What is tarot?

Four cards with fire, heart, spiral, infinity symbols

The tarot is a deck of cards, each with its own symbolic image and meaning. Tarot users with an issue or question lay the cards out in a spread (a pattern of card positions, where each position has a particular significance), in order to “read” a response in the form of a narrative. Many people believe that we each hold the answers to what we seek deep within, and reading tarot cards is one way to allow these hidden answers to emerge.

A Short History of Tarot

The first tarot decks were packs of playing cards, used in 15th century Europe to play a game similar to modern-day bridge. Around the 18th century tarot decks began to be laid in spreads for readings, where each card had a divinatory meaning. People visited tarot readers to have their fortunes told and get a glimpse into their futures. The Rider-Waite deck, originally published in 1910 and still the most popular and well-known tarot deck, was designed for divination, and was the first deck to illustrate all the cards with scenes rather than pips, which made story-like readings possible. Other practitioners began to correlate tarot cards with more arcane systems of thought, such as kabbalah, numerology, the four humors, Egyptian wisdom, and astrology. Tarot was seen as a tool of divine will, its mysteries revealed only to longtime practitioners. Tarot decks were used by occult orders in the 1920s as part of their esoteric rituals, which is where their association with Satanism and black magic comes from. 


In the 1960s tarot decks began to be adopted by the counter-culture movement as a symbol of New Age thought. Anyone could read tarot, and success depended not on arcane knowledge of esoteric symbols, but on one’s level of intuition and insight. In the 1980s, interpretation of tarot became influenced by the idea of psychological archetypes (universal, inborn symbols and images, believed to be passed down from our ancestors): the meanings of the cards were already in our subconscious, just waiting to be revealed by the card images. Tarot readers developed an interactive style; rather than providing divinatory meaning as experts, they worked with clients to draw their own meanings from the card spreads.


The rise of digital publishing in the 2000s led to an explosion of self-published tarot decks with a variety of different themes and meanings: from paganism to feminism, from goddess to goth, from ironic parody to alternative lifestyles – there’s a tarot deck to interest almost everyone. Today tarot is widely used as a creative and innovative way to seek personal and spiritual growth.

how does tarot work?

The language of tarot is one of symbol and image, and it can reach places in our unconscious minds that verbal language cannot. Each tarot card represents a specific situation, quality, or conflict. But unlike systems of verbal language, where words tend to have a fixed definition, we can project or overlay our own personal interpretations onto the card images, thus making them both individual and unique. No two users will understand the cards in exactly the same way, and often we will change our interpretations over time, as we gain life experience.


By holding an issue or question in mind, and then randomly shuffling and spreading out image-laden cards, we can get beyond our mental and emotional blocks and reveal what’s been hidden, or what we’ve been hiding from ourselves. If true wisdom comes from within, the act of randomly shuffling and laying down cards, while reflecting on a question or issue, can free our inner knowing. By presenting a random set of external images, tarot can help us to see difficult situations in a new way.