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Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolic images on cards. Whatever their original significance, the Tarotcards have been used since they first surfaced as much for divinatory purposes as for trick-taking card games. Tarot is currently also used as tool for reflection on one's personal life, as well as an aid to meditation. Tarot is usually embodied in a deck of 78 cards, similar to a set of playing cards. In the English speaking world, tarot is widely regarded as a form of cartomancy. In France, the word tarot also describes a trick-taking card game. Tarot has long been regarded as taboo, due to obscure associations that predate its 19th-century occult associations. Roman Catholic sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in playing cards (though not necessarily tarot reading) can be traced to the 14th century.

The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of North Italian origin and date to the mid-15th century. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterward comparable decks were used in the game of Tarocchi. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cards became a popular in occult studies, initiated by Etteilla and Antoine Court de Gebelin. The set of 78 images is considered by students of this form of Tarot (tarotism) to be independent of details of any particular representation.

Last Updated - 8th December 2005

The Tarot Deck

The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets. The first, called the Major Arcana, consists of 22 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps". The second, called the Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits. The cards in each suit are numbered 2 through 10 with four court cards or face cards and an Ace (not dissimilar from the structure of playing cards). Arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge". Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups, although in modern decks Batons are commonly called Wands or Staves, and Coins are often Pentacles or Discs.

Differences among decks

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The Tarot has a confusing and rich symbolism because it has a confusing and rich history. Such a history is not impenetrable, however; much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one bothers to study sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the mystery of it all. The most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context -- and that, given the modern uses of the Tarot, this is actually a good thing.

Tarots are more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant today than their ancestors. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, partly at random and partly in conscious or unconscious efforts to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument.

See, for example, the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.

The twenty-two cards in the major arcana are:

    1. Fool
    2. Magician
    3. High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess]
    4. Empress
    5. Emperor
    6. Hierophant [or Pope]
    7. Lovers
    8. Chariot
    9. Strength
    10. Hermit
    11. Wheel of Fortune
    12. Justice
    13. Hanged Man
    14. Death
    15. Temperance
    16. Devil
    17. Tower
    18. Star
    19. Moon
    20. Sun
    21. Judgement
    22. World.
Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.

There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation, the four suits are associated with the four elements:

The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.


Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.

The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.

Interestingly, the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles tend to have a cruder and less general "algebra" than the modern ones. This is not merely an illusion of the modern eye, it reflects the general direction of evolutionary change in Tarot art over the centuries, and especially since 1900. The Tarot symbolism has rather successfully universalized itself from parochial origins.


Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.

That point of view is rare among those who practice Tarot. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. Its popularly believed that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore "insulated" by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and only touched by the diviner and person for whom the reading is done: the "querent".

There are many variations, but in a typical reading the querent shuffles the cards, then the diviner lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread. The most popular spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analysed according to their positions, their relationships and whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card has its own set of modified meanings; sometimes opposite, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.

Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word "magic" usually refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is much less common than simple divination, however.


In Tarot divination, results can be achieved with analysis of just one card, but for more thoroughness combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads. There are many many spreads, although the Celtic Cross is by far the best known, and is often taught to beginners as their first spread. More experienced practioners will use their own spreads, assigning their own meanings to the relevant positions represented.

The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout

One of the best known of spreads, its most common version consists of ten or eleven cards. The first one representing the person or situation (this is sometimes considered optional, thus the spread can also consist of 10 cards), the next six are laid atop and around it in a cross shape, and the final four in a column to the right.

Dream Interpretation


Disclaimer: The Tarot Tips / Information presented and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Tips And Treats . com and/or its partners.

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