Tarot Tutorial: An Introduction to the Ancient Art

Sarah Potter
·7-min read
Photo credit: Tatâna Maramygina / EyeEm - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tatâna Maramygina / EyeEm - Getty Images

Tarot is definitely having a moment. What was once relegated to the occultic fringes is now raging in the mainstream. But how does Tarot even work? What do the cards mean? And can you do your own reading? We want answers to these questions, and we’re guessing our readers do too. So we’re bringing you a short series on Tarot that will teach you all about the ancient practice, the deck, and how to use the cards to usher in some magic to your life.

Mysticism is booming. After the upheaval of a year like 2020 — which left everyone shifting, transforming, and questioning everything after massive, life-shattering changes — more and more people are turning to alternative methods in order to seek answers and guidance. This is where Tarot comes into the picture. This popular divination practice with mysterious imagery is iconic and widely recognized, yet its meaning still remains a bit elusive, even beyond first glance and introduction. With archetypes like “The High Priestess” and “The Emperor” and “The Hanged One,” we know that we are dealing with something powerful, but what even is Tarot anyway?

The origins of Tarot

Before we get into what Tarot is, let’s get into where this potent magical tool comes from. Mystique surrounds the origin of Tarot. There is a school of thought that the divinatory deck of cards originated in Ancient Egypt as a pictorial representation of “The Book of the Dead.” As mysterious as this story may be, it has been largely refuted. Most historians agree that Tarot has a far less magical birth as a European parlor game in the late 14th century. Noble families would commission artists to create their decks, making this a largely luxurious game only few had access to until the invention of the printing press which allowed for decks to be more widely available.

Photo credit:  Vidoslava
Photo credit: Vidoslava

The cards took a turn for divinatory purposes in the late 16th century when more specific meanings were bestowed upon the cards and how they were laid out. A major game-changer for Tarot occurred once occultist Arthur Waite paired up with his fellow Golden Dawn Member, artist, and mystic Pixie Colman Smith to create the most prevalent and legendary Tarot deck we know today. Much of this is because of Smith’s rich illustrations imbued with layered symbolism and meaning. This is the first time the Minor Arcana featured humans acting out the meaning of each card (whereas in previous depictions, the lower cards featured a corresponding number of cups, coins, wands, or swords). Now we have myriad decks available in every theme imaginable, but most feature illustrations inspired by Smith’s iconic work.

What’s in a Tarot deck

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided by the Major and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are 22 cards following the literary trope of “The Fool’s Journey” (Beginning with card 0, The Fool, of course, and ending with The World), a tale of spiritual enlightenment. These cards deal with major life lessons, specific archetypes, and impactful themes being faced in our current situations.

The Minor Arcana handles more of our everyday lives and offers perspective on how we navigate through challenges as well as victories. This portion of the deck is divided into four suits: Cups (our emotions, matters of the heart), Swords (our thoughts, matters of the mind), Wands (our inspirations and passions), and Pentacles (our material world: how we live and how we make our money). Each suit runs ace to ten followed by four court cards. These cards offer insight into our daily lives, interactions, and experiences. Because of each lesson every card holds, there is no issue too large or too small to consult the cards for advice!

Because of the occult origins of Tarot, there are several myths and rumors we need to clear up before diving further into this journey. Let’s start with the biggest one of all: You do not need to be psychic to read Tarot cards. The cards are not solely a spiritual conduit to the Divine, but they also help us build our intuition and trust our gut instincts. In fact, you do not need to have a belief in a Higher Power in order to access the magic within this deck. The rich imagery tells the story within each card inspiring the answers to your queries. After spending some time perusing the pictures, allow your intuition to come into play to help you decipher clarity into what you are seeking.

Let your intuition guide you

There’s no need to pressure yourself into memorizing all 78 cards (talk about overwhelming!) before beginning to do your own readings. Trust your own inner voice. Our logical minds help us to observe the physical realm and access information, but our intuition assists us in connecting to the energy of a situation beyond our rationality. Children have very clear instincts, but as we get older, we often second guess ourselves or talk ourselves out of our hunches as we let logic and intellect take over.

We let fears, judgements, assumptions, and doubts cloud our perceptions. How many times did you ignore the red flags of the person you were interested in or downplayed the severity of how toxic a job was? How many times have you told yourself to just get over it already and power through? And then whatever it is really blew up in your face? This is why we need to trust our intuition and turn up the volume of our inner voice. As you look at each card, what is the illustration telling you? How does each card make you feel? Go with the first emotion or word that comes to you. Remember that there are no wrong answers here! Whatever you come up with is correct and valid. Keeping a journal to record these reflections helps to build and honor your intuition.

Can we really do readings on ourselves?

There are conflicting views surrounding whether or not we can read for ourselves. Are we too close to our own situation? Will what we want versus what we can access cloud our judgement? Are we able to remain impartial as we uncover the cards? Yes, I believe we can...but it does take time.

Photo credit: Studio_3321 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Studio_3321 - Getty Images

Be patient, keep practicing, and allow your confidence and skills to grow over time. However, if you get stuck or feel as though you are hitting a wall over and over again, it might be a good time to reach out to a trusted professional for their perspective and expertise. We each bring our own connections to the cards as we create a nuanced relationship with them. Someone else will be able to provide insight you might have missed due to their own unbiased perspective. Sometimes the truth hurts, but we can only truly hear it once we step aside and allow it to be revealed.There is a nasty, ancient rumor going around that one cannot purchase a Tarot deck for themselves as it will bring horrendous luck your way. Is this true? Can you buy your own Tarot deck? You absolutely can! If you feel drawn to the cards, then follow that feeling and see where it takes you.

There’s no need to be afraid of the cards

It is so important to remember this next one: there are no bad cards! Honestly, we do not need to think of cards as “good” or “bad” but rather as lessons or messages we need to hear at a given time. These are check-in points offering you moments of consideration. There are so majorly potent characters seen throughout the deck that hold major weight, but do not be afraid of their appearance. When a card like “Death” appears in a reading, it rarely points to actual death of a person. Instead, this archetype shines a light on an old pattern, cycle, or relationship that needs to “die” or come to an end. Death also shows us where we need to transform, transition, or let go with a reminder that once we release something or someone from our lives, we create space for something better aligned. Now that is a beautiful lesson and not so scary, right?

Whether you believe in magic and a divine presence or you simply need a fresh perspective on your current situation, Tarot can offer you the clarity and support you desire during an uncertain time. Believing in yourself and trusting your own inner wisdom is magic that we could all benefit from, now more than ever.

Sarah Potter is a psychic medium, Tarot reader, and witch based in New York City.

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