COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — An oversized deck of 78 tarot cards lies on a table between Rexanna Ipock-Brown and Lisa Bruce.

"Shuffle the cards," Ipock-Brown told Bruce. "When you've got your energies in them, let me know."

Bruce takes a deep breath, straightens her back, shuffles the cards and spreads them across a black cloth. She signals that she is ready to begin.

Ipock-Brown asks her to pull out 20 cards, and then she turns over "the tower" card with a character leaping headfirst from a crumbling, burning building.

Bruce exhales sharply. She knows the card represents an unstable foundation and potential for destructive change.

"Man, I never mess around, do I?" Bruce told Ipock-Brown, her tarot reader, with a chuckle.

Ipock-Brown has been reading tarot cards since she was 16, and now she offers her services through both private readings and open sessions at Heart, Body & Soul, a local metaphysical shop.

The sessions cost $20 for 15 minutes, $40 for 30 minutes and $60 for an hour. She also offers readings over the phone and occasionally via email.

"A tarot reading is like a map," Ipock-Brown told The Columbia Missourian . "Sometimes there is more than one way to get where you're going. Of course this is not set in stone, but it is, if you continue the way you are now."

Bruce said she seeks out tarot readings to help her make more conscious choices in her life rather than being passive.

"No one is going to give you the magical key to fix this thing or control that thing," she said. "I know about the cards, the archetypes and the story that's happening, but I also make choices every single minute of every day. ... Those choices are always changing the potential realities."

Tarot cards have existed in Europe since the mid-15th century, when they were used for recreational game playing.

Their origins as divination tools, however, are hazy. According to Helen Farley, professor of studies in religion and esotericism at the University of Queensland, theories range from ancient Egyptian practices to a myth that King Charles VI of France had the cards commissioned as a diversion during his struggle with mental health.

According to Farley's book, "Cultural History of the Tarot," the oldest official surviving tarot deck comes from 15th-century Italy.

The first instances of tarot used as a mystical practice were documented in the 18th century. It has since spread through cultures around the world.

A tarot deck includes two categories of cards, the major arcana and the minor arcana. Major arcana cards are also referred to as the "trump cards." Cards in the major arcana, such as the lovers, temperance, hanged man, moon and justice, tell the story of the fool's journey, with each card representing a milestone or lesson to be learned.

The fool starts the journey with no life experiences and encounters the subject of each respective card in order to gain a new level of world understanding.

The minor arcana is similar to a standard deck of playing cards, separated into four suits containing 10 numbered cards and four court cards. The suit of wands represents energy and ambition, cups represents emotional consciousness, swords represents the intellect and pentacles represents material and financial stability.

Despite its widespread use to help clients sort out their distress, indecision, uncertainty and even curiosity, there is little to suggest its scientific validity. A study by Susan Blackmore, a parapsychology researcher, found no difference in a client's perceived accuracy of tarot results told to them by a reader than when the results were randomly generated.

Still, some consider reading tarot cards to be a mystical ability. Many people think of tarot as a form of fortune-telling, but Ipock-Brown does not.

She said she does not claim to predict the future by reading tarot. She said that assumptions about her motives can be insulting.

"Oftentimes people associate tarot with witchcraft," she said. "I think that's very unfair. I understand that scared feeling, but I also believe so strongly in the ability of a tarot reading to give insight."

She describes encounters with what she calls "spiritual allies," or "guides," when she reads the tarot cards. She says the interactions take place in a "large white room" in her mind where her guides speak to her and show images that give her insight when interpreting the cards.

Bruce said she doesn't care what exactly what Ipock-Brown is tuning into, "whether it's a higher self, god or spirits," but she trusts and believes in a gift that goes beyond giving perspective.

Tarot readings take place in a careful sequence. After allowing a client to put energy and intentions into the cards through shuffling, the readers arrange selected cards on the table before them.

The layout of the cards determines how the meaning of each relates to the situation at hand. Some readers use traditional layouts, such as the Eomany or Celtic cross patterns, while others use a less structured approach.

Ipock-Brown uses her own method of organization and presented Bruce with three groups of cards that represented topics and life lessons from her past, present and future, respectively.

Ipock-Brown interprets the individual cards as pieces of advice. For example, the seven of wands on its own represented the purpose of Bruce's reading that day. It depicts a man standing on a hill, challenged by attackers from below. He wears two different shoes, hinting at uneven footing or an unsure mind. Ipock-Brown said this signified a need for Bruce's current state of mind to be challenged.

Some cards can take on secondary meanings when they regularly show up in the same person's readings over time.

Bruce recognized the magician card as soon as it appeared in her session because it is one of the more common cards she sees. The magician generally refers to creative power and energy, but for Bruce, it had become a representation of herself instead.

Among the most common misconceptions about tarot are surrounding the meaning of the cards themselves, Ipock-Brown said. Some imagery in the deck may look bleak, or a card may have an ominous title, but a tarot deck does not have the power to release any demons or condemn someone to death.

Tarot cards are simply a tool to focus her energy and help someone recognize truths about their life's path, she said.

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Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com