What are Tarot Cards?

By Lauren Williams
Published on:

The mysterious and captivating world of tarot cards has been a part of human history for centuries. Originating from Europe in the 15th century, tarot cards were initially used for games. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that they began to be used as a tool for divination. Today, tarot is embraced by many as a means of introspection, meditation, and a mirror to the subconscious.

Structure of the Tarot Deck

A traditional tarot deck consists of 78 cards, divided into two primary categories: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.

The Major Arcana

Comprising 22 cards, the Major Arcana represent significant life events, lessons, and archetypes. Starting from “The Fool,” which is card 0, and going up to “The World,” which is card 21, these cards tell a story of a journey — the Fool’s Journey. Some other notable cards include “The Lovers,” “The Chariot,” and “Death.” Each card holds deep symbolic meanings and is significant when it appears in a reading.

The Minor Arcana

The remaining 56 cards make up the Minor Arcana, which are further divided into four suits: Cups, Swords, Wands, and Pentacles. Each suit corresponds to a specific element and area of life:

Cups: Representing the element of water, this suit delves into emotions, relationships, and connections.

Swords: Associated with air, these cards speak of thoughts, challenges, and conflicts.

Wands: Linked to fire, the cards in this suit are about passion, motivation, and action. Jump to our Suit of Wands guides.

Pentacles: Tied to earth, these cards focus on material aspects, work, and physical health.

Within each suit of the Minor Arcana, there are ten numbered cards (from Ace to Ten) and four Court Cards: King, Queen, Knight, and Page. These cards reflect different stages, personalities, and situations related to their respective suits.

How to Choose a Tarot Deck

Venturing into the world of tarot often starts with selecting your first deck, and this choice can significantly influence your journey. The deck you choose becomes an intimate companion, providing insights, lessons, and reflections tailored to you. Here are some guidelines to help you make an informed decision:

Resonance and Connection

Above all, the right deck should resonate with you. Browse through images of the cards, and pay attention to your gut feeling. Are you drawn to the imagery? Does the artwork speak to you on an intuitive level? Your initial connection to a deck can greatly enhance the readings you perform.

Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS): Often recommended for beginners due to its clear and symbolic imagery, the RWS deck serves as the foundation for many modern decks.

The Crowley-Harris Thoth Deck: A bit more esoteric, this deck is rich in symbolism and kabbalistic references.

The Morgan Greer Tarot: Known for its vibrant colors and close-up imagery, it provides a fresh take on the RWS symbolism.

There are countless other decks, each with its unique style and interpretation. Some are themed around animals, mythology, or even modern pop culture. It’s beneficial to explore multiple decks to see which resonates best.

Handling and Bonding with a New Deck

Once you’ve chosen a deck, spend time with it. Shuffle the cards, lay them out, and study the imagery. Some readers suggest sleeping with the deck under your pillow for a few nights to enhance the connection. Journaling your first impressions and feelings about each card can also build a deeper bond.

Size and Quality

Ensure that the cards are of a comfortable size for you to shuffle and handle. Check reviews for the durability of the cards, especially if you plan to use them frequently.

In the end, the best tarot deck for you is the one that speaks to your heart and intuition. Remember, it’s entirely okay to have more than one deck, as different decks can offer varied perspectives and energies.

Basic Tarot Reading Techniques

Engaging with tarot cards requires more than just an understanding of their meanings. The process of drawing cards and interpreting them in relation to specific questions or situations involves various techniques. As you embark on your tarot journey, here are some fundamental steps to guide your readings:

Formulating a Question

Clarity is Key: Be clear and specific in your questioning. Instead of asking, “Will I ever find love?”, try “What can I do to improve my chances of finding a meaningful relationship?”

Open-ended Questions: Frame your questions in a way that doesn’t require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. This allows the cards to provide richer insights.

Shuffling and Cutting the Deck

Shuffling: Mix the cards while focusing on your question. This not only randomizes the deck but also infuses it with your energy and intention.

Cutting: After shuffling, you can cut the deck into two or three piles and then stack them back in any order. This is another way to randomize and infuse intention.

Common Spreads

Three-card Spread: One of the simplest spreads. It can represent past, present, and future or situation, challenge, and advice.

Celtic Cross: A more complex, ten-card spread offering detailed insights about a situation.

One-card Draw: Great for daily guidance or a quick answer to a specific question.

Drawing the Cards

Once the deck is shuffled and your intention is set, draw the required number of cards for your chosen spread. Place them from left to right (or according to the layout of your chosen spread).

Reading Intuitively

Before diving into traditional card meanings, take a moment to observe the drawn cards. Trust your intuition and note any immediate feelings or thoughts that arise.

Only after this initial observation, refer to guidebooks or your knowledge of traditional meanings to deepen your understanding.

Remember, while these steps provide a foundation, tarot reading is a deeply personal practice. With time, you might develop your techniques and rituals that align with your intuition and beliefs. Embrace the journey, knowing there’s no one ‘right’ way to engage with the cards.

Interpreting Tarot Cards

Once the cards are laid out in front of you, the next step is to delve into their messages and insights. Interpretation is an art form, blending traditional symbolism with personal intuition. Here’s how to go about it:

Intuitive versus Traditional Meanings

Intuitive Reading: Let the imagery, colors, and symbols on the card speak to you. Your initial gut feeling or the emotions evoked by a card can provide profound insights.

Traditional Meanings: Each tarot card has time-honored interpretations that have been documented over centuries. While intuition plays a crucial role, understanding traditional meanings provides a foundational knowledge to enhance and clarify readings.

Context is Crucial

Position in the Spread: The meaning of a card can change based on its position in a spread. For instance, in a past-present-future spread, the same card will hold different implications if it appears in the “past” position versus the “future” slot.

Surrounding Cards: Cards influence each other. A seemingly negative card like “The Tower” might not seem as daunting if surrounded by positive cards like “The Star” or “The Sun”.

Reading Cards in Combination

Often, two or more cards together will paint a fuller picture. For instance, “The Fool” followed by “The World” might suggest a journey coming full circle or a new beginning leading to a triumphant conclusion.

Reversed Cards

Some readers incorporate the meanings of cards that appear upside down or reversed. These can represent blocked energies or the opposite of the card’s upright meaning. Whether or not to use reversed meanings is up to individual preference.

Seek Clarification

If a card or a combination seems particularly confusing or ambiguous, it’s okay to draw an additional “clarifier” card to provide more context.

Practice and Patience

Like any skill, interpreting tarot cards improves with practice. Over time, patterns will emerge, and connections will become clearer. It’s beneficial to keep a journal of your readings, noting down the cards, your interpretations, and any subsequent insights or realizations.

Remember, tarot is a tool for guidance and reflection, not a definitive roadmap. It’s okay if interpretations evolve or change over time; this reflects personal growth and deepening understanding.

Caring for Your Tarot Deck

The tarot deck, with its vibrant imagery and profound symbolism, is more than just a collection of cards. It’s a vessel for intuition, insight, and spiritual guidance. Like any cherished tool, it benefits from proper care to maintain its energy, integrity, and connection to the reader.

Cleaning and Clearing Your Deck’s Energy

  • Physical Cleaning: Use a soft cloth to gently wipe each card, ensuring they remain free from dust or oils.
  • Energetic Clearing: Over time, cards can accumulate energies from readings or surroundings. Periodically:
    • Smudging: Use sage, palo santo, or incense to waft smoke over your deck, cleansing any stagnant energies.
    • Moonlight: Lay your cards under the moonlight, especially during a full moon, to recharge and purify them.
    • Sound Healing: Using a tuning fork, singing bowl, or even a simple bell can help clear the cards energetically.

Storing Your Deck

  • Tarot Bags and Boxes: Store your deck in a silk or velvet bag or a wooden box to protect them from external energies and physical damage.
  • Include Crystals: Placing a clear quartz or amethyst crystal with your deck can help maintain its clarity and energy.

Rituals and Connecting with Your Deck

  • Daily Draws: Pulling a card daily fosters a deeper relationship with your deck and attunes you to its energies.
  • Gratitude: Before and after a reading, express gratitude to your deck. This acknowledgment can strengthen the bond and ensure the deck remains receptive and connected.
  • Personal Rituals: Create your rituals, like shuffling the cards a specific number of times, laying them out in a particular pattern, or invoking a personal mantra before readings.

Caring for your tarot deck is an essential aspect of your broader tarot practice. It ensures the deck remains a powerful, clear, and trusted tool for introspection and guidance.

History of Tarot

The tarot’s origins are shrouded in mystery, making it a subject of fascination and debate for many. Though its precise beginnings are uncertain, here’s a brief overview of tarot’s historical journey:

  • Ancient Beginnings: While some speculate that tarot has roots in ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah, there’s no concrete evidence to support these theories. Many of these notions arise from esoteric traditions and myths.
  • Renaissance Italy: The earliest known tarot decks emerged in 15th century Italy, initially referred to as “carte da trionfi” or “triumph cards.” These decks were used for a game called Tarocchi.
  • Transition to Divination: By the 18th century, the cards transitioned from recreational use to a tool for divination, largely due to the works of French occultists like Antoine Court de Gébelin. He believed the tarot had ancient Egyptian origins and symbolic meanings.
  • Occult Revival: The 19th and 20th centuries saw a resurgence in interest in the occult across Europe. Prominent figures like A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, and Pamela Colman Smith contributed to the evolution and popularization of tarot as a spiritual tool. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck, created by Waite and Smith, remains one of the most widely used tarot decks today.
  • Modern Era: In recent decades, tarot has experienced a resurgence, especially with the New Age movement’s rise. Today, there’s a diverse array of decks available, reflecting different cultures, philosophies, and artistic styles.

The tarot’s history is as rich and complex as the cards themselves, evolving over time and across cultures. It’s a testament to the enduring power and allure of these cards, which continue to captivate and guide countless individuals worldwide.


Tarot is a centuries-old tool that bridges the conscious and subconscious, offering insights, reflections, and guidance. Starting with understanding its history and structure, we delved into the basics of reading techniques and interpretations. Ethical considerations underscore the importance of respect and integrity when working with tarot. Deepening one’s practice through research, meditation, and community engagement can enhance the tarot journey. Lastly, caring for the deck ensures its longevity and the purity of its messages. Embrace tarot with an open heart and mind, and it will offer invaluable insights into life’s intricate tapestry.

Lauren holding a crystal ball in her hands.


Lauren Williams
Lauren merges ancient wisdom with modern insights, offering a fresh perspective on life's mysteries. She's passionate about guiding individuals through the world of astrology, lunar cycles, numerology, and tarot. When she's not charting the stars or reading tarot, she enjoys getting out in nature, hikes and yoga.