The Tarot cards began as a Hindu religious custom, keeping religious texts on cards, bound together by string. The cards were illustrated to explain the basic elements of the faith to the populace who were, at the time, largely illiterate. It is highly likely that they were brought to Europe by gypsies, migrating from Asia and as they spread so too did the Tarot, both as a card game, and as a fortune telling device.
At that time, in Northern Italy a game known as ‘tarocco’ or ‘tarrochi’ was gaining popularity. It’s rules were similar to those of bridge today, however it was played with a deck of 78 cards; 56 numbered and court cards, known collectively as the minor arcana, and 22 picture cards known as the major arcana. The imagery in the major arcana was both fascinating and mysterious, including such pictures as the devil, death, a man hanging by his foot, and a female pope. This was at the time of the Holy Inquisition, when the church sought to get rid of all unorthodox ways of thinking, and so it is unsurprising that the Tarot deck was given the nickname ‘The Devil’s Picturebook’.
By the late C18th the Tarot had become extremely popular, especially in France – no doubt a result of the uncertainty of those revolutionary times. It was then that the major arcana cards were first given their now traditional French titles such as ‘le pendu’ – the hanging man. I own one deck in this style, complete with the quasi-medieval imagery of the Tarot de Marseilles and the French names upon the cards.
Modern Day Tarot Cards
The deck is divided into the 22 major arcana and 56 minor arcana (arcana meaning secrets, or mysteries) cards. These can be used separately, though it is more common to use the whole deck for a reading. Once you purchase a deck of Tarot cards, you need to ‘work them in’ – handle them often to acquaint yourself with their feel, shape, size and design and to imprint them with your own psychic vibrations. Once this is done, with the exception of when you are doing readings, you should not let anyone else handle the cards. When they are not in use they should be kept in a safe place, traditionally wrapped in a cloth made of natural fibers. This is thought to protect them from absorbing impressions and vibrations from surrounding objects, in the same way as if you let someone else handle them. This could lead to less accurate readings, as you are less in tune with the cards.
Reading the Tarot Cards
When conducting a reading the cards must first be shuffled by you, and then briefly by the querant – the person you are doing the reading for. Be careful to watch the way they hold the cards – the edge of the deck that was closest to them, must also be closest to you when you lay the cards out. This will ensure that should any cards become reversed (upside down / ill-dignified), they will be lain down reversed.
After shuffling the deck, the querant should cut it twice, traditionally with their left hand as it was thought to be truest as it is closest to the heart. The first cut is laid to the left of the original pack and then a second cut is made from this new pile, and laid to the left of it. The deck is now reassembled in the same order – from right to left so the original pile is on top of the first cut, which is on top of the second cut. The cards can then be dealt from the top of this deck.
The cards are placed face down in their position in the tarot card spread of your choice and then turned over to reveal the face image. From there the reading is conducted by referencing the position of the card in the spread and the meaning of card itself, whether it is from the Major Arcana or Minor Arcana.
When you begin working with Tarot cards you may start by looking at the meanings of each individual card, but you should aim to interpret the spread as a whole. The combinations of cards, and the pattern they make in the spread can subtly change the meaning of the reading as a whole, and you should try to keep in mind that each card is simply part of a bigger picture. Also remember that the meanings you can find on this website or any other place are just a guidance, and you should trust your own judgement and intuition.
For more information on using Tarot cards check out this complete guide for beginners. It includes illustrated meanings of all the major cards in normal orientation and reversed, and in different spreads.