What are Tarot Cards and How Do They Work?

by SusM

The essentials about tarot cards and how they work - for tarot card beginners.

So what are tarot cards?

Tarot cards have an aura of mystery about them, but simply speaking tarot cards are a special deck of pictorial cards. These cards are said to be a tool of divination and are often associated with ‘fortune telling’ and psychic readings. Yet not everyone who uses tarot cards is a professional psychic or tarot card reader. Many people use tarot cards as a hobby. Some people even use them as a springboard for personal thought rather than for divination.


Photo: Meglet 127 'tarot_cards' (Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Exploring Tarot Cards
Tarot for Life
Quest Books
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The Complete Guide to the Tarot
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Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom
Weiser Books
$23.75  $11.26

What is Divination?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word divination - this is the seeking of hidden knowledge through supernatural methods. This knowledge is often about the future. Divination was made better known through the Harry Potter books and movies with Professor Trelawney teaching the topic to the Hogwarts' students.

The Mystery and History of Tarot Cards

The aura of mystery that surrounds tarot cards has a lot to do with no-one knowing exactly how they work. The cards are ancient, possibly dating as far back as the 1300 or 1400s. It is thought that they were first used in Europe during this time, although some people think they may have originated in Egypt. It is also thought the original tarot cards were created as a game similar to bridge played today rather than as a tool for divination.It was not until much later (1781) that the occult aspect of tarot cards was discovered in England and France. The symbolic pictures of the cards were seen as having more depth and meaning than just game cards. It was at this time that tarot cards started to be used for divination.

Photo: contemplicity 'Tarot of the Bohemians' (Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The Mystery and History
Mystical Origins of the Tarot
Destiny Books
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The Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore
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The Universal Symbols of Tarot Cards

Getting back to what tarot cards are - a tarot deck has cards with pictures and symbols on them that are universally understood. These pictures and symbols relate to things like water, earth, fire and air. The cards are also designed to represent common events that everyone experiences in life. Experiences like joy and pain, beginnings and endings.

There are usually 78 cards in a deck of tarot cards. They are available in different designs based on the common symbols of water, earth, fire and air. One design is not 'better' than another. The choice of cards is based more on the needs of the person using them and what card deck appeals to them most. Which tarot deck a person chooses to use is a very personal thing.

Photo: jessica mullen 'Yesterday's Tarots Card' (Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Learn to Read Tarot Card Symbols
The Easiest Way to Learn the Tarot - ...
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Easy Tarot
Llewellyn Publications
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Learning the Tarot
Weiser Books
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Are Tarot Cards Evil?

The mysteriousness of tarot cards has encouraged people to create theories about how tarot cards work throughout history. Some people think tarot cards are evil and that any information comes from a dark source. This idea comes from early times when things that were not understood were thought to be evil. Yet there is no evidence that tarot cards are evil and as the world has become more scientific in its thinking other explanations have become more common.

Explanations from Psychology


One newer theory to explain how tarot cards work involves something called ‘synchronicity’. The idea of synchronicity was developed by the psychologist Carl Jung (who was a student of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud). Jung defined synchronicity as meaningful coincidence, so if you believe in 'signs'  you have a belief in synchronicity. Synchronicity is thought to be more than just coincidence with 'signs' having an important role in guiding our lives. Yet no one knows exactly how synchronicity works.

Photo: 'So What's Your Karma' by in da mood (Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic CC BY 2.0)

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When GOD Winks
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The Mind

Other common beliefs about how tarot cards work are actually about psychic ability, especially the ability of the tarot card reader. People often think tarot card readers have strong psychic ability that allows them to read minds. It is also thought tarot cards might enable us to use our natural psychic ability or our subconscious mind.

Little is known about psychic ability but the idea of subconscious mind does fit in with psychological knowledge. Tarot card pictures might encourage instinctive thought that is less controlled by our conscious mind. This instinctive way of working with tarot cards might be what gives our subconscious mind greater importance. (The theory of subconscious or unconscious mind has importance in psychological theories and was discovered by Sigmund Freud. So the theories of tarot cards do not go far from established scientific theory.)

The instinctive way of tarot cards might also enable us to tap into areas of our intelligence which are usually overlooked or unused. These types of thinking may be called psychic ability because of a lack of understanding of how the mind works.

Finally, another possible explanation to explain how tarot cards work is people actually interpret tarot cards (meaning it's the reader rather than the cards themselves that are important). One of the key ideas taught in psychology is that experience of the world is subjective. (Even with synchronicity it is the personal meaningfulness of signs that is important. A coincidence is only synchronicity if it is important to us.) It is very likely our own interpretation of tarot cards plays a big role in how tarot cards work, although this does not mean that none of the other theories mentioned are correct. It is very possible for there to be more than one explanation of how tarot cards work..

Photo: Cosmic Eye by h.koppdelaney (Flickr Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic CC BY-ND 2.0)

Books about the Subconscious
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind
SoHo Books
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Sigmund Freud: Explorer of the Uncons...
Oxford University Press, USA
$6.35  $2.42
Updated: 03/04/2012, SusM
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SusM on 11/29/2012

Thanks Ragtimelil :)

Ragtimelil on 10/25/2012

Good introduction to the Tarot. I'll have to dig my deck out again and see what they tell me.

SusM on 04/13/2012

Thanks for the feedback Katie :)

katiem2 on 04/09/2012

Very interesting, I learned a couple of things I did not know about tarot cards. Very nice page, thanks for the insights.

SusM on 03/15/2012

It always seems hard to choose which books to list. So many good ones out there. I haven't read Forest of Souls. Sounds like an interesting read. I think I will have to add it to my must read list. Thanks for the tip :)

JeanBakula on 03/08/2012

Very nice article! Or Wizzle, I guess! You listed several good books that I didn't, because I was running out of room. I love Joan Bunning, I began with her. Do you have Rachel Pollack's The Forest of Souls? It's more about her personal experience with Tarot, but really interesting. Take care.

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