What is tarot?

You have probably heard many ideas about what tarot is, and what it is used for. A deck of tarot cards represents different things to different people. Depending who you ask, tarot may be a way to predict the future or tell fortunes, a way to contact the spirit world, a psychological tool, a card game, a mythological story, or the work of the Devil. Authors use tarot to inspire plot development. Therapists use tarot to prompt self-exploration. Artists turn to tarot as a vehicle for their work (and nerds like me collect these works!)

For the purposes of this course, tarot is a tool for getting to know ourselves better. For delving into the underlying influences in our lives and learn more about why we do the things we do, make the choices we make, even feel the way we feel. We may use tarot for decision-making, for shadow-work, for marking turning-points in our lives, or just to get a little clarity around something that’s bothering us.

A tarot reading is a process of asking your cards a question and then looking for the answer within the cards you draw. Your question may be complex or highly specific (How can I get that job? Should I move halfway across the world? Why can’t I let go of my ex?) or vague (What do I need to know right now? WTF is going on?!)

How does tarot ‘work’?

That’s a very personal question and every tarot reader would answer slightly differently. I believe that each of us already holds within ourselves the very answers we are seeking. The most common response I hear after giving a reading is “I already knew that, deep down” – perhaps followed by “…but I didn’t want to admit it.”

Because the tarot contains every facet of human experience, each card is a symbol, a representation of something else, something personal to you. These symbols touch places conscious thought can’t reach, helping us to access the wisdom that is buried deep within us, in our subconscious or super-conscious. In the simple act of shuffling, asking, and laying down a ‘random’ selection of cards, we allow ourselves to move beyond the chattering, ever-rationalising conscious mind and hear what we know on a deeper level.

For example: Let’s say I’m struggling to get over a breakup. My conscious mind tells me that I’m being silly, or that my ex was an idiot, or that they’re having a great time now without me. But when I turn to my cards, I am encouraged to look at the underlying energy here. Like the way I always depended on my ex to make me feel whole, or the fact that I actually wanted this breakup all along.

Tarot helps us to face up to the harder or more secret elements of our lives. It quickly moves beyond the stories we tell ourselves, and points to other factors, other energies. It brings what is hidden out into the open. (This is why we call the two halves of the tarot deck ‘Arcana’, which means ‘mystery’.)

That’s it. Strange and complex…yet at the same time, so very simple.

In ‘learning tarot’, you are learning to interpret a set of symbols. Yet these symbols are not universal: specific symbols will mean different things to you depending on your life experience, culture, beliefs. No two people will interpret their tarot cards in exactly the same way, and as you grow and develop as a tarot reader you will no doubt discover many different ways of reading your cards. This journey promises to be rich and intriguing, difficult at times, and immensely rewarding.

This course offers you a starting point for that journey.

The structure of the tarot

A standard 78-card tarot deck is comprised of two parts: The Major Arcana, and the Minor Arcana (which includes the Court Cards).

The Major Arcana, as the name suggests, contains the ‘major’ cards. These deal with big universal themes and ‘energies’. These cards are archetypes, symbols of the great powers in our lives, and important moments in our spiritual development – both individually and collectively. Here we find the archetypal mother and father, we find will, we find passivity, spirituality, action, death, destruction, hope and completion.

We will study these cards first!

The Minor Arcana shows us more day-to-day events and experiences, stuff that happens on an earthly, human level. The Minor Arcana contains the four suits, usually called the Pentacles, Swords, Cups and Wands, though many decks rename some or all of the four suits.

The cards of the Minor Arcana are numbered Ace (one) through to Ten, like a playing-card deck. We will work through each suit from Ace to Ten, noting how the suit progresses sequentially, and how the themes of each suit are expressed in different ways in each card.

The Court Cards are also part of the Minor Arcana, as an extension of each suit. These are the ‘people’ of the tarot, representing levels of your maturity or experience, or perhaps other people in your life. In this course, they have their own section and are studied last.

Next: The Major Arcana