Demystifying The Enigma

What is the Tarot, and where does it come from? Well, we really don’t know for sure. What we do know is that in the fifteenth century, brightly colored decks with detailed pictures were commissioned by wealthy patrons, for the use in games of the time.

Some of these decks, such as the Visconti-Sforza, which was created around 1450 still exist. Any card decks from much earlier times have been lost to us, so we really don’t know when the first decks of cards were created. We do know that cards similar to our modern poker decks were used for games of chance as early as the middle ages.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these same cards were discovered by Occult Scholars, who recognized that the intricate pictures on the cards could be more than simple decoration used in games to amuse bored Aristocrats. These same scholars revealed, or created the “true” history of the cards, by connecting them to various mystical systems, such as Egyptian Mysteries, Hermetic philosophy, alchemy, and the Kabala.

These ideas of ancient wisdom carried down through the ages, captured in picture cards were continued into the twentieth century by various secret societies, such as the Order of The Golden Dawn. Such societies attached numerological significance to each card, as well as using other pre-existing systems.

Lights, Camera, Tarot

While the Tarot has been used by occult practitioners for several centuries, it wasn’t until popular movies introduced them to the masses, that it has become more main stream. Unfortunately, the writers of those movies usually took the pictures of the various cards in a much more literal way than is correct. 

So you get a scene where the reader lays down cards, one after the other in a dramatic fashion, and almost always the last card to be dealt is the Death Card, which in the movie, foreshadows some terrible calamity.

On the positive side, the popularity that came with the movies, has allowed for a much wider variety of Tarot decks. Not only can you buy in almost any bookstore, the venerable Rider-Waite deck, but there are now decks of all types and styles. These include Native American, Angels, Goddess, Norse, Arthurian, and the deck I use, the Witches Tarot.

Before you can read Tarot, you must choose a deck. With the great variety of decks to choose from, it can be a daunting task to choose only one. So how do you choose? You need to find a deck that “talks” to you. What do I mean by a deck that talks? Most decks now, have pictures on every card. It used to be that only the Major Arcana had pictures, all the rest (the 52 Minor Arcana) simply showed number and suit, just like regular playing cards.

For learning the Tarot, it is best to get a deck with pictures on every card. Most metaphysical bookstores will have display decks for each kind that they sell, so that you can look through them before buying, your average bookstore may not. What you are looking for, is a deck with pictures that seem to tell a story to you. Each card tells a different story. When you find a deck where the story just seems to come out on several cards, that deck is talking to you.

The pictures on each card are symbolic representations, and are interpreted, similar to dreams. Just like dreams, each person is going to interpret the same picture differently. The cards are simply tools, they have no way to magickally forecast the future. The pictures on the cards help stimulate a connection with the subconscious, and as you’ll remember from What Is Ritual, the subconscious speaks in images.

The subconscious somehow allows us to tap into energies that are not bound by the concept of time or space. We already know from Quantum Mechanics that certain particles exist in flux, and seem to move through time and space, first appearing in one place, then nearly simultaneously moving somewhere else. It seems that the subconscious has an ability to access information from some source unknown to us, that is not bound by our limited perceptions.

9 of PentaclesWhen I look at a card from the Witches Tarot such as the nine of Pentacles, the first thing I see is a woman in a field of sunflowers. Next, I notice that she is visibly pregnant. Finally, I note that she seems to be looking off into the distance, as though looking or waiting for someone.

This card to me, seems to tell the story of a young woman, walking calmly through the countryside, thinking of her lover. To someone else, it may tell a completely different story. But by looking at the stories of each of the cards laid down in the spread, knowing the meanings of the suits, and where in the spread the card sits, I can give a reading to another person without ever asking what their question is.

This ability to access unknown information is not trickery or magick, it is simply a matter of practice.

Once you have chosen your deck, you must spend some quality time with it, getting to know each of the 72 cards in turn. This is not something to be rushed. 

Only by looking at each card, perhaps meditating on it, and learning its story, can you begin to read the cards. This is why I prefer Tarot to other methods such as Runes. Rune staves just don’t talk to me.

I don’t have the space here to teach a full course in Tarot, though there are online courses available. I can however give you some basic information so that you can decide if Tarot is something you wish to pursue further.

In the normal Tarot deck, there are a total of 72 cards, twenty Major Arcana and 52 Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are each numbered one through twenty, and each has a title. The Death Card used in the movie example above, is in the Major Arcana.

The Minor Arcana is very much like a standard card deck. There are 52 cards labeled Ace through ten, and three Court cards, divided into four suits. The Court cards in a standard playing deck are jack, Queen, and King. In the Tarot, they are Page or Knight, Queen, and King. The Witches Tarot is a bit different from the average Tarot deck, in that instead of a Page or Knight in each suit, it has Prince and Princess cards.

The four suits of the Tarot are Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles. These four suits can be equated to the suits in a regular playing deck, Swords/Spades, Wands/Clubs, Cups/Hearts, and Pentacles/Diamonds. This pairing with the regular card deck can be useful when learning what the suits represent. In the Tarot, the suit of Cups represent emotion (Hearts), and Pentacles can represent wealth (Diamonds) or material gain. The suit of Swords represent action (Spades), and Wands represent knowledge (Clubs).

You will also notice that each of the four suits are Tools used in ritual, and therefore each represents a Direction, and as well as an Element. If you are unsure of what Direction/Element each suit represents, look at the Tools page.

So, how does knowing what the suits represent, help us in a reading? Let’s use the Ace of each suit as an example.

Ace of SwordsAce of Cups
The Ace by itself represents something new, but what is it that is new? Since Swords represent action, if the ace of Swords came up in a reading, it would most likely tell the start of a new action. The person with the question is, has, or will, do something new.

The Ace of Cups? Cups are emotion, so the querent may be looking at a new relationship of some kind.

Ace of Wands represents new knowledge or learning, so the questioner may come into new information relating to the question they have, or a new idea may strike them. Ace of Pentacles is new money, or material gain. Perhaps a new job?

Ace of WandsAce of Pentacles
These are of course the most simplistic of interpretations because the cards are taken out of context. Where do you find the context? You find context in the way the cards are laid out, which is called the spread. There are an innumerable number of spreads, and variations. In fact, you can create your own if you wish. The most common spread, is probably the Celtic Cross.

The basic Celtic Cross is a ten card spread. But first, the ritual (there’s always a ritual). Before laying the spread, the person with the question shuffles the cards. They are usually instructed to shuffle the cards in any fashion they like, for as long as they feel they need to, while concentrating on their question. Once the cards are shuffled, the querent is asked to cut the cards into three piles from left to right, usually with their left hand. The reader then gathers the piles together in whatever order seems right.

There’s really no trick to this, both the querent and the reader are allowing the subconscious mind to control their actions. The one with the question shuffles the cards while thinking about their question, and the reader picks up the three piles randomly, or uses their intuition.

What’s the Spread?

Now it’s time to lay the spread. In the Celtic Cross, the first two cards are laid down, one on top of the other, perpendicular to it. The top card crossing the bottom card. The third card is laid to the left of the first two, the fourth above the first two, the fifth to the right, and the sixth below. Now you have a cross, with two cards in the center, and one card at each of the points. The last four cards are laid to the right of this in a vertical column, from bottom to top.

The cards can be laid face up or face down. Typically, if they are laid face down, they are turned over one at a time and the interpretation given as each card is revealed. If they are laid face up, the interpretation is given as each card is laid.

Now comes the tricky part. Each card has two meanings, dependant on its orientation. If the card appears right side up to the reader, it means one thing. If the card appeared upside down to the reader, it has another meaning known as the reverse meaning. Many times, if the card means one thing right side up, its reversed meaning is the opposite, or that it won’t happen.

Each position in the spread also has a meaning.

  • In the Celtic Cross, the first card represents present influences. This can be influences on the person asking the question, or on the situation the question is about, but the influences are happening now.
  • The second card, which crosses the first (the Cross Card), represents present events which will affect the person asking the question.
  • The third card represents past events which will affect the querent.
  • The fourth card indicates past, or passing influences. Again, this can be about the querent, or the situation asked about.
  • The fifth card represents future events. It is important to remember that the future is fluid. This card represents what is most likely to happen, if nothing changes. We all have free will, after all.
  • The sixth card is future influences. Again, these may or may not happen, depending on what action the querent takes due to the reading.
  • The seventh card represents the querent’s environment. These are things like home, friends, and work.
  • The eighth card represents the querent’s strength. How are they able to handle whatever comes at them? Do they have the will power to do what must be done?
  • Card nine represents the hopes and fears of the questioner. You will find that this card always can be looked at both ways. On one side, you hope for this, on the other, you fear that.
  • The tenth and final card shows the final outcome. Again, this is based on there being no change in the situation caused by the querent.

The Celtic Cross is a standard spread, and learned by most beginning students. It has several variations that can be used to add detail to the reading. For example, should the querent have questions about any of the cards in the spread, three more cards can be drawn in order from the top of the deck, and interpreted as they relate to the position of the card in question.

The reader must always be careful not to put personal bias into the reading. This is why most people have a hard time reading for themselves. Usually if you have a question that requires divination, it tends to be a question of some importance. It’s only natural to want a particular outcome. This will tend to affect how you interpret the cards.

If you are reading for yourself, especially when first starting out, it’s best to ask general questions, such as “How will my day go?” or “What is in store for me this month?”

Another thing to keep in mind, is that a question asked more than once, tends to give cards that make no sense when interpreted together. The cards seem to say, “You asked your question, you got your answer, stop asking for answers you already know.”

Reading Tarot can be as simple as asking a yes/no question, drawing the top card from the deck, and doing a basic interpretation, or it can be as complex as you want to make it.

The main thing to remember is to look at each card, and let it tell you what it means. As you practice, you will find that certain cards seem to always mean the same thing, and that certain cards always seem to come up for the same people.

There’s no magick involved, but there can be a great deal of psycho analysis. The Tarot allows the reader to create a connection to their subconscious, and thereby tap into knowledge not usually known.

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