A variety of expert sources answered these Frequently Asked Questions about the Tarot.
What is the history of Tarot cards?
Dr. Edmund Kern, Associate Professor of History at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, specializing in European religious culture:
Symbolic cards were used in the ancient mystery religions in the Mediterranean. The first examples we have in Europe date back to the 13th or 14th centuries in Italy or Southern France, and early on they were met with hostility by organized religion. Cards were suspect because they were a form of gambling -- but the major arcana of the Tarot deck were especially suspect they were against revealed religion.
They came from Arab sources. The word Tarot first appears in Italian tarocco -- which in the plural form becomes tarocchi, which literally means castings. In fact, the word tare as in tare weight (the container of something) comes from an Arabic word meaning to reject, to throw or to cast. It was outlawed in a number of towns by bishops or city councils-who were suspect of the major arcane or the great secrets. It doesn't have anything to do with Islam. It was a form of occult practice that predated Islam but remained a common practice with some Muslims in the Mediterranean world.
Paul O'Brien, Founder and CEO of Tarot.com:
It was masquerading as a card game for a long time because people could be burned at the stake for using it. And the court cards are modeled after the different royalty of Italian at the time -- there's a pope card, for example. It comes out of medieval Europe and its growth coincides with the printing press and the ability to print cards. It basically coexisted with the Church but was never part of any religion. It was more related to alchemy than religion.
How do Tarot cards work?
Stuart R. Kaplan, chairman and founder of
U.S. Games in Stamford, Connecticut:
Tarot decks comprise 78 cards consisting of 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The 22 Major Arcana depict symbolic and allegorical images of different phases of life. The 56 Major Arcana comprise the standard 52 cards in a regular playing card deck plus an extra card in each suit entitled the Knight, which is placed between the Jack and the Queen. The original four suits in tarot cards are Swords, Wands, Cups and Pentacles which became Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds respectively in a modern playing card deck.
Each card is an archetype that represents a certain aspect of psychology. So all 78 cards represent different facets of the human experience which every one of us has inside. Everybody's got a king, everybody's got a princess, the two of cups (where they've got to make a choice about whether to commit themselves or not) -- everybody's got all 78 cards inside of them.
So when you do a Tarot reading you pick the cards and the cards that turn up for you are the ones that are pointing to different facets of yourself that you might want to look at right now or that might need to be stimulated in order to get past some kind of barrier or challenge. That's the synchronicity principle which can basically be summed up as, "There are no accidents." So the cards you pick are the ones you're supposed to look at right now.
Why do some religions disapprove of Tarot?
Among early denunciations by the Church of the Tarot decks, we find a twofold concern-that the use of the cards would lead away from proper religious practice [and] that readers of Tarot could become obsessed with trying to foretell the future. Foretelling the future was a direct contradiction of Christian doctrine and still is today, since it presumes that one can know the mind of God. There was also a practical concern that people might be wasting their time, falling into a kind of obsessive behavior rather than paying attention to more pragmatic concerns.
Barrett Duke, VP for research at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention:
The pivotal passage is found in Deuteronomy 18:10-14. There, God makes clear that his people are not to consult with those who practice witchcraft, divination, interpret omens, or with sorcerers or even mediums. So certainly use of Tarot cards would be inappropriate to those who follow God as he reveals himself in the Bible and thru Jesus Christ.
Some people look to Tarot as entertainment and don't take it seriously. But there are also a group of people who believe that through Tarot cards they are able to somehow form a connection to a spirit world. By making themselves accessible [to that world] through Tarot cards they are more susceptible to influences from demonic sources.
How do Tarot practitioners respond to those criticisms?
Basically anybody who's a fundamentalist -- whether they're Christian, Islamic, or Jewish fundamentalists -- is by definition not open to new forms of self-discovery, or other forms of self-discovery or other paths to spiritual enlightenment.
It's not fortune-telling. It's been misappropriated by fortune tellers and psychics. But we think of it as a form of meditation that helps people gain insight into dilemmas and situations that logic can't handle. It's a way of stimulating your intuition.
When you look at all the decks we publish, you're looking at fine art. There's really a history behind every deck we publish. Tarot cards have been a representation of the events of the times. There's a deck we have from World War I showing a German U-boat coming up New York harbor with the Statue of Liberty behind it, trying to represent that the Germans in World War I were going to invade America. They tell a story and every time you shuffle a deck you get a different story every time you want to, compared to a book which is bound and it's a fixed story. The Tarot cards are an evolving story.
What is the meaning of the Death card?
The death card does not necessarily mean literal death, but a phase of sudden transition. So it need not be read negatively at all.
Christine Payne-Towler, Tarot Scholar and Reader:
Anytime a person like myself does Tarot cards for a client and the death card comes up there's almost this audible gasp. It usually represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new, like turn a page, cut the cord, move on. It's almost never about anything more drastic than that.
If I saw the death card with a lovers' card next to it, and let's say the world card, I'd say the person is going to have a meaningful change in a relationship. . On the other hand if I saw the death card with the moon card, which is deception, and the hangman, I'd say it's not a good sign. What you're changing you may want to rethink before you do it.
Why do you think the sniper chose this card?
He wants to scare people. Here's an inanimate object that has the word "Death" on it. Instead of writing a letter saying I'm going to kill all these people, he just picks up a card.
I think he's pointing to his own fate, his own death. He's pointing to his own inner deadness -- that's what it's really about. Because when someone picks a Tarot card it's about the person who picked it.
Why are Tarot cards so popular today?
People are looking for answers. People are trying to understand, trying to make sense of what's going on and the traditional structures aren't satisfying. We're under a lot of pressure to make more decisions, to make them more quickly, and the quality of the decisions that we make is the most important factor when it comes to personal success and happiness.
We have this need for better intuition and we have a need for more wisdom and the traditional religions aren't providing it. Because they basically pretend that they have all the answers and all you have to do is believe it and do what you're told.
Tarot cards today are used as a card game, meditation, self-help, and some people use it for fortune telling. It's inspirational. You can use it for your own guidance.