Tarot 101: The Key of Knowledge

I love Tarot. I love it so much that I’ve been studying it for over 50 years. Tarot has never bored me, nor failed to challenge me, both intellectually and emotionally. It has taught me, surprised me, corrected me and shown me which direction to take when life is confusing. Tarot has encouraged me toward horizons that I’d never have chosen without its guidance, always for the better.

Tarot can be all this and more for anyone who picks up a deck and takes the time to learn the basics. I’m not kidding; that’s all it takes. If you begin the process, sincerely and with a goal to learn and to help others, you’ll succeed. Don’t be intimidated and don’t think it’s beyond your ability.

Anyone can learn to read the cards and tap into an immense source of wisdom. That includes you.

Tarot Cards or Oracle Cards?

Although Tarot has become a generic term for any oracle deck, not every pack of cards designed for divination is Tarot. Tarot began as a game, and is still popular and played all over the world. The game is called Jeu de Tarot in France, Tarock throughout much of Europe and Tarocci in Italy. A French Tarot deck uses clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds, just as most modern playing cards do. Other decks use Tarot familiar Wands, Cups, Swords and Disks.

Generally speaking, Tarot, as a game, is somewhat similar to Bridge, and involves taking tricks, bidding, trump cards and a sophisticated strategy. I enjoy playing the game, but I’m no shark. The game itself is easy to learn, but the complexities of bidding and winning are formidable. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying a few hands every now and then.

This brings me to my point, for a deck to qualify as a Tarot deck, it needs to be able to be used to play the game of Tarot. It’s really that simple. Here are the parts necessary.

The Anatomy of a Tarot Deck

The majority of the cards in a Tarot deck are numbered cards and royalty. There are four suits in Tarot. Each suit consists of an ace through 10, plus four royalty cards. Most royalties consist of a King, Queen, Knight, and a Page, although it may vary. These suited cards are known as the Minor Arcana in divination. In addition to these 56 cards, there are 22 cards, known as the trumps, or Major Arcana. There it is.

You may notice that I didn’t specify the suits involved, nor the names and meanings of the trump cards. I used to think that if it didn’t reflect traditional aspects of classical decks, it wasn’t Tarot. I was wrong. I’m not sure if it’s age, or being corrected by Tarot itself, but as long as it meets the above criteria, it’s a Tarot deck. Anything else should be considered to be an oracle deck, which in no way diminishes the efficiency or accuracy of that deck. It’s important to remember that any form of divination is dependent upon the practitioner and not upon the methodology. There's a saying about carpenters and their tools that applies here.

Which Deck Is Right for You?

When I bought my first Tarot deck in the mid 1960s, there wasn’t much of a choice. The Rider Waite deck, the Tarot designed by Arthur Edward Waite and rendered artistically by Pamela Coleman Smith, was available here and there. Waite's deck is probably the most popular in the world. AE Waite and Smith were members of a magical society known as the Golden Dawn.

Members were expected to understand esoteric Tarot fully and use it as a tool for divination and self-knowledge. The Marseilles deck, as well as the Oswald Wirth deck, had been available for some time, but Waite's offering included pertinent illustrations on each of the minor cards, giving clues as to their meanings. I’ve never used the Rider Waite deck, although I do own it. It may work for you and it’s certainly an excellent option.

In the mid-70s, a Druid Priest introduced me to the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot. That introduction changed my life and put me on a path that I still walk daily. It has been called a magician’s Tarot, as well as a divination deck for the occultist. It certainly could be all of these things, but mostly it’s a complete University of metaphysical knowledge, encoded into 78 cards. It isn’t for everyone and is not necessarily user-friendly, but for those with whom it resonates, it’s an amazing tool. The illustrations by Frieda Harris are stunning, each one a labor of love. I suggest you take a look at it. Remember, nothing is beyond your ability in Tarot.

Luckily, thousands of decks are currently available with the click of a button. Don’t forget to visit your local metaphysical bookstore though, as they often have older decks that are no longer in print and are worthy of your attention. It’s also helpful to physically pick up a deck and thumb through the cards to get a feel for the energy behind them. In this way, you’re able to tune into the artist and feel the motivation and worldview involved. You may sense a kinship, or an aversion to certain decks. Keep in mind that the prettiest deck may not be the best for you to read.

Sometimes you have to purchase a deck and work with it before you know whether or not it’s right for you.

One of the side effects of studying Tarot is a tendency to collect lots and lots of decks. It comes with the territory. Don’t be afraid to pick a deck out and take it for a spin. Inside the box, you’ll usually find “The Little White Book,” or LWB, as it’s known, which will give you some information about the deck. Of course, it won’t do to rely upon that book, so do look to see if you can find an author who shares your way of looking at things, who has also written a book on Tarot. Stay calm if you can’t find such a book, as there is a way to learn without it. My Tarot book has been simmering for about 30 years now, so don’t wait for me. Begin the process of learning right now.

About Oracle Decks

I have a lot of oracle decks. My favorite of all of them is known as the Lenormand deck. Like Tarot, the Lenormand deck has a mythic history, which although romantic and fanciful, simply isn’t true. It centers around Marie Anne Lenormand, a French seer who actually existed and used a deck of cards upon which she had drawn symbols and made notes. The deck bearing her name is supposedly based upon her cards and bear common symbols upon them, such as the sun, a key, a serpent, a bear, an anchor and so on. I find it to be a remarkably accurate tool, for reasons which I will discuss in just a minute.

The modern Lenormand deck is actually the descendent of a game known as “The Game of Fate.” The cards were laid out in a specific order, a die was rolled, and tokens were then moved over them, just as in a modern board game. Money was lost for landing here, or given for landing there, with eventual payouts depending upon the outcome.

The question is, why do these cards work as a tool of divination? The answer is that the cards are not the diviners, you are.

Once you become conversant with the language of any oracle deck, it can be used with accuracy and confidence, even using cards that may have pictures of ducks and sheep upon them. How? Read on, dear friend.

Learning to Read the Cards

Learning to read Tarot, or any other deck of cards, isn’t as hard as it may seem. Before we take another step, it must be understood that practice is an absolute necessity and can’t be replaced by any amount of intellectual study, or psychic ability. You have to actually work with the cards and practice the art if you wish to get any better.

For decades, I’ve taught my students to follow the lives and exploits of celebrities, as their open-book lifestyle can be the perfect grinding stone upon which to hone your reading skills.

Keeping a journal, making predictions in that journal and then seeing how things work out, will make you a card reader. You’ll get practice without the emotional involvement that can often get in the way of an objective reading. Try it and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and probably astonish yourself.

It’s certainly fine to keep LWB close at hand when beginning your journey with the cards. However, it will only take you so far. Eventually the time will come for you to decide for yourself what a card means. This may sound like a daunting task, but I assure you that it isn’t.

Begin by reading what other people say about Tarot, trying to understand why a certain author has a point of view about this or that card. Don’t believe everything you read, as a lot of amateurs are much better at writing books than reading Tarot. Decide if you agree with them, after all, you have a different life experience and a different set of lenses through which you see the world.

Once again, experimentation will give you a good idea as to what makes sense about a card and what doesn’t. If a card is hard to understand, for example, The Priestess, then research priestesses in history and specific examples, in order to get some reference. Let’s say you look up Isis and discover that she was compassionate, persistent, magical and actually saved humanity from chaos. You might then give The Priestess card similar attributes, such as purity of thought, honesty and diligence. The key is to put it into your own words.

Many students of the Tarot have trouble with the royalty cards. In the beginning, it’s natural to ascribe specific personalities, or human personality types, to the different cards. There’s no lack of reference material available as to what each royalty card means in the real world, as far as types of people go. Eventually, you may discover yourself thinking about the cards not as people at all, but rather as blind forces of nature that move into our lives and then out again. This will mean you’re on the right track.

Your Journey Awaits

In the beginning, don’t worry about spreads. Just pick cards, look at them and allow the meaning to come to you. Once you begin, Tarot will want to connect with you as much as you want to connect with it. As your skills grow, so will the complexities of your knowledge, but don’t rush yourself.

The most important tasks are to study the cards, write about them, make your own decisions about what they represent and how they affect you, and do readings. I will say that it’s extremely difficult to read for yourself until you have more experience, but it is possible. In the meantime, read for anyone who will let you and remember to be cautious and gentle with your words, for no matter how simple a statement may be, it will be taken seriously, even by the most skeptical listener.

Tarot will amaze and enchant you for the rest of your life; all you have to do is meet it halfway and let it do the rest.

Until next time, I wish you all peace and love.

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