Skip to main content

Understanding the History, Practice, and Wisdom of Tarot

Inspirational essays and articles, with a touch of humor, are favorite topics for Ms. Giordano, a writer and public speaker.

Tarot cards are much more than fortune telling. They are for personal insight.

Tarot cards are much more than fortune telling. They are for personal insight.

What Is Tarot?

Tarot is a key—and where there is a key, there is a door.

The tarot cards are keys to the doors leading to the inner chambers of the mind and spirit, often revealing unconscious motivations, hidden fears, and secret desires.

Would you like to know the future? The responsible practice of tarot is not fortune-telling. Instead, it is a tool to help you examine and resolve the issues in your life.

The Origins of Tarot

Although no one knows when and where Tarot was first practiced, there are many theories about its origin.

Some believe that Tarot was invented in ancient Egypt because many of its symbols are linked to Egyptian lore. It may have come from "The Book of Thoth," a legendary book said to contain powerful spells and mystical knowledge.

Others say that Tarot is based on the "I Ching," an ancient Chinese form of divination that uses yarrow sticks to tell the future.

Or perhaps the Tarot is based upon the wisdom of the Hebrew "Kabala", the mystical Jewish tradition for connecting with the divine.

Another theory is that Tarot was developed by the Gnostics, an early Christian sect that was forced to take its religion underground to avoid persecution.

I like to think that Tarot is an ancient system of wisdom, perhaps dating back to the beginning of civilization. Concepts were expressed symbolically on the Tarot cards, perhaps to keep the meanings secret from all but initiates, or to avoid persecution, or maybe even because written language had not yet been invented.

A Modern Understanding of Tarot

Wherever Tarot first originated, many different cultures were fascinated with the cards, and they incorporated the cards into their own cultures.

Tarot is like a living language. It undergoes constant growth and change, but at its core, its universal meanings speak to all eras and cultures. The psychologist, C. G. Jung, explained the symbolism of the cards as representing universal archetypes.

The earliest known Tarot deck dates to 1390. It may have been brought to Europe by wandering tribes of Romani. I feel that the Romani perverted Tarot—instead of using it as a tool for spirituality and a source of wisdom, they turned it into a parlor trick. They told fortunes for money.

Today you can find many different decks of Tarot cards. Each artist interprets the cards in his or her own way, building upon the tradition of Tarot, but adding his own unique interpretation to the cards.

The Tarot Deck

The Tarot deck consists of 78 cards—56 cards in the Minor Arcana and 22 cards in the Major Arcana.

The Minor Arcana is similar to the playing cards we use today, except instead of thirteen cards per suit, there are fourteen cards. The cards go from one (ace) to ten and end with Page, Knight, Queen, and King. There are four suits—Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit is associated with a particular realm: Wands relate to creative and spiritual elements, Cups relate to emotions, Swords relate to decision-making and intellectual endeavors, and Pentacles relate to prosperity and the physical world.

The twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana each have a picture, a name, and a number. The list starts with zero—The Fool—and concludes with card 21—The World. The order of the cards is not random but is instead a progression. The Fool may represent the start of a journey, while the World represents completion or culmination.

The Major Arcana

The Rider Waite Tarot Deck

The Rider Waite Tarot Deck

The Reading

Each of the 78 cards has several related meanings. It is up to the reader to choose the exact meaning that is appropriate for the seeker. This is done through the use of intuition and the relation of the card to the other cards that have been turned face up in the reading.

There are many different systems for laying out the cards for a reading. The reader gently shuffles the deck and allows the seeker to cut the deck while thinking about his issue. The reader then lays out a number of cards according to the pattern she wishes to use. Each position in the pattern represents a particular area of the seeker's life—his past, his present, his hopes, his fears, his loves, his character.

The cards may be face up or face down. If face down, the reader will turn the cards over one by one during the course of the reading. Sometimes a picture card from the Minor Arcana, like the King or Queen, is chosen to represent the seeker before the cards are shuffled. You can learn about the various patterns for laying out the cards in any of the many books on the subject of Tarot.

My favorite technique uses only four cards for a quick five-minute reading. I deal the cards from the top of the deck face down and turn them over one by one during the reading. I find that the first two cards explore and define the issue, the third card suggests a course of action, and the fourth card indicates the outcome. As I turn over each additional card, the meanings of the preceding cards deepen and may even alter a little bit,

I keep the readings positive and constructive. Even cards with negative meanings can offer a positive message. For instance, the card "Death" from the Major Arcana does not have to mean physical death—it can mean the death of the old self, i.e., transformation, change, moving from worldly to spiritual desires.

The Celtic Cross Layout

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

More Information

There are many books which will help you to learn Tarot. I recommend Learning the Tarot: A Tarot Book for Beginners by Joan Bunning.

There are many decks of Tarot cards to choose from. Let it be an intuitive choice. Choose the deck that "speaks" to you. I like the Rider-Waite cards.

I never accept money for readings. I do it because I want to help people. Often people come to me weeks or months later and say, "You helped me so much." It is the only reward I need.

Are "Psychic Powers" Real?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano


Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 13, 2018:

Donna Owen: Tarot cards are not connected to evil or witches. Witches don't exist. I think they are fun and a good way to gain insight into your feelings. I have used them to help other people get insight into a problem they want to work on.

Donna Owen on March 13, 2018:

I have been reading my own cards for 14 years, i do understand why people think Tarot Cards are connected to evil or witches...are there differebt types? I use the Rider Waite.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 27, 2015:

I only do readings for friends and I do it the same way. If they say "Will I get sick?" I say, "It sounds like you have concerns about your health? Can you rephrase the question to "How can I deal with my health issues.'" It's not fortune telling, but as you say "a look into our inner selves."

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on July 27, 2015:

I use it as a serious tool with my clients. Sometimes they ask me to cast spells and do all kinds of odd things, and I have to tell them Tarot is a tool for understanding our inner selves.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 26, 2015:

Jean Bakula; Thank you or your information about tarot. I know a psychologist who uses tarot with her patients. I don't think tarot should be a parlor game or fortune telling. It is a tool for understanding the unconscious. Definitely very Jungian.

Jean Bakula from New Jersey on July 26, 2015:

Nice job. I think after the gypsies used the Tarot, it was a parlor game in Italy. Each person would choose a card, and make up a paragraph, or few lines about that card. The next person would choose a card, and have to add more to the story, based on the card they drew.

There is a lot of symbolism and if you read Jung (who didn't)? that can help you as a reader. There are so many great artists now making decks. I love one from the early feminist movement, called the Motherpeace deck. The cards are round, so you read them a bit differently.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on September 14, 2014:

I'm not experienced as a reader. I just dabbled and did a little research. The only thing I can say is to just listen to your intuition and you will eventually come to a place that feels right.

kevin murphy from Ireland on September 14, 2014:

I have been doing card readings for around 2 years now just as a hobby but i could never take to the tarot. I have a few oracle decks that i just change around depending on the day and how i feel. I've always felt drawn to the tarot but haven't found the right one for me, if that makes sense.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on September 14, 2014:

I only have one deck of cards that I bought many years ago. Once a bought a different deck, but I didn't like it, and I resold it on amazon.

kevin murphy from Ireland on September 14, 2014:

I was wondering, do you have a favourite deck of tarot cards?

kevin murphy from Ireland on September 14, 2014:

I couldn't agree more Catherine. haha

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on September 14, 2014:

So glad you liked the hub. "Brilliant" is high praise. What some call psychic, I call intuition. I don't believe anyone can tell the future, if they could, I'd get their advice on lottery tickets. However, everyone can nurture their intuition and become better at listening to their intuition.

kevin murphy from Ireland on September 14, 2014:

Hi there just in regards to your poll, i believe everyone has a psychic gift but its just whether they take the time to nourish it or not is another thing, ya know. brilliant hub!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on September 14, 2014:

Heidi: I agree. Tarot is very "deep." It's the pictures that give it depth and make it fascinating.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 14, 2014:

I've always thought that the Tarot provides better insight than other tools. Voted up and interesting!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on July 24, 2014:

a friend of mine read my article and asked me to do a reading for him. he asked me how long he would live. I told him I couldn't answer that kind of question, but it sounded like he had a health issue. I did a reading focusing on this issue. A week later I saw him again and he told me he had taken some steps to remedy his problem. That's what I call a successful reading.