Shadowy Corners

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What are Tarot Cards?

A tarot card is a deck of cards used for fortune telling, a form of divination. Tarot cards originated in ancient Egypt and the images on them were fragments from the book of wisdom from the Egyptian priesthood (1). The images were based on the Egyptian text the Book of Toth (2). When Jewish scholars brought tarot cards to Spain, they were adapted to Medieval society; cups and chalices were used to symbolize clergy, swords represented nobility, pentacles represented merchants and wands represented peasants (3). Modern day tarot card decks consist of two separate sets of cards; seventy-eight cards which includes twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana or Trumps and the fifty-six cards of the Minor acana which has ten suits of ten cards which are wands (corresponding to clubs in a regular deck of playing cards), swords (corresponding to spades), cups (corresponding to hearts) and pentacles (corresponding to diamonds) (4).

How Are Tarot Cards Used for Divination?

Tarot cards are read in rituals during which the cards are shuffled, then spread out and the position of each card (upright or reversed) in a spread is significant for divining information about the future: swords indicate bad luck/strife, pentacles indicate financial and material success, cups indicate good fortune and love, wands indicate enterprise and distinction (1). When clairvoyant consults the tarot deck in order to answer a question about the past or future, he/she will have the client shuffle the deck, cut it several times and then the clairvoyant will lay out the cards in a specific pattern (4). The secret society of British occultists called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn drew links between tarot suits and each astrological sign and the four elements: fire and the suit of wands are associated with the signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius, earth and the suit of pentacles are associated with the signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, air and the suit of swords are associated with the sign Gemini, Libra and Aquarius while water and the suit of cups are associated with the signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces (2).

  1. Davies, O. editor. 2017. The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft & Magic.
  2. Blackett-Ord, R. & Fischel, A. 2020. A History of Magic Witchcraft & the Occult.
  3. Luck, G. 1985. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds.
  4. Guiley, R.E. 1991. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience.
  5. Walker, C. 1995. The Encyclopedia of the Occult.

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