Sunday 10 August 2014

How to read tarot cards

1. The first thing you will need is a pack of tarot cards. There are a few online tarot options you can learn on but ultimately, physical cards are better at holding most people's interest. Buy the ones with the most attractive images you can find.

2. When you look at the cards, you'll notice four suits, though not the ones you're used to, and a set of really fascinating looking cards with no suit at all. I expect you're thinking 'What does this lot mean?' That, my friends, is where tarot puts the crunch in the cookie. It may take you weeks, months or years to figure it all out, but here is an overview of what you're trying to achieve.

No. On second thoughts let's take a break for a quick analogy. Do you remember the turtle that swims through space with four elephants on its back, supporting something that looks like a giant's dinner plate? That's a model of the world. The free-standing light-up globe you have at home is another.

The cards in the tarot pack are also a model. They symbolically represent the set of psychological states and/or influences that affect our lives. Most of us, at least in the west* relate easily to the Wheel of Fortune, representing chance. Death, the Devil and the Lovers also produce intuitive responses. The suit cards tend to leave us at sea. It's reasonable for skeptics to ask whether the tarot is really a complete and accurate model of states and influences that affect our lives. The answer is that there are more systematized options such as the I Ching, and no reliable scientific one that I know of. The tarot offers a semi-intuitive and flexible folk model grounded in European culture and suits some people very well. In some respects, it can be what people make it.

* The tarot imagery is based on late medieval/renaissance European culture with some possible influences from other places as well. Westerners often still have partial but usually incomplete connections with the images' meanings.

3. You need to get the tarot model into your head. There are two approaches to this, and I recommend using both of them to some extent, and in the order given.

3a) Read books on tarot. Although actually, you can get quite a long way with Wikipedia. This is a necessary first step and although the authors have varying views on how tarot works most of their pages should be given over to interpretation of the cards. Usually, this will be a mixture of traditional interpretation and a bit of their own systematizing.

3b) Develop your own system. This takes some experience, but it should be a long term goal for serious tarot readers. The model you use in tarot should make sense to you. If you think the way the Empress is traditionally interpreted makes no sense whereas something important is missing, fix it. In my novel, the American Dream, Anat receives a set of tarot cards from her godmother in which all the images have been replaced with her own heroes, mentors and key events. It's a super-personalized tarot of the kind precluded by mass production, but it's something to aim for symbolically.

Pents01.jpg Wands03.jpg Cups11.jpg Swords09.jpg RWS Tarot 11 Justice.jpg

4. While learning what the cards mean, you'll inevitably learn several ways of laying them out (called spreads). Whereas the picture on the card relates to a  psychological state or influence, it's position in the spread tells you what it applies to. Some spreads have positions for past, present and future. Or for 'self' and 'other'. Some are simple and some are relatively complex, but they're easier to learn than the state/influence model bound up in the cards.

5. The last thing you need is a question for the tarot. If your question is something like 'Will Stacey/Tim agree to go on a date with me?' you're out of luck. The tarot doesn't actually predict the future. It may influence it (see below). In any case, why are you using a complex model without yes/no answers when you could be tossing a coin? Pick a question along the lines of 'How might I increase my chances of finding a partner I like?' or even 'How might that job offer 1000 miles from my current home work out for me?' We're dealing with a states and influences model, so the question must be framed in terms of states and influences.

6. Now you have a question, pick a suitable spread, lay your cards out and interpret them. If you followed all the steps above, you'll find you can make an interpretation. And the odds are strongly in favor of you thinking it's a good one.


As we've seen, the tarot model is quite complex, and also pretty flexible. So are our minds. When we apply a question to a tarot spread, our mind brings the meanings of the cards into connection with the concerns, desires and issues we already have. It makes meaning out of a random association. Not only that, but it will be biased towards the kind of meaning we really want to hear (or think we need to hear, sometimes). It will seem like a good interpretation to us because we made it.

This is just one of those prosaic but extraordinary faculties of the human mind. Take any two random words and our minds will link them together, inevitably relying on connections that are meaningful to us. The tarot brings our ideas to the surface and gives us a framework within which to explore them.


Well here's the thing: let's go back to that job you were offered, far from your friends and family. The tarot spread encourages you to sit down and explore your ideas and concerns. Maybe you draw the Queen of Cups and realize your relationship with your mother is of great importance to you. You may decide not to take the job. Or let's say you got the Fool in such and such a position and realized how much you crave adventure. You take the job. The tarot didn't predict your future, but the thinking you did while using it might have influenced your choice. It might have changed the future, and that's power!


It's easy for the superstitious to believe that something in the universe will make sure they get the cards they need to make the interpretation that's best for them. In the absence of known research on this subject, Magic for Skeptics considers this to be beyond the realm of credibility. 

Tarot interpretations do encourage you to explore what you think and want and they're unlikely to give interpretations that are psychologically wrong for you. You wouldn't take that job if you really didn't want to. One of the few things that can go definitively wrong in this kind of situation is when people have overly strong fears or attractions relating to certain cards. Death or the Lovers are common candidates. These could swing someone against or in favor of a decision without going through an exploratory process. And yet the card is meaningless without interpretation. To avoid this problem, it's important to keep the meaning of the cards open and flexible. Death means the end of something, not your physical death, necessarily, or anyone else's. It might signal the end of your old life.

And in some ways, the tarot doesn't give answers at all. It facilitates the exploration of ideas. And if you drew the tarot again, you might uncover different ideas. You could do that, and in some cases perhaps you should. Almost all tarot practitioners would say its best to wait a bit and maybe tweak the question. It isn't usually satisfying or clarifying to add uncertainty to your life by over-riding a meaning you just created. You should also consider whether you really just need to close on a difficult decision and build some kind of meaning around it. Tarot's good at that. It can influence us in our choice of a future and makes our future meaningful, all at the same time.

There is another risk in the power of the tarot to predispose you towards one future over another. Imagine a question traditional fortune tellers frequently had to deal with: 'I've been married for years and no baby. What should I do?' Women and men still ask this question today. Trying to answer it with the tarot can predispose you to waiting when you needed to see a doctor, or predispose you to see a doctor when all you needed was to try a bit longer. The tarot doesn't know how to be right about physical and physiological states, only enlightening about psychological ones, more or less. It's no use whatsoever for decisions that should be made on the basis of material evidence.


Very, very carefully, if only because they may be vulnerable in all sorts of ways and have decided to vest great faith in you or even commit themselves to your authority. Ideally, you should offer your knowledge of what the cards mean and how they work, then encourage them to do their own interpreting. Traditionally, tarot fortune tellers have also relied on insights into human nature, knowledge of local cultures in which age and gender roles and concerns were relatively fixed, and gossip.

Image attribution: All cards by Pamela Coleman Smith, from a 1909 Rider-Waite deck scanned by Holly Voley for the public domain, and retrieved from Wikipedia.

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