The simple answer is that tarot is nothing more or less than a pictorial guide to our soul's journey as it travels through this plane of existence. Each card represents a snapshot of life and its possibilities. If we study them with an open and thoughtful mind, we can use the symbolism contained in each card to tap into our subconscious and its deep wisdom to be better informed about our lives and make better decisions with that knowledge.
There are few divination tools as widely known as the tarot. The iconic 78 card deck has a long history of use. But many people get overwhelmed when they first try to take in the tarot meaning of some of the symbolism on the cards or have some general confusion about what tarot cards mean. This guide aims to take away that confusion to help novices better answer the question, “What do tarot cards mean?” and become adept in using them as a tool to improve their lives.
If you've browsed a bookstore, a metaphysical shop, or even an on-line store, you've seen that there are a wide variety of decks available. However there is no consensus on what the best tarot deck is. That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering tarot decks for beginners.
First, in order to be a true, full tarot deck it has to have both the Major and Minor Arcana, with the Minor Arcana further divided into four suits. Sometimes a tarot deck might have more than 78 cards because the creator decided to include a variation of one card (multiple versions of The Lovers for example) to better reflect the users of the deck or because they felt an additional card was needed to complete the feel of the deck. One of the most famous examples of this is the Happy Squirrel card, which started appearing in several decks after the airing of an episode of the Simpsons featuring a tarot reading. The card had never existed prior to that episode.
In general, if a deck has less than 78 cards or differs too much from the standard 22 Majors/ 56 Minors with four suits format, then it is an oracle deck not a tarot deck. Oracle decks are wonderful tools for help with guidance and developing your intuition too, but they have their own set of meanings and symbols that vary from deck to deck.
You can find decks that are Major Arcana only (22 cards), which can be a great introduction to the tarot, and very useful even when you are a seasoned tarot reader depending on the type of reading you are doing. But if you want to fully explore the tarot, you will want to select one with both the majors and minors present.
There are three main styles of tarot decks. Most of the tarot decks available are a variation of one of these three, though decks that combine elements of two or even all three do exist.
The first type is the Tarot of Marseilles, also called the Marseilles Tarot. It is the oldest style of deck, with the first modern version of it printed in the early 1700's. The distinguishing characteristic of this deck is that the minors have a uniformly abstract depiction. It isn't too far off from the way a standard deck of playing cards looks, but with a lot more abstract ornamentation surrounding the suit's symbols. Because of this, it might be a more challenging deck to learn from if you are a beginner. But with a little patience, you can learn to understand their meanings.
The second type is the inspiration behind the majority of the tarot decks available today, the Rider-Waite-Smith. Printed by the Rider company in 1910, the cards were illustrated by Patricia Coleman Smith, following the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, who was both a mystic and a scholar. If you've seen a tarot deck in a movie or television show, chances are good that the deck depicted was the Rider-Waite-Smith, that's how iconic its imagery is. Many modern decks are based around the imagery and meaning of this deck, making it ideal as a starter deck. If you get familiar with the Rider-Waite-Smith, you'll be familiar a lot of other decks out there.
The third major type of tarot deck, the Thoth Tarot, was conceived by (in)famous occultist Alistair Crowley with the imagery created by Lady Freida Harris. Crowley wanted to create a deck in line with a mystic revelation he had regarding a text he later referred to as “The Book of Law.” This deck is chock-full of esoteric imagery, sacred geometry, as well as references to kabbalah and numerology. The meanings of the cards are related to the ones found in the corresponding ones in the Rider-Waite-Smith, but there are differences in nuance, as well as the order of the cards, to more closely hew to Crowley's mystical vision. Starting with this deck will also give the beginner some exposure to other metaphysical topics.
Although the Rider-Waite-Smith is often said to be one of the best tarot decks for beginners (if not the best deck to start out with), not everyone resonates with the artwork or imagery in the deck. And that's OK. The best tarot decks for you are the ones that incorporate the classic meanings, whose imagery/ symbolism connects with you clearly, on both and artistic and spiritual level. One person's perfect deck might be another person's pack of interesting but otherwise unengaging pictures.
First, figure out what sort of imagery engages you. Are you drawn towards the classic feel of the Rider-Waite-Smith or the Tarot de Marseilles? Do you like images with a moodier edge to them or do you prefer something softer? Does the mythology of a particular time and place call to you? Or do you want something that reflects a more modern era, with more diverse depictions in the imagery? Do a little research, both online and in a store to see what the cards look like. Take note of images that really connect with you and read up on the reviews for the decks that call to you the strongest. It's probably a good idea to avoid decks that have multiple reviews saying the majority of the imagery is unconnected to any of the classic meanings of the cards. Those will be very challenging for a beginner. Narrow your choices based on your research.
How to pick the best tarot deck once you've narrowed things down? Trust your intuition! After all, you will be working heavily with your intuition when use the cards. Trust your instincts on what feels like a good match to you. Also remember that while it's best to stick to one deck while you are learning, people often do pick up multiple decks eventually.
It's not uncommon for people to feel a little intimidated when they first hold a tarot deck in their hands—78 cards can seem like a lot! But remember, no one is born knowing how to use tarot cards. We are however all born with intuition. Your intuition is your strongest ally in learning how to do a tarot reading.
Deck designers purposefully utilize elements in each card's design to tap into our subconscious. Even if we don't understand all of the symbolism, our deeper knowing makes a connection to the aspects of the cards we most need to see. Of course, time and practice will help us further refine our understanding of the cards' meaning so we can get the most out of the reading. This guide will lead you through steps to build upon your intuitive knowledge to help hone the tarot in an effective tool for life.
One of the first things to address before doing a tarot reading is to try to get clear with what it is that you want to know.Specific questions will give you more focused answers. If you were at a doctor's appointment you know the best way to get at the root of the problem would be to lay out the details of your symptoms as clearly as you can. Just walking in and saying, "Something hurts. Fix it," would lead to a lot of wasted time on everyone's part. So, if there is something specifically that's troubling you, it's worth your time to craft your question to address your needs.
Of course, it’s fine to do general readings too. Going back to the doctor analogy, remember that regular wellness visits help keep you in good health. They can catch a problem in its early stages before things get out of hand. General readings can tip you off to things that might become an issue if left unaddressed.
This also is a good time to point out that it’s best not to approach the details that the cards give you as “fixed”. A good analogy is the beloved classic, “A Christmas Carol”. Ebenezer Scrooge got a glimpse into what the future might be if he did not change. As we know, he did change his attitude and thus changed his future. The cards can reflect the energy around you at the moment and give you a peek into what might logically progress if nothing changes. But the power to change and learn is always in your hands.
Keeping that in mind, there are definite questions not to ask the tarot. Here are some common examples:
Yes or No questions: These come from that idea of a fixed future we just talked about, so they aren’t helpful to ask. Instead rework your questions so you can get more information about how to act. For instance, “Will I get a job?” is not as helpful of a question as, “What is helpful to look for when applying to a job?”, “What can I do to improve my chances of getting a job?”, or “What kind of work will suit me best?"
Death or Health Questions: Inquiries that relate to either death or health tend to have very black-and-white answers. Asking whether a loved one will regain health and return home from the hospital, for example, won’t generally offer very much insight since you can’t do very much to affect the outcome of another’s health struggle. Rather than asking about the outcome of health issues, try pursuing a line of questioning that will help you take ownership over the situation. If you know your loved one is suffering, ask the tarot how you can offer support in order to increase the chances of regaining health.
Anything that takes the power out of your hands: Tarot is meant to be a tool for self-knowledge. That self-knowledge is meant to empower you to make the best decisions. Any questions that give away your power or agency aren’t helpful. Remember, the future isn’t set in stone and the tarot can only reflect the energy of the moment and where it might flow next based on that. Trying to ask it a question where the answer must be a fixed outcome abdicates your free will to change things.
Tarot spreads help organize the message the cards have for you. The interpretation of a card’s meaning is strongly affected by the position they appear in. For instance, drawing The Tower for a position meant to explain past influences would indicate a sudden change that radically shifted the way you saw the world. Drawing it for a position that asked you to consider hidden influences would be a warning to go back and check on something you think might be solid but could fall apart very easily. Drawing it for a position describing your hopes and fears might be the tarot’s way of telling you that you are letting anxiety getting the better of you.
There are so many different tarot spreads out there, it can be a little dizzying to choose which one to use. If you are new to tarot it’s best to stick with simple tarot spreads. These give you time to get to know your cards, see how positioning affects meaning in individual cards, and how simple combinations of cards also affect interpretation. Once you get the hang of basic tarot spreads, you can move on to more complicated ones.
One of the best tarot spreads for beginners is the one card daily draw. Every morning, shuffle your tarot deck with the intent of finding out what the day’s energy might bring and pull a card. You can greatly increase your understanding of the tarot, by pairing this with some journaling. Just jot your impressions or feelings from the card, then turn to a tarot resource (like the little white book that came with the deck or this web guide) and make note of some of the traditional meanings of that card. In the evening come back and see how your impressions and the traditional meanings fit with what happened in the day. It’s also helpful to go back through your tarot journal regularly and notice if there are any patterns to your draws (Is the same card coming up over and over again? Are there lots of cards from the same suit? Are mostly major arcana cards turning up?) and reflect on what the overall energy for your life was during certain time periods.
Three card spreads also make terrific starting points for beginners to better understand how positions affect meanings, while still being powerful enough for seasoned tarot readers to use regularly. There are a variety of three card tarot spreads for guidance out there, but let’s start with looking at one of the better-known ones, the past-present-future spread.
The first card represents an event from the past. It’s energy directly shapes the energy of the second card, the present. That energy in turn will shape the energy of the future. It is up to you to decide how to work with or shift that energy.
The past-present-future spread is a very linear one, but not all three card spreads work that way. Let’s take a look at a three-card spread that is helpful to use with questions about love:
The first card represents your view on a particular situation. The second represents the view of the person you are in a relationship with. The third represents common ground between both of your views that you can work with to build a better understanding.
Here are some articles you may want to look at as resources when doing a love reading:
Once you are comfortable with three card spreads, you can move to larger tarot spreads for guidance. Five card spreads are a good choice for extracting a deeper level of nuance from your reading while still keeping things simple. You have more positions to work with and more relationships between the cards you have set out to glean information from.
A good, all-purpose five card reading to start off with is an abbreviated form of the classic Celtic cross.
The first card represents you as you are now. The second card is the past and the third is the future. So far, this isn’t too different from the past-present-future spread we discussed early. The nuances come in with the next cards. Card 4 represents influences you might not be aware of that are shaping the situation. It’s not uncommon to have this card shed light on things that might be blocking you. It can also help clarify card 2. Card 5 represents potential ways you can grow from this situation. Compare it with the card 3 to get a clearer picture of how to best use the upcoming energy to your benefit.
The first card represents how your career is going so far. The second card represents what you need in a career that you might not be getting in your current situation. Card three shows you your strengths as they relate to your career. Card four shows where you have the potential to grow in your career or what skills you might look to develop. Card five suggests what your career might look like a few months down the road.
The Major Arcana is composed of 22 cards. Each card is meant to represent a distinct point in life. All of us are somewhere on the Fool's journey from naivete to full understanding. And when one quest ends, a new one begins. Typically, when you pull a Major Arcana card in anything other than a daily spread, it is the Tarot's way of letting you know that the issue the reading is about is connected to one of the larger or reoccurring themes in your life.
The Minor Arcana is further divided up into four suits, usually called swords, wands, cups, and pentacles. The suits are representations of the elements, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. While the Major Arcana cards are meant to represent big life events, the Minors are meant to represent smaller more day to day events. For instance, the Chariot and the 8 of Wands are both associated with speed, but depending on the other cards in the reading, one might indicate going full speed ahead towards a life goal and the other might mean speedily getting a task at work done.
Each suit has their own areas of rulership. Swords rules over communication and the intellect. Wands rules over personal reputation and career. Earth rules over financial and physical matters. Cups rules over emotions and matters of the heart. There can be some overlap in areas individual cards touch, but if you do a reading where there are cards that overwhelmingly come from one particular suit, take a look at their area of rulership to see if you can fine tune the cards’ meanings.
Each suit has cards that go from one (Aces) to ten. They also have a court associated with each of them, usually made up of a King, Queen, Knight, and Page. Traditionally, people see the appearance of a court card in a reading as referring to one specific person who shares physical or personality traits associate with the cards (for instance the King of Swords could be a blond man or a man in a traditionally intellect-driven field, like a lawyer or scientist). But it can also refer to traits you need to develop or find in yourself to deal with the matter at hand.
While each of the cards have their own distinct meanings, a lot of the specific shades and nuances of the reading come together when you look at how they fit with other cards in the spread. For instance, the Hierophant reversed can mean a renegade flouting conventional mores or a dogmatic individual. Which is it? The surrounding cards can give you clues. If you see the Hierophant reversed paired with something like the Hanged Man or the 8 of Cups, that will indicate more of a rebel. If you see it paired with the Emperor or 4 of Pentacles, you know you are dealing with someone firmly entrenched in their ways. Don’t forget to take positioning into account as well as was discussed in the Types of Spreads section.
Think of the cards in a spread like chapters or characters in a larger story and see how they fit together. Remember to trust your intuition in making connections as well. Especially in some decks, you might see motifs or symbols come up again in different cards. What do those symbols mean to you personally? Finding a repeated symbol on a card that might at first blush seem like an outlier in a reading can help you make a connection that brings the narrative the cards are trying to show you into a sharper focus.