I plan to go into detail in future articles and posts about using cards for occult study and practice. So, this piece will touch upon things, but not go into great detail. That will come later. Please follow/subscribe to my blog to be alerted as new posts are published.
First — Let’s review some basic differences.
Divination vs. Fortune Telling
Tarot is a classic tool for divination and/or fortune telling. I differentiate between the two of those because I see them as overlapping in some areas, but distinct in others.
Divination specifically comes from divining, which comes from The Divine — something sacred, on a higher plane of consciousness or a deity. It is a method of interacting with something ‘higher’ than you. Some define this as spirit guides, angels, gods or goddesses, Great Spirit, or even your own Higher Self or Upper Mind. In all these definitions, it’s something higher than the mundane.
Fortune Telling is dealing more with ‘lower’ energies, the mundane, either through the questions being asked or the energies called upon such as earthly energies and desires. I also describe fortune telling as being much more fate- or destiny- oriented. Because of my own personal beliefs and practices, I don’t really practice fortune-telling. It’s not that I don’t value it or recognize its usefulness or validity. But I feel that since I don’t really believe in proscribed fate or destiny on a personal level, I can’t really do something that doesn’t fit into my worldview.
Both of these are ways of seeing into the future. You’re looking ahead through divination or through fortune telling. It’s just that divination has you looking ahead at eye-level and slightly up, while fortune telling has you looking ahead at eye-level, but slightly down —more focused on the steps you are taking on the path as you walk.
Divination is seeking guidance from a higher source of information, one who has the ability to get a broader, big-picture view of things to help predict what might be out of your field of vision at the present time. It’s like driving on a curvy, hilly road. The curves and the hills can block or hide obstacles that are on the road ahead of you. You have to slow down and watch your way to be safe, otherwise you could cause an accident. Divination would be like having a drone above your vehicle, that gives you a video heads-up-display to let you know what’s on the road ahead, behind that curve, or at the bottom of the hill you’re approaching.
Fortune Telling will ask questions like: When will I get married? How many children will I have? Will I get the job I want?
I tend to think of fortune telling as the sort of questions you would think of being answered by one of those fun machines at an amusement park, or by someone dressed in flashy clothing as they gaze into a crystal ball – also a valid tool for scrying, but it’s the stereotypical image of the fortune teller I’m talking about here – as a hired entertainer for a party. The questions asked or the answers given by a fortune teller are based on fate being a decisive thing that just will happen to you. You have a predetermined set of experiences, plotted and mapped out before you even make the choices related to them. They simply will happen and all you can do is prepare for them.
I think that some things in life are like this, but not all. For many people, not even most things in life will be this way. The majority of life is based on choices. This is why I differentiate between divination and fortune telling, and why I practice one and not the other.
If a clue about fate or destiny, something that’s just definitely in your path and the best action you can take is to just prepare for how to handle it or navigate the situation, I’ll definitely tell you if it comes up. But if you ask me for a specifically fatalistic answer, if it doesn’t show up in the cards, I’ll let you know that too. I don’t dig for answers that aren’t there; if the Divine has a message they want you to know, that’s the info I’ll give you, because it might not be the information you want, but it’s the information you need.
A Brief History of Tarot
Divination and Fortune-Telling are ancient practices, dating back thousands of years, found in the images carved onto objects in some way as a tool for doing both, in the ruins of civilizations no longer with us. Tarot is quite old, but it’s only been in existence around 600 years. Tarot started sometime around the late Middle Ages or Renaissance as a deck for a game played in northern Italy called Tarocchi. This is where we see the archetypal images present in the Major Arcana: The Sun, Death, Judgment, The Hierophant, The Fool, and so on. This is the earliest the Tarot is traced to and we know what the deck was because it is referenced in manuscripts and journals from that time and location where nobles spoke about playing this game.
The game spread to southern France about a hundred years later (the early 1500s). Here, in Marseilles and the surrounding region, it started to pick up its occult roots. The images of the Major Arcana changed a bit, and the suits/pips were added to the deck and assigned some meanings because of the interest here in Hermeticism and the philosophy of ancient Egypt. The area became the center for tarot production — thus the name “Tarot” is pronounced as it is in French and not tar-rot, like “carrot”. The decks and their use as a spiritual and psychic tool spread throughout Europe. It became intertwined with fortune telling/divination practices, commonly thought to have been popularized by the wandering Gypsies. Gypsies are definitely linked to using cards for this purpose, but Tarot decks aren’t necessarily the only go-to for this. Many, if not most, Gypsies use a deck of regular playing cards because it’s easier to get ahold of.
A couple of quick side notes here: Gypsy is not the ethnically correct term for the people of this race. They are more correctly identified as Roma, Romani, or The Rom and are linguistically and genetically linked to people who migrated from India and central Asia more than a thousand years ago. They were (and are) treated as social outcasts who don’t fit in with society and keep to their own ways and traditions. As part of this, or maybe even because of this, they embraced and built upon their reputation and skill as magicians and fortune tellers. This was for both financial gain and self-preservation and protection, as much as it could be used for that. It’s uncertain who first started using the name Gypsy for them, but it is derived from “Egyptian”, already a known culture to Europe’s population of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a land of exotic mystery and magic. The Gypsies embraced this, and skillfully used it to their advantage to be identified as such. As time passed and we began to understand more about migration, linguistics, patterns of behavior, and group culture and psychology, we learned that the word isn’t accurate, they aren’t native to Egypt, and isn’t truly reflective of who and what these people are. So now, the more correct name for them is Roma. Some people (mostly non-Roma) will be forthright in condemning the use of the term Gypsy as being derogatory, pejorative, and offensive. I am personally ethnically-connected to this lineage of people through my Slavic ancestry (within 3 generations). I don’t take offense to the word Gypsy. None of the other Roma people I have come to know personally do either. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak from my own views and experiences. I am a passionate student of history and language, and I use the term Gypsy to define and describe what the origin and nature of the Roma were at this point in time, showing how and why this word is valid in this context. I do not mean any offense in my use of it, but at this time, I believe it is still the correct word to use for the purposes of my explanation and writing. If you disagree, and would like to talk about this, leave a note in the comments or email me.
Over the next few centuries (1700-1800s) it continued to become more deeply ingrained with the occult. Still focused in France, Eliphas Levi associated the tarot deck with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Kabbalah, planets, zodiac, the elements of air, fire, water, and earth, etc. and was the first to show/use these connections. This is referenced in his book The Doctrine and Ritual of Transcendental Magic published in 1854. The book’s English translation is Transcendental Magic and is available widely for modern readers. Thus the tarot became firmly meshed with being a major occult tool. He moved to England to further continue his work and practice, and there he had a large impact on the Order of the Golden Dawn, and here we become introduced to A. E. Waite…
The British occultist and magician A.E. Waite rejected the connections Levi drew between the tarot to ancient Egypt, astrology, and Kabbalah, as they were unverified (they came from Levi and the French Renaissance) but he did recognize the mystical allegory and occult images of the cards. He collaborated with Pamela Coleman Smith to create the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. This was the first deck to add artistic impression and interpretation to the pip cards — prior to this, the widely-used Marseilles Tarot had minimal artwork on the suit cards and looked mostly like the standard playing cards we use today.
The newer version of the Marseilles Deck has adapted Smith’s artwork and imagery into their medieval woodcut style, and so now, like the majority of all printed decks, it too is based upon the RWS deck.
Tarot Decks vs. Oracle Decks
The availability of different card decks is greater than it’s ever been. The artistry and artistic styles of decks, their formula and the inspiration of the creators is just mind-boggling. If you’re new to this, the sheer volume of selection is likely overwhelming. So, let’s go over some basic differences.
To start with, Tarot uses a 78-card deck. This deck is always separated into two groups of cards: the Major Arcana (trumps) and the Minor Arcana (pips). The trumps will always go from 0-21 (22 cards in total) and will generally each keep the same figure/concept for each number card the same across the various decks. The pips are always separated into four suits going from 1-10 and with four court cards to each suit (56 cards in total). Some slight variance may be permitted for artistic interpretation, but if it goes too far, it’s no longer Tarot and starts to slide into the Oracle side of things. The most well-known form of the tarot is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (sometimes shortened to just Rider-Waite, more on that later), and this deck is the template that most other tarot decks are based on. If you get a Tarot deck, this is what you can expect.
I currently own three tarot decks and two oracle decks. I’ve owned others over the years, but have donated them or given them away to friends. My tarots are the Robin Wood deck, the Radiant Rider-Waite deck, and the Legend: Arthurian Tarot deck. My oracle decks are the Phoenix cards for past life readings, and Brian Froud’s Faery Oracle.
These aren’t my images, but I’ve included them for a closer look at the cards.
This differs widely from Oracle decks.
There is no formula, rhyme, or reason to Oracle decks. Each deck is individually created by the inspiration of the deck’s designer. You can find Oracle decks with as few as 20 cards and as many as 100 — maybe more or less, I haven’t really looked because if you can imagine it, you can probably find it. They vary in theme, art, design, use, mood, and recommended technique for practicing with them. Often the decks can be created with specific individual purposes intended for their use: meditation, spiritual growth or healing, a particular area of ritual practice or guidance.
The first deck I read with was a classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck I was given in high school by a friend’s mother. I learned on that deck, but I was never particularly good with reading from it. I practiced with that one when I was about 17 years old and gave it away to another friend when I bought my Robin Wood deck two years later. So, I’ve read tarot for more than 25 years, and owned the same deck for that long. I bought the Legend deck a couple of years after, but never used it for reading for other people. Instead, I used (and still use it) as a tool for self-reflection, meditation, and doing readings for myself. I got the Phoenix deck around the same time as the Legend deck, and while I used and use it for its intended purpose, I have also experimented with the imagery for other practices and found it effective. The Faery deck I bought just because I’m a huge fan of Froud’s work and wanted it. I don’t read with it. I just love the art. The most recent deck I purchased was the Radiant RW deck. I bought it when I began teaching tarot students and leading open study groups. I don’t really read with it; it’s a tool for class work.
Just as I’ve worked with different decks, mostly for different purposes, you may find yourself wanting to build upon or branch out once you start reading the cards. I also have many friends who are fond collectors of different decks and I probably would be too if I had enough extra money to indulge in that as a hobby! 😀
Some popular rumors, legends, and misunderstandings
There are multiple rumors and beliefs surrounding Tarot that you may have heard. I’d like to clear some of those up.
“You shouldn’t buy your own deck. It should be given to you.” — This actually has its origin in the early 1900s. The Rider-Waite-Smith (referred to as RWS from this point) was the first deck published to widely popular appeal and the first deck many fans and followers got their hands on. Because of the costs of publishing, the materials used, and interest in the deck, the cards were a bit costly and not something readily available if you didn’t have the luxury of spending extra money to indulge your fancy. For this reason, most decks found their way into people’s hands by being purchased and then given to those who couldn’t afford to buy the deck for themselves. This practice has since persisted as the advice that your deck should be given to you, not bought for yourself. In all practicality though, you really should buy your own deck after looking through the cards (or at least the pictures of them) to get a feel for the artwork and if it speaks to you. You should handle the deck if possible to see how they actually feel. Is the cardstock too thick or too thin? Are the cards too unwieldy for you to shuffle? Do they feel too slippery? After examining the deck, you can decide if it’s the right one for you. At this point, you can add it to a wish list for another to make the purchase, if you would rather keep to this old rumor.
“You should retire your deck after seven years.” — I have no real insight as to where this started. Someone somewhere said it and a bunch of people believed it, and now it’s a thing. If such a notion makes sense to you, by all means, you may follow it. Personally, I’ve read with my Robin Wood deck since I first bought it in the mid-90s, and it’s still going strong for me after nearly 30 years. The cards will literally have to fall apart before I part with this deck! If your deck wears out, or you start to feel like it’s no longer speaking to you, you can go ahead and let it go. You may decide to keep it in a safe place for sentimental value, donate it to another aspiring card slinger, give it to a local New Age store for their use, or offer it up in a fire after bidding “Hail and Farewell” to the cards. Do what feels best to you, but you don’t have to part with your deck if you don’t want to just because this is a common popular opinion.
“You shouldn’t use reverse cards in a reading.” — This advice has some practical use, but unless you have a valid reason for not using the reversed positions of the cards for your own work, I’d put it aside. I consider practical use to be helpful when you’re first learning how to read the cards. It can be intimidating and overwhelming as there are 78 cards in a deck, each with more than one keyword or interpretation, just based on the tiny paper booklet that usually comes with the deck. Flip the cards over, and the meanings can change or expand. So that means there are at least 156 meanings to memorize! All while you’re trying to figure out how to do a spread and remember what each position and placement for the card means in its own spot! Each individual tarot card can be interpreted differently depending on its relationship with other cards in the spread, as well as its specific position within the spread. So, definitely, when you’re learning it might be easier to only work with the upright positions. Then, as you gain practice and experience, expand on that to include some reversals — maybe starting with allowing the trumps to be upside down if that happens. Go at your own pace. Do what feels right.
The origin of not using reversed meanings may come from Aleister Crowley, an important figure in the history of modern occult and magical practice.
He designed the Thoth deck utilizing his system of Thelema. There is no precedent in any of Aleister Crowley’s writing on the tarot to indicate that the cards’ symbolism or meaning is altered by being placed upside down in the spread. Also, the tarot system most closely related to Thoth (the tarot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) has no precedent for reading reversed cards any differently.
So I believe the teaching of not reading the cards in reversed position comes from Crowley and the Golden Dawn’s influence. If you’re reading with the Thoth deck, which has 80 cards — he added two additional trumps to the deck — and follows a complex pattern different from the standard traditional tarot, this may be best. If you believe reading only upright is correct, that’s your opinion and by all means, do as you wish. Think for yourself.
General tips and advice
Take care of your cards. — The cards have the potential to be a powerful tool for communication between yourself and what you perceive to be where the messages and insight come from — your own higher consciousness, your guides, your guardians, or your gods. If you think of them as just a game or a form of fun entertainment, that’s the purpose they will serve and you’re welcome to that belief. But if you want them to do more, to be more, treat them as if they are worth more care and attention. Keep them clean. Put them away between uses in a special box or wrapped in a special cloth. Wash your hands before using them and carry cleansing wipes with you for others to wipe their hands with if you’re going to give readings and don’t know if your querent (the person being read for in a card reading session) washed their hands before the session.
Keep a journal or notebook as you are learning. — The cards are a blend between the original meanings intended by the creator/artist and what speaks to you from your own use/insight as to their meanings. Use a notebook to write down an entry for each card, copy a summary of the creator’s interpretation and then put in your own interpretations as they come to you. What details do you notice and how would you glean a meaning from those? Do you get a certain feeling from the images on a particular card? What do you think are significant about the colors? Does anything in the background seem significant to you? Use this notebook to record readings you give for yourself and others so you can refer back to them in the future and see if anything that was predicted came about. Were the results accurate at all? Somewhat? Totally off base? Write all of it down.
Practice. — When you’re new, read for as many people as you can. Be honest about your experience and get some experience with the cards, with the questions. Try out a few layouts that seem interesting. You will likely feel more comfortable referring to the books during your first readings. Set a goal for yourself though, so that you don’t become reliant on them. Maybe say, “After ten readings, I won’t look at the book but will trust my own insight and intuition.” To remind yourself of this goal and keep on track for it, the next time you read say, “After nine readings, I won’t look at the book…” and so on until it gets to, “after my next reading, I won’t use the book.” Finally, “For this reading, I’m not using the book and will rely entirely on my own intuition.”
Create a pre-reading ritual for yourself. — Whether you prefer readings to be more in line with Divination or feel you’re more of a Fortune Teller at heart, create a series of actions to prepare yourself for reading your cards. This helps you to shift your awareness from the mundane world of daily life to the mystical mindset of engaging with the energies of your reading. It can be as simple or as complex as you want. The point is to have a purpose for each action you take, and for you to use it to make this shift.
My own ritual involves several steps — each aligned with cleansing and consecration of myself, the space, and my tools. This is done before the querent arrives. I use water, incense, ritual oil, a special cloth to lay out over the surface where the cards will be placed, a small bag of stones and crystals I keep with my cards, and a prayer/invocation I use the same way for every reading. I extinguish the incense and carefully pack it away or dispose of it if it’s been entirely used. This is all done before the reading begins. I don’t typically keep it burning when the querent is present out of consideration for their comfort. When the querent sits, I offer them a wet wipe for their hands and ask them to take several deep breaths to help them relax and get mentally prepared by letting go of their stress as they wipe off their hands. I give them the bottle of oil, ask them to dab a bit onto their palms and rub their hands together and inhale the scent to also help them to prepare. I give them the deck and ask them to hold the cards while we chat a bit about what they’d like the cards to reveal, questions they have, and anything else relevant to our session. When we begin, I have them shuffle and cut the deck, and then we go on from there.
Have a type of closing and grounding practice to do when you finish the readings. — Go wash your face and hands to release the energy, eat something to help you ground, announce out loud that the work is done and you’re closing the session. You spent time putting yourself into the mystical mindset, so put a bit of focus into bringing yourself back into the mundane after you’re finished. If you’ve specifically called otherworldly beings to be present for your work, offer your gratitude and bid them farewell in peace.
I will soon post a second article with more advice and information for those who wish to read cards professionally — meaning you plan to be paid for your work as a reader. I’ve done professional readings for tarot, oracle, and runes for many years and am excited to share the highs and lows of my experiences in this.
(More about reading professionally/reading cards for others here)
3 thoughts on “Looking into the future — A basic overview of some history and the practice of reading cards”
I enjoyed this read. Although I notice that those who don’t do fortune telling often think those of us who do, believe in fates that can’t be altered, and that’s not correct.
Hello Aunty K,
Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!
I don’t disagree with you there. 🙂 It’s tricky to describe that middle ground area in between ‘divination’ and ‘fortune telling’ and I think that’s where the point you’re making rests. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
If we think of the two circles in my diagram as being completely separate, then yes — divination and fortune telling operate completely within their own spheres. One believes in predestination/fate and the other does not. But there’s that portion that’s almost half of each that shares a middle-ground. It’s for those who describe themselves as fortune tellers who don’t believe entirely that fate is something that happens and can’t be altered, you just get a glimpse to prepare for it. Those like yourself and the other fortune tellers you speak of, I’m assuming, who accept that not everything is set in stone from birth to death and there’s plenty of room for choice and self-direction.
I’m the same way. I lean more heavily in the divination sphere, but within that, there’s the overlap that let’s me and those I read for know that some things are just going to happen.
When a querent has the cards and tells me what they are hoping for, I know immediately which sort of focus the reading will take. If they ask for straight-forward predictions about mundane situations: “Will I find a lover?” or “Will my partner and I have children?” That’s fortune telling. I throw the cards and read them to offer as much insight as possible, but I also caution them that much of that will have to do with choices they will make and the answer can change according to where they go from here. The reading usually says something like, “With the way things are heading now, it doesn’t look like it. You should examine ___ and see what you can do to change jobs or your schedule for more time to spend with a future partner. Your card here is ___ and says you’ve tried dating in the past, but it fizzles because you don’t have predictable availability…” I also know of readers who don’t read that way, but will make it be much more fortune teller-ish as if the path is locked-in and say, “Yes, in two years you will meet up again with someone from your past…” and “No, you will not be with this partner long enough for children, but I do see them in your future.”
Personally, I’ve only gotten that firmly of a yes/no from my readings maybe 10-15% of the time in all these years. That percentage, coupled with my own beliefs, puts me strongly on the “Divination” side of things, but there’s still the portion that is within Divination AND Fortune Telling.
I still stand on the definitions I provide. There are readers who operate entirely on one area or the other, based on their views and beliefs. Fortune telling still has a predominance of earthly-focused questions and answers. Divination still has a predominance of seeking wisdom from a higher source for more spiritually-focused insight. It’s one of the beautiful complexities of what we as card readers do: learning how to get the information from ‘out there/up there’ and bring it to people ‘right here’.