A new pack of tarot cards is placed on the desk. Still fresh from the printers, there is a fading scent of bitter ink coming from the protective plastic wrapping. The glare of the light prevents you from seeing the art on the box clearly. You can make out the word “Tarot” in a large font. Quick. What kind of tarot deck is this? Any kind you need it to be. What a tarot deck is, is ultimately determined by the hands that use them.
A tarot deck is usually 78 cards of stiff paper covered with pigmented ink. Mass printed in an impersonal and mechanical fashion, there is nothing in them that sets them apart from the rest of the physical world. Two identical decks can sit on the shelf, side by side, for years before being purchased. One is bought and regarded as a tool to communicate with the dead. The other is bought and regarded as prompts for psychological study. How could these identical decks be used for such divergent purposes successfully?
The game of tarocchi gave birth to the tarot deck. Primarily a gaming deck, people did as people do and adapted the deck for other uses. So a deck used for playing games became a serious tool for some. That adaptation and repurposing continues to this day, with the deck flowing from status as a toy, to a tool for the devoutly religious, to a mirror of the subconscious, to a magician’s set, back to a game.
For the spiritual and the religious, the tarot can be used as part of their worship and veneration practices. Themed decks that display imagery in alignment with the user’s beliefs offer cards that can be used as icons or focal pieces to present offerings or prayers to. After a ritual dedication on the part of the practitioner, that particular tarot deck can be considered holy or set apart from all other decks and treated accordingly. The deck may be wrapped with silk, or kept in a particular box when not in use. It may be ritually exposed to sunlight or moonlight, or given crystals and stones as company. There is nothing wrong or disparaging on the part of the deck owner that treats their cards in this manner.
For the magician, the tarot is a compact and portable toolkit. If the magician’s practices are based on Western traditions, most tarot decks will supply her symbols for the elements, the planets, the astrological signs, certain representatives of the supernatural world, and images by which the magician can connect with powers. Once again, what transforms a box of printed cardstock into an esoteric tool is the work of the magician herself. Her consecration, purifications, and dedication of the deck makes it her personal tool set and sets the deck apart from the multitude of identical copies scattered around the world.
For the agnostic and the atheist, and for those that do not want to mingle their beliefs with the tarot, the decks can function as a mirror for the subconscious. Draw a card at random, and have a writing prompt for stories and prose. Using the deck as a type of Rorschach test with prettier images, the deck owner can draw a card and reflect on what they see or on the meaning of the card. No gods, spirits, or supernatural influences are required or even involved with this use. Simply the viewer using the deck to form a deeper understanding of themselves. (Or a plot twist the reader would never suspect!)
Conflict comes when those that view the tarot in their particular way attempt to extend that viewpoint upon others. A person with a themed deck dedicated to their divinities takes another deck owner to task for being frivolous with their copy of that same themed deck. A person that views the deck as absent of spiritual meaning disparages another that reads messages from their ancestors in theirs. The adaptation of symbols becomes a source of contention, as card readers and card designers bicker back and forth about what a tarot deck is required to have to still be considered a tarot deck. Some have forgotten just how common tarot decks are.
Tarot started off as a game, and continues to be a game to this day. It is a game we sometimes play with others, and sometimes play with ourselves. It is adaptable and flexible, but only has as much value to the individual as the individual is willing to assign to it.
Play your hands well.