Thoughts, lessons, and theology from an eclectic witch from a varied background.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Cartomancy: Tarot Decks

As I said last Thursday, I have a love for Tarot. I have been reading Tarot cards for a little over twenty years now. They have a really interesting history. Also, there is a fairly substantial body of folklore surrounding Tarot that I, personally, have enjoyed reading about over the years. Lets begin with the history of the Tarot deck.

Tarot is named for the game,Tarot. The deck that we call a Tarot deck has been in use since the 15th Century. Tarot was played predominantly in Continental Europe. From what I have been able to gather in my research over the years, this started in the area of northern Italy and spread north and west. The decks from this era vary significantly from region to region.

They can have as many as 108 cards, though the common number is closer to 76. Modern Tarot decks have been to a large degree standardized since the Rider-Waite deck came into popularity in the early 20th Century. There are decks, however, that have 56 or fewer cards. The 56 card Tarot decks are of German origin. They retain the 22 trumps (also known as the Major Arcana) and have a reduced number of pip cards (also known as the Minor Arcana). Decks used for divination purposes in the modern world generally tend to fall under the category of the French suited Tarot decks and are frequently patterned after the Rider-Waite deck.

Tarot as a tool for divination came into the picture during the 18th Century. Popular folklore states that it was used by the Roma1 people to provide readings. There is inconclusive evidence that the use of Tarot as a divination tool began with these people but I have no doubts that it was utilized by them along side their preexisting divination practices as Tarot decks became inexpensive and popular. It became fashionable to use Tarot for divination within the occult community approximately around this time.

It has been used as a tool for studying the Hermetic mysteries and the Kabbalistic2 tree of life, both of which figure prominently in the works of the Order of the Golden Dawn3. In the Spiritualist society, the Tarot deck became a tool for mediums to contact the spirits of the dead. These two groups were highly influential during the 19th Century, thus the popularity of Tarot grew substantially. In fact, due to the popularity of those movements and their use of Tarot as a divination tool, people within the United States are often only aware of Tarot being used in this fashion. In Europe, however, Tarot is still played regularly and this, from what I can conclude in my study, is the predominant use of these decks.

Using a Tarot deck for divination, one has two major divisions of cards to consider. There are the Major Arcana which describe information in broad terms and were equated by C.G. Jung to be associated with archetypes present in the collective unconscious. The Minor Arcana give more specialized information and serve to flesh out what is presented by the Major Arcana. Frequently, the appearance of a Major Arcana card in a reading is placing emphasis upon the element presented, even when it is presented by other cards as well.

The basic practice of using a Tarot deck is to have the querent focus upon their question while the cards are shuffled. Some readers will have the querent shuffle the deck. Other readers will shuffle the deck themselves after the querent has held them. Yet other readers will shuffle the deck and have the querent touch the cards prior to when the cards are placed. It is not necessary, however, for the querent to have physical contact with the deck for a reading to be effective.

The cards are then placed out in a special order and pattern known as a spread. There are many different kinds of spreads that can be used. The most popular is the Celtic Cross which I mentioned last week. The purpose of a spread is to organize the information presented by the cards. While it is possible to read the cards as you pull them off of the deck, it is easier to do so with a spread that helps you ascertain what is relevant to the question.

It is my personal practice to use a spread that is focused upon the topic. I have different spreads that I use for different matters. It is possible to have information that is useful presented when a spread that is not focused upon the topic is used. I find it easier, however, to draw out the information needed with a spread that is focused on the topic.Thus if I am doing a reading that is focused upon someone's love life, I will use my love spread rather than the Celtic Cross, which narrows the scope of what is presented by the cards to focus strictly upon this topic, where as the Celtic Cross is a general purpose spread and will not be as detailed upon this matter. I can get good information from the Celtic Cross, but there will be a great deal of unrelated information to be sifted through to get to the heart of the matter.

It is also my practice that after I have concluded the reading, I will pull three cards to confirm what the reading has presented. These cards are pulled from the deck after I read the spread but before I would reshuffle the deck to read upon another matter. I do so because the deck is still attuned to the original matter and will remain focused upon it until I clear out the energies and reshuffle the cards. There are many theories as to why Tarot and other divination tools work. It is my belief that our personal energy gets imparted to a degree into the cards even as our unconscious mind organizes them. I do agree to an extent with C.G. Jung's argument that Tarot taps into the deeper collective unconscious of society and that this is why a separate person would be able to read upon the matter.

The first card relates to the past elements of the query. The second card relates to the present conditions surrounding the query. And the third card shows the future developments surrounding the matter. This simple three card spread can be used alone for a quick view into a situation. Clarifer cards can be placed upon each position. A clarifer card focuses the information from the card beneath it and reveals additional details regarding it. It is my rule that if a card requires more than three clarifier cards, I should reshuffle the deck and lay the cards out again.

There is a great deal of folklore surrounding Tarot. Some cards are regarded with suspicion. The Death card and the Ace of Swords are both popularly considered to be omens of death and disaster. (This, however, is an exceptionally rare meaning for these cards. More typically, they indicate abrupt change.) The Nine of Cups is considered a card of good luck and people will frequently make a wish when seeing it because it is reputed to grand them. I've yet to see evidence of this one being true. And there is the story that if you use a Tarot deck for any purpose aside from divination, something disastrous will occur. This is another false belief. I have played poker using a Tarot deck (lost the game, but I'm bad at poker) and nothing untoward happened.

Some people have special things they do with respect to the care of their decks. There is a good deal of folklore on this element of Tarot as a divination tool as well. The one that made the least sense to me was the assertion that a Tarot deck needed to be stored in a high place so that it did not acquire miasmic energies. The only conditions I can see this being accurate is if you are storing your deck up high so that others will not handle it. Beyond this, I have found no evidence supporting this bit of folklore. I have stored tarot decks on a high shelf and in a footlocker on the ground. There was no change in their effectiveness as a tool or their energetic status.

Another one that I have heard of is that a Tarot deck must be stored wrapped in silk and where it can not have light on it. The argument is that this will prevent the deck from losing your energetic signature. While wrapping your deck with cloth and storing it away from light will prolong the lifespan of your deck and prevent the fading of the artwork, there is no risk of your energetic signature fading as long as you handle it regularly. And, in some cases, the energetic signature wouldn't fade at all because of the strength of the impression.

There is also some folklore surrounding the reading of cards. Some people argue that one can not read for themselves. This is only applicable in the case that the reader is too close to the matter to be objective in their reading. This will interfere with your ability to read the information in the card because you are seeking a specific set of information. Aside from this, barring difficulty interpreting the cards, anyone can perform a reading for themselves. It takes a little practice, but sometimes reading your own cards can provide you with a very helpful set of information.

There is also the argument that cards should always be read upright because inverted cards invite malevolent entities. I have never had a malevolent entity show up when I have cards coming up as inverted in a reading. I suspect that this little myth is a carry over from the Protestant Christian fear that inverted religious symbols invite malevolent entities. Inverted cards can be difficult to read if the reader is only familiar with the upright meanings of the cards. It is possible, however, to draw out information from inverted cards with great success. All it takes is familiarity with your deck and practice.


1. The Roma people are more popularly known as Gypsies. I do not use this term because it is a pejorative and demeaning to this people.

2. I honestly have seen so many different spellings of this term, I have no idea which is correct. It references a Jewish magical system that was adopted by the Gnostics and then through European occultists.

3. The Order of the Golden Dawn is perhaps one of the largest and most influential occultist organizations since its founding. The only real rival to it, from what I can find, are the Free Masons. Both organizations, however, have been declining in their influence as new mystery cults arise. Much of modern paganism owes a great deal to these organizations which acted to preserve much of European occultism.

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