Divination Practices – Tarot – Introduction

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
Tarot card readings are among the most popular divination method in use today. What is the origin of this practice, and what is the source behind the information gained through their use?

Divination Practices—Tarot


Tarot and other magical cards are used for divination. The 56 cards of the “minor arcana” and the 21 cards of the “major arcana,” plus “the fool,” constitute the tarot deck, a method commonly employed by fortune-tellers of all stripes. The influence of these cards extends back into antiquity.

Like runes and the I Ching, tarot cards are often used for personal amusement. One author suggests the cards may be used to “liven up” a party. “One way to break the ice at a party is to bring up the subject of Tarot predictions or Tarot symbolism. Soon almost every guest will have a tale to tell or an opinion to express,… and of course there will always be a doubting Thomas or two who will try to explain very rationally why such things cannot possibly work to any truly ‘scientific’ person’s satisfaction. Meanwhile most of the other guests will find themselves thoroughly fascinated and amazed by an antique Tarot set.”[1]

Tarot cards have engrossed the elite in Hollywood, politicians, psychologists, and note­worthy members of the fine arts communities. Surrealist Salvador Dali’s wife, Gala, was interested in the occult and piqued her husband’s interest so that he painted a new set of tarot cards for her, illustrated in the 1985 version of Salvador Dali’s Tarot by Rachael Pol­lack. Dali is only one of hundreds of famous individuals throughout history who have been interested in the tarot and similar forms of card divination. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, special sets of tarot cards were hand-painted for the royal families of France (the Gringonneur Tarot) and Italy (the Vicont-Sforza Tarot[2]).

Occult Influence

A large variety of tarot decks exist, many developed within specific religious or occult traditions, e.g., Egyptian, Wiccan, magical, Mayan, Gypsy. Like the I Ching and runes, tarot cards are quite old and no one is certain of their exact origin. Although the earliest decks are traceable to fourteenth-century Europe, the associations go much further back. In Forbidden Images: The Secrets of the Tarot, David Le Mieux theorizes, “It also appears that the Tarot was not originally invented as a fortune-telling tool; instead, it was a masterly designed theological and philosophical teaching device that was based on ancient Egyp­tian pictorial magic.”[3]

The possibility of an Egyptian origin is lent a certain credence because the 22 major cards of the tarot “have a remarkable correlation with the most important deities of the mystery religions” spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin around 330 B.C. For example:

I the Magician—Hermes
II the High Priestess—Kore-Persephone
III the Empress—Demeter, Isis
IV the Emperor—Hades, Osiris XIII Death—Kronos
XV the Devil—Pan, Hades
XIX the Sun—Helios
XXI the World—Phanes and Ophion[4]

Just as the runes were allegedly an invention of the Norse god Odin, so one theory recounts that tarot originates from the Egyptian god Thoth, called Hermes Trismegistus by the Greeks. “This book was claimed to have been written by the lord of writing, justice, and magic himself, the ancient Egyptian god Thoth; and for that reason it was called The Book of Thoth. The Book of Thoth contained the essence of all that was magical, mysterious, and forbidden; and it contained the foundation of the ancient pagan religions.”[5] Aleister Crowley referred to his version of the tarot deck by the title The Book of Thoth. Allegedly, the tarot evolved (in disguised form) from The Book of Thoth as a means to protect its occult wisdom.[6]

No one denies that the tarot has been associated with occultism throughout history, with divination, magic, astrology, kabalism, numerology, and alchemy.[7] Also, some individuals have an innate psychic sensitivity to the cards, which also underscores their occult poten­tial. Le Mieux observes that “a gifted reader builds up a kind of rapport with the energies in his or her Tarot set.”[8] It is not unusual for tarot card readers to speak of having “conversa­tions” with the cards, just as if a second party were present. Theologian Dr. John Warwick Montgomery recalls, in his analysis of the occult, “It is most interesting to observe the reactions of a sensitive person when he first examines these cards. Instead of the indiffer­ence which accompanies contact with ordinary playing cards (not due just to their familiar­ity, but to their banality), there is generally a deep absorption and hushed interest. The cards seem to ‘grab’ their user.”[9]

Not surprisingly, for a tarot deck to work the same respect and reverence necessary to the I Ching and runes is recommended.[10] Again, we may be dealing with a living being, not a mere deck of cards.

In his bestseller Joy’s Way, spiritist and physician W. Brugh Joy describes his own fascination with the tarot and its occult potential:

The Tarot is an excellent teacher, because as the user advances in expanded awareness it reflects this expansion…. The Tarot is one of the best tools I know both for rapid insight into personal motives, time and space relationships… for reconditioning emotional responses, augmenting the intuitive faculty, restructuring personal belief systems and beginning access to more universal levels of awareness…. I have used the Tarot at the close of personal consultations, asking it to reveal to my outer mind any dynamics, overlooked in the session, that might be important. To my amazement, it often turns up a critical dynamic that has been totally unseen till then.[11]

The occult nature of the tarot is also the reason for its power. David Le Mieux discusses this potency, including the “card’s” ability to develop psychic powers in their user. Like the I Ching and runes, tarot cards work:

Reading with Tarot cards does indeed work. Few people with any real experience or knowledge of the subject will deny that…. I have found that Tarot readings are much more accurate and powerful than those based on astrology or other forms of occult prediction. But one of the big questions is, How? How do Tarot symbols help us reexamine the past and predict the future? Why do the cards seem to increase psychic powers?… Many occultists have speculated on the power of the Tarot. Tarots were created to be powerful…. Tarots work like magic because they are, by their very nature, magical. They are part of primitive “picture magic,” or iconography. Later, these magic pictures were raised up and placed in the sky in the form of astrological symbols. Tarot cards also contain astrological symbolism in its perfect ancient order—a whole realm of man’s unconscious experience and memory…. The Tarot is a tour de force in ancient numerology—probably the most perfect numerological system ever devised. And still later, the Hebrew cabalists claimed that the sacred alphabet contained the secrets of the universe.[12]

Writing in Astral Doorways, occultist J. H. Brennan points out that the trumps (the 22 cards with symbolic pictures) “can have a very stimulating effect on the intuition” by nature of their symbolism.[13] He also observes that the trumps, in connection with visualization and imagination, may actually be used as a method for entering the “astral” domain. “In itself, the Tarot is a remarkable system for esoteric study. And in themselves the cards can be used as Astral Doorways. The technique to use is even more simple than that of the El­emental Doorways.”[14]

The occult nature of the tarot is the principal reason why the church has consistently opposed its use, as even tarot promoters admit:

They represent the outcome of a much more profound doctrine—a secret and forbidden doctrine—a doctrine that was condemned from almost every pulpit in Christian Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries… as some sort of evil influence. Priests dubbed the set of Tarot cards “The Devil’s Picture Book” and forbade their use for any purpose in most towns and villages.[15]

(to be continued)


  1. E. g. John Blofeld, I Ching (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), p. 1.
  2. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images: The Secrets of the Tarot (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1985), p. 9.
  3. Ibid., p. 2.
  4. J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark, and Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Almanac (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1991), pp. 150-51.
  5. Samuel Reifler, I Ching (New York: Bantam, 1981), pp. 4-5.
  6. Ibid., pp. 5-7.
  7. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images, pp. 1-2, 140-41; cf. W. Brugh Joy, Joy’s Way: A Map for the Transformational Journey (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, Inc., p. 1979).
  8. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images, p. 142.
  9. John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany, 1972), p. 129.
  10. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images, p. 142.
  11. W. Brugh Joy, Joy’s Way, pp. 84-87.
  12. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images, pp. 1-2.
  13. J. H. Brennan, Astral Doorways (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972), p. 44.
  14. Ibid., p. 48; cf. Alfred Douglas, The Tarot: The Origins, Meaning and Uses of the Cards (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1972), p. 121.
  15. David Le Mieux, Forbidden Images, pp. 2, 9.

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