The first impression that newcomers to the tarot cards often receive, if they’re serious about learning, is “These things are complicated” (and they would not be wrong). You aren’t going to digest them at one sitting (or even 100, for that matter), you have to approach them as you would eating an elephant, one well-chewed bite at a time. The time-tested way of doing that is to get a reliable list of keywords from a recognized authority and assimilate it through protracted contemplation and practice – readings and more readings, for yourself at first but ideally for other people who can give you objective feedback. Punctuate those “real-time” episodes with exposure to the best literature you can find and even more deep thought. Eventually, the meanings that ring truest for you will percolate to the top of your head and become part of your inventory of trusted “plug-ins” that will instantly fit many situations. The modern theory that the honest truth of a matter can be found in whatever notion pops up spontaneously at the time by simply looking at the cards won’t get much of a sympathetic hearing from me. At best, I see free-associating from the visual images as secondary to acquiring and applying a solid knowledge base; it may add spice to the narrative but by itself it frequently makes for a rather thin sauce. Intuition is a catch-all word for “inspired guesswork” that doesn’t always bear up under more seasoned scrutiny; I usually won’t take it any farther than “SWAG” (Scientific Wild-ass Guess) territory by wrapping the accumulated verities of my prior experience and learning around it. Don’t waste your time and money on those “Learn Tarot in Three Days” books; there is a brilliant lyric from an old country-rock song by the Goose Creek Symphony that goes: “Don’t go buyin’ no-one’s answers if your question was for free.” And, at least for the moment, my answers are free.
The second tenet of the card-reader’s catechism after “Know thyself” is “Know thy stuff.” You will no doubt realize early in your tarot journey that you have a burning passion for the art of reading and will feel the compulsion to build an accessible stockpile of knowledge to fuel the fire. This was recently presented to me in the form of aphorisms such as “Know your cards,” “Know your spreads,” and “Know your context” (that is, the nature of the inquiry being presented to you). Another staple in the new reader’s repertoire of skills is the creation of a written journal to capture insights and experiences gained from use of the cards. How far you choose to take this is up to you; if you have a reasonably robust memory, your most insightful observations will coalesce over time into a nucleus of interconnected wisdom that will benefit little from being documented; the mere sight of a given card in the layout for a reading will trigger a set of vivid associations that don’t have to be looked up. In fact, pulling out a book or binder during the course of a reading can be the “kiss of death” that can kill any spontaneity in the occasion (unless you’ve informed your sitter in advance that you’re likely to be doing it as part of the learning curve). Besides, it’s a lot of work to assiduously scribble down your daily thoughts when you’re not all that likely to ever go back and look at them. (As Alice might have said if she were a curmudgeon and not a little girl, “Tediouser and tediouser!”) I recommend leaving the practice behind as soon as you’re confident in your ability to navigate without training wheels and a set of “how-to” guidelines.
So, you have your new deck in hand (don’t try to spread yourself too thin by getting several at once). The Prime Directive at this point is to simply use it. Many writers recommend going through the entire deck laboriously dwelling on each card in series (perhaps one-a-day just like “taking your medicine”) as if rote repetition will pound their meaning into your head. My gut reaction to this advice (after “Ugh!”) is “Don’t do it” (at least not as a daily grind). None of the cards exists in a vacuum, they are all part of an inspired continuum, and they really shine when combined with their mates in imaginative ways. I suggest taking your “A-list” of keywords and doing simple two-card readings by randomly bouncing different cards off one another to see what kind of creative synthesis you can come up with. (In this one case it’s probably a good idea to capture any truly compelling impressions in writing since they can be ephemeral and are sure to elude you when you try to recall them on-the-fly). When you get bored with that, try simple “story-boards” (see my previous posts on the subject) which will have you creating short anecdotal narratives in no time. After that, you’re on your way!
Which brings us to the subject of spreads, those formal layouts that present the cards of a reading in a coherent structure that typically involves discrete “positional” meanings for each card. A simple scenario might be:
Card #1 – “What should I do?”
Card #2 – “What (or who) will assist me?”
card #3 – “What (or who) will oppose me?
Card #4 – “What will be the outcome of my actions?”
A current practice that seems to be gaining traction touts a “no layout” approach to reading; just throw down cards at random until intuition tells you to stop and then fashion a story out of them. Beginners will be completely at sea with this approach, and should stick with short, straightforward positional spreads like the three-card line, usually read left-to-right (“past/present/future” is a reasonable way to begin) until the desire for more information asserts itself and automatically demands larger layouts. Don’t be shy about creating your own basic spreads; all you need is a topic area, a set of questions you want answered, and a visual arrangement that pleases you.
This is a good point at which to mention a few technical wrinkles that you’re sure to encounter in popular textbooks and during your online forays. Most of them weren’t in vogue when I was learning, so you will have to draw your own conclusions (but of course I will offer my opinions). The first of these is the reading of “reversed” cards in a spread, those that land upside-down as a result of the shuffle. This practice is often considered “taboo” for beginners, at least until a firm handle on the more usual meanings is attained, and some people avoid it at all times. My advice: “Do it!” as soon as you’re comfortable with your grasp of the upright meanings; reversal doesn’t alter the fundamental interpretation of a card, it just tweaks the “mode of delivery” (oblique, delayed, weakened, etc.) It can add considerable depth and subtlety to your readings and take you down avenues of inquiry that you might not explore otherwise. (You can see my more evolved thinking on the subject in previous posts.)
The second major departure from the norm as I knew it is the use of “clarifiers,” extra cards that are drawn when those in the original pull resist interpretation. My advice: “Don’t do it!” Clarifiers can have a nasty habit of causing more confusion than they correct, unnecessarily complicating the picture. Instead, take tarot author James Ricklef’s recommendation to heart when confronting cards that defy immediate understanding: “Let them simmer in your consciousness, they will eventually make sense; they always do.” While this isn’t a path to instant gratification in the middle of a reading, it will make you a much better reader in the long run.
Another twist on the “extra card” scenario is the inclusion of things like “jumpers” (cards that fall out of your hand when shuffling) and “shadow” or “base” cards that are drawn from the bottom of the deck rather than the top to show hidden factors in the matter. My advice in the first instance is: “Don’t bother with them.” If a card is intended to play a part in the reading, it will show up in the spread. Just stuff your jumpers back into the deck without looking at them and continue shuffling. I see jumpers as a byproduct of clumsy handling; besides, the way I shuffle, I don’t always get single jumpers, I sometimes wind up with a whole “frog-pond” of them! Regarding “base” cards, my suggestion is “It depends.” I don’t normally consider them, but I have created spreads where they serve a specific purpose. Once again, they can represent “information overload” when the more conventional use of reversals will give you the same kind of insights in more precisely-targeted ways.
The subject of esoteric correspondences will most certainly arise as you expand the scope of your studies. Links between the classical elements of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) and the tarot suits are woven firmly into the fabric of modern tarot, so you would be well-served by absorbing the concepts as soon as you can. The dominant view is that Wands relate to Fire and the qualities of enterprise, ambition and enthusiasm; Cups are connected to Water and emotional affairs of the heart; Swords embody Air and the realm of mental pursuits; and Pentacles equate to Earth and purely practical matters like money, material possessions and property. Beyond that, unless you are already versed in the ways of astrology and esoteric number theory, you can save the nuances of sign and planet placement and Pythagorean philosophy for a later time.
A final word on off-limits topics. It is generally conceded that, unless one has the requisite qualifications and credentials in addition to expertise as a diviner, it’s best to stay well clear of questions seeking financial, medical or legal advice that could expose the reader to liability proceedings if the actions recommended by the cards go awry. My advice (taking a cue from ancient navigation maps): “Beware! Here be dragons.” There may be ways to steer around the pitfalls while still getting useful testimony from the cards, but I would say they’re beyond the reach of beginners. A less risky proposition is the subject of “yes-or-no” questions. There is a commonly-held opinion that the tarot is an ineffective tool for this purpose because it likes to tell stories rather than give concise “go/no-go” answers. I’ve found that if I qualify my pronouncement with “Yes, but . . . ” “No, unless . . .” or “Maybe, if . . .” I can get worthwhile mileage from such readings. Another way to do it (although it runs afoul of the dubious claim that there are no good or bad cards in the tarot) is to assign a “Yes,” “No” or “Maybe” meaning to each card and do one-card pulls for your answer; however, it has been noted that one might just as well flip a coin. Still, even a more complex spread can yield an overall impression of “yes-leaning,” “no-leaning” or “inconclusive” that can be useful to the querent.
I’m happy to answer any questions you have about this post; just ask them in the Comments so others can benefit from our dialogue.