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How Tarot Cards Work

When it comes to tarot cards, the popular understanding often involves a gypsy fortune teller turning over her cards and dramatically predicting a new love, a windfall of cash, or even imminent death. The recipient of the reading is often shocked and puzzled. Why do tarot cards work? How can a pack of cards know the future?

The short answer: they don’t.

Rather than tell the future, tarot cards work as a tool to help explore the influences working around the querent (the one asking the question) in their particular situation. As a tool, the cards themselves hold little power. The power comes from the person who uses them.

There are tarot decks of every kind, from cards richly decorated with symbolic artwork to plain playing cards. For the best results, choose a deck that has a religious, artistic, or historical theme that has significance to the reader, because the symbols can provide additional insight into the cards’ messages.

The next step toward understanding why tarot cards work is to understand the spread. A spread is the layout that tarot readers choose to arrange their cards, with each position corresponding to an aspect of the question. There is no magical significance to these spreads; they’re simply the traditional way the cards are used. Some readers stick to the traditional formats, and others simply lay the cards in personal patterns that work for them. As the reader shuffles the deck, they focus not only on the question, but also the spread and the order in which the cards will be drawn and placed, or cast.

The tarot cards are cast, and their positions and values represent the forces operating around the querent and the situation. This is where the true art of divination happens. The reader interprets the different symbols on the cards in each position to describe these forces in light of what they know about the question.

A tarot reading is much like a conversation with an unbiased third party. Sometimes that observer says things that seem completely off-base, and it may seem like they lack all of the information. Sometimes, however, the observer points out something that has you saying, “I never thought about it like that!”

Look to tarot for advice, not answers. Just as you wouldn’t ask a therapist, “Will I find a job soon?” you wouldn’t ask the same question to the tarot. Questions are better phrased as, “How can I help my employment situation?” or a similarly open-ended question. If you approach the tarot as an advisor, you will receive helpful advice. The cards can even describe the direction a situation is headed if action isn’t taken, like someone saying, “If you keep on this way, something bad is going to happen.”

The gypsy making a show of predicting the future with a flip of a card is doing exactly that: putting on a show. There is no way that a piece of paper, no matter how artfully decorated, can know your exact circumstances and predict your future. To make tarot cards work requires an intuitive, skilled reader who knows the limitations and the strengths of the tarot.

Tarot cards work not because they can predict the future, but because they act as an objective advisor to a situation, guiding the reader to look deeper and find their own understanding.