A History of Tarot

For many people, the word ‘divination’ may conjure the image of wild-haired, goggle-eyed Professor Trelawney or gypsies in lavishly decorated trailers, speaking in mystical tones about impending doom.

But tarot readers will tell you that divination can be a little more ‘every-day’ and a lot more positive. A tad more complex than tea-leaf divination or pendulum dowsing, Tarot can offer more layered and long-form answers to your life’s questions.

A Tarot Deck consists of 78 cards – 22 are the Major Arcana, the archetypal cards that we see on movies: the Death card, the Tower, the sun card, the Empress and more.
The other 56 cards make up the Minor Arcana – the origins of today’s suit playing cards. The suits of the most well-known Tarot deck –the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot – are: Wands, Swords, Pentacles and Cups.

The origins of the Tarot are shrouded in the cloudy veil of the 14th and 15th century, although most historians believe that they were originally created as a game in Italy and then evolved over time to become the esoteric, divination cards that we know today. The original bridge-like card game became popular with wealthy families in Italy and France – who commissioned artists to create unique card decks. As a result, many very elaborate and beautiful tarot decks can be found on display in museums around the world.
Cartomancy (divination with cards) could first be seen emerging around the 18th Century and is not restricted to The Tarot. Oracle and other card deck options abound, especially in this modern age of Etsy and self-publishing.

Rider-Waite and Thoth Tarot Decks:

The variations of the Tarot usually display some uniformity of symbolism or at least similar card names and number of cards in a deck. Most modern variations of the Tarot are based on the popular Rider-Waite-Smith version, with some changes in imagery, symbols and newer artwork. A less-common and very different Tarot deck that was created around the same time as the Original Rider-Waite is the Thoth Tarot deck by the controversial Aleister Crowley. Although part of the same group – The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – A.E. Waite and Crowley were sworn enemies and so, the resulting tarot decks oppose each other. The Thoth deck uses more mystical symbolism and is more difficult to read.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck was originally commissioned to be illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in 1909 - by A.E.Waite. Once complete, it was published by The Rider Company. This, the most well-known today, was based on the original Italian Tarot decks with small alterations to card ordering and images by Waite and enriched illustrated symbolism by Smith. The blended Christian and esoteric symbolism reflects the era in which it was created as well as some of the unchanged imagery from original decks. Nevertheless, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck achieved great success due to its easily recognised symbols and attractive design, and is still recommended for beginner Tarot readers today.

The Origins of Oracle Cards:

Oracle decks were said to have been pioneered by Madame Lenormand in the 19th Century in France, and have little required structure. Oracle decks can really present any set of symbols that the artist desires and can be any number of cards. These cards offer simpler, more archetypal messages that are generally more uniformly positive than the Tarot decks – which often offer complex, layered and negative or positive commentary and advice where it’s needed. Oracle decks are pretty and pleasant to use and can offer themes that fit in with one’s chosen spiritual path, affirmations or ideas. Often, Oracle decks are used with Tarot in order to offer extra clarity during readings. Oracle deck examples include: Lenormand, Green Witch Oracle and Wild Mystic Oracle.

Most Tarot teachers suggest that those starting out with Cartomancy begin by using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as it is intuitive to read, universal and generally easy to find. Depending on your time constraints and dedication – you can learn Tarot through a teacher, an online course, the Key to the Tarot guidebook or by pulling a card each day and researching its meaning online. The wealth of symbols and meanings may seem overwhelming at first but, with a little effort the whole deck starts to form a story in your psyche that you can tap into whenever you do a reading.

Unravelling the secrets of the Tarot:

Once you purchase a Tarot deck, it is good practice to cleanse it with a smoke of choice (sage, Palo Santo, incense, Dragons’ Blood) and then to connect with it through meditation. Thereafter, you can charge your deck with your own energy or under the full moon – like a crystal – and similarly, remember to cleanse it often.

Once you feel that you have a fair grasp of the symbolism of the cards, you can begin to learn about the various Tarot spreads, inverted meanings and the best way to ask questions. Tarot is not really for ‘Yes’/’No’ questions, although each of the cards can be seen to offer a more positive or negative answer. Cards pulled upside down (inverted) have a different meaning and Tarot spreads are patterns in which to lay the cards related to certain sets of questions.
Reading The Tarot is a beautiful practice that can form a daily ritual or simply offer insight in times of need. It can help you to dispel anxiety, contact deities, find inner courage and can be used to cast spells. The Major Arcana, in particular, feature powerful archetypal symbolism that can be used to manifest desired outcomes and focus energy for spellwork.

Divination is one of the best ways to increase your power as a Witch – fulfilling the tenet: Know Thyself.

This article was specially crafted for Potion Slinger by Kelly Steenhuisen, the wordsmithery witch from @a_sacred_life. Visit Kelly's Instagram for crystal jewels weaved with knot magick, and her website for intentionally written copy, captions, and SEO articles and content.