Even if you aren’t familiar with tarot-card reading, you’ve likely seen one of the common decks, like the famous Rider-Waite, which has been continually printed since 1909. Named for publisher William Rider and popular mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate the deck, the Rider-Waite helped bring about the rise of 20th-century occult tarot used by mystical readers.
“The Rider-Waite deck was designed for divination and included a book written by Waite in which he explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the imagery,” says Wolf. “People say its revolutionary point of genius is that the pip cards are ‘illustrated,’ meaning that Colman Smith incorporated the number of suit signs into little scenes, and when taken together, they tell a story in pictures. This strong narrative element gives readers something to latch onto, in that it is relatively intuitive to look at a combination of cards and derive your own story from them.
“The deck really took off in popularity when Stuart Kaplan obtained the publishing rights and developed an audience for it in the early ’70s,” says Wolf. Kaplan helped renew interest in card reading with his 1977 book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and has since written several volumes on tarot
By the mid-18th century, the mystical applications for cards had spread from Italy to other parts of Europe. In France, writer Antoine Court de Gébelin asserted that the tarot was based on a holy book written by Egyptian priests and brought to Europe by Gypsies from Africa. In reality, tarot cards predated the presence of Gypsies in Europe, who actually came from Asia rather than Africa. Regardless of its inaccuracies, Court de Gébelin’s nine-volume history of the world was highly influential.
Teacher and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette wrote his first book on the tarot in 1791, called “Etteilla, ou L’art de lire dans les cartes,” meaning “Etteilla, or the Art of Reading Cards.” (Alliette created this mystical pseudonym “Etteilla” simply by reversing his surname.) According to Etteilla’s writings, he first learned divination with a deck of 32 cards designed for a game called Piquet, along with the addition of his special Etteilla card. This type of card is known as the significator and typically stands in for the individual having their fortune read.
While the tarot is the most widely known, it’s just one type of deck used for divination; others include common playing cards and so-called oracle decks, a term encompassing all the other fortune-telling decks distinct from the traditional tarot. Etteilla eventually switched to using a traditional tarot deck, which he claimed held secret wisdom passed down from ancient Egypt. Etteilla’s premise echoed the writings of Court de Gébelin, who allegedly recognized Egyptian symbols in tarot-card illustrations. Though hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered (the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799), many European intellectuals in the late 18th century believed the religion and writings of ancient Egypt held major insights into human existence. By linking tarot imagery to Egyptian mysticism, they gave the cards greater credibility.
Building on Court de Gébelin’s Egyptian connection, Etteilla claimed that tarot cards originated with the legendary Book of Thoth, which supposedly belonged to the Egyptian god of wisdom. According to Etteilla, the book was engraved by Thoth’s priests into gold plates, providing the imagery for the first tarot deck. Drawing on these theories, Etteilla published his own deck in 1789—one of the first designed explicitly as a divination tool and eventually referred to as the Egyptian tarot.
As has already been stated, Tarot cards are used for divination. The art of reading Tarot is a type of cartomancy or fortune telling using cards. Although this is the basic use of tarot cards, they can be used for so much more. Going to a Tarot card reader isn’t just about having your future read. A Tarot card reader can help you answer any of your burning questions, help you see your past and present more insightfully, help you reflect on your behavior, and really anything that you can think of.
A common misconception about Tarot readings is that they will help you change your life overnight. While the Tarot cards might provide insight or present you with options about your future, a reading is only there to provide guidance. If you want things in your life to change, you have to actually act on the advice that your Tarot reader is giving you.
Another big myth surrounding Tarot is that it is a tool used for evil. While there might be images and cards that some people find scary like Death or The Hanged Man, reading Tarot is not wrong, sinful, or evil. The art of reading Tarot is just that, an art or a skill that uses cards and divination to help people. People may also have a fear of seeing their true nature’s being revealed when certain “ominous” cards show up. However, Tarot is nothing to fear and you should see your Tarot reading as a way to reveal personal truths and insights you might be denying.