Playing cards seem to have been invented near the end of the 14th century. In addition to the precursors of the four suits that we know and love, the earliest decks had a variety of additional picture-cards. Today’s Tarot cards are a systematization of those early decks.
As a hardcore atheist, I don’t have much patience with the idea that if you lay out a spread of Tarot cards for the purpose of divination, the universe will somehow produce a meaningful spread. What cards show up in a spread — that’s random.
Nonetheless, the symbolism found in the Tarot is fascinating. The images on the cards have very little to do with any scientific description of the world, except accidentally. But they have everything to do with human perceptions and human psychology.
The meanings of the images on the cards are anything but cut-and-dried. Some are simply vague and open to interpretation. Others are close to what Jung called archetypes: They represent deeply unconscious tendencies in the human brain. Your interpretations may not be at all like mine, and either of us can change our interpretation from day to day. On Monday, The Fool may represent the Eternal Now. On Wednesday, it may depict childish impulsiveness. And so on.
Once you know the basic (and multi-faceted) meanings of the cards, if you lay out a spread in a calm, attentive manner your intuition may be prompted toward a new realization with respect to whatever concerns you. The cards are not going to give you advice, but your unconscious may give you a nudge that’s prompted by whatever random cards show up in the spread. Or not. No guarantees.
Lots of artists today are designing, printing, and selling Tarot cards. Some hew closely to the set of images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has been around for a hundred years now. Others offer radical reinterpretations. Some are visual feasts; others are regrettably amateurish in execution.
One of the things that I like about the Tarot is this cultural free-for-all. The cards seem to satisfy some of the same human cravings as religion, but unlike the Bible or the Koran, the cards are almost entirely wordless. The very few words that are associated with the Major Arcana (The Tower, The Emperor, The Star, and so on) are not infrequently redacted by card designers who prefer other terms, due either to the needs of a new deck with a particular theme or to simple squeamishness. Sometimes the Death card becomes “Transformation.” In a Celtic-themed deck, The Devil is transformed into Cernunnos, the horned god.
I also like the idea that you can carry 78 beautiful paintings around in a small box.
If you’re curious to see what the card designers are up to, a good site to visit is Aeclectic Tarot. You’ll find decks depicting everything from Egyptian mysticism to cats.