The tarot is a set of seventy eight cards, comprising twenty one trump cards, one fool, and four suits of fourteen cards each, ten pip and four face cards. Originally developed as playing cards in 14th century Europe, the tarot evolved into a deck of cards specifically utilized for games similar to bridge.
In English speaking countries, where the games are largely unknown, Tarot cards are utilized primarily for divinatory purposes, with the trump cards plus the Fool card comprising the twenty two major arcana cards and the pip and four face cards the fifty six minor arcana.
Tarot reading revolves around the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the current and possible future situations of the subject. Some believe they are guided by a spiritual force while others believe the cards help them tap into a collective unconscious or their own creative, brainstorming subconscious.
Each card has a variety of symbolic meanings that have evolved over the years. Custom or themed tarot decks exist which have even more specific symbolism, although these are more prevalent in the English speaking world. The minor arcana cards have astrological attributions that can be used as general indicators of timing in the year, based on the Octavian calendar, and the court cards may signify different people in a tarot reading, with each suit’s nature providing hints about that person’s physical and emotional characteristics.
In the past, many occult oriented authors claimed that the symbolism’s origins are lost in time and postulated or claimed as fact non historical theories. Some authors such as Rachel Pollack have written that tarot origin myths have their own significance and value and that the reader can find a study of such myths enriching while at the same time being aware that they aren’t factually true.
Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries. Recent decks have clarified the pictures in accordance with meanings assigned to the cards by their creators. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, in part to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument and to respond to modern needs.
To perform a Tarot reading, the Tarot deck is typically shuffled by either the subject or a third party reader, and is laid out in one of a variety of patterns, often called spreads. They are then interpreted by the reader or a third party performing the reading for the subject. These might include the subject’s thoughts and desires or past, present, and future events.
Generally, each position in the spread is assigned a number, and the cards are turned over in that sequence, with each card being contemplated and interpreted before moving to the next. Each position is also associated with an interpretation, which indicates what aspect of the question the card in that position is referring to. Sometimes, rather than being dealt randomly, the initial card in a spread is intentionally chosen to represent the querent or the question being asked. This card is called the significator.
Some methods of interpreting the tarot consider cards to have different meanings depending on whether they appear upright or reversed. A reversed card is often interpreted to mean the opposite of its upright meaning. For instance, the Sun card upright may be associated with satisfaction, gratitude, health, happiness, strength, inspiration, and liberation, while in reverse it may be interpreted to mean a lack of confidence and mild unhappiness. Some card readers will interpret a reversed card as either a more intense variation of the upright card, an undeveloped trait or an issue that requires greater attention.
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to tarot symbolism. He may have regarded the tarot cards as representing archetypes or fundamental types of persons or situations embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Since the cards represent these different archetypes within each individual, ideas of the subject’s self perception can be gained by asking them to select a card that they identify with. Equally, the subject can try to clarify the situation by imagining it in terms of the archetypal ideas associated with each card.
More recently Timothy Leary suggested that the Tarot Trump cards are a pictorial representation of human development from a baby to a fully grown adult, The Fool symbolising the new born infant, The Magician symbolising the stage at which an infant starts to play with artifacts, etc. In addition to this, the Tarot Trumps were surmised to be a blue print for of the human race in the future.