Getting to grips with tarot card interpretations when you are first setting out on your tarot journey, is a daunting prospect. There are 78 cards, each with layers of meaning. Then there’s the way each card reacts to, or is affected by, other cards around it. You also have to consider its position in the spread (layout). What if it is reversed (upside-down)? That’s yet another set of meanings. So how on earth do you learn all this stuff? Right now, it feels like a Ten of Wands experience, doesn’t it?
Photo: Old English Tarot
There are ‘systems’ out there that claim to teach you how to learn the tarot quickly. Know that to get the most from the cards, you need to really, really understand them, and it’s doubtful, you’ll be able to do this from a single book, so be prepared for your knowledge to grow in increments. In fact, once you have fallen in love with tarot, you’ll find it is a lifetime learning experience. Even after all my years of reading and studying, I never cease to be surprised at what those small pieces of card can reveal, time after time.
Here are some ways to broaden your tarot experience and help you to assimilate card interpretations. You won’t use them all, but there might be something here that resonates with you and helps you along the path.
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Why learn tarot?
Many people think that tarot is a woo-woo, trickery-pokery, fairground-attraction sort of thing. Others believe that it is ‘messing with the supernatural and things-we-know-nothing-about’ and wouldn’t touch it for all the tea in China. Others are simply dismissive. However, once you understand that tarot is a beautiful, elegant system for gaining knowledge and clarity about the human experience, it begins to take on a new perspective.
Tarot was originally developed as a medieval version of the ‘Game of Life’. Since then, it has gained a life of its own, being used for everything from fortune-telling, right through to becoming a useful counseling tool.
Tarot has so many other applications, it would be difficult to name them all. For example, tarot can offer guidance – it’s not necessarily tapping into the psychic realms, but instead can make a person think more clearly by giving another perspective. Tarot *can* be used to tell the future, but very often the situation revealed is already unfolding, so ensuing events are pretty obvious, even to someone who doesn’t have any idea. Tarot can be used for inspiration – it’s wonderful for plotting story-lines in fiction or helping to develop characters. Tarot can be used to study history; its own twisting, convoluted journey, with all the weird and wonderful personalities involved, makes fascinating reading and lead you down more rabbit holes than you have time for.
Photo: Celtic Cross, using Old English Tarot
Tarot can reveal structure, especially in the realm of psychology – all Jung’s archetypes are there. Tarot can make sense of negative events. Tarot can calm, reassure and reveal the unknown. Tarot can present hope, clarity and solutions. Tarot can help make decisions. More than anything, to those who are willing to learn, the tarot can be a friend and a lifetime companion through good times and bad.
The cards come with a set of traditional meanings. These are based on the old art of fortune-telling, or rather, they have been assigned to certain cards by occultists, who weren’t really very interested in the cards as a fortune-telling tool. So these meanings were often, it seems to me, quite arbitrary. For example, Mary Greer, in ‘Tarot Reversals’ states that some traditional meanings for the (upright) Two of Wands are, “Grief, pain and trouble. Loss of faith. Suffering. Quarrel. Anger. Resentment.” The more modern card interpretations, based on the Rider-Waite image, would include ‘Waiting, contemplating a journey, plans are in place but the time isn’t right.” So you can see there is a wide gulf between the old and the modern. And, somehow, you have to pick your way through to the most appropriate one. You could focus on the traditional meanings and learn them off by heart – the problem is, these days many decks come fully illustrated and often the image will contradict the meaning. Older decks simply use ‘pips’ or numbers.
The modern decks that have evolved from two radical systems – one based on the Thoth tarot and the other based on A.E. Waite’s deck, are more in-tune with life today. Subsequent re-interpretations of these two decks have often (but not always) expanded the imagery to fit our current lifestyles. So my suggestion is that you abandon those traditional meanings for the time being. There is nothing stopping you from exploring them later, and perhaps assimilating them into your repertoire.
Some people are able to give psychic readings. They usually claim that they never had to learn the tarot; it came naturally. This is a wonderful talent, and generally hinges on the fact that the reader is psychically gifted – either clairvoyant or clairaudient, and could probably give a brilliant reading using sliced potatoes. The cards are there just as a focal point – something to ‘hang the reading on’.
Most of us don’t have that sort of extra-developed ability so have to rely on our intuition and memory. I have tried to condense some of my own methods below – I hope they will help you to develop your own personal tarot system.
Some decks have keywords printed on the cards. This can, at first, appear to be helpful to the beginner but it can also inhibit the forming of your own interpretations – having a definitive keyword may shoo away alternative meanings and prevent your intuition from kicking in. I have heard of tarot readers loving a deck so much but hate the printed keywords that they trim the borders (and the pesky keywords) off. One of the worst offenders is the Osho Zen tarot, where there are too many negative keywords. Reading for someone with such a deck can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Avoid decks with keywords, if you can, but it may help you to list the cards in a journal and add your own keywords and phrases. Keep the list updated as you become more experienced. You will have so many ‘aha’ moments and you must note them down.
I once started working my way through an old thesaurus, where certain groups of words reflected individual tarot cards very clearly. I wrote the name of the card in the margins next to the word groupings. Try it if you have a thesaurus to hand – very enlightening and will expand your interpretation of each card.
Intuitive readings – images
It’s all very well memorizing all those keywords but don’t forget to look at the image on the card. Sometimes the cards can be extremely literal. Notice how certain cards are juxtaposed – are there figures looking at each other? Is one walking away? Are their backs turned? Why might that Queen appear next to that particular Knight? How come those two cards both have butterflies on them? The most important thing, of course, is to ask the querent if the images mean anything to them – you may be surprised at the answers. Other people will have a completely different perspective to yours – think of the Nine of Swords which often shows a person sitting up in bed, head in hands, with nine swords ranged horizontally on the wall behind. One of my clients said, “Oh look, there’s a ladder to get out of the dungeon…” Wow! That made such sense to me.
I’d like you to look at the Rider-Waite Two of Wands. Really look. If you haven’t got the RW deck, try the Robin Wood or almost any other RW clone. There’s a detail on there that can help you every time. Can you see it? It’s to do with the wands or staves. Spotted it yet? Yes, one of those wands is bolted to the wall. That guy is going nowhere just yet. It took me about a year before I noticed that.
Allow the images to suggest things to you. I found that often they remind me of something from my past, and if I introduce that memory, without mentioning that it was me, sometimes that will be the very situation the client is dealing with. Never be afraid to say what pops into your head however random it may seem to you – this is intuition at work.
Image: Rider Waite Two of Wands. Public Domain. Pamela A. version c.1909
The cards in a tarot deck are all numbered. There is a reason for this. In fact there are several reasons. Originally the tarot was used as a game based on playing cards – it’s not the other way round as many people would have you believe. Playing cards originated in China. As a game, the cards needed numbers or they would have been unplayable. For the purposes of divination, the numbers make a convenient structure on which to hang the suits and Major Arcana.
There are a list of number properties and a corresponding table at “How to Read Tarot with Playing Cards“. It is worth knowing, and expanding on the metaphysical properties of numbers as they will boost your interpretations tenfold.
Tarot spreads – looking for patterns
Experimenting with spreads (layouts) can be fun. There is a spread for every kind of question and there are books full of them. However, take it from an experienced reader – you only need about four to six spreads in your repertoire. Here are mine.
- One card: quick answer to a question or decision.
- Two cards: querent’s viewpoint; other person’s viewpoint. Comparison. Surrounding influences
- Three cards: past, present, future. Querent/other person/solution.
- 10-card Celtic Cross.
That’s all I use. The one, two and three card spreads can be adapted to almost any situation and the Celtic Cross is perfect for general readings, followed by the more incisive short spreads. Some people like to have a couple of ‘special’ spreads, such as an astrology one or one specific to relationships. By all means experiment with different spreads but endeavor to stick to a small number for your readings – life is much easier that way.
It is important that you learn how each position in a spread can effect the card’s meaning. In particular, the Celtic Cross has several variations. Ensure that you have it straight in your own mind before you unleash it on your unsuspecting public. You can’t change your mind in the middle of a reading. For instance, the Tower in a past position will mean something completely different to it appearing in a hopes and fears position. So make sure you know precisely which are ‘past’ cards and which are ‘future’ or ‘current’. Know exactly what you want the ninth position in the Celtic Cross to represent. I can’t go into the Celtic Cross in great depth here but there are many resources in books and on line.
Notice the patterns in a spread, and also be aware in subsequent spreads for the same person. You may notice the same cards appearing or perhaps very similar cards. You may see a card appear in a past position, whereas a previous spread showed it in the future. This is a situation evolving, and tarot will be able to demonstrate this very clearly – if you pay attention.
I save all my readings – whether they be typed out or face-to-face. With the face-to-face ones, I make a note of the cards, the situation and anything else that is pertinent. If I read for that person again, I know what to look out for.
Surrounding cards – helping or hindering?
Whether you use a spread with predefined positions, or whether you just turn three cards and let them tell their own story, it is important to know how adjacent cards affect the meaning of another. Does the card nearby support or contradict? Does it offer a solution to the problem? Maybe it points towards the next step to be taken. Perhaps it indicates an obstacle to be overcome. You see, it is easy to read out the card interpretations from a book but until you recognize the subtle nuances and interpret them accordingly, your readings will be flat and one dimensional.
There is a system called Tarot Dignities that uses the assigned qualities of the suit to show how one card can be weakened or strengthened by another. Having a basic knowledge of tarot dignities can give you another layer of meaning to aid interpretation. There is more at Supertarot, where the creator of the system explains all. See the table, right, for a broad outline. I find it fascinating to (privately) assign people I know to the tarot court cards and see how their qualities play out in real life in their relationships.
The tarot story
No, I’m not referring to the long and convoluted history of tarot, but the story laid out in front of you, as told by the cards. Often the thread of the story is as clear as day, other times you have to fish for it. It helps if your client is open and willing to participate in the process, then, again, it becomes an easy task. However, there will be times when you can look and look and there will seem to be no connecting thread at all. Don’t give up. Begin by reading out the cards in order while searching your mind for the most obvious key words and qualities. There will probably be a loose thread there that you can grab a-hold of. Look at the cards, what are the figures doing? Be literal – there’s a pony in there somewhere.
Once in a while, you may have to admit defeat. If you can’t connect the card to the situation the client is asking about, just say so. Read out the cards and their basic meanings and ask the client if it makes any sense to them. Once this happened to me – a friend had asked for a relationship reading. There was nothing there I could give her… and this was a Celtic Cross. Eventually she mentioned that one of the cards reminded her of her adult son – and we were away. It wasn’t a good selection of cards, in fact, they were fairly negative. The Tower was in there, along with a few others. There was something not-so-good on the horizon for him. Two days later, the son’s girlfriend left him, taking their child and all the contents of the home they had worked for together. My friend had to step right in there to help sort the mess out, and all thoughts of her on/off relationship were put to one side. Definitely a case of the tarot telling you what you need to hear.
Nothing beats actually carrying out tarot readings. Preferably for other people. Preferably people you don’t know. If you have a working knowledge of how tarot is structured, have a good communication skills, and can write a paragraph or two with minimal grammatical errors, then consider volunteering for the Free Reading Network. You can read a few times a week or even do several readings in an evening. It’s done via email and you can decide how many requests you want to accept. It’s a bit like being thrown in at the deep end, but you will gain so much experience. I still have clients that I first met through the FRN.
I’ve mentioned the usefulness of keeping a tarot journal before but I have to reiterate, using a journal to help the learning experience is almost mandatory. You can use a journal in one or a combination of several ways.
- Draw a card a day. In the evening, write down how that card reflects your experiences for that day.
- Pick a card at random. Write a detailed description and do some written research about its meanings and correspondences. Photocopy or print out its image and stick it in the journal next to your research.
- Pick a card at random. Put all divinatory meanings aside and make up your own, based on the image. Tell a story about the card.
- As above but pick two cards.
- When you do a reading, write up a brief analysis of it in the journal.
- Whenever you need to make a decision or have a question, write it out as comprehensively as possible in your journal. Then draw a card and write down what you think it is trying to tell you.
And so on…
I hope this article has been useful to you. If you have any tarot-related questions, do ask in the comments section below. Thanks for taking the time to read right through.