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Frequently Asked Questions about the Tarot

1. What is a tarot deck?
2. Where can I get one?
3. How do current decks differ?
4. How do I use a Tarot deck to 'tell the future'?
5. How do I use a Tarot deck for meditation?
6. What is the history of the Tarot?
7. Is the Tarot related to Kabalah?
8. How is the Tarot related to other forms of divination?
9. What books might I read if I wanted to learn more about Tarot?

1. What is a tarot deck?

The Tarot was originally a deck of 78 cards, divided into 4 suits of 14 cards (the standard ace-10, then page, knight, queen, and king) and 22 un-numbered 'triumphs' or 'trumps'. Over the years, the trumps got numbered 1 to 21, with one card (the fool) remaining un-numbered or sometimes being 0. The 4 suits are commonly called the 'Minor Arcana' and the trump cards are called the 'Major Arcana'. More loosely, any deck of cards designed for 'fotune-telling', divination, meditation, contemplation, or other non-game uses is popularly called a Tarot deck.

The most commonly found suits for Tarot decks are cups, swords, wands or staffs (probably originally polo-sticks), and pentacles (originally coins). The names of the Major Arcana cards frequently change from deck to deck, but historically they've been The Fool (un-numbered or 0), The Magician (I), The High Priestess (originally the Popess) (II), The Empress (III), The Emperor (IV), The Heirophant (originally the Pope) (V), The Lovers (VI), The Chariot (VII), Strength (VIII, originally XI), The Hermit (IX), The Wheel of Fortune (X), Justice (XI, originally VIII), The Hanged Man (XII), Death (XIII), Temperance (XIV), The Devil (XV), The Tower (XVI), The Star (XVII), The Moon (XVIII), The Sun (XIX), Judgement (XX), and The World (XXI). The Major Arcana cards are usually illustrated, frequently the Minor Arcana cards are, as well.

2. Where can I get one?

Most 'new age' or occult bookstores carry a variety of Tarot decks. So do many 'mainstream' bookstores. So do many 'new age' catalogs. So does U.S. Games Systems and a few other card dealers. For a secret source of wisdom from the distant past, it's pretty available.

3. How do current decks differ?

Mostly in artistic style. Tarot decks come in a bewildering variety these days. You can find oversized, undersized, or round decks. Some have more than 78 cards, some less. Some are based on a particular mythic cycle. Some are based on a particular psychological theory. Some are based on channeled information. Some are just hard to describe.

A 'historical' deck has simply one, two, or however many wands, cups, or whatever for the number cards.

A.E. Waite first popularized a deck which has illustrations on all 78 cards (painted by Pamela Colman Smith), which has become the model for the greatest number of other currently available decks.

A. Crowley popularized a deck which had arcane symbols, but not real 'illustrations' on the number cards (painter by Lady Frieda Harris). Decks which follow those basic setups are decendants from these earlier ones.

For the beginner, it is probably best to choose a deck which is stylistically appealing over any other consideration. But it is also probably best to pick a 'standard' deck (78 cards, etc.), if only so that if you later choose to study of other people's writings won't seem hopelessly obscure.

4. How do I use a Tarot deck to 'tell the future'?

Study the cards and learn their meanings. Practice a lot, on yourself, friends, or total strangers as suits your personal leanings. Eventually, you should get pretty good.

Some people prefer to learn the cards intuitively, by studying the illustrations, meditating on them, and carefully recording their reactions to them. Most people just read the little booklet that inevitably comes with the deck. For people who prefer a more detailed learning process, I recommend starting with Butler's _Dictionary of the Tarot_, which contains a summary of the interpretation each card has gotten from some of the major historical figures associated with the Tarot.

The most common 'spread' for Tarot readings is called the 'Celtic Cross'. It's probably described in the booklet that came with your deck, but just for completeness, it looks like:

          4.        10.
     5.   1&2. 6.    9.
          3.         8.
                     7.


1. Represents where the querent is at the time of the reading.
2. Lies across 1. and represents what holds the querent where they are.
3. Represents the 'base of the question' - why it is being asked.
4. Represents how the querent has been thinking about the question.
5. Represents the 'recent past' (usually considered as 1-3 months)
6. Represents the 'near future' (ditto)
7. Represents what the querent has to bring to the situation.
8. Represents what the situation has to offer the querent.
9. Represents the querent's innermost hopes and/or fears.
10. Represents the final outcome of the situation, unless deliberately changed.

And again, practice, practice, practice.

5. How do I use a Tarot deck for meditation?

One simple technique is to select a card and use it as a miniature mandala. Or put out an array of cards and do the same. Some people pick a card in the morning and use it as a 'focus point' for the day - looking for aspects of that cards meaning in the events that occur to them. Some people have created entire 'guided meditations' that take you through the entire Major Arcana.

6. What is the history of the Tarot?

No-one knows the 'true' origin of the Tarot. The most common myth is that it was brought to Europe by the Gypsies - but this myth come from the fact that very early occultists who used the Tarot fancied that it came from Egypt. They were as wrong about that as they were about the homeland of the Gypsies.
In fact, the Tarot came to Europe about the same time as any other form of playing card, in the early/mid 1300's. It is most closely related to the 'Mamluk' deck of the Islamic world, which had suits cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks.
The Tarot was originally used for a game called 'tarocchi' in Italy, which is sort of a distant cousin to Bridge. Tarocchi is still played in some parts of the world, not usually with the same decks the 'fortune tellers' use. The game was quite popular for a time among the royalty in Italy, and sometimes a duke would commision an artist to create a really nice deck. Some of the earliest surviving Tarot decks come from this source. Plainer decks existed, but were not well made enough, or well thought-of enough, to survive the intervening 600 years.
The Joker of 'standard' card decks is _not_ related to the Fool of Tarot. The Joker was invented as a wild card for Euchre in the 1800's, in a part of the world where the Tarot was virtually or totally unknown.
The Tarot was first associated with the occult by Antoine Court de Gebelin, a relatively obscure Parisian mason who wrote about the deck in 1781. He invented a lot of the standard myths about the Tarot which were later popularized by others (it comes from ancient Egypt, the Major Arcana is related to the Kabalah, etc.). The first big popularizer of the deck was a contemporary of de Gebelin, called Etteilla, who published the first 'revised and corrected' Tarot deck for divination. The fad was caught up by Eliphas Levi, Oswald Wirth, and Papus, among others. From Papus, the Tarot caught on with some English mystics, such as S.L. Mathers (whose mistranslation of Levi brought us the suit of pentacles), A.E. Waite, and A. Crowley. The Tarot received a lot of attention from these folks, and they created a fairly large body of writing on the use of Tarot. For the most part they thought that divination was a 'lower' use of the cards, that ideally it should be used to put you in touch with eternal verities, usually in conjunction with whatever magickal order they happened to be involoved with. But of course, divination was the most popular use for the cards.
Most of the Tarot decks on the market were created this century, most of those in the last 20 years.

7. Is the Tarot related to Kabalah?

de Gebelin fancied that, since there were 22 Major Arcana cards and 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the two must be related. Most of the people who followed him went with this assumption. There's been considerable disagreement as to how exactly this should work (which letter with which card), and if you're interested in using this connection, you should probably just go with whatever correspondance the creator of your deck settled on.

8. How is the Tarot related to other forms of divination?

Basically, it ain't. Historically, at least. But many people who have some skill in one of these other arts have sometimes tried to find correspondences between them and the Tarot. Of the people I've talked to who are skilled in runes/astrology/i ching/etc., most of them wish the people who made such decks wouldn't bother. But, some people like them. If you're already familiar with one of these other systems of divination and wish to study the Tarot as well, it may be a worthwhile 'shortcut' to pick one of these decks. For a novice, it is probably more confusing than it needs to be.

9. What books might I read if I wanted to learn more about Tarot?

Below is a subjective, and massively incomplete, list of some of the books about Tarot currently on the market.

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