Tarot Cards: A Literature Review and Evaluation of Psychic versus Psychological Explanations

By Ivtzan, Itai | The Journal of Parapsychology, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Tarot Cards: A Literature Review and Evaluation of Psychic versus Psychological Explanations


Ivtzan, Itai, The Journal of Parapsychology


It is estimated that more than 400 different tarot decks exist today, representing ideas derived from different occults, religions, and spiritual brotherhoods (Decker & Dummett, 2002). The roots of the word tarot derive from the Italian word taroochi (referring to the tarot deck) from the beginning of the 16th century; the French derivative of this Italian word is tarot and this is why the final t is silent. The origin of tarot cards is a topic of heated debates and arguments but remains nonetheless obscure. One of the earliest existing tarot decks is the hand-painted German "hunting" pack of Stuttgart, which dates back to about 1420 and depicts a hunting series with dogs, stags, ducks, and falcons for suit signs (Kaplan, 1980). There are different theories as to the origins of tarot prior to recorded history. One of the popular theories points to ancient Egypt; some researchers claim that the major arcana constituted the Egyptian hieroglyphic book of Thoth (Egyptian god of wisdom), which is also known as the book of tarot (Willis, 1988).

Almost all tarot decks follow the same 78-card structure, which is divided into the major arcana (22 cards), and the minor arcana (56 cards); arcana is a Latin word meaning mysteries. The cards in the major arcana, major mysteries, represent the main themes concerning human life; such archetypes might be change, love, death, spirituality, acceptance, and so on. The minor arcana is divided into four suits, which might be the sword, stave, cup, and coin but could be divided differently according to the intentions of the deck's devisor. The cards of the minor arcana are considered to be lesser compared to the major arcana because they discuss the minor mysteries of life, less important archetypes. It is for the devisor of the deck to decide which archetypes are considered important and thereby incorporated within the major arcana, and which are less important and placed in the minor arcana.

There are different techniques for choosing the cards in a reading: one popular option is for the reader to ask the client to shuffle the cards while focusing on a question, spread the deck, and choose the cards he or she feels most drawn to. The layout changes according to the amount of detail the reader is interested in and according to the type of question asked by the client. An example of a layout might be the ancient and popular "Celtic cross" where the client chooses 10 cards of the 78 and lays them, face down, in the shape of a Celtic cross. Each of the 10 positions in the layout carries a different meaning; one position, for example, might signify the main theme while a different position might signify past events influencing this theme.

JUXTAPOSING THE PARANORMAL AND NONPARANORMAL APPROACHES

There is no doubt regarding the popularity of tarot cards as a mean of divination. Even in western societies where, in certain areas, pragmatic mainstream science leads public opinion, we can still see the culture of tarot reading flourishing. A quick Web search reveals over a million sites for tarot readers (both online and face-to-face options). The popularity of a subject, on the other hand, is not an indication of reliability or validity, nor does it make the roots of the phenomenon clear. When examining the phenomenon of tarot cards, two juxtaposing approaches regarding its popularity might be taken: the first approach, the paranormal one, claims that indeed some paranormal forces are at work as a reading takes place. The second approach, the nonparanormal one, claims that there is nothing mysterious in the process of tarot reading and the whole phenomenon can be explained by examining simple psychological effects.

Within the paranormal approach it is claimed by occultists (e.g., Sharman-Burke & Greene, 1986; Waite, 1910) that the tarot reveals the quality of the moment for a consulting individual. It is important to say that the cards cannot predict the future as if it is fixed and fated (in contradiction with common belief and common practice of many tarot readers). …

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