“When someone is able to perform the art of touching on the archetypal, he can play on the souls of people like on the strings of a piano.” Carl Jung
I started reading tarot cards about a year ago. I had no real experience before my deck and a book Amazon had recommended arrived on my doorstep. The cards were slippery, like any new deck, and slightly taller than playing cards. I looked carefully at each of the 78 images, some with (what I thought to be) clear meanings, like The Devil, while others remained cloaked in mystery (I mean, what is going on with VI of Swords?). While I had felt the pull to begin reading cards for some time, now that I finally had them in my hands, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. Where was this path going to take me?
Here are some tarot basics: Most decks have 78 cards; there are 22 Major Arcana cards, ranging in number from 0 to twenty one, and there are 56 Minor Arcana cards, which are arranged a bit like a deck of cards with four different suits (pentacles, wands, cups, and swords) and kings, queens, knights, pages, and aces in addition to cards numbered two through 10. The Major Arcana cards are meant to be broad and cover big ideas, feelings, and events, while the Minor Arcana are more involved in the minutiae of life and might divulge details about a particular situation.
One of the most commonly used decks is the one illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith as guided by mystic A.E. Waite. The Waite-Smith deck (or Rider-Waite or Rider-Waite-Smith) was first published in 1910. The symbolism used in this deck will feel familiar to those of us who grew up steeped in classical western literature, mythology, and culture. Even those symbols which appear to be of Eastern origin hold a meaning that has more to do with Western interpretations than perhaps their true use.
Symbolism, major and minor arcanas, mythological imagery — you hear all this and you might find yourself asking, “Hey, I thought tarot was about reading the future.” Well… yes and no, I suppose. For some, there is a divination aspect to tarot. Through interpreting the symbols and scenes on a given card, one might feel they can discern a particular message regarding what the future holds. Like any spiritual practice, it’s not my place to decide if that’s right or wrong, but for myself and many others who read tarot, the goal is not, for example, to discover if we’ll ever find true love and when, but what we must do in order to make ourselves open to that love, whenever it might happen.
Regardless of how one chooses to use tarot, one of the best places to start when reading a card is to consider archetypes. The Empress is the Mother (and the queens in the Minor Arcana reflect that), the Emperor the father (and the kings in the Minor Arcana reflect the Emperor). The Hierophant is a teacher and the Magician is the student. At the center of the Major Arcana is the Fool, numbered 0, for he is just at the beginning of life’s journey and knows nothing. The Major Arcana follows his journey through life and all the roles he might pursue and events that may occur. The Minor Arcana plays upon these roles and events, deepening the meaning. Pulling the Empress along with, say, ten of cups, might steer your thoughts toward the nurturing aspects of parenthood, starting or growing a family, or your role in your family now.
Reading tarot is akin to looking in a mirror (and there’s a great course run by Susanna Conway called “78 Mirrors” that discusses each card in this way). It allows you to question yourself and consider situations from an angle you might not otherwise consider. The cards sort of say, “Have you thought about it this way?” In this sense, tarot becomes a tool for self-reflection, one that can be infused as much as one wants with spirituality. While my own tarot practice may not be guided by the hope of predicting the future, I won’t deny my sense that the Universe likes to play with me in this medium.
If tarot is something you’re drawn to, here are some ideas to start your practice.
- Find a deck that resonates with you. I truly enjoy the Waite-Smith deck. As an English major, the symbolism jives with a lot of my understanding of western literature. I get what’s being “said” in many cards without having to do much digging with outside sources. However, there are decks that pull from Eastern cultures, Native American cultures, New Age imagery and ideas, nature, and beyond. Take your time finding something that speaks to you and aligns with your worldview.
- As you start “reading” your cards, consider journaling as a part of the process. When I first started reading my cards, I would look at each one and jot down my initial thoughts, different themes that popped into my head as I studied each image. From there I would flesh out what ideas were resonating with me. The time spent led to far deeper realizations that simply trying to figure out a glib, fortune cookie-esque “message”.
- Consider if you want to just jump in to tarot reading and follow your intuition, or would you feel more comfortable with some sort of guide. There are any number or resources to use as one starts reading tarot, from books to YouTube videos to apps. I have found the Golden Thread app to be particularly helpful as it’s interpretations of each card are more universal and the lessons gentle and less leading.
- Follow social media accounts that feature tarot readings (my IG handle is @mamaintheforest) to get a feel for the possibilities. We sometimes get stuck on an idea of how something “should” be, when in reality there are any numbers of ways to do something. By exposing yourself to a variety of readers you’ll come to see many different interpretations and kinds of tarot decks.
- Make it a habit. Like anything we want to become better at, we have to practice. If reading Tarot is something you want to become confident in, making it a regular habit helps. Daily or weekly readings will help build your skills. Also, from a spiritual angle, incorporating a reading during particularly high energy times like a solstice or new/full moon can give you different opportunities to read your cards.
- Make it special. When you read your cards, try to make it a time that is just for you. Listen to music that makes you feel good. Soften the lighting. Fill the room with smells that appeal to you. Clear your space of physical and mental distractions. Consider meditating before hand. Making this a special, perhaps even scared, time opens your mind up for more possibilities as you work with your cards.
- If you’re feeling overwhelmed start with reading just a few cards at a time and/or just using the Major Arcana cards. Pinterest and Tarot guide books are filled with elaborate, multi-card spreads that look quite impressive, but for a beginner, they can be quite tricky to read as you have to hold a lot of information at once. Additionally, the Minor Arcana cards can sometimes cloud a message with unnecessary specificity when one is first starting out. Using only the Major Arcana cards, who’s ideas tend to be more obvious or blunt, can make a reading a bit easier.
- Have a focus for each reading. Rather than just pulling cards and hoping that ideas or guidance will come, consider something you might really want to think about. Perhaps there are big changes coming at work or you’re stuck on what you might want to do to help a friend. Fix that in your mind or even pose a specific question, and then pull your cards. With that focus in mind, the messages within the cards may begin surface more readily.
Tarot is a journey, both in the story the cards tell as well as in the cultivation of a practice. When you begin, you may feel as though the process is cumbersome and slow. Remember, this is an activity where you are meant to go deep and to take your time. Rushing rarely gets people anywhere faster and usually leaves one feeling out of sorts. However, over time and with consistent practice, the process will feel more natural and smooth. You may even feel as though the cards speaking to you, leading your forward on your life’s path.