A Brief History Of Tarot: How To Read Your Cards + How It Can Make Your Life Better

Written by Theresa Reed

Photo by iStock

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Tarot is a practical—and mystical—tool for intuitive reasoning and decision making. Learning how to read a tarot deck can help you weigh options, identify unseen opportunities, avoid pitfalls, and confirm that your "hunches" are correct. Everyone—yes, everyone—is born with intuitive abilities. We all get "funny feelings" and "flashes of insight" and "solutions" that seem to pop out of nowhere. The more you use your tarot deck, the more you'll connect to your intuition, and the stronger your abilities will become.

The Star (at right) symbolizes wishes coming true. Hope. Inspiration. Feeling.

A (brief) history of tarot:

Tarot started in Italy during the 1400s. Back then, the early decks were called carte da trionfi, or "triumph cards." Tarot cards were rare and expensive—a privilege of the upper classes—until the invention of mass printing in the mid-1400s. By the 1500s, more people were able to get their hands on a deck of tarot cards, and their popularity began to grow. In the late 1700s, a guy named Jean-Baptiste Alliette, often known as "Etteilla," published one of the world's first books on tarot.

In the 1900s, tarot experienced another surge in popularity when a guy named Arthur Edward Waite commissioned artist Pamela Colman Smith to create a new tarot deck: the Rider Waite deck. Even today, this deck is considered the "gold standard" of tarot decks—a timeless classic.

Today, tarot continues to come "out of the shadows" and is finally being celebrated and accepted for what it is: a tool for awareness, divination, and conscious decision-making.

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The elements of the deck:

Every tarot deck has 78 cards. There are two types of cards: Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. There are 22 Major Arcana cards (i.e., the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Emperor, the Hierophant, etc.), which represent the bigger spiritual picture: the big, deep, powerful forces that may be creating opportunities or obstacles to our personal growth.

The Hierophant (at right) is a Major Arcana card and represents spiritual teachings and dogma. He's concerned with upholding the traditions that give meaning to our lives.

There are 56 Minor Arcana cards, which tend to represent your day-to-day life: everyday choices and actions that can help you fulfill your bigger destiny...or not. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, each associated with a different element that corresponds to different areas of our lives:

  • Cups (water) deal with emotions, love, and relationships
  • Wands (fire) are connected with enterprise, action, and passion
  • Swords (air) deal with intellect, truth, ideas, sorrow, and conflicts
  • Pentacles (earth) relate to practical matters, work, finances, our physical bodies, and our values

The Ace of Swords (at right) is a Minor Arcana card that symbolizes truth expressed in the highest form.

There are 14 cards in each Minor Arcana suit—ace, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten—and four Court cards—Page, Knight, Queen, King. While the Minor Arcana represents our day-to-day activities and challenges, the Courts symbolize the people involved in our lives or the energy we may be bringing to the situation.

The Queen of Wands (above) is the generous and honest female leader who loves to be in the spotlight.

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What "doing tarot" or "reading tarot" actually means:

  • You come up with a question. (Or, if you are doing a reading for someone else, such as a friend, family member, or client, you ask them to come up with a question.)
  • You sit with that question for a moment, taking a deep breath or two, letting it sink in.
  • You shuffle and cut your deck of tarot cards.
  • Then you pull out a single card (or, if you're being fancy, you pull out several cards to create a "spread").
  • You gaze at the card (or cards) and see what is revealed to you. (You might refer to the reference book that came with your deck if you're drawing a total blank, or your "gut" might give you a strong message or interpretation—no book consultation required.)

How to create a "good" tarot question:

To do a good, clear tarot reading, you need to start with a good, clear question. Some questions "work" for tarot and others, not so much. You'll definitely want to avoid asking a yes or no question. Keep it open.

Also try to avoid "Will I...?" questions (like "Will I be offered a book deal this week?") because with that type of question, you are putting yourself in a position where you are being passive about your future. Tarot is not a passive tool. While tarot can predict likely outcomes and illuminate which choices might be best for you, it's not a guarantee of specific results or rewards.

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Here are 15 examples of excellent, tarot-friendly questions:

  1. What can I do to improve _______?
  2. What is the most likely outcome if I choose _______?
  3. What do I need to know about _______?
  4. How can I get past _______?
  5. What's the lesson I am not seeing clearly when it comes to _______?
  6. Why does _______ keep repeating or showing up in my life?
  7. What is the best way to improve my relationship with _______?
  8. How can I understand _______?
  9. What do I need to know about my relationship with _______?
  10. What should I be focusing on right now when it comes to _______?
  11. What's the most likely outcome if I choose _______?
  12. How can I help _______ to reach her goals right now?
  13. Why do I have a funny feeling about _______?
  14. I have a great feeling about _______. Is my hunch correct?
  15. What's the hidden opportunity with [situation]?

Anybody can learn how to do tarot. The process is simple—the tricky part is getting completely calm, centered, and focused so that when you pull out a card and gaze at it, your intuition can actually "speak" to you instead of getting drowned out by all the chatter and stresses and monkey-mind stuff that typically crowd your brain.

The Sun (at right) represents abundance, prosperity, happiness, and success. Everything can move forward with ease, joy, and glory.

Adapted from The Tarot Coloring Book by Theresa Reed. Copyright © 2016 by Theresa Reed. Published by Sounds True. 

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