A Beginner’s Guide to Tarot Cards

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The last few years have seen a resurging interest in all things witchy, tarot cards among them. For some, tarot is a handy party trick, a way to help a friend make connections they might have otherwise resisted. For others, the tarot is sacred, a powerful tool with which to direct one’s life.

Though tarot cards have taken on a mystical meaning in the cultural imagination, they were originally intended as more of a parlor game. The cards have been used since at least the mid-15th century; the earliest recorded decks originated in various parts of Italy. Not until the 18th century was the tarot used for the divinatory (or occult) purpose we know it best for today — Antoine Court and Jean-Baptiste Alliette are credited with popularizing tarot “readings” in Paris in the 1780s.

Between those who think it’s a joke and those who think tarot cards are actual magic lies a vast group who find them insightful and fun, if not necessarily supernatural. Whether it becomes a hobby or a full-time job, tarot reading (for oneself and for others) can be an illuminating way to pass the time.

What do I need to read tarot cards?

First you’ll need a tarot deck. The most popular and well-known deck is the Rider-Waite, drawn by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith and published in 1910. These cards are known for their simple imagery, their simple color scheme (featuring lots of yellow, sky blue, and gray), and their symbolism. Many people recommend the Rider-Waite deck for beginners, as the cards’ meanings are so often intuitive — and when they’re not, plenty of interpretation guides exist in books and online. Many decks, including the Rider-Waite, come with a little sheet of paper defining each of the card’s most common interpretations.

Though it’s the best-known deck, the Rider-Waite is far from a beginning reader’s only option. The Wild Unknown deck is particularly pretty, though — fair warning — a bit less intuitive for newcomers. The Morgan Greer deck is a bit like the Rider-Waite on steroids: The symbols are similar, but the faces are bigger and bolder and the colors more vivid and varied. There are modernized, diverse decks and Game of Thrones-themed decks. What’s most important is picking a deck with imagery that interests you, with symbolism you can interpret. You’re the one who’ll be using them, so they have to fit your personality and style.

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What do the different types of tarot cards mean?

Though design varies greatly, all tarot decks are uniform in a couple of ways. Each includes 78 cards divided into two groups: the major and minor arcana. The major arcana are the deck’s 22 trump cards and, when pulled during a reading, typically refer to more major influences and revelations. These cards don’t have suits and instead stand alone, representing significant life events and/or figures in a person’s life.

The minor arcana, by contrast, refer to more everyday matters and influences. These 56 cards are divided into four suits: wands, swords, pentacles, and cups. (Occasionally, tarot decks will employ other terms, like “coins,” for pentacles, but these are direct substitutions for the four original categories.) Each suit represents a different facet of life. Typically, wands symbolize creativity and passion, swords symbolize intellect, pentacles symbolize work and money, and cups symbolize emotion. There are other groupings here, too; each suit is also aligned with a grouping of astrological signs, such that wands = fire, swords = air, pentacles = Earth, and cups = water.

These meanings can come into play where cards represent people and their zodiac signs, but since we’re beginners here, the meanings you’ll most often draw from are the functional definitions. For instance, a three-card spread that includes three pentacle cards strongly suggests an issue having to do with money. (More on the types of spreads in a moment.)

How do I prepare the deck?

Much of this is up to the deck’s owner and what feels right to them, but there are a few practices common to most tarot readings. If you’re reading cards for another person, you’ll want to ask them to give you a question or prompt what they’re curious about, and hold that question in mind while you shuffle the deck — also known as “clearing” the deck from prior inquiries and readings. (Examples might include: “When will I find love?” “Am I on the right career path?” “How do I end my writer’s block?”)

You might then ask the person you’re reading for (also called “the querent”) to cut the deck, again focusing on their question. We like this variation because it allows the querent to feel connected with the deck themselves, but some readers will cut the deck for the querent. Either way, you’ll then pull as many cards as you need for your spread, arranging them between you and the querent — or just in front of you, if you’re reading for yourself.

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How do I read the cards?

If you found yourself asking what a “three-card spread” is, this is the section for you. There are lots of ways to read tarot cards, and often the directions that come with your cards will include pictures of the most popular spreads. These include the simple three-card spread, the Celtic cross, and a seven-day spread, but you’ll soon learn that there’s a spread for any situation, and you can always make up your own, too.

A three-card spread has the reader pull three cards from the deck after it’s been shuffled and halved by the querent (more on that in a moment). Usually, the first called pulled represents the past, the second represents the present, and the third represents the future. How those timelines are interpreted depends on the reading and the question being asked — “future” might mean tomorrow or it might mean 10 years from now.

Another common use for tarot cards is a daily card reading, wherein a single card is pulled from the top of the shuffled deck and used as a reminder or a guideline for the day ahead. This can be a very helpful practice for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with the tarot deck and the cards’ meanings.

But what does it mean?

It’s important to consider each card’s individual meaning, but it’s essential to consider the vibe and symbolism in the spread as a whole, too. Especially in larger spreads, there’s as much information to be gleaned from the overall picture as its pieces. If you’re reading for someone else, this is an opportunity to work with them — the more pressure you feel to mind-read, the more challenging this will be. Reading tarot doesn’t make you psychic, which should come as a relief: It’s okay to ask the subject questions about the cards and to brainstorm together ways in which the cards might apply to their original question. Sometimes the cards won’t match up at all — the querent asks about money, but you pull two cups cards and “the lovers.” This might suggest what they really wanted to ask you about was their love life. (Who doesn’t?)

There are lots of ways to read tarot, but all of them require practice. Learning 78 distinct cards takes time, particularly when so many of them have multiple possible meanings. But the more you read and touch the cards, the more familiar they’ll become and the easier it will be to use them as a tool to better understand yourself and others.

How do I learn more?

If you’re looking to advance to the next level of tarot, there are a number of books you can buy and classes (online and off) you can take to sharpen your interpretation skills. Jessica Dore, a popular tarot reader and author of Tarot for Change, periodically offers online courses. Little Red Tarot also offers an eight-week course on a sliding scale. There are also many free lessons available on YouTube, like those by spiritual adviser Mystic Rainn and John Ballantrae, who has a very soothing accent.

A Beginner’s Guide to Tarot Cards