What Are Tarot Cards? How Do They Work?

Nikhil Goswami
Tarot cards with magic crystal ball, candles and lavender flowers. Wicca, esoteric, divination and occult background with vintage magic objects for mystic rituals

The meaning of tarot cards differs for everyone. Some see it as a plain deck of cards; others see it as a spiritual guide. But what is widely accepted is that tarot cards are divination tools. Many believe tarot cards can help give you an awareness of things your higher self already knows.

So what are tarot cards? Tarot cards are any deck of cards used in tarot games and readings. Tarot reading is also called Taromancy. It is the art of using a specific spread of tarot cards to divine guidance or counsel in a situation.

Much like regular playing cards, the minor arcana is divided into four suits of fourteen cards each. They are the Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles. These four suits also have court cards within them. The court cards are the King, Queen, Knight, and Page. These cards can represent various temperaments and attitudes depending on the question asked.

Each suit represents astronomical signs or elements. For example, Wand is fire, Sword is water, Cup is air, and Pentacle is earth.

The major arcana is usually considered the core or the heart of the deck. Some tarot readings even feature them alone as they form the foundation.

What Can Tarot Cards Do?

Contrary to popular beliefs, tarot cards aren’t only for psychics who want to tell someone’s future. In fact, you do not have to be a psychic or clairvoyant to know how to read tarot cards. Indeed, anyone can learn how tarot works if they put in the work. So are you curious to know are tarot cards are real?

While tarot cards may not tell you your future, they may help you make better decisions. Many believe that the cards allow you to access your inner wisdom and intuition. From this higher position, you are in a better place to make the best decisions for yourself or your situation. Others think of the cards as a guide, whose outcomes are subject to the forces at play at that time.

It is important to understand that tarot cards do not specifically tell you what will happen in the future. Rather, it shows you a range of possibilities that depend on your decision. You can find the best tarot reading sites  to learn from.

It will help to remember that tarot cards are subject to individual interpretations. The art of tarot card reading is generally accepted as a deposit of decades of human wisdom. Some general interpretations have been passed down through the decades. However, there is no one way to read cards, and there is no one meaning to a card. Different readers give different meanings to the cards. The meaning of a card can also change depending on its position in a spread. The meaning may differ if the card is upside down or adjacent to another major card.

How Do Tarot Cards Work?

Tarot card readings are more intuition, less fortune-telling. It is believed that the best way to make the cards work is to use them to access your intuition and higher self. Vibrant imagery on the cards then opens up your subconscious and inner wisdom. You can make better decisions and manifest your goals from this higher ground.

Many believe you must make contact with the card and imprint your energy onto it; trust that energy and feel it pull you to choose a particular card or cards. The tarot is meant to be like a mirror; it reflects your subconscious’s deeper truths.

Experts have developed many principles over the years to help people understand how tarot cards work. Some believe that the principle of synchronicity has a role to play. They believe that tarot cards can trace the patterns of universal energies and help us give meaning to them.

For others, it’s simply the principle of projection. They believe the tarot cards allow you to project your questions and concerns onto them. By doing so, you can tap into your higher self and make decisions you may not have made consciously.

History Of Tarot Cards

Around 1440, history brought up the first mention of tarot cards. The Duke of Milan requested special “triumph” cards for entertainment at a special event. The nobles used it to play a game similar to bridge. The “tarocchi” game spread like wildfire to all parts of Europe. When it spread to southern France, they named it “tarot”.

In the Duke’s letter, the cards he described were similar to modern-day tarot cards. He even differentiated them from the common playing cards. The deck contained 22 independent trump cards and four tarot suits.

Decades later, occult followers caught on to the tarot cards. They believed that the cards held much more than they seemed. Also, they believed the inscriptions were powerful, and the cards did more than entertain. As such, they started using the cards as a tool for divination. They soon started writing books about it and added it to their philosophy.

Around the 1700s, a Frenchman, Jean-Baptise Alliette, illustrated his tarot cards and a guide to taromancy. Because he dabbled in the occult, Alliette specifically made the cards for divining, not playing. He gave each card a different meaning and tied them in with astronomical and elemental features. Additionally, he numbered the cards with a system still used today. He is considered one of the first tarot readers.

Circa 1909, the Rider-Waite deck came on the scene. Published by William Rider and A. E. Waite, the card illustrations collectively tell a story. This illustration by Pamela Colman Smith became one of the fascinating parts of the cards.

The deck finally plunged tarot cards into the occult. Today, this deck has become one of the most popular decks used in tarot readings.

How Many Types Of Tarot Spreads Are There?

A tarot spread refers to a particular pattern of cards you choose during a reading. Like every other process, your design will significantly influence your outcomes. Every part of the process is important, from the shuffling to the spread.

Many readers believe that choosing the type of spread should come to you. Choosing a spread may also largely depend on your expertise level.

However, one thing is sure; there is no one way of doing this. Tarot readers can make up a spread on the spot. Alternately, they may choose from the wealth of spreads already available.

Tarot spreads range from simple to complex. The simplest is the single card pull. However, the go-to for beginners is three-card spreads. It is a classic spread that is fit to answer most questions, and even the most talented readers still make use of the three-card spread.

This method simply involves choosing three cards out of your deck. It is important to spread your energy on the cards before picking and trust your intuition on which to pick.

The three cards can represent many meanings like the past, present, and future, mind, body, and spirit, situation, obstacle, and outcome, opportunity, challenge and advice, and strength, weakness, and growth.

The use of the three-card pull is almost limitless. It is helpful for relationships, financial issues, creativity, career, and inner guidance. You can also make a linear or nonlinear arrangement of the three cards.

Another popular spread is the five-card spread, and this spread can help you dig deeper into the reason for a situation.

You can build the five-card pull in a cross formation upon the three-card pull. You do this by placing one card underneath the middle row. This card should expose the cause of the situation. Another card is placed above the middle row; this shows the possibility of the situation.

The five-card spread can also take a rectangular formation, with the middle card taking center stage. The surrounding cards are interpreted loosely.

For intermediaries and experts, the Celtic Cross spread is the go-to. It is an intricate ten-card spread that can help to isolate issues. It is a good way of answering a specific question.

The Celtic Cross formation is divided into two; the cross and the pillar. Each card drawn in its specific position answers detailed questions. They give insight into the past, present, near future, the subconscious, the challenge, and the outcome.

Because the Celtic Cross spread is so complex, it requires skill and discipline to learn how to read it. Each card interacts and makes connections with the neighboring cards. Understanding this interaction is the key to deciphering what the cross offers.

In addition, other factors also influence the meaning of the cross. Reversed cards, major or minor arcana cards, number of court cards are all contributing factors.

How Many Types of Tarot Card Decks Exist?

There are several kinds of tarot card decks that one can use for a reading. No one deck is necessarily superior to the other. However, the Rider-Waite tarot deck is the most popular and beginner-friendly deck. There are several other decks, such as the Modern Witch, the Morgan Greer, and the Tarot of the Divine tarot decks.

While they all differ in design and illustration, these decks have multiple similarities. All tarot decks contain 78 cards, each belonging to either of two groups- minor arcana and major arcana. Twenty-two cards in each deck are in the latter group and signify major occurrences or spiritual lessons. The other 56 cards are of the former group and signify lesser secrets, more everyday concerns, and matters.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck is a classic, made in 1909 and still popular.

The Modern Witch tarot deck is a modern variation of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. This deck features more modern and relatable illustrations that make it perfect for the modern reader.

The Tarot de Marseilles deck is also a popular classic of Italian origin. This card deck has been popular since its creation centuries ago, and this deck design has inspired the creation of dozens of other modern decks with various themes.

Choosing a deck to purchase is also a matter of intuition. It is important to note the things that naturally speak to you and find a deck that connects with you. You can learn how to read tarot cards.

Types Of Tarot Reading That You Need To Know

When reading tarot cards, the questions you ask are crucial. Some people say tarot is not meant to answer yes or no questions. However, most tarot card readers will encourage you to keep your questions broad, even about a specific area of your life.

There are thus two types of readings; the open and the question reading.

The open reading is not directed at a particular situation but is a quest for general guidance. Many believe that with an open question, your inner guide is led to tell you what you need to know at that moment. Hence, you are not explicitly asking a question.

Open reading is the best bet when facing uncertainties. People use them for special events like anniversaries, birthdays, or the start of a new job. An open reading can be useful when entering a new phase in life, such as getting married or childbirth. With an open reading, your scope is not limited. It can give you an edge over unpredictable circumstances and set you on the right path for long-term growth.

On the other hand, a question reading targets a specific area of life. This is not to say that the cards will give you a definite answer. Keep in mind that your questions can limit the answers you get from the cards.

A question reading is useful when you are dealing with a current situation and do not know how to handle it.

In addition, the way you phrase a question in a tarot card reading is crucial. Poorly framed questions will only leave you confused. Or worse, having more questions. Tarot readers will encourage you to ask open-ended questions. To get the best reading, be specific but not too detailed. Try to broaden the issue you’re dealing with and go into the process with an open mind.

How To Read Tarot Cards?

There are no fixed procedures to read tarot cards. Each reader has a style that they deem most effective. However, they should cover some basic steps during the process.

First, it is important to familiarize yourself with the deck. Taromancy does not only require intuition; it also requires you to be familiar with the cards and their meanings. For a beginner, it may help to draw a card a day, meditate on it and give meaning to it. This will help you gradually get to know your cards. Thus, when you draw a card you’re pulled to, you will not be taken aback by its unfamiliarity.

Second, have a question in mind. It could be as open as, “what lessons can I learn today?” Or “how do I make better relationship choices?” Make sure to keep the questions open to get the best reading.

Next, ponder the questions as you shuffle the cards. Shuffling the cards is an important step; it allows for transferring your energy into the cards. There are different ways to shuffle tarot cards, and you could scramble the cards on the floor or cut the deck. Use whatever method you feel is right for you. Afterward, keep your cards face down.

Third, lay out your cards with a spread of your choice. Try to respond to the whole layout of the cards first. Consider your emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Take note of any unusual response as well. Then you can begin to read the individual cards.

Consider their position with other cards. Some readers may rearrange the cards as they interpret and end up with an entirely different spread.

Don’t be shy to go to your reference or online sources for interpretations of card meanings. You can also take notes but don’t let it be a distraction. Let your inner guide judge how long you spend on a reading. Afterward, leave the analytics and try to create a story from the overall picture. Record yourself speaking out that story if you can and say what comes to mind.

Finally, end the reading by clearing the deck. You can scatter the cards and rearrange them. Or you can shuffle it again. But make sure to clear the deck of any remnant energy. Show gratitude to your inner guide for the process and store the cards away.

Ponder over the experience, go back to listen to your recording, and implement them in your life.

What To Expect From A Tarot Reading Session?

If you’re getting a reading for the first time, it can be hard figuring out what to expect and what not to. Popular culture has portrayed tarot card readings as eerie, mysterious, and almost scary. However, it’s not exactly so. If you’re with an ethical tarot reader, it will feel like a meeting with an old friend.

Bear in mind that there are no two exact readings. Thus, the procedures of a reading will differ for each reader and each seeker. The procedures will also vary slightly depending on whether it’s an in-person or online reading.

Many tarot card readers would likely first inquire if it’s your first reading. If it is, they would likely tell you what to expect from the reading. All legitimate readers will assure you that the tarot in no way determines your future but instead helps you shape your destiny and navigate your future paths. All in all, it’s best to approach a reading with an open mind.

There are several kinds of tarot card decks. Some are novelty and might have contemporary elements. This shouldn’t throw you off, as all expert readers have different preferences. One new deck is not necessarily superior to another.

Depending on your reader’s process, they may ask you to shuffle or cut the cards. Your reader might also ask you why you chose to get a reading. Other readers may not ask you and just proceed to let the cards speak.

Afterward, the reader will lay out the tarot cards in a pattern that symbolizes your past, present, and future. The last card on your “future” pattern tells the likely outcome of your near future.

After your reader interprets the cards, they will offer some guidance concerning the reading. One thing you should not expect from a tarot reading is 100% accuracy in the way your life plays out. Readings are based on your present circumstances. Thus an expected outcome could change if there’s an interference to your current path.

A professional tarot card reader is compassionate and will not judge or make you ashamed. Instead, they will help you make better choices with the cards. You should also expect that your conversation will be confidential.

A reading duration can be as little as 5 minutes to up to 30 minutes or even longer. A professional tarot reader would give you room for questions to help you get clarity.

There are several stereotypes you shouldn’t judge a tarot card reading by. For example, your reader may not be wearing an eccentric costume like in movies. Note that tarot card readers are not mind-readers and don’t do parlor tricks. Thus, don’t expect your reader to guess every detail about you.

If your reader blames your issues on a curse or anything similar, that’s not an ethical reader.

FAQs About Tarot Reading

What is the best tarot deck? 

As mentioned earlier, there is no one best tarot deck. All tarot decks follow the standard structure of 78 cards. The 78 cards are divided into the major and minor arcana. Each card has a special meaning that relates to us at different levels. Tarot card reading is a thing of intuition, and it comes to play even when choosing a deck. However, a beginner might want to consider the Rider-Waite deck. The illustrations are vivid and easy to understand. It is one of the oldest decks and many readers use and love it.

Can I do my own tarot card reading? 

There is no harm in trying to read your cards. However, some professionals believe that it is not profitable. This is because you might bring your bias to the table, especially in a crucial matter. This can cloud your judgment and perspective and prevent you from reaching deeper. Some believe that reading your cards will leave you even more confused.

However, reading a card a day is a practice that professionals highly recommend.

Do online tarot readings work? 

Online tarot readings certainly have their advantages. You can do a reading via phone or video call. Also, you are not limited by location. Additionally, you can get a wide berth of psychics and readers to choose from. It is important to choose wisely. The connection you foster with your reader can impact your session. If you’re serious about the process, research the website you use. Some websites use automated readers, which may not give you full value and experience. It is best to decide on a site where you can talk to an actual reader. Online reading will only be as profitable as the reader’s experience on the other end.


Conclusion: What Are Tarot Cards?

Over the years, people have given tarot cards a bad rep as tools for occult activities. However, this misconception could not be farther from the truth. Tarot cards are tools, and a tool is only as powerful as the person wielding it. The cards help you to unlock a deeper, wiser part of yourself. They help your inner guide fish for answers in your subconscious mind. Additionally, they can help you in gaining a new perspective on situations and manifest goals.

Getting the best out of tarot cards depends on how skillful you are with them. Understanding how tarot cards work starts with the major and minor arcana and the four suits. However, the payoff is well worth it. Learning to trust your intuition is also a crucial factor. Indeed, with tarot cards, the answers you seek are just a reading away.

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