No one really knows when or where the tarot came into being. What we do know is that decks similar to modern ones were used during the Renaissance in both Italy and France. The earliest known tarot deck still in existence dates back to the early 1840s. The first entire deck still extant was painted by the Italian artist Bonifacio Bembo for the Duke of Milan.
During the Middle Ages, people who used divination devices risked punishment if caught. Therefore, wise men and women may have taken the tarot to other parts of the world to protect it from being destroyed. Some researchers believe gypsies were responsible for bringing tarot cards from the Middle East back to Europe, where they gained popularity during the Renaissance.
Most contemporary tarot decks contain seventy-eight cards. Twenty-two of these make up what's known as the major arcana, which researchers believe composed the original tarot. These are the most powerful cards in the deck. Tarot readers generally agree that they indicate energies operating on many levels beyond the mundane.
The other fifty-six cards are called the minor arcana. Most likely, these were added at a later date and may have developed from an early Italian card game called tarrochi. Notice the similarities between the minor arcana cards and a regular poker deck. Both contain four suits of ten numbered cards each, and both feature “court cards.” However, most tarot decks include four court cards per suit — king, queen, knight, and page — whereas poker decks only have three. Some authorities say the Joker is a reinterpretation of The Fool card from the major arcana.
Consulting the Tarot
When you consult the tarot, you usually start by shuffling the cards while contemplating a question or situation you want to know more about. Then you lay out a certain number of cards in a prescribed pattern known as a “spread.” Each position in the spread signifies something different: the past, present, future, other people, obstacles to overcome, beneficent forces, and so on. To get an answer, you interpret the meanings of the individual cards along with their positions in the spread.
Major arcana represent divine wisdom, spiritual forces, or fate.
Minor arcana cards depict everyday events and activities.
Court cards often describe the people around you: kings refer to mature men, queens to mature women, knights to young or immature people, and pages to children.
Numbers on the minor arcana cards have special meanings. Refer to Chapter 12 for information about the symbolism and significance of numbers.
When many major arcana cards appear in a reading, the indication is that situations in your life are being influenced by circumstances outside your control. Minor arcana cards describe areas in life over which you have control.
The most popular tarot deck today is known as the Rider-Waite deck, created in 1909 by Pamela Colman Smith in collaboration with Arthur Edward Waite and published by William Rider and Son. Many recent decks incorporate cultural, philosophical, or spiritual themes — including Wicca — into their designs. Others base their images on a specific motif, such as angels, dragons, or crystals.
The four suits of the tarot are important, too. They symbolize the four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. Notice that the suits depict the four primary tools used by witches and other magicians: the wand, pentacle, athame (or sword), and chalice (or cup). The suits in a regular deck of playing cards also correspond to the four elements.
These connections are intentional, not coincidental. A reading that includes many pentacles indicates that money, material concerns, and/or practical matters are of primary interest to the person for whom the reading is being done. If many cups appear in a reading, the question involves a relationship or an emotional situation.
Other Magickal Ways to Use Tarot Cards
The vivid imagery on tarot cards makes them ideal for spellworking — and many witches use them for this purpose. One of the easiest and most popular methods is to choose a card that symbolizes your intention. Then place the card on your altar or display it where you'll see it often to remind you of your goal. If you know feng shui, put the card in the appropriate gua of your home to blend the magick of both systems.
Tarot cards and candles combine nicely, too. Select a card that symbolizes your intention and place it in front of a candle. Then light the candle and gaze at the card, projecting your will toward your goal. If you prefer, lay a card of your choice on your altar, face up, and set a crystal on top of the card. The crystal's point directs the imagery on the card outward to fulfill your intention.
Tarot cards are wonderful aids to meditation and contemplation. Choose a card that represents a situation or condition you seek, such as Temperance or Strength. Gaze at the image on the card and allow your mind to reflect upon its meaning. The card's symbolism will influence your subconscious.
Tarot cards also can be added to amulets and talismans. Select a card (from a deck you don't ordinarily use for readings) and slip it into a mojo bag, where it will complement the other ingredients. If you want to attract prosperity, for example, choose the nine or ten of pentacles. Or carry the card in your wallet or purse to draw money your way.