns: two or three of a kind indicates certain things, and majority of an element indicates certain things. Three 3s indicates deceit, for instance, while 4 Queens indicates authority and influence. Starting from the significator, the reader card-counts.

    All card-counting strings start from a significator, which must be a court card. In the Crowley deck, the courts are Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess. Count in the direction the card faces (usually left for Princes and Knights, usually right for Queens and Princesses) until a card is hit twice.

    Count: 12 for Zodiacal trumps 5 or 11 for Aces 9 for planetary trumps 7 for Princesses 4 for Knights, Queens and Princes 3 for Elemental trumps

    With this string, you can tell a story. All the while, pay attention to elemental dignities. A card will be well or ill dignified by the cards surrounding it. Each card can be attributed to one of the four (sometimes five) elements. Fire and water weaken each other. Air and Earth weaken each other. Other elemental combinations are friendly.


    Tarot Plain and Simple illustrated with the The Robin Wood Tarot Deck. > This is a good book for beginners as well as experts.

    Spanish language version of this text is entitled Aprenda como leer el tarot: Una guia practica.

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