For The Novice: How To “Read” a Tarot Card

XMy own fascination with the cards in the Tarot deck date to my teenage years, some 40 years ago. My first girlfriend in high school was an avid reader—if by “reading,” we mean leafing through our dog-eared copies of Eden Gray and Arthur Waite in search of meanings to the cards—and many were the hours we spent sitting on the floor of her parents’ apartment, laying out Celtic Crosses and scratching our heads in confusion when we couldn’t make heads or tails of the outcome: “Ten of Swords? Ruin? Destruction? That can’t mean me—I’m only 16!”

While there are doubtless among us certain “adepts” who have a greater aptitude for the cards, for the rest of us, there is no substitute for study and meditation to acquire a richer understanding of the Tarot. Joining a Tarot community or forum—and there are many online—can be a great way to exchange ideas, and to learn from more experienced readers. Enter into Tarot study with an open mind, don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions, and be wary of anyone who thinks he knows “all the answers” of Tarot; after 40 years, I can assure you that it is a lifelong curriculum, and one that we never stop learning from, no matter our level of accomplishment.

One attribute that’s most essential to achieving “peak Tarot,” however, is a quality most sorely lacking in an era of short attention spans: Patience. That’s because Tarot covers so many metaphysical disciplines—alchemy, astrology, numerology, psychology, comparative religions—and a great deal of research is required of the student to acquire a thorough working knowledge of the cards. Because of this, compiling a comprehensive library of metaphysical works—and needless to say, setting aside the time to read them—is strongly encouraged. I’ve included a list of recommended titles on this site (click here) to get the beginner started, and to share with more advanced readers those texts that have proved beneficial to me over the years.

When reading cards for the first time, start simple—with, say, a single card as we discussed the other day. Turn off your smartphone and go completely “off the grid” for a spell, concentrating entirely on the image that appears on the card and what it “communicates” to you. Something may come to you in a matter of seconds, or not for many hours, but if you keep at it diligently, and free yourself from distractions during the process, you will eventually see results. As you become more proficient, you can work your way through three- and.four-card spreads, and then to more complex configurations. I have no idea why so many novices—present company included, many years ago—start their Tarot studies with a ten-card cross. It appears simple enough in design, but in truth, it’s trickier than it looks!

Another thing: reversed cards can lend a great deal of nuance and detail to a spread, but when first starting out, as practical advice I’d suggest avoiding reversals until you have a good acquaintance with the cards and their meanings in their “upright” positions. (Baby steps, and all that.) Plenty of experienced readers don’t use reversals at all, and there’s no law of karma that requires you to do so.

An additional tip the aspiring reader should bear in mind: as anyone who has ever undergone Jungian dream analysis knows, your understanding and appreciation of Tarot will be greatly enhanced over time by keeping a journal of your activity with the cards, with notes on the cards themselves, the positions they occupy in a given spread, your intellectual and emotional responses to  the spread, and/or any intuitive inisights you think you may have received. As with reading, the simple process of writing can make you more “Tarot-literate” over time.

Of course, the passage of time can also be a  great teacher—many of us become more comfortable “in our own skins” as we grow older—so when a card such as the Ten of Swords appears in a reading nowadays—well no, it doesn’t impart feelings of good cheer, but it no longer strikes us as a threat; now we see it merely as a bit of gruff advice—anything from “lose the martyr complex” to “keep your day job because you’re gonna need it!” As with nearly all schools of metaphysics, Tarot seeks to teach and to enlighten us, to lead us to still waters, and to inspire us to love others and to perform good works; if we are troubled by certain of its images, it is only due to our own misapprehensions.

Dante DiMatteo

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