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Modern Tarot: What It Is, How It Works and How to Use It

There’s more to tarot than meets the eye. The idea of tarot readings may evoke images of eccentric self-proclaimed fortune telling psychics or taboo witchcraft and occult dealings, but in reality it’s a fascinating, fun and often insightful experience that can offer surprising value in unexpected ways. While there’s an undeniable mystical quality to tarot readings, there’s also a practical and therapeutic nature to them. If you’re interested in learning to work with tarot cards, if you want to do readings for others, use them in your own personal practice, as a hobby, or if you’re curious about how it all works, this is a good place to start. This brief overview will give you a quick introduction into tarot. We’ll look at how it has evolved over time, how the cards provide insights, and we’ll explore various contexts and methods for working with tarot.

    What is tarot?

    Essentially, tarot cards are a 78 card deck with illustrations on each card, and these illustrations make use of symbolism and motifs with various associated meanings about life. When a seeker (also known as a ‘querent’) has a question and gets a tarot reading, it is a tarot practitioner’s job to draw cards from the deck, interpret the artworks and convey the relevant insights to the seeker as an answer.

    The briefest history.

    No one knows exactly where or how tarot cards first originated, but it’s widely thought that they evolved from playing cards sometime in the early to mid 1400s when European (likely Italian) artists created trump cards featuring allegorical and personified imagery, to add to the standard four suit card deck. From what we know, the practice of reading tarot cards to “tell fortunes” and other more occult uses dates back as far as the 1700s, when a 62 card deck called the Tarocco Bolognese was recorded as being used for divination in an unknown-source manuscript. Soon after, the French began assigning spiritual significance to the cards of one of the most popular decks at the time, the Tarot of Marseilles. This is when tarot card reading began its change from an entertaining pass-time game to a divine practice.

    In 1780, the French occultist pioneering this shift, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, produced a deck of cards intended exclusively for spiritual and occult use, and this is the 78-card deck, divided into Major and Minor Arcana, that contemporary tarot enthusiasts make use of today.

    So far, this is all fairly straightforward. However, over the years, and especially in the last few decades, tarot card imagery, meanings and usage has evolved. Many of the more general meanings were developed and collated for societies and ideals that no longer fit in our current world. Over time, the use and understanding of tarot cards has been shaped heavily by ideas in philosophy, spirituality and psychology (Dr. Carl Jung’s name often pops up when researching tarot history). Modern decks also show off artworks that are far more creatively diverse than their traditional predecessors, often featuring motifs that are non-traditional, inclusive, abstract, playful and relevant. They draw influence from anywhere and everywhere; from different cultures and belief systems, to popular trends in food, lifestyle, movies, books and more. All this new variety brings new meaning with it in the way tarot readers use and understand the cards. And, as understanding grows and evolves, so do the insights that the cards provide, as well as the ways that cards are worked with.

    How Tarot Works.

    Methods of interpretation.

    There’s more than one way to read tarot cards, and figuring out the way that works best for you will help you get the most out of your practice. I use different methods in my readings, depending on what my goal is.

    Regardless of whether a traditional or eclectic modern deck is used, whether you’re a professional or just read for yourself, tarot cards each hold multiple meanings, and a good practitioner will be able to discern the relevant and appropriate meanings in the readings they conduct.

    Most tarot readers begin with studying the traditional artworks of tarot cards and their historically assigned symbolisms. This forms a basis of understanding, but there are also readers who skip the study and rely purely on intuitive analysis to derive meanings from the visual references. Some practitioners, like myself, opt for completing a tarot course and receive a certification, though this is not wholly necessary. Like most things, tarot is best learned with time, practice and motivation.

    During a reading, once the cards are dealt, relevant interpretation is the bulk of a practitioner’s work. There are multiple ways to do this; one is to make use of context clues, and another relies on intuition and psychic senses, but all methods require practise. Most times I find that the most helpful and accurate readings are those in which the practitioner is fluid in their approach and makes use of as many skills as they have in their arsenal. I think for practitioners like myself, this process that blends intuition, sensory information and deductive reasoning becomes second nature, but each reader has their own preferred way. With time, practice and experience a reader will likely formulate their own unique understanding of the cards, forming a personal database of interpretations and messages shaped by the readers practice, and how they influence meaning in a reading.

    Getting the right cards.

    If you have experience with tarot it’s no secret that tarot readings are often far more accurate than expected, and you might be curious about how this can be. If you’re not very familiar with tarot, or you’ve had some questionable readings, you’ve likely wondered how a deck of cards can possibly know anything about your life, let alone help you with it or predict your future. While I do attribute a lot of credit to the skills of the seeker, I’ve also had too many readings with repeated uncannily accurate results to deny that there may be more going on. Interpretation aside, when you take a step back to consider the process you might realise that actually drawing the right cards is the first step, and a major variable, in getting the relevant answers to a seeker’s question. With so many cards in the deck, and so many possible meanings, the probability of a reading that is completely off the mark definitely exists, but this seems to happen more rarely than is logically expected.

    So, the blaring question is: how do tarot readers end up drawing the cards that are right for a reading? There are a wide variety of beliefs regarding how these little rectangles of cardboard work, so let’s take a glance at a few of them.

    Supernatural Intervention

    One school of thought follows the notion that the cards are directed by God or Spirit, Angels, Spirit Guides and Ancestors. This requires a faith based belief in paranormal beings, but it’s one that I think should be counted as a serious contender. All things considered, none of us can truly prove the existence of God and spiritual beings, and we simultaneously cannot truly disprove them either. This also applies to those who believe they have experienced God or Angels or Spirits first hand. So, who’s to say, really? I’m open-minded about this because of my personal experiences, and I’ve come to trust in them over the decades.

    There is also a belief, though not widely held as far as I know, that the cards themselves have some kind of sentient wisdom and somehow respond to probing or the vibrational energy of those handling the cards. This is considered the most “woo-woo” of all paradigms.

    Chance and Psychological Projection

    Another belief is that dealing tarot cards is random, relevance is a matter of chance, and that any perceived connection or meaning that may occur is the result of projecting our personal stories onto the cards. In this way tarot is understood as subjective rather than objective, and in many instances this is true. Within this paradigm, tarot cards turn into a fascinating proponent of psychological self-analysis. Some might see this as a reason to dismiss tarot readings, but it actually creates an opportunity to use tarot as an analytical tool to deeper understand our subconscious and unconscious selves.

    Energy Fields

    Many believe that the deck is influenced by the energies of the seeker and the reader, and the cards that are dealt are therefore a channel for these energies. For this reason, some practitioners who operate within this paradigm might go to great lengths to cleanse their energy field so that it does not affect the cards in any way, and ask the seeker to shuffle the deck or pick the cards for the reading so that the seeker is the only thing influencing them. This belief suggests a requirement for a physical influence, a need for there to be physical connection between the cards and the seeker, and therein lies a grey area. While an unconscious energetic influence may exist, many tarot readers don’t exclusively perform in-person readings and there are numerous instances of tarot readings done over the phone or via email that prove to be accurate. This fact pulls into question the idea that some kind of connection must exist between a reader, seeker and the cards, though not entirely because it’s also true that many readers have the experience of their own mental and emotional states affecting the relevance and accuracy of a reading.

    Collective Unconscious

    The collective unconscious is a term coined by Carl Jung to describe a universal repository of unconscious wisdom beyond that of, but still connected to, an individual’s personal unconscious, that is accessible to all of humanity. This wisdom is based on ancestral inherited memories that manifest shared ideas, beliefs and behaviours involving themes of birth, death, evil, love and so on, that frequently and repeatedly occur in stories, myths, religions, dreams and other aspects of humanity throughout history and all over the world. The idea is that tarot is a tool that taps into this universal knowledge to gain the answers that a seeker requires.

    Synchronicity and Quantum Entanglement

    Synchronicity, another term popularised by Carl Jung, refers to the correlation between two events that are otherwise unrelated and fall outside the category of what’s accepted as cause and effect. An example is a person who dreams of a particular species of butterfly that they have no prior knowledge of, predisposition towards or proximity to, then encountering that exact species of butterfly the very next day. The dream and the encounter are not related through any accepted physical laws and yet there still seems to be a connection between them. The unknown force linking the two events is thought to be a potential driver in tarot readings; that there is some immeasurable synchronicity between the seeker and the relevant cards during a reading.

    Quantum physics is a field that deals with the behaviour of particles that don’t obey Newtonian laws of physics. Quantum entanglement, simply put, is a unique connection that exists between two particles regardless of the distance between them. What’s strange and unique is that when one particle in an entangled pair is measured in some aspect, you instantly know something about the other particle. To truly comprehend why this is strange and unique requires an understanding of quantum superposition and how these phenomena break fundamental universal law. That’s possibly a topic for another time. For now, some people take these quantum phenomena into consideration to build upon the idea of synchronicity and thus the mechanics of tarot.

    You might be wondering which one of them I hold as a professional practitioner, and I wonder the same thing. I’m going to be completely honest with you: I can’t tell you exactly how tarot cards are ‘supposed’ to work, because I don’t know, but I can tell you what I’ve observed and hope you gain from it. Although I’ve touched on some of the paradigms of belief separately, in reality it can feel like there’s a blend of all the above going on.

    In my personal experience of working with tarot, almost all of the above have made sense at some point or other. After 7 years, it’s rare, but I still have readings in which chance is clearly the culprit, and in those cases I use it to my advantage. Most often, though, my readings are directed by something else. Sometimes it feels like the seeker, sometimes it feels like Spirit guides or God or my late grandfather, or their late grandfather, or someone else. Sometimes it feels like I’m following some kind of universal thread of truth. Sometimes it’s logical, and sometimes it’s psychological. I think the reason for this has to do with how my intuition and senses and discernment have developed over the years. The only one thing I find to be consistently true is how my own state of being influences the accuracy of my readings. The healthier I am in mind, body, spirit and confidence, the more accurate, insightful and helpful my readings turn out to be. It’s the only variable within my control, and so it’s the one I give most of my attention and energy to. I leave the rest to the cards and whatever else may be at play.

    Now that we’ve covered the origins and possible mechanisms of tarot, it’s time to explore the different ways tarot cards can be used, some of the ways I personally use them, and why it can be beneficial to reach out to a practitioner like me for a reading.

    Ways to work with Tarot.

    There are numerous ways to incorporate a tarot practice into your life, and the examples below cover the ones I think are most prevalent.

    Tarot for Divination

    There’s a prevailing tendency of many people to associate tarot with fortune-telling, and it’s true that there are also many tarot readers and mediums and psychics out there who claim to tell fortunes in a multitude of ways. They may advertise that the cards tell the future, that they’re never wrong, that your path is set in stone. They may promise you specific outcomes and tell you that there’s no getting around it. They may have an answer for everything and always tell you exactly what you want to hear. I know you haven’t asked for my advice, but I’m going to say this anyway: be discerning. Be sceptical. If you want to gain the best you can from this side of life, know what you’re getting into and learn how to spot the potential scams.

    Whether or not predictions can actually be made with tarot cards is a grey area that can be difficult to navigate. On one hand there are countless instances of readings that have made accurate predictions and this brings to attention the idea of fate or destiny being involved. On the other hand, there are also readings that predict things that don’t end up coming into fruition, and, if you keep an open mind and not allow this to sway you to disregard divination altogether, it can speak to the importance of considering free will. The topic of fate versus free will is yet another that deserves its own deep dive.

    When confronting divination in tarot readings, and also in general, I like to apply the mindset that, much like in quantum superposition, divination in tarot deals with potential, probabilities and unpredictability rather than fixed outcomes. Tarot can present you with the most likely outcome in the moment, but as time passes there is still a possibility that unforeseen variables can come into play to subtly or drastically alter them.

    There may be paths and events that you are predestined to experience, and some may even be inevitable, but there will also always be a certain degree to which you can change or influence these path and outcomes. Sometimes a tarot practitioner will be able to discern how likely or unlikely an outcome is.

    Overall, using tarot for divination can be a very valuable practice if it’s approached with a healthy and practical mindset.

    Tarot for personal growth.

    When I first began reading tarot cards, personal growth was the most significant outcome of working with them. This is still true today, and it’s also a vital aspect of developing into a good practitioner.

    This approach is the most accessible, practical, and one of the most universally beneficial ways to work with tarot cards. It does not require prior acceptance of esoteric, occult or spiritual paradigms, or belief in any aspects of them. Instead it treats the deck as a therapeutic tool, using it in ways that reflect our psyches back to us for deeper analysis, suggesting alternative perspectives on our experiences, and encouraging self-development by supplying prompts and creating opportunities for self-reflection and introspection. In some senses it’s similar to attending a psychotherapy session.

    Tarot for personal growth builds on the mechanism of psychological projection and the personal and collective unconscious. The idea is that the cards cannot tell you what you don’t already know, but they can reflect truths from your unconscious to your conscious self. These truths can reflect aspects of yourself that you may fear, avoid or be unaware of, but need acknowledgement and integration into your waking consciousness.

    What I love about using tarot for personal growth is how easy it is to implement. Something as simple as drawing a single card and using it as a journal prompt can take up no more than 15 minutes yet be significantly valuable for developing self-awareness and improving mental and emotional well-being.

    Tarot as a means for guidance.

    This is how I primarily use tarot in my client readings and it makes use of various mechanisms to help navigate any aspects of both micro and macro life. This can range from daily living and decision making to dealing with major life lessons and experiences, from relationships to careers, spiritual development, emotional regulation and so much more.

    Using tarot to help guide decision making is a common, and it can also be viewed as an extension of divination. This is a useful practice because it often provokes a seeker to consider factors in their decision making processes that they may otherwise not have thought about, thus leading to more informed and confident decision making. It’s important, however, to note that while a tarot reading can give you many insights about the choices you have, it cannot make decisions for you.

    Tarot as a means for guidance is a great way to address the things in life that we’re not sure how to approach, or struggle to make sense of and don’t know where to turn. A tarot reading with a competent practitioner can be a safe space to find clarity and realign our inner compass when feeling lost or confused.

    To learn more about tarot as a means for guidance, check out my post: What to Expect when Getting a Tarot Reading

    Connecting with Spirit Guides

    I’ve included this section because I work with Spirit Guides in my tarot practice, but this is not going to be the case with all tarot readers. The topic of Spirit Guides, once again, is fascinating in it’s own right and deserves a dedicated post, so I will only touch on it briefly, for now.

    There are a few different ways to perceive, understand and define Spirit Guides. The most obvious is Spirit Guides as Angels, ancestors or other benevolent supernatural beings that exist to provide a helping hand to use when we are feeling uncertain in our lives.

    Spirit Guides can also be thought of as an abstract concept; a set of characteristics or an archetype personified as a reference to model ourselves and our characters after. As an example, when I first encountered two of my own guides they presented to me as a monk and a professor. I understood them to represent two separate aspects of myself that needed embodying and development, so the image of the monk and professor became a kind of ideal for me to strive for; to pursue the inner peace I desired, as well as my love for learning and discovery. Over time the message of these guides became clear: that these are two aspects of myself that I value highly and that I needed to find balance between.

    Both my personal and client tarot readings focus significantly on working with Spirit Guides as benevolent supernatural beings. During readings I keep my mind open and invite any form of Spirit Guides connected to the seeker to help direct the reading.

    Open-ended and question-led tarot reading.

    Generally speaking, when a seeker approaches a practitioner for a tarot reading, the seeker already has a specific question or issue in mind that they want to address. In these question-led sessions the entire reading concentrates on the topic at hand and all the insights gained are intended to answer the seeker’s particular question.

    In open-ended tarot readings the parameters created by predetermined questions don’t exist, so a broader range of insights become available for the seeker. This is particularly useful for introspection in self-development readings because it pushes the seeker to explore all the ways the themes of the cards are reflected in their life. It’s also a fascinating method of conducting readings that are directed by Spirit Guides, allowing for situation in which the Universe can provide you with what it wants you to know rather than it responding to what you think you need to know.

    Open-ended readings may sometimes require more developed interpretation skills from the practitioner, depending on the context of the reading, but they’re one of my favourite ways to work with tarot, especially for self-development and improving interpretation skills.

    More on Client Readings.

    It should be clear at this stage that the information I relay in my readings is primarily based on the cards that show up in a reading, but there are times when I pick up a little extra information outside of the cards themselves that may be relevant to what the seeker and I discuss. These can vary from an image of something, a sound, an energy, a personality trait or character, an object, or some other small detail. I don’t have control over what I receive, or if I receive anything at all, but if I do I usually find that mentioning it adds interesting nuance, and sometimes confirmation, to a reading.

    I don’t typically do readings in which a seeker desires to connect with a specific deceased loved one, unless there are special circumstances. The main reason for this, similarly to what I mentioned above, is that there’s no guarantee that particular person will show up to connect, and they may not give me enough information to specifically identify or confirm who they are. These are things I have no control over, and this is related to the way that intuitive and psychic abilities work. It’s also due to the fact that, just as we cannot control other people in our physical world, so too we cannot control them in the spiritual world. If they don’t want or feel like talking then they don’t. I find it’s kinder and wiser to understand and accept it than to force it.

    There’s more to Tarot than Meets the Eye.

    Hopefully you come away from this article understanding that working with tarot or getting a tarot reading is far more than how it’s often represented in pop-culture. You don’t need to believe in magic or destiny, and there’s more to it than just playing with beautiful cards. Whether you get a reading for fun, or you genuinely want to address a particular issue, tarot can provide you with more than you bargained for.

    If you interested in getting a tarot reading from me you can visit my Shop want to know more about the different readings I offer and what they entail you can check out this article where I go into a more detail: What to Expect when Getting a Tarot Reading

    Expanding Sapience

    Yonita is an illustrator and tarot and astrology practitioner with a penchant for science, spiritual experiences, fiction, food and obsessive studying.

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