How to interpret tarot cards

You need a structure…

You’re not sure why, but you feel drawn to this strange system of divination, the tarot. The cards are Mario Marcetti's Gilded Tarotusually brightly colored – some are beautiful, some are disturbing, all are fascinating. It’s all a little overwhelming. How do you begin making sense of these 78 pieces of printed card?

I can’t teach you how to read tarot in one article, however, I can offer you a structure on which to hang your own personal interpretations of the cards. You still have to do the work though. Learning the tarot is not something to be accomplished in a weekend, despite the plethora of books promising to show you how to do just that. Tarot is a lifetime study. If it grabs you, like it grabbed me, then you will set off on a journey of great importance. Everything you do, all the various situations you encounter, will become the tarot of your life. For all of human existence is reflected in those 78 cards.

So you’ve purchased your first tarot deck (if you haven’t, I will write another article to help you do that) and you are ready to go. Grab a pen and paper; a tarot journal would also be a good idea. Give that deck a good shuffling by your preferred method and pick one card. Your journey has already begun.

We are going to explore four different ways to look at a card, and from there you can distil the information into four simple questions. The answers to those questions will enable you to build your interpretation. Practise regularly, and this method will soon become second nature.

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First impressions

Your very first impressions of a card are ultra-important – whether you are an absolute beginner, or have been reading for years. There is always a first impression. Evaluate your reaction to seeing the card.

Did it please you? Why or why not?

You will have some sort of reaction to every card. It might be pleasant or it might be negative. Without Swords 2spending too much time just analyse your initial impression. It might be because the image seems negative. It might be because you already know the card. You may feel a sort of recognition. Whatever your reaction, understand that it is neither good, nor bad. It will help to write down a word or phrase that reflects your impression of that card. For example, I look at the Two of Swords and instantly see loneliness.

Emotion – how do you feel?

Look at the card again. How does it make you really feel? Can you put yourself in that woman’s place? It’s cold, isn’t it. Definitely lonely. She’s blindfolded – voluntarily? She can’t see but she must be able to hear the waves crashing behind her. Perhaps she’s depressed? How are you feeling right now? Write it down. Just a few words will be fine.

Keep looking at the card. Does it remind you of anything? Have you been in a situation that made you defensive? Or made you want to close your eyes because dealing with it in the moment was not an option? I have found many, many times that if a card reminds me of something in my past, it is always relevant to the current reading. So, for instance, the card might trigger a memory of my mother sending me off to school just as she got on the bus to go to work, and how much I hated those early morning partings from the one I loved the most. I didn’t want to talk to any of my school friends until that temporary feeling of abandonment had worn off.

How that felt to me is somehow connected to the situation I am reading for now. That’s how my intuition works… learn to trust yours by observing what pops into your mind.

Position in the Deck – It’s a Numbers Game

Check the number of the card. Its place in the suit is important. Get on the internet and find out a little bit about numerology. All you need is a basic meaning for each number. Something like this:

  1. Potential, beginning
  2. Self vs world
  3. Integration, connection
  4. Stability
  5. Challenge, disturbance
  6. Harmony, healing
  7. Mystery, unknown
  8. Movement, progression
  9. Growth
  10. Completion, beginning

To each of those number qualities, you could add the words, “or lack of…” Every card holds its opposite meaning. It might show up as a reversed card, or it might simply be its prime meaning. All the Major Arcana are numbered, and the same applies. When dealing with a number over ten, just add the digits together, so that Justice 11, becomes two. See how I did that? I bet you have already noticed that Justice and the Two of Swords may have some things in common. P’raps you need to take a look at the High Priestess too? Sorry, I’m going too fast… put Justice and the HP back into the deck.

I expect you know what the individual suits represent. If you don’t, here they are:

  • Cups – emotions
  • Pentacles – practicalities
  • Swords – communication, mental function
  • Wands – action

Putting this information with our Two of Swords we get, “self, as related to the world, in the realm of communication and thought“. Looking at the card, we can see that the woman is experiencing the world as hostile, and she is choosing not to communicate or engage in any way.


Image: The High Priestess, Two of Swords and Justice from the Robin Wood Tarot.





Fascinating similarities

The three cards above share many symbols in common. Can you spot them? First look at the backgrounds – each has a feature representing two columns; trees in the High Priestess, cliffs in the Two of Swords and actual columns in Justice. Justice? It’s clearly marked 11, so isn’t a two. In tarot, often the numbers are reduced by adding their digits, thus 11 becomes 1+1=2.

The High Priestess and the Two of Swords both have the moon, and the Two of Swords and Justice are both holding swords. Justice’s sword is a symbol of truth; the Two’s are used in defence and to block out the truth of reality. The HP and the Two of Swords both have head-wear – the HP’s indicates that she is tuned into her intuition and is using it to enhance her experience with the world; the Two may be listening to hers but she has blocked out the world.

Traditional divinatory meaning

Each card has a traditional meaning. However, those meanings can be quite varied, depending on which book you read or whose interpretation you are given. I recommend you buy one or two good books – read the reviews before you purchase – and work through each card meaning. Write down a keyword or phrase for every card.

The problem, if you rely only on the book interpretations, is that there will be none of ‘you’ in the reading. Your readings will be stiff and inflexible, lacking depth and resonance.

Building your interpretation

Now you have accumulated quite a lot of information about one card. You have an initial impression, an emotional response, a numerical/suit quality and a traditional meaning. How can you turn all that into a meaningful and accurate interpretation?

Well, you might try committing it all to memory but that would be a pain. Although I do suggest that you work on learning the traditional meanings and number qualities by heart. One problem with trying to learn all that information is that, by its very nature, tarot interpretation needs to be flexible. One fixed interpretation will not work for all the myriad questions and situations the cards have to address.

The way that worked for me was to ask four brief questions of myself.

What’s my immediate response to that card?

How does it make me feel?

What does that number and suit combination mean?

What is the traditional divinatory meaning?

Bear in mind that the first two questions are completely subjective. Seeing the Two of Swords on Monday might evoke a different response than on Friday. The answers to those questions are dependent upon how I am interacting with the world at the time.

The second two questions are objective and fixed. Mostly. The traditional divinatory meanings have a wide range and it is worth exploring those in your ongoing tarot study.

Immediate response? detachment.

How does it make me feel? lost and alone.

Number and suit: me against the world, I can’t talk to anyone or think about this right now.

Traditional: indecision, impasse.

With those answers, we have a ballpark idea of what the card is about. Now you have to work the card to the question being asked. Huh? What question? All tarot readings are attempts to get answers to questions, even if you are doing a general reading. Let’s suppose that the question being asked today is, “Money’s tight, what can I do?

Now look at the answers to our four questions above. Immediately, you get a feeling how the situation is causing the seeker to feel. Their financial situation is really undermining their confidence right now. So you could talk about that a little and show that you understand. Then, how d’you go about using the Two of Swords to offer a solution? How about…

“I can see that money being tight is causing you to withdraw, and part of you really doesn’t want to deal with all this. However, this card shows that you need to overcome the desire to shut everyone out. The suit of swords is about communication, so go talk to someone who may be able to help. Look at the woman – she must remove her blindfold and look clearly at her finances. Perhaps, if you take a good look at where the money is going, you will be able to formulate a plan. There’s no need to feel cut off or defensive, there are a lot of people going through what you are going through, and there are other people out there who understand, and who can advise you how to deal with financial problems.”

 Example 2 – Two of Swords and love

Swords 2

Two of Swords from the Gilded Tarot by Ciro Marchetti

Same card, different question. This time, “I’m dating a man, and I want to know if it’s going to get serious?” The answers to our four structure questions remain the same, though they might be slightly different at another time. We’re sticking with what we’ve got here.

It’s not looking good if this card appears in answer to this kind of question. I would surmise that the seeker is dealing with some previous emotional pain and that is causing her to feel unsure about this new relationship. It may be all right on the surface, but there are communication issues. Her date might be putting a little pressure on her to make more of a commitment and she is having trouble making up her mind.

This card shows that you are not 100% sure about taking this relationship any farther at the moment. It’s possible that you have underlying concerns, perhaps connected to a previous relationship, that are affecting this one. The Two of Swords indicates that you are not ready to go forward right now. You may need to open up to a deeper level of communication with this person. Explain your anxiety and ask him to be patient.

Of course, don’t forget, the card might well refer to how her date feels, so tread carefully!

I hope I have given you some food for thought here. The wonderful thing about tarot is that there is always another layer, another possibility. It never fails to delight and surprise me with new insights and revelations.

Further study

Deepen your knowledge by working with some of the following ideas.

  • Combinations – how cards work with and against each other.
  • Symbolism – what do all those little objects and marks mean?
  • Practice – makes perfect. Well, no it doesn’t, but you won’t get anywhere without it.
  • Exercises – can be fun or serious. Draw a card for an unfolding situation on the TV news. Follow the story to see if your reading was accurate.
  • Playtime – have evenings with friends, drawing single cards for their questions. Keep it light. Even if ‘dark’ cards come up. Tell them it’s practice for you.
  • Different decks – Explore different decks. Become a collector. Each one has even more nuances and lessons to teach.
  • Playing cards – yes, you can read tarot with playing cards and it is a good way to really get to know those numbers.

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2 thoughts on “How to interpret tarot cards

  1. April bowen

    It helped alot. Thank you so much. Really want to know the combinations of the cards. And would like to Know which are negative and positive and how the can change the other

    1. theraggededge Post author

      Thanks for spending the time reading my article, April.

      I would love to write something on tarot combinations but there are 6006 possible pairings – you could always ask me if you get a problematic pair and I’ll try to help. I might set up a Q&A page – good idea.

      There are no negative or positive cards. Every single card is neutral. It is only when examined in the light of someone’s situation or feelings do they become good or bad. For instance, I’m sure you can think of situations where Death is a good outcome? How about the Tower? – When the dust is settled the seeker may have the impetus to change his life for the better.

      Have fun with your tarot, April x


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