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|Most modern Tarot sets consist of 78 cards with allegorical representations today used for divination, that first appeared in Medieval times. A typical Tarot deck consists of:
The Major Arcana, consisting of 22 trump cards consisting
o The Fool; The Magician; The High Priestess ; The Empress; The Emperor; The Hierophant; The Lovers; The Chariot; Strength; The Hermit; Wheel of Fortune; Justice; The Hanged Man; Death; Temperance; The Devil; The Tower; The Star; The Moon; The Sun; Judgement and The World.
| Chariot | Death
| Judgement | Justice
| Strength | Temperance
| The Devil | The
Emperor | The Empress
| The Lover | The
Hanged Man | The Hermit
| The Hierophant
| The High Priestess
| The Magician |
The Moon | The
Sun | The Star |
The Tower | Wheel
of Fortune | The World
The Minor Arcana consisting of 56 cards:
o Ten cards numbered from Ace to 10 in four different suits; traditionally batons (wands), cups, swords and coins (pentacles) (40 cards in total); and
o Four court cards (page, knight, queen, and king) in the same four suits (16 court cards in total).
Tarot originated as a game in 15th century Italy, by adding to a normal deck of cards 21 trump cards, a fool, and 4 queens of each suit. Some early Tarot decks of North Italian origin, which date to the early to mid-15th century have remained. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterwards, the cards came to be known as Tarocchi. It is unknown when the tarot was first used for divination. As early as 1540, a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli shows a simple method of divining from the coin suit of a regular playing card deck. Manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) show rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the tarot, as well as a system for laying out the cards. In 1765, Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination. In 1781 Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote a speculative history and a detailed system for using the tarot to fortell the future. From Gébelin's time forward, various explanations have been given for the origins of tarot, most of them of doubtful veracity. There is no evidence for any tarot cards prior to the hand-painted ones that were used by Italian nobles, but some esoteric schools believe its origins could be in Ancient Egypt, Ancient India or even in lost continent Atlantida.
The Tarot Deck
The typical 78-card tarot deck is structured into two distinct parts. The first, called the Trump cards, consists of 21 cards without suits, plus a 22nd card, The Fool, which is sometimes given the value of zero (0). The second consists of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups. In modern tarot decks, the Batons suit is commonly called Wands, Rods or Staves, while the Coins suit is often called Pentacles or Disks.
Among those who use Tarot cards for divination purposes, the trumps are usually called Major Arcana, while the other cards are known as the Minor Arcana. (Arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "closed" or "secret".)
The 14 cards in each suit consist of an Ace, nine cards numbered 2 through 10, and four court cards (not dissimilar from the structure of 52-card bridge/poker playing card decks, except that bridge/poker playing card decks have three court cards rather than four).
The four court cards (or face cards) of the tarot deck traditionally consist of the King, the Queen, the Knight and the Page (or Knave). In bridge/poker decks, the court cards typically consist of the King, the Queen and the Jack. The Jack corresponds to the tarot deck's Page.
In the present-day Anglo-American world, the Tarot is usually seen either as a means of divination, the practice of ascertaining information from supernatural or other sources, or, in a more modern view, as a psychological tool for accessing the unconscious. However, early references such as a sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as Michael Dummett points out in Twelve Tarot Games (1980), Tarot games are still widely played.
Esoteric views on the history of tarot
Since 1781, when Antoine Court de Gebelin published his "Le Monde Primatif", in which he claimed Tarot cards held the "secrets of the Egyptians", without producing any evidence to sustain his claims, Tarot cards have been written about by many esoterians who have advanced alternative views on the history of Tarot cards. From this mystical vantage-point, the origin and history of the Tarot is unclear and often idealized.
Many Hermetic traditions, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which have made claims that the Tarot system was derived from ancient mystery religions as a visually encoded framework of the archetypal concepts seminal to the journey of enlightenment, have blossomed after the freemasonic writer (Court de Gebelin( - with link to the online text in French) published his text about the Tarot, in which he incorporated some writing of the Comte de Mellet, in the year 1781. Naturally the playing card research conditions of the year 1781 were by far not comparable to the much better research situation of today, Gebelin's errors and partly wild speculations, which proved nonetheless as of some importance for the development of Western Esotericism, had been natural in his time cause of missing information. A good and informative timeline of the development short before and after Gebelin is given by the book author Mary Greer .
The Hermetics were quick to point out that in a qabalistic analysis, Tarot is equivalent to Rota (Wheel) or Tora (Law) indicating they were a representation of the 'Wheel of the Law'. (Note that this theory, which tries to explain the name "Tarot", loses its value when one considers that "Tarot" is only the French variant on the original Italian name "tarocchi".) In less obtuse terms, the Tarot would then be a series of metaphysical 'facts' after the manner of the Zen Ox Paintings. From the first to the last of the Major Arcana ("Big Secrets") they are arranged as a series of lessons, or a parable of the passage of the soul. From the "Fool" 0, the tabula rasa, naive and artless child-mind, a quest is laid out which is meant for the spiritual edification of the student.
A number of scholars of the western Hermetic or Magical traditions have made such claims of the Tarot having ancient roots and lessons. Look to the works of Robert Fludd or Albertus Magnus for deeper inspections. Another school of thought believes that the Roma people, travelling through many cultures, picked up this pictorial wisdom, and being inventive by nature, created a form of divination (and perhaps of card games) from it. The idea is that they understood and kept the knowledge of the mystery-lessons of the picture-cards in private, while in public they used the cards for profit through divination and card games.
Use of tarot cards in divination
Since the Egyptianizing ruminations in Le Monde primitif by Antoine Court de Gébelin (1781) which soon inspired the occultism of "Etteilla" (Jean-Babtiste Alliette), it has been believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on purported similarities of imagery and reinforced by the added numbering, some claim that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety of other exotic places and times. Such ideas, however, are speculative.
In fact, although much of Tarot imagery looks mysterious or exotic to modern users, nearly all of it reflects conventional symbolism popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Nearly all of it may easily be interpreted as a reflection of the dominant Christian values of the times. Thus, the earliest Tarots may have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the Christian season of Lent or the related motif of hierarchical powers found in Petrarch's poem I Trionfi. These trionfi or triumphs were elaborate productions which layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption. Notably, the earliest versions of the World card show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine's "Heavenly City", and it is not coincidence that it often closely follows the Judgement card.
Several other early Tarot-like sequences of portable art survive to place the Visconti deck in context. Later confusion about the symbolism stems, in part, from the occult decks, which began a process of steadily paganizing and universalizing the symbolism to the point where the underlying Christian allegory has been somewhat obscured (as, for example, when the Rider-Waite deck of the early Twentieth Century changed "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess"). It is notable that between 1450 and 1500 the Tarot was actually recommended for the instruction of the young by Church moralists. Not until fifty years after the Visconti deck did it become associated with gambling, and not until the 18th century and Gébelin and Etteilla with occultism.
The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille asserted represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name "tarot" came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning "royal", and ro, meaning "road", and that the Tarot therefore represented a "royal road" to wisdom. Gébelin asserted these and similar views dogmatically; he presented no clear factual evidence to substantiate his claims. In addition, Gébelin wrote before Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that supports de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies, but these findings came too late; by the time authentic Egyptian texts were available, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian "Book of Thoth" was already firmly established in occult practice.
Although tarot cards were used for fortune-telling in Bologna, Italy in the 1700s, they were first widely publicized as a divination method by Alliette, also called "Etteilla", a French occultist who reversed the letters of his name and worked as a seer and card diviner shortly before the French Revolution. Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions and "Egyptian" motifs to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseille designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. Etteilla decks, although now eclipsed by Smith and Waite's fully-illustrated deck and Aleister Crowley's "Thoth" deck, remain available. Later Marie-Anne Le Normand popularized divination and prophecy during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was due, in part, to the influence she wielded over Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. However, she did not typically use Tarot.
Interest in Tarot by other occultists came later, during the Hermetic Revival of the 1840s in which (among others) Victor Hugo was involved. The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Levi and passed to the English-speaking world by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Lévi, not Etteilla, is considered by some to be the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic) introduced an interpretation of the cards which related them to Cabala. While Levi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot, especially the Tarot de Marseille, to the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy. On the other hand, to this day some of Etteilla's divinatory meanings for Tarot are still used by some Tarot practitioners.
Tarot became increasingly popular beginning in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images related to divinatory meanings on the numeric cards. (Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). In the 20th century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some vastly different. Thanks, in part, to marketing by the publisher U.S. Games Systems, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been extremely popular in the English-speaking world beginning in the 1970s.
Differences among decks
Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Traditionally, a variety of styles of Tarot decks and designs have existed. A number of typical regional patterns emerged. Historically, one of the most important design is now usually known as the Tarot of Marseille (French: Tarot de Marseille). This standard pattern was the one studied by Court de Gébelin, and cards based on this style illustrate his Le Monde primitif. The Tarot of Marseille was also popularized in the 20th century by Paul Marteau. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseille design go back to a deck of a particular Marseille design that was printed by Nicolas Conver in 1760. Other regional styles include the "Swiss" Tarot; this one substitutes Juno and Jupiter for the Papess and the Pope. In Florence an expanded deck called Minchiate was used; this deck of 96 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional Tarot cards.
Interestingly, some people view the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseille as crude and limited when compared to some modern ones. This may reflect their belief that Tarot symbolism has evolved, especially since the early 20th century, so that it has become increasingly universal.
Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such "art decks" sometimes contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) sometimes bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. However, under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, decks used in the English-speaking world for divination often bear illustrated scenes on the numeric cards to facilitate divination. The more simply illustrated "Marseille" style decks are nevertheless used esoterically, for divination, and previously for game play. (Note that the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th-century design of German origin. Such Tarot decks generally have 21 trumps with genre scenes from 19th-century life, a Fool, and have court and pip cards that closely resemble today's French playing cards.)
An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). (See also discussion of the general expression "Rider-Waite-Smith" below, to indicate a category of decks that includes the "Rider-Waite" deck as well as decks which use the line drawings of the Rider-Waite deck, such as the Universal Waite deck.) (In contrast, in French-speaking countries, the Marseille deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.) The images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. While the deck is sometimes known as a simple, user-friendly one, its imagery, especially in the Trumps, is complex and replete with occult symbolism. The subjects of the trumps are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from 'Marseille'-style decks is that Smith drew scenes on the numeric cards to depict divinatory meanings; those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and others) and from divinatory meanings first espoused by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Smith were members. However, it isn't the first deck to include completely illustrated numeric cards. The first to do so was the 15th-century Sola-Busca deck; however, in this case, the illustrations apparently were not made to facilitate divination.
Some individuals object to the Rider-Waite deck due to its relatively small selection of colors and "flat" appearance. However, several decks, such as the Universal Waite, copy the Smith's line drawings, but add more subtle coloring and three dimensional modeling. The limited number of colors and "flat" appearance in the original Rider-Waite-Smith decks were virtually unavoidable due to the limits of printing technology in the early 20th century.
In Internet tarot discussion groups, the Rider-Waite deck and very similar decks, e.g., the Universal Waite, are sometimes referred to by the collective term "Rider-Waite-Smith", "RWS" or "Waite-Colman-Smith" (or similar expressions). Numerous other decks that are loosely based on Rider-Waite (as noted below) have been published from the mid-20th century through today. They are sometimes called Rider-Waite-Smith clones; however, the term is misleading. They are not exact copies as the term clone would imply. Instead, they are variations.
A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced / t??t/ or / ???/). Crowley engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck. That said, many consider the Rider-Waite deck and the Tarot de Marseille also to be 'esoteric' decks.
In contrast to the Thoth deck's colourfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case's B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be coloured by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot, which is apparently based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers and clearly based on the teachings of the Golden Dawn. Numerous other decks exist, including the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot.
The Marseille style Tarot decks generally feature numbered minor arcana cards that look very much like the pip cards of modern playing card decks. The Marseille numbered minor arcana cards do not have scenes depicted on them; rather, they sport a geometric arrangement of the number of suit symbols (e.g., swords, rods, cups, coins) corresponding to the number of the card (accompanied by botanical and other non-scenic flourishes), while the court cards are often illustrated with flat, two-dimensional drawings.
Other modern decks created since the time of the first publishing of the Rider-Waite deck in 1909 vary in their card imagery. The variety is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Tarot of the Witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970s for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die.
These modern decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; "coaches" and "MVPs" instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards like "The Catcher", "The Rule Book" and "Batting a Thousand". In the Silicon Valley Tarot, major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CIO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.
The Tarot has a complex and rich symbolism with a long history. Such history is not impenetrable. Contrary to what many popular authors claim, its origins are not lost in the mists of time. In fact, much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one studies sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the occult interpretation of Tarot. We will do some dispelling further on; in the meantime, the most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context.
Some people find that modern Tarot decks are more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant than their ancestors. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with meanings assigned to the cards by their creators. In turn, the meanings come to be modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, in part, to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument and to respond to modern needs.
See, for example, the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject on occultism and symbolism and a handbook specifically for this deck titled The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910). As with its Marseille-deck ancestor, the Strength trump shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The woman's hat of the Marseille card has frequently been interpreted as a lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representing infinity, or, according to Waite, the Spirit of Life. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.
The twenty-two cards in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana are frequently said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom. This idea was apparently first suggested by tarot author Eden Gray in the mid-20th century.
There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation based on that of the Golden Dawn, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.
Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to Tarot symbolism. He may have regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.
The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious (see Freud), allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level. Like most "New Age" therapies, however, Tarot cards are not widely used by mainstream psychologists. Although Jung and Freud are still seen as important innovators, the majority of psychologists today are quite critical of many aspects of their theories.