In recent years it feels like there’s been a massive new appreciation for Tarot, both in terms of folk choosing to get Tarot readings and folk choosing to learn Tarot for themselves. On one hand, we could say this is the due to the rippling futureshock of the rupture of the twinned Aeon of Horus-Ma’at after the quantum detonation of 2012 and the emergence into solar cycle 25 which vibrates from the Summer of Love through to the morphically-resonant Gaian nightside waking-dreams of 16th-and-17th century court alchemists; on the other hand, we could say it’s just because Tarot is extremely cool and lots of occult and witchy folk are talking more openly about their practice and making it more accessible to get into it.
A few folk have asked me some advice about getting started with Tarot, how to interpret the cards, how to pick a deck, and so on: I wanted to make a wee guide to collect together some of the advice I’ve given and to make it easier for a wider range of folk to try it out for themselves.
In this article, I’m going to be covering several different elements of getting started with Tarot, including:
- Picking the Deck: how to decide which deck works for you
- Understanding the Cards: some tips and exercises for learning individual cards
- Reading the Spread: how to interpret the cards in a spread
- Le Mystère de la Cartomancie: some notes on the wyrd magickal side of Tarot
- Tarot Exercises: some ways to practise, study and play with the Tarot
- Tarot Resources: a few of the books and resources that I like to use
As with all aspects of the spiritual, occult, witchy or what-have-you, there might be stuff here that just doesn’t vibe with you: this isn’t a declarative, objective methodology of Tarot (if there can be said to be such a thing), so feel free to take what works and discard what doesn’t.
Picking the Deck
One of your first considerations with Tarot will be what kind of deck you get: there is a tonne of different Tarot decks out there, and there’s the added bonus of sites like Aeclectic that index or review Tarot decks to inform you what you’re gonna get from it before you buy.
(There’s a myth that your first deck should be given to you rather than bought for yourself, which, like most Tarot myths, is as relevant to you as you want it to be. There’s maybe an interesting principle in there of the importance of being initiated into the mysteries of Tarot by another person, but that’s a little more witchy than we’re gonna get today).
Tarot decks can vary in structure and imagery: the most commonly-used decks are ones based on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck: these decks tend to have 78 cards, split into 22 Major Arcana (The Fool, The Tower, Death, e.t.c.), and 56 Minor Arcana (the Three of Wands, the Queen of Cups, e.t.c.) Most decks will keep this overall structure, but might play around with the imagery on the cards, or reinterpret their meanings to some degree. Less commonly, you find decks that are similar enough to the RWS deck, but might have radical reinterpretations of cards or cards that have changed places in sequence (Strength and Justice often do). A good example of this is one of my faves, Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot.
There are also decks that wildly depart from anything like the more “traditional” Tarot sequence: often labelled Oracle decks, these decks are usually more idiosyncratic and the meanings of each card are specific to that one deck, such as Caroline Myss’ Archetype deck, where each card broadly represents an archetype like the Visionary, the Healer, and so on. There are also Lenormand-style decks, which have their own structure, ethos and style.
One of the benefits of picking a deck based on the Rider-Waite-Smith system is that they’re the most common type of Tarot deck, and so effectively gain mutual intelligibility with other RWS decks; if you end up learning the meanings of one RWS deck, you can often still refer to those meanings when using another. It’s entirely possible for a RWS-inspired deck to depart massively from the traditional imagery for the card, but less so for the meaning of the card to significantly change: in most cases, you can still use the traditional attributions, but also allow any radical semantic or visual changes to add a new layer of meaning on top.
If you’re into an in-depth exploration of the whys and wherefores of Tarot, I’d massively recommend Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, as well as the Book of Thoth (and possibly a companion book to decode Crowley’s dense writing: I recommend Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding the Thoth Tarot). This deck uses the RWS-style structure and imagery with some heavy alterations, but learning it still gives you the ability to understand other RWS decks (perhaps moreso than you might otherwise). Crowley gives some satisfying explanations to such weird-Tarot-things as why the Strength and Justice cards are swapped around in some decks, justifications for some of the more arcane or opaque correspondences in the cards (however factual or contrived they might be), and the first principles behind each of the Minor Arcana that let you work out a given card’s meaning rather than merely remembering each one (which can be hard to memorise: some cards meanings overlap, some are very idiosyncratic, and some are just straight-up cryptic).
The Thoth Tarot is also great if you’re interested in magick and the occult, as the magical system that Crowley worked in and developed, the Western Hermetic tradition, has filtered into Western magic in various ways — you don’t necessarily need to believe or be invested in the tradition itself, but it can certainly make it a bit easier to understand where certain magical ideas come from and how they’ve been deployed throughout occult history, which can be invaluable when you’re wrangling with a certain magical system but don’t fully grok why certain names, practices or theoretical ideas are used.
If you find yourself stuck between a deck you like visually or one that’s more standard or traditional, it’s a good idea to go for the one that appeals to your eye. Having a deck that you enjoy and connect to will inspire you to keep using and learning Tarot than one that’s more authentic, proper or professional but which you don’t really like or have a connection to.
Understanding the Cards
Every Tarot card has a broad set of meanings associated with it, along with various symbols, myths and figures attributed to it that reflect and support those meanings (as well as potentially providing inspiration for developing your own meanings). To read the cards effectively, learning and/or memorising the various associations, attributions or interpretations of the cards is a really big help: it allows you to string these associative elements together into a coherent reading. In a sense, Tarot is a mnemonic system, a memory palace with 22 (or 78) rooms to sort things into; it also functions as a kind of Rosetta stone or skeleton key, where multiple symbol systems can be understood in terms of their relationship to the imagery of the cards, such as the zodiac, the planets, the Hebrew alphabet, Arthurian imagery, Jungian archetypes, royal court systems, or any other sufficiently complex set of symbols (though whether or not Tarot really can or should act as a skeleton key for other symbol systems is a valid question for further study).
For example, most readers will tell you that the Emperor card is associated with power, authority, masculinity/fatherhood, leadership, ambition, and militarism; more esoterically-inclined readers will point out the card’s correspondences with astrology (the Ram — note the ram’s head on the Emperor’s sceptre, the fiery energy of the card where Aries is a Fire sign), to alchemy (the shape of the Emperor’s body in the Thoth tarot reflects the glyph of Sulphur, the fiery and active principle in alchemical theory), to times of the year (21st March – 20th April, the dates falling under the sign of Aries), to Jungian archetypes (the Father, by dint of being associated with Mars and masculinity). The reader will refer to these themes in order to interpret this card might mean in relation to the querent’s question when it comes up in a reading.
That said, there is no one authoritative or definitive list of meanings for each card: the “traditional” meanings and associations that many people use today can often be traced back to someone involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical society from the late 19th/early 20th century that worked with the Tarot as part of their occult practices and disseminated their findings in their writing. (That said, there are exceptions: some Tarot readers may have inherited a different set of meanings from a family member who read playing cards, for example).
In many cases, Tarot readers combine their preferred “traditional” associations with associations they’ve derived themselves: some people prefer “intuitive reading”, where they don’t learn much about the card’s traditional attributions, and instead allow the card to suggest a meaning to them, or use some manner of intuition or psychic ability, or use the card as psychological prompts to trigger associations in their mind and/or their client’s. Any of these methods are as valid as any other: at the end of the day, we’re all looking for meaning in 78 bits of cardstock, and the idea that there’s one true way of reading the cards is a hard sell in a postmodern world.
(Note that this high degree of polysemy can be taken as being evidence of how vague, ambiguous and wooly Tarot interpretation can be, and could easily be pointed to as allowing for Tarot readers to construct almost any meaning. As true as this statement is — in practice, it’s hard to derive “almost any meaning” from a given card, but can absolutely be used to con folk — it’s also true of many symbol systems. The real benefit of Tarot comes when you can interpret those symbols critically for yourself without being beholden to accepting it as gospel.)
Most Tarot decks will come with a booklet that usually gives a short general description and/or history of Tarot, covers any idiosyncratic aspects of that particular deck, lists abbreviated or traditional meanings for the cards, and might give a few instructions for spreads. In most cases, these booklets won’t give you a lot of detailed information, like how and why certain cards have the meanings they do, or more in-depth history or analysis of Tarot: for that, you may need to do some reading online or in a book specifically dedicated to it.
The most useful book on the subject I’ve found so far is the Llewellyn Complete Book of Tarot by Anthony Louis. It’s a good comprehensive resource that covers a brief history of Tarot, different types of Tarot decks, different ways you can use Tarot (for journaling, for creativity, etc), various layers of meanings from the astrological to the kabbalistic, how to perform spreads, and pages on each card which include lists of associations and attributions from various influential writers on the subject (Etteilla, Mathers, Waite, & Crowley). It’s excellent for if you’re just starting out, but also works well as a handy reference for more experienced Tarot readers. Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is a foundational text for exploring modern Tarot as well.
It’s important to note though that you don’t need to have every single card’s various meanings or associations memorised perfectly, especially in the early stages of using Tarot. Many Tarot readers use a combination of memory, intuition, reflecting on the imagery on the card, and riffing on the the sequences encoded into the Tarot or their own associative sequences; however, it’s also viable to use a Tarot guide or your own notebook to jog your memory or to help spur associative thinking. I have a small notebook that has a page per card (or one page per two cards, for the Minor Arcana); each entry has a mind map that links together the various traditional images on the cards, traditional meanings, useful phrases or idioms that relate to the card, and some of the meanings and associations that I ascribe to the cards.
The foundation of my understanding of the Tarot comes from one Christmas, where I had some time on my hands, and I sat down and read the Book of Thoth (and Understanding the Thoth Tarot), and taking down notes on each of the cards and the deck as a whole. However, that method won’t work for everyone: the esoteric or occult meanings might hold little interest for you, you might have trouble grokking all the various sequences and symbols that are encoded into the Tarot, or you might just benefit from using a different learning style. I’ve included some exercises for learning and understanding Tarot later on in this post that might make that a little easier.
Reading the Spread
The most common function of Tarot is to get answers or insight into a question or issue, and the main way this is done is by performing a reading. The deck is shuffled, a certain amount of cards are drawn (and sometimes placed in a specific pattern or spread), and then the cards are interpreted, individually and together, in light of the question or issue.
The first part of any reading is the shuffle: I like to shuffle seven times in various ways, then ask the querent to shuffle them once more, before handing them back to me. Some readers like to use a significator — a card that represents the querent, either chosen by the querent themselves or the reader — and then incorporate this into the reading, which can add some nuance if you start picking up associations between the significator and the cards in the spread. For example, if you’re doing a reading for yourself and choose the solitary figure of the Hermit as your significator, it might be interesting if the remainder of the cards are ones relating to collaboration, socialising, and groups.
A reading and a spread can be as simple or complex as you’d like it to be, and there’re tonnes of spreads you can find in Tarot books and online to try out. Some folk like to draw a single card in the morning to give them a “theme” for the day (the Golden Thread tarot app is pretty popular for this).
You can draw three cards and interpret them as a whole: Rachel Pollack outlines a system of using subsequent three-card spreads in this Youtube video, which is a fairly minimal system that nonetheless can add a great degree of complexity to a reading.
A popular spread is the extremely versatile Celtic Cross pattern, where the complexity comes in in interpreting how the position of each of the ten cards in the spread relates to the card’s meaning.
Some folk like to use Tarot readings for divination, such as drawing 12 cards to suggest what the “theme” of each month in the future will be.
Beyond that, you can get into all kinds of weird and wonderful spreads, such as the Assens-Flornoy Pyramid Spread, which requires a bit of numerical wizardry.
Interpreting the cards in a reading is an odd blend of various different interpretive practises, similar in some way to interpreting art, devising alternative “readings” of text, an ineffable sense of intuition, or a practice of free association. Different readers will interpret cards that come up in various ways, which might resemble one or several of the following styles:
- noticing any trends in the symbols between various cards
- letting your intuition draw you to certain ideas associated with the cards and seeing if this can be linked with other cards in the spread
- reading the cards from beginning to end as if they represent chapters in a story
- noting with the card’s position in the spread (if you’re using a spread that has defined meanings for the position of cards) and linking it to what the card itself represents
- discussing the imagery and traditional meanings of the card with the querent to see if it matches something happening in their life
Any of these styles can be helpful in arriving at an interpretation of the cards: much as art and text can be understood, articulated and read in various ways, there isn’t necessarily a “correct” interpretation, only those that provide interesting avenues for further insight and understanding. As a person using the Tarot, you have the freedom to develop your own particular style and experimenting with interpretation to see if it gives you a meaningful, relevant and insightful understanding.
When it comes to readings, a common issue some folk have is that much of the process seems arbitrary. It’s a very big ask to believe that a divine force somehow causes the cards to be shuffled in such a way that when they’re drawn, they will tell someone’s future, for example. It’s more helpful to think of Tarot as an experimental process, where you’re using the cards to spur associative thinking and giving you new perspectives, with the additional dimension of divination-based weirdness or cosmic order something you only need to grapple with if you’re interested in pursuing it further than that.
Similarly, spreads themselves can be considered fairly arbitrary — if you look at multiple different authors describing the Celtic Cross, for example, many of them will attribute different meanings to the positions of each card in the spread. It can be helpful to think of spreads less as some innately mystical pattern (although there’s ample fun you can have with that, if you’re so inclined), and more as a helpful framework: they’re a kind of scaffolding that allows you to engineer new ways to connect the meanings of the cards together.
A quick note on using reference during readings: it’s my personal feeling that it’s completely fine to use a published book (or a personal notebook with your own notes from studying Tarot) during a reading, especially if you’re in the early stages of learning the cards. After quickly surveying some of my followers as to whether they’d be put off by a reader consulting a book or notebook, the vast majority of respondents said they’d be fine with it (perhaps marginally less so if it’s a published book). Some folk did express some concerns: a reader consulting a book for every card in the reading might come off as a novice, for example; however, a reader who didn’t consult a book at all might make a querent suspicious, so it’s a constant balance.
Ultimately, performing readings comes down to what works best for you, and what seems to give you relevant and interesting answers.
La Mystère de la Cartomancie
There are multiple different ways of using the Tarot — as psychological prompts for working out issues, a tool for channeling creativity, a mnemonic system, and many more. However, the Tarot also has a strong esoteric, magical element to it that’s been engaged with in various ways for centuries. Fundamentally, the Tarot’s esoteric layer isn’t something you necessarily have to learn if you aren’t interested in pursuing Tarot in a more magical, ritual, historical or occult context: it can certainly make the images more semantically dense and make it easier to draw associations and make interpretations, but it’s by no means necessary to get something out of using Tarot.
That said, I’m personally interested and invested in Tarot’s magical side, and if you also have an attraction to the weird, there is a lot you can get out of engaging with the esotericism encoded into it. And, for all that I’ve been stressing the more pragmatic or creative aspects of the Tarot, I get a lot out of just entertaining the idea that there is just something fundamentally wyrd about the cards.
By dint of various occult personalities who’ve been working with the Tarot — not least the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s attempts to make a Grand Unified Theory of Magick — Tarot is steeped in an otherworldly ichor. If you’re interested in the occult, there is a lot to delve into when you start exploring the Tarot. The concept of the “mystery” is useful here — not in secular terms of a puzzle to be definitively solved, but in the older, magico-religious sense of a secret (arcanum) that invites speculation, contemplation, and questioning. It’s not something that necessarily gives you The Answer, and any answer you get may feel utterly impossible to express, but it’s the process of engaging with the mystery itself which can lead to some very interesting and profoundly weird insights. In doing so, the Tarot starts to feel less like images on cardstock and more like letters in an invisible abjad for describing an unseen world, an eldritch tome of 78 pages that can be read in any order, or a masquerade of eerie character-actors in a vast Lynchian theatrical mystery play using the whole world as their stage (or vice versa).
For example, keen readers will notice that the zodiacal aspects of the Tarot don’t start until you get to the fourth numbered card, the Emperor. Why might that be, and what happens when you reorganise the Major Arcana in terms of the order of their zodiacal and planetary correspondences (bearing in mind that the order of the planets we have today is not necessarily the order used by our magical predecessors)? What can you glean from the proposed “Natural Sequence/Revived Order” of the Tarot, based on its connections with the Sepher Yetsira?
Why is it that there are uncanny parallels between Crowley’s concept of the Aeon of Horus (as expounded in his Thoth Tarot), the new-age idea of the Age of Aquarius, and the fact that it feels very much like we’re in some kind of new and completely bizarre reality-TV world today? Is it possible that some of the archetypes of the Tarot grow, fade, evolve or become irrelevant at different times?
What happens when you try to integrate Tarot with other sortilege or divinatory systems, such as runes? Can they be reconciled (and should they?) What happens when you experiment with psi and Tarot, or use lucid dreaming to explore the imagery of the cards?
If we briefly entertain the idea that Tarot has an uncanny predictive power through some cosmic force — a Trickster laughing from inside the white-noise random fuzz of the background radiation of the Big Bang — what theories might be used to explain how this process works, and how might you test it?
And what happens if, after listening to the messages of the archetypes in the Tarot for a while, you try speaking back in their own language?
There’s a lot to explore here, and there isn’t necessarily a strong explicatory framework for doing so: when you start engaging with the Tarot in a magical context, there’s no step-by-step guide for getting the True and Final Understanding Of The Tarot And Also All of The Cosmos. On the other hand, maybe the Tarot itself is the step-by-step guide: the journey the Fool takes that eventually leads to the center of the Universe.
Rote memorisation of each of the cards is one way of learning their various attributions, correspondences and meanings, but it’s not always useful to everyone. Instead, you can take a more playful approach to studying them, which might make it a little easier. Here are some exercises that you might find beneficial.
1. Draw three cards, and try to make a story out of them: then, interpret what that story could be a symbol or metaphor for.
You can use various combination of sources to inspire you, such as:
- any understanding of the card’s traditional meaning you have
- the figures, symbols, places and situations depicted on the card’s image
- what the card’s image, symbols or name reminds you of
So, for example, you might draw the Hermit, the Three of Swords, and the Sun. One story you could make from this is “a lonely figure ventures into a dark cave by himself: in the darkness, with his own hands, he must pull out the three swords that pierce his heart; as he does so, the sunlight outside burns more brightly, and leads him back out of the cave”. As a metaphor, this story could represent taking some time to be solitary, processing heartbreak and emotional loss, and allowing memories of good times to illuminate a way back to a better and happier place.
You can take this exercise a step further by using different spreads: a spread allows an additional layer of interpretation that can inspire you to make connections between the cards. This method is pretty much identical to the way Tarot is often interpreted, as a story that’s developed using the cards and their positions, but here we’re using it with the additional scaffolding of trying to tell a story. For example:
- using a three card spread to tell the beginning, middle and end of a character going on an adventure
- taking a character you like and doing a Celtic Cross spread for them, interpreting the cards in light of what you know of their personality and their own stories (which might also be a cool way to work out a fanfic plot for them)
- using a spread where each position represents a stage in the Hero’s Journey
2. Relate the images to lists of things you’re familiar with.
Take a book, TV show or anime you like, and then, using the traditional meanings of the cards from a site or from a book, figure out which character best exemplifies the qualities connotated with each card. Focus on just using the Major Arcana at first; then, when you’ve got more of a grasp on them, try assigning characters to each of the court cards; you can also try taking one suit of the Minor Arcana at a time, and assigning a character to each of the ten cards.
If you’ve played the Persona games, you might already have some familiarity with this idea: it might be helpful to think about the common threads that make Junpei, Yosuke and Morgana ‘Magician’-type characters, or why certain Personas switch from one card to another — while also keeping in mind that Atlus aren’t necessarily going to be completely rigorous about Tarot meanings and sometimes these associations will be spurious or superficial.
Inevitably you’ll find places where it seems like more than one character fits a given card, or one character could be described as several cards: this challenge gives you the opportunity to flex your interpretive muscle, in that you have to be more rigorous and analytical with each card’s theme.
3. Consider the cards as people and forces.
Draw one card, and take a look at the imagery (and anything you know about the card’s association) to answer two questions:
If this card was a person, what kind of person would they be? For cards with human figures, this is a little easier: the figure in Strength is someone with the bravery to pry open the animal’s jaws, for example. It’s a little trickier for more abstract cards: what kind of person would the Wheel of Fortune be? Consider the symbols on the card and the traditional meanings as being clues to their personality: the Four of Disks in the Thoth Deck, for example, shows a highly-defensible fortress. This might represent a person who’s built a comfortable defense around themselves, at the cost of being static and possibly stagnating or getting cabin fever.
If this card was some kind of natural force, what would they be? The Eight of Wands, with its associations of fire and swift movement through the skies, might represent lightning-strikes, while the Three of Pentacles, with its associations of earth, architecture and building could represent an ant’s nest. You can also think of societal, cultural or psychological forces as well: the figure in the Ten of Wands being weighed down with multiple wands (reflective of will and desire) might make you think of being bogged down under capitalist work practices, or feeling the burden of responsibility of multiple different goals, for example.
4. Do a deep-dive into the imagery of the cards.
The imagery of the Tarot is steeped in history and mythology; and, correspondingly, there’s plenty in history and mythology that’s spurred in some way by the Tarot. In learning the cards, it can be very helpful to try to connect them to various areas of human experience that interest you. In fact, this is partly the reason why there’re so many niche Tarot decks that are effectively just an RWS-style deck, but with the characters and motifs of a mythological or fictional world replacing the traditional imagery. Hence, things like the Game of Thrones Tarot.
Doing a deep-dive on the imagery of a card can be as simple as just searching online for sites discussing the card itself. Before long, you’ll find people drawing comparisons to various figures and events from mythology and history that can help you understand the symbols in the card a little better (if, of course, you’re into that). For example, there are pomegranates on the curtain behind the High Priestess in the RWS deck — this might lead you to the story of Persephone, who ate pomegranate seeds when she was in the Underworld. This might lead you to a new way of thinking of “who” the High Priestess is, and what she represents — so that curtain behind the Priestess might be understood as being a veil between her and the other world, a descent into the unknown, which you can then use when you’re interpreting the cards.
You can also use your own personal history and mythology in this exercise: in fact, it’s a great place to use elements of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method (an idea I’m wholeheartedly thieving from Grant Morrison’s Pop Magic! essay). Effectively, you take a given card, and interpret as many of the symbols in a card as being a message from the universe to you, specifically — so find a way to link them to something that’s in your life or in your interests. What kind of feelings arise when you see the Hierophant? What do crossed keys make you think of, and if this is a message to you, why might they be there?
You don’t have to completely commit to any of the insights you get from this exercise, of course — it’s more a way to spur connections and associations and allow you to link things together a little more effectively.
There’s a lot to be gained out of experimenting with Tarot: even if you aren’t necessarily going to become a professional reader, it can certainly give you some new insights and perspectives for problem-solving by engaging with it on its own terms. And, if you’re of a magickal bent, there’s plenty to chew over as you deepen your understanding of the cards.
For anyone taking their first steps with the Tarot, I hope you have a stellar time with it and you get a lot out of it — for me, it’s been massively fulfilling and deeply weird journey so far.
- Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack
- Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Tarot by Anthony Louis
- The Book of Thoth by Aleister Crowley & Understanding the Thoth Tarot by Lon Milo duQuette
- Aeclectic Tarot
This feature was originally posted on Patreon in September 2019.