How to learn to read the tarot

This page will not tell you the meanings of the cards, nor will it give you a variety of canned layouts. What we will tell you here is the best way we have found for learning to read the tarot. (Beginners note: the “o” in tarot is long as in “open”, and the final “t” is silent.) But first, a few frequently asked questions . . . (updated 6/3/03)

Q. Do I have to wait until someone else gives me a tarot deck?

A. No. Some people believe that you should not buy your own tarot deck - that it must be received as a gift. Personally we think this is nonsense. With the hundreds of different decks currently available you are not likely to get the perfect deck for you if a friend ever gets around to buying you one.

Q. Can I trust tarot readings from telephone or on-line services?

A. While some telephone or web-based readers may be legitimate I believe you take more of a chance when you can not meet the reader face-to-face. Can you trust them to give accurate readings? Possibly. The reading services may have absolutely NO minimum requirements for the people they hire as “readers”. They will hire anyone who will promise to work a set number of hours per week and promise to keep people on the line (and paying). A woman called my store once and ask to buy a tarot deck with the meanings printed on the fronts of the cards because she was planning to be a telephone tarot reader and could never remember what the cards meant. A good reader I know worked for one of the telephone services for a very short time and then quit because she was being forced by her employers to keep the people on the phone as long as possible.

Q. Can I read the tarot for myself?

A. Probably. Most people can read for themselves, but some can not. Some people will have a tendency to read only what they want to see in the cards which isn't much help. If you find yourself doing this you might want to find a friend who also reads the cards (or learn with a friend) and exchange readings. Friends and relatives can read for each other as long as everyone is open and honest and tries not to let known factors influence the reading too much.

Q. Do the cards predict the future?

A. There is a saying in astrology, “The wise man rules his stars, the fool obeys them”. The same could be said for the cards as for the stars. The tarot only tells you what might happen or could happen. Your future is up to you. We read the tarot to find trends in our lives. If we see and outcome card that we do not like that is not a signal to worry - it is a signal to look at the rest of the layout for clues of what you should do to avoid this outcome which you do not like. A less than satisfactory outcome card (or cards) is not to be feared, but to be welcomed because now you know that you need to put a little more effort into improving your life or changing directions. If you like what you see in the outcome cards then that is an indication that you are on the right track - keep doing what you are doing.

The Lessons

Step 1. Choosing your deck

We suggest that you use one of the variations of the Rider Waite deck. Aside from the standard Rider Waite you can also find the Universal Waite (same drawings with softer colors), the Albano Waite (same drawings with harsher colors), and a few fancy versions such as the Golden Rider and Rider Tarot Deluxe (with gold-leaf edges). The standard Rider Waite comes in a variety of sizes. We recommend the Rider Waite variations because they have long been the “industry standard” upon which most other tarot decks are based. If you learn to read with a Rider Waite deck you will be able to easily transfer those skills to any other standard tarot deck (78 card deck which includes 22 major aracna cards).

Step 2. Bonding with your deck

Your tarot deck will become your friend, so treat it kindly from the beginning. The first thing you should do is remove the little booklet which comes with your deck and, without looking at it, put it away in a safe place. If you have already read the booklet or other books about tarot reading that's ok. Just put them away and do not consult them during the first three weeks of these exercises. Also remove any advertisement cards or blank cards and put those away with the booklet.

You will want to either wrap in in a nice cloth and/or place it in a nice box. Some books will tell you that the deck must be wrapped in a silk cloth but this notion comes from non-pagan card readers so what you wrap your deck in is really up to you. You can then place the wrapped deck inside a cloth bag or in a box. There are many nicely decorated and carved boxes available made especially to fit tarot decks. It is up to you whether to leave your deck in the cardboard box in came in or to store the box elsewhere (with the little booklet that comes with the deck) and wrap only the cards. You can sprinkle a little aromatic oil on the outer bag or box. (Don't over do it and stain your cards.)

In order to really bond with your deck try to keep it with you 24 hours a day for at least a week - longer if you like. You can begin working with the deck immediately - you do not have to wait until the end of this week. You can keep it under your pillow or close by your bed at night and carry it inside your shirt, jacket, in a pocket or purse during the day. This exercise will make a world of difference in transforming your deck from a box of cardboard to living, working tool/friend.

Those who are experienced at reading the tarot will tell you that getting to know the cards is a life-long process. They will continue to reveal new meanings to you as long as you use them. Getting acquainted with them, however, can be done with the four-week process outlined here. You may begin at any time, but some find it more helpful to begin on a New Moon, allowing their understanding of the cards to grow as the Moon waxes to Full. You will need a notebook in which to record your interpretations of the cards, and six, small slips of paper to use as “book marks” in your deck. You will not attempt to do any readings with the cards during the first three weeks.

Step 3. The first week

Begin one evening just before you go to bed. Shuffle the cards well. Tarot cards are usually not shuffled the same way that playing cards are shuffled. You will want to avoid bending them. Shuffle them either in your hands or lay them face down on a clean surface and mix them around. You may want to have a special cloth on which to lay out your cards and shuffle them. After the cards are shuffled, keeping them face down, deal them out into seven piles. Stack the piles back together using the slips of paper to separate them. Put the deck away for the night.

The first week's exercise is done immediately after arriving home from your day at work or school. If you have errands to do when you get home do them first then do this exercise, but do not take time to relax or meditate. The important part of this first-week exercise is to do it immediately after stopping your regular, daily activities.

Take the first group of cards from the top of the deck, keeping them face down. Have your notebook handy. Write: Week One at the top of a page. Turn the top card in the pile over and look at it. Write down the name of the card. If you are not sure of the name at this point write down a description. Most importantly write down what you think the card means. What kind of feeling does the card give you? If you aren't sure guess. The Rider Waite deck was carefully designed to trigger images and feelings within the reader. Take about 30 seconds for each card. Do this for each card in the first pile in your deck. Keeping the separation papers in place, move this pile to the bottom of the deck.

Each of the next six days do the same exercise working through one pile of cards each day until you have worked through the whole deck by the end of the seventh day. After recording your impressions on the seventh day shuffle the deck again. Again deal it into seven piles, add the separation papers and put the deck away for the night.

Step 4. The second week

On each day of the second week you will be working through the piles and again recording your impressions of the cards with this difference: Instead of immediately working with your cards after the end of a hard days work take a couple of minutes to center and ground. Do this in a quiet place. Sit up straight, close your eyes. Feel the tension drain out of your body as you connect with the Earth below you. When you are relaxed, take the first pile from your deck, and starting with a fresh page in your notebook (labeled: Week Two) write your impression of each card just as you did for Week One. Take a minute or so for each card if you need it, but if you get a clear impression sooner do not feel you need to continue looking. Each day in this second week be sure to take a few moments to ground and center before recording your impression of each card. On the seventh day, again shuffle and separate the deck as you did for the first two weeks.

Step 5. The third week

Your tarot exercises for the Week Three will take a little more time than they did in the first two weeks. Find a quiet place, ground and center, and spend about 15 minutes relaxing and clearing your mind. Be sure to let all tension drain away. You do not have to have an “empty mind”, but try to keep peaceful images in your mind of forests, fields, waterfalls...or whatever relaxes you. At the end of this 15 minute relaxation/meditation being your begin your third week of recording your impressions of the cards. Start on a new page of your notebook labeled: Week Three. This time take as long as you like with each card. This completes your three week get-acquainted period with your cards.

Step 6. The ethics of tarot reading

The most important thing to understand about the tarot is that it will not tell you what will happen, but only what might happen. Most pagan tarot readers believe in “free will” to some degree - which means we can make choices in our lives - the entire course of our lives is not already laid out and cast in stone. Even if you believe that some parts of your life is pre-determined there are still many options which present themselves to us every day. Some people find it difficult to read for themselves or other people that they know well. Others have no problem staying objective. You won't know until you try. You may also find that you have some good days and bad days. This is normal. A lot of people find the Court Cards (Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings), the most difficult to understand. If these come easily for you, great! If they do not there are many books available which can help you understand these cards. We do not go into individual card interpretations on this website because that information is readily available elsewhere.

When you are doing your first readings for other people be honest and tell them you are just learning and that you may have to refer to the guide book. Try to rely on your own intuition as much as possible though. You may want to look at the book after the reading to see how your interpretations compare. There are no wrong interpretations. If you read several books of tarot interpretations you will find a wide variation in interpretation. That is because each person writing the book wrote from his or her own intuition.

When you do a reading for someone other than yourself be sure to explain to them that the cards will not, “tell their future” - that the cards can only tell them what could happen. Do not worry if your interpretations seem “vague”. When you read for someone else, some of the work is up to them. They may expect you to tell them exactly what will happen, or exactly who they will meet. The cards do not work that way. Some good psychics use tarot cards and they may seem to be getting very specific information from the cards, but this does not have to occur for the cards to tell you what you need to know. If you see a card that tells you that, “there may be a young woman at work who is jealous of you that you need to watch out for” that description may fit many people that the person receiving the reading knows. They may want more details, and you may not have them. Ask them who is the first person who came to mind when you interpreted the card for them. This will be the person that they need to watch out for. The cards are designed to bring forth information which is already in our subconscious and the subconscious of those we read for. Do not be afraid to show the other person a card which has you stumped. They may get the meaning quickly themselves.

Generally - if the outcome card or cards of a reading are favorable then you look at the other cards for indications of how to stay on this track. The other cards may give hints at opportunities that will present themselves or pitfalls to avoid. If you do not like the look of the outcome cards then look at the other cards for hints on how to change what your are doing, and what to look out for in the future. Again you are looking for opportunities and pitfalls.

Some people will express concern about the Death card before you do a reading for them. Assure them that it does not mean literal death but the end of a cycle or event. This may be one card you want to study in the booklet so that you can feel confident that you will not be frightening people with it.

Generally when you read for another person you will allow them to shuffle your cards. If you would rather not have other people touching your cards you can either buy a separate deck for this purpose or you can shuffle the cards yourself and have your friend concentrate on their question and tell you when to stop shuffling. I do believe allowing the person with the questions to do the shuffling is the preferable choice though.

Do not accept money for doing readings unless you first obtain a license from your local licensing agency. Many cities and counties have strict ordinances surrounding tarot reading. If you read for money without a license you may be breaking the law and you will definitely cause any local, licensed readers to be angry with you. They have worked hard at learning their skill and may be paying large sums for license fees each year and they will happily report anyone they know of who has not followed the same, proper procedures. Accepting “donations” does not get you around the laws - most laws will state this clearly. Some are local laws for tarot readers are fair, and others are either unfair or un-constitutional. If you are an experienced reader and considering becoming licensed feel free to write and I'll be happy to share my experiences with you. There is nothing unethical about being an experienced, honest, licensed and paid tarot reader. Professional tarot reading is just like any other profession in which one is paid for their knowledge and skill.

Step 7. The fourth week

During the fourth week you will begin doing readings for yourself and immediate family members and close friends if they are willing to help you get started. You can keep the little booklet with you during this time but do not refer to it until after you have gotten your own impression of each card.

Each morning shuffle your deck and pull three cards from it. Always ground and center before you shuffle your cards for a reading. You may also connect with the deity or guide of your choice for assistance with your readings. While you are shuffling be thinking, “What do I need to know for today?” You can either deal them from the top, the bottom, or just pick them at random - whichever feels right to you at the moment. Lay the three cards in front of you and study each individually. Get out your notebook and write down your impressions of the individual cards and also your impression of what they might mean for you for the coming day. You can look at the three cards as representing morning, noon, and evening, or just blend the messages together for an overall look at how your day will go. Be sure to look at your notebook again in the evening and see if your impressions turned out to be correct. Make additional notes if you like.

Step 8. Intuitive layouts.

The booklet which comes with your deck will have at least one suggested layout, and that is usually the “Celtic (pronounced keltik) Cross”. It is one of the most popular and standard layouts. Practice and learn this one because it is very good for general readings whenever someone asks, “What do I need to know?” If you have a variety of books on reading the tarot they may often have slight variations in their Celtic Cross layout examples. Stick with the one that works best for you, or combine ideas from more than one. Whatever you decide stay with it long enough to memorize the layout and card position meanings.

If you or your friend has one or more specific questions you can still use the Celtic Cross, but you may want to try different layouts. You can buy books with many layout suggestions and they are fun to try, but its also good to trust yourself to make up your own layouts too since its now always convenient to use a book. Practice on yourself first. Before you shuffle the cards come up with a simple question you would like to ask. Close your eyes, center and ground. Try and see how many cards it might take for your answer, and how you might lay them out. Decide what each card position will mean. It could be a simple past/present/future reading, but with two or more cards to represent each phase. You can lay out the cards all in one row, several rows, in a circle, branched out like a tree - absolutely anything that comes to mind yet is not so complicated that you will forget what you are doing before you finish shuffling and laying the cards out.

Also decide whether you will lay the cards out face up or face down. It can be easier to focus on each card individually if you begin with them all face down. But, if some of the cards are not readily revealing their meanings to you, you can change your mind and turn them all over at once to get the big picture. Sometimes it is hard to understand a card without seeing those which fall next to it.

You can use intuitive layouts as additions to a general, Celtic Cross reading. Sometimes you will find that the Celtic Cross brings up more questions than it answers. You can try laying one or more new cards next to the card which is giving you difficulties. Decide before you lay out these new cards whether they will give more background information, hints for the future or whatever seems appropriate. The important thing is to trust your intuition. There is no wrong way to lay out the cards.

Once in a while you will find that none of the cards in a layout are making sense to you. Rather than beating your head against a wall or looking up every single card in the booklet just decide that something went wrong with the shuffling and do it over again.

Step 9. Get out and read!

After you have had a week to practice readings on yourself and a few close friends it is time to take your cards with you to a party or other gathering where you can get some more intensive practice. Be sure to ask permission from the host or hostess before you do this. Let everyone know that you are just learning and are just doing the readings as practice and you would appreciate their assistance if they will allow you to read for them. By letting them know it is practice you will not have to feel shy about using the booklet if you need it and they will not feel obligated to take the reading too seriously. Be sure to let each person know that the cards will only tell what could be, not what will be.

The more readings you do the more quickly you will gain confidence in your readings, so do them as often as possible. Try not to do a general reading for the same person more often than once or twice a month. You do not want anyone to become dependent on card readings for living their lives. There is nothing wrong with doing several specific-question type readings as long as it isn't the same specific question more than once. The tarot is a very good tool when used properly and with confidence.

Additional practice can be found in Learning the Tarot - An on-line course.

For a very good FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Tarot please see Fatima's page.

Free Tarot classes at the Pottery in Port St. Lucie, Florida - first Monday of every month.



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