Introducing the Tarot
“For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Many years ago, as I took my first faltering steps toward understanding the Tarot, I had little idea of what a journey it would be. It quickly became my passion, all encompassing. It has lead me towards self-discovery and a healthy respect for the unknown influences that guide our daily lives towards possibility and the fulfilment of our dreams.
Tarot is a system of divination which has gained great popularity over the last several decades and become increasingly accessible in the process. From being something which was rarely spoken of and feared by many, it has become almost acceptable and currently raises only mild disapproval among even the most conservative members of society. Its been a long journey from the traveller’s caravan to the high street, but for those of us who love the craft, this can only be a good thing. As Tarot takes its place in popular culture, the growing media interest has provided us with more resources than ever before.
The origins of this fascinating art are shrouded in obscurity. Even the name Arcana, used to divide the cards of higher significance from those relating to the mundane, means secrets or mysteries, known only to a few. It has been suggested that its beginnings go right back to ancient Egypt and a culture deeply rooted in magic and symbolism. Others claim that the Tarot began its journey in India, in the hierarchical castes of Hinduism. Documentation exists to support the theory that some type of Tarot was used in the court of King Charles VI of France, although its purpose is unclear. Whether the cards were designed as a game or used as some sort of allegory for life, is not known. I shall leave history where it is, in the past and let you make your own investigations into the fascinating ancestry of this craft. Most books on the Tarot contain a chapter on its historical origins which, though interesting is not of great importance at this stage.
There is a widely held belief that you should be gifted with your first Tarot deck. It’s a delightful idea and sometimes appropriate, but not to be followed blindly by the beginner. No matter who is kind enough to buy your first deck, you would do well to choose it yourself. If you’ve already begun to browse, you’ll realise what a tremendous choice you have. There is a profusion of decks available, not only from specialist stores, but also from mainstream booksellers and a variety of internet sources. So where do you start and how do you decide?
If you can visit a specialist occult shop, you may be able to browse through a scrapbook containing samples from a wide range of decks. You will be able to judge colour, texture and size of cards, as well as view the art itself. You will also find it helpful to look at illustrated books featuring colour images of the decks used. I’m sure you’ve all heard of experienced Tarotists urging you to ‘throw away the books’, but they are a great resource when deciding what deck to buy and how to go about learning to read the cards. Some of the books I used in my early Tarot days are still an essential part of my library and have been a great source of inspiration over the years. As with any skill, we are always learning.
One deck you will see featured in book beyond number is known as the Rider-Waite, although it may be more properly called the Coleman-Smith, giving credit to the artist who drew the original artwork. This is possibly the most widely used deck and perhaps an obvious choice for the beginner, if only because it features in such a huge range of learning material. But there are a great many other possibilities, so here’s a few ideas to help you make your choice.
At this stage, you are working purely intuitively, using your feelings, so its essential that the cards evoke some response in you. If you are drawn to a particular theme that relates to a book or film, you need to consider how well you know the story and whether you understand any teaching fables hidden within. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the love of precious things led to false values, leading to an inability to make ethical choices or sound decisions. Looking still at themes, have the characters been translated well in the specific deck, to express the archetypes of the Tarot they are given to represent? Although its true that each card has different meanings for each reader, there are subtle truths to be observed, and the card must remain true to the deeper meanings assigned to them, as well as provoking thoughtful insight in the reader.
As well as deciding upon a theme, you need to look very carefully at the art. Its of little importance that you love Greek mythology, if the imagery drawn upon the cards does not appeal to you. Just as you would not put a painting upon your wall if you did not like the artwork, you would be ill advised to buy a deck that is not pleasing to your eye. It is the visual information that makes the link between the higher consciousness and the rational mind. In other words, the pictures help us to decode the messages we receive.
So you see, its not just a matter of ordering a Tarot deck. Look at the pictures, what do they say to you? Look at the colours, are they pleasing? Look at the symbols, what, if anything, do you understand from them? How big are the cards and can you hold them comfortably in your hands? Are they clear enough for you to be able to see small details? This all may seem rather tiresome, but you are most fortunate to have such a great choice of decks. Remember, a Tarot deck is simply a tool, its purpose to help you receive and interpret information. Whether you believe this comes from your own subconscious, or from a higher source, is not important here; when you lay your cards on the table, your objective should be: message received and understood. Enjoy your browsing, take your time, and hopefully you will come home with a deck that you can work with.
Your Tarot deck of 78 cards is really two decks – Major and Minor Arcana. The 22 cards of the Major Arcana represent the journey of the self; the different personalities express different facets of the seeker’s own nature, or varying stages of their development. Like a child, The Fool begins his journey in innocence, works towards empowerment, seeks wisdom and finally comes to enlightenment. This journey deals with matters of the higher self and relates to influences and challenges of major importance. These are the issues that influence our lives profoundly, over which we may have little control but the ability to respond well. They may relate to karmic issues, spiritual paths, or other matters of life-changing importance. They tend to have long term consequences and wide ranging effects. As a tool for self-discovery and meditation, the Major cards may be used to great effect by themselves.
The 48 cards of the Minor Arcana consist of four suits, which correspond to the four elements that we work with in magic; for decks based on the Rider Waite model, we begin with Pentacles for Earth, Swords for Air, Wands for Fire and Cups for Water. In some decks you will find the names have been changed to work with the theme, but there is generally a guide provided to help you make the transition; its not that big a leap of the imagination to recognise Rods as Wands, Blades as Swords or Chalices as Cups, for example. If you prefer to keep things simple in the early days, buy a Rider Waite clone featuring the original suits and corresponding elements.
Each suit also has its royal court, similar to those in playing cards. These cards are arguably the most difficult to read, and would warrant an article to themselves! Suffice it to say, they usually comprise a family of Page, Knight, Queen and King, who represent actual people or personality traits. In a reading, the Minor cards relate to the personal choices that we make day-to-day: finances, relationships, career, friendships and all the things which make up our everyday view of reality. Their influences, though often felt as keenly in the moment, can be dealt with perhaps more prosaically than those of the Majors, and their effects are more transitory.
There are many different ways to learn to use your cards and form that elusive connection that experienced readers tend to speak of with such certainty. To start with use a book; it’s a sound beginning and we must all start somewhere. Have fun, don’t be afraid to play with your deck and practise on your friends and family. Make sure you read the part about the ethics of divination and remember, unless you are a registered doctor, it is not your place to diagnose illness or predict death.
Finally, what does the Tarot mean to you? If you look at the cards as portraying an immovable vision of a fixed future, I believe you are doing yourself, and those you read for, a disservice. If you believe that the Tarot offers a mirror to the past and a window to a possible future, you will offer your querent the opportunity to become the creator of their own destiny. I believe that we all hold the seeds to our own potential and that the Tarot helps us to shine a light into the places of darkness where the future lies dreaming.
Walk in Beauty – Freespirit © 2006
Originally published in Witchcraft & Wicca Beltane to Lammas 2006