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Tarot reading

This article is about the use of tarot cards for divinatory and esoteric/occult purposes. For other uses, see Tarot (disambiguation).
Tarot reading revolves around the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the past, current and possible future situations of the subject (or querent), i.e. cartomancy. Some believe they are guided by a spiritual force, while others believe the cards help them tap into a collective unconscious or their own creative, brainstorming subconscious. The divinatory meanings of the cards commonly used today are derived mostly from cartomancer Jean-Baptiste Alliette (also known as Etteilla) and Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1776-1843).[1][2] The belief in the divinatory meaning of the cards is closely associated with a belief in their occult, divine, and mystical properties: a belief constructed in the 18th century by prominent Protestant clerics and freemasons.[3]

Major and Minor Arcana

Tarot decks can be identified by the presence or absence of twenty-one trump cards that work together with an additional collection of suit cards.[3] Traditionally the trumps and suits were part of a trump style game with many historical and national variations.[3] It was Ellic Howe, writing under the name Ély Star who came up with the terms 'major arcana' and 'minor arcana'[4] In modern times suit cards are Pentacles, Swords, Cups, and Wand. Trumps are cards like the Fool, The Magician, etc. Since the introduction of the cartomantic and occult tarot there have been ongoing attempts to "get it right."[3] Subsequently the names of both have been played with over time. A historical comparison of major arcana names and numbers can be found below.


Many individuals, particularly those involved in occult and divinatory practices, go to great pains to trace the lineage of the Western tarot to ancient Egyptian antiquity and divine hermetic wisdom.[5] The Tarot deck first appeared in a complete form (trumps, suits, etc.) in the courtly circles of Northern Italy in the 15th century[3] primarily for the purpose of gambling and card games.

One of the earliest reference to Tarot triumphs, and probably the first reference to Tarot as the devil's picture book, is given by a Dominican preacher in a fiery sermon against the evils of the devil's instrument.[6] References to the tarot as a social plague continue throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, with no indication that the cards were used for anything but games anywhere other than in Blogna.[3] Tarot remained a simple card game for several centuries and only became widely associated with cartomancy after general cartomancy with normal playing cards became common in France. As Dummett (1980: 96) notes, " was only in the 1780s, when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the Tarot pack for cartomancy."[3]

Modern occult tarot begins 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 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. De Gébelin also asserted that the Romani people (Gypsies), who were among the first to use cards for divination, were descendants of the ancient Egyptians and had introduced the cards to Europe. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in modern urban legend to the present day.

That the original Tarot deck was intended as nothing other than a game of cards, or a game of chance, did not prevent individuals from making it into something more than originally intended. From its humble uptake as an instrument of prophecy in France it went on to become a thing of hermeneutic, magical, mystical,[7] semiotic,[8] and even psychological importance. It became a tool for gypsies to tell fortunes, an unsurpassed means of communicating with supernatural entities,[9] a Jungian psychological apparatus capable of tapping into “absolute knowledge in the unconscious,” [10] an instrument capable of facilitating deep archetypal exegesis,[11] and even a tool of therapeutic praxis capable of facilitating the Jungian process of Individuation.[12] The career of the Italian tarot is remarkable in this regard, strains credulity, and raises key questions about the nature of the cards and their transformation into the bible of bibles[3] that it has come to be.

The Occult Tarot


Four individuals stand out as the founding fathers of the widespread esoteric tarot (and tarot cartomancy). These individuals are Antoine Court de Gébelin, M[onsieur] le C[omte] de M.***,[13] Etteilla (whose real name was Jean-Baptiste Alliette), and Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand (1776-1843).[14] The modern occult tarot emerged at exactly the same time as the cartomantic tarot did and can be traced precisely to the publication of Le Monde Primitif, by Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Protestant pastor. Court de Gebelin's seminal book was published by private subscription several years after he became an active Freemason and member of the Lodge of the Neuf Soeurs.[3] It is a massive opus, incomplete at nine volumes.[3][15] According to Court this golden age was a reflection of "an eternal and immutable order, which unites heaven and earth, the body and the soul, the physical and the moral...."[3] The actual source of the occult tarot can be found in two articles in volume eight, published in 1781, of his magnum opus, one written by himself, and one written by M. le C. de M.***. In a section in that volume Court De Gébelin asserts that after seeing a group of women playing cards he was struck by the intuitive knowledge that the Tarot was not merely a game of cards but was in fact:

  • of ancient Egyptian origin
  • of mystical cabbalistic import
  • of deep divine significance

In his essay Court de Gebelin notes that "Tar" means way and "Ro" means royal, that each of the twenty two major arcana are linked with the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that the tarot is in fact a book of seventy-eight pages of mystical Egyptian revelation that only escaped the fires of Alexandria because Egyptian high priests had the foresight to hide its significance"[3]

The second essay in volume eight of Court de Gebelin's book, written by M le C de M.*** is noted to have been even more influential than Gebelin's.[3] In that essay De M.***'s takes De Gebelin's speculations even further, agreeing with him about the mystical origins of the Tarot in ancient Egypt, but making several additional, and influential, statements that continue to influence mass understanding of the occult tarot even to this day. He:

  • makes the first statement that the Tarot is in fact The Book of Thoth
  • makes the first statement that the Tarot is associated with Gypsies (and that Gypsies were roaming Egyptians)
  • makes the first association of Tarot with cartomancy

The cartomanic tarot emerges shortly after the publication of Court de Gebelin's and can be traced to the proselytizing work of Etteilla who:[3]

  • invented a method of tarot divination in 1783,
  • published a cartomanic treatise of tarot as the Book of Thoth,
  • created the first society for Tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du liver de Thot.
  • created the first corrected Tarot (supposedly fixing errors that resulted from misinterpretation and corruption through the mists of antiquity), The Grand Ettielle deck
  • created the first Egyptian tarot to be used exclusively for Tarot cartomancy
  • published, under the imprint of his society, the Dictionnaire synonimique du Livere de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed." (Dummett, 1980: pp. 110).

Etteille contributed to occult perspectives as well by making several historically outlandish claims about the Italian Tarot, further reinforcing its mystical import. Etteille:

  • suggested that Tarot was repository of the wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus
  • was a book of eternal medicine
  • was an account of the creation of the world
  • argued that the first copy of the tarot was imprinted on leaves of gold

Michel Dummett (1980) suggests that Etteilla was attempting to scoop Court De Gebelin as the discoverer of the occult tarot. Etteilla in fact claims to have been involved with Tarot longer than Court De Gebelin.[3] It is likely that the exaggerated detail of the Tarot provided by Alliette was an attempt to assert his occult and historical importance.

The final founding figure is Mlle Marie-Anne Adelaide Lenormand. Lenormand outshone even Ettielle and was the first cartomancer to the stars (being the personal confidant of Empress Josephine, Napolean and other important people).[3] Lenormand used both regular playing cards, in particular the Piquet pack, as well as cards derived from Etteilla's Egyptian root. She was so famous that a deck was published in her name, the Grand Jeu de Mlle Lenormand, two years after her death in 1843.

Forward into the Mysteries

The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875). Lévi (whose real name was Alphonse-Louise Constance) was educated in the seminary of Saint-Sulipice, was ordained as a deacon, but never became a priest. Dummett (1980, pp. 114) notes that it is from Levi's book Dogme et rituel that the "whole of the modern occultist movement stems." Lévi claims to have discovered a great secret, formerly hidden in ancient parables and esoteric obfuscation, and that secret is a Lux (light, or Astral light) that moves behind and is contained within all of reality. On the tarot, Lévi claimed to have "been the first to 'have discovered intact and still unknown this key of all doctrines and all philosophies of the old world'; 'without the Tarot', he tells us, 'the Magic of the ancients is a closed book....'" Dummett (1980, pp. 118). Lévi rejected Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols going instead back to Tarot de Marseille, called it The Book of Hermes, suggested it had immense antiquity, that it existed long before Moses, and that is was in fact a universal key of erudition, philosophy, and magic that could (and would) unlock Hermetic and Cabbalistic mysteries. According to Lévi, "An imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence.[16]

Notable contributions of Levi include:[3]

  • Lévi was the first to suggest that the Magus (Bagatto) was to work with the four suits (four elements) of the tarot, pentacles, swords, wands, etc..
  • Following the lead of de Gébelin, Lévi solidified the association of the luminal Hebrew alphabet with the Tarot keys (i.e. trumps)
  • Lévi linked the ten numbered cards in each suit to the ten sefiroth or divine emanations.
  • Suggested the court cards represented the stages of human life
  • Suggested the four suites represented the Tetragrammaton or divine name.

After dismissing Lévi's contribution to magic as the product of "an advanced state of intellectual deliquescent," he notes that Lévi's made a major contribution to the history of occult lore. Dummett (1980: 120). Occultists, magicians, and magus's all the way down to the 21st century have cited Lévi as a defining influence. This trend began immediately when Jean-Baptiste Pitois (1811), writing under the name Paul Christian, wrote L'Homme rouge (1863) and later Histoire del le magie, du monde surnaturel et de la fatalité à travers les temps et le peuples (1870). Christian repeats and extends the mythology of the tarot (i.e. Egyptian origins, cabbalistic and astrological signifiance), and comes up with different names for the trumps and the suits (see table below for a list of Christian's modifications to the trumps). Batons (wands) become Scepters, Swords become Blades, and Coins become Shekels. Interestingly, Dummett (1980) singles out Christian's writing as one of the worst examples of what he calls false ascription to be found in the occult literature.[3] False ascription is the process of invoking authoritative figures from a (real or mythical) past in order to lend authority to a specific text. Notably, the problem of false ascription is not something we find just in the tarot literature. E.J. Holmyard finds the same problem in early literature of Alchemy. Holmyard notes of the authors of early alchemical texts:

In order to give some show of authority to their nebulous doctrines, alchemists busied themselves in composing treatises that they then attributed to any philosopher or celebrity of earlier times whom their whim led them to select. Thus works of alchemy were ascribed to Hermes, Plato, Moses, Miriam his sister, Theophrastus, Ostanes, Cleopatra, and Isis....Legends and myths were given alchemical interpretations; the golden fleece, which Jason and the Argonats carried over the Pontic Sea to Colchis, was was claimed to have been a manuscript on parchment, teaching the manner of making gold by alchemical art, and even the "Song of Solomon' was supposed to be an alchemical treatise couched in veiled language."[17]

Following Christian the occult tradition of tarot was carried by Ellic Howe and Marquis Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1897). Ellic Howe, under the name Ély Star published, in 1888, the book Mystères de l'horoscope. A section of the book is devoted to Tarot, however Star mostly repeats Christian's modifications. Star's primary contribution was the introduction of the terms 'major arcana' and 'minor arcana,' although he did number the Crocodile (the Fool) XXII instead of 0. In 1887 the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita met the amateur artist Oswald Wirth (1860-1943) and subsequently sponsored a production of Lévi's intended deck. Guided entirely by de Guaita's he Wirth designed the first neo-occultist cartomantic deck (and first cartomantic deck not derived from Ettielle's Egyptina deck). Known as the Arcanes du Tarot kabbalistique it consisted of only the twenty-two major arcana.

Through the Temple Door

Shortly before Oswald Wirth published his first deck, the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita formed the Cabalistic Order of the Rosy Cross (1988) along with Dr Papus, François-Charles Barlet, and


Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah.[18] In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being influenced by the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and bearing illustrated scenes on all the suit cards. The images on the Rider-Waite deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and were originally published by the Rider Company in December 1909. This deck is considered a simple, user friendly one but nevertheless its imagery, especially in the Major Arcana, is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of the Tarot. An important difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. However the Rider-Waite was not the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.

Reversed cards

Some methods of interpreting the tarot consider cards to have different meanings depending on whether they appear upright or reversed.[19] A reversed card is often interpreted to mean the opposite of its upright meaning. For instance, the Sun card upright may be associated with satisfaction, gratitude, health, happiness, strength, inspiration, and liberation; while in reverse, it may be interpreted to mean a lack of confidence and mild unhappiness. However, not all methods of card reading prescribe an opposite meaning to reversed cards. Some card readers will interpret a reversed card as either a more intense variation of the upright card, an undeveloped trait or an issue that requires greater attention. Other interpreters point out that card reversal is dependent on the order of the cards before shuffling, so is of little bearing in the scope of a reading.


A Tarot reading typically starts with the reader (self or other) shuffling the deck, and is laid out in one of a variety of patterns called spreads. This is then interpreted by the interpreter or reader. The spreads generally cover the subject's thoughts and desires (known or unknown) or past, present, and future events. Each position in the spread is assigned a number, and the cards are turned over in that sequence, with each card being contemplated/interpreted before moving to the next, and in connection with neighbouring cards. Each position has an interpretation indicating what aspect of the question the card in that position is referring to.

Sometimes, before being dealt, the initial card in a spread is chosen to represent the querent or the question being asked, often from the major arcana. This card is called the significator and is removed from any further role in the spread.

Order of the Trumps

The following is a comparison of the order of the trumps up to and including the A.E. Waite deck. This table is based on Dummett (1980) and actual inspection of the relevant decks. You will find links to images of the tarot below.

Tarot de Marseille[20] Court De Gébelin[21][22] Etteilla's Egyptian Tarot[23] Paul Christian's Egyptian Tarot
(divinatory meaning in bold)
Oswald Wirth[24] Golden Dawn A.E. Waite Book of Thoth (Crowley)
1 the Bateleur (Mountebank) Bateleur Ideal/Wisdom the Magus / Will Magician Example Example Example
2- the Popess High Priestess Enlightenment/Passion Gate of the (occult) Sanctuary / Knowledge Priestess Example Example Example
3- the Empress Empress Discussion/Instability Isis - Urania / Action Empress Example Example Example
4 - the Emperor Emperor Revelation/Behaviour Cubic Stone / Realisation Emperor Example Example Example
5 - the Pope Chief Hierophant Travel/Country Property Master of the Mysteries/Arcana / Occult Inspiration Hierophant Example Example Example
6 - Love or the Lovers Marriage Secrets/Truths Two Roads / Ordeal Lovers Example Example Example
7 - the Chariot Osiris Triumphant Support/Protection Chariot of Osiris / Victory Chariot Example Example
8 - Justice Justice Tenacity/Progress Themis (Scales and Blade) / Equilibrium Justice Example Example Example
9 - the Hermit Wise Man Justice/Law-Maker the Veiled Lamp / Wisdom Hermit Example Example
10 - Wheel of Fortune Wheel of Fortune Temperance/Convictions the Sphinx / Fortune Fortune Example Example Example
11 - Fortitude Fortitude Strength/Power the Muzzled(tamed) Lion / Strength Strength Example Example Example
12 - the Hanged Man Prudence Prudence/Popularity The Sacrifice / Sacrifice Hanged Man Example Example Example
13 - Death Death Marriage/Love Affair The Skeleton Reaper / Transformation Death Example Example Example
14 - Temperance Temperance Violence/Weakness the Two Urns (the genius of the sun) / Initiative Temperance Example Example Example
15 - the Devil Typhon Chagrins/Illness Typhon / Fate Devil Example Example
16 - the Tower the Castle or Plutus Opinion/Arbitration the Beheaded Tower (Lightning Struck) / Ruin Tower Example Example Example
17 - the Star Sirius or the Dog Star Death/Incapacity Star of the Magi / Hope Star Example Example Example
18 - the Moon Moon Betrayal/Falsehood the Twilight / Deception Moon Example Example Example
19 - the Sun Sun Poverty/Prison the Blazing Light / (earthly) Happiness Sun Example Example Example
20 - Judgment the Creation Fortune/Augmentation the Awakening of the Dead / Renewal Judgement Example Example Example
21 - the World Time Law Suit/Legal Dispute the Crown of the Magi / Reward World Example Example Example
Le Mat (Fool)  ?? Madness/Bewilderment 0 the Crocodile (between 20 and 21) / Expiation Fool Example Example Example


  • Photos of many Tarot decks
  • Exhaustive historical list of Tarot Decks
  • Images from the Grand Etteille Deck
  • Images from the Grand Oracle des Dames, an early cartomantic progeny

Egyptian decks

  • Images from Lenormand's deck
  • Oswald Wirth deck


External links

  • A Timeline of the Occult and Divinatory Tarot
  • Sacred Texts website
  • Early divination or Egyptian style tarot decks
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