Like any good goth teen raised on a steady diet of Dead Can Dance, The Craft, and heavy-duty black eyeliner, I spent most of my adolescence identifying as a Wiccan. I grew up Catholic, a religion that already owes much of its tradition and iconography to the pagan, and while the church wasn’t for me, I have no doubt it contributed heavily to my passion for the ritual and magic of the occult — and, of course, the Tarot.
Using cards for divination is a centuries-old practice in the Western world, though the origin of is more prosaic than mystical. Cartomancy most likely began with actual playing cards imported from Turkey and was a playful diversion for 16th-century Italian aristocrats in-between more ordinary card games. Though its history is complicated — and not without controversy — Tarot didn’t become associated, almost exclusively, with divination until the 20th century. Most people are familiar with the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which has been continuously in print since 1909, but since divination gained rapidly in popularity in the 1970s, countless new decks have been created, all of them gathered together under the loose umbrella of Tarot. Today, there are hundreds of decks, from classics like the 1789 Etteilla Tarot and 1760 Marseille Tarot to more newfangled versions, such as Quirk Books’ Zombie Tarot and my personal favorite, Amanda Lee’s New Wave Tarot.
So, how does the Tarot work, exactly? Most decks are divided into major and minor arcana; the major arcana (for example, “The Lovers,” “The Empress,” “The Star”) symbolize powerful energies or life events influencing the seeker. The minor arcana are typically split into suits (pentacles, cups, wands, and staves, in the Rider-Waite deck) that represent lesser but still present forces. Depending on the relationship of the cards to one another in a spread, a seeker can gain insight about a question or decision she is facing. Some people read and study Tarot alone, while others find professional readers, and many people use some combination of community and solitary practice.
If you’re interested in expanding Tarot for yourself but don’t know where to start, fear not: A wealth of resources is available to you. Stacy Rapp, of New York’s Enchantments, suggests beefing up your reading list before beginning a new spiritual practice. Her favorite beginning Tarot book is Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom. (All titles are available online at Enchantments.) “Books, however, are just a jumping-off point or roadmap,” Rapp says. “They provide you with a technique for you to have an experience. At some point, you need to take it beyond the intellectual.” If you live in New York City, Enchantments offers a regular Tarot class (as well as classes in candle magic and meditation).
Suzy X., who’s read Tarot for eight years, first became serious about the occult and divination in her teens. She uses Tarot as a way to practice her intuition and stay in touch with her instincts. With Tarot, she says, “Practice makes perfect. But, so does a community of readers! Find your community, seek out support, and trade insights.” If you can’t find community where you live, look online: “There are so many forums and blogs that provide great resources, especially for beginners.”
Tarot reader Bakara Wintner agrees that both community and reading for others are key ingredients for building your divination muscles. She suggests finding a deck that resonates with you — whether that’s a traditional one, like the Rider-Waite, or a newer one (Wintner works almost exclusively with the Wild Unknown deck). For beginners, she recommends The Way of the Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Pollack’s Deeper Meanings as good introductory texts.
“The enemy of intuition is self-doubt,” Wintner says, suggesting that beginners throw out any ideas of right and wrong ways to use the cards. “It matters just as much how a card feels to you as what it means,” she says. Why practice Tarot? “The Tarot offers a breath. A pause. An opportunity to live mindfully and intentionally. At best, it functions as an instrument, facilitating the healing of ourselves and others.”
Wintner says Tarot literally changed her life. Within a year of receiving her deck, she quit her day job as an assistant to a literary agent to embark on a path as a full-time Tarot reader and healer. But, you don’t have to make such a drastic shift in order to incorporate the Tarot into your spiritual practice. Even something as simple as drawing a card and meditating at the beginning of your day is a great starting place. (I do a full spread for myself once a month, and get readings from other people if I’m feeling particularly stuck on a situation or decision.)
Tarot can be as much or as little a part of your life as you want it to be, whether you draw a card every morning for daily inspiration or meditation focus, find a Tarot study group, or, like Wintner, dive head-first into work as a diviner and healer. As Suzy X. says, “Go forth and have fun with it!”