Everyone who reads tarot cards has questions. Sometimes, those questions are about the
cards themselves. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions-and answers-
about the tarot.
What exactly is the tarot?
The tarot is a deck of seventy-eight cards, which are commonly used for meditation and
reflection, self-development, problem solving and, of course, fortunetelling.
What do you mean by "fortunetelling?"
The art of fortunetelling is the art of prediction. Both terms mean the same thing: to tell, or
foretell, the future, before it happens. Both terms literally mean "to say before."
A prediction can take the form of a prophecy, which is divinely inspired, or divination,
in which someone accesses information from a divine, supernatural source. Tarot cards are
one way to tap into that source.
Patricia Telesco, a prolific author of New Age books and guides, defined it well. "Divination,"
she said, "opens a spiritual window through which we can see our present situations
more clearly and peek into possible futures."
Where do tarot cards come from?
Tarot cards first made an appearance in the 1400s, when a card game called "tarocchi" swept
through the royal courts of Italy and France. It was a complicated game, played something
like bridge: every card in the tarocchi deck had a point value, and the cards with the highest
ranks trumped cards of a lower rank.
Tarocchi cards were illustrated with a host of literary and mythic figures, as well as allegorical
images of virtues and ideals, like justice, temperance, and fortitude.
The images naturally lent themselves to some lighthearted banter among players. By
the early 1500s, some tarocchi players were using the cards to improvise clever rhymes
and poems about the others in the game. The resulting sonnets were called tarocchi appropriati.
After a while, some tarocchi enthusiasts even started skipping the game itself,
and simply passed out five or six tarocchi cards to everyone in the group so they could
interpret the images for themselves.
Tarocchi appropriati was a form of divination. It was never as popular as other fortunetelling
methods of the time, which included palm reading and geomancy, or the interpretation
of mathematical and geometric figures. Some fortunetellers also used divination
wheels, which would lead readers to a fortune in a book. Others used dice. In fact, a mathematical
correspondence has led some scholars to wonder if early fortunetellers paired
dice with tarot cards. A pair of dice can land on any of twenty-one combinations; there are
twenty-one numbered cards of the major arcana. Three dice, rolled together, can land on
any of fifty-six combinations; there are fifty-six cards in the minor arcana.
At any rate, the structure and the symbolism of tarocchi cards did lend themselves to
use as a fortunetelling tool.
When did tarot cards come to be used as a fortunetelling tool?
While people obviously played with the tarot as a fortunetelling device for years, the first
professional tarot reader and teacher in history was a Parisian named Jean-Baptiste Alliette-
a fortuneteller who learned the art of tarot divination from an old Italian man. In
fact, Alliette actually coined the word cartomancy-the art of divination with cards.
Alliette was born in 1738. When he was nineteen, he began studying divination with a
man from northern Italy, where the cards had been used since the Renaissance. He studied
with the Italian for eight years-even after he married in 1760, and while he tried to support
his wife by selling seeds and grain. When Alliette's marriage failed in 1767, however,
he went to work as a card reader, an astrologer, and an alchemist. He also changed his
professional name to Etteilla, which is Alliette spelled backward.
In 1770, he wrote Etteilla, or a Method of Entertaining Oneself with a Pack of Cards-a
how-to book for telling fortunes with ordinary playing cards. He followed that in 1785
with A Way to Entertain Oneself with a Pack of Cards Called Tarots.
In 1789, at the age of fifty-one, Etteilla commissioned a tarot deck to be used for divination.
His was the first tarot deck to incorporate astrological and alchemical symbolism
and to link the four suits to the four elements. At that point, he had been studying occult
philosophy and telling fortunes for thirty-two years. In the deck he designed, he equated
the first twelve trumps with the twelve signs of the zodiac, he assigned planetary gods to
some of the cards, and he equated the coins to magic talismans. Today his deck, the Grand
Etteilla, is still in print.
Subsequent tarot enthusiasts and scholars tried to denigrate Etteilla's work. A. E. Waite
was probably the harshest: he called Etteilla an "illiterate but zealous adventurer." Even so,
Waite didn't mind borrowing from Etteilla's interpretations when he developed his own
tarot deck-and many of those interpretations are still considered standard, even to this
Waite also borrowed heavily from one of Etteilla's successors, Eliphas Lévi. Lévi was a
tarot scholar and theorist who picked up where Etteilla left off, and continued to combine
the tarot with alchemy and astrology in the 1800s. Just for good measure, Lévi also threw
in some Hebrew Kabbalah, Pythagorean number symbolism, and ceremonial magic.
Lévi was a familiar figure in the secret societies that were popular during the nineteenth
century. His work was eventually picked up by a group that would become the
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
One member of that group, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, was the first person to formally
introduce the art of tarot divination to England, with his 1888 book The Tarot: Its Occult
Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Methods of Play. Mathers later developed his methods
even further, with the help of his friend Dr. William Wynn Westcott. Together, they
wrote Book T, a treatise for the Golden Dawn. In that work, they re-ordered the cards in
the major arcana. They also named the four suits wands, cups, swords, and pentacles-the
same nomenclature that most tarot readers use today.
Their work lives on in the tarot decks in this book.
Can tarot cards predict the future?
Yes-but that answer comes with a disclaimer.
Obviously, tarot cards do offer a glimpse of the future. Tarot cards are an especially
good way to see into the very near future-particularly if you ask clear, concise questions
and set the terms for a usable answer. And when you combine the insights you get from
the cards along with your experience, your intuition, and your common sense, you can
astonish yourself with the accuracy of your predictions.
Unfortunately, it's also true that most tarot readings don't make total sense until after they
play themselves out in the real world. That's because the tarot speaks a symbolic language
that can be hard to decode. Often, it's only in hindsight that most readings seem clear.
However, your predictions will get better with practice. The more you work with the
cards, the more attuned you'll be to the imagery and symbols on the cards. Reading the
cards can help you learn to pay attention to signs and symbols in your everyday life. They
can help you focus your observations and judge your experiences. They can confirm the
conclusions you make about other people and events.
Ultimately, reading tarot cards can help you learn to trust your intuition. The more
you see your predictions play out in real time, the better you'll become at interpreting the
cards in new situations.
Tarot cards are also really, really good at helping you prepare for new developments in
your life-including monumental occasions like meeting your true love. Tarot cards can
suggest situations in which you might encounter new opportunities, and ways in which
you can make yourself attractive, confident, and make the most of new opportunities. Tarot
cards are also a valuable way to get a bird's-eye view of any situation, and see yourself and
other people from an objective standpoint.
And, of course, trying to see the future in the cards is fun.
How accurate are tarot predictions?
It depends. The further you try to see into the future, the more things can change. The future
is never set in stone, and any action you take-even as a result of a tarot reading-can
alter the course of subsequent events.
Just remember that the tarot is not a mysterious, all-knowing oracle that can reveal
your inevitable fate. You are not obligated to entrust your fate to anyone but yourself, and
you shouldn't base any major decisions solely on the cards. After all, your interpretations
could be wrong-and your situation can and will change if you simply choose a new direction.
Treat the tarot as you would a trusted friend and advisor. But realize, as in astrology,
the cards impel, they do not compel. As German tarot expert Hajo Banhaff has said, the
tarot makes an excellent servant, but a bad master.
Do you need to be psychic to use tarot cards?
No. You can read tarot cards based solely on the images and symbols on each card.
However, reading tarot cards will probably make you feel more psychic. In fact, the
more you use tarot cards, the more comfortable you'll be trusting your intuition. That's
because the simple act of reading a tarot card forces you to use your intuition to zero in on
important messages and symbols. The cards gently prompt you to tune out the mundane
and tune in to the metaphysical.
The structure of the tarot deck does double duty as a structure for your thoughts and
observations, and serves as a framework for your intuition. Tarot cards make it easier for
the logical left side of your brain to work with the more creative and intuitive right side of
the brain. Your rational, logistical self can study the numbers and the titles of the cards,
and access the stories and symbolism associated with each one. At the same time, your
psychic mind can tune in to the spiritual significance of the cards.
Oddly enough, tarot cards are also useful tools for people who are extremely psychic-
the kind of people who tend to pick up on the emotions and thoughts of other people, even
when they don't want to. If you find that psychic background noise interferes with your
everyday life, you can train yourself to block those distractions during the course of your
ordinary day, and tune in only when you're using the cards
How do tarot cards work?
Tarot cards often seem magical and mysterious. Even when you pull cards at random,
they often seem to zero in on the issue or question that's on your mind. Every tarot reader
seems to have his or her own theory about why tarot cards work. Some of those beliefs are
pragmatic. Others are scientific. Some are wildly speculative.
Here are some of the most popular conjectures:
Tarot cards could work simply because they have something for everyone. Most cards are
illustrated with a wide range of images and symbols-which makes it possible to find signs
and symbols that apply to any situation. Once the cards are on the table, people are inherently
drawn to the images and symbols that are most important to them. In that case, the
real power of the cards isn't necessarily its power to display signs, omens, and portents-it's
in the thought, discussion, and action the images inspire.
Some people study the tarot as a purely academic pursuit. For centuries, the cards have
been thought to hold the key to synchronizing a wide range of Western thought and tradition-
everything from philosophy to psychology, with a little mythology, astrology, numerology,
alchemy, and Kabbalah thrown in for good measure. In fact, if you were a trained
tarot scholar, you could offer a powerful reading based on nothing more than a strict
review of the cards' historical significance and traditional interpretations.
Tarot cards could help you access the information that your unconscious mind has stored
in reserve-like snippets of overheard conversation, fleeting facial expressions, body language,
and physical reactions to comments and images.
Intuition and psychic ability
Some people believe that the tarot works because it helps them access their psychic ability.
They use the cards as a tool to channel their psychic impressions and tap into the underlying
bond of energy, emotion, and shared experience that unites us all. Tarot cards often
seem to trigger psychic ability in some readers-even those who don't necessarily think
of themselves as particularly gifted. Some people notice that images and symbols on the
cards seem to shimmer, move, and come to life during a reading. Others find that random
words and phrases pop into their heads when they look at the cards. Still others point
out that the cards seem to serve as a conduit for information that simply strikes them as
impressions or gut feelings.
The groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung coined the term "synchronicity" to describe
the meaningful coincidences that tend to occur during a tarot reading. Synchronicity is
at work, for example, when we're thinking about an upcoming court case and the Justice
card falls on the table. Jung believed synchronicity is a sign of a higher power at work.
The collective unconscious
Tarot cards might help us tap into humanity's "collective unconscious"-a sort of energy
field that Jung also explored in his studies. According to his theory, the collective unconscious
is a reservoir of shared emotion and understanding that unites all people on a psychic
level. It also serves as a well of shared myth, history, and legendary associations that
help us understand the human condition.
We live in a world of Newtonian physics, where time is linear, and every occurrence-even
those we can't explain-somehow conforms to the laws of nature. Give us an effect, and
we'll find the cause. A newer branch of physics, however-quantum physics-suggests
that time doesn't unfold just as we perceive it. In quantum physics, time seems to flow in
every direction, and events in the future seem to travel back to influence the present. As
those events bounce back and forth through the time stream, they even seem to communicate
with each other-which could explain how tarot cards are able to depict events that
haven't yet occurred.
Are tarot cards magic?
The cards are not inherently magic, but when you use them, you may find yourself making
magical transformations in your life. That's because the tarot allows you to see your situation
in a new light-from the perspective of an observer, rather than a participant. Tarot
cards allow you to step outside yourself for a moment, and assess your situation objectively.
When you spread out a handful of tarot cards, you don't need to imagine the people
and places in your life when you look at tarot cards: you can literally see them, all laid out
on the table in front of you. You'll also find yourself surveying any number of scenes and
landscapes that remind you of your past, present, and future.
Of course, some people do use the cards in magical ways. Just as letters and words
can spell out previously unspoken dreams, wishes, and desires, you can use tarot cards to
explore your hopes and fears, and describe the life you want to create for yourself. You can
even use the cards to experiment with alternate courses of action and their corresponding
The cards have also been shown to correspond with several esoteric systems, such as
Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology, which are often thought of as magical because they've
been kept secret.
While the cards may be mystical, you should never treat them as more sacred or more
important than yourself. They are an extension of your understanding and analytical abilities-
nothing more, nothing less.
My grandmother used to tell fortunes with playing cards.
How is that different from tarot?
The two systems are probably similar. In fact, some very popular divination decks, like the
Gypsy Witch Fortunetelling Cards, are basically decks of playing cards.
The main difference is the structure of the deck: a tarot deck has four suits, like a playing
card deck, as well as the twenty-two major arcana cards.
What's more, most modern tarot decks are fully illustrated. In a deck of ordinary playing
cards, most of the cards are simply illustrated with a simple repeating pattern of clubs,
hearts, spades, and diamonds. In a tarot deck, however, every card has a distinctly separate
Those illustrations-along with the titles printed on each card-make it easier to use
tarot cards for divination. While it's true that some people can read playing cards based
solely on intuition and psychic impressions, most have to memorize the meanings of each
card in a playing-card deck, or write them on each card. When you read tarot cards, you
can interpret the symbols on each card, and use the images as a reminder of traditional
It's interesting to note that historically, traveling gypsies used playing cards-not tarot
cards-to tell fortunes. Some switched to tarot cards with the passage of time, but only
when their customers began to expect tarot cards on the table.
Why do so many fortune tellers focus on the past and the present?
Isn't fortunetelling all about the future?
You'd think so until you realize that past, present, and future are all connected. Just as
one moment flows into the next in our everyday lives, the full continuum of time takes its
place on the tarot reader's table, too.
In a fortunetelling reading, the cards that fall in the past and present positions tend
to illustrate a range of themes and motifs that will continue to play out-and they help us
spot trends and predict what will happen in the future.
The cards that represent the past and present also help validate the accuracy of a reading.
If we know we can trust the accuracy of cards that describe our past and present, we
can also put our faith in the cards that depict our future.
Are tarot cards evil?
No. Tarot cards are simply pieces of paper. They have no intrinsic power, either for good
or bad. They are merely a tool.
Like any other tool, however, they can be used for a wide range of purposes.
It's no secret that tarot cards have been used by unscrupulous readers to frighten and
misguide other people. Unfortunately, that means that once you start reading tarot cards
for friends and family members, you might find yourself battling an image problem. You
might also find that you need to protect yourself from well-meaning people who express
theological concerns about your immortal soul.
Some people-especially those who come from a Christian background-do think the
cards are evil. They've heard that the Bible prohibits tarot cards, or that the Catholic Church
forbids their use. Some people have even called the tarot the "Devil's Picture Book," and they
claim that tarot cards are used by Satan worshippers.
In fact, most of today's tarot decks incorporate a wide range of religious images and
symbols, such as the crucifix, the dove, the olive branch, angels, priests, and bishops.
That's because much of the tarot was developed by Christian scholars and philosophers,
who based a lot of their work on the work of even earlier Jewish mystics. Since then, other
religious groups have redrawn the cards to reflect their own spiritual beliefs and practices-
but no tarot decks depict images designed for evil purposes.
The Bible does not mention tarot cards, specifically, because they were invented long
after the Bible was written. Scholars look to other passages to determine whether God allows
In some biblical passages, divination seems to be presented as an acceptable practice.
Genesis reports that Joseph-otherwise famous for his coat of many colors-actually rose
to prominence in Egypt because of his fortunetelling skills. He used a silver cup for scrying,
a form of divination similar to reading a crystal ball, and he interpreted dreams. He's the
one who told the Pharaoh of the seven years of record harvests, which would be followed
by seven years of drought and famine.
In Numbers, the High Priest used two objects, the Urim and Thummim, to determine
God's will. Scholars have speculated that the priest rolled the two objects like dice. Saul, the
first king of Israel, was said to have visited a medium to consult with the spirit of the prophet
Samuel. The king of Babylon also shook arrows, looked for signs in the liver of an animal,
and consulted the teraphim, which were images used for the giving and receiving of oracles.
The Old Testament's Daniel was said to have been filled with the light, understanding, and
wisdom of the Holy Spirit-which enabled him to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and
solve problems. In fact, his skills prompted the king of Babylonia to make Daniel the chief
of the "magicians, enchanters, Chaldeans, and astrologers." The prophets Elijah and Moses
received divine information and instructions through visions. So did the disciples Peter,
Paul, and John. The three wise men who visited the newborn baby Jesus were astrologers.
In Corinthians, prophecy is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with healing,
the working of miracles, discerning of spirits, and speaking in tongues.
On the other hand, some religious scholars have also found that the Bible prohibits
divination. They point out that Jesus told his followers not to worry about the future, but
to put their trust in God.
Many people who practice divination, however, believe that the word "divination" itself
defines the scope of their work. They believe that they are in touch with the divine. They
would tell you that their divinatory methods and practices are a form of prayer and meditation,
and that God would not reveal information that he does not want them to access.
Even so, some critics believe that divination subverts God's will. They insist that divination
is different from prayer, because it goes around the "natural" ways that God reveals
his will. Any answer you need, they say, can be found through prayer, the Bible, and the
church. They point to Isaiah 8:19, which says, "And when they say to you, 'Consult the
mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,' should not a people consult their God?
Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?"
Most of the prohibitions against divination appear in the book of Leviticus. For example,
Leviticus 19:26 says, "You shall not practice augury or witchcraft." Leviticus 19:31
warns, "Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them:
I am the Lord your God." Leviticus 20:6 says, "If a person turns to mediums and wizards,
playing the harlot after them, I will set my face against that person, and will cut him off
from among his people," and Leviticus 20:27 says, "A man or a woman who is a medium
or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be
But consider those warnings in context. In the same passages, Leviticus also calls for
regular animal sacrifices, burnt offerings, and sin offerings as a condition of worship. Leviticus
bans women from entering the sanctuary after menstruation and childbirth. Actually,
Leviticus prohibits anyone with a physical handicap from defiling God's house with
his presence. Leviticus outlines a long list of prohibited activities that God considers an
"abomination"-such as touching dead insects or seeing your relatives in the nude. Leviticus
would keep you from eating steak-because meat with blood or fat is prohibited.
Forget shellfish, pork, and rabbit, too. They're all abominable in the eyes of Leviticus' god.
Leviticus also demands that men take a shower and wash their sheets immediately after
having sex, and orders them not to shave or cut the hair around their temples. Leviticus
prohibits tattoos, sleeping late, working on a Saturday, weaving cloth from two kinds of
thread, planting two different kinds of plants in the same bed, or harvesting an entire crop.
And if mere prohibitions aren't enough, Leviticus suggests that sinners should be stoned.
The book of Deuteronomy also uses strong language to discourage divination. However,
it's important to note that the form of divination that Deuteronomy describes is objectionable
because it incorporates black magic, the raising of the dead, and child sacrifice.
And in the next breath, God promises his people that he will send a new prophet their way,
so they will have access to information about the future.
In fact, even now there are fundamentalist churches that regularly encourage congregants
to speak in tongues-a form of prophecy. Bibliomancy, the practice of opening the
Bible to a random passage for guidance, is a time-honored form of divination. Even prayers
that ask God for a sign or an answer could be considered a form of divination.
Can using tarot cards open you to evil forces?
Some church leaders believe that divination encourages practitioners to gain knowledge
or information that's hidden or forbidden-information that comes from supernatural
sources, such as angels, demons, and the dead. They also believe that divination takes
place outside God's protection, which clears the way for evil spirits and demons to trick
and mislead gullible individuals-or even to possess them, physically, and work their evil
on the physical plane.
However, many of those who practice divination live very spiritual lives. In fact, they
believe that they are working through the grace of God-and they take steps to pray, ask
for guidance, and dispel negative energy from their lives and their tarot readings.
Some critics also believe that divination diverts one's focus from God, and forces people
to place their trust in inanimate objects. Here they may have a point. Tarot cards can be addictive.
It can be tempting to turn to the cards for guidance on routine matters or even on a
moment-to-moment, day-by-day basis. In extreme cases, tarot cards can become an obsession
or a compulsion-and that's simply not healthy. There's a world of difference between
pulling a single card in the morning as a meditative device and conducting a full-fledged
Celtic Cross reading to see if today would be a good day to go to the grocery store.
If you use the cards conscientiously, however, with hope and goodwill, you will have