Maybe you’ve just bought your first deck, perhaps you’ve been gifted one, or the amazing power of an internet search engine has directed your curiosity to this page, but either way, here’s what to consider if the idea of reading tarot has you giddy as a goat on a warm spring day.
The deck: A breakdown
A tarot deck is comprised of 78 cards. 22 of these are grouped into the Major Arcana, and the other 56 make up the Minor Arcana which are divided in turn into 4 suits; Cups, Wands, Pentacles and Swords. Within each suit, there are 14 cards; Ace to Ten, then the court cards; Page to King.
Arcana means secret or mystery, so the 22 Major Arcana cards (sometimes collectively referred to as trumps) represent major secrets; in other words, life-changing lessons. These lessons are depicted through Jung’s archetypes; the concept of a personality or character that creates a framework for growth and development. These archetypes are represented from key 0, The Fool, and follow their journey through the Major Arcana to where they reach emotional and spiritual maturity with key 21; The World.
The Minor Arcana (or pips) represent the smaller day-to-day aspects of life. These events are more transient than the Major Arcana, but still hold significance.
Each one of the 78 cards holds a traditional meaning. Alongside these meanings, each suit bears its own theme. Cups, for example represent emotions, intuition, relationships, and creativity, while Swords represent action, communication, and the intellect. Within each card you’ll also find a wealth of imagery; figures, animals, plants, colours and symbols. Astrological influences sneak in there too! And to round it off, the number of each card also bears relevance. Phew!
This quick breakdown of a tarot deck may already have you feeling a little intimidated, but how deep you dive into studying this form of divination is entirely up to you. Tarot reflects the language of the collective unconscious—a rabbit hole if ever there was one—but learning the basics is easier than you may think. ‘All we need is just a little patience,’ as Guns N’ Roses like to croon.
"Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” - Molière
Your deck: Which one?
Some tarot readers subscribe to the belief you must be gifted your first deck. Perhaps this harks back to the WBI (the World Before Internet) when decks could only be found in bricks and mortar stores, and very few of them, too. Nowadays decks are readily available. I personally believe that if you’re drawn to something, you don’t need someone else’s permission to pursue it. If you want to immerse yourself in the fascinating world of tarot, choose a deck and begin!
But with so many decks out there, how do you begin? One of the most famous and familiar decks is the Rider Smith Waite, whose imagery has been used as a basis for hundreds of decks since its publication in 1909. It’s the deck I began with, and still use today. Because I connect so well with it, I’ve chosen all my subsequent decks on its imagery. If you’re starting out, it’s the deck I’d recommend, simply because of the depth of its symbols, colours and imagery. You’ll find a lot of tarot books use it for illustrative purposes too, and because it continues to influence so many new decks, a good grasp of the RSW allows you to try out new decks without feeling like you might have to start learning each card’s meaning from scratch again.
Your notebook: What to consider
Next up you want to grab yourself a notebook. (Stationery junkies rejoice!) You can go as simple or as fancy as you wish with this, but bear in mind the following; there are 78 cards in a deck, and as your understanding of each card develops, so too will your notes, thoughts and observations, so consider this when it comes to the size of your notebook. You might like a ring-binder so extra pages can be added, replaced or moved around. A simple lined notebook might suit, or something far more elaborate and creative. What’s important is how it resonates with you. You’ll be carrying this around for a long time to come so make sure its robust and has enough space to fit all your notes.
I started out with an A4 spiral bound notebook. I had one page for each card, with a print out of each card stuck to the top of the page. By the time I’d written out the traditional meanings, symbolism, correspondences, and my observations, the pages filled up pretty fast. I ended up taping sheets to the bottom of the pages, and the notebook was soon bursting. If I could have a do-over, I’d choose a ring-binder. I did consider transferring it to digital, but cutting out that tactile pen and paper aspect didn’t resonate for me. I also realised it would be a lot of work, so the notepad remains as it is, bursting at the seams, but chock full of tarot goodness.
Many people also choose to journal with each card. I used this technique and found it really deepened my connection. If this sounds like something for you, then you’ll either need a larger notebook, or use a second notebook just for journaling. To gather a few ideas for both journaling and your tarot notebook, search tarot journaling, or spiritual journaling on YouTube. I promise you’ll discover journal and notebook inspiration in all shapes and sizes. As a creative, the look and feel of my tarot journal is very important to me. A blank, lined notebook was never an option, so I decorate and doodle as I go along. Whatever style you choose, make sure it’s one that inspires and resonates. If you click your way to the Tarot Journaling section on my website, you’ll find journal templates to download for free. There’s also further advice on journaling with tarot which might be of help.
Ready? Let’s go!
Most decks come with a guidebook. Some are tiny wee things with just a few keywords for each card while others provide a far more thorough explanation of each individual card. My RWS came with a Little White Book (LWB). I needed a magnifying glass to read it, and to be honest, nothing about the LWB inspired me so I left it aside. At that time I was sitting a six-week tarot course, so I didn’t need the LWB, but if it’s the only reference you have for traditional meanings, hang on to it. (And get yourself a magnifying glass).
At this point, I’ll direct you to the resources page on my website. Here you’ll find a list of recommended tarot books. If you want to get right under the hood of your deck, I’d recommend Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, or Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot. Along with the traditional meanings, both authors get into the nitty-gritty of each card. Again, work with what feels right for you. If you’re happy to stick with the LWB, go with that. There’s also endless, free information on the internet. Biddy Tarot is definitely worth bookmarking. I also have Tarot Quick Reference Guides for free download. These cover the Majors and Minors, and once printed, can easily be slipped into the back of your notebook to keep at hand.
Okay, so you’ve got your deck. It’s out of the box and in your hands. You’re excited. And maybe a little nervous. Isn’t it great? Grab a cuppa, claim a chair, and to begin, flip through the whole deck. Sip and flip until you’ve worked the whole way through. Look without expectation or intent. Simply enjoy this very first hello.
Now it’s time to start chatting.
Begin with The Fool. Take a close look at the picture and all it contains; figures, plants, colours, symbols, elements. The pose of the figure, their expression, clothes. The white dog. What about the weather, the environment? Soak it all up without hurry.
Crack open your shiny new notebook (yay!) and write down your initial thoughts of The Fool. What’s happening in the image? How does it make you feel? What message do you think it holds? Does it feel positive or negative? What does the weather, background or colour signify? What jumps out at you; a colour, symbol, the figure? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, you’re simply journaling your own interpretations.
Now you’ve had a good poke around, grab your LWB (or quick reference guide/book/website of choice) and read the traditional meanings behind the card. It may or may not match what you’ve written, but again, it doesn’t matter. Compare the traditional meaning to your initial impressions. What matches? What doesn’t match? How does this resonate with you? Does the card now hold a more positive or negative feel for you?
(At this point, you might like to further investigate the symbols, elements and astrological correspondences within the card. If you’re working out of a LWB only, the internet will be your friend for this sleuthing.)
Once you’ve written down all your impressions, pop the card in your notebook and bring it with you. As you move through the day, try to connect the message of the card with what you experience. Where does the energy reflect in your day? Does it appear in the people you meet, situations you experience, or did you catch its vibe in a song, or a piece of writing? You might see it on the screen; mirrored in the character or plot of a TV show, or in a social media post. Wherever you find the card mirrored in life, take a note!
Tarot in Motion is a game I like to play when I’m stuck in a queue, traffic, or just letting my mind wander. I try to match cards to people I can see, music, signs or even the situation I’m experiencing. As you work through the deck, you’ll have more and more reference points with which to play. Give it a go!
My recommendation with this getting-to-know-you phase is one card per day. As I mentioned earlier, tarot is the language of the collective unconscious, so it needs to percolate through that busy brain of yours without rushing. You might prefer one card over two days, or one card a week. Whatever pace you choose, be sure not to rush it, otherwise you’ll lose track of the meanings and could also miss out on those fun Tarot in Motion moments.
At the end of the day, take a little time to reflect on what you’ve learned. If you’ve more to journal, do so. How do your thoughts on the card differ to your initial reaction? Did you experience the card in motion today? Write down all your thoughts, and as a final step, congratulate yourself on a job well done!
Reversals: It's your choice!
Reversals are when a card is drawn upside down, and in that reversed position, the card holds a different message. More often than not, this message is a less favourable one than the upright position. Overall, reversals represent blockages, and until it’s addressed, the subject may find themselves stuck and unable to progress.
Some readers won’t read with reversals. It’s a personal choice. I use reversals, and find they’re of great help in ascertaining clients’ obstacles. But when you’re starting out with tarot, the idea of another 78 meanings can seem very daunting. You’ll find however, that the majority of reversals represent the negative aspects of an upright card. Take the 3 of Cups as an example. Upright, this card represents celebration, friendship, and creativity. Reversed, it warns of an affair, over-indulgence, too much socialising, or blocked creativity. So as you can see, learning the reversed aspects of a card isn’t as overwhelming as you might fear.
Make your own decision on learning reversals. I favour studying upright and reversed meanings at the same time, and found analysing the card in the reversed position an interesting exercise. I regularly found myself feeling dizzy or slightly nauseated when doing so; something about all those figures standing on their heads, and cups losing their contents brings an entirely different energy to a card!
So, there you have it. You’re on your way. Of course, this is only the beginning, and no matter how many years we read tarot, I think we’ll always be students of this fascinating subject. I still discover new aspects appear every time I do a reading and it’s what appeals to me most about tarot. The word Arcana really does sum up the intangible magic surrounding the cards!