Tarot Cards

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Tarot cards based on the Marseilles deck: the Hanging Man, the unnamed Death Card, and Temperance. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Tarot Cards

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Although tarot cards are not a tool used by mediums, they can be useful in developing psychic abilities. Mediumship deals with communication between this world and the spirit world of the deceased. Psychism is basically of this physical plane, without contacting spirits.

The deck of cards known as the tarot is divided into two parts: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana (Arcana is from the Latin word for “secret"). The two parts are dissimilar. The Major Arcana is a set of twenty-two distinctive cards, each separately titled. The Minor Arcana is a combination of four suits, each suit comprised of cards numbered from one (or Ace) to ten, plus court cards: Page, Knight, Queen, and King. The Minor Arcana is the ancestor of the everyday playing cards, though the latter do not have the Knight and the Page has become known as the Jack.

The four suits of the Minor Arcana are most commonly known as Cups, Pentacles, Wands, and Swords (which became Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades, in the regular deck). However, on different decks they are variously known by other names such as cups, chalices, cauldrons, vessels, hearts; pentacles, coins, disks, wheels, deniers, stars, bells; wands, staves, batons, rods, scepters, leaves; swords, knives, blades, spears, acorns. Some decks are specialized in their art focus, thus producing yet other names for the suits. For divinatory reading of the tarot cards, the two Arcanas are usually intermixed; shuffled together and laid out in various spreads for interpretation.

The most common names for the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant, Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Lightning-Struck Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. The order of these can vary slightly (in some decks Strength and Justice are reversed). The Fool may be placed at either the beginning or the end, and consequently is unnumbered. (The Fool became the Joker of the regular playing card deck.) These cards depict symbolic figures, elements of nature, human experiences on the spiritual journey, and hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows. They are drawn from legend and myth, from universal symbolism, philosophies, religions, and magical beliefs. Some say they depict the grades or stages of the journey of an initiate. Some authors equate the Major Arcana with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and work them with the Qabbalah and the Tree of Life. The French occultist known as Eliphas Zahed Lévi (1810–1875), whose real name was Alphonse Louis Constant, was the first to do this.

In A Complete Guide to the Tarot, Eden Gray wrote, “Symbolic keys, like material ones, are expected to fit locks and open doors. Systems such as the Kabalah or the Tarot, however, do not accomplish this in a simple or direct manner. Here we find keys that fit more than one lock and locks that can receive more than one key. The correspondence between the twenty-two Major Arcana Keys and the twenty-two paths on the Tree of Life and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as well as astrological signs, evokes complex and subtle associations that can never be rigidly confined.”

The first tarot cards were individually painted on thin sheets of ivory, parchment, silver and gold. Later they were produced on card stock, though still individually painted. There was a set of tarot cards painted especially for Charles VI of France, in 1392 (seventeen of these cards survive today in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris). With the coming of block printing in Nuremberg, c. 1430, they became more generally available and eventually quite popular. In fifteenth century England, King Edward IV forbade the importation of tarot cards, but soldiers fighting in Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, and Poitou smuggled cards from France, and the decks found their way into the homes of the nobility. By the time of the French Revolution, there was a grand revival of interest in esotericism, and with mystic lodges and secret societies springing up, the tarot came into fashion and more general use.

The actual origins of the tarot are lost in time. There is some evidence to show that the cards originated in the north of India and were brought out of that region by the Roma, or Gypsies, in their mass exodus. Certainly the Gypsies were responsible for much of the distribution across Europe. But there is also speculation that the cards originated in China, Korea, or Northern Italy.

The cards may be used as individual meditation tools. Some people draw a single card at the start of every day and meditate on it; obtaining an idea of what the coming day will hold. But the most common practice is to use the cards to answer questions, or to glean an idea of what the future might hold for oneself or for another. There is a traditional way of doing this, with a variety of spreads or layouts for the cards, with each position of a card having a specific meaning.


Buckland, Raymond: The Buckland Romani Tarot: The Gypsy Book of Wisdom. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2001
Buckland, Raymond: The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2004
Donaldson, Terry: Step-By-Step Tarot. London: Thorsons, 1995
Gray, Eden: The Tarot Revealed. New York: Inspiration House, 1960
Gray, Eden: A Complete Guide to the Tarot. New York: Crown, 1970
Waite, Arthur Edward: The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. New York: University Books, 1959 (London 1910)
Telekinesis see Psychokinesis
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