Introduction: What are Tarot and Cartomancy?
Tarot is a system of divination, using a specific set of cards (Tarot cards), while Cartomancy is a more generic term meaning any divination method using cards, whether special ones designed for divination (be they Tarot cards or any other sort) or just playing cards. As with any system of divination or scrying, the ability or magic is in the reader, not in the cards -- the cards are purely a tool to help the reader 'focus' their ability.
Typically the reader will invite the questioner to shuffle, cut or touch the pack before they deal out the cards for the reading, although physical contact is not essential and some readers will simply focus on the questioner and their question and can read at a distance; others will invite the questioner to pick out the appropriate number of cards themselves; there are many different methods in use depending on precise tradition that the reader follows.
The reader then interprets the cards for the questioner according to an established set of correspondences. These are basically fairly standardized but each reader will have their own personal list of correspondences, often remembered by key words and phrases, and refined by experience and meditation with their own deck or decks of cards. It is essential to keep the question and, if appropriate, the applicable time-span, clearly in mind throughout the process of shuffling, cutting and dealing the cards.
The next picture shows a small selection of Tarot decks...
There are more than 1600 recorded Tarot decks in existence. This picture shows 4 cards each from just 12 of them, chosen to give some idea of the kind of range of artwork.
Top left to bottom right:
1: Marseilles Tarot: one of the oldest surviving European Tarot decks, dates from 1751.
There are some significant differences between the original Tarot, which is an entirely Pagan invention, and the later Christianized versions. Nowadays many packs follow the Christianized version, but others stay true to the original Pagan standard, and I'll explain what those differences are later in the article when I cover the Major Arcana. I always and only use traditional Pagan cards myself; I haven't included the deck I use in the picture, because I've used my own deck in all the following pictures so you'll be able to see it later on.
The standard Tarot deck consists of 78 cards. These consist of 22 Major Arcana, which denote very powerful influences on someone's life, and 56 Minor Arcana, which denote less powerful influences. The Minor Arcana are divided into four suits, called in English cups or cauldrons, rods or wands, swords, and pentacles or coins. Each suit consists of cards numbered from 1 to 10 plus 4 Court cards, in English called Page, Knight, Queen and King. The Court cards have a somewhat special function in that they can denote actual people who may play a role in the questioner's life, but they more often denote a more abstract concept like the number cards: for example, the Queen of Swords can either specifically denote a woman with dark hair who might be widowed or separated, or more abstractly can denote being on guard, separated or sad.
There are many, many different spreads, or ways of dealing out the cards and assigning their significance to different parts of the questioner's life or their specific question. They range from just 3 cards for a simple question to 13 or more cards for a detailed reading of the questioner's life prospects over the next 6-12 months (you can read for further ahead but details tend to become progressively more fuzzy). Later in the article I'll cover the spreads that I use plus a couple of others, but there are many more.
Standard historical writings on the origins of the Tarot state that it first appeared in 15th Century Italian courtly circles (the earliest literary reference I was able to find was from 1440 in Florence), and it was also claimed to have come from 'mystical' Ancient Egyptian origins, but that claim has no historical basis; its divinatory use is in fact a Romani tradition that was later "borrowed" by others -- the 15th Century is precisely when the Romani arrived in Southern Europe, and at the time we were wrongly believed to have Egyptian origins, hence the bogus Egyptian attribution of the Tarot's origins (as you may well know, the Romani did in actual fact come from India, and our language is a somewhat mangled version of medieval Hindi, but the idea that we came from Egypt persisted for a long time and is the basis for the term 'Gypsy' -- which we don't like).
You'll notice that in this picture, which is the same as the title picture but with a different caption, all the pictures have an obvious common factor; all the questioners, where they're depicted, are white Europeans, and all the readers have dark skin, hair and eyes, are dressed in a distinctive style and wear large gold hoop earrings -- they are, of course, all Romani. I have not deliberately selected the pictures for this -- in fact all depictions not only of Tarot readers or cartomancers, but of practitioners of any kind of fortune-telling or prognostic magic of any sort at all more than around 200 years old, whether written or pictorial, that I've been able to find show the practitioners as being exclusively Romani. So it's clear that not only Tarot reading but prognostic magic in general was introduced to modern Europe by the Romani, and was not taken up by Europeans until relatively recent times.
There had been a picture card game in existence in Italy, based on Greek gods and birds, around the 1400s, but that bore no resemblance to Tarot, and it was used only as a game and not for divination. There's also some evidence that the Spanish Moors had cards carrying calligraphic proverbs at the same period, but again that has no resemblance to Tarot and soon died out. When the Romani arrived in Italy and introduced the use of Tarot for divination, the Europeans used the cards only for playing card-games and not for divination -- divinatory Tarot (and for that matter, other divination practices) did not appear among Europeans themselves until well into the 18th Century!
There are some interesting relationships between Tarot and 'ordinary' playing cards: firstly, the standard playing cards that we know today developed out of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot; secondly, there exists a straightforward mapping to use a deck of playing cards in place of a Tarot deck (Minor Arcana only) for cartomantic divination, again this is a Romani tradition. In fact if you look closely at the top-left painting in the picture above, you'll see that the reader is divining with regular playing cards rather than a Tarot deck. Another interesting observation in the paintings: if you look closely at the bottom left one, you'll see that the reader is using a spread with one card in the centre and a ring of 12 cards round the outside; this is the 13-card Astrological spread, another Romani tradition and the spread that I use myself for general "life" readings, and that I'll explain in detail later in the article.
The origin of the name 'Tarot' is uncertain, and a number of suggestions, all highly implausible to my mind, have been made. I have my own suggestion, unprovable but which makes a great deal of sense since Tarot is originally and principally a Romani tradition: in Romanes there is a verb, tartava (I examine or look into), and its past participle is tarto. Given the fact that until the 20th Century there were no literate Romani and everything was oral, and the way we tend to slur our words, I think it's quite plausible for tarto to mutate into 'Tarot' -- and its meaning is highly appropriate for a divination system.
Nowadays the key role that the Romani played in the origins of Tarot reading, and of the introduction of prognostic magic in general to the Europeans, is often forgotten, though up until the early 20th Century much was made of the Romani connection by way of exploitative and, in my opinion, rather insulting and racist advertising for divination card packs of various sorts -- some of which are illustrated in the next picture:
There are any number of idiotic mistakes in the depictions of the Romani in these marketing ploys, quite aside from the basic problem of exploiting my race's reputation for having magical talents to sell cheap tacky rubbish... all the "Romani" are depicted with porcelain-white skin and rosy cheeks, which is nonsense (we're of Indian descent, after all), we have a Romani supposedly living in a Native American tipi while wearing what appears to be Arabic dress, as well as an artist who doesn't know the difference between a Romani vardo (caravan) and a Wild West-style covered wagon (or, for that matter, a Romani-style tent and a Boy Scout tent!).
There is also a relatively modern but still offensively exploitative Tarot deck known as the Buckland Romani Tarot, which claims to depict scenes from Romani life and to have a few words and phrases in Romanes on the cards. Well, I've never seen my native language mutilated so badly before, and as for the pictures, I was so shocked I couldn't even look at some of them! My native culture is in some ways rather conservative compared to Western European culture, and it seems that whoever designed that deck had some very odd ideas about my people!
There are also some related divinatory card systems which are not strictly Tarot. The best known of these is the so-called Lenormand cards, which are named after the famous Tarot reader and astrologer Mlle. Lenormand, who died in 1843, even though she never used the system -- another clear example of manufacturers trying to cash in on a famous reputation to sell a product.
The Lenormand cards started life in 1798 as a German system named 'das Spiel der Hoffnung' (game of hope) designed by a man named Johann Kaspar Hechtel. They consist of just 36 cards with simple images, and their own system of spreads and interpretation, not in any way related to Tarot. This picture shows the original set designed by Hechtel, from the British Museum.
Hechtel's system was renamed Lenormand in 1846, and from then to the present day, various Lenormand decks have been marketed, again often with the implication that the system is based on some arcane knowledge obtained "from the Gypsies" (and incidentally Mlle. Lenormand herself claimed that her own knowledge of Tarot and cartomancy came from the same source, with no evidence ever offered). I can assure you that the 36-card system does not exist at all in the Romani tradition and this is simply yet another instance of cultural exploitation!
There have been a number of other non-Tarot divinatory card systems over the years, though many of those other than Lenormand have now died out. Collectively, non-Tarot, non-Lenormand cartomantic systems are usually called "Oracle Cards". There are also a small number of extended Lenormand systems which have more than the usual 36 cards.
The following picture shows a modern Lenormand deck, with "neon" artwork:
This main article won't cover every card in the deck in detail, as it wasn't designed to teach you to be a Tarot reader, more as an overview of the subject; however by popular request I have added a much more comprehensive list of keywords covering all 78 cards here as an aid to learning to read Tarot for yourself.
Here I'll give a basic description of each category of card, starting with the Minor Arcana. For the discussion of the cards and also for example readings, I'll be using the Tarot of the Old Path, which is a strictly Pagan-tradition deck.
Rods: Mainly signify desires, activities and energy, getting things started.
Cauldrons: Mainly signify the emotional and spiritual dimension: love, relationships, emotional wellbeing.
Swords: Mainly signify struggles, either being subject to them or overcoming them.
Pentacles: Mainly signify the physical dimension: money, prosperity, work, physical wellbeing.
The Number Cards
Aces are generally to do with beginnings, while 2 through 10 denote various results connected with the properties of each suit. For example, 8 of Rods suggests sudden travel to new surroundings or a quick response; and 4 of Swords suggests a retreat from the outside world, probably with a material cost, that gives spiritual or emotional renewal. 3 of Pentacles denotes study or a learning experience, while 7 of Cauldrons denotes a difficult choice, often due to an embarrassment of riches.
The Court Cards
As I mentioned earlier, the Court cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King) are somewhat special because they can sometimes denote an actual person as well as referring to a concept in much the same way as the numbered cards do. When they refer to people, each has a particular association, as follows:
Page: Young person, male or female, open to learning
Rods: Fair or red hair, light eyes
When they denote concepts rather than individuals, the court cards work a little differently, and each has much more individual attributes: for instance the Knight of Rods tends to denote opportunism, change and departure while the Knight of Pentacles tends to denote dependability, diligence, being methodical and responsible.
The Major Arcana
I'll now give an overview of all 22 of the Major Arcana, but fairly quickly and not in great detail; these are just the principal keywords and phrases associated with the cards. I'll also mention the differences between the original Pagan decks copied from Romani culture, and the modifications introduced by the Europeans to avoid offending their 'Christian sensibilities', as these differences are all in the Major Arcana...
0: The Fool: Denotes an open choice that can go in any direction, good bad or indifferent. Can also connote recklessness or naivete.
1: The Magician (sometimes The Juggler in Christianized decks): Magic, willpower, control of the spiritual world, turning thought into action. Skill or confidence.
2: The High Priestess (sometimes La Papisa, the Popess, in Christianized decks): Wise woman, positive guiding force, in tune with power of nature. Intuitive, sometimes artistic, may occasionally be a little vindictive (e.g. hexing).
3: The Empress: Motherly, fertile, protective, successful, female wiles, female power.
4: The Emperor: Head ruling heart, material success, leadership, male power/authority, overcoming problems, reaching goals.
5: The High Priest (The Hierophant or The Pope in Christianized decks): Revelation, explanation, enlightenment, compassion, bridging physical and spiritual worlds.
6: The Lovers: Love, romance, loyalty, equality, trials overcome, relationship tested.
7: Mastery (The Chariot in Christianized decks): Overcoming, victory, success after quarrel, conquest, control, achievement possible with hard work. Occasionally, travel.
8: Strength (sometimes Fortitude in Christianized decks): Strength (spiritual or physical), willpower, courage, overcoming obstacles. Love overcoming hate. (NB. Strength and Justice swap places in certain decks, particularly Christianized ones)
9: The Wise One (The Hermit in Christianized decks): Search for truth, keeping wise counsel, discretion, soul-searching, good judgement.
10: The Wheel of fortune: Destiny, what goes around comes around, good or bad sign, inevitable, karma.
11: Justice: Fairness, justice, just reward, balance, harmony, a fair person.
12: The Lone Man (The Hanged Man or The Traitor in Christianized decks; different and much more negative meaning): Material loss leading to spiritual gain, happy despite privations, self-sacrifice, overcoming temptations.
13: The Close (Death in Christianized decks; again, much more negative meaning): Change, end of relationship, destruction, death and reincarnation, serious illness, old giving way to new.
14: The Guide (Temperance in Christianized decks): Positive influence, strong spirit (through balance), balance and moderation, self-control, compatibility, strength.
15: Temptation (The Devil in Christianized decks): Greed, temptation, lust, anger, materialism, left-hand path, (self-)destruction.
16: The Tower (sometimes Fire in Christianized decks): Traumatic change that generally leads to positive change, escape but at great cost to self, relationship breakdown, ruin, downfall. Interestingly, this card is known as o bollesko khèr (the Christian House) in the Romani tradition, and also as la Maison Dieu in some older French decks -- one in the eye for Christians who would mess with our traditions!
17: The Star: Spirituality, illumination, hope, truth, science and nature working together, health, harmony, opportunity.
18: Illusion (The Moon in Christianized decks): Illusory situation, being trapped or cheated, solitude, hidden enemies, sometimes leading to development of a psychic gift.
19: The Sun: Success, achievement, wealth, happiness, love, artistic success.
20: Karma (Judgement or The Angel in Christianized decks): Karma (law of), consequences, reaping what you sow, another chance, conscience, spiritual progress, reincarnation, liberation.
21: The World: Success, completion, achievement, spiritual consciousness, liberation.
In this section I'll first describe in detail the spreads used in my own tradition. I should also mention that in some traditions, reversible cards are used, with the idea that if a card appears upside-down, its meaning is inverted -- good for bad, or vice-versa. In my tradition we don't do that, and you'll see that my cards have a clear right way up; if you get any upside-down it just means you're being careless!
The simplest of all, good for giving insight into a simple question or a single issue -- for instance if the questioner wants to know whether a course of action they plan to embark on is sensible or not, and what its likely outcome will be.
The 3 cards are generally taken to represent the past, present and future of the situation, although there are alternative ways of doing a 3-card reading, such as using the cards to represent the impacts of the situation on mind, body and spirit. I always stick to the traditional past-present-future correspondence. Whichever correspondence you plan to use, it's essential to have that clear in your mind along with the question while shuffling, cutting and dealing out the cards.
Although the 3-card reading is normally done with the full deck, it is also possible to do it using only the 22 Major Arcana, and this can be a useful simplification for newcomers, so as to make the reading more definite and easy to interpret; it can also be used as a 'sanity check' if a full-deck reading has given a result that is a little ambiguous in its interpretation on an important question -- ask the question again using only the Majors. I have never known the second reading to contradict the first when doing this, only to clarify it.
Even when using the full deck, if the question is of sufficient gravity you will often turn up two or even three Major Arcana in any case, as you'll see from this example.
As a real example of a 3-card reading, this is a reading I did not very long ago with the full deck, to check that it was appropriate to go ahead with a hex that I was planning on a man who had become abusive towards his family. Whenever I use the Craft in a way where very fine judgement is required, I use the cards for a second opinion like this. The reading was for the implications upon the target rather than upon me.
The interpretation was that originally there was real love and loyalty there before things soured, but now there needs to be a process of learning, and if done correctly the future could bring new insight and hope. So the overall result is that the intended hex, which was designed to teach the culprit the error of his ways rather than to be punitive, and then be released when he'd learned his lesson, was right and appropriate.
Because it was a very important question and I wanted to be absolutely sure that my reading and interpretation were correct, I re-read using just the Major Arcana. I then got the same past and future cards, as expected, with just the present card replaced, by Karma. Just as the 3 of Pentacles denotes a learning experience for the target of my hex, so Karma in this case denotes that he can have another chance, if he pays the price for his past actions and progresses beyond them.
This is the spread that I use for doing detailed prognostic readings. You'll notice straight away that it looks a lot like an astrological chart, and this is intentional; the 12 cards around the outside correspond directly in their significances to the 12 houses of an astrological chart, while the centre or 'significator' card gives an overall 'significance' or 'coloration' to the entire reading.
When dealing out the cards, the significator card is dealt first, then the 12 house cards are dealt in order, first to twelfth. Interpretation follows, house by house, paying attention to the overall context of the reading as dictated by the centre card.
The text in the box gives a list of keywords as to what each house position means:
As a real example of a 13-card reading, I'm going to use one I did recently for a friend, who was in a very public-facing job but was unhappy with it and wanted to go back into a totally different career in which he'd done extremely well in the past but been forced to stop by an injury. His home came with his job, and as part of the reading I warned him that he was about to lose his home and job: this did indeed happen, and with the warning I gave him, he was prepared for it and had a new home and job to go to.
The reading looked like this, and I interpreted it like this...
Centre: Ace of Swords: Start of struggle for a good cause -- the whole reading is about the need to move on, in difficult circumstances.
1st House: 7 of Rods: Effort and courage overcome difficulties -- in 1st, need courage to break free and move on despite the disruption and costs it will cause.
2nd House: 4 of Swords: Retreating from outside world gives physical/emotional rejuvenation -- in 2nd, going from public-facing to very private and poorer paid work brings non-monetary benefits; I said the new job would be in the middle of nowhere and much less well-paid but would be satisfying and enable him to pursue his dreams; and it was!
3rd House: 3 of Rods: Help needed for success / negotiations / business skill -- you'll get a good offer from the word-of-mouth network, so take it! (and this happened).
4th House: Mastery: Overcoming struggle, winning a quarrel, possible change of location -- problems with or sudden loss of home, but will come out well in the end. In context, will lose current home but will be offered new one with new job (as happened).
5th House: The Empress: Fruitful, protective, success -- becoming able to pursue and succeed at what you want.
6th House: Queen of Cauldrons: (Concept) Kind, generous, warm, intuitive, psychic -- in 6th, need to use your own abilities to protect your own health.
7th House: Illusion: Illusory situation, trapped -- Relationship/engagement to be married is in a trapped/illusory state and is going to fail (it did).
8th House: 3 of Swords: Sorrow, absence, separation, delay, loss -- have to lose certain things, money, social life/status, relationship, in order to free self to pursue dreams.
9th House: Queen of Swords: (Concept) On guard, separation, sad -- relates to 6th and 8th, psychic skills required to protect self from (a) mental fallout from upheaval; (b) health effects of doing too much; ability to explore psychic far horizons is likely to be set back for a while as part of the price of the freedom gained.
10th House: The Lovers: Love, loyalty, trials overcome -- success in achieving ambitions; loyalty will help.
11th House: 7 of Swords: Theft without remorse, false/mistaken confidence -- be careful of untrustworthy acquaintances or of overconfidence, either could seriously derail your plans.
12th House: Close: Change, illness, ending -- beware of serious health problems or recurrence of previous problems with injury, they could end all your dreams.
I'll now briefly describe a couple of fairly well-known spreads that are not used in my tradition:
In this 10-card spread, which is only used for answering specific questions rather than general "life" readings, the first card sets the mood for the question, the second 'crosses' or opposes the questioner, the third is 'above' and denotes the questioner's wish. The fourth is 'below' and denotes the foundation of the question, while the 5th and 6th are 'behind' and 'ahead' (past and future). The 7th is the 'answer', the 8th 'stengthens' the questioner or the answer, the 9th 'describes' the questioner and the final card is presented as the 'conclusion'.
This is a 10/11-card spread (the 11th card is optional), which is based on the Kabbalistic tradition. Like the Celtic Cross, it's only used for answering specific questions rather than general "life" readings. The first two cards ("force" and "form") describe the issue under consideration, the third through sixth ("for", "against", "feelings and "thoughts") are fairly obvious, then "world" describes the questioner's relationship with the world (in the specific context of the question, of course), "persona" likewise describes their own persona, "advice" is the specific advice or answer to the question, "spirit" is how their spirit is affected by the issue, and the final, optional card represents knowledge of the hidden future.
Obviously there is a lot more that needs to be learnt if you wish to become a Tarot reader yourself,
but I hope that this has given you
a useful introduction to the subject and perhaps encouraged you to explore it further.