What is the Tarot?

“Human memory creates traditions just as cellular memory creates the new leaves on trees and the colour of our eyes. Imagine a tradition of almost eighty pictures, fertile with symbolism, call to you from a world just beyond the everyday – reminding you of who you are, and of who you might become. This is the Tarot.” – Philip Carr-Gomm. The DruidCraft Tarot.

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I bought my first deck of Tarot cards from Waterstones in Cork when I was seventeen. I remember spending hours on my bedroom floor listening to Skunk Anansi pouring over the images, their relationships, the stories of each card and the story of the deck as a whole.

In a deck of ordinary playing cards, there are 4 suits, 10 numbered cards per suit and 3 face cards, plus 2 jokers.  In Tarot, there are 4 suits, 10 numbered cards per suit but 4 face cards (court cards). We call this part of the deck the ‘minor arcana’ or the small mysteries. In addition, there is a second part we call the ‘major arcana’.  The major arcana is a sequence of 22 cards starting from 0 to 21.  Many of you will be familiar with the names of some of the cards from the Major Arcana, especially the darker cards so often used when fortune tellers are shown on tv dramas. 

The four suits in Tarot are traditionally and usually titled Cups, Swords, Pentacles and Wands. There are variations.  The face cards are known as the King, Queen, Knight and Page/Princess (depending on the tradition).


ImageThe tarot decks we use today come primarily from the occult societies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular the Order of the Golden Dawn which had several well known Anglo-Irish members such as WB Yeats and AE.  The order encouraged its members to do research and create their own decks. The most famous of these is the Rider-Waite Tarot.  The imagery and meanings of the cards come from Astrology, Numerology, Psychology and Qabalah. The tarot is a vast referencing system. Everyone creator of a deck as used the basic structure to illustrate their own understanding of the universe. In a sense it is little more than an alphabet and the systems of the west have written their own mythology with it.

The tarot can be used for a variety of purposes:

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  • It is a system to hold and transmit wisdom.
  • It is a tool for meditation and reflection.
  • It is a tool for divination.
  • It is a source of inspiration.

There are thousands and thousands of tarot decks in existence. The creators of each deck have used the basic structure and meaning and illustrated it with their own mythology.  This is a wonderful thing and the wealth of art is astounding.  The stories told in the tarot are universal (connection, wealth, loss, grief, training) and it is possible to illustrate it with any world view.  The tarot of the Golden Dawn and other mystery traditions was used to encode wisdom. And a student of that tradition would be able to meditate on a card or sequence of cards and understand every symbol used on it.   The creation of a deck is a very intentional thing and in a good deck everything means something.

If you go to any bookstore you can find a calendar with a thought for each day. Many people use tarot in the same way by drawing a card each day and thinking about the wisdom or the teaching it gives. Most decks will come with a book describing the lesson for each card or the suggestions.

The most commonly known use of Tarot is for divination.  I asked on Facebook this week how people would describe Tarot to those who don’t use it.  One friend came back with a wonderful answer. Using tarot for divination is like looking in a mirror.

To use the cards for divination you first have to be aware of an area of your life that isn’t working as well as you’d like. The tarot simply allows you a chance to think deeply about what’s happening. In essence, it doesn’t matter what cards come back to you.  There will always be a something in it that gives you a starting point to think and to invite greater wisdom into your life.  If you’re a religious or spiritual person, a reading is a consultation with the divine and an act of prayer.

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Finally, and I think most importantly for creative people, tarot is a source of inspiration.  If you are ever stuck for a topic or an idea, draw a card and think about what it relates to. There will be several questions in each. What are do you need to let go of. Who is a source of teaching for you.
The tarot holds many deep truths, but they can simply provide the backdrop of your work with it.  You can go as deep or as wonderfully shallowly with it as you wish.  It may be an encyclopedia of the human condition but just because you reference a book on garden plants, you don’t need to become a botanist.

Use it to suit your needs.

Do you use tarot? If so, how?

The photographs of the cards are from my own decks. They are the Druidcraft tarot and the Thoth deck.

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12 thoughts on “What is the Tarot?

  1. Thanks for this! I actually learned a few things, and you helped clarify the deck origination issue I had. Earlier this year, I borrowed a friend’s tarot deck, and was completely confused by the arcana designation. I put it to practice, did connect with the deck, but ultimately, it was difficult to translate results. So now I know persons were encouraged to create their own face cards. Also, I found out later that you’re supposed to have an accompanying book with the deck…he didn’t give me one! So I was using tarot reference web sites. I did try to incorporate tarot reading for plot development, here’s the blog: http://vonsimeon.com/2013/11/01/voodoo-in-saint-pete-and-storytelling-via-tarot-cards/

    1. Thanks for the comment and the link Von. I think it’s important to find a deck that you really connect with. I’m a member of a druid order called OBOD and the Druidcraft deck produced by it’s chief really resonates with me. I have another friend who loves the Mythic tarot because the Greek myths really speak to her.

      1. What would you recommend someone who’s very in tune with the elements? fire/water earth/sky? Also, I started to look into the Thoth deck you mention in the post, as I do identify with Ancient Eygyptian mythology, and Thoth in particular.

        1. The Thoth deck is really beautiful. It doesn’t come with a book but there are many books written about it. Ask to look at a few decks in your local store. They usually have display copies.

    1. Thank you John. Once I have (nay! make!) time for more writing, I’m going to direct it that way. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to explore on here, let me know.

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