Here is the advice of 45 experienced reader and teachers of tarot and a few newbies. The contradictions are intended to foster respect and understanding for alternate views.
History is based on facts and therefore can express only what can be demonstrated with evidence or carefully deduced from an in-depth understanding of the facts, the culture, the period and the people. New facts can totally change what was formerly thought to be true.
Myths are false stories that reveal some kind of inner Truth. That Truth is often not what the myth conveys on its surface. Someone called them “the Great Imaginings behind this World.” However, they can lead us along paths that aren’t real or can even be harmful, for instance when they become “rules” that unnecessarily limit our experience.
It’s been said that history is true on the outside but a lie on the inside (for instance, we’ll never know what people actually felt and did). Whereas a myth is a lie on the outside and true on the inside (however, discerning the truth it points to can be tricky).
There are at least two kinds of tarot myths:
- Stories of tarot’s origins (mostly romantic and mystical stories with great inner significance),
- “Rules” that should be followed only if you find them helpful and meaningful.
We actually know quite a bit about tarot history. It originated sometime between 1420 and 1440 in Northern Italy, probably Milan, amid other experiments in creating sets of “triumph” cards. We also know fairly precisely what the images signified in the late Gothic, early Renaissance North Italian culture. For the first 350 years ‘Il Trionfos’ were known almost entirely for playing games similar to bridge.
There are indications early on that both playing cards and tarot were used for divination and character delineations, but such practices were not widely known until the late 18th century. This is when Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Comte de Mellet, and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla)—all Freemasons—wrote about tarot and fortune-telling and made up stories about their being brought to Europe by the gypsies from their mystical place of origin in Egypt.
Please read the TarotL History Information Sheet and my post: “Origins of Playing Card Divination.” The serious student will want to also check out trionfi.com, taropedia.com, Cultural Association “Le Tarot”, the Tarot History Forum and Tarot History & Iconography at aeclectic, among others. Books are recommended on these sites.
The advice given here by our panel of tarot experts (and a few newbies) wasn’t easy to organize. I’ve done quite a bit of condensing and of merging of similar statements.
• Just starting to read tarot? No, it’s not important to know tarot history and myth. All that’s important to know is that tarot is a divination tool.
• History is not necessary for newbies. Myths and archetypes work even if you don’t know how or what their history is. They are timeless, that is, relevant to all times. Newbies need the Magic first!
• Too much delving into the traditional side of things stops many people from picking up a deck and gaining tremendous benefit. Fear and overwhelm is far too prevalent.
• No knowledge of the history of Tarot is needed to start developing a relationship with Tarot. Anyone can start to use and have their intuition stimulated by the images of the cards.
• In the end, when one reads or is doing a reading, the mind must open and the reading must come together from the cards and the spread (not from the history).
• History is not relevant. All you need to know is that tarot works.
• History is a story, but it’s not really about NOW.
• Let tarot speak to us in the way that it will. History is something different.
• Stick with what you DO know; do not rely on the past or on outside forces to tell you.
• The history or myth, accurate or inaccurate, is NOT what gives the Tarot its power. Its universal and comprehensive nature does.
• Dwelling in the past, while instructional, can also be a total diversion and take you away from the present. History is often confused and distorted, nobody knows for certain what really happened. History is incidental.
• As the history and origins of the tarot are still unknown and every foreword of almost every tarot instruction book has a different take on it, it’s not vital that a newbie know the origins.
• Since the origins are so murky and since the influence of several cultures is evident even in the earliest decks, anyone who claims to know THE origin of the Tarot should check their facts.
• Too much information can be overwhelming. References to ‘this deck or that deck’, the various correspondences and so forth, sounds a bit OCD and geekish. The idea that to become an adept reader requires this meticulous in-depth knowledge is off-putting.
• The history of Tarot is always worth looking into: it is important to know. It gives you a basis and understanding of the Tarot as you develop a relationship with the cards.
• Do the research on the history as well as the myths. It gives you a better understanding of Tarot, and the more you understand the Tarot, the better your readings will be.
• All students should read the TarotL History Information Sheet.
• Knowing your roots gives a sense of foundation and stability—like the difference between a mobile home and a castle.
• It’s like buying a creepy old house & NOT asking about previous tenants. It’s important to know the history proper.
• Mythology has its place, but not in place of fact. Much of what people consider to be history is actually myth. But you won’t know the difference if you don’t learn the history.
• Anyone using Tarot (even if completely intuitively) without at least a basic awareness of its history and its historical context is surely missing an integral part of its charm, character and richness.
• Every person who chooses to use a magical tool . . . owes it to hirself to do enough research to understand fully what the tool is and is not.
• It is simply common sense on a magical and spiritual level to know what you are connecting yourself to, and what it will and will not do.
• Recognizing the history and the myths allow tarotists be more conscious of their spiritual capacities.
• To work with Tarot more seriously as guide / wisdom tool, especially with others, it is important to know the history, mystery, and lore of the Tarot.
• When anyone begins to approach Tarot with any amount of seriousness and dedication, then it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper.
• With any other tool, you would read the instruction manual and directions.
• Knowing the history and myths gives you a better understanding and, when you are trying to learn, you want to know as much as you can.
• When you have a reader who DOESN’T know the history sitting down to read for a client who DOES know it, the reader’s credibility may be called into question.
• If you are going to offer it to the public, you should be knowledgeable about the origins and history.
• A foundation in history reveals the facts vs. the traditions and myths, among which the tarot reader can then choose.
• Tarot is not just a means of divination; it is a game played even today by many people to amuse themselves. This information is important because it makes us aware of tarot as whole, of all its possibilities.
• History reminds us not to be overly serious about something whose first origins were as a game.
• Tarot history becomes more a study of the culture and mindset of the people of the time. We will never know just who modeled for the art or what the artist was trying to convey, or whether he (or she!) placed some inside joke or insult within the portrait. However, we can know something about the cultural backdrop in which these images were created, and how people generally viewed themselves, God, others, and life.
• There can be a huge disconnect when we apply our modern cultural understanding and meaning to these images without also transporting the best understanding of the originating culture’s understanding and meaning into the mix.
• It helps to “get it” first in the original context before bringing that understanding into the modern context.
• One’s experience of Tarot will not be as full and complete as it can be without the study, the books, the explorations into cards and the collections of decks.
• By showing us the marvelous and mysterious innovation of the historical tarot, it invites us to keep making history with the Tarot. Wouldn’t we want people a 100 or 200 years from now to know a bit about how we used Tarot here at the start of the 21st century?
• Newbies really want to do it “right” and can be told by well-meaning people all manner of tarot rules, much of which are unnecessary for readers.
• A person may falsely believe, for example, that it is required to cut the deck in a specific way or the reading isn’t valid.
• The tarot doesn’t have to be given to you as a gift! I hate that myth!
• Getting a deck is a personal choice. If I waited for someone to buy me a deck, I wouldn’t have one yet today!
• There are people who insist that the only way to cut the cards is with the left hand. Will an amputee never be able to get a reading?
• Many myths of origin have been dispelled as false.
• A discussion (and hopefully rejection) of some of those more silly or frightening myths would be most welcome.
• Even though the myths are, for the most part, not factually true, they still have an impact on Tarot, its meanings, and the way it is used.
• The actual history of how tarot started is not the most important thing, but rather the principles involved, the need for humans to tell their story.
• The Tarot is a grand story of the soul, and seekers beginning to explore that Tarot should know the role of every card, and it’s part in the grand stage of the soul.
• Many of the “rules” surrounding Tarot originated with some real purpose at the time, others seem to be more “magical” in nature. Use rituals that help to make your sitter comfortable and open to the exchange.
• I’m starting a “myth” that one should *always* offer their cards to their beloved deity or Higher Power.
• Regarding the “rules,” myth is more important than history, for the mere fact that you don’t have to follow the myths [rules]. They tell what NOT to do. Everyone needs to discover their own way.
The Middle Way
• Follow your interests. If it leads to history and myth, go for it, if not . . . wait.
• It’s about both: study and jump in and use your intuition/imagination to do readings.
• Don’t teach history during a reading. In the moment to moment of the session, it isn’t relevant unless it pertains to the client issue. The art on the cards is the most important.
• There isn’t any definitive approach to tarot. Initial ingorance can serve to one’s advantage. Early intrigue can evolve into a lifelong interest in tarot that includes history, myth and lore.
• It’s good to get just enough history to pique your interest, and wonderful to have the “real” history unfold gradually through further studies.
• At first I wasn’t really interested with this kind of history, but now I think that it’s quite important to know how, when and why tarot was created.
• Never hurts to know it. There are readers who naturally gravitate toward that stuff and others who do just as well not knowing the mythological background.
• Academic/historical study, for this novice should be considered as one ‘module’ within the learning program. A little bit of history can be intriguing.
• There is a real need to understand where these images have come from. Every newbie reader needs to know a bit of how these images have evolved.
• What someone new to the Tarot wants is background information. If some myths are brought to the table, fine, but there is so much basic stuff to get under one’s belt. Principally focus on the deck, its composition and its uses.
• I think newbies should learn to read a deck and carry out divination and then, go to the myths. Otherwise they may never get to the tarot’s divinatory action.
• The myths should be reviewed, then kept or discarded—as each person is an individual.
• Most of what newbies will read about the history, is indeed myth, mystery and lore. Truth isn’t the same as fact; facts change. Myths, mystery, and lore can be powerful, enlightening, and empowering. In the end, a person gets to choose their own truth.
• You feel enriched and free to experiment when you know there are a variety of things to sample and use. It keeps you from getting bored.
• The more you learn, the more shades of meaning and subtleties open up for your understanding and use. It’s like giving a painter more colors and brushes to work with. Every serious Newbie should understand that there is an almost infinite palette of options to choose from.
• History can show how tarot archetypes have been interpreted by others, so in this regard, soak up as many different takes on these archetypes as possible, until the information all merges, disappears, and the essence remains.
• It’s always a good idea to know as much as you can about the background and symbolism of things. Tarot imagery is somewhat ambiguous, and the reader can read into it whatever gains their attention. But, the cards have intended meanings, and if you know them, you can filter out (or accept) meanings you get from your subconscious that don’t fit.
• The tarot is not what you make it, or whatever you want it to be. It is still tarot, and specifically definable as a book of spiritual wisdom in picture form. It is open to interpretation, but has an actual history and traditions that surround it. Make sure students understand it has historical roots along with wings that soar into the future.
• Only learn the history if it’s your reading style to use the history of the cards to make up their meanings.
• With some newbies, tarot can be likened to handing a monkey a calculator; they’ll see it as a shiny toy, not realizing all the wonderful things it can tell you and help you figure out. With others it can be likened to handing the Rosetta Stone to a competent archaeologist: it unlocks a whole new world of information.
• It’s good to maintain a student mindset or “white belt mind” regardless of experience or knowledge.
• There’s the history that’s based on factual evidence: geological, archeological, etc., and there’s history as recorded by those who invent, misinterpret, embellish and downright lie. By ‘studying’ history, one might accumulate information or opinions, but not necessarily facts or the truth. The history of Tarot is no exception.
• There is a saying, “History is written by the winners.” Just because it may have been unwritten, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
Additional Advice from Contributors
• The occult tarot is relatively recent and not the only way of approaching the cards.
• The tarot is what you make it.
• Tarot was not created as part of any religious or even magical tradition, which makes the reader free to adapt it to his own beliefs. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable.
• Each of us owes it to ourselves, our Inner Sight, and the Ancestors of Tarot amongst us, to approach with a recognition that there is a shared, enduring, and active Wraith of Spirit here in Tarot, with which we are participating.
• Be responsible for what you are doing when you call in guides and spirit helpers. If you do not know something about it, just don’t go there.
• Some people get too hung up on how they think they should interpret a card rather than letting the deeper layers of consciousness help to guide them through the nuances of meaning. Core meanings are fixed in the psyche whether one consciously knows it or not.
• It’s especially helpful to know the connection between Tarot and modern day playing cards and that it’s possible to do a reading with a deck of cards.
• Symbols matter. But not even symbols have to be set in stone.
• Find a deck that has a symbolic system with which you feel comfortable. Not everyone can use the same deck!