Modern Tarot decks consist of 22 Major Arcana cards and 4 suits (usually called pentacles, wands, swords, and cups) of Minor Arcana, each with 10 numbered cards and 4 face cards. The symbols on the cards are somewhat standardized, as are the interpretations, though some of the more original decks have non-standard interpretations. As a general rule, the cards are shuffled by the questioner, a 'spread' or pattern of cards is drawn and laid out, and the resulting layout interpreted.
Nobody knows for sure when the tarot deck began to be used for divination, though similar decks, the ancestors of both our modern playing cards and the tarot decks, appeared in the late 14th century. Tarot decks may or may not have been used for divination before the latter part of the 18th century, but the esoteric writers of the 19th century popularized their use.
What people get out of a Tarot reading, I always say, is what they put into it. If someone is reading for another person, they can look at the spread and talk about the pattern, but what really influences the future of the querent (the person asking the question) is what they see in the pattern and the interpretation. In many ways, the Tarot spreads allow you to let your subconcious tell you things based on how you interpret the cards; they can function much like the 'Whack Pack' or other inspirational/creativity tools.
Beware of overly-specific readings, or of taking a reading too literally, especially when you are keyed up, using a new deck, or having someone else read for you. The old gypsy standbys, "journeys over water", "a tall dark man" and their counterparts are unlikely to be accurate. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your readings won't make any sense at all: in which case it may be time to give the deck a break for a while.
The primary publisher of Tarot decks in this country is U.S. Games Systems. They have an extensive catalog, parts of which can be found on the web at: http://usgamesinc.com/usgs/tarot/tarot_frame.html. The best way to pick out a deck is to visit a shop with a number of decks for sale which will allow you to look at sample copies of the decks, and/or to read through the books that are associated with the decks.
Your deck should have meaning for you. Beginners should stick with decks that have meaningful pictures on all the cards, even the Minor Arcana: this makes it easier to learn to read them without the book. You should feel some sympathy with or interest in the 'theme' of your deck, which will make it easier. Above all, pick a deck you like!
Once you have your deck, take it home, purify it if you feel necessary-- either with incense smudging or moonlight/sunlight baths-- and begin to 'key' it to yourself. Spend time looking through your deck, reading the book that came with it (if any) and shuffling the deck. You may also want to leave it on your altar for a while, and you may want to consecrate it during ritual. Begin doing sample readings-- start with standard layouts or the ones recommended by the author.
The deck is arranged into Major and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are often seen as the 'Fool's Journey'-- that is, the journey of growth that people make again and again in their lives. The Major Arcana are:
Fool - neophyte
Shuffling: you can shuffle and draw cards many ways, either with traditional poker-style shuffling, or by mixing your cards up in a large pile and circling them around, etc. You can draw cards using the traditional shuffle-till-it-feels right, cut three times, restack and deal from the top method, or pick cards out individually from the deck spread face-down, or cut the deck and pick cards of the cuts. Shuffling and/or cutting should be done while meditating on the question or situation. In any case, pick your cards rand omly and lay them out.
Orientation: decide when you begin using a deck whether you will use the 'reversed' readings. Some people and decks use them, some don't. (If you don't use reversal, you just turn everything right side up.) Reversed cards can be read as a lack of something, a need for something, or the opposite of something-- sort of like a hole. It's harder to learn and remember standardized reversed readings but it can be rewarding.
Readings are based on three factors:
Each card or set of cards in a layout has a meaning based on its position, and you should know what each position means before drawing and laying out the cards. Easy 'spreads' (lay outs) include the one-card spread (for simple questions and meditation) and the three card spread (past present future or mind heart body, etc.). More complicated is the traditional Celtic Cross, a ten-card spread, best used for specific questions or situations. Other spreads include the Cross & Triangle and the Elements Spread. All books on Tarot include a number of spreads.
Lay out your cards face-down. Then turn them face-up and consider each of them based on their location and what they mean. Then look at the pattern they form. It should be like a story, progressing forward or providing a description. Look for internal patterns, especially repetitions of numbers or suits. Are there a lot of major arcana, or one suit? Think about the recurring patterns. Tell the story of the layout to yourself or the questioner, then fit it to the question (the questioner should do this if you are reading for someone else-- it's best if you don't know the question until after the reading).
When you are finished reading, collect the deck and reshuffle to 'clear' the deck. Then put it away. (Note: many decks don't perform well when used too m any times in quick succession, or too many times on the same question close together. If reading for others, this is often not a problem, though.)
Some people say that you must keep your deck wrapped in silk, or never let another person use it, or go through arcane rituals to key and protect your deck. But I've taken only minor precautions and not had a problem.
You need a place to keep your deck-- the flimsy cardboard boxes the decks come in disintegrate fairly quickly. A wooden box, the kind you can get from second-hand shops and craft stores, will work well for a deck you don't haul around with you. If you want to get fancy, many shops that trade in Indian and third world goods will have hand-carved boxes for sale, often quite cheaply. For those who carry their decks around a lot, though, a pouch is probably easier to handle. You can use a ready-made pouch with a snap or drawstring, a large coinpurse, or, for small decks, even a roomy cigarette case, or you can make your own, out of any sturdy fabric that appeals to you.
To make a pouch, you'll need a rectangle of fabric and a piec
e of cord, ribbon
or shoelace for the drawstring, plus needle and thread. How big a piece of
fabric? For the width, measure around the width of the deck and add about two
inches. For the height, the length of the deck plus about three inches. Fold
the fabric in half lengthwise, right sides together, and sew along the side and
bottom. Then cuff the
top of the bag so about a half-inch of the top is folded down. Slip the ribbon
under this cuff, with the ends sticking out at one spot. Sew around the cuff
to make a casing, starting and ending at the ribbons (leave enough room to
pull the strings through!). Now turn the pouch rightside out and use. (Leave
at least three inches of ribbon ends outside the casing, and tie the ends of
the ribbon together.)
You can decorate your container however you like. Some things are traditional, like storing a piece of moonstone or amethyst with your deck. You may also want to smudge your deck with sage or mugwort. Mugwort is a traditional divinatory herb, and smudging with it or using the tea is often recommended. I'd stick with putting a sprig with your deck and/or using a small quantity as incense. Mugwort isn't poisonous, but it isn't good for you either.