1. What is Tarot?
The Tarot is a deck of cards that has come to be used popularly as an oracle of divination. Of course there is much more to it than this.
Before occultists revolutionized the tarot for esoteric purposes in the 1800s, tarot was actually just a card game popular among the uppper classes.
In occult circles, the Tarot's purpose as a tool for divination is considered its lesser fuction. In its higher function, the Tarot deck serves as an adept's soul journal, like a personal picture bible. It is to be made before the adept inevitably parts ways with the holy guardian angel. The initiate's tarot reflects the wisdom he has gained in his journey. The tarot artist/adept mimics the divine act of the creation of the universe, creating a sort of cosmic bridge between heaven and earth.
Since the Tarot's adoption by the occult world, popular "occult" movements coupled with the popularity of the Rider-Waite ushered in a new era of popularity for the tarot as an oracle, particularly since the late 1960s. Nowadays the Tarot has been adapted to fit various ideologies, from Jungian archetypes to the ideology of whatever you might be interested in this week.
Then there was the 1990s. Miss Cleo came out as a tarot televangelist in the 90s, introducing the masses to the Tarot as a scam. Tarot websites like Facade introduced automated readings on the internet for free, while gifted psychic readers and con artists alike scrambled to pick up the pieces of the market after Miss Cleo's disappearance.
Since the '90s, the Tarot has been more popular than ever. More than 1000 tarot decks can be found online, though vast numbers of them are simply novelty items: decks that have a theme which is marketed to a particular niche. Online, psychic tarot readings are the big thing. There are differences between tarot as novelty art, psychic tarot, and occult tarot. Free automated readings are also very popular, as they encourage you to awaken your own psychic abilities as you learn by doing. You don't even have to own a deck.
2. Where did tarot originate?
The beginnings of the Tarot are obscure, but it is generally believed that the Tarot was originated as a trick-capturing card game in Italy in the 1400s. The Tarot was originally known as tarocchi in Italy. Some believe the standard playing card deck might have been imported to Europe by way of Egypt, and it is believed by some that the Tarocchi deck was an offshoot of regular playing cards. Others believe the opposite is true. Either way, these decks apparently seem to be related.
3. What is the structure of a tarot deck?
The Tarot is a deck that consists of Major and Minor Arcana.
Traditionally the Minor Arcana are like regular playing cards with the addition of an extra face card between the 10s and Jacks. The 4 suits of the Minors; Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins correspond to the regular playing cards' Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds. The face or court cards have taken many names over the many incarnations of the Tarot, but there are always 4 court cards for each suit. The court cards fill the basic roles of King, Queen, Knight, and Knave (or Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter).
The number cards 1-10 of the Minor Arcana are traditionally called pip cards. Pips are like playing cards, basically just pictures of repeating suit icons. In the Rider-Waite deck, A.E. Waite decided to do away with the old pips in favor of scenarios of events. This made learning to read much easier for beginners, and this idea was widely adapted due to the overwhelming popularity of the Rider-Waite deck. Occultists like Crowley kept with the pip tradition.
The Major Arcana are also known as trumps. Traditionally there were 22 Majors. Dr. Timothy Leary added 2 extra trumps, revealing the path to another dimension. Overlooked by a field of tarot artists that lack occult experience, bifrost artist Jeremy Lampkin expects esoteric tarots to eventually adopt Leary's extra trumps.
Leary's idea was that the Major Arcana represent the growth of humanity as a race in stages, from zygote to Singularity. The Major Arcana is the part the deck that really serves the occult Tarot's higher function, as the Majors tell the story of the life's journey through different eras and phenomena.
Good times and bad times, the whole story is told through the course of the tarot deck.
4. How do tarot readings work?
The Tarot is a sacred oracle, a mystical game that allows the player tap into the universal consciousness using a deck of cards layered with symbolism that reflects what man has come to understand about his relationship to the universe. Oracles like Tarot work on the premise that every soul is plugged in to the universal consciousness, and that if you respectfully ask the cards, you will receive revelations.
The querent asks for spiritual insight, perhaps about something that has been troublesome. The cards are laid either individually or according to a spread - a pattern of cards that get interpretted according to their positions. Spreads are chosen according to the type of question.
It's really not that hard to get started. Just go ahead and give it a shot. Tarot reading essentially relies on the same rules of imagery interpretation as people commonly do when they interpret their dreams.
5. What are tarot spreads and how do they work?
When you do a reading, the cards are laid out in a particular pattern and sequence known as a spread. There are various spreads for the types of queries that may arise, and if you like you can even make up your own spreads. On Tarotsmith.com there are over a dozen spreads to select from.
In tarot spreads, cards are read according to their position in the spread as well as the relationships that arise between other cards, taking all factors into account as the web of relationships within the spread tells a story, thus answering your question (hopefully). Tarot spreads may seem complicated sometimes, but most of them are actually really simple once you understand the basics.