What is Tarot? A Brief Overview of Tarot Reading

What is Tarot? A Brief Overview of Tarot Reading

Tarot reading is the practice of divining wisdom and guidance through a specific spread (or layout) of tarot cards. However, contrary to popular belief, the cards do not tell your fortune, and one does not have to be a psychic to give tarot readings. The cards are meant to provide insight into the innermost truths of your Higher Self. In other words, the cards provide an evolved awareness of what you already know deep within.

Tarot Reading

History of the Tarot

In 1791, Jean-Baptiste Alliette designed the first tarot deck created for occult practices and divination. Until that point, tarot decks were used as playing cards for entertainment throughout regions of Italy and France.

Jean-Baptiste Alliette recognized the correspondences tarot shared with astrology, the four elements, and the four humors. He proceeded to revise the cards strictly for esoteric use, popularizing tarot prophecy. His magical pseudonym, Etteilla (his surname inverted), is the name by which he is most commonly known in tarot lore. Etteilla believed that tarot was divinely inspired by the Book of Thoth, thus his deck was heavily influenced by these ancient Egyptian texts.

He was the first to divide the 78-card occult deck into its two distinct categories, which came to be called the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana.

The Meaning of the Tarot

There are 22 cards of the Major Arcana, which divulge greater secrets, and 56 cards of the Minor Arcana, which divulge lesser secrets and are further divided into four suits. These suits of the Minor Arcana include Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles. The 14 cards in each suit are numbered Ace through Ten, then the face cards, Page, Knight, Queen, and King.

The Minor Arcana of the tarot symbolize circadian aspects of life, giving insight into trivial ups and downs. Each suit represents an attitude, temperament, or even a physical attribute. For instance, per the Rider-Waite instructional booklet, Wands represent a person of yellow hair and blue eyes, while Pentacles represent a person of dark complexion. But this can also be interpreted to mean a fairness of spirit or darkness of energetic frequency. Determining a card’s significance is up to the formulation of the reader in relation to all other cards in the spread. Then, each numbered card and face card holds its own significance as associated with the suit it falls under. In other words, the Queen of Cups signifies success, happiness, pleasure, wisdom, and virtue, while the Queen of Swords signifies widowhood, sadness, embarrassment, separation, sterility, and mourning.  

Tarot Minor Arcana
Tarot Minor Arcana

The Major Arcana are numbered 0 through 21, starting with The Fool, and ending with The World. These cards align with the milestones of Story, or The Hero’s Journey, which one could ascertain from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In this sense, the cards of the Major Arcana represent the 22 inevitable phases or passages of every journey, which we will all encounter during our lives, but not necessarily in this order. It is also possible for these phases to repeat themselves, and recur multiple times throughout one’s life, creating a cyclical nature in which there is no true beginning or end.

Tarot Major Arcana
Tarot Major Arcana

Briefly, these tarot card meanings are as follows:

0. The Fool – folly, extravagance, intoxication, delirium

    1. The Magician – skill, diplomacy, self-confidence, pain, disaster, loss

    2. The High Priestess – mystery, secrets, the unknown future

    3. The Empress – action, fruitfulness, difficulty, ignorance, doubt

    4. The Emperor – power, stability, protection, conviction, reason

    5. The Hierophant – captivity, servitude, marriage, inspiration, mercy

    6. The Lovers – love, beauty, attraction, trials overcome

    7. The Chariot – relief, providence, war, vengeance, triumph

    8. Strength – courage, energy, action, power

    9. The Hermit – prudence, betrayal, corruption

   10. Wheel of Fortune – destiny, felicity, luck, success

   11. Justice – rightness, equity, morality

   12. The Hanged Man – discernment, sacrifice, intuition, prophecy

   13. Death – mortality, destruction, the end, transition

   14. Temperance – frugality, adaptation, moderation, economy

   15. The Devil – violence, fatality, vehemence, ruin

   16. The Tower – distress, indigence, disgrace, adversity, calamity

   17. The Star – abandonment, loss, theft, hope, bright prospects

   18. The Moon – darkness, hidden enemies, danger, deception

   19. The Sun – contentment, material happiness, fortunate marriage

   20. The Last Judgment – renewal, rebirth, change, outcome

   21. The World – voyage, success, flight

Reversed Tarot Card Meanings

reversed tarot card meaning
The center and lower cards are upside-down, or “reversed”.

Occult tarot cards generally depict the corresponding illustrations as a single image in an upright position (rather than the playing cards we’re used to that display a dual image facing both right-side-up and upside-down). As such, when the cards are collected from a prior reading, shuffled, or moved about, some of them are bound to get turned around.

So what happens when one of the cards in your tarot reading is placed upside-down? This reversed tarot card can be interpreted to hold various meanings. Many believe this simply means that the significance of the card is present in your life, but its powers are weakened or blocked by something. Others believe this to mean you are unwilling to work with the energy that this card signifies. And yet others interpret a reversed tarot card to mean that the opposite or inverse of that card’s significance is present. Some decks (such as the classic Rider-Waite) provide you with an official “reversed” meaning along with the main divinatory significance of each card.

Which is the Best Tarot Deck?

There is no “best” tarot deck. The Rider-Waite is one of the oldest and most widely used decks, with original artwork dating back to the early 1900s. However, hundreds of decks with various themes have been created since then. You can find everything from fiction-based decks like Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, and My Little Pony, to other themes like Kama Sutra, Steampunk, Hollywood, and even Gummy Bear. (There’s really something for everyone!) More universally relevant, less kitschy decks include The Thoth Tarot, The Golden Tarot, The Hermetic Tarot, The Wildwood Tarot, and many more.

The paramount deck for you is whatever calls to you, whatever theme resonates with your journey.

Types of Tarot Spreads

celtic cross tarot spread
Celtic Cross tarot spread. Some of the cards are reversed here, too.

There are several types of tarot spreads. Perhaps the most classic is an 11-card layout called The Celtic Cross (11 cards including the Significator). There is also a Tree of Life spread, a Planetary spread, the Tetraktys spread, and the Pentagram spread, among many, many others.

Some readers like to do simpler, smaller spreads of only three cards. A three-card spread can have many interpretations in and of itself; for example Past-Present-Future, Mind-Body-Spirit, or Situation-Action-Outcome. The number of three-card spreads is virtually endless.

Learn More About the Tarot

Want to learn more about tarot reading and the significance of the cards? Sage Goddess founder and CEO, Athena Perrakis, is offering a one-time-only monthly class on the Major Arcana, accompanied by original classroom content and suggested divination tools to correspond with the tarot journey. Her class is an in-depth review of two cards per month, and will conclude at the end of 2016.