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How does tarot work?


“We can predict the future when we know how the present moment has evolved out of the past.” —C. G. Jung

This is another post in the “Ask a Tarot Reader” series. If you have a question for me that you’d like to see featured here, please email me at, Subject line: “Ask a Tarot Reader”. Please specify how you would like your name to appear or if you wish to remain anonymous.

This topic of this post comes from Zen, who asked this question of me after her first reading with me. This is not the first time I’ve been asked this question!

Most of the time when I’m faced with this question, I give a quasi-psychological/counseling answer: that the tarot shows archetypes, situations and people that we are accustomed to seeing as we go through life.

Full Definition of ARCHETYPE (per

1: the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies : prototype; also : a perfect example

2: idea 1a

3: an inherited idea or mode of thought in the psychology of C. G. Jung that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual

— ar·che·typ·al \ˌär-ki-ˈtī-pəl\ also ar·che·typ·i·cal \-ˈti-pi-kəl\ adjective

— ar·che·typ·al·ly \-pə-lē\ also ar·che·typ·i·cal·ly \-ˈti-pi-k(ə-)lē\ adverb

So, for example the Empress card can be seen as the representation of the Mother archetype; The Emperor, the Father archetype. You see archetypes at work in Game of Thrones as well, with the representation of the 7 Gods: Father, Mother, Smith, Warrior, Maiden, Crone, Stranger. All of these archetypes are fairly clear, including the Stranger representing the unknown of Death. When you begin to start looking for archetypes in life, in media, and in divination such as the tarot, they become clearer and clearer. Most of the time when people speak of archetypes in the context of tarot, they are speaking of C. G. Jung’s work and the 3rd definition above.

The Fool represents someone new, just starting out. This archetype repeats itself in the Pages of each suit, filtered through the meaning of each suit. If you are having trouble with the concept of archetypes, simply look through the Major Arcana of the tarot, and they will begin to emerge.

While some of tarot can be explained through the concept of archetypes, another portion of why/how tarot works comes from the concept of synchronicity.

synchronicity (per

noun syn·chro·nic·i·ty \ˌsiŋ-krə-ˈni-sə-tē, ˌsin-\

plural syn·chro·nic·i·ties


1: the quality or fact of being synchronous

2: the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality —used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung

Not noted in the definition of synchronicity is the concept that we assign meaning to situations based upon our experiences, aka situations are assigned the meaning WE give them. Why does tarot work? Because we believe it does, in essence. This also gives rise to the concept of attributing meaning to something that doesn’t have it inherently. Life lessons that we believe to be are incredibly poignant are only so to us as individuals because WE make it so… and for another person to ascribe the same meaning or weight to a situation that is not their own is probably not going to work at worst, or have a lesser weight at best.

Synchronicity is believed to be a concept holier than mere coincidence. It’s the psychological equivalent of the placebo effect. Seeing is believing, though, and even a skeptical person like me can’t ignore when something is happening right before their eyes contrary to what seems to be logical.

Bottom line: how does tarot work? Still not 100% sure! If you look at the Ace of Cups, you see a W in the middle of the cup… some people say that the W stands for “Water” (the elemental association of the suit of Cups). Others postulate that it is a subtle nod to M for magic/mystery (flip that W over and you’ve got an M)… and that indefinable element that is not so easily explained, even by tarot readers that have been reading for a number of years. The beauty is in the mystery: we don’t know exactly how it works, only that it works!

I came to this conclusion about tarot a little after my birthday this year: “Tarot can still guide us by showing us the past from a distance, the present situation through a different lens, and possible futures based upon what is going on now and in the past. Sometimes tarot WILL reveal bumps in the road… and sometimes, the bumps reveal themselves simply through experiencing them ourselves. Just because this one scenario DIDN’T reveal itself to me before it happened, doesn’t mean that tarot doesn’t work on the whole.”

It boils down to that tarot DOES work… the how is beside the point. What’s the point of tarot? It isn’t to “know it all” or to anticipate every single thing that happens or is going to happen. That would make life dull! Life is meant to have a few surprises! What I believe tarot to be is a tool for understanding. I have often quotes Socrates on this point: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Tarot is the tool I use to examine, to understand, and to make better choices through that understanding. It is a mirror for our lives. THAT, in essence, is how tarot works.



For further reading:



Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Blog:


Let’s discuss: Why do you think tarot works? Leave a comment below and share!

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4 Responses to How does tarot work?

  1. nikkiana says:

    Thanks for sharing your outlook on this, Hilary!

    I tend to approach Tarot from a rather psychological standpoint, and my take on it is that everybody has a story that they’re telling themselves about the life that they’re currently living, and Tarot is merely one of many tools that you can use to take a step outside of your head and look at a situation from a different angle by using the cards as a lens.

    • Hilary says:

      Yes, Nikkiana! I also think that tarot is an excellent tool to become an observer of your life in order to gain perspective on the patterns you may not be aware you are living/repeating. Thanks for your thoughts!

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