It is not known exactly where and when the tarot came into existence. Some believe that it originated in ancient Egypt and was brought to Europe by the Rom, or “Gypsies,” as they traveled to Europe from India. The oracle’s first appearance in Europe appears to have been in the late fourteenth century, probably in Italy, either as a complete seventy-eight card deck or two smaller decks that were later combined to form the version we use today. Because the tarot was devised using principles of the Qabala, astrology, and numerology, it is possible that philosophical scholars of the day chose to encrypt esoteric secrets into the cards, to preserve those secrets during the impending atmosphere of religious intolerance. Regardless of how and why the tarot came into being, it has evolved into a powerful meditative and predictive tool that can help us find the answers we seek within ourselves.
The use of the tarot is based on the principle of synchronicity, a term coined by Carl Gustav Jung, which refers to a meaningful coincidence that occurs without any apparent cause. Any experience that can be attributed to “luck,” “chance,” or “being at the right place at the right time” is an example of synchronicity. Jung, a doctor who asked many religious, esoteric, and spiritual questions while conducting his psychological research, felt nothing happened just by “chance.” He believed in an underlying principle of the universe relating to this logical reality.
When we use the tarot, we are taking a “chance” that the resulting spread will reveal some meaningful information that can help us in some way. On a physical level, the act of shuffling and drawing the cards is a random act that has no relevant meaning to the situation. On a spiritual or esoteric level, however, our higher consciousness will intuitively know the positions of the cards within the spread, and thus guide the shuffling process so that relevant cards are drawn and laid out in the proper sequence, giving meaning to the reading.
The tarot is a valuable tool that enhances our creativity and problem-solving capabilities. Too often we are not able to see viable alternatives or solutions to problems because we are so enmeshed in the situation we are inquiring about. The simple act of laying a spread forces us to separate ourselves from distractions and concentrate solely on the object of our inquiry. The tarot allows us to explore alternatives we may not have originally thought of, and shows the circumstances in a way that can reveal aspects of the problem we may have previously overlooked. The tarot can show hidden agendas and solutions we may not have considered because we have become so deeply involved that we are not able tosee the forest for the trees.
The Major Arcana
The Major Arcana is composed of twenty-two cards numbered from zero to twenty-one. It has direct relevance to the Hebrew Qabala, because not only does the number of cards correspond to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but many of the cards suggest symbolism from the Tree of Life that forms the basis of much of the Qabalistic wisdom. The number of cards in the Major Arcana, twenty-two, is also a master number in the science of numerology.
The Major Arcana depicts the different stages of life that we must go through before our soul journey is complete. The journey begins with The Fool (card 0), and ends with The World (card XXI). We all, at one time or another, must go through each stage of the Major Arcana, but not necessarily in sequential order as portrayed by the cards. Through the nature of our existence we will encounter several beginnings and endings in our lifetime, which are represented by the archetypes portrayed on the cards.
In a reading, the cards of the Major Arcana depict matters relating to the soul, spirit, or destiny of our lives, and often indicate karmic themes we must experience. Whenever a card of the Major Arcana appears in a spread, special note of that card should be taken because it represents events that will tend to have a profound and lasting impact.
The Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana is thought to be a separate deck of fifty-six cards, which depict the more ordinary details of living that form a meaningful pattern around our lives. While the Major Arcana tends to portray profound, life-changing events affecting our psyche, most of the cards in the Minor Arcana are less dramatic and portray day-to-day happenings.
The Minor Arcana consists of fifty-six cards divided into four suits of fourteen cards each. Each suit contains ten numbered cards and four court cards. These suits correlate to the four basic elements of life—fire, earth, air, and water.
The suit of Wands (Rods, Spears) represents the element of fire and the astrological signs of Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius. Fire brings life, love, romance, and creativity into our lives. Cards in the suit of Wands tend to represent enterprise and distinction. There is generally a lot of activity and excitement in this suit by the very nature of its element. Traditionally, the symbol of the Wand means energy, growth, animation, and glory. Because of the creative attributes of this suit, many people also give Wands psychic and spiritual connotations as well.
The suit of Pentacles (Coins, Disks) represents the element of earth and the astrological signs of Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. Earth brings practicality, materialism, and a sense of service to our lives. Cards in the suit of Pentacles represent work, accomplishment, and the acquisition of wealth, materials, and possessions. The suit also governs sensuous pleasures in life, such as good food, drink, and sensual indulgences. Traditionally, the suit of Pentacles represents money, industry, and work.
The suit of Pentacles is absolutely necessary for a fulfilling spiritual life. Many assert that we must sacrifice our possessions in order to obtain spirituality. It should be noted, however, that if our physical necessities were not taken care of, we would have to direct our attentions to satisfying them before we could even begin to ponder the more meaningful spiritual questions in this life.
The suit of Swords represents the element of air and the astrological signs of Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. Air brings mental activity and intellect into our lives. The Sword symbolizes thinking, communications, messages, and short trips. Because air is a communicative element, it can often lead to arguments, gossip, and strife. Because of its propensity for conflict, the suit of Swords is generally regarded as being unsettled, and there subsequently seem to be latent struggles and animosity present in many of the cards in this suit. Traditionally, the suit of Swords means aggression, force, ambition, courage, strife, and misfortune, but the negative aspects of the cards in the suit can be lessened by maintaining a positive attitude.
The suit of Cups represents the element of water and the astrological signs of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces. Water brings pure love, sensitivity, and intuition into our lives. The symbol of the Cup represents love, happiness, family, celebration, partnerships, and commitment. This suit also represents intuition, emotion, fantasy, and surrealism. Traditionally, Cups represent love, happiness, emotion, fertility, and beauty.
The tarot is an extremely flexible tool, allowing for many different interpretations and uses. It taps into our higher consciousness and brings out details and aspects of our thoughts and situations that we might never have noticed otherwise. Using the tarot can guide you spiritually and emotionally, as you learn to let go of your conscious self and connect with your inner intuition.
From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more Llewellyn tarot books and decks, click here.