How to Look at Tarot Cards

© Copyright 2018, Ryerson University

Origins and Usage

The origination story of the tarot card is as esoteric as its existence, with the first deck of tarot cards being found in fifteenth-century Italy (Arnold 7). A popular theory holds that the illustrations on the cards are derived from the hieroglyphic “Book of Toth” from the great library of Alexandria (Ivtzan 139); this scroll is rumored to hold the secret teachings of the universe (Alexander 1). According to this theory, tarot cards travelled to Europe from Egypt with gypsies (Arnold 6). The church had deemed the cards “the devil’s picture book,” insinuating its dangerous capabilities, this is the reason why readings were done in secret, which kept their essence mysterious (Alexander 2). There are other cultures who may have also contributed to the creation of tarot cards; for example, the Greek mathematician Pythagoras that thought numbers “contain divine essence” had an influence on the numerology of the cards. (Alexander 2). The tarot cards speak to your intuition and inner knowledge, when reading these cards that “gut feeling” you get is most likely right.

A deck contains 78 cards, 22 of the major arcana and 46 of the minor arcana. Arcana can be defined as: “a hidden thing; a mystery, a profound secret” (“Arcanum, n.”). Thus, we can view each set as insight into a world of knowledge. There are many ways to spread tarot cards, but the reader will use their intuition to anchor meaning for the readee (Arnold 212).

Selected Major Arcana Cards.
Kimia Rashidisisan. Photograph of Selected Major Arcana Cards. 2018.

The Major Arcana

These cards hold and reveal the esoteric and mystical elements of the universe, making them “harder” to read (Alexander 3). Numbered from zero, or “the fool,” to twenty-one, or “the world,” each deck has varied symbolism depending on the illustrator (Alexander 3). These cards depict greater than human forces and show the limits of our existence; if many major arcana cards show up in a reading, that can imply that the concerns of the readee are not in their hands, and if more major arcana cards show up than minor arcana cards, that can mean the readee has no choice in their outcomes (Alexander 4-5). It is “important to read responsibly,” as sharing latent information with others may imply that our destinies are not in our own hands – but on the contrary, the cards can only offer guidance (Arnold 7).

Six of Cups.
Kimia Rashidisisan. Photograph of Six of Cups.  2018.

The Minor Arcana 

The minor arcana has been rumoured to have been added to the deck later on, and is believed to be the “fortune telling” component of a reading, as they are associated with everyday life and guidance, working as “commentary” for the major arcana (Alexander 6-7). The minor arcana has four suits: the wands, the pentacles, the swords, and the cups; each suit contains ten numbered “pip” cards and four court cards: the king, the queen, the knight, and, page (Alexander 6). However, the suits may vary from deck to deck depending on its creator (Ivtzan 140). Each suit and number or court work together to make meaning of the different aspects of life. If many or more minor arcana cards show up in a reading it can imply that the readee has a grip over their concerns (Alexander 7).

I asked my mother to pull out a card from her deck for me and I received the six of cups. The colour yellow is predominant in this card which, looking with tarot reading eyes, cues happiness. Stability in relationships and within the family are brought up by this card, noting that all is in order within these two sectors of personal life (Arnold 157). However accurate this reading may be of my own life, the card brought a little reassurance – and don’t we all need that from time to time?

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Alexander, Skye. “The Only Tarot Book You’ll Ever Need.” Simon & Schuster, 2008.

“Arcanum, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2018.

Arnold, Kim. “Tarot: Learn How to Read and Interpret the Cards.” Hay House, 2015.

Ivtzan, Itai. “Tarot cards: a literature review and evaluation of psychic versus psychological explanations.” The Journal of Parapsychology, vol. 71, 2007, pp. 139-149.

Rashidisisan, Kimia. Photograph of Selected Major Arcana Cards. 2018.

Rashidisisan, Kimia. Photograph of The Six of Cups. 2018.