My previous post, I’m a Christian, and I Practic Yoga and Read Tarot, generated a lot of conversation among readers. I got several messages and tweets expressing interest in my method of reading Tarot, and other messages from readers saying they had never heard of a non-divinatory approach to the Tarot. (as a brief review, the Tarot community can roughly be divided into two groups: those who use it as a form of divination and fortune telling, and those who use it as a form of personal insight and meditation, without necessarily believing it is supernaturally led. I fall into the latter category.)
Because I received several requests for pointers on how to read Tarot in the latter, non-divinatory method, I thought I would outline my own personal Tarot practice. I’m still something of a newby at reading, and I’m still exploring how to read the cards most effectively, but I will do my best to lay down the most important aspects of reading Tarot.
If I could sum up my method of reading in a single sentence, it is this: reading the Tarot consists of randomly drawing and displaying cards, and then allowing the archetypal imagery therein to spark insight and reflection by freedom of association. That’s it. There is no magic involved, no special words or skills. All you do is draw cards, allow yourself to breathe and relax, and see what comes up. Sometimes, you will see a startling story in the cards – something that unearths a powerful insight within you, or something that has lain hidden, a buried piece of an emotional puzzle. Many other times, however, nothing will come up, and that is ok, too. At the very least the act of handling, shuffling, and looking at beautiful art is soothing, and that has its own mild benefits.
There is, in my opinion, no wrong way to read and interpret the Tarot, except on one crucial point: we must approach them with deep stillness and focus. It is only in meditative silence that we can unearth all the riches that the Tarot can offer us. Take these words from Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous as inspiration as you start your journey into the Tarot:
The Major Arcana of the Tarot are authentic symbols, i.e. they are “magic, mental, psychic and moral operations” awakening new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations, which means to say that they require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation. It is therefore in a state of deep contemplation – and always ever deeper – that they should be approached. And it is the deep and intimate layers of the soul which become active and bear fruit when one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. Therefore this “night”, of which St. John of the Cross speaks, is necessary, where one withdraws oneself “in secret” and into which one has to immerse oneself each time that one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. It is a work to be accomplished in solitude, and is all the more suitable for recluses.
Knowing which deck to start with can be something of a challenge, especially given the fact that there are so many terrible decks out there. In my opinion, there are only a small handful of decks worth using. There are also some decks that are simply so dark/occult that I don’t feel comfortable using them in my practice, (two notable examples of this are Alastair Crowley’s Thoth deck and the Deviant Moon Deck. The art creeps me out.)
Almost all modern decks are based on the imagery of the Rider-Waite. Illustrated by Pamela Coleman-Smith under the direction of renowned occultist and Golden Dawn member Edward Waite, this deck set the foundation for nearly all modern decks. The imagery in this deck is simple, beautiful, and easy to read, and is the deck I use most often. If you learn to work with this deck, you’ve pretty much mastered most other decks out there, so I recommend the Rider-Waite as a good starting place. If you are interested in exploring the Rider-Waite, download the free Galaxy Tarot app – it offers excellent explanations of the cards.
Outside of the Rider-Waite, there are several other decks I reccomend. The Golden Tarot by Kat Black is gorgeous, and compiled from medieval and rennaisaance art. The Shadowscapes deck is one of my personal favorites, and if I want a more challenging and dark deck, I sometimes use the Gustav Klimt Tarot.
2. Card Meanings
This is the part that intimidates people the most, though I suggest that learning the meanings of the cards is not as overwhelming as many people initially think. I’ve come across many people – at work, online, etc. – who tell me that they love Tarot, but just haven’t been able to learn to read it without constantly using a reference book. I do often find the reference books (or the Galaxy Tarot app) useful in finding further insight, but it’s important to be able to read the the cards without such aides. So, here are a few basic categories that I find helpful:
Formal Meanings – these are the card meanings you find in the reference books. They tend to differ slightly from deck to deck. Don’t be intimidated – like a language, the more you use your deck, the more these meanings will become obvious to you. Just pull cards, explore, feel, and if you feel the need to look up a meaning, do so, but don’t let it hinder your practice.
Intuitive Meanings – This is what might come up for you personally in the imagery, and it may interract with, or have absolutely nothing to do with, the formal meaning. For example, the Nine of Wands card in the Shadowscapes Deck depicts a fairly-like creature playing a piano that is melded to a flourishing tree. This card happens to have to do with finding vitality and growth, and I happen to be in the last, exhausting leg of my music degree – drawing this card reminds me deeply that I need to keep practicing if I want to move past my degree and pursue my dreams. Other times your intuitive meaning may have nothing to do with the card meaning – The Sun card, for you personally, might represent trauma instead of hope. There is no wrong interpretation.
Major Arcana – The Major Arcana are the central archetypal imagery of the cards – they are the big events, the big emotions, the life issues. They are also the imagery that is the most famous: The Fool, The Hermit, the Magician, and so on. It is most important to learn the meanings, formal and intuitive, of the Major Arcana first, and go from there. Their meanings are usually not quite as direct as the Minor Arcana – these cards represent the big, complex, spiritual truths, and there are often layers upon layers of subtle meaning. For a thorough examination of the Major Arcana from a Christian perspective, I strongly reccomend Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous.
Minor Arcana – these are all the other cards. They are divided into four different suits, which we will detail here. They can be just as important as the Major Arcana in a reading, but their meanings tend to me more specific. The Minor Arcana include the following:
Coins/Pentacles – the Pentacles have to do with material assets, money, and resources, and are associated with the medievel merchant class. Whenever a card of Pentacles comes up, think: money, resources, assets, body, physicality as your starting point. Usually, if you have this basic starting point and filter it through the image in the card, you get a pretty good grasp of the story its telling.
Swords – the Swords have to do with the mind and intellect, and are associated with the medieval mercenary class. Whenever a card of swords is drawn, think: this has to do with perception, thoughts, the mind, etc. These also tend to be the darkest cards in the deck, as so much of the greatest violence we suffer comes from the mind.
Wands – The Wands have to do with vitality, growth, and energy, and are associated with the peasant class. This suit is more difficult to define, but think of it this way: the wands in this context are not necessarily Harry Potter wands, but more like a sprig or branch that is sprouting. It is also positively phallic, having an association with life, vitality, and growth. The budding sprig also suggests spring, which also connotes growth and life. When wands come up in a spread, think: what direction am I going in? How am I growing? What are my goals? Etc.
Cups – The Cups have to do with emotions and the emotional life, and are associated with the priestly class. Because of this, the Cups cards are also the most heavy in Christian imagery: doves, the eucharist, and so on. Whenever Cups appear, think: this has to do with how I or others feel.
Aces – The aces of each suit represent the most raw, elemental aspect of that suit. For example, the Ace of Swords represents the intellect itself, Ace of Cups represents the emotional center, and so on.
Court Cards – Each Suit also includes Court Cards – Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings. These are meant to represent people in your life who embody their specific suit: either yourself, an aspect of yourself, or people you know. Pages are child-like or amateurs; knights are youthful, full of vitality though possibly prone to wrecklessness; kings and queens are mature individuals.
With this basic understanding of the cards, you have a very good start at reading Tarot.
3. How to Read the Tarot
Now we get to the heart of the matter – how do we bring all of this information into the game of Tarot? Remember our foundation for reading: in a state of calm and quiet, draw cards at random, and allow your being to respond to the cards. There is no wrong way to do this, and that is part of the beauty. Here are a few methods I use most often.
Single Card Spread
Most nights, I draw a single card to reflect on as I go to sleep and prepare for the next day. I find this soothing, and it helps put me to sleep.
Multiple Card Spread
You can draw however many cards you want, and put them in rows. For me, the sweet spot tends to be 3, 6, or 7 cards. Once laid out, you can literally interpret them in any direction you choose: backwards, forwards, zigzag, in a circle; they can all form a consecutive story, or each card can stand alone. Let your mind see patterns in the card, and there is no right or wrong pattern.
Another method I enjoy is drawing 7-12 cards from the deck, and then drawing each one of them individually. Study the card, breathe, relax, see what comes up, practice mindfulness with what ever the card might ignite in your being, put the card face down, and then go on to the next the card. This is a form of mindfulness – accepting whatever feeling or thought comes up in relation to the cards with an attitude of radical acceptance.
I sometimes find it helpful to journal as I read a spread – each card can serve as a prompt for journaling. Some on the most insightful and therepeautic journaling I’ve ever done has been with the Tarot.
As you read a spread, pay close attention to how you feel physically – does a card spark a certain sensation in your body? Does it trigger memories? Painful thoughts? Pay close attention to how your being responds to the cards. As you warm up and get into the flow of the cards, a mirror will emerge – a mirror that allows you to see your interior life.
And that’s it. For those of you interested in exploring Tarot, I hope this provides a helpful introduction. Happy reading.