Tarot cards are often thought to be the ancient tools of eastern fortune tellers and New Orleans street performers, but their actual history is a bit more bland. Their first mention was in 1440 AD, and it was likely that they were just playing cards meant for a game that resembled bridge. In the 1500’s, wealthy Venetian families collected customized, artisan decks to play a narration game, in which the card’s imagery was used to draw up stories about one another. It wasn’t until the late 1700’s that the popular and symbolic cards were picked up by occult culture, who used them to divine the future. Now-a-days you can combine their origin as a game with their later usage as a divination tool by breaking out a deck among friends and pulling cards in the hopes of insight into your near future, a fresh perspective on a problem you’re having, or even just drunken shenanigans.
A Standard Deck
True to its Venetian incarnation, a standard tarot deck consists of 78 cards. Of those 78 cards there are 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Minor Arcana has four suites: wands, swords, pentacles, and cups. Each suite is styled like a classic playing card deck: there are ten number cards (including an Ace), a King, a Queen, a Knight, and a Page. Each suite carries a meaning with imagery associated with that meaning, and each number and figure also holds meaning. The Major Arcana is more abstract and conceptual, with cards such as the Sun, the Lovers, and Judgement. Keep in mind, this model is a peek into an average deck. Some decks have more than 78 cards, some decks only consist of Major Arcana, and other decks trade in the wands, swords, pentacles, and cups suites for different imagery (for example, the Wooden Tarot uses stones, plumes, bones, and blooms). The Rider Waite deck is perhaps the most recognizable and imitated deck that follows this standard, and is also the most common deck. Although many decks feature similar images, most have developed their own quirky themes and symbolism that are specific to the artist.
Types of Questions
Although you could theoretically ask any type of question of a tarot deck, the best questions I’ve found are”what” types of questions. For example, “what is holding me back?” Or “what is the best course of action?” The more specific your question, the more helpful you may find the answer. Since the imagery presented by tarot can sometimes be vague, specific questions can help contextualize that imagery. Of course, tarot isn’t limited to “what” questions and can be used for general inquires as well as specific concerns.
Types of Spreads
Spreads, or the way a reader lays out the cards they draw from a deck, help craft a story. The two most common spreads are one card spreads and three card spreads. One card spreads may be used to get a different perspective on a present situation, or they could be an insight into what might happen. Three card spreads could be used to gain insight into the near past, present, and future. They could also be used to analyze the mind, body, and spirit. Spreads are flexible, and can be as simple or as complicated as the reader chooses.
Tips for Reading Tarot
The best way to begin reading tarot cards is to begin studying the cards. Most decks come with a booklet that offers key words associated with each card, but it’s up to the reader to look at the imagery and connect it with whatever question is being asked. Some readers even assign new meanings to cards and build their own associations that may differ from the original artist’s intent. Most artists encourage an exploration of the imagery, and if you’re at a loss as to where to begin there’s a sizable online community where different readers post tarot journals that feature their interpretations. There’s no shame in keeping the booklet nearby and seeking help or mentorship!