A Beginnerís Guide
to Learning Tarot
By James W. Revak

A DESCRIPTION OF TAROT AND ITS USES

Despite many tall tales and myths, the historical, factual record indicates that Tarot was invented in northern Italy during the early 15th century.  People used it to play a family of popular card games (similar to modern bridge) that would eventually be called Tarot.  Although Tarot decks have had significant allegorical and symbolic content from their beginnings, only much later, in the 18th century, does the record clearly indicate that people began to use the cards regularly for divination and similar activities.  One may briefly define Tarot as a deck of cards used for gaming, divination, or esoteric purposes, which comprises a non-suited group of cards called the Major Arcana and a suited group called the Minor Arcana.

Although exceptions exist, Tarot decks used for divination or esoteric purposes typically have 78 cards.  The Major Arcana, also known as the Trumps and Fool, usually comprise 22 cards, which include depictions of political leaders (e.g., the Emperor), traditional virtues (e.g., Justice), the physical universe (e.g., the Sun), and religious subjects (e.g., Judgment).  A list of typical Major Arcana numbers and titles (with common alternates in parentheses) follows.

TYPICAL MAJOR ARCANA
Number Title Number Title
0 (or no number)  Fool XI (VIII) Justice
I Magician (Mountebank)   XII Hanged Man
II High Priestess (Papess) XIII Death
III Empress XIV Temperance
IV Emperor XV Devil
V Hierophant (Pope) XVI Tower (House of God)
VI Lovers (Lover) XVII Star
VII Chariot XVIII Moon
VIII (XI) Strength (Fortitude) XIX Sun
IX Hermit XX Judgment
X Wheel of Fortune XXI Universe (World)

The Minor Arcana typically comprise 56 cards: ten numeric cards (Ace through Ten) and four court cards (usually Page, Knight, Queen, and King) in four suits (usually Wands or Batons, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles or Coins).

Today people from virtually all walks of life and spiritual orientations use Tarot for many and varied purposes, including fortune-telling, divination, meditation, “spiritual” magic (as opposed to stage magic), creative expression, problem solving, self-exploration, self-help, counselling, and exploration of philosophy and spirituality.  Some individuals use Tarot to classify and compare virtually anything based on analogy to the cards.  For example, some Tarotists classify and compare gods and goddesses, psychological personality types, animals, colors, and much more by relating them to cards that share their characteristics.

Similarly, some Tarotists have traditionally used any of numerous systems to relate Cabala and astrology to the cards.  Cabala is a kind of Jewish mysticism which Christians and esotericists later freely adapted.  It includes the association of selected spiritual ideas with letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Therefore, some decks include astrological symbols and/or Hebrew letters on selected cards.  One of the most popular systems for doing so, especially in the English-speaking world, is the complex one invented and promoted by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (an influential organization of mystics and esotericists active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).  You can use Tarot without ever knowing these systems.  However, eventually understanding one or more will enhance your experience, especially if you use a deck that employs such a system.

Of course, you can use Tarot, like any tool, for evil ends; however, the cards are inherently neither evil nor Satanic.  Uninformed critics sometimes claim that they are for a variety of reasons, including the typical depiction of the Devil as Trump XV (see table, above).  However, that makes Tarot no more evil or Satanic than the Bible and centuries of Christian art that also depict the Devil.

Finally, some people, especially in France, use Tarot cards to this day to play card games; however, they typically use decks other than those used for divination or esoteric purposes.

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Copyright © 2002 James W. Revak.  All rights reserved.  (12/10/02).