Tarot 101: It's in the Cards
When I began reading the cards all those years ago, I was eager to dive in but didn't have the foggiest idea of where to begin interpreting each card individually (let alone in combination with any of the 77 others in the deck), so I would simply lay out the ten cards chosen and refer back to the book as I turned each one over. While this did help me to learn their meanings, at some point it became a bit tiresome (largely due to the stilted old school language of my first book, which was full of words like "augurs", "portends" and "concretize"), so I struck out on a more intuitive approach the more confident I became in my skills. Whether you would like to begin reading for others, or are just interested in using the tarot to gain insight into your own life, I'm hoping that the nuts and bolts of tarot reading shared here will be of benefit as you venture into the fascinating world of the tarot.
Choosing a Tarot Deck
Sooo many decks, so little time. There is an endless array of beguiling decks from which to choose. I myself have bought or been gifted a dozen or more over the years, featuring everything from witches and fairies to Tahitian totems. Each deck generally comes with its own instruction manual (some even have each card's meaning printed right on it), but you'll want to have at least one solid book on hand for reference. Almost every book out there on the subject works with the Rider Waite Tarot (aka "Rider Waite Smith" or "Waite Smith"), so unless you positively cannot fathom using a deck of cards featuring anything other than the cast of the Lord of the Rings, I suggest starting with a deck by that name or with the word "universal" featured in the title.
Choosing a Spread
There are nearly as many spreads to choose from as there are fancy card decks. As someone who likes to keep things as simple as possible (and as the mother of an indecisive Libra who has learned to narrow down the choices), I suggest that you stick to the ever-popular 10-card Celtic Cross until you get the hang of things. I have dabbled with several spreads over the years, but I always come back to three that work best for my purposes: the aforementioned Celtic Cross, a follow-up spread that I call "Cut-the-Deck-into-3-Piles-for-your-Past/Present/Future" and, if further clarification is needed, a 5-7 card "Horseshoe" spread.
Preparing a Card Reading & Laying Out the Spread
Some people refuse to let anyone else touch or handle their sacred tarot deck, but I have no such qualms. I keep my cards in a red silk bag and would never let anyone else play around with or handle them unnecessarily but (being neither superstitious nor a germaphobe), I always allow the sitter to shuffle the deck because I feel it is helpful to get their "vibes" involved. Tarot cards are almost always larger than standard playing cards and most people feel a bit clumsy with them, but that doesn't matter... just have them "schmuffle" the cards about to the best of their ability. Spread the freshly shuffled cards out like a fan in front of you, ask them to choose 10, and set them aside. You can also tell them to silently focus on an issue or a specific question that they want answered as they do so but, to be honest, the issue almost always becomes evident once the cards are turned over, whether they concentrated purposefully on it or not. Next, lay them out, face up, as shown in the diagram below and begin to interpret what you see laid before you.
Position and Meaning
Where each card falls in the spread is as important as which card falls there. Using the Celtic Cross diagram shown, the meaning of the position of each card is as follows:
(1) The Significator - this reflects the situation the sitter finds themselves at present (the here and now).
(2) The Crossing Card - this represents the situation which is generating conflict or is "crossing" the sitter at the moment. There isn't always a "conflict" or problem... it's more like a "reason for" card. If the first card shows supreme happiness, for example, this card may show that the reason is a new relationship.
(3) The Crowning Card - this is what is readily apparent or obvious in the sitter's life at the moment. The sitter is aware of it, as is anyone from the outside looking in.
(4) The Base of the Matter - this is the drive, instinct or hope that is behind what was just found to be obvious/on the surface. This card sheds insight on the situation and may even come as a surprise to the sitter, because let's face it, we're all in a bit of denial when it comes to reality.
(5) Past Influences - This will let you in on the recent past or what has been going on in the sitter's life in the days or (at most) weeks prior to the reading.
(6) The Near Future - this describes what to expect in the immediate future... the next few days or weeks.
(7) Where One Finds Oneself ("Significator, Part 2") - this is where the sitter can expect to find themselves in the months to come. This spread is not long term... I usually say it covers 3-6 months (definitely less than a year).
(8) The Views of Others - this card lets you know how others (friends and fam) view the sitter's situation and what kind of response they can expect from them... or why they aren't getting the desired response based on their actions. This is where you get to give your opinion à la Dr. Phil ("And how's that workin' for you?) if needed and blame it on the cards! lol!
(9) Hopes and Fears - this card shows what the sitter hopes will happen but is afraid won't... or vice versa. It basically helps you to get at the heart of the matter as you figure out what's in store for them. For example, if the reading has been all about their love life and the Ace of Cups pops up here, there's a good chance that they are hoping someone will pop the question soon/fearing they may never put a ring on it.
(10) The Final Outcome - the name is somewhat foreboding, but "final" outcome here simply means what can be expected to happen in the next several months based on what you've been doing and/or plan to do about it now that you've been (hopefully!) enlightened by your reading. It is ever so important to remember (and mention) the element of free will here. Once the cards have shown you a pattern and/or a reason behind what has been going on, it is completely within the sitter's power to stay on the same happy path or, if necessary, avoid a potential train wreck.
The Minor Arcana
Most people don't realize that the Tarot deck is just a fancy deck of playing cards with 22 special "bonus" cards (aka the Major Arcana) thrown in to spice things up. The Minor Arcana is made up of 56 cards in 4 suits. The cards with Pentacles (sometimes called "coins") are your diamonds, the Swords are spades, the Wands are clubs, and the Cups are hearts. Each tarot suit includes an Ace, cards numbered 2-10, a Knight, Queen and King, plus an extra Page or "Knave" (a "Joker", if you will)... which is why there are 56 cards instead of the usual 52.
Each of the four suits is also ruled by an element, and associated with a particular arena of life. Cups are ruled by Water and associated with emotions. Swords fall under the influence of Air and are indicators of mental activity and/or health issues. Pentacles relates to the element of Earth and are associated with money/finances. Wands fall under the element of Fire and represent growth, work and creative pursuits. Before you start analyzing each individual card it is important to look at the spread as a whole. Are there a lot of cards with Cups on them? If so, the reading will be focused on relationships, love and matters of the heart. If Pentacles pop up throughout, someone has money on their mind. A preponderance of Wands usually means personal growth or work will figure prominently, and an abundance of Swords could indicate a lot of mental pressure or stress in someone's life. The court cards (King, Queen, Knight and Page) can sometimes represent a situation, but more often than not represent the person you are reading for or someone in their life. Depending on the person's age, Kings and Queens might represent a father, mother, husband or wife. Pages represent a younger person (a child, sibling or friend of the sitter). Knights (in shining armor or otherwise) often pop up in a romantic reading.
There are roughly half as many cards in the Major Arcana, yet they purportedly have far greater influence in a reading. These are often referred to as the "fate cards" and, thanks to the strong imagery, tend to be the cards that freak people out when they appear. I can always count on a gasp of horror when the Tower (which features people diving out of the windows as it to be bursts into flame), turns up in a spread. The Empress, on the other hand, features a voluptuous, motherly figure and therefore only frightens those who have some prior knowledge of the cards. My daughters and their teenaged friends always cringed when she popped up because they knew this might indicate that someone was knocked up (or would be soon). The Empress can, however, also indicate an issue with one's mother. Every card has at least two meanings, which is why you must always pay attention to the surrounding cards. Some people get pale or start sweating when they see the Devil or Death cards, for instance, but unless they are next to each other and/or accompanied by the 10 of Swords, they are not a "bad omen". The Death card most often symbolizes the end of something, often an outdated way of thinking or being, which is necessary to growth in a person's life. The Devil, which in most decks features two people chained together, is actually quite favorable when associated with marriage because it symbolizes a strong or unbreakable bond (a happy spin on the proverbial ball & chain). Helpful hint: one of the ways that I memorized the meanings of these key cards was to go through them in my mind (in lieu of counting sheep) any time that I had trouble falling asleep.
Resources for Gaining Familiarity with the Cards
I have a large collection of books related to the tarot, but the three below are my top picks if you are still in the market for a solid go-to reference.
Tarot: An easy-to-follow illustrated guide to the mystery of the tarot by Jonathan Dee
This one comes with a set of cards that I'm not crazy about (the imagery isn't as clear as the Rider Waite deck), but the book itself is very straightforward and user friendly. There is just enough information about each card, without being overwhelming. It also includes a short section on card combinations and a few simple spreads.
Simply Tarot by Leanna Greenaway
This book may be out of print because Amazon has it listed at a ridiculously high price or used/sold by third parties. This is very disappointing because it is another easy to read introduction to the meaning of each card in layman's terms. A few spreads are included, as well as a brief but entertaining section labeled "Tips and Techniques" at the end, in which she describes various "difficult" clients that you may encounter, and how to handle them.
Power Tarot by Trish MacGregor and Phyllis Vega
This book does not truly fall under the "Beginner Tarot" category, but if you don't care about reading cards for others and just want to use them to obsess over your own future, this is the book for you! It gives a breakdown of the meaning of each and every card card under several useful categories: In a reading, Work, Romance, Finances, Health, Spirituality, and Empowerment. It also has dozens of spreads to choose from, involving a range from one to 24 cards.
How Often Should I Read My Own Cards... or Read for Others?
Read your own cards as often as you want. Everyone gets a little card happy when they are getting started, because it's the easiest way to practice. As far as reading for others goes, my general rule of thumb has always been to wait at least 3 months between readings. There are two reasons for this. First, you want to give it enough time for things to play out and to let knew situations develop. Second, it discourages your friends and family from becoming as addicted to the readings as you may be at first... no need to start an all out Tarot Zombie Apocalypse, am I right??? As is often the case in my DIY blog posts, I feel compelled to end with a final word of warning. Please do not read too much into, or rely too heavily on the cards, especially if you are reading your own six times a day for practice. Always keep in mind that, ultimately, your fate rests in your hands, not in the cards, and they will serve you well. Treat them as a tool which can help you to hone your intuition and thoughtfully guide your actions, and they are less likely to become a weapon of mental mass destruction that controls your every action.
If you would like to learn more about interpreting the cards for yourself or how to read for others, I currently provide a 2-hour Tarot Tutoring Session for $100.
This mentoring session is a hands-on, question and answer introduction to the tarot... you will not walk away a "tarot master", ready to charge for readings. For more information, or to schedule a tarot tutoring session (or another type of reading), visit my website: bethparkermedium.com