Sarena's Tarot

Frequently Asked Questions about Tarot and alt.tarot

Written by Jess Karlin, based on the original tarot-faq by Mark Danburg-Wyld.

First release: 22 October 1993

Last revision: 4 December 1996

Posted monthly to alt.tarot, alt.divination, alt.magick.tyagi, alt.magick, and alt.pagan

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1. What is tarot?

2. Where can I get a tarot deck?

3. How do current decks differ?

4. What do the cards mean, if anything?

5. Which deck is the best?

6. Why does the Tarot 'work'?

7. How do I use a Tarot deck to 'tell the future'? (includes Keltic Cross explanation)

8. What are 'reversals' and how do I get them into my readings?

9. What's the difference between 'reversals' and 'dignities'?

10. How do I use a Tarot deck for meditation?

11. How do I use a Tarot deck to play a game?

12. What is the history of the Tarot?

13. What are the symbolic 'roots' of tarot?

14. How is Tarot related to other forms of divination?

15. What about computer tarot programs?

16. What is alt.tarot?

17. What are the 'rules' of alt.tarot?

18. What books should I read to get started or to learn more about tarot?

1. What is Tarot?


The easiest answer to that question is to describe the basic structure of a tarot deck.

There are 78 total cards in a standard tarot deck. These cards are divided in the following way: 4 sets (called 'suits') of 14 cards each=56 cards (the 'minor arcana' or 'minors').

The names of these suits have varied from pack to pack over time but generally suits adhere to some form of the following designations---

Wands (or Rods),



Pentacles (or Disks).

Each suit has ten numbered cards, Ace through Ten, plus four 'court cards'.

The court cards go by various naming conventions but---


---is a fairly standard description. Another common scheme, one popularized by the Aleister Crowley 'Book of Thoth' deck is---


The difference between these approaches points to one of the myriad ideological disputes about names and 'meanings' that characterize so much of modern tarot.

In addition to these 56 'small' cards there are---

22 cards of the 'major arcana', often referred to simply as 'majors', or 'trumps'. These cards depict various ideas and persons, the names of the cards are mostly rooted in Medieval or Renaissance religion and culture. The cards are numbered from 0-Fool, to 21-World (or Universe) as follows---


1-Magus (or Magician)

2-High Priestess







And right there our peaceful little perusal of the trumps rolls right off the tracks---

We should get used to this, it's going to happen a lot.

The problem with '8' is that no one can decide, with ultimate authority, what it's supposed to be. Some people say '8' should be Strength while others say Justice (and thus these two cards are locked in a struggle over the number placements '8' and '11'). At the same time, and to muddy things more, there is the whole problem introduced by Aleister Crowley, in his influential 'Thoth' deck, who exchanged the attributions (the correspondences between tarot trumps and paths on the kabbalistic Tree of Life) of 4-Emperor (yes, we skipped that one) and 17-Star. Most people, who are not strict adherents to Crowley's Thelemic system, have not followed nor concerned themselves much with the latter change, but many still fight over the 8-11 controversy. Based purely on astrological considerations the better choice seems to be Strength in '8' and Justice in '11'. But there's more to it than that---there almost always is in tarot. However, that's something you can ask about on alt.tarot.

so, let's continue---

8-Strength (or Justice)---note: also, in Thoth-influenced decks these cards will be titled 'Lust' or 'Adjustment' respectively.

9. Hermit

10. Wheel of Fortune---no, there is no Vanna White turning letters

11. Justice (or Strength)---again, in Thoth 'Justice' is called 'Adjustment'

12. Hanged Man

13. Death---the one tarot card almost everyone has seen

14. Temperance---in Thoth this is called 'Art', as in alchemical arts

15. Devil

16. Tower

17. Star

18. Moon

19. Sun

20. Judgment---as in the 'Last Judgment', in Thoth it is called 'Aeon'

21. World/or Universe

After establishing these few structural facts, we begin to encounter some more problems, which will explode in all kinds of confusing ways, in our attempt to confidently and conclusively answer the question 'what is tarot?'. We will discover that the answer does not entirely reduce to 'anything you want it to be' but it often gets very close to that.

BTW, the name, 'tarot', is supposedly the French derivation of the original Italian, 'tarocchi', referring to the deck and the 'trick-taking' games played in Italy and elsewhere using these cards.

2. Where can I get one?

Lots of places these days. However, most 'mainstream' bookstores will only offer a limited selection of decks, although they may be able to order just about anything for you (sometimes at a discount over ordering direct from suppliers). Occult or 'newage' bookstores should have a wider selection of decks and also books that (allegedly) 'explain it all' to you. You can also mail-order decks through several supply houses.

3. How do current decks differ?

First, there are many kinds of cartomantic decks in existence now, and many of them are only loosely based on any sort of structure (i.e., 78 cards organized according to question #1 answer) that matches tarot. There are also a lot of decks that DO match the structure, superficially, but which have questionable links to anything one might describe as a tradition of tarot symbolism.

Therefore, I'm going to use a rather arbitrary method to answer this, but it is one that will at least make manageable the task of dealing with this question. As you learn more about tarot you will learn how to make up your own arbitrary answers.

There are approximately five historical periods of tarot evolution---obviously there can be more or less depending on how you want to slice it, but I'm basing this arbitrary division on the nature of the symbolism on the cards, and the ideologies, if any, they represented:

1. Early or Classical (c.1440-1550)---Tarot was 'born' in northern Italy c. 1440 AD and was probably created to play card games, NOT to read fortunes, and it was NOT brought to Europe by gypsies. The early development of tarot was characterized by many different decks and symbologies, many alterations to those decks considered the 'first'---the designs of the Visconti-Sforza tarocchi decks---but a pretty consistent 22-card foundation is maintained in the major arcana with a 56-card minor addition (no one knows with certainty whether the minors originated with the trumps or were added later). However, it does seem as though, contrary to what many people believe, playing cards developed BEFORE tarot cards and not the other way around. Also, the question of whether tarot was derived and developed from an already existing deck or was developed independently has not been satisfactorily answered.

2. Middle or 'transitional' (1550-1781)---one sees a fairly stable but still evolutionary development of tarot symbolism culminating in the many examples of what has come to be known as the 'Marseilles' design (check Kaplan's tarot encyclopedias for examples of these and other decks mentioned in this FAQ). There is little evidence that tarot symbolism, during this period, meant much of anything to anyone beyond their surface function as playing-card illustrations. However, the lack of evidence is a bit odd, given that it seems likely SOMEONE would have thought to use the cards in some sort of divinatory application in the two centuries before the 1781 publication of 'Le Monde primitif', by Court de Gebelin, and the subsequent explosion of public speculation about the 'occult' meaning of tarot symbolism.

3. Traditional or Occult period (1781-1909)---I call this'traditional' tarot simply because, while we see the creation here of an entirely new kind of tarot, it nevertheless rests upon a core of the old traditions and symbolism, and its symbology is that which, in direct or indirect fashion, is the tarot everyone knows today. In traditional tarot we see, (though very gradually), the evolution of the occult decks that, while still based in Marseilles-type designs, add Egyptian and Hermetic symbolism to the traditional iconographies. The evolution is not really as bold and dramatic as some people have made it out to be---and we don't see any really radical changes (in real decks at any rate---Eliphas Levi might have made an interesting deck but he never got around to it---making drawings of only a couple of cards that were nevertheless, very influential) until the circulation of 'Book T' in the Golden Dawn and the incorporation and further development of those symbols into:

4. Modern Period (1910-1983)---with the publication of the Waite deck in 1910 we enter the modern period, where tarot symbolism has become, in any 'traditional' sense, almost entirely the province of Golden Dawn symbolism, and that symbolism's most copied derivation has been the Waite deck, the most popular tarot deck in the world today (especially when one counts the myriad thefts of its designs into other decks). I'm not sure whether one can call Waite the most influential design in history (certainly one might be able to make that claim for the Marseilles design as well) but its symbolism, and the other Golden Dawn derivatives (most notably the BOTA and the Thoth decks) have become what most people know (at least superficially) as tarot. However, the story does not happily end there for then we move into our last period---post-modern---

5. Post-modern (1983-god knows when but not soon enough)---This date assignment is purely arbitrary, since many of the motivations that have led to pomotarot (itself, an amalgamation of diverse but often overlapping movements and ideologies) started back in the 1960s, when multi-cultural, gender-conscious, and anti-traditional (the assumption was that IF it was traditional it HAD to be bad) attitudes were infiltrating all modes of pop and academic culture. I pick 1983 because this is when that bane of traditional tarot was published---Motherpeace!! Printed on round cards, treating men like they were a humanoid avatar of the ebola virus, and generally promoting a post-intellectual symbology that has nothing to do with traditional tarot, Motherpeace has become the guiding light for the cartofeminist revisionists. The point was made---one could promote any nonsense he or she wanted on the back of poor defenseless tarot because few people knew what the older symbolism was about and there has been no public forum (until the advent of Internet) where these pomo decks, or any of the decks, could be easily and widely discussed and critiqued.

Basically there are three kinds of pomo decks---

1. Cartofeminist---my own neologism, describing feminist decks in general but particularly those promoting the concept of the 'Goddess', and which find identity basically in the rejection of what are described as traditional icons of the evil patriarchy (including obviously any traditional tarot symbology and interpretation).

2. True Postmodern---decks that seek to maintain some link to traditional symbols but which nevertheless ignore traditional interpretations of the symbolism often for the remarkable and seemingly absurd reasoning that occult symbolism is 'anti-egalitarian' by nature and so the meanings of the symbols should be thrown open to what are often called 'intuitive' methods of interpretation---in other words: make up anything that suits your fancy and, if you are a tarot book writer, make it 'bite-sized' if it all possible.Obviously, it's a lot easier to design a deck based on this kind of 'thinking' and many of the decks we get here present mere shades of their traditional roots---as if, knowing that what those old (dead?) symbols meant is irrelevant and beyond a pomo's multi-absurd consciousness, we can therefore add mere hints of what we don't care to know anyway and then speculate (masturbate) about them to our mind's end. On alt.tarot you will see the merits of this kind of tarot, and this kind of tarot 'ideology' debated, in various forms, over and over again.

There are many decks which fall into this category---Morgan-Greer and Aquarian being 'good' examples of the lot along with (obviously) the PoMo Tarot deck itself.

3. Igno-aesthetic---as the word suggests---that which promotes the aesthetic qualities of the tradition in complete ignorance of its meaning---this is something like #2 except here there is no attempt whatsoever to claim the artist or designer knew anything about the meaning of the symbols they depict. One rather imagines, if Rachel Pollack had not invested her 'talents' to his project, Herman Haindl's deck could have gotten away with residing here---amongst some admittedly interesting-looking decks---instead of in the dumpheap of cartofeminism. Generally, igno-aesthetic decks are done by real artists and, if nothing else, do look good (not in any way a trivial attribute---especially when you've suffered through some of the 'art' that continues to claim tarot as its 'templat-ive' victim). Lots of Italian and German decks of the last 10 years fall into this category.

4. What do the cards mean, if anything?

Different decks will deal with 'meaning' in different ways. The original author of this FAQ suggested, since he had no time or interest in trying to tell everyone in a FAQ the ONE TRUE MEANING of the cards, that people should compare the opinions of different authors on the question of tarot meanings. I think that's fine, but it does not really address the 'why' part of this question---because it's not just WHAT something means that should interest us, but also WHY.

'What the cards mean' depends to some degree on what YOU decide they mean---but then you get into the argument, something like the chicken and the egg problem, about where the meaning 'comes from'.

If, for example, the artist knew nothing about tarot but simply executed designs 'in the style of' tarot cards (a common trend in postmodern decks) does that mean his cards are devoid of any meaning? That allegation has been made against things like the Dali deck, for example---all aesthetics and no substance. The problem is that is one looks deeper, Dali appears to have known quite a bit about tarot, intuitively or otherwise. Or, if you've learned meanings according to some non-traditional tarot like Motherpeace, will those 'special' meanings, given that they obviously contradict with traditional meanings, still apply if you are using Thoth or Waite? This is a problem that comes up, for example, if you buy some of the newage books on Thoth, like that of Angeles Arrien, which has almost nothing to do with Thoth and everything to do with the author's ideology about what a modern audience 'ought' to get from tarot.

So, if the meanings are not in some way derived from the symbols on the card, where do they properly come from? And, if those meanings are to be derived from the symbols on the card, and if those symbols are poorly understood or not understood at all by the artist and are merely used as a template for a design meant for its aesthetic (as opposed to symbolic) appeal, then what kind of utility would those cards have for someone? It is not merely by 'design' that so many pomo decks can be quite charitably described as 'hallmark' cards.

It seems the easiest 'rules' on all this would be to select decks that have been constructed with some symbolic paradigm (or paradigms) in mind (and heart and soul)---where the designers had planned out not only the feeling their images might generate but very much also the thoughts. Most decks have so little thought (about thought) placed into their execution that they merit little serious consideration as a 'real' tarot deck, regardless of the lip service they pay to the structure and the superficial elements of tarot symbolism.

Even decks like 'Rorhig', for example, where much thought has been applied to the design of many of the cards, suffer from the rather obvious fact that the artist was not guided by a mastery of tarot, so that the deck is symbolically insipid and incomplete in many respects.

The more you know about tarot the more this kind of obvious shortcoming will serve to annoy you---especially in a an otherwise attractive or 'pretty' deck.

The thing to remember is that tarot, whatever the intentions for its use by the original designers, has always been graphically about the iconization of ideas; some of them very complex ideas, and the more a deck pays homage to this fact (which involves not just the juxtaposition of a bunch of images but also the systematic forethought to know why certain images should go one place as opposed to another), whatever its ideological bent may be, the better chance the deck will have to reconstruct tarot traditions in a modern frame.

Of course, the first thing someone who is learning tarot should try to do is study as much as possible about what the 'old frame' was about.

5. Which deck is the best?

The original FAQ diplomatically answered this question---

"There is no consensus on this issue, and discussions of this question have the potential to start a flame war. Some of the more popular decks include: The Aquarian Tarot, The Robin Wood Tarot, and Crowley's Thoth Tarot. I see the potential for a whole other FAQ explaining some of the alleged benefits/problems with the most widely available decks. But I'm not about to write it. (Anyone?)"

Actually, we've already addressed some of the inherent problems of answering the 'best' question in the answer to question 4.

The only thing I might add here is that 'best' mostly has to do with you and what you want to use tarot for. On the other hand, most people who are just beginning really have devoted little thought (as opposed to feeling) about any specific objectives they may have with it---tarot just seems fascinating and fun---which it is. Therefore, one looks about in books or from some more experienced person who may take the role of teacher to provide a bit of guidance on what 'best' could mean.

You will also, on alt.tarot, see much argument about this question, with there being a particular dividing line between:

*those who think 'best' should have NO limiting definition at all---thus, one should do whatever he wants to and should never be told that something is a 'bad' idea or application,


*those who think some uses of tarot are simply stupid and don't merit any time or consideration as a serious topic.

However you may feel about this question, be prepared, should you start posting about 'best' ways to do and think about tarot, to defend your ideas vigorously.

It is likely some other people will disagree with you, no matter how well-intentioned you may be in enlightening us all about 'best'.

6. Why does the Tarot 'work'?

The original FAQ answered---

"There are a number of different theories on this, which is the eloquent way of saying no-one really knows."

Actually, 'no one knows' is pretty eloquent too, since it is succinct and right.

The FAQ then went into a discussion of various 'theories' that have been proposed. None of them have any scientific evidence to support them. If you want to know more about them you will have plenty of opportunities on alt.tarot, but advocating things like 'channeling' and 'synchronicity' is liable to get you into a flame war. Actually, advocating that people should 'have a nice day' is likely to get you into a flame war.

However, you should consider this---not everyone understands the meaning of the word 'work' in exactly the same way.

You will discover the same problem if and when a discussion should occur about 'belief' in tarot. Some people seem to think there is something, a power or ability, in which one needs to profess or deny belief. Others think such questions are irrelevant and silly, belief, in their opinion, not being required to make whatever use of tarot they desire.

Ultimately, one may file the answer to this question under---

'credo quia absurdum est'

'I believe because it is absurd.'

7. How do I use a Tarot deck to 'tell the future'?

The original FAQ had the following to say on this one---

"Study the cards and learn their meanings. Practice a lot, on yourself, friends, or total strangers as suits your personal leanings. Eventually, you should get pretty good."

Well, that's one way to look at it. And certainly one SHOULD take every opportunity to practice. However, I'm not so sure that everyone 'should get pretty good.'

There are many anecdotes we've read over time on alt.tarot about people's experience learning to use tarot as an oracle.

Again, the original FAQ reminded---

"And again, practice, practice, practice."


To which I would amend this---

Tarot Novice's Rules and guidelines---

1. DO use formal structured readings, where card positions mean something specific like 'past influences' or 'hopes and fears'. You are a beginner remember? Treat this as you would any learning experience---take it one step at a time. You can get creative after you've mastered the basics. Where do you get the structured layouts?

Almost all decks come with an LB (little booklet), that will explain a basic layout, usually some form of Keltic Cross (see Keltic Cross layout explanation at the end of this section). And you can find many layout suggestions in tarot books and also in the Layout FAQ, posted frequently to alt.tarot and otherwise available on the net.

2. DO ritualize (at least a little bit) what you are doing---it will help you remember what is supposed to be going on. By this I mean---light candles, evoke your favorite spirit guide, or simply be very methodical and careful about what you are doing---some of the worst readers I've seen are sometimes the ones whose basic talents are superior to others. They get so convinced they've 'got it' after a year or so of reading (sometimes after a week or so) they get sloppy and careless, thinking it is all so 'obvious'. Their innate talents never are allowed to evolve beyond 'sloppy and careless' and they soon tire of reading altogether.

3. DO trust that the cards will work for you---this does not have to be active 'faith', just trust, like you would trust that the rollercoaster is NOT going to fly off the tracks. Trust aids your self-confidence, the importance of which we will discuss below.

4. DON'T act like some kid with a watch or a fly, prying things loose to see how and why they work. People frequently can not get their tarot skills back together again after smashing them to see how or if they 'work'. The fact is that reading is a skill based on talent, knowledge, experience and the I-word, intuition. You either got it or you don't. And I might add one additional component---courage or self-confidence. To the degree that reading is a performance-based medium of spiritual exchange one does need to have that trust element mentioned above and the self-confidence that they can 'do it' perfectly as well, if not better, than the next person.

Bottom line, if you want to learn how to read cards, then study the symbolism, learn the meanings, and---

---practice, practice, practice.

I'm including here a basic guide to the Keltic Cross layout, which is the one most people first learn. This layout uses the same principles or assumptions that you will encounter in almost all layouts---the card position acts similarly to an astrological 'house', providing the context (past influences, foundations, future influences, etc.) in which the card energy will be read. The card that one reads in that position will then act as the 'planet', shading the position according to the card's symbolic meaning (sometimes, depending on the reading, one will also consider the effects of surrounding cards on each position).


Here are the basic positions of the Keltic Cross (based mostly on the version given in 'The Pictorial Key to the Tarot', by A. E. Waite)---

1. Significator---(the card representing the querent or person asking the question---traditionally, one chooses an appropriate card from the pack before shuffling and dealing the other cards; however, a new tradition has begun of 'allowing' the deck to reveal the proper card by dealing this position 'blind' along with the other cards of the layout.)

2. Covering card---(the card representing 'general' influences or the 'atmosphere' affecting this question---note: lots of tarot-speak is vague)

3. Crossing card or the Cross---(the card representing obstacles or problems affecting this question---if the card is 'positive', then the problem may not be that great or perhaps the 'problem' will work to the querent's benefit OR, maybe the 'good' stuff won't be so good in this situation)

4. 'That which is above' or the Crown---(the card indicating either the highest hopes of the querent for this question or the best that can expected for him in the outcome---similar to the MC in astrology)

5. 'That which is below'---(the card indicating the 'foundation' or 'nadir'---similar to the IC in astrology, note that the relationship between the 'Above' and the 'Below' cards is this---the 'Below' is the birth point of the question and so represents aspects or events that have come into definite being and which, Waite says, the querent has made 'his own'. In practice, the card often represents the TRUE point of the question, and the querent may not be consciously 'owned up' to it yet. Compare this then to the 'Above' card, which represents a point of fulfillment in the circle, and so, according to Waite, is not something that has been made 'actual'. However, the querent may be very aware of what this card represents, since he supposedly will be trying to 'actualize' it).

Deal all cards face down (no, you don't have to do this but it's more fun to turn them up one at a time). Card 2 is placed on top of card 1. Card 3 is placed horizontally over card 2 (so it makes a cross over it).

Card 4 is placed directly above the 'cross'. Card 5 is placed directly below the 'cross'.

OK, at this point we need to decide where we will put the 'past' and'future' influences cards. According to Waite, if you are using a Court or 'picture' card (King, Queen, Knight, Page) to represent the querent in the Significator position, then deal the 'past' card to the side AWAY FROM that which the 'Sig' is facing (i.e., if the 'Sig' appears to be looking to the left, deal the 'past' to the right). Then deal the 'future' influences card toward the direction the 'Sig' is facing. In Knight cards this directionality stuff is pretty easy. If you don't want to mess with it then simply deal the past-future cards in the same places every time. Just remember which is which. I generally use Left=Past, Right=Future.

So, to continue---

6. That which is behind---(the card showing events affecting the question that the querent will know, i.e., the past).

7. That which is ahead---(the card showing events affecting the question that the querent will NOT know yet, i.e., the future---but NOT the final outcome).

Now you have the basic Keltic Cross---a circle about a cross.The last four cards of the layout are dealt in a vertical line from---8 (on bottom) to 11 (on top) to the right of the Keltic Cross.

8. Personal Position---(the card representing the querent/different than the significator, this card shows the querent in action, for good or ill, in the question)

9. Environment---(the 'other' of the question, similar to the Personal card, but this represents the environment in which everything unfolds, so it is family, friends, work, etc.)

10. Psychological---(hopes and fears and dreams of the querent)

11. Future---(if what is shown in the other cards remains 'true', this is how the question will resolve)

If you have questions about this or other layouts, or specifics about how to read cards, enquire on alt.tarot.

8. What are 'reversals' and how do I get them into my readings?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (called France) this guy named Etteilla decided to do card readings with something called a 'piquet' deck (32 cards, plus, for purposes of reading, a blank card, called the 'Etteilla'). Etteilla provided TWO different meanings for these cards, one for the normal (or 'upright') card, and one for when the card would be turned upside-down (that is, with the 'top' inverted to the 'bottom'). This 'tradition' has been maintained ever since, and almost ALL tarot books and decks will include meanings both for the 'normal' card and also for the 'reversed' card, although, by now, there are many variations on that theme, which is, along with its variations, arbitrary and not very 'fulfilling' as a method of adding depth to a reading. But IT IS the method A.E. Waite stuck in his book on tarot (which was mainly a copy of Etteilla's work that comes down to the present day) and THAT book has pretty much been copied by everyone ever since.

Surprisingly, to me, there have been a number of people posting to alt.tarot who have expressed confusion over how to 'get' reversals to show up in their readings---YES, you do that thing which seems so unnatural for so many people---you turn the cards upside-down MANUALLY (what did you think? that elves did it for you??).

Now, there are a number of ways in which to get 'there' as well. Here are a few suggestions---

(note---all these directions assume you are holding the cards face down, but that's up to you of course---you WILL have to make sure you are holding the deck in an upright position before you begin your manipulations.)

1. After shuffling (it seems to get a little confusing for people if they try it BEFORE shuffling), just invert (turn upside-down) a few cards. FEW means like 5-7 or whatever 'few' means to you. Then deal your layout and interpret any upside-down cards according to the 'reversed' meanings. You say you don't HAVE any 'reversed' meanings. Well, go get some. You can't do your 'reversals' if you don't have any reversed meanings. And those meanings are generally supplied either in your LB (the 'little booklet' that comes with most decks) or in whatever book which explains your deck. You can also, if those options are not available to you, simply 'reverse' the upright or 'normal' meaning for any reversed card you encounter in your reading.

2. PRIOR to shuffling (uh-oh), you split the deck (no, not with an ax) into two equal stacks (NO, they don't have to be PERFECTLY equal), and then you simply turn one of the stacks so that its cards are now facing in the exact opposite direction from the other stack. Now shuffle the cards. Depending on your dexterity with this task, and the number of times you shuffle (is 3 enough, is 6 too many??), you will get a nicely 'inverted' deck, just crammed with all sorts of 'reversed' cards that you will still be utterly hopeless in 'dealing' with unless you have some of the aforementioned reversed meanings.

3. Put your deck on the table (or whatever), and pretend you are three years old again (for some of you no great pretense shall be required). Now, simply 'mess' the deck up---you know, just make all the cards go every which way until they are a big mess on the table in front of you. NOW, put the mess back together into a nice regular-looking deck. And there you have it. Unless you are amazingly unlucky or incompetent, you will now have a deck full of 'reversed' cards.


9. What's the difference between 'reversals' and 'dignities'?

When you 'reverse' a card, you are attempting to supply your deck with some possible 'alternative' meanings, that is, something different from the norm. With reversals, what you are going to get is pretty much of an 'either-or' situation, although there are usually several different meanings for both the upright and reversed position. However, there is another way of generating these alternative meanings that does not use reversals at all, and that is a system called 'elemental dignities', which seeks to analyze a series of cards based on their elemental relationships to each other, and therefore, ALL readings using this method should provide opportunities, without recourse to manual inversions of the cards, to get sometimes very subtle ranges of meaning with all the cards. To find out more about how elemental dignities work, refer to:

10. How do I use a Tarot deck for meditation?

Since I don't meditate much, in the conventional sense (if there is such a thing), I will take the opportunity here to discuss a few ideas about meditation that seem to me reasonable and simple and which, I believe, can be productively applied to one's contemplation of tarot cards.

Osho (the 'artist' formerly known as Baghwan Shree Rajneesh) says---

"Mind moves in a line, a simple straight line. It never moves to the opposite---it denies the opposite. It believes in one, and life believes in two."

Yeah, so?

Well, meditation is often described as a search for some sort of perfect 'silence'.

To which Osho again properly notes---

"A dead man is absolutely silent. Nobody can disturb him, his concentration is perfect. You cannot do anything to distract his mind; his mind is absolutely fixed. Even if the whole world goes mad all around, he will remain in his concentration."

So, if we are not in search of a 'dead' silence, what should we be looking for from meditation?

"Silence must happen while you are absolutely alive, vital, bubbling with life and energy. Then silence is meaningful. But then silence will have an altogether different quality to it. It will not be dull. It will be alive."

So, what 'live silence' is to be gained from looking at tarot cards?

First, we should recognize that merely staring obliviously at the cards, hoping something spills into our brain from the shapes and colors OR, on the contrary, hoping to use the card as a harlequin monad, that will help us shut out the noise of life, is only likely to move us into the 'dead' form of silence, since we are not really trying to come to grips with the meaning of the card in any absolute or even personal way, but are trying to manipulate it for some external and, to my way of thinking, 'dead' application.

We should rather be interested in, as Osho says, making the cards 'bubble' with life and energy. Whose life and energy? Well, you think about it.

So, what I'm getting at here is that meditation first involves a preparation and this is largely a mental exercise with tarot. Fill your mind with as many facts (and thoughts and feelings about the facts as you can)---in other words, learn what the cards mean. In the beginning you will not know much, but that's OK, the more you learn about tarot. the more productive the meditation becomes.

When the preparation is done, then you will be ready to exercise this knowledge in myriad forms of 'meditation', which, as you can see, don't necessarily take any particular form or function---life is a meditation in this view. However, if you wish to formalize your experience, you can find many guides to teaching you proper breathing and postures by looking to books, newsgroups and websites devoted to yoga.

Oh, and what is it you are supposed to be getting from this meditation?

A living experience of the cards.

If that seems vague, ask about it on alt.tarot.

Plenty of people will offer ideas on what that means.

11. How do I use a Tarot deck to play a game?

Many games have been invented to play with tarot or tarocchi. Tarot cards were almost certainly created to play games, not to read fortunes or to represent occult philosophies, so it is with the games of tarot that one is really using the deck in its oldest and (some would say) 'purest' application.

Numerous variations exist, mostly bridge-like games involving trick-taking.

See Michael Dummett's book, "The Game of Tarot", for more explanations of this material than you could probably ever care to hear.

Also, there are some tarot web sites that include different versions of tarocchi rules.

12. What is the history of the Tarot?

The original FAQ answered this question---

"No-one knows the 'true' origin of the Tarot."

And could have added---"so everyone has just made it up as suited their agendas."

And that would have pretty much answered the question.

As with most terse truths of tarot, saying 'No-one knows the 'true' origin of the Tarot' is not entirely accurate. It would be better to say that very few people are acquainted with the history, such as we know it, of tarot. It is true that no one can say with certainty where the motivation came to create the first tarot deck although one can arrive at a partial estimate by examining the best evidence for that origin, the symbols on the cards.

From such an examination, historians of tarot (of which there are only a few) have determined that tarot arose in North Italy some time between 1425-1450. Its symbolism is filled with ideas and persons that reflect that North Italian birthplace. There is NO evidence that tarot originated for any other purpose than as a gaming device. On the other hand, it is fair to say that no one can reasonably speculate about what the people who used tarot in the beginning (or prior to 1781) either thought about it, nor how they may have used it, in addition to gaming. As some people have pointed out, gaming is itself an 'imperfect' form of divination, and it is not difficult to imagine fortune-telling growing as a practice with the cards fairly easily and early. However, there is no written record to support that belief.

The original FAQ continues---

"The most common myth is that it was brought to Europe by the Gypsies---but this myth comes from the fact that very early occultists who used the Tarot fancied that it came from Egypt. They were as wrong about that as they were about the homeland of the Gypsies."

And, all kinds of legends, like the Gypsy myth, have developed to explain all kinds of things about tarot that have no easy or obvious explanation---like the fact that it has 22 trumps. Why 22? Is the number arbitrary? Or does it mean that there is some mystical connection between tarot and other systems containing 22 elements, like kabbala?

If you refer to the timeline (see answer to question 3) you will see that MANY of the tarot legends or traditions developed only recently, and in response to the growth of a general popular interest in tarot as an oracular, instead of a gaming, device. One of the first questions a novice will ask is 'where did tarot come from' and most writers don't feel comfortable addressing a first question in a book with 'beats me'. So, many mythologies, appropriate to certain schools of occultism or politics, have been created to deal with the annoying lack of knowledge possessed by most tarot-book writers.

In short, in the absence of any real answers about tarot, they tend to make them up. This has been a time-honored tradition in tarot since 1781, when Court de Gebelin first looked down at tarot cards and, in a revelation similar (in arrogance and audacity) to that of Joseph Campbell almost 200 years later, immediately intuited (manufactured?) that the cards were the lost leaves of the Egyptian 'Book of Thoth', containing the secret and 'universal' wisdom of the ages and weren't we ever lucky HE saw it.

Almost everyone since 1781 has based at least some part of their tarot shtik on de Gebelin's 'work'. And, in all fairness to him, one needs to explore his ideas in context to the time and place in which they developed. Revolutionary France was a tolerant place for kooks of all sorts (political and occult---one might almost call the attitude at that time, 'postmodern').

13. What are the symbolic 'roots' of tarot?

In the original FAQ this question asked---

'Is the Tarot related to Kabbala?'

To which we answer---

Yes. But a better question is to ask 'was it always so?'

And, again, no one knows the answer to that with certainty.

However, the question about the proper place of kabbala in tarot drops us nicely into the middle of the larger question about what the symbolic roots of tarot REALLY are. It may be instructive, before looking at possible answers to the larger question to answer the smaller one---

Is the Tarot related to Kabbala?

The first thing we notice, as have so many before us, including, obviously, the people who first publicly claimed a tarot-kabbala link, is the 'happy accident' of the deck having 22 trumps, which people have tried bravely over the years to hammer and squeeze into some 'true' relationship to the 22 Hebrew letters (which are the basis of kabbalistic doctrine).

However, what is important to us is that the occult tarot, of which the Waite deck is the most influential, DOES relate kabbala in a critically important correspondence to tarot symbolism.

While early occult commentators hinted at the link between tarot and kabbala, Eliphas Levi (French 19th-century occultist) is the person principally responsible for making this link stick as the primary symbolic model by which modern tarot would be interpreted and developed. His ideas, whether historically justified or not (he assumed the kabbalistic link was there from the 'beginning'), have formed the basis of some of the most complex, and, in many places, most interesting, speculations about the meaning of tarot symbolism. Levi believed, as have most of the occultists, before and after him, that tarot could not have been designed merely as a game, but that its true purpose must have been wisely hidden in that form by those who wished to do a sort of millennial knowledge transfer through, in essence, sewing the pearls of wisdom they possessed into the seams of a vulgar jacket called 'tarot'.

That such a marvelous ruse, if found to be true, would represent one of the colossal historical discoveries ever, goes without saying. That there is NO (documentary) evidence whatsoever to support the assertion that any such ruse occurred, may require saying, but say it we must. Levi, while creating a wonderful and interesting system by which to interpret tarot, did almost certainly CREATE it, and not DISCOVER it.

So, in tarot, a symbolic 'root' is not always what it appears. It may have gone through many graftings before ending up in the form we may see in any particular deck, and yet, typically, the promoter of this or that 'root' ideology will declare to us that the root is SO ancient it might be dangerous to behold (mental crypt bacteria?) if it were not for their 'expert' guidance in revealing the thing to readers 'just so'.

In the midst of all the dissembling about roots one also will encounter a sentiment endorsed by certain tarot political parties that we MUST NOT, CAN NOT, AND WILL NOT accept any theory, no matter how well documented, that seeks to fix the origin of tarot symbolism into any particular interpretation. Many people have built careers by maximizing the 'mystery' of tarot and they will not, by the gods, have anyone demystifying a vein that has not run out.

All this is to say that when you start messing with the politics of tarot, you can rapidly be declared a heretic by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. At least they can't burn you at the stake (so far).

If you really want a good start on learning about the symbolic roots of tarot, get 'The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo', by Gertrude Moakley. I'm not claiming Moakley's theory is entirely correct, but she has shown the 'way' to those who wonder if tarot symbolism can be deciphered without recourse to newage nonsense.

Answer, yes it can.

14. How is the Tarot related to other forms of divination?

If one buys into the theory that tarot is supposed to be some sort of magical/mystical encyclopedia, then it would certainly have the potential of being related to just about any other form of divination one could think of.

There is an interesting theory, one discussed by Gertrude Moakley,that tarot may have been originally derived as a gaming replacement for dice. If that's true, then it is reasonable that, as in dice, tarot may have been used as a means of divination quite early, but again, there is no written documentation to support that theory.

There are some specific similarities between tarot and astrology, particularly in the way some systems of tarot divination are performed. Also, given a certain creativity in the formulation of layouts, tarot can be made to simulate the superficial structures of all kinds of other systems. For example, one of the most popular reading layouts is the Astrological or Zodiac spread, where each position represents either a sign of the zodiac or a house of a horoscope.

15. Is there a Tarot reading program for IBM/Mac/Unix/Whatever?


As pointed out in the last revision of the original FAQ, this subject is so large that a separate FAQ could and should be written about it.

One question that frequently comes up concerning computer tarot is---does it 'really' work?

The answer is no more approachable than is the similar question for tarot in general. People who tend to distrust computers and technology in general seem to think that only a human-spirit link can power the tarot (reading) mechanism. On the other hand, some computer programmers, especially ones who pain themselves about the creation of some 'perfect' randomizing agent (algorithm), also refuse to believe that a computer generated reading could be as 'natural' as that conducted by a human. This latter concern raises an interesting philosophical point---one that has been discussed occasionally on alt.tarot---is the randomization of the cards what we are actually trying to achieve by shuffling?

16. What is alt.tarot?

It's a USENet newsgroup devoted to the discussion (or fight) of tarot.

More sites carry this group all the time. If you don't get alt.tarot, then ask your news administrator to carry it for you.

17. What are the 'rules' of alt.tarot?

There are no rules.

There are some obvious concerns and considerations that will keep you'out of trouble' (if that's a concern to you).

Feel free to post whatever relevant thing you have to say about the tarot.

However, not all posts about all topics will be received warmly by any or most other posters.

If you are looking for a place to 'share' newage ideas and experiences, there are many 'nicer' places to go to do this than alt.tarot, where the nonsense tolerance can be VERY low. On the other hand, if you want to learn about tarot, there is no better place to go than alt.tarot. But remember, no one owes you the education. Some of the most knowledgeable tarot people in the world write on alt.tarot. Most of them are more than happy to field your questions. Some of them are, however, a little bit 'difficult' to deal with, and some of them are self-admitted curmudgeons.

In the same way, however, no matter how silly other people may think your ideas or questions are, you are almost certain to find other people on alt.tarot who will think that they are interesting andwill want to talk to you about them.

So, as with most things in life, you get nowhere on alt.tarot if you don't take a chance.

18. What books might I read if I wanted to learn more about Tarot?

Someone once asked me what they should read to learn tarot.

I said---'everything'.

In a way that includes the many things that are not right too. To learn by negative example is still to learn.

However, since I like Thoth, and think it is still the most interesting tarot deck there is, I have to recommend first and foremost---

1. The Book of Thoth, by Aleister Crowley

Contrary to what some people have suggested you do not need any background in AC's writings to take on this book. In many ways his personal views on the cards are not even the point here (the book is a very good general introduction to occult tarot) and he supplies you with all the additional references re: his writings and 'Thelemic' interpretations to go do further study---this is not however true of much of the mythological material he cites and that's part of the reason many people are intimidated by what they read in Thoth. If you arm yourself with a good mythological encyclopedia or guidebook you can make out just fine. If you have the Thoth deck there is no substitute for this book.

2. The Encyclopedia of Tarot, in 3 volumes, by Stuart Kaplan

Stuart is an OK historian and not in any obvious way an occultist (read Dummett and Moakley for historical insights---Crowley, Waite and Case for the occult stuff), but he is a great collector and presenter and provides more decks per volume to look at and compare than anyone. If you are taking this subject seriously at all you MUST have these books.

3. The Game of Tarot, by Michael Dummett

This book is like the anti-Kaplan encyclopedia and though I understand Dummett has now changed his tune a bit about his hostility to 'occult' tarot (he is one of those guys who thought tarot died in 1781), he presents a very hard-factual case for tarot having been nothing more than a game in the beginning and for some time after its creation. His only real shortcoming is his rather rigid take on the value of occult contributions to tarot symbolism ad interpretation. However, it's always useful to evaluate the arguments of the 'other side'.

4. The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo, by Gertrude Moakley

This is like the Bible for the historical perspective on tarot. It promotes a broad-based, though not always clean theory, about the true origins of tarot imagery that simply erases any possibility tarot came from anywhere other than the complex culture of Renaissance North Italy. The book, unlike so many tarot books, is full of references and notes and tons of things to get you thinking (not just feeling) about what is going on in tarot symbology. Gertrude is not as antagonistic toward occult tarot as is her 'student', Dummett, and she even wrote a forward for one edition of Waite's 'Pictorial Key'.

5. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, by A E Waite

For a long time I truly hated this book, even though it was the first tarot book I ever read. It is so heavily veiled that it is nearly useless to a novice---in fact, it is a far more useless book to a novice than is Book of Thoth. Nevertheless, a novice SHOULD read the book to get a taste of the historical flavor of occult tarot, and also of the general nastiness that has always surrounded the debate over what is 'true' about tarot. And, for a student that has learned something about Christian and Masonic and Golden Dawn symbolism through friendlier sources, suddenly the Waite deck and the book will start to unveil itself in many interesting and surprising ways. Waite also includes a good bibliography describing HIS sources, most of which will be unavailable to most of you, but some (particularly the works of Eliphas Levi), you should eventually find and read.

6. The Qabbalistic Tarot, by Robert Wang

I include this mainly because it is a good introduction to the many original sources one should pursue when studying the Hermetic and Kabbalistic influences on tarot. However, the little card descriptions and analyses are not really useful at all unless you are completely ignorant of the subject (which some of you are). The general warning provided at the end of this list is particularly applicable to this book.

7. The Tarot:History, Mystery and Lore, by Cynthia Giles

I have many reservations about this book, but it does provide a concise introduction to the subject, although the back part of the book where she sinks into Jungian and pseudo-scientific justifications and explanations for tarot is entirely silly and can be beneficially avoided (although, if you want a good concise introduction to the kind of inane mumbo-jumbo that occurs in most modern tarot books you could read this stuff and avoid everything else). She also has a detailed review of many other tarot books.

8. The Tarot, A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, by Paul Foster Case

This book should probably be read along with Waite's 'Pictorial Key', for comparison and contrast. Case based his own deck, and many of his tarot ideas, on those of Waite, but he often criticizes 'Ed' for being too quick on the 'blind' (that is, too ready to conceal the 'pearls' from the 'swine'), and then, presumably, P.F. will kindly turn about and reveal that pearl to us hungry pigs---except, it does not always quite work out like that. Case will tell you much more than Waite, he will do it more clearly (like who wouldn't) than Waite, but you should recall that Case IS AN OCCULTIST, and he does suffer from the occultist disease
---meaning he loves to occult things. However, I often find myself agreeing with the tarot insights of Paul Foster Case, even though he is a bit too 'newagey' for my blood. He wrote another book, 'Book of Tokens' , which is a series of kabbalistic tarot 'revelations', offered in verse form, complete with commentaries. From a mnemonic standpoint, I suppose these poetic devices are a good way to learn some of the kabbalistic correspondences, and the commentary sometimes offers some good ideas.

9. The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Papus

You want to read a book that makes A.E. Waite look clear and concise, read this.

Actually, this book is required reading from an historical perspective---Papus was the last great link in the chain of French occult tarot evolution that had begun with Court de Gebelin. Papus was a student of Levi, a great influence on Waite, and this book includes a lot of bits and pieces of tarot lore and ideas you will probably be unable to find anywhere else. It also has a lot of tedious drivel. However, his justification for including a fortune-telling section is alone worth the price of the book.

Here's a sample of his 'progressive' reasoning---

"Still, since it is customary for the Tarot to be used for 'fortune-telling', we have touched upon this subject, and rendered it as attractive as possible. We have tried to simplify the systems used, so that a woman of even little intelligence can easily and with little exercise of memory amuse herself with this art."


A final note on all this bookreading stuff---


There, you've been warned.

End of FAQ

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Last Updated: May 22, 1998 ©copyright Sarena's Tarot 1997