We tend to approach a standard, 78-card Tarot deck as if it was a unified whole, but that’s not quite accurate. The deck actually three entirely separate systems: The Major Arcana (or Trumps), the Minor Arcana, and the Court cards. Each group has its own purpose, its own numerologic and/or symbolic logic. Although they handily intersect at key points — especially thanks to the associations with astrology and qabalah which have been tacked on in more recent centuries — I now have misgivings about whether it’s useful for readers or querents to lump them all together in one pile.
After many years of reading cards as well as writing about them, I can’t really endorse that method any longer, especially as a starting point for beginners who really want to learn how the cards work. But I do offer a solution, or at least some experiments which may help you refine your own Tarot practice.
Here is a quick breakdown of the deck’s three components:
Trumps: 22 cards, which tell the story of the evolution of consciousness as it passes through a series of distinct phases. Easily broken down into 3 sets of 7 (with the Fool, as card number 0, left over to encompass both the beginning and the end of this process) or into 2 sets of 11.
Court Cards: 16 figures characterizing the four classical elements as they intermingle with each other, presenting a portrait of the spirit’s journey as it descends into matter and/or ascends to enlightenment. Cards can be sorted either by suit or by rank, 4 sets of 4. Minor Arcana: 40 cards which represent the aftermath of the spirit’s descent into matter. These reflect situations, patterns, and tendencies here in the earthly realm. Cards can be sorted by suit or by number, either 4 sets of 10, or 10 sets of 4.
I’m aware that some people choose to read only with the Trumps; I’ve even heard of some only using the Minor and Court cards. Until recently my pride helped me see these options as cop-outs, preferred by those who can’t be bothered to memorize a whole deck’s worth of cards, or who refuse to engage with the deck on its own terms. I’ve always assumed my readings would benefit from considering the greatest number of possible outcomes.
My snobbery hasn’t paid off, however. While a querent — especially one with a very limited exposure to Tarot — may be mildly impressed by a reader’s ability to wrest bits of meaning out of total chaos, I’ve found that querents tend to be most astounded when the chaos of their own life is shown to follow an underlying pattern. All the work a reader performs in order to piece together coherent messages from entirely random combinations of cards is usually lost on the querent. Or worse: they see you sweating, and begin to doubt your observations.
The more one learns about the deck’s three components, the less likely it seems that a fully-shuffled deck will sneeze out a useful, readable spread of cards. Aside from the clammy comfort of “tradition,” there seems to be no inherent advantage to shuffling all three components together — but I do see a couple of serious drawbacks. First, it makes the natural beauty and wisdom of each of these well-organized system unnecessarily obscure and difficult to incorporate into a reading. (The randomness also makes it more difficult for the querent to learn anything about Tarot itself as a result of their reading.)
Second, it forces the reader to rely on specious connections between cards from different systems, groping for continuity or homogeneity where it may not actually exist. As a reader you should definitely have a nimble mind and lots of card knowledge at your fingertips, but you shouldn’t have to work so hard to deliver messages which are already woven into the very fabric of the Tarot itself.
After careful analysis, I’ve decided that the reading process that’s commonly taught and used is deeply flawed. Whereas in the past I saw splitting up the deck as a rejection of the divination process “on its own terms,” I now see that these terms have yet to be considered and taken seriously as part of an elegant system with its own underlying rhythm, and I’d like to work on fixing that.
So, here’s a technique I welcome you to try out.
1. Divide your deck into the three separate components outlined above: Trumps, Court Cards, Minor Cards. Arrange each little deck’s cards in order so that you can re-acquaint yourself with each as its own complete system. Apologize to them for mixing them up and forcing them to coexist with others not of their kind. Now stack the decks in the order I’ve listed, Trumps on top. Put the deck in its box and marvel at how capable and organized you feel.
2. Okay, now take the cards out again. Divide the deck into its three components, and line them up before you. Shuffle each of them separately. This is your new utility belt, and each tool has its own purpose.
3. Let the Major Arcana deck provide the backbone of your readings. All the initial cards for the reading should be chosen from this deck.
4. Over the course of your reading, you may need to elaborate on an idea, to characterize or personify it. You may wonder how to approach it, or set it in motion. In this specific case, you may draw a card from your deck of Court cards. Even better, draw two of them, and discuss with your querent the pros and cons of each to decide which is the proper way to proceed.
5. Draw (sparingly) from the Minor Arcana deck for speculation or comments on incidental details related to the question.
I believe this three-decked technique drastically improves the quality of readings in several ways:
1. It presents each component as its own understandable and useful system with its own contribution to make. Querents may respond to one part of your deck more than they do to the others, and now you have extra insights into how to communicate with them.
2. It allows the reader to use the tarot the way one learns it, one component at a time. This will result in smoother continuity, recollection of details, and interpretive skillfulness. Look forward to less guessing!
3. It presents a flexible informational hierarchy by which both reader and querent can easily prioritize the input they receive.
4. Relying on the Major cards to occupy each of the key positions guarantees that the overall picture will be richly laden with personal significance, leaving no awkward gaps in the reading.
I’ve attached a sample spread of my own design above which I’ve found to be very well suited to this technique. Here are the instructions, listed by card position:
Card 1: Significator. Now that your main deck is only 22 cards, I propose that you let your querent flip through them and look for an image that they strongly relate to in the situation they’re inquiring about. Now you have an instant icebreaker: you get to ask why the card stood out to them, learning how they see themself in this situation. (If nothing sticks out to them, let them select from the Court deck instead. If, on the other hand, two or three cards seem equally appropriate to them, then you get to have an even deeper conversation with your querent about which card is most appropriate. I wound up allowing one querent to keep both cards as a dual significator because his own interpretation was so insightful).
Card 2 & 3: These should be drawn blindly from your Trumps deck. In this spread, the first three cards represent the process or cycle that the querent is currently in the middle of. Think thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis, repeating over and over Hence the cards on either side of the significator represent the two other parts of the querent’s natural cycle, which if left unchecked will basically perpetuate itself even after it has outgrown its usefulness. There are lots of interesting directions this conversation can go as the two of you map out the querent’s process and assess where its weak points are.
Card 4: This card precedes and/or feeds the querent’s process. It either set the wheel in motion, or keeps it turning.
Card 5: This is an outcome card. It proposes a vital evolution or interruption in the querent’s process. It may point to where their process naturally leads, or it may even end up replacing one of the first three cards, creating a more harmonious or more challenging system.
All of these cards present opportunities for elaboration via the two other decks, but only if necessary — for example, if something is unclear. The final number of cards on the table is really up to you and your querent.
Let me know if this bears any fruit, or if you have any feedback. I’ll be doing more readings myself and practicing avidly to see whether I can improve this system further.