Tarot cards are a deck of 78 cards with pictures on them.
The first 22 cards of the deck are called the trumps. That’s because tarot cards were used originally as playing cards, not for divination, and the games they were used for were trick-taking games, in that certain cards “trumped” others. In tarot divination, these cards are therefore referred to as trumps, also known as the Major Arcana.
The cards were also used in 16th-century Italy in a practice called tarocchi appropriati, a literary game where trumps were assigned to actual people and then used for generating witty poetic narrative.
The other 56 cards in the deck are the pips. Those would be the equivalents to what we recognize in modern playing cards as the clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. In tarot divination, these cards are also called the Minor Arcana, and the suits are generally represented respectively as the swords, wands or batons, cups, and pentacles or coins.
Tarot and Ethical Practices
There are people who use tools such as tarot to take advantage of others who find themselves in a vulnerable situation. These readers tell tales of spells having been cast, curses that need to be removed, or tragic futures that can be avoided, for a price. That is unethical. I also feel it’s unethical to claim to have mysterious unnamed “powers” to read the cards, or connections with ambiguous “sources” that channel their messages through the cards.
I agree with the ethical statement put forward by the American Tarot Association. As with many unregulated professions without a standard accrediting body, it’s buyer beware. If you are considering handing some of your hard-earned cash for a tarot reading, find a reader who seems to click with your values and personality. That will make your experience worthwhile and hopefully increase your positive regard for the tarot as a useful tool for growth and insight.
My practice is based on a belief that tarot generates narratives that can help spark ideas for instigating positive life change or for navigating a personal decision-making process. Power for decision-making and choice should never taken out of an individual’s hands. A reading is not performed to predict the future, but rather to imagine and ponder ideas and possibilities based on the narrative shown in the cards. That process can be used as a jumping off point for exploring options for decision-making or solutions to the real-life question presented for the reading.
Reading the cards for another human being is an exchange of information, and individuals usually present questions that involve matters close to their heart, something personal for which they’re seeking guidance. Using cards in an information exchange is a unique craft. Like all creative pursuits, the artist determines the worth and beauty of his or her work, and like all observers and consumers of art, that worth and beauty is entirely subjective.
The tarot is a language of images that generates narratives.
How does tarot work?
To that I might respond, what do you mean by “it works”?
It “works” if you’re willing to have a playful spirit. Sometimes people enjoy tarot readings more when they are open to the idea that synchronicity is possible; that is, events can have a meaningful relationship (ie, cards that come up in a reading are an accurate and apt reflection of the situation at hand), without knowing exactly how or why that occurs, and without specifically doing anything to necessarily “cause” the relationship. Chance is at work in a tarot reading, since the specific cards that are turned over for a particular reading are always the result of a random shuffle. Without rational or scientific explanation, tarot cards can provide meaningful insight from the stories they generate.
What can I expect from a reading?
A better question might be to ask yourself what you are hoping to gain:
- Are you looking for someone to give you all the answers while you passively listen, or someone to take responsibility for your actions and tell you what to do? Do you think that your “destiny” is pre-determined and there’s nothing you can do to change your life? Do you require a definite yes or no answer to a question? Are you looking for “permission” from the cards to do harm to someone or get revenge? Do you think this is a superstitious occult practice that can predict your future? I do not believe in using the cards this way.
- Are you looking for information in a life situation or question that you can take into account in order to make the best possible choices for you, according to your own values and needs? Do you want to get to know yourself better? Are you open to self-reflection and taking responsibility for your life and your choices? Can you accept challenges in your life as learning experiences and be open to mystery and joy? Are you looking for a creative tool to spur inner dialogue that can help you find ways to interact more effectively with your world and the choices you face? I believe cards are a useful tool for these pursuits.
A reading is an exchange between reader and sitter, or client. Like other service professions, in order to be successful there has to be a certain amount of collaboration. In a tarot reading, that means that you will get the most out of the experience if you keep a few things in mind:
- DO be open to receiving whatever narrative is turned over.
There are no “good” or “bad” readings just as there aren’t any concrete “right” or “wrong” answers to a problem you’re facing. Moral judgements have no place in a reading, because you are the only one who can determine what choices are best for you and your individual life path. Life is not black and white, it is lived in the gray areas, and that holds true for tarot narratives as well.
- DON’T look at tarot as magic or a solution to your problems.
Tarot is a visual language that generates imaginary answers to your unanswered questions. A tarot reader crafts your narrative by reading the images for you. This interpretation can then give you a new way of looking at a situation, or objective confirmation of something you already felt you “knew” on a subconscious or “gut” level.
- DON’T use a tarot reading as a substitute for proper professional advice or medical assistance.
Tarot reading is a craft, an art form. It is a tool just like any other creative process you might use to gather information or brainstorm ideas. A tarot reading is not a tool to use in place of a doctor for a health issue, or in place of an attorney for a legal matter, or any other specialized professional for a specialized problem.
- DO enjoy the gift and mystery of this wondrous instrument and allow yourself to not know everything.
It’s human nature to want to explain everything away. But part of the beauty of a tarot reading is marveling at the mystery of it all, and opening yourself to an innate sense of play.