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Tarot decks
The Tarot

If you're interested in witchcraft, you'll eventually become curious about Tarot (pronounced TAR-O) cards.

The first Tarot deck was made ca. 1450. It is referred to as the "Visconti" or "Visconti-Forza" deck, although at the time, it didn't have any such designation. It would have been hand-drawn, not printed; it pre-dates the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed around 1454.

The full (traditional) Tarot deck has 78 cards.

Twenty-two of them constitute the "Major Arcana" or "Trumps" (arcana is a plural word which means "mysteries" or "secrets"), which includes The World, The Chariot, The Hierophant, The Magician, The Fool, The Sun, The Moon, The Lovers et al.

The "Minor Arcana" or "pips" (the other 56 cards) are similar to a regular deck of playing cards in that there are four suits: Wands, Pentacles, Cups, and Swords.   The cards run as follows: Ace, 2 through 10, the Page, the Knight, the King, and the Queen.   Four suits with 14 cards; 14x4=56.   56+22=78 cards in all.

We are told that the four suits of the Tarot deck correspond to four classes of Medieval society: Cups are the priesthood; Pentacles (coins) are the merchants; Wands (rods) are the farmers or peasants; and the Swords represent nobility.

And there are other correspondences for the four Tarot suits.

The 22 cards of the Major Arcana are more dramatic and evocative than the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana.   Some people use only the Major Arcana in divination ("readings").   I myself use all 78 cards.

Tarot Trivia

Of the 78 cards,

34 of them have a lone male figure (The Emperor, the King of Swords, the Seven of Pentacles, etc.).

11 of them have a lone female figure (The High Priestess, the Queen of Cups, the Nine of Pentacles, etc.).

10 of them have a lone figure of doubtful gender (The Sun, the Two of Swords, etc.).

15 of them contain multiple human figures (The Lovers, The Devil, the Four of Wands, etc.).

8 of them have no human figures at all (the Ace of Cups, the Eight of Wands, etc.).

There are (at least!) three ways to do Tarot readings:

1. Read all the books you can about the cards and their meanings.   Go strictly by the "official" meaning of each card.   If your book says that the Five of Wands means "unsatisfied desires, struggle, strife, labor, and obstacles," then that's what it means, without exception.   Use a traditional "spread" (such as the Celtic Cross) when you lay down the cards.

Actually, there may not be such a thing as an "official" traditional meaning for each Tarot card.   The American Tarot Association says that "no definitive 'key' to the meaning of any Tarot card exists, because meanings assigned to Tarot cards vary from book to book and user to user."   However, serious Tarot students agree that the oldest traditional meanings will be found in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite, first published in 1910.   It is available through Barnes & Noble, or you can read the entire text online if you wish.

The problem that most of us have with The Pictorial Key to the Tarot is that for some of the cards it gives alternate meanings that seem to be contradictory, and it's written in an archaic and obscure style.   One writer says that that A.E. Waite "writes in a ponderous, turgid style that hints at much and reveals little.   It is an exercise in perseverance to finish the book, and one ends not particularly better off for the process[.]"   And David Allen Hulse (in The Key of It All, Book Two: the Western Mysteries) says that "Waite was extremely long-winded, obtuse, and contradictory in expressing his opinions concerning the Tarot[.]"

Believe it or not, one of the best modern books on the subject is The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tarot and Fortune-Telling (Alpha Books).   You'll have to overlook the fact that the authors occasionally use "archetypes" from The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

Be aware that there are many, many books available on the subject of Tarot reading.   Some of them set you up so that it is impossible to give a "negative" reading.   In my humble opinion, this is essentially dishonest.   Not everyone's future is bright!

2. Do "intuitive" readings.   Open your mind, look at the cards as they turn up, and see what they seem to be saying to you.   Let your feelings guide you.

Forgive me for saying this, but I believe there are "readers" who opt for this method simply because they're too lazy to memorize a meaning for each card.

3. Give a nod to the "traditional" meanings of the cards (for instance, the Death card usually isn't negative; the Tower usually is), but use your intuition also.

I myself am a "number three" type of reader (back when I used to do readings).

Remember that "Tarot is a good servant, but a bad master."

A Tarot card can be a mirror which provides an opportunity for self-reflection. It can help you to see and understand yourself better. It can help you to become aware of misleading, arbitrary beliefs.

The card that you turn over is important, but how you look at it is even more important. And remember to watch for clues in the background. For instance: What color is the sky?

I used to imagine a tarot card reading thus: Me, the Ascended Master, sitting in front of someone who stares at me with awe and reverence. He is an empty cup waiting to be filled. As I turn over the cards and explain what each one means, his face brightens. He nods enthusiastically, yielding completely to my insight and wisdom.

That's never the way it happens. A Tarot reading is "give and take." I am reading the cards, but my Querent is "reading them with me."   It's my energy and his energy and the cards' energy all working together.

Remember that the cards are YOURS.   An example: the Thoth deck drives some readers crazy because it has one-word "hints" on the bottom border of each minor arcana card.   Some readers simply take a pair of scissors and cut off the bottom of each card.


There are literally hundreds of different Tarot decks.   My own personal favorite deck is the Universal Waite (the Royal Fez Moroccan deck is a close second).   It uses the same artwork as the Rider-Waite deck, but with slightly softer colors.   The Rider-Waite deck was first printed in 1909, and it is only the second Tarot deck in which the Minor Arcana bore allegorical drawings (the first was the Sola Busca deck).

There are a few other decks that I use that are not the original (1910) Rider-Waite deck, but are differently colored versions of Rider-Waite, such as

Classic Tarot
Classic Design Tarot
Tarot Vintage
Radiant Rider-Waite
Universal Tarot

And there are a few other decks that I use that have slight variations of the Rider-Waite artwork:

Golden Art Nouveau
New Palladini
Aquarian Tarot

If a deck strays too far from the images in the 1910 Rider-Waite deck, I have no use for it. I'm not interested in a deck that is based on animals or Disney characters or cats or vampires or mermaids or dolphins. I'm not interested in a "tarot deck" that features teddy bears or people holding machine guns.

Some of the pre-1910 decks (such as Ancient Tarot of Marseilles and Visconti-Forza) are interesting, but the pips aren't "illustrated," and I wouldn't use them for a reading.

The majority of the new "alternative" tarot decks are garbage. They remind me of the shitty new Bible translations that have come out in the last 20 years (sometime look up Revelation 3:20 in "The Message" and compare it with a REAL translation of the Bible).

Remember that not all decks are tarot decks - there are decks called "oracles" that aren't based in any way on the Tarot. These decks will contain cards with names like

"Heart Awakening"
"Gift of Sky"
"Acceptance"
"Material Happiness"
"Snow White"
"Alice in Wonderland"
"Initiate"
"Fearlessness"
"The Colander" (no shit)
"Confused"
"The Mountain"
"Accelerated Motion"

There's a deck that calls itself a tarot deck that has little statements running along the bottom such as "Imagine feeling at peace in a garden full of flowering plants."

Gimme a break.

I have no use for the new Tarot decks that feature "Princess" cards (a sop to the feminists). The Tarot doesn't have Princesses. Sorry 'bout that.

Some of the art in the "alternative" tarot decks is cartoonish - as if Stan Lee had gotten very drunk and decided to draw his version of the Chariot. If I glance at an illustration and the first thing I do is cringe, it means that this deck is not for me.


Key to the Tarot
(the meaning of each card)
Reading the Cards
Thirty-Six Deaths
(36 different versions of the Death card)
The Barbie Tarot Deck

The "Big Dog" Tarot Websites:
Aeclectic Tarot
Pictures and reviews of hundreds of tarot decks. This is the most comprehensive Tarot site on the web.
Alida
A source for hard-to-find decks.   Located in the Republic of San Marino.

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