Often, when people begin to learn tarot, it seems quite simplistic – you learn the meanings of each card, shuffle, lay a few down in a pretty pattern and they will form a cogent reading. It’s not until you delve a little deeper that you realize how complex the system of tarot really is. Here are some tips to help you explore tarot interpretation and to make you a better reader.
1. Learn the Basic Meanings
Surprisingly, I have encountered many people who think that learning each card’s message is unnecessary. They tell me airily, “Oh I don’t need to learn all that stuff, I’m psychic.” That may well be, and for the occasional, truly gifted person it might work. However, they are few and far between. It helps, in a way, if there is a common tarot understanding. In other words, the essential meaning of the card is universal. So learn your basics.
2. First Reactions
Never dismiss your first emotional reaction upon seeing a card. It is always valid. Disappointed? Then study that card in depth. Scary? Explore ALL the meanings — you many be surprised.
3. Look at the Images
Familiarity with a deck can mean that we begin to take the images for granted. Try to look at them each time with a fresh eye. In that way you will learn to apply the imagery to the question. Look at the juxtaposition of any people in the cards. Are they interacting? Turning away from each other? Avoiding each other’s gaze? What about the weather? What color is the sky? Are the trees being blown by an autumnal gale? How might that affect the interpretation of the card?
4. Analyze for Pattern
Keep seeing the same card appear in readings, even for other people? Then know that it is important to you, the reader. Take some time to study that card in depth – it has personal meaning for you. How about when three or four of the same number cards turn up – and don’t forget to count Majors in as well? Why might the number five be dominant in a reading? Or how about three Queens? What might that mean for your client? What if the majority of the cards in the spread are Swords, or Cups? How would that affect your interpretation of the cards?
5. Incorporate Elemental Dignities
Have a look at Elemental Dignities as demonstrated by Paul Hughes-Barlow on his site Super Tarot. This is a fascinating subject that teaches how the suits help or hinder each other. For example in a three-card reading where there are two Cups and one Wands, then water (emotions) will dominate fire (action). The Wand card, however strong it appears is weakened.
6. Incorporate Numerology
Having an idea of the spiritual progression of numbers is always useful in interpreting tarot. In the tip above, where I mentioned the number five… then more than two cards numbered five (including the Hierophant) means that the seeker is facing an inordinate number of challenges, or even one big challenge that overshadows all other aspects of his life. If the outcome card is a ten, then it means that the current phase is ending and another reading will be necessary. Knowing your numbers will help you tremendously.
7. Find the Story Thread
Every tarot reading tells a story, even a one-card reading. Several cards will offer you a more complex story and it is your job to find the thread and give it a little tug. This can be difficult until you have lots of reading practice under your belt. I find it helps to get the client involved — very often they will offer a clue almost accidentally. The Celtic Cross is an excellent story-telling spread.
8. Use a Journal
Any time you have a breakthrough, an insight or learn a new aspect of a card — write it down. Any time you have trouble with an interpretation, write it down. These short notes are extremely helpful to your future self, believe me. Use a tarot journal for study, recording and analysis.
9. Understand the Archetypes
The Major Arcana are based on archetypes – that is universal templates that appear in all cultures and societies and go back to the time of Plato, who first identified them. Many studies have proved over and over that they are indeed a valid concept. The archetypes in tarot represent the life stages that we all pass through. There isn’t enough scope in this article to go into this fascinating subject but you, as a tarot reader, would do well to assimilate some knowledge of the archetypes. You may never have to refer to them in your readings but understanding the Majors and what they really represent will add great depth to your interpretations.
All tarot decks incorporate symbolism. A symbol is a pictorial depiction of something else (think of traffic signs) – although that doesn’t mean you will automatically know what it is. Some tarot symbols are based on quite obscure mythology or spiritual concepts. It is worth exploring some of the more common ones, such as color, the appearance of birds, trees, animals, etc.
11. Traditional vs Modern
Tarot readers of the days of yore had a different idea of the meaning of tarot cards. It also depended on which occultist held the most sway at the time. Obviously times change and therefore some of the old meanings have no place today. However, it is interesting to delve back into time to compare old and new, so set aside a period of study and do just that. Having yet another layer of meaning is always useful.
12. Delve into your own Life
As you get older, your life experience increases accordingly. If you find that a card or a group of cards reminds you of a situation in your own life, then use that experience in your reading. You don’t have to reveal the source to your client. In the same way, other readings that you have done in the past may also resurface. Most human experience is universal, i.e. the things that have happened to you also happened to many others. Pay attention when a memory bubbles up – it will be relevant.
Whether you use just one or two of these suggestions or build all of them into your tarot study, you will find your effectiveness as a reader improve with each level of understanding. Never stop learning.
“Tarot-ically Speaking.” Tarotically Speaking.
“The Tarot: Traditional Meanings for the Cards.” Auntietarot.