The Tarot is an ancient and complex system of symbols and esoteric knowledge in a deck of 78 cards. If you are new to learning Tarot cards, this 3-step guide will help you get started!
How to read Tarot cards?
1. First impression — Keyword Meanings
The Tarot deck is like a language. It uses a limited set of symbols to convey various messages. As with learning any new language, the first step is to learn the basics - the alphabet and vocabulary. Get to know the cards by asking the following questions:
- If you could pick 2-3 words to describe this card, what would they be?
- What are its positive and negative aspects?
- What is the overall theme this card represents?
For example: The Fool card can be fresh start, trust, taking a risk. It can also be foolish, naive, unaware. The theme can be a new beginning.
2. Personality — Deeper Meanings & Themes
The next step would be to learn the deeper meanings for each card. Think of each card as a person with its own personality. Is it optimistic and adventurous, strict and fair, caring and gentle? This can be especially useful for cards you have difficulty understanding. Using the language analogy, this step is learning to carry a basic conversation.
- Picture this card's personality — does it remind you of someone you know, a universal archetype, or maybe a fictional character?
- What kinds of things would this character say and how would it behave?
- What would their profession be? How would the people around them see them?
- Building on the keyword meanings, what are some of the deeper concepts this card represents?
- What are some of the limitations, strengths and blindspots of this personality?
- If you were to come to this person for advice, what would their area of expertise be? In what manner would they convey this advice to you?
For example: Let's examine the Fool card further. It is usually numbered 0 and is placed either as the first or last card of the Major Arcana. Traditionally, however, it was unnumbered because it was seen as falling outside of the sequence of the Major Arcana. This is a significant clue to its meaning. It can be seen as pure potential. Its desire is to come into existence and experience life. That is why the Fool happily walks ahead, unaware and unburdened by worries.
Picture a student on their first day of class. They are excited to see what this new experience will bring, who they'll meet, what they'll learn. They are unaware of the surprises and challenges ahead but they are looking forward to it all.
If you were to come to the Fool for advice, he would likely tell you to trust yourself, take a risk and start something new in your life. His strengths are trust, courage, unburdened thoughts. His weaknesses are lack of experience, immaturity. His blindspot can be unawareness of danger.
3. Context — How to Read Tarot Spreads
Going one step further is reading the cards in a spread. This can be compared to conveying complex thoughts in a foreign language. Keeping the following questions in mind helps you mentally scan the spread to pick up on the message:
- How does this card relate to the others around it? How do the other cards affect the meaning of this card, and vice versa? Do they reinforce more positive or negative aspects?
- Does this card most likely represent an actual person, the querent, an event or a theme?
- In relation to the other cards, does this one seem to stand out more or less?
Once you have mastered the "science" of the Tarot — the meanings and keywords — it becomes an "art". As with any form of art, you need to learn the skills first, before you can master the craft. Only then can you create works of art that are no longer mechanical.
The Tarot works similarly. Reading spreads is a form of art. Not only do you have to have the knowledge of the individual cards, you have to be able to read them together. The trick is to see past the cards into the message that is being delivered.
Going back once more to the language analogy — language is used to convey complex, abstract concepts, feelings, ideas. When we listen to someone speak, we focus on what they are trying to say, and less on the mechanical process of speaking. Reading Tarot is the same. We should try to grasp the message of the spread, rather than get stuck on seeing individual cards. Sometimes this is easier than it sounds, other times it's harder. Your knowledge and intuition both play a role. Practice, create a state of emotional detachment, and approach the reading with a clear mind.
To start learning Tarot card meanings, take a look at the individual card meanings I provide here.