What is the Tarot Reading?

A friend of mine invited me to attend a psychic fair recently. 

Unfortunately, I had family obligations and wasn’t able to go. As this person told me about their reading, I started to wonder about the origins of the Tarot and how each card has its specific meaning. On the surface, how can a randomly chosen card relate to what’s happening in your life.

And as usual, when researching ancient mystical concepts, the history is not always clear. There are several problems researching ancient history, both physical and spiritual – documents may be missing, unclear, or using language no longer in common usage. The consciousness in the ancient world is/was very different than our consciousness today. Most are trying to look at the ancient times in terms of our modern thought process and consciousness, so understanding a different world may not always be possible.  And the true ancient history may be hidden,as in the case of Tarot.

There are several different stories about the origin of the Tarot, each discounting another. When there are many versions, there is some truth in each. The question is how do all these puzzle pieces fit together.

Tarot is known by various other similar names, including Tarock, Tarokk, Taroky, Taroc, Tarok, Tarocchi.The origins of this word are unknown, though one speculation is that it derives from the Arabic word taraha,which means “he rejected, put aside”. This Arabic connection is seen in the opinion that tarot cards were used originally as playing cards by the Mamluks (a dynasty of Muslim rulers in Egypt during the Middle Ages), which then spread to Western Europe. Some have claimed that the tarot was invented in China, and that the Mamluks adopted these cards from them.


The Tarot is a deck of cards with images on each, used to gain insight into our struggles in life, such as relationships, opportunities, and life changes. Tarot cannot predict the future, since the future is fluid and can be changed by our actions. Instead, the Tarot focuses on influences surrounding us.

The Tarot is a deck of about 78 cards. The deck has 22 Major Arcana cards, representing life’s karmic and spiritual lessons. 

The major arcana are not associated with the suits. They include the picture cards that represent principles, concepts and ideals. They are numbered one through 21,with the 22nd card (the “Fool”) marked as zero. The major arcana cards represent strong, long-term energy or big events in some area of life.

Before a reading occurs, the person receiving the reading shuffles the cards. Some say this transfers that person’s energy to the deck. The person receiving the reading also should be concentrating on the question or area for which they want guidance while he or she shuffles the deck. In some more traditional circles, a more elaborate sorting and separation of the cards is performed.  Once the cards are laid out, their meanings are interpreted based on their positions and their neighboring cards. 

A large enough Tarot spread can give you a very keen sense of the probabilities inherent in a situation, but the specific way that things turnout are, in the final analysis, up to you — how well you adapt to the ever-changing conditions that your Tarot reading reflects. A Tarot reading gives a snapshot of what is going on in the Present, the time you are picking the cards. It can help you see aspects of a situation that have been invisible to your ego


This is where it gets very complicated. There are several views of what happened. Some think the playing card originated first, eventually ‘evolving’into the Tarot. Others think the Tarot originated with the “Secret Societies”as a way to hold on to the mystical teachings as they became prohibited by the Church.

 According to Tarot historian Tom Tadfor Little, traditional playing cards were first seen in Europe in 1375, having been brought over from the Islamic societies where they had been used for centuries before that. These cards were not Tarot. There is no evidence to show that Tarot cards had yet been created. While there are claims that playing cards evolved from the original Tarot deck, this seems to contradict that.

The earliest known set of Tarot cards was created in the 14th century,Spain, Italy and France. The popularity of card games had soared after Mamluk game cards were brought to Western Europe from Turkey. The first tarot cards were likely used in a game that became popular in Italy, called tarocchi appropriati. In Tarocchi Appropriati, players were dealt random cards. The players then wrote poems about the cards based on the thematic associations of the cards.

Although the divinatory aspect of tarot didn’t become popular until the 18th century, mystical imagery appeared in some earlier tarocchi decks because it was a part of the arts of the time.

In 1440, a letter from the Duke of Milan mentioned a request for several decks of”triumph” cards to be used at a special event.  This letter differentiated triumph cards from regular “playing” cards.

The oldest surviving Tarot cards are the 15 or so Visconti-Sforza Tarot decks painted in the mid-15th century for the rulers of the Duchy of Milan.  They are a  60-card deck with 16 cards having images of the Greek gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were regarded as “trumps”since in 1449 Jacopo Antonio Marcello called that the Duke had invented 
a “new and exquisite kind of triumphs”.

In Florence, an expanded deck called  Minchiate was used. This deck of 97 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional tarot motifs.

In 1781, in France and England, followers of the occult discovered Tarot cards. They saw the symbolic pictures of the cards as having more meaning than the simple trump cards they were used for at the time. They used the cards as a divination tool, and occult writers wrote about “the Tarot.” After this, the Tarot became a part of occult philosophy

Etteilla was the first to issue a tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes around 1789. In keeping with the belief that cards were derived from the Book of Thoth, Etteilla’s tarot contained themes related to ancient Egypt. Etteilla may be said to be the origin of the modern interpretation of Tarot.

Ample evidence exists to place the French Masons, like Etteilla, at the center of the reformulation of the Secret Societies after the French Revolution.Levi inherited that tradition with the Supreme Grand Mastership of the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis of Europe (Rosicrusians), which he occupied from 1856 to his death in 1875. Levi went to great lengths to document the transmission of these already ancient alphanumeric correspondences in his writings.

Court de Gebelin, writing in Le Monde Primitif in 1781, states that Tarot cards were derived from an ancient Egyptian book, The Book of Thoth. Thoth was the Egyptian Mercury, said to be one of the early Kings and the inventor of the hieroglyphic system. Gebelin asserts that it’s from the Egyptians and Gypsies that Tarot cards were dispersed throughout Europe. 

Eliphas Levi, a French esoteric scholar of the 1800s, writings led to this century’s Tarot revival. But since he wrote in French and not English, the modern Western world has been dependent upon translators. Levi’s primary translator is A. E. Waite, a well-known British occultist from the early 1900s who positioned himself as an expert in all matters esoteric, especially Tarot.

Lévi wrote a treatise on magic in 1855. It was titled Dogmeet Rituel de la Haute Magie and was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual. Lévi’s book became a great success, especially after his death. His teachings were free from obvious fanaticism’s, he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiated into some ancient or other secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley.

Lévi’s most startling innovation was in connecting Kabbalah with the Tarot. Levi’s book hinted that previous interpretations of mystical Tarot was on the right tract, but missing the correct decipherment and that the secret rites depicted were associated with The Book of Thoth  or Tarot.

Although Lévi published only one modern Tarot card, the Chariot,his influence on designers of decks was significant. For example, his version of the Chariot included two Egyptian-style sphinxes (one light and one dark) in lieu of the traditional horses.

Levi claimed to have created a key through which one could decipher the seasons, the zodiac, and the Tetragrammaton, the secret name of God, as well as the 22 Major Arcana of Tarot.He became the first person to rigorously detail a relationship between the 22 Major Arcana and Kabbalah, following initial investigations by Court de Gébelinin the late 18th century.

In terms of practice of Tarot, this may be acceptable, but from a historical perspective, the European & Middle Eastern origins of the Tarot are lost. The previous generations of knowledge have been erased and replaced with modern English traditions.

While Waite, Wescott and Crowley have translated much of Levi’s writings,they also discounted Levi with nasty comments in the forewords, foot-notes and afterwords. The English almost appear to want to discredit any previous knowledge and set themselves up as the authorities. And this is part of the problem in tracking down mystical knowledge.

Waite-Smith deck

The most common deck in the United States is the Rider-Waite deck which was created in 1909 by A.E. Waite, a prominent member of the group The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and published by Rider & Company. The artist was Pamela Colman Smith. This 78-card deck was the only readily available deck in the United States for many years, which is why some consider it the”definitive” tarot deck in the U.S. Several years ago, James Revak calculated that 49% of Waite’s divinatory meanings were derived from Etteilla. 

Dr.Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942) was a genuine scholar of occultism whose published works include The Holy Kabbalah and The Key to the Tarot first issued in England in 1910. Waite utilized symbolism as the key to the Tarot pack.

There are many varieties of Tarot decks, and there is no standard number of cards across all decks. While the types of cards, the suits and their meanings are the same,the illustrations vary greatly. Decks are based on various themes such as nature,animals, fantasy, dragons, etc.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the Waite-Smith deck is considered the definitive modern pack., bringing the past into the modern era. These images are so common this is what most people think of as Tarot.

 “The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery,” says Wolf. “People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are ‘illustrated,’ meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures.

The Waite-Smith card designs are different than those that came before for one simple reason. Our modern day has no question that Tarot is associated with divination. But in their earlier times the images were very Christian. This began to shift after the cards became increasingly associated with and used for divination. The Christian imagery was toned down. For example, the “Pope”card became the “Hierophant”, the “Papess” became the”High Priestess”. Over the last few centuries, the changes in cultures and knowledge of Secret Societies/spirituality led to modern changes in Tarot.

The cards were originally published in November, 1909 by the publisher William Rider & Son of London. The following year, a small guide by A.E. Waite entitled The Key to the Tarot was bundled with the cards, providing an overview of the traditions and history behind the cards, texts about interpretations, and extensive descriptions of their symbols. The year after that, a revised version, the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, was issued that featured black-and-white plates of all seventy-eight of Smith’s cards. 


The problem for anybody trying to trace the origin of any mystery cult is that by their very definition their rites and history are obscured. Some scholars today also associate the Phoenician alphabet  with the constellations, and in the Kabbalah itself the 22 pathways are often referred to the pathways of the soul and creation. This theme of creation and transformation was remarked upon by the psychologist Carl Jung when he said, “It also seems as if the set of picture sin the Tarot cards were distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation

kabbalah tree of life

Some believe Tarot is related to Kabbalah, an ancient, esoteric Jewish mysticism which deals with the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof, or Infinity (God), and the mortal and finite universe of God’s creation. 

 The 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths of the Tree of Life. They take into account the principles of astrology, secret sciences such as numerology and mathematics. According to Lévi, the Tarot is therefore “the most perfect tool” to be implemented to understand the unintelligible.

Before the Tarot cards existed, these astro-alphanumeric correspondences of related systems were firmly in place. No doubt the first Tarot cards were a reflection of these early archetypes, but for safety’s sake they were stripped of the letters, numbers and other pagan symbols offensive to the Church.

One theory is that the illustrations originated even further back in time, to the teachings of the Book of Thoth. Whatever the origin of this knowledge, these teachings were driven underground when the Church took power over other forms of worship about fourth century AD.

In the earliest decks, clearly Hebrew elements appear, along with classical Hermetic themes, and Cathar and Gugliemite ideas. In just a few generations, the cards became so rich with associations that it was impossible to reference them all in one deck, so Tarot decks had to proliferate. This led to different “schools” or families of related Tarots based on the emphases favored over others by any given deck’s creator.

During this time, people who wanted to preserve the knowledge became very secretive. The Church forbade the right to read and write, which forced it into visual forms such as painting, sculpture, architecture. By the end of the Dark Ages, Europe was filled with the imagery that would eventually appear on the cards. Eventually, private clubs formed, the so-called Secret Societies, to allow some to study in a safe environment.

The Tarot was put out as a game for social amusement and distraction. Teachings could be revealed in the imagery that if spoken would seriously jeopardize a person’s reputation as a Christian. Society members,using pseudonyms, produced occult and philosophical works that hinted at the teachings contained in the Tarot, but veiled them in confusing terms or contradictory details. This left historians with a confusing knowledge and names.

The Hidden Secret Knowledge

The knowledge that had to be hidden since the Church forced their power on the people is simple. It is the same knowledge that still today, is hidden in most spiritual knowledge and ‘religion’.

That is the knowledge of the Divine Feminine, or Mother Goddess.  The groups that were prosecuted by the Church were considered “dualist” in the perspective of Rome either because they recognized a Feminine or Mother aspect of Godhead (Cathars, Jewish Kabbalists, Bogomils) or because they preserved a Gnostic cosmology and anthropology.

This is evidenced in the Empress card of the Tarot – she is the great mother Goddess of the world. In the Tarot, the Feminine is clear and not hidden.

The earliest extra trump images date from the fourteenth century,and include a female Pope. Today we know her as the High Priestess or Isis Veiled. The Popess was a remarkable image to use during an era when Knights Templar, Cathars, and other religious heretics were being tortured and burned in the Inquisition. We know that the Popess and other images were forbidden by the Catholic Church, which successfully suppressed Tarocchi for two centuries,while the game itself was often castigated by Protestant preachers.

The issue raised by the Popess was what the Inquisition sought to destroy. The teachings of the “dualist” sects allowed women to be clergy and to hold office as a Pope. During the period of European history from which the image of the Popess survives, the Bogomils were loyal to their own mysterious Pope in Bulgaria, who may well have been a woman saint. Many of the heretical communities of the time relied upon prophetesses and female channels of Spirit to guide them.

In the Visconte-Sforza Tarocchi deck we find a Popess dressed in the habit of the Umiliata Order of the Guglielmites whose female leader, a Bohemian Lombard, died in Milan in 1281. The image in the deck represents Popess Sister Manfreda, who was elected Pope by her sect. She was regarded as an avatar of the Holy Spirit sent to inaugurate the New Age of Spirit prophesied by Joachim of Flora. This Popess was burned at the stake in autumn of A.D. 1300, the year that the New Age ending male domination of religion was supposed to begin. Later the Inquisition started proceedings against Matteo Visconti for his slight involvement with the sect. 

The early protesting or “protestant” sects were persecuted by Rome, considered as pre-Christian pagan religions.


Clearly the history of Tarot is fascinating and clearly linked into the deepest spiritual knowledge. Over time it is has changed from a way to pass on hidden knowledge in a time when it wasn’t safe to do so, to a system of divination.

 In modern usage, how do random cards arrange themselves into an order which tells us about our life and experiences in a detail that often exceeds what we are consciously able to observe?  Basically,how does this thing work?

The modern Tarot has no absolute answers to this, only that it does work.  By using these images and meanings of the Feminine, does that give our minds access to deeper levels?

The Feminine represents the creative, non-linear hemisphere of our brain. By using the Tarot with the ancient images, it is possible this gives us access to our own unconscious as well as the collective unconscious.

Synchronicity, Magic, Quantum Physics, Subconscious

The name of Carl Jung and his theories come up frequently in attempting to explain the Tarot. Jung was a psychologist, a student of Sigmund Freud. Both studied spirituality very deeply, but differed and split on a few aspects.

One of his principles is called synchronicity. That, in addition to the repeatable cause-and-effect relationships on which the scientific world is so strongly based, there is also another connecting principle that does not share that cause-and-effect relationship.Synchronicity explains the guiding forces in the universe. Things we might see as coincidence are actually signs that can help us make decisions and guide our lives — if we recognize them.

Tarot cards might play the role of showing us paths and patterns and helping us understand the meaning in those guiding energies. Although,according to the principles of quantum mechanics, once you see the possible outcomes in the Tarot reading, you’ve changed the probabilities. While Jung did not study Tarot, he was interested in I Ching (another divination tool) and suggested that synchronicity could be an explanation for how I Ching might work for divination.

Synchronicities can be seeing a symbol in a dream and then encountering it the next day in your waking life. Often the more statistically improbable the coincidence is, the bigger the impact on the individual experiencing it.

The Unconscious Made Conscious – Collective consciousness and archetypes

Jung also wrote extensively about archetypes. Carl Jung believed these themes are hard-wired in our DNA and our collective unconscious. Archetypes are universal patterns or images. Some examples from Jung’s perspective include the Hero, the Explorer, the Rebel, the Sage, the Lover, the Magician, and the Ruler.

Archetypes are, in theory, part of the collective unconscious, not our personal subconscious formed by memories and experiences. These are deep ancestral memories lying beneath the surface of our day-to-day consciousness.

Within the Tarot’s Major Arcana are expressions of archetypes. The Empress can represent the Great Mother archetype. The Hermit is often seen as The Wise Old Man or Sage. According to Jung, the symbolism and meaning behind these images are already hardwired in our brains. They’re reflected in myths and folktales that we’ve heard since childhood and across cultures.


Our Universal and Inner Wisdom

Well, here is where things might be a little more “out there” and magical. You see, we are all connected to a collective, universal wisdom and our inner wisdom. And when we read the Tarot cards—and connect with our intuition—we can tap into this universal wisdom. It’s a little like connecting in with the collective mind, not just the individual mind. 

My research on this matter is taken from numerous books and websites. I have taken their word for their research, and not gone to original sources myself to confirm. I have also condensed a very long complicated social-political time into a much simpler history – for the sake of this article. There are numerous books and websites that deal with the full history.

Amazing and complicated history

Read more at https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/where-do-tarot-cards-come-from.aspx#vk0I9ufr48wf0xp8.99


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