The first playing cards appeared in Europe in the 14th century and quickly became popular. Not too long afterwards, the playing cards became used as a tool for divination and fortune telling – this practice is called cartomancy. If you are interested in the origins and history of cartomancy, I recommend this article by Mary K. Greer.
One of the popular card decks in Europe was (and still is) Tarot – it has been used since mid 15th century to play various games, many of which are still played today.
All kinds of cards can and are used for cartomancy. The reason for Tarot being the by far most popular for this purpose is simple – the GAME of Tarot was not very known in the English-speaking world, so these cards were (and still are) seen and known specifically as an occult object.
Classic Tarot Decks
The three Tarot decks mentioned here are by far the most wide-spread decks today, used both as they are, or inspiring other artists to create their own decks based on either of these three classic Tarots. Most modern divinatory Tarot practices can be traced back to either the English or French occultism that brought us these decks.
Tarot de Marseille
In France, the card readers would use the 22 trumps of the French traditional Tarot deck (used for playing the game of the same name) called Tarot de Marseille for divination. The 22 cards are the Major Arcana. These 22 trumps were redesigned and printed in 1889 by the Swiss occultist Oswald Wirth as Les 22 Arcanes du Tarot Kabbalistique, later (1927) publishing a very popular revised version together with a reading manual. The custom of only using the major arcana for reading is very prevalent in France and francophone countries, and many French language Tarot de Marseille books only discuss the major arcana.
The alternative style of reading Tarot de Marseille which included the minor arcana (“number cards”) was introduced by Paul Marteau when he published his version of the full Tarot de Marseille deck (1930) accompanied by the later divination guide book Le Tarot de Marseille (1949).
The original Tarot cards weren’t easily obtainable in England, so Arthur Edward Waite, an English poet and occultist, together with the artist Pamela Colman Smith designed a pack that became the most popular Tarot deck for divination ever – the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (first published in 1909 by the Rider company).
While this deck follows the Tarot de Marseille and other earlier Tarot decks to a great degree, the Christian imagery was removed (Pope > Hierophant, Papess > High Priestess), the overall symbolism is greatly influenced by the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the minor arcana is much more intricately illustrated than its predecessors.
This Tarot deck This deck has been published countless times and inspired all kinds of its imitations and variants.
The Thoth Tarot was first included in The Book of Thoth (1944), a publication by Alesteir Crowley. The cards were painted by Lady Frieda Harris. Crowley referred to this deck as The Book of Thoth, and also wrote a 1944 book of that title intended for use with the deck. The deck draws on the teachings of Golden Dawn just like Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, but is also greatly influenced by Thelema. The full deck wasn’t printed in its entirety until after Crowley’s death.
Modern Tarot Decks
Tarots exploded in popularity in the 1970s, largely thanks to the New Age movement. More and more artists started making their own Tarot decks, based on either of the aforementioned classic decks.
My favorite modern Tarot deck is the Icarus Tarot by artist IHSQUARED. It is based on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and uses the 22 cards of its Major Arcana. Those are supplemented by 6 original cards of the author’s creation that allow more detailed reading. This deck is so beautiful that I often just sit and browse the cards just for the aesthetic pleasure. You can get it HERE along with some other gorgeous art and clothes by IHSQUARED.
Tarot Spreads and Reading
There are many ways to spread the cards for reading, some are very quick and easy, others are intricate and require either enough experience, or some kind of guidance. I do an easy 3 card spread before a new month begins, just to focus my intentions and prepare. For example, this is my spread for the next month, March 2021:
My Monthly 3 Card Spread
First card represents the Self.
Second card represents the current Path.
Third card shows the Potential.
Regarding the more complicated ones, I don’t think I am a good guide for those as I am a bit of an anarchist, when it comes to complex spreads – sometimes I even add some rogue cards from other card game decks I own, such as Cards Against Humanity or Exploding Kittens, haha!
Instead, I will recommend you Labyrinthos. It’s a site with a nice blog that discusses all kinds of great Tarot spreads, it has also an excellent learning portal for Tarot meanings and an e-shop for all things Tarot. The best thing is their FREE APP which allows you to train your readings on the go, it’s very user friendly and pleasant.
What is your favorite Tarot deck, if you have one?
Do you have some tips and tricks to share?
Let me know in the comments!
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