What Makes Tarot…Tarot?

So just how is a Tarot deck different from a pack of standard playing cards like these??
So just how is a Tarot deck different from a pack of standard playing cards like these??

If you’re already visiting this blog, you may be aware that a Tarot deck is a set of cards used for divination, meditation, visualization exercises, artistic inspiration, and even modern day spell-casting. That’s pretty general stuff, though, in all honesty. Most of my first-time clients, as well as legions of people I’ve talked to in casual conversations about this subject, freely confess that they don’t have much of a handle on the nuts-and-bolts specifics of what sets a Tarot deck apart from any other pack of cards.

The primary trait to focus on when addressing this question is the rather strictly defined structure of the Tarot deck. If a given deck fails to meet the following basic requirements, the hardcore Tarot enthusiast probably won’t consider it to be “true Tarot”…

The Unknown Card, from the Crystal Visions Tarot, by Jennifer Galasso.  I like this card, and this deck, just fine...but there are Tarot purists out there who will insist that this deck is not "true Tarot," since it incorporates this non-standard extra card, which isn't found in traditional Tarot decks.
The Unknown Card, from the Crystal Visions Tarot, by Jennifer Galasso. I like this card, and this deck, just fine…but there are Tarot purists out there who will insist that this deck is not “true Tarot,” since it incorporates this non-standard extra card.

A Tarot deck has a total of 78 cards. A deck of standard playing cards comes with 52 cards. The metaphysical world also offers up scads of so-called “Oracle decks,” which are used for the same purposes as Tarot, but which can (and do) contain any number of cards. A pure Tarot deck, though, by definition, has 78 cards exactly – no more, and no less. Occasionally, an innovative deck creator will add in an extra card or two – for example, the Crystal Visions Tarot includes a 79th “Unknown Card,” and the Quest Tarot has both a “Multiverse” card and an unnamed “white light” card – but again, you won’t have to look too hard to find plenty of Tarot zealots who will dismiss these and other such decks as “not true Tarot.” If a deck has 78 cards, though, you’re off to a good start…

Those 78 cards are subdivided into two groups: the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. The term “arcana” refers to anything that can be considered a deep secret or mystery.

The Minor Arcana. This is the section of a Tarot deck that corresponds fairly well to our everyday playing card decks, although with a couple of important deviations. First, while both playing cards and the Tarot’s Minor Arcana are divided up evenly into four Suits, the names and emblems of these Suits differ. Our familiar playing cards bear the designations of Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds; the Minor Arcana Suits are most often classed instead as Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles (although these names and symbols do vary a lot more widely from one Tarot deck to another than do the playing card Suits’ versions, which are pretty much universal and constant). Second, while our playing cards and the Minor Arcana both feature a sub-class of “Court Cards,” including a Queen, a King, and a sort of Prince (called a Jack in playing cards and usually a Knight in Tarot), the Minor Arcana adds one extra layer of Court Cards that has no equivalent in playing cards. This extra card found in each Suit of the Minors is most often known as the Page. Otherwise, both types of decks include an Ace through Ten for each of the four Suits, and those aforementioned Court Cards. Adding one Page per each of the four Suits means that there are 56 Minor Arcana cards to the playing card deck’s 52.

A sampling of Minor Arcana cards: not exactly what you'd see in a Vegas casino, but aside from the Page shown here, which has no playing card equivalent, these aren't horribly far off from regular old playing cards in conceptual terms...
A sampling of Minor Arcana cards: not exactly what you’d see in a Vegas casino, but aside from the Page shown here, which has no playing card equivalent, these aren’t horribly far off from regular old playing cards in conceptual terms…
A few Major Arcana cards -- playing card decks have nothing like our good friends here, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Hermit, or The Hanged Man...(cards courtesy of the Shaman Tarot, published by Lo Scarabeo)...
A few Major Arcana cards — standard playing card decks have nothing like our good friends here, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Hermit, or The Hanged Man…(cards courtesy of the Shaman Tarot, published by Lo Scarabeo)…

The Major Arcana. This is a subsection of a Tarot deck that has no counterpart in a deck of playing cards. The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards that depict archetypal characters such as “The Magician” and “The High Priestess,” “The Hermit” and “The Hanged Man.” Where the Minors usually represent developments in our more mundane, worldly affairs (work, health, social interactions, finances, romance), the Majors speak of grand, cosmic forces at work in the Universe around us (think of forces such as Karma, Luck, Fate, Time…). When a Tarot reading is marked by a preponderance of Major Arcana cards, it’s often taken to mean that the subject matter under examination will prove to be especially pivotal for the person receiving the reading…

And there you have the basic, essential defining characteristics that make Tarot…Tarot!

Book a Tarot reading with me…

2 comments

    • Thanks very much for the positive feedback! I’m sure you can up your Tarot game, by the way – are you hung up on anything in particular, or just feeling a bit stagnant in general…?

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