Tarot cards are a widely known and popular form of divination today. They can be used as a tool for guidance in your life if you understand how. As such they can also be used to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you.
Tarot is practiced by asking a specific question and then pulling a card, or creating a spread of cards, and then interpreting the meaning. The cards can provide insight and show you the energies affecting certain situations in your life for instance, providing potential outcomes and advice.
To learn how to read tarot you must first learn the basics of the card meanings, as this will be the foundation of your tarot practice. There is much symbolism in the cards including various occult symbols, astrological correspondences, elemental associations and numerology.
Taking everything on at once may feel overwhelming. This is why it may be best to start at the beginning and move forward from there.
A Brief History of Tarot
Tarot card divination, also known as Cartomancy, is thought to have originated during the Middle Ages in Italy. Originally these cards were made to be used as a card game called tarocchi.
The first decks that were created consisted of four suits much like the ones used today including Wands, Cups, Pentacles and Swords. Over time a suit of trump cards was added which were highly illustrative and detailed, more than the other suits. The illustrations in the cards were said to be inspired by the extravagant costumes worn at Medieval carnival festivals.
The addition of these intricately painted cards was something not everyone could afford. Because of that, it was mostly wealthy families who would have them commissioned. The most known of which was the Visconti family of Milan.
Their oldest known deck was created in the 15th century. These cards were used as a game for a few centuries before people started to associate them with the occult. This began sometime during the 17th – 18th centuries.
During this time deeper and more specific meanings were attributed to the cards and divinatory spreads were designed to provide structure for the messages. In 1781 a French minister named Antoine Court de Gebelin published a theory that the tarot originated in Egypt and contained esoteric, Egyptian wisdom. Although there was no historical proof that this was true, many wealthy aristocrats ran with this theory and the tarot was officially born.
Around this time playing card decks like the Marseille Tarot were produced with illustrations that were based on this theory. In 1791 a French occultist, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, produced the first official Tarot deck designed specifically for divination. Tarot then quickly became more associated with mysticism and occult practices connected to the Kabbalah, Spiritualism and Hermeticism.
Modern Day Tarot
In the modern era, the most popular and widely known deck is the Rider-Waite tarot. It was initially published by Arthur Waite in 1909. Arthur Waite was a member of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the study of the occult. He hired a fellow member, Pamela Coleman Smith, to do the illustrations for the deck. She was the first artist to include human figures in images, rather than only symbols or objects.
The Rider-Waite tarot has become the foundational deck that most beginners start with. This is because the images and symbols are easier to understand and align more with the traditional meanings of the cards. Today there are many different versions of this deck with a wide array of different subject matters and themes.
Tarot decks come with 78 cards which are divided into two groups. First, twenty-two of these are the Major Arcana. Second, the other fifty-six are the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana can be connected to the Trump cards from the Italian decks in the Middle Ages. The Minor Arcana are connected to the four suits which are Wands, Cups, Pentacles and Swords.
The Major Arcana represent important life events, lessons, karma, and fate. These are the things in life that are more set in stone. The Minor Arcana represent everyday life experiences including more temporary challenges, obstacles and successes.
The Major Arcana
The Major Arcana consists of symbolic representations of your soul’s journey on its path through life. Each card carries an archetypal theme that represents an important lesson, experience or chapter in your life.
Because these cards are connected to fate it means that this experience is one that’s a spiritual calling, or initiation, for your soul. Each card has a number, planet, zodiac sign and element associated with it which can produce a deeper interpretation.
The first card of the Major Arcana is the Fool. It represents the start of a new journey towards developing something. The number for this card is zero. This is because it represents the infinite possibilities and potentials that can be born into existence.
We then continue on through the Major Arcana, also known as the “Fool’s Journey”, starting with the Magician and ending with the World. The cards in between represent all the stages, experiences and lessons you will encounter along the way.
The Minor Arcana
The Minor Arcana consists of four different suits known as wands/staves, pentacles/coins, cups and swords. Each individual suit consists of fourteen different cards. Ten of which are numbered 1 – 10 and the last four cards are the Court cards, which include the page, knight, queen and king.
The Wands are connected to the element of fire and the zodiac signs Aries, Leo and Sagittarius. The wands represent passion, ambition, creativity, inspiration, intuition, strength, power and resilience.
Wands is a very active suit. Each card represents passionately taking action towards a particular goal. This suit is deeply connected to manifestation and the realization of your dreams and goals.
The Cups are connected to the element of water and the zodiac signs Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces. The cups represent emotions, love, relationships, intuition and the subconscious mind. This is a very heart-based suit and each card represents a different emotional state that you may experience. That also includes the emotional ups and downs you experience on a daily basis in your relationships and within yourself. The search for emotional fulfillment is the general theme of this suit.
The Pentacles suit is connected to the element of earth and the zodiac signs Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn. The pentacles represent earthly matters including money, material resources and possessions, the physical body, career and home.
This is a very goal-oriented suit. Each card represents steps in the process of building something in the material world through hard-work and consistent effort.
The Swords are connected to the element of air and the zodiac signs Gemini, Libra and Aquarius. This suit represents communication, ideas, the exchange of information, truth, clarity, intelligence and strategy. So it is fair to say it is connected to the mind and the way you communicate or express yourself. Each card represents a specific state of mind and communication style. The goal of this suit is to gain ultimate clarity and to know the real truth of different life situations.
Numerology of the Tarot Cards One to Ten
Starting out you should learn about the meanings behind the numbers associated with each card. This will really help you to better understand what that card signifies in a reading. The numerology of the tarot is at least as important as other associations. This is because it represents the general energy and vibration of the card.
New beginnings, the seed of potential, fresh starts, leadership, independence, confidence, the creation and birth of something new.
Relationships, cooperation, feminine energy, partnerships, intuition, sensitivity, emotions, grace, balance, duality, decisions.
Creativity, communication, inspiration, connection, creative self-expression, engaging, dynamic, innovative, youthful.
Stability, practicality, hard-work, responsibility, building foundations, following a traditional process towards creating long-term success, dependability
Challenge, change, conflict, excitement, adventure, competition, adaptability, risk-taking, freedom, and interaction.
Balance, harmony, compassion, unconditional love, the heart space, empathy, support, nurturing, care-taking, and healing.
Researching, inner reflection, inquisitiveness, mindfulness, seeking wisdom, intellectualism, being analytical, spirituality.
Abundance, success, achievement, drive, determination, high energy, larger than life, ambitious, endurance, power, karma.
Transformation, enlightenment, divine wisdom, attainment of higher knowledge, completion of a journey, acceptance, centeredness.
Death and rebirth, duality, the beginning and the end, individualism, self-sufficiency, unity, the completion of a cycle, realization.
The Significance of the Court Cards
The Court Cards can represent different people in the reading, as well as different versions of yourself as it relates to the situation in question. Court Cards can be tricky to read. For instance, it can be hard to decipher between when they represent other people and when they represent yourself. It’s also important to take into consideration the suit of the Court Card when interpreting the meaning. The best way to approach reading Court Cards is to use your intuition and trust your instincts.
The Page can represent a child, someone young or a very youthful, innocent energy. It can also represent a new idea and the characteristics you need to embody to pursue this idea. Lastly, it can represent a message or communication that’s coming your way and what the purpose of this communication is related to, depending on the suit.
The Knight can represent a teenager or young adult who’s just getting out into the world and exploring what the world has to offer. The Knight represents that action is being taken and the kind of action will depend on the suit. Because the Knights are still young and not fully matured, their actions can also be immature, impulsive or even unpredictable.
The Queen can represent an adult who’s matured and experienced and has developed their skills/suit to a point of expertise. Even though the Queen is a traditionally female figure, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s representing a woman, as it can also represent a male. The Queen is essentially someone who’s matured and in a nurturing, caring, feminine, supportive and even “behind the scenes” role.
The King can represent an adult who’s fully matured and has developed their skills/suit to a point of mastery. Just like with the Queens, the King is a traditionally male figure, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s representing a man. The King is essentially someone who’s mature, experienced and in a role of leadership, taking charge, taking action and being the provider or protector.
How to Read Tarot
The tarot is meant to give guidance and insight into certain questions you have in your life. This is why it’s best used for asking specific questions, as a specific question will give you a specific answer.
When first starting out it may be best to start by asking a simple question. Next, you shuffle the deck and pull one card to interpret. There are different shuffling methods for the cards which you can experiment with to find the best one for you. Some practitioners will also “cut” the deck into two halves and then put them back together. The bottom half on top of the other, and pull from the top of the deck.
When you feel comfortable you can start to use different card spreads. The most popular of which is the “past, present, future” three-card spread. To use this spread you would start by shuffling the deck. Next, you pull three cards and lay them out next to each other horizontally. The first card represents the past, the second card represents the present and the last card represents the future outcome.
This spread can give you insight into the past of a situation, what’s occurring right now, and what will potentially occur in the future. For a more advanced approach you can use the nine card Work Cycle spread for deeper insight into a current problem or situation.
Know that nothing is necessarily set in stone when it comes to certain outcomes in the tarot. Many times you can change your outcome. You do this by changing your actions, perspectives, thoughts and emotions. The tarot is merely a guide to help you gain a deeper understanding of life, and how you can better navigate and manage certain situations.
Asking the Right Questions
To get the best guidance from the tarot is to make sure that you’re asking the right kinds of questions. Remember that tarot is very symbolic and metaphorical. Therefore typically a “yes or no” question will not yield the best results.
Instead, try asking questions that are more geared towards what you can do in a situation. For instance, something you need to know will yield better results. Using the tarot as a tool for guidance, rather than an absolute answer to your life, will help you to be more open-minded with your interpretations.
Choosing the Best Deck for You
Purchasing your first tarot deck is an exciting experience and the first step on your journey towards reading tarot. The challenge comes with choosing a deck, as there are many options. It can feel overwhelming to decide on just one.
If you’re just starting out then my recommendation would be to start with the Rider-Waite tarot. Most decks and tarot books are based on the meanings and symbolism associated with this deck.
Once you learn and master this deck then you will be able to read any other deck, as most of them are based on the Rider-Waite. Although some more modern decks may represent certain cards a little differently than the traditional way.
Having a clear understanding of the associations and symbolism of each card will give you a strong foundation to start building your tarot reading practice.
Tips for Finding Your First Deck
- Choose a deck that calls to you
- Find a deck with a theme that inspires you
- Choose a deck where the artwork speaks to you
- Follow your intuition and instincts
- Choose a themed deck when you’re ready to learn how to read more with your intuition
- Choose a more complicated deck when you’re ready to expand your current knowledge level
- Make sure the deck feels good in your hands and that you can shuffle it well
How to Form a Connection to Your Deck
Once you make your final choice of which deck to purchase, it’s time to get to know your deck. This is when you form a connection with it. Every deck is going to have a different vibe and a different way of communicating with you.
The only way to learn these things is through using and connecting with your deck on a regular basis. When you first get your deck and open up the box, take out your cards and go through each one.
This allows you to see your deck as a whole. Over time you get a feel for the cards and the deck itself. If you want to get creative you can recite a short message of “welcome” to each card. Much like you would with someone new you meet, you introduce yourself to your new deck.
You can also do things like cleansing the energy of your deck with sage. Another idea is reciting a sacred prayer over your deck in order to initiate your tarot learning journey. Once you’ve made a connection to your deck, start to do daily readings. That is a great way to familiarize yourself with how it communicates to you.
Begin your day by shuffling the deck a few times in order to make sure it’s shuffled well. After that, cut the deck, ask a question and pull a card. Note which card comes out, how it connects to your question and any insight you received from the card. Pay attention to what comes up in your day after that. At the end of your day, go back to your card to see if anything stands out to you.
Doing this every day you will soon get a good idea of how your deck communicates to you. You can also meditate on the cards to gain deeper insight. Another approach is to put a card under your pillow to channel messages through your dreams.
Practice Reading for Others
First, you should become familiar with the cards, and the way your deck communicates with you. Second, it will be good to start reading for others. This is a great way to test your skills and see how accurate your interpretations are.
You can do this with friends and family or you can join online groups which are supportive towards beginners. This allows you to connect with others and expand upon your skill sets.
Lastly, you should remember that learning tarot is a process and a journey that will take time, patience and practice. Try to enjoy the process and have fun with it.
Ready to start practicing? Check out this guide to easy to-do three card spreads that are perfect to get you going. When you have gotten a bit more into how you do readings you are ready for bigger challenges. Have a look at this introduction to the ten card Celtic Cross, this guide to the seven card Horseshoe spread or the nine card Work Cycle as spreads for more advanced readers.
Featured Image Credit: Roberto Viesi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons