It’s All in the Tarot Cards

Published On January 3, 2011 | By Ethos |

Exploring the history and symbolism behind the deck

Story by Lizzie Falconer
Illustrations by Cam Giblin

Isha Lerner’s house sits quietly on Harris Street, its beige exterior facing the falling autumn leaves. The neighborhood is calm and tranquil, much like the woman herself, who opens the door to her home with a warm smile and a soft welcome. Her living room is sparsely furnished and she sets a pot of water on for tea. Lerner is an author, international astrologer, tarot card reader, and flower essence teacher. But sitting down with her, she just feels like an old friend.

She slides into a rocking chair and answers questions about tarot and mysticism in a straightforward and thoughtful way. While you would expect this conversation to be twinged with sarcasm, Lerner calmly explains the incredible art form that is tarot.

What Lerner makes clear from the beginning is that tarot cards are complicated, even after studying them for over thirty years. She began reading about tarot after her aunt gave her a deck as a present when she was eighteen, though didn’t begin performing readings until her late twenties. Tarot cards have been studied extensively over the centuries, and most historians agree the cards first surfaced in fifteenth-century Italy. However, their exact history and origin is still shrouded in myth.

Many consider tarot cards powerful tools to unlock the human subconscious. Tarot readers and scholars of mysticism believe fiercely in using tarot to give people insight on their lives and help decipher confusing feelings and situations. On the other hand, they are the stuff of sixth grade sleepovers—an easy substitute for other mysterious games, like Ouija boards or “light as a feather, stiff as a board.”

The two identities of tarot are strikingly different, but there is one similarity: they capture people’s attention. Whether you believe in their power or not, the symbols adorning each card are intriguing. Every tarot deck is different, created by different artists during different time periods, but the symbolism remains the same.

A tarot reader is almost as important as the cards he or she pulls. Lerner recommends those seeking a reader find someone they trust and connect with – someone with credentials. Each reader has his or her own strengths and methods of approaching a reading. Lerner is a firm believer in the ability tarot possesses to help a person face challenges and reach their highest potential. “It is essential to begin each tarot session with a basic introduction to the deck,” she says.

There are seventy-eight cards in a tarot deck and each is associated with a number. The deck is divided into two parts: Major Arcana, which translates literally to “big secret” in Latin, and Minor Arcana. These twenty-two cards represent significant aspects of the human condition. Simply put, they signify the important relationships, conflicts, joys, or roadblocks one experiences. The Minor Arcana gives further insight to the broader themes introduced by the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana addresses such basic issues as money, health, and emotions. These cards influence the meaning of the Major Arcana and give the reader a more detailed understanding of specific life challenges.

Here, the symbolism and artwork of four of the most commonly misinterpreted cards drawn from the Major Arcana are explained.

XV – The Devil

Bearing the number fifteen, the Devil represents animalistic lust, vice, lack of morality, and hedonism in everyday life. The image is typically a person wrapped in chains, and signifies being trapped by harmful routines and behavioral patterns. Although it seems extreme, the Devil card can relate to almost any aspect of life. Oftentimes, when this card is pulled it signifies an attachment to material things. In Lerner’s Inner Child Deck, the Devil card is represented by the Big Bad Wolf from the children’s fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Only through a skilled, honest, and authentic reading and interpretation can this card be fully understood.

O- The Fool

The fool played a crucial role in the Royal Italian Courts of the fourteenth century. The fool, or minstrel, was the only member of the community who lived outside of society’s rules, existing solely to amuse the king. He represents the very beginning of human life. The fool is bold, carefree, and sometimes reckless. He is often depicted as a vagabond, carrying a bundle on a stick slung over his shoulder. The bundle is a representation that the fool has both his material needs met as well as the capacity for success. He has the number zero, indicating infinite possibilities. He stands with his head in the air, but his feet are precariously close to the edge of a cliff. Although the fool is prepared for an adventure, he must be wary of the threat his disregard for caution holds.

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XIII – Death

Although at first one may think the Death card is the worst card to pull, this isn’t the case. “Very rarely does this card symbolize actual physical death,” Lerner says. More often, it predicts a great change to one’s life – a transformation. The Death card, holding the number thirteen, can signal the death of a relationship or a bad habit, and in this way it can be positive and indicate rebirth. It is a card of humility, a gentle reminder that death claims us all in the end. The imagery is eerie: the grim reaper nearly always appears, sometimes riding a horse, sometimes standing. His skull represents the death of unwanted thoughts. The Death card is a great example of the many forms symbols can take in different decks. In whichever form this card appears, it’s always an indication that something significant is about to change.

VI – The Lovers

This card is seen almost universally as positive – a signifier of a healthy, happy, and loving relationship. Containing the number six, it represents romance, sexuality, bonding, companionship, and passion. However, the card also comes with a word of warning: one must sacrifice the joys of a single lifestyle to fully enjoy a caring, fulfilling relationship. The image on this card is always two people and sometimes includes the archangel Gabriel, who symbolizes the divine nature of love. The lovers are typically in a natural setting such as the mountains, a field of flowers, or near a lake.

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