What is Tarot?
Tarot is the name given to certain decks of cards, usually used to answer personal questions or to look into the future. The cards first appeared in medieval Europe, but frequently encountered legends suggest that they were brought from India by the Gypsies or are a remnant of the ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. The development of the cards is covered in more detail in History of the Tarot.
Whatever their actual origin, true Tarot decks contain 78 cards spilt into two sections. One of these is similar to our modern playing cards but with different suits (cups instead of hearts, for example) and with an extra court card, a Knight, in each suit. The remaining 22 cards are the Major cards that most people associate with the Tarot, cards like the Lovers, the Star and Death. An in-depth exploration of the various components of a Tarot deck, along with depictions of every card in the medieval Marseilles deck, is given in Structure of the Tarot.
The illustration above right shows a selection of cards from the Marseilles Tarot, and to the left is an example of one of its Major cards, the World.
How is the Tarot used?
For divination, cards are selected from a deck at random and arranged according to a layout or spread. Each card has a basic meaning, and this meaning is modified by its position in the spread. A good reader not only brings their experience and knowledge of the cards and the spread to the reading, but can relate the interpretation to any given question or issue. To the right is an illustration of the popular Celtic Cross spread. The process of performing a Tarot reading, from preparation to the subtleties of interpretation, is covered in Reading the Cards, and a number of spreads are explained in Tarot Spreads.
For psychological or mystical applications, the images and meanings of the cards can be used as the basis for meditation or mental exploration, and their links to other symbolic systems like the Kabbalah and astrology can be employed for expansion of knowledge and synthesis of ideas. The sequence of the Major cards in a Tarot deck can be viewed in many ways, one of which is as an allegory of the evolution of the soul.
Does the Tarot work?
The answer to this question depends on what you expect the Tarot to be or do. Certainly, a good Tarot reading, thoughtfully considered, can be helpful in working through problems and weighing up decisions. The psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung recognized the value of the cards, and they can help with self-exploration and assist in the task of becoming an integrated, balanced whole. Some of the ideas of Jung as they relate to the Tarot are introduced in Jung and the Tarot.
Many people, though, use the Tarot to try to glimpse the future. The idea that, through some unknown mechanism, the fall of the cards foreshadows events to come is held by many. Those who have worked with the Tarot over a period of time often vouch for the fact that the cards do seem, subjectively at least, to be uncannily accurate about future events. Equally there are those who argue that such ideas are mistaken, that correct predictions happen only by chance and those that do not come to pass are conveniently forgotten. For all the claims of self-proclaimed "psychics", there is no objective evidence that the cards can reveal anything meaningful about the future, but whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that the Tarot can be an invaluable tool for self-discovery in intelligent hands. A more detailed discussion of some of the issues surrounding the predictive powers of the Tarot is given in The Tarot and Divination.