How Do Tarot Cards Work?

I don’t believe in Tarot Card readings but wondered how they are “supposed” to work?

Person A shuffles the deck then hands the deck to Person B
Person B then cuts the deck and hands them back to A

Then A reads the cards on the past, present or future of Person B.

Is it supposed to be some kind of energy from the handling of the deck?

The “supposed” depends upon the following:

Does one believe they “work” in the first place? If the answer is “no”, then they “work” through being interpreted in very vague ways and through a lot of self-delusion and selective memory on the part of the users.

If they do “work”, then there’s a lot of interpretation:

1: Demons. DEEEEEEEEEEMONZ!!! It’s those same demons that are behind heavy metal music and D&D and TV and who want our wimminfolk to wear pants and TALK BACK to their menfolk. DEEEEEEEEEEEEEMONZ!!!

1a: Just like 1, except the spirits are considered to be good spirits instead of evil.

2: The tarot is a “book of the universe”, containing reality in microcosm. Thus, looking through it permits one to connect with the larger reality.

3: The tarot actually just reflects your own psychic energy back, allowing you to tap into what you already could know but did not know you could know.

There are other interpretations, of course.

Each card has a certain symbolic meaning depending on rank and suit (i.e. Ace up coins/pentacles = a new financial venture). The meaning also changes depending on whether the card is upright or reversed (generally a reversed/upside down card has an opposite meaning to the card right side up). Then there is the Major Arcana (which because of Roger Zelazny will always for me be called “trumps” whether that name has any meaning in historical tarot or not) which is a set of 23 cards separate from the suits, each of which carries its own symbolic meaning (i.e. Death never means physical death but instead is a fundamental change). The cards are laid out in one of a number of patterns depending on how the reader learned the cards, or may not be in any particular pattern or cut and drawn by the reader or the person being read. The recipient may or may not shuffle the cards depending again on the person doing the reading. I was taught to let the person shuffle to impart their energy/imprint to the cards; others never let anyone touch their deck. Depending on the position of the cards in the layout, their orientation and the system practiced by the reader, the cards are imparted with meanings/interpretations both individually and in relation to the other cards.

As Dogface noted, it’s all bullshit. What most/all tarot readers do IMHO is the same kind of “cold reading” that people like Jonathon Edwards and other “speakers to the dead” do. They throw out something like “you have a husband” and, based on the subtle cues from the recipient, either continue in that tack or change it; a negative cue might prompt a response from the read like “no, you’re looking for a husband or relationship.” The recipient fills in the details from their own self-knowledge and credits the reader with insight. People tend to remember coincidences or “hits” and forget “misses” so when a week after the recipient gets told they will have a financial boon they find $100 on the street they remember that part of the reading but forget about how they were told they would get an important phone call or would get an unexpected visit from a friend or whatever else didn’t actually happen.

Back when I was teaching myself to read tarot cards, I heard a lot of things like “no one should touch your deck except you and the person you’re reading for.” The person you’re reading for is (at least according to the books that I read) supposed to touch the deck to transfer some sort of personal psychic energy to the cards. Other than that, you only want your “vibrations” on the deck so you’re “in tune” with it. That seemed to be the most popular approach.

Personally, I think they work by cold reading. Even staying pretty strictly within the more popular interpretations of the cards there’s a lot of leeway in how you connect that to the situation the questioner is in. Although I haven’t looked at mine in awhile, I’ve found in the past that it’s a useful exercise to lay out the cards and see how I can make the meanings fit with whatever situation I’m thinking of–it could sometimes help me see things from a different angle. Nothing psychic, no demons or personal energy or anything, just a sort of thought exercise. They were also good fun at parties. I’m not an expert cold-reader by a long shot, but it’s amazing how willing people are to be read and how easy it is to impress. Very educational.

Good practitioners of things like tarot tend to be rather decent empirical psychologists, who are acutely aware of how to pick up cues conveyed by the client, and say things which will be accepted. Watch one work, at something like a street fair sometime. Even though, in that setting, most of the clients are simply doing it for a lark, you can appreciate how a good card reader operates. Couple that to the fact that the more serious client desparately WANTS to believe, and the card meanings are arranged (as are many “divinatory” tools) to seem insightful when in fact they are just making random hits.

Hell, something like tarot might actually bring somebody some kind of understanding of a problem - not because the cards have any magical properties, but simply because they are a focusing agent, causing the person to reflect on the problem in a new way. Many spiritual practices work this way - it’s not that the mechanism has any validity, but that belief in the mechanism or adherence to the discipline associated with it can gain results. In this sense, prayer, tarot, tea-leaf reading, I-Ching, etc., can all be said to “work”.

On another level, read up on the tarot sometime. I find the symbolism fascinating, and running rather contrary to what you might expect of Medieval Europe.

I once let an acquaintance give me a “reading”, on a lark. She kept on saying things like “I’m seeing such-and-such, is that accurate?”. Each time, I responded with some variant on “I dunno. You’ve got the cards, you tell me.” or “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking you.”.

She very quickly got flustered, and wrapped up the reading a lot quicker than she had for anyone else.

Well, they are trumps. Tarot (originally called tarock) cards are indeed ancient, but they were not, contrary to popular belief, invented for purposes of cartomancy. People played, and still play, games with them, mostly of the “point-trick” variety. (In France, jeu de tarot is a popular–and fun, I’ve played it often–version.) The 22-card “major” suit has always served as a kind of trump suit, and indeed is the forerunner of our idea of entrumping a suit in a game with 52-card decks. Tarot cards weren’t used for cartomancy until about the 19th century, and perhaps used because of their “ancient” nature–they were invented as early as the 1400’s.

OK, history lesson over there.

I believe this to be quite true. I do Tarot card readings occasionally for friends and acquaintances, and my understanding of how they ‘work’ has pretty much always been that they are a means to get people to think about themselves and their situations in an unusual way; I usually don’t bring up too many specific ‘insights’ because my goal is to get the querant to let go of their self-consciousness and discuss their conflicts and desires and how they feel about them. I think many of them find it therapeutic when I do a reading for them. I don’t pretend to be able to read their future or anything like that.

Tarot cards work by automagically activating the “religion / superstition” sectors of your brain on sight, thereby causing all reason to fail and allowing self-proclaimed seers to take your money.

But I suppose the focus explanation is valid too. :wink:

Tangentially, my favorite type of reading is still the one that Magda does for you in the classic old adventure game, Quest for Glory 4.