Allison Shank

Religion 195b

March 31, 2003


The Magic of Tarot



Prediction, reading, astrology, divination, I-Ching, baton, sword, cup, coin, the fool, wheel of fortune, the empress, etc.



          In the realm of the mystical the practice of tarot has always seemed to exist.  The system is very straightforward in its use, however, its origins and purpose have yet to be clearly defined. There are many theories that exist on its origin, yet most fail to show enough evidence to support it wholly. It is practice that continues to this day and one that has caused a great deal of controversy since its early inception.  There is a particular way of performing the tarot in order to achieve the greatest mastery of the practice.  Overall the practice is still quite common and it treads thinly between the realm of the religiously acceptable and that that aids people in their everyday life to understand and predict what life has in store for them.


II. Scope and Purpose of the System

            Tarot cards have bewildered humanity for many centuries.  The cards today are most commonly understood to be a path into the supernatural world or divination and astrology, as well as what some consider a foolish game.  However, even to the most learned the purpose of tarot cards is still uncertain.  Many theories abound as to their nature and use not only in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries but also in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

            The early centuries of the second millennium were a time of deep religious conviction.  People became more involved in matters of the mind, matters that could not be solved through religion alone.  It is in this quest for knowledge that some believe the tarot was born.  The cards have primarily been linked to the philosophical tendencies of the Gnostics.  To many the cards represent themes that are essential to Gnostic belief.  For example, the idea that we are all divine yet ignorant of our divinity is represented in the card of the Fool.  However, there is not sufficient evidence of deeper Gnostic meaning in the cards. 

            Another more practical purpose exists for the cards.  Some argue that it was the purpose of the Tarot deck to aid in exercises of memory.  Many people were not literate in these early centuries; therefore their knowledge of religion had to come pictorially (Franklin).  The tarot cards therefore were decorative aids to help the lay people understand the religion that they were following. 

             In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the cards have taken new meaning.  Since its entrance into the western world, the tarot cards have been associated with the occult as a means to acquire information.  However, there are other ways in which the cards can be used according to Decker, Depaulis, and Dummet.  These three authors describe the cards as being an instrument of “autopsychotherapy”.  Therefore, although the cards have more than one use they are constantly being bundled into the realm of magic due to their traditional roots.  Regardless, since the nineteenth century the cards have been primarily used as an occult game developed first in Paris.  Today, the cards continue to have an occult meaning primarily used by people that are believers in its powers as a way to bring forth information about their future. 



III. Authority Structure

a.     Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge

The tarot cards have mostly a religious origin, however gaining a lot of their power from astrology and numerology.  There are many theories on where the cards come from, such as from an ascetic group of knights known as the Templar Order.  However, not much evidence exists to link the knights to the deck.  The deck we recognize today is mostly thought to be of Western origin (although it is recognized that there are similarities in decks in the East).  Some argue that it is of Jewish origin because of the similarity between the words Tarot and Torah.  Others argue that it could come from the Latin word meaning a wheel (rota) and therefore symbolizing the circle of life.

It is believed gypsies passed the cards down, teaching each other the universal language of the cards in order to communicate.  The drawings have come to have deeply symbolic meanings and they are believed to be capable of foretelling the future.  Not only hinting at what may happen, the tarot deck is also believed to unlock deeply hidden desires and reveal the subconscious of the mind of an individual.  However, the cards also provide wisdom and guidance in the spiritual plane.


b.     Methods of Inquiry

The main method of obtaining information from the tarot cards is through the interpretation of the cards and their symbols.  Each card has a unique significance that is further deepened by the layout of the cards around it.  The major Arcana cards are those that deal with the images of the lovers, magician, fool, and others.  Each of these represents something, particularly in life.  The wheel of fortune is normally seen as the midway point, where the descent of life begins. Laid out in a horizontal figure eight, the cards describe the cycle of life.  Furthermore, there is a special way to go about the actual reading.

It is important that the person that is doing the reading knows their cards very well and does not allow a curious mind to play with them inappropriately.  The main theory behind this strict handling is that the cards will pick up one’s vibrations and therefore provide a more accurate reading.  Furthermore, people are unique in terms of their birth time and the alignment of the stars, moon, and other astrological features.  It is these features that help determine the kind of reader that one may be and gives each of the readers individuality.  The deck is supposed to be shuffled by the reader as well as the person requesting the reading.  Once this is done the reader will determine which spread of the cards is most accurate for the questioner. 

Many different spreads exist, some deal with the past, present and future while others deal with the year ahead or a specific question.  Depending on the pattern that the reader follows, the cards must either be placed face down or face up.  If the card faces down they are to be read one at a time in a counter-clockwise manner and in that way reveal themselves.  It is important to follow these directions fully and know them well before hand in order to insure the most accurate of readings. 

c.     Institutions and Professional Structure

            Under all practical purposes the tarot was never institutionalized or had a professional structure.  The deck is and was used commonly for entertainment purposes, therefore making any kind of following difficult to trace.  The most common people associated with tarot cards are usually gypsies that read the cards for people who wish to know their future or outcome of a specific event. They taught each generation how to read the cards, but eventually even that oral tradition became unnecessary.  Books could and still can be found explaining how to use a tarot deck and thus perhaps increasing its popularity. The tarot deck was mainly seen as a source of entertainment and played by a great many especially after the invention of movable type, not as a movement or as an institution. 

In the nineteenth century the man responsible for the revival of the tarot reading was Eliphas Levi who revived the ideas of the occult as put forth by Court de Gebelin (Decker, et al. 166).  Levi became enthralled in the life of occultism in the second half of his life, dedicating himself to writing books and gathering all information that he could. Although not mostly known for his work on the tarot, he is considered to be a reviver of the occult in general, including tarot.  Levi formulated a lot of his ideas from Anton Mesmer and his ideas of animal magnetism.  Levi synthesized the ideas of magic into a single tradition, making the occult more accessible to the masses (Decker, et al. 169).  He therefore intertwined the life of tarot with that of magic, making it all a package into the paths of divination and fortune telling. 

IV. History

The history of Tarot is not very well known.  Many experts argue that its roots are embedded in the Eastern cultures, drawing itself from systems such as I-Ching in China.  One belief is that the tarot was also a method of playing chess. However, not much evidence exists to support any one theory.  The cards used in the East are not very similar to the ones that appeared in the culture of Western Europe.  Other scholars argue that the cards may have come from India their meaning deeply rooted in the ideas of deities.  Gypsies have often been credited for bringing the cards into Europe. On the other hand, as Alfred Douglas points out, tarot decks had been in existence for a couple of centuries before the appearance of gypsies.

Once the deck appeared in Europe it became an object of contemplation.  To some it was a gate into personal understanding while to others it represented the purest of evils.  Interestingly enough, as of the year 1377, there had been no mention of the major Arcana cards (or those bearing the different symbolic images, such as the fool).  One year later the cards became banned. However, this only lasted a few years when the ban was lifted.  Resentment still surrounded the cards and many condemned them even while they were legal.  They continued to evolve and kings were getting decks painted. Controversy all the while continued to surround the practice of playing the different games with the cards.

In the late eighteenth century a man known as Anton Court de Gebelin gave the cards their modern day occult interpretation.  He simply incorporated it into the western tradition of magic so that today the tarot tradition is still considered to be a magical system of astrology (Decker et al. 54).  The tarot deck was then used by Etteila, known as the first card reader.  His involvement with tarot decks as a source of divination later influenced the work of Levi who was able to bring about the revival of the Tarot in the late nineteenth century and beyond.  

            Other theories discuss the tarot as a game known as Triumphs.  Not much is really known about the game, although there have been records of it being in Renaissance Italy.  A second theory argues that the tarot deck was also a variety of chess. It is known that cards had a checkered back that suggests the design of a chessboard.  Another ancient purpose of the cards is that it served as representation of the King Arthur story.  Many parallels are seen between the cards (cup, baton, sword and coin) and the quest for the Holy Grail.

Although the cards represented different things to different parts of the world they continued to spread because of the need for people in these earlier centuries to understand psychology.  They turned to the tarot deck as a way to be introspective and learn how to change themselves in the hopes to become better human beings. 

Today a fascination remains with reading tarot cards.  Their purpose and their history are still uncertain, but their legacy remains.  Modern thinkers continue to look for answers on the mystery of the tarot, but no consensus has been reached on its meaning and origins.  Scholars and thinkers such as Jung also adopted the tarot and took great care in understanding the practice, seeing it as a window into the subconscious. 

V. Representative Examples of Argumentation

Tarot reading does not appear to have to legitimize itself in any way. However, those claiming the ability to read into tarot are seen by some as pure con artists.  True card readers pride themselves in their knowledge of the cards and their connection to them.  They are not simply learning from a book and then attempting to interpret a deck.  They have established a bond with their deck that as mentioned earlier is crucial to developing the card's powers.  Therefore, the way in which card readers and believers defend their claims of mysticism is through the bond created between the reader and the deck of cards.  Due to the uncertainty of the origins and purpose of the deck it is quite difficult to have to develop a way in which to defend the practice.  For the most part tarot reading was adopted and not viewed as having any direct conflicts with religion or people until much later in its development.  Even in the midst of great religious opposition, people were fascinated with the decks and continued to purchase them. 

The practice of reading tarot cards is one that is looked upon with skepticism.  It is a trade that provides insight into past, present and future while not requiring proper study or divine authority.  Anyone that could read or have contact with someone who knew how to use the tarot cards could also learn how they worked.  The use of the deck only asks for the proper handling of the cards by the owner, while anyone can own a deck. 

Another argument to be raised is that the explanations given on the different symbols are too broad and could basically be associated with anyone.  The person performing the reading is also simply trying to interpret for another what the card is supposed to mean, and as stated by Douglas, if the person is not completely familiar with the deck, their accuracy is compromised.  In a majority of literature the argument is raised that the cards were used to play games thereby giving them less credibility when associated with other methods of acquiring knowledge.  

VI. Suggested Position in Comparative Scales

   A.Traditional (1)………..experiential(10)-2

In the tarot tradition the readings and cards have remained virtually the same for over 600 years.  Therefore it can be argued that tradition is more important in determining the validity of the tarot deck interpretation.

  B. Centralization (1)……decentralization (10)-10

Each person could learn how to read cards and own their own deck (as long as they could afford it) making the tradition less central on an authority.  It could be learned by the lay people making it therefore accessible to the masses.

  C. Invisible realities (1)…earthy realities (10)-5

The tarot balances the invisible and earthly realities.  The invisible is in the realm of the power of the stars on an individual, while the earthly enhances that which is predicted and upheld by tarot readings.

  D. Spiritual (1)…………..pragmatic(10)-7

Although the practice of tarot reading could be considered spiritual because of its use in introspection, the main purpose of the tarot was to predict the future.  This latter aim therefore deals less with the realm of the heavenly.

E.     Divine power (1)…….individual power (10)-8

Although it could be argued that there is some divinity in tarot reading, it is primarily the individual and his or her connection to the deck that is causing the interpretations of the reading.  Therefore, individual power is most important to the use of a tarot deck.





Primary Sources:


Decker, Depaulis, and Dummet.  A Wicked Pack of Cards. St. Martin’s Press.1996


A very useful book.  Deals with a lot of history and rejects a lot of the common day ideas of Tarot as an occult practice. 


Douglas, Franklin. The Tarot. Penguin Books. 1972


A very useful and easy to understand depiction of the Tarot.  Perhaps the most useful of all my sources.


Franklin, Stephen E. Origins of the Tarot Deck. MacFarland and Co, Inc. 1988


Somewhat helpful for the history of the Tarot, although a lot more dense and technical.


Gray, Eden. The Tarot Revealed. Bell Publishing Company. 1960


Not as helpful as the other two books.  Mostly a how-to book on Tarot reading.