Version 4.0, updated February 20, 2013
by Glenn F. Wright
“The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs.”—A. E. Waite
For many years, I wrote and maintained the web’s and the world’s most-read Tarot FAQ. Thousands of people got their start with Tarot reading my FAQ. The good thing about that FAQ was it was really long and answered a lot of questions, some of them pretty comprehensively. The bad thing was it was really long and gave novices way too much information.
I think a FAQ about the subject of Tarot is difficult to write, because saying too little is easy: Tarot is a complex subject and you need to consider a lot of information from a lot of different angles to begin to understand it. On the other hand, beginners want to understand the basics, and why they should bother proceeding beyond them. So, I hope this version of my ongoing Tarot FAQ project will better serve that end.
- What is Tarot?
- Where Did Tarot Come From?
- So You’re Saying Tarot is a Pack of Lies?
- So What Tarot Deck Should I Get?
- How Do I Read Cards?
- How Do I Play Tarot Games?
- How Do I Use Tarot For Magic?
- What About All Those Secret Orders Like The Golden Dawn?
- Can’t I Just Make My Own Tarot Deck?
- OK, So What Books Should I Read?
To a novice, the real answer to that question is going to be overwhelming. It’s just easier to say: Tarot is a lot of things to a lot of different people. As I note elsewhere on this site, this news, that a pack of cards should so captivate and often obsess so many people—as if it matters in life—will come as a surprise. But here are a few things we can reliably say about Tarot cards:
- Tarot is a pack of cards.
- Tarot can be used to play card games, similar to bridge or other “trick-taking” games.
- Tarot can be used to tell fortunes, or otherwise provide a means to inform a questioner (“querent”) about someone or something.
- Tarot, or really its symbolism and ideas about this, can be used as the centerpiece of religious, spiritual, and philosophical belief systems.
- Best of all, and depending on your social, spiritual, and especially your political orientation, you can use Tarot to beat the crap out of people you don’t like.
Like the computer said in Wargames: “Wouldn’t you prefer a good game of chess?”
There is no question, not even the question about the true “key” of Tarot, which has so obsessed Tarot true-believers and Tarot skeptics like the one about the real origin of the cards. Because, most people come to Tarot with even less knowledge than they do when first encountering ancient Egyptian pyramids, the opportunity to imagine all kinds of fanciful beginnings for such strange-looking cards has enabled a lot of people to successfully advance all kinds of weird (and baseless) theories. Some of the more common ones you will encounter in all the popular sites and books about Tarot, include:
- Tarot was created by ancient Egyptians. In fact, it is the symbolic remnant of the great knowledge of the ancient Egyptian priests, the hieroglyphic elements of the Book of Thoth.
- As a related idea, therefore the alleged descendants of ancient Egyptians, whom we call “Gypsies” (as you tell from their name), brought Tarot cards into Europe many centuries ago. They encouraged the ignorant Europeans to play card games with their sacred book, as a means of protecting its knowledge from the profane, while perpetuating the survival of the book until a more enlightened time (when??) shall occur.
- Another connected idea to these is that, since Tarot cards, and particularly the “Majors”, or twenty-two trump cards, are clearly symbolic representations of the ideas of the Jewish Kabbalah, Tarot was transported, or “stolen” by Jews exiting ancient Egypt after their captivity there, over three thousand years ago. It was in Egypt the Jews learned about the Kabbalah, and in a somewhat corrupted form, they helped transport the Book of Thoth to Europe and to the modern world, where certain initiated Christians (Freemasons and other esotericists) could correctly interpret the cards.
While all of those things sound like the stuff Dan Brown would be happy to peddle in his novels, none of those things actually happened.
So where did Tarot come from?
Most likely, it was invented to be a card game, played by north Italian nobles in the 15th century. They used illustrations on the special, "trump" cards, to make it easier for players to recall the position of the cards in the hierarchy of values used to determine which trump should win a trick (i.e., win the cards of the other players). Eventually, card makers would number the trumps and the small cards too, but in the early days of Tarot, a player was expected to learn the trump card sequence to play the game.
Because the symbolism of those earliest packs was familiar to people in a certain place and time, as Tarot was exported throughout Europe and the world, and as it moved away in history from the 15th century, printers who were expected to make new decks of Tarot, often misinterpreted the symbols, adding variations or entirely new themes altogether.
As Tarot card-game playing spread, theories about the strange symbols, and non-gaming practices employing Tarot cards, spread also. We know, for example, that people were telling fortunes and practicing (black) magic with Tarot, as early as the 16th century. By the 18th century, the dogma of occult Tarot, which interpreted the symbolism of the cards according to a romantic mythos popular amongst Freemasons at the time, was established in France.
And the rest has been a lot of speculative and sometimes quite interesting history.
It’s a card game, not a documentary.
On the other hand, i.e. the hand holding all the cards, many seemingly false things have a great deal of truth in them.
All this history and facts stuff has always been a kind of filter and veil with Tarot, separating the perceptive minds from the plodders.
A lot of Tarot true-believers cannot accept the notion that history and facts really do shape the correct understanding of Tarot, and must be taken into account. And a lot of skeptics, especially amongst the people who demand Tarot is only rightly a card game, will insist that the symbol-scapes created by the Tarot occultists and the fortunetellers are nothing but a fraud and a stupid one at that.
That was essentially the message of Michael Dummett, the most respected historian of Tarot card games, who viewed with considerable derision those who “wasted” their lives using Tarot for any other purpose than gambling games.
So, what I am saying is that it is important to realize, in the beginning of your interest in and study of Tarot cards, that there are a lot of people with a lot of investments in having certain ways of looking at the cards dominate. This includes people who want to flush away pesky historical narratives because it’s bad for Tarot business, and people who want to bury occultism and its Tarot cards, because they believe such things are the works of Satan.
Veiled by all that noise, is an interesting story about Tarot.
First off, you need to understand that you’re asking my opinion about this, and so you get a very particular perspective about this that will not be shared by the majority of people. The majoritarian view of the Tarot community tends to agree with the attitude that you should just go with what deck calls to you, in other words pick the pack that seems most familiar, most attractive, and especially easiest for you to understand, right out of the box.
Tarot peddlers call these “good beginner decks”, and it is why they produce so many theme-park Tarots, pasting ideas from popular interests (like “Harry Potter” or “Hello Kitty”), onto an empty Tarot frame. While this does serve to make Tarot card makers money from people who might not otherwise buy a Tarot deck, it does distract people from making a useful start to learning about Tarot.
I have always told people to ask themselves a question before they choose a Tarot deck. Knowing nothing, upon what basis can you make a good choice of a Tarot? If you would say, go with your feelings Luke, I can report to you that is a great way to do things if your plan is to waste money on a deck you won’t care about for very long.
Unfortunately, as you will learn pretty quickly, but often not quickly enough to keep you from tossing away a lot of money on crappy Tarot books and decks, how you think about Tarot, and its ideas, is going to be a lot more important to you in the long run than whether or not the first deck you choose is pretty and safe feeling.
So, what deck should you get?
If all you want to do is tell fortunes, and that is most people who want a Tarot deck, you don’t even need to spend the extra money getting a pack of cards with fancy pictures on it. You can tell fortunes with a regular playing-card deck.
If you’re attracted to the mystery of Tarot, and need it to be evocative of that quality, then I can whole-heartedly recommended you seek out and obtain the Thoth Tarot pack, created by Aleister Crowley, and painted by Frieda Harris. You will deeply appreciate this deck in the long run, even though in the short run, it may baffle and even frighten you.
If you would like a decent predecessor to this Tarot, which also has the advantage of being the most discussed and copied set of Tarot images in the past century, you will definitely want to get a Waite Tarot, also known as the Waite-Smith deck. Designed by A. E. Waite, and painted by Pamela Colman-Smith, these cards are what people usually think of when they speak of Tarot cards.
Alternatively, I have for many years been a fan of the Cosmic Tarot. This is a serious occult deck, but it looks so much better than most things bearing that grave-sounding description. Now, it isn’t a perfect deck. There are corner-cuttings that happen, and places where the designer just got a little too cute too often. But, if you’re not quite ready to invest your life (I mean your soul) in Thoth Tarot, the Cosmic Tarot won’t be a horrible place to start.
Lastly, you should really consider getting a Marseilles pack. What is that? Prior to the 20th century, the Marseilles design (or really designs, since there were many variations), which had no obvious occult meanings prior to the 18th century, was the most popular Tarot pack in the world. Whether you want to play Tarot card games or play occult games, a Marseilles deck can fill that bill.
Now, naturally, there are a lot of other Tarots out there, and you may end up choosing something I’ve never even heard of and which I would also like a lot. In fact, let me know if you think there is a Tarot worthy of listing as a recommended first option here, and I will consider it.
Or at least that is how you should do it.
I operate on the idea that either you can read or you can’t. I have never really seen anybody learn how to read cards. I have seen a lot of people learn how to read people, but that’s a different idea.
What I mean by this is that either you understand, almost intuitively, what is meant by reading cards, right from the start, or you should probably play some other kind of game.
But, here, I’ll explain it to you in basic terms:
The cards are metaphors or signs for relevant data that you are supposed to read, or interpret, in light of something you already know—for example, the question that has been asked.
But then do you need a question to be asked to read cards?
No, although reading cards as an act implies a question, or a yearning to know—something.
So, you may not have specified your question, but by reading you are asking it. And the cards will answer. Every time.
Really? So the cards are infallible. I didn’t say that—you did. The cards will always provide the answer. It may not be the only answer, or even the best answer in the cosmic meaning of that, but they will answer the question.
The hard part, but also the easy part if you get Tarot, is understanding what part of the complex of symbols, and the divinatory meanings, should apply to answer any specific question.
The other hard part, especially if you are a gifted reader, is not letting the power to tell people true things go to your head. Your job as a reader does imply some moral conditions. For example, you do not tell people things you know they want to hear, just to keep them coming back for readings. In fact, your job should be to encourage them to have lives where they will never, or seldom, need to consult a Tarot reader.
In other words, it’s not supposed to be about you and your alleged powers. It’s supposed to be about you being a possible aid to help somebody else.
So, given that, how do you read cards? There are countless methods offered in all kinds of books and sites. I favor starting simply. Ask a question, and then read a card or two and see what you can make of it in light of the supposed meanings of the cards. As I said above, if you have a gift for Tarot reading, it will make sense to you without much struggle. If you don't, you'll probably go looking for something, a book, a Tarot teacher, that can spark an understanding and unleash your alleged ability.
Some things can be explained and clarified—like how layouts work—but other things, like being able to read cleanly and clearly, are not so easy to convey by explanation and example.
The good news is that even if you are not so great or not so interested in reading Tarot cards, Tarot offers a number of other interesting aspects to explore.
If you want to go deeper into a study of the most famous and popular Tarot card layout or reading, The Celtic Cross, I offer a detailed explanation of it here.
Tarot games are very interesting, but one could hardly describe them as a pastime. They require a good deal of attention, and like bridge games are chiefly games of skill. Over the years, the playing of Tarot card games waned in most places where it had once been known. However, in the past 30 years or so, the playing of Tarot became once again popular all over the world. In part, this was because many people who were attracted to Tarot as an occult tool or set of signifiers, became curious about the games one could play with a pack of Tarot cards.
Relatively recently, new Tarot decks have been devised just for game players. These packs eliminate traditional and occult symbolism entirely, in an effort to distinguish the playing of Tarot card games, from other uses of Tarot. You will often hear Tarot game enthusiasts encourage people to get these supposedly “safe” Tarots, as part of their continuing effort to sanctify gambling as morally superior to the practice of the dark arts.
Here are a couple of good websites to explore to learn more about playing safe-brand Tarot card games:
• Pagat.com—As playing-card historian, John McLeod, tells us on this well-known and reliable website of card-game rules, "[g]ames are played with Tarot cards in various countries of Europe, but nowhere is it as popular as in France." McLeod provides the popular modern French rules of play.
• Wikipedia Article—Wikipedia provides a long article on French Tarot game rules and strategy of play.
The fact you’re asking such a question says a lot about you, you know.
I mean, what kind of crazy notion is it that you could use a pack of cards to do what? Magic?
Or maybe you would prefer instead to be doing magick, with the “k”, OK.
Well, it is perfectly reasonable to be a little unsure of yourself before you start down this potentially dark, and extraordinarily ridiculous, path.
But hey, what were you going to do instead?
Become a rocket scientist?
But then, you’ve probably never heard of Jack Parsons, have you?
Again, this is basically a simple thing. The cards are symbolic indicators and also therefore containers of the powers and aspects of living potential suggested by those symbols. There are living creatures, whose spirits can be commanded by your mind to perform little tricks, or big ones sometimes.
I know you don’t believe me. How can such a thing be possible?
Well, let’s do a test. You shuffle the pack of cards—three times. Cut it and draw a card. Now, think about the name and the nature of this card, as you understand it, and ask the card to perform some little service for you, a little magic trick we’ll call it.
Ask that this trick be performed in the next 24 hours.
And then see what happens.
And yes, you can ask for a million dollars if you want.
But it would be better to ask a rich uncle for that, don’t you think, rather than a little cardboard spirit?
Now, let’s say you get what you were asking for. Does that prove anything? Probably not. Except that once upon a time the cosmos conspired into making you think you did some magic with a Tarot card.
If you are really interested in doing Tarot magic, or understanding Tarot as a magickal instrument, you would do well to consider the operation of Tarot that has been done traditionally. And that tradition is quite old, culminating in the late, great, magickal theories and works of the 20th-century occultist, Aleister Crowley. Among other things, Crowley is widely acknowledged as having produced the greatest Tarot pack in history, and also as being one of the darkest, and most troubled (and troublesome) souls the occult has ever produced.
Following Crowley’s lead can be very interesting—and extremely dangerous.
But ideas worth anything will have the power to transform and overthrow. Thus the danger.
Yes, well, what an unfortunate name the Golden Dawn has, don’t you think? I mean, even though it was a society of fringe Freemasons, hoping to brighten things up with some female-inclusive membership, now it is inevitably associated with a pack of political nuts running around in Greece. If you do a Google search for Golden Dawn, #1 is the “right-wing extremist political party” in Greece, and number two is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The turn-of-the-20th-century Golden Dawn was a semi-secret club for well-to-do Brits, where they would undergo an allegedly ancient series of initiations into progressively higher revelations of hermetic teachings. If they rose up sufficiently high in the organization, learning the secret teachings of the Tarot, the central symbolic tool of Western occultism, would be the reward.
When people today read the most popular Tarot book ever written, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by Golden Dawn member A. E. Waite, they are reading a kind of summary of the symbolic and divinatory initiatory basics given to lower-ranking members of the Golden Dawn. The famous Celtic Cross reading, for example, was a layout used to develop the intuitive abilities of Order novitiates. And while Waite does not divulge many specifics of advanced Golden Dawn Tarot dogma, he constantly hints, and in some cases openly reveals, the fact that he is operating from a Golden Dawn Tarot playbook.
So, let us be explicit and clear on this point. Yes, if you want to understand the great 20th-century occult Tarots, the Waite and the Crowley decks, you will need to study the magical and initiatory schemes of the secret orders, particularly the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis (or OTO).
Does that mean you need to join those orders, or those organizations claiming to be their modern continuations?
That is a personal decision of course. But anyone considering doing so just to be able to use and understand Tarot should know that there are no secrets left to know. Aleister Crowley stole and published all the Golden Dawn secret initiations and teachings. Others, such as Israel Regardie, followed Crowley's lead in that respect. And most of the relevant information concerning Crowley’s personal (Thelemic) take on those ideas in the OTO has also been published.
This does not mean there is nothing for you in the modern versions of the secret orders, but if Tarot is what you seek, you can find answers to your questions in public venues.
Sure. And a person, untrained in the art and science of aerodynamics, can make their own airplane too.
It would be interesting to see if they had the courage to attempt to fly it of course. You might say it wouldn't take much courage as the thing probably wouldn't get off the ground anyway. Good point.
And yes, I know a Tarot deck is not an airplane, and most likely if you ignorantly make a pack of Tarot cards, nothing catastrophic is likely to happen.
But something else that is unlikely to happen is that your creation will be rightly counted as Tarot.
On the other hand, to be fair, it is a reasonable course of education to try to take what you are learning and mimic it in some personal way. We might call that making that Tarot “yours”, instead of Waite’s and Crowley’s.
That’s a fair point. And in fact, in the Golden Dawn, each novice was expected to make his own Tarot pack—however, the student was expected to make it following the guidelines of how to do so taught by the Order.
In my experience, rather than making actual cardboard replicas of somebody else’s work, the better way to make Tarot yours is to use it, and sometimes not to use it too. In other words, go and live life, process it as you may, and come back to Tarot and see what it may mean to you then.
If you’re anxious to make a Tarot deck, just to see if you can do it, OK. But the better decks get made at the end of lives of learning, not at the beginning. Just keep that in mind.
If you want to learn about how to play card games with Tarot, there are lots of places online that will assist you with that. For that matter, I include rules of Tarot card game play, as explained by Court de Gébelin in describing the 18th-century French game, in Rhapsodies of the Bizarre.
If you really want to learn about the ideas of Tarot, meaning occult Tarot, you need to include a lot more books in your list than Tarot books. A lot of learning about Tarot is living and learning outside a Tarot-specific sphere in order to see how and why the ideas of Tarot have any relevance to a well-lived (or badly-lived) human life.
Now, there are hundreds of Tarot books you could collect and read, but unless you wish to become a professional blatherer about the subject of Tarot, there is no need for you to read, much less purchase, the vast majority of those. In fact, when it come to pointless time-wasters posing as insightful guides, pop Tarot books are outstanding examples of that breed of bad books.
Having warned you, here are five books you should read to learn more about occult Tarot:
a. Rhapsodies of the Bizarre, by J. Karlin—This book was published in 2002, and operates in part to refute the critique offered by Michael Dummett in Wicked Pack of Cards. Rhapsodies tells the story of how an 18th-century French Freemason, Antoine Court de Gébelin, published two seminal articles describing how Tarot cards were actually remnants of the great ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. While Gébelin produced a work strong on speculation, and short on facts—for example Gébelin knew few ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, since the Rosetta Stone had not been discovered and deciphered—it was a work that became crucially influential in producing occult Tarot. In Rhapsodies, the two famous essays (the second one by a student of Gébelin’s) are offered in English translation, along with copious notes explaining the often extremely esoteric ideas Gébelin discusses and how these relate to modern occult Tarots. And yes, if it has not sunk in reading other parts of this site, “J. Karlin” was my nom de guerre for many years, so I did indeed write this book. Available in print, and at iTunes bookstore.
b. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A. E. Waite—The thing about this most important and most popular book is that if you can just put up with Waite’s peculiar sense of humor for long enough (unfortunately for most people, this will be measured in years), he becomes a really funny fellow. That is particularly true the more you have learned about Tarot and the ways of its peoples (in all its cultures). Waite had seen them all, starting off putting his hopes in spiritualism, a half-step away from carny acts, and ending up a highly respected expert on occult subjects. Of all the people Michael Dummett beats up in his Tarot history books, he holds Waite in special regard—not in sufficient regard to keep from beating him up but still—because Waite was aiming at least to be a real scholar. It is difficult to be a scholar and an occultist, because the former is supposed to be devoted to finding and telling the truth, and the latter is supposed to be devoted to finding and then assisting in hiding the truth. The strain of this obvious contradiction can be seen in Waite’s work and in Crowley’s too. You will need to read Pictorial Key if you have any hope of understanding Waite’s Tarot deck. Nevertheless, it is still a chore sifting through Waite’s veils of words. The fortunetelling data, which makes up half the book, is however presented in clear and useful language, and has been greatly influential in the past century.
c. The Book of Thoth, by Aleister Crowley—To be honest, with oneself, and in regard of truly understanding occult Tarot, you have to admit the deep debt Crowley owes to A. E. Waite. Indeed, Crowley well understood this, admitted it, but reacted to it with a campaign of ironically abusive critiques and parodies of Waite’s works on occultism. Crowley was not inaccurate in what he critiqued about Waite’s tone and attitude, which was often enough pompous, but Crowley may have misunderstood in that an essential ingredient in Waite’s odd sense of self-deprecating humor. Waite’s pomposity was an exaggeration of what he had observed to be the de rigueur attitude of most occultists. The difference is that Waite tended not to take himself seriously as an occultist, while Crowley most certainly took himself as seriously as one could. In fact Crowley, imagined himself the herald of a 2000-year spiritual regime, the New Aeon of Horus the Avenger. And when Crowley merged his personal revelation with the sex magick teachings contained in the doctrine of the OTO, he had the basis for a powerful symbolic evocation that occurs in his Tarot—the famous and infamous Thoth deck. While pop Tarot writers such as Mary K. Greer have claimed for years now that Crowley did not make his own Tarot and that the deck truly belongs to his artist, Frieda Harris, the artist herself explicitly stated this was complete nonsense. And Harris is the person who begged Aleister Crowley to write this book, in order that what she called “those poor little struggling chickens” (such as yourself) might have a chance to understand her paintings of Crowley’s ideas.
d. The Golden Dawn, by Israel Regardie—A lot of people have ripped off ideas from the Golden Dawn. And some people have just ripped off the Golden Dawn in reality, stealing its secret teachings and publishing them. Aleister Crowley did this, in his Equinox occult journals, and Israel Regardie, Crowley’s erstwhile secretary, did it too, although Regardie believed or claimed he was performing a public service, enabling the Golden Dawn teachings not to be lost to history, whereas Crowley was just getting vengeance on his Golden Dawn teacher, Samuel Liddell Mathers. Regardless of how the material in this book came into the public domain—at one point, Mathers unsuccessfully sued Crowley for copyright infringement regarding it—you will learn fundamentally important ideas about modern Tarot symbolism by reading it. It is long and dense stuff, intended to be absorbed over years of extremely esoteric initiation. If you don't have that long, just refer to Book T, one of the sections in The Golden Dawn, and get a jumpstart on understanding occult Tarot.
e. Transcendental Magic, by Eliphas Lévi—People often mention Eliphas Lévi without bothering to actually read what he had to say. Crowley plainly acknowledges how important Lévi was to his own thinking. In fact, whenever Aleister encountered some dead writer he really liked and whose ideas he intended to shamelessly steal, Crowley would claim the person as one of his long list of alleged former selves. And that’s what he did with Eliphas Lévi too. A. E. Waite, on the other hand, merely translated a lot of Lévi’s works, without finding the need to spiritually identify quite that much with his subject. In fact, Waite, who was obviously an admirer of Lévi’s, still found the French occultist’s inventive way with words and the facts a little much to take sometimes. Crowley claimed Waite simply didn’t get Lévi. Maybe, but you will still want to read Transcendental Magic, Waite’s English translation of Lévi’s great work, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie. And the reason you will want to do this, in spite of what Crowley says, is that a.) Lévi's use of a Tarot trump analytical scheme for his study of "high magic" is a critically important basis for later works on occult Tarot, and b.) That is especially true respecting the Waite deck and even the Thoth deck.