There are many theories about how tarot works and why messages from the cards seem to appear out of nowhere. In this post I am going to cover one of the most plausible explanations – Conceptual Blending.
Theories on how tarot works range from the supernatural and mystical – spiritual guides, higher self – to the psychological and just simple intuition. No one really knows the true answer. Conceptual blending seems to be one of the most likely explanations and is one I personally believe provides most of the rationale as to how tarot actually works.
So, What exactly is conceptual Blending?
Creativity expert Michael Michalko’s book ‘Creative Thinkering’ explains conceptual blending from a creative thinking perspective. Michalko states that conceptual blending is widely used in the business world, the arts, the sciences and several other sectors to solve problems.
Is a cognitive process
Involves taking a random stimulus which could be any object that is not associated with your problem in any way.
You think of all the characteristics and attributes of this random stimulus in combination with your problem.
The blending of the random stimulus and the problem causes the mind to try to find links between the two in your conscious and subconscious.
When a link is found this results in a new idea that could not have been obtained from logical thinking. This is creative thinking.
Example of Conceptual Blending in Action
Before diving into conceptual blending in tarot, it is probably a good idea to demonstrate how conceptual blending has actually worked for me rather than read examples in books.
I very recently broke my little toe in a act of idle minded clumsiness. Not the most serious of injuries but very painful and I was advised to rest and elevate my foot. I also like to drink coffee and live in a maisonette (a flat with different levels). I discovered I would make my coffee and then sometimes forget to take it upstairs and going up and down the stairs was a painful chore.
The obvious answer would be to put a visual prompt somewhere I could see that said ‘Remember to take your coffee upstairs!’ But I don’t like sticking things up so I wanted another solution. Using the idea of conceptual blending I chose a random stimulus by closing my eyes, turning around slowly to the count of 10 and then pointing before I opened my eyes. I ended up pointing at some pandemic appropriate hand sanitiser gel.
Thinking about all the attributes of this hand gel combined with the problem of how I could remember to take my coffee upstairs I realised that the container is easy to carry and you can get the gel whenever you want. I could do the same thing if I put my coffee in a thermos flask! Bingo! I didn’t own a thermos flask so this wasn’t something I would have immediately thought of.
After buying a thermos flask I then kept it upstairs to I could have hot coffee throughout the afternoon without having to go the kitchen downstairs. Result.
Would I have thought of using a thermos flask without the conceptual blending? Maybe, but I wasn’t used to using a flask myself so it wasn’t immediately obvious. Conceptual blending helped me solve this issue in a way that I may not have considered for awhile.
Conceptual Blending & Tarot
If you Google ‘Tarot conceptual blending’ you will realise that there is a growing understanding that conceptual blending is being understood as the means by which tarot provides seemingly mystical answers out of thin air. Longtime tarot reader and author Vincent Pitisci has also explored conceptual blending and tarot in several of his books, namely ‘Radical Tarot‘ and ‘Bare Bones Tarot.’
Pitisci argues that the tarot card acts as the random stimulus and that the tarot spread position it’s placed in – the spread being the question separated into all the aspects you need answered – results in conceptual blending. When you read a tarot card you are blending all the meanings of the card and the picture with the question. Your mind will find a link between the two and an answer appears. It is a higher order cognitive process, not a supernatural or mystical phenomena.
Implications For Tarot Reading
So, if we assume that conceptual blending is how tarot works, there are some implications for tarot that it’s worth bearing in mind.
Astrology, Qabalah and other Esoteric elements are not necessary
Esoteric elements of tarot such as astrology and the Qabalah do contribute to the reading. But only in so much that they provide meanings that you can blend with the question. Some people, myself included, read historical tarot decks without using esoteric elements and some people do not use meanings at all. But the tarot still works. It is the meaning added that is important, not the astrology or Qabalah itself. You could use anything to add meaning to the tarot such as the qualities of plants and the tarot still works.
The Tarot Spread is as important as the cards
In many tarot books there is an overabundance of emphasis on the symbology in tarot cards. For example, the red feather in the Fool card in the RWS tarot. There is actually relatively little emphasis on the importance of the tarot spread.
The tarot spread acts as the question. If we assume that conceptual blending is the reason that tarot works then it’s important that the spread positions cover the various aspects required to answer our question. The symbology on the cards is only important in that it adds meanings we can blend with spread positions. But different decks have different symbology yet most tarot decks still work. Therefore, the symbology on the cards is not actually very important.
The upshot of all of this is that we should actually spend as much time designing or carefully choosing our tarot spreads as we do on looking at the cards.
I talk about how to create your own tarot spread here.
There is no such thing as a ‘Correct’ Card Meaning
Because any meanings we attach to the cards work, it is not necessary to learn the ‘appropriate’ card meanings. Buy any two tarot books, each from a different author, and you will find they have different meanings for any particular card. Yet those different meanings will still help you read the card. And some people don’t even use meanings. Whatever meaning you attach to a card will work for you.
Tarot is not a supernatural, mystical process
With conceptual blending, we have no need for a supernatural explanation for why answers seem to spring out of thin air. Now we know it is due to a cognitive process occurring in the conscious and subconscious. Conceptual blending also puts paid to the Catholic Church’s view that tarot is a gateway to demons and other evil spirits.
Tarot is not nonsense
Many tarot sceptics deride tarot as being complete nonsense. Well, we can say that tarot definitely works because we now have a better understanding of how the mind works.
Putting the Theory into practice
Here’s an example of conceptual blending using tarot that I used to solve another issue around my broken toe.
I broke my toe because I banged it off a chest of drawers while walking barefoot. I do not normally wear footwear indoors although I do own a pair of slippers. I needed to protect my toe from further stubbing but trying to break a habit of a lifetime and wear slippers was challenging. I would start to wear slippers but then forget to put them on when leaving my bedroom or living room so I needed a reminder (not a visual cue stuck to the wall).
So, here’s the tarot to the rescue:
I randomly drew the Queen of Wands from the Melanated Classic Tarot and asked the question:
‘How can I remember to put on my slippers before leaving a room so at to protect my toe?‘
So, I looked at the Queen of Wands above in combination with this question. I thought about everything I knew about the Queen of Wands and the artwork. What eventually stood out to me was the cat.
I own a cat and one thing he does – like most cats – is wait and scratch at a closed door wanting to be let in. If I closed a door, he would be there. And that’s how I found a link between the card and my problem. I needed a reminder when I reached the door of the room to put my slippers on. My answer was to place an old slipper or a shoe at each door so that when I reached the door I would see the footwear and be reminded to wear my slippers! It worked amazingly well. Without the reminders I might have banged my toe again (I did bang my foot wearing slippers but my toe was protected. Yes, I am accident prone!)
Conceptual blending resulting in a spark of intuition.
I have used other random objects (a dressing gown and a decorative candle holder!) to find solutions to problems and they have all resulted in answers I would not have thought of otherwise. This conceptual blending stuff really works!
So that’s it then? Conceptual Blending has all the answers?
I believe that conceptual blending is very likely the main reason tarot works but i’m keeping an open mind. I do believe in meaningful coincidences and conceptual blending does not manage to explain to me meaningful synchronicity in tarot. Example, while you are shuffling the deck and a card jumps out. Then that same card is the one drawn or the card in the prominent position. Even more suspicious when that same card appears in single card draws and small spreads repeatedly over a short period of time.
I’m also not suggesting that people who hold a supernatural or mystical view of the tarot are wrong. All beliefs are valid. But when a tarot sceptic comes up to you and says that tarot is BS, you can turn around and say ‘It’s all in the mind.’
Tarot major arcana only readings can be especially powerful. I will look at using only the major arcana cards in a tarot reading; why you would want to do this; how to prepare for a major arcana only reading; and cover some major arcana only spreads.
What are the Major Arcana?
It was the 19th century French occultist Paul Christian who named the 22 trump cards as the ‘Major Arcana’, the word ‘arcana’ meaning ‘secrets.’ Christian believed that the trump cards contained secret spiritual knowledge in their centuries old images.
Tarot historians believe the 22 trump cards were added to a playing card deck to create the earliest known tarot decks. These decks were used for playing a trick taking game and the trump cards would of course ‘trump’ any lower rank cards.
Since the late 18th century when tarot decks were beginning to be used for divination, the trumps/major arcana have held greater significance than the other cards of the deck. The major arcana now are usually regarded as representing important life and karmic lessons. Each of these lessons must be learnt for progression towards fulfilment of one’s path in life.
Why use only the Major Arcana in a reading?
Due to the extra significance normally given to the major arcana in a reading using the full 78 card deck, using just the major arcana can really give a tarot reading increased impact.
The major arcana, used by itself as a 22 card deck, will give you a very direct, clear and quite unambiguous reading. There are some tarot readers who argue that, by not using the full deck, a reading will not be as deep or detailed. But there are no rules when it comes to tarot reading. If you want a no nonsense reading that won’t have you scratching your head, a majors only reading is the way to go.
If there is a really important, potentially life changing issue, where you want to gain clarity and insight, a majors only reading could be the way to go. Or maybe you just want a really clear answer without needing to spent too much time deciphering the card’s meanings. Again, the major arcana by themselves can help you.
The Minor Arcana By Themselves?
Alternatively, if you are dealing with everyday issues and you don’t want to confuse things with major karmic influences, you could just take out the major arcana and use the 56 minor arcana which deal more with ‘normal’ life issues and behaviour. This isn’t sacrilege and there will not be any decrease in the effectiveness of your reading. Remember, there are no rules in tarot reading.
Preparing for a majors only reading
To complete a majors only reading all you have to do is take out the 22 major arcana cards from whatever deck you are using. Then simply shuffle the majors and use them as a 22 card deck. Simple.
There are some majors only decks available but you don’t really need to use these. I just like to use a 78 card deck and take out the majors if I want a majors only reading. Then, if I want to use the full 78 card deck, I just put the majors back in. A majors only deck will not give you that flexibility.
Major Arcana Only Spreads
There are some tarot spreads that are meant to be used only with the major arcana. Of course you could use the major arcana in any tarot spread you want (so long as it has 22 or fewer positions!) The following are some spreads that I have found particularly useful which are only for use with the majors.
Four Winds Major Arcana Spread
This spread can be found in the book ‘Genius of the Tarot‘ by Vincent Pitisci. This is a good spread for really helping you think about an issue in a rounded manner.
North: What are your thoughts and ideas on this issue?
South: What are your feelings on the issue?
East: What inspires you or drives you regarding this issue?
West: What practical steps do you need to think about/do regarding the issue?
The centre card is known as the Quintessence card, the overall message of the reading. It’s found by adding all the numerical values of the other four cards and continue adding until you reach 22 or less. I tend to treat the Fool as 22. In the above example that means adding 3+11+19+1=34. 3+4=7.
7 is the Chariot so the overall message of the above reading would be to focus your willpower and pull all your strengths and assets together to succeed.
Path & Goal Major Arcana Spread
I found this spread in the book ‘Complete Book of Tarot Spreads‘ by Evelin Burger and Johannes Fiebig. It’s unusual in that you don’t randomly choose the cards from the deck. Instead, you choose the card that represents where you are now and the card that represents where you want to be. The third card, The Path, is then found by counting the steps to go from card 1 to card 2.
Spread Positions (from left to right)
Where you stand now
Where you want to be
In the above example, we count from Strength, Card 11 of the major arcana in this deck, to The Sun, Card 19. That’s 8 steps. That gives us Justice, Card 8 in the Alchemical Tarot.
The Witches’ Pentagram
This major arcana only tarot spread goes by several different names but I first learnt it as the Witches’ Pentagram. It serves as a good general overview spread to look at different aspects of your situation. As an option you can find the Quintessence card in the same manner as in the Four Winds spread to give you the overall message of the reading.
Spread Positions (anti clockwise from top)
Top: Spirit – what is your goal?
Left: What do you think about the situation?
Bottom Left: What practical steps do you need to take?
Bottom Right: Where do you need to focus your energy?
Right: How do you feel about the situation?
The Tarot de Marseille Cross
The Tarot de Marseille (TdM) is a centuries old historical tarot deck that predates the Rider Waite Smith tarot. It is a non-esoteric deck meaning that it does not include occult symbolism. The deck was originally intended for playing card games but is now more commonly used for divination. I talk about the TdM in the post ‘Choosing And Buying A Beginner Tarot Deck‘ which is here.
The TdM is most commonly used in France and, traditionally, only the major arcana are used in a reading. The following spread is the Cross which is a good 4 card overview spread that can help with problem solving.
Spread Positions (Starting left to right then top to bottom)
Left: What is in your favour?
Right: What is not in your favour/what opposes you?
Top: Overall synthesis/analysis of the situation described in cards 1 & 2.
Bottom: Outcome/Advice (choose ‘advice’ if you want to think about practical steps to take)
The Open Reading
This last major arcana only spread actually isn’t really a spread at all. The Open Reading is a method of reading the TdM which uses 3 cards but the spread positions are not determined in advance. This reading style is similar to the ‘The Awake Dream’ method I discussed in the post ‘How To Do An Intuitive Tarot Reading‘ which is here. The Open Reading is discussed in the book ‘The Marseille Tarot Revealed‘ by Yoav Ben-Dov.
In the Open Reading, you place the 3 cards down (reversals are not used) and then determine if there are any positions that seem likely such as Passive Thought, Situation, Action. There may not be any spread positions at all and, instead, you look at the direction of gazes, hand gestures, and the direction people are facing as in the Awake Dream method. Card meanings can be used in the reading.
If you want to use the TdM then I highly recommend the Open Reading technique; it takes a bit of getting used to but it is a powerful tarot major arcana only reading style.
The spreads above are all ones i’ve used quite often but i’m certain there are many more. And remember, you don’t need to use a specific spread – just use any spread you like. The type of spread that would work best with just the major arcana would be ones that have general positions rather than narrowly defined positions. The next time you want to do a tarot reading, try using only the major arcana and see what impact this has on the message you receive from the cards.
I am starting with tarot, what do I do? This is a very common question. Based on my own early tarot experience, and what I have learned since, I am going to discuss what is really going to help you start using the tarot cards.
Most of the posts I have written assume you have already begun your tarot journey. However, on social media sites such as Quora, it is pretty obvious from the number of people asking the same question that how to actually start with tarot is a bit of a mystery.
Bear in mind that, as with everything else in this blog, you should only take what works for you and leave the rest.
OK, lets go!
Ignore the tarot myths
The absolute first thing you should do is ignore the tarot myths. I have already written a post on these, “9 Tarot Myths – False…Or True?“, which is here. This post covers some of the main myths which appear over and over again. They are all, for the most part, completely false. In 17 years of reading tarot (as of writing this post), not a single myth (with one exception) has demonstrated any semblance of truth.
But there is one myth in particular which really appears pervasive and persistent, people asking whether it’s true over and over again. I’m talking about the myth that tarot is evil.
I have also covered this myth separately in the post “Is Tarot Evil?” which is here. But I think it’s worth repeating the essentials about this myth again here. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible to repeat the following enough.
Tarot is not evil. The Catholic Church believes that divine guidance should only come from God. So, in modern terms, the Church has spent many centuries trash talking the competition. You will hear devout Christians saying things like ‘God says tarot is EVIL and it’s the work of DEMONS‘
Oh, please. It’s the 21st century, not the medieval era.
Tarot cards are just paper and ink. The decks are printed in their tens of thousands by large publishing companies and used by millions of readers worldwide. Tarot is a huge commercial industry. Tarot today is not powered by demons but by capitalism.
Reading tarot is essentially a psychological process which involves a form of creative thinking known as conceptual blending. Conceptual blending combines the meaning and art of the card, the position in the tarot spread, and a spark of intuition to generate a message. This message is usually something that we could not have arrived at just by using rational thinking. Spirits don’t really get a look in.
I take a closer look at conceptual blending and tarot in the post ‘Conceptual Blending: How Tarot Really Works?‘ which you can read here.
I was raised Roman Catholic and in all my many, many years of reading tarot I have never experienced anything evil- EVER – connected to the cards. I have not encountered spirits, or demons. On the contrary, I have only experienced immense benefits from reading the cards.
So, unless you are a devout Christian, you can bury this myth where it belongs.
Choosing your deck When Starting With Tarot
After ditching the myths, the first thing you need to do when starting with tarot is get yourself a tarot deck. I have written a post on how to choose a deck, “Choosing And Buying A Beginner Tarot Deck“, which you can read here.
However, the key thing to know is you should really get yourself a copy of the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) tarot deck or a deck that closely follows the essential aspects of the RWS. Why? Most beginner tarot books use the RWS to teach. Also, the vast majority of decks published today follow the RWS in terms of meanings so it will be easy to move from one deck to another.
The Rider Waite Smith Tarot is the 800 pound Gorilla
The Rider Waite Smith (RWS) tarot, first published in 1909, is a fully illustrated deck with artwork on every card. This made it very accessible to the general public and this deck is the reason why tarot is so hugely popular now.
The RWS is available in many different editions today, the differences mainly being one of colour. Some popular editions are shown here:
So yes, i’m recommending the RWS. Some people will say you should get a deck that you really like, even if this is not the RWS. This is true to some extent but I firmly believe that you should get a deck you like that follows the RWS closely. Even if you don’t like the RWS, there are many decks that are very close in terms of imagery so find one that suits your taste.
Art is subjective so a deck that everyone on the internet is raving about may not appeal to you. Finding a deck you like means you will be able to forge a much stronger connection to it than with a deck you dislike. Choosing a deck closely based on the RWS will make learning tarot easier.
Avoid Art Decks & Minimalist Decks If Starting With Tarot
Many decks are supposedly based on the RWS but some are closer to RWS imagery than others. Two types of decks for tarot beginners to beware of are art decks and minimalist decks.
What’s an art deck?
Well, my definition of an art deck is one which claims to be based on RWS meanings but strays very far from RWS imagery in terms of it’s artistic depiction. These decks can certainly be beautiful but they are hard to learn with for beginners because they bear no resemblance to the RWS. Here’s an example:
On the left we have the 3 of Cups from the Smith Waite Centennial deck. On the right is the 3 of Cups from the Hush Tarot. The Hush Tarot card has no resemblance to the RWS 3 of Cups at all! The Hush tarot is an excellent deck for an experienced reader and I do use it. However, if you are starting out with tarot and trying to learn RWS symbolism using an art deck such as the Hush Tarot, you will experience only frustration and a headache.
Learning tarot with an art deck is certainly possible from an intuitive point of view but you will will find it difficult to use other decks.
What’s a minimalist deck?
A minimalist deck is one that has either very little detail in the artwork or the artwork is sparse. Being able to use your intuition is very difficult if there is so little detail to latch on to.
Here is the RWS 7 of Pentacles. On the right is the same card from the hugely popular Wild Unknown Tarot. The RWS version has lots of details that you could latch on to and spark your intuition. The Wild Unknown version has the same underlying meaning but the artwork doesn’t give you much to work on. Minimalist tarot decks are best kept for when you are more experienced as card meanings in these decks play a more prominent role in readings than intuition.
Starting with Tarot: Use the Cards everyday
Now that you have (hopefully) found a deck you like that follows the RWS, the next thing to do is form a connection with the cards.
How do you form a connection with a tarot deck?
When you are starting with tarot use the cards regularly, preferably daily. Use them as often as you can because you need to form an intuitive connection with the cards. For this you do not need to know the meanings of the cards. It won’t hurt to learn the meanings as you go along but getting an intuitive feel for the deck is more important at this stage.
What Is Intuition?
Intuition is a combination of our experience and knowledge. When you get an intuitive feeling about something, your subconscious is accessing this storehouse to give you that gut feeling that says ‘pay attention to this.’ Therefore, it is always a good idea to take heed of those instinctive feelings. Intuition kept our primitive ancestors safe from danger and we can use this instinct now. Think of it as our psychic ability.
How To Use Intuition When Reading The Cards
When you are looking at the card, try to keep your attention somewhere between the card and the question you have in mind while also bearing in mind the particular position in the tarot spread (if you are using one.) This usually takes a few moments but don’t be afraid to take some time – reading tarot isn’t a race.
As you contemplate the card and the question pay attention to any details on the card that seem to leap out at you or catch your attention. This is your intuition speaking. As you notice these details you will start to have ideas about what the card is telling you. Make up a story about what the card is telling you.
When you are using your intuition, a card can provide a message that has nothing to do with its actual meaning. And that’s totally OK!
Just go with the flow.
Learning to use your intuition with tarot is quicker than learning all the card meanings but it still takes time and practice. For another method of reading tarot intuitively see the post ‘How To Do An Intuitive Tarot Reading‘ which is here.
So, what’s a good way to regularly practice using the tarot cards intuitively?
Using The Cards: The 1 Card Daily Draw
The easiest way to use the cards daily is to do a 1 card draw each day, either in the morning or the evening. This is how it works.
Each day, at the time that suits you, shuffle the deck and draw 1 card. If you draw the card in the morning spend some moments looking at it. Then keep the card in mind as your day progresses. See if any situation that occurs during the day seems similar to something represented in the card.
If you draw your card in the evening, again spend some moments looking at the card and see if anything in the picture reminds you of something that happened during the day.
By doing these daily exercises you not only become familiar with the cards but you begin to intuitively associate certain situations and energies with particular cards.
Even though I have been reading tarot for many years I still do a 1 card daily draw for myself in the morning. Tarot reading is a skill and I use every opportunity to practice, practice, practice. On the day I began writing this post I drew the following card:
The King of Cups was an interesting draw, Kings are in full control of their element – in this case moods and feelings – and use their expertise in an outward manner. In this case, the King of Cups symbolised my goal of influencing the feelings of the people reading this post! The symbolism that caught my eye here was the tight clenching of the cup (control) and the hand holding out the undine (a water elemental) representing a controlled outward expression of his abilities.
The Daily 3 Card Spread
A quicker way of intuitively connecting with the cards is by doing a daily 3 card reading. This way you learn about more cards daily. You can always do this and also do a 1 card draw.
For my daily 3 card spread I use Situation, Challenge, Advice as the spread positions to get a sense of the day ahead. This is really useful if I already know about the plans for the day ahead, say at work.
If I know there are particular problems that need to be resolved that day I might instead use Root of Problem, Advice, What I resolve to do.
Speaking of tarot spreads…
Learn Some Tarot Spreads
When you are starting with tarot, as well as connecting with the cards, it is really important to learn some tarot spreads that cover a few common topics. It is the tarot deck plus the spread that really give tarot it’s ability to answer questions.
A tarot spread is essentially just the question broken down into the specific elements of that question you want answers to – these are the spread positions. I gave some examples above of some simple 3 card spreads but there are countless other spreads.
Some people will say you don’t need a spread. Even if you don’t use a spread, you usually have something in mind when you put down the cards like ‘What do I need to know about today?’ But, a tarot spread really helps you to find specific answers to your question. I strongly recommend using a spread.
There are tarot spreads for any topic you can think of with any number of cards from 1 to 78 (the full deck!)
When you are starting with tarot it’s probably easier to learn a few small spreads with, say, no more than 5 cards. This just makes doing the reading easier without the mental overload of using a large spread.
Here’s an example of a 5 card problem solving spread that I sometimes use:
The positions are:
Top left The Challenge or Obstacle
Bottom left Complications
Bottom right What is hidden
Top Right Idea, person or thing that can help
Centre Action to take
What About The Celtic Cross Spread?
The Celtic Cross spread appears everywhere, in practically every beginner tarot book. It made it’s first public appearance around the time the original RWS tarot was first published and has become ingrained in tarot consciousness.
I don’t believe it’s actually a good spread to learn when you are starting out. For a start this is a whopping 10 card spread – that’s a lot of cards to process. Also, the Celtic Cross is a general purpose spread. Trying to use it to answer every question you have is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It’s just painful.
It’s much easier to use a spread that answers your specific question. A good tarot spread book I recommend is ‘Tarot Spreads: Layouts & Techniques to Empower Your Readings‘ by Barbara Moore. There are many tarot spread books but I believe this is one of the best. Keep it handy when you are starting your tarot journey.
Even better than choosing a spread to fit your question is to custom create a spread to exactly answer your question. Some people feel uncomfortable at doing that but it’s easy and a good skill to learn as you are starting with tarot. I explain how to create your own tarot spread – and how to read a spread – in the post ‘How To Read Tarot Cards – 10 Steps For Great Readings‘ which is here.
Start a Tarot journal
I wrote about the importance of tarot journals in the post ‘Reading Tarot For Yourself – 7 Things To Avoid‘, which is here, but I want to quickly mention it again.
When you are starting out with tarot it’s a really good idea to keep a note of the intuitive impressions you are getting from each card. You then have a record of what you have already learned. And, as I wrote in the post above, keeping a journal to note down your tarot readings will help you remember those readings so you can reflect on them later. This also makes for a great learning tool as you can look back on what each card in a reading meant for you.
Get a beginner tarot book
In this blog i’ve often said that learning to read tarot intuitively is important and something that can get you reading tarot quite quickly without needing the card meanings.
But the card meanings are the backbone of tarot – it’s intuition plus card meanings that give tarot it’s power. So, after you have been reading using intuition for a little while, absolutely go and start learning the meanings. The card meanings add garnish to the intuitive reading and can actually spark your intuition in themselves.
When you are starting with tarot, try reading the cards intuitively first. Only after you have done this and gained some meaning from the cards should you reach for the tarot book.
You might be tempted to try learning all the card meanings first. Well, that’s how I started out when I was learning tarot. It was pretty difficult; using the card meanings alone without developing your tarot intuition results in some pretty unsatisfactory mechanical readings. I wouldn’t recommend it for someone new.
There are many good beginner tarot books available on Amazon. There are so many that I can’t really recommend a single one as being the absolute best. As a rough guide go for a book that has at least a 4 star average rating and at least 100 reviews (many have over a 1000 reviews). You won’t go far wrong with that.
Ignore The YouTube Videos That Promise Quick Results
When you are starting out with tarot it is tempting to go on YouTube and see if you can quickly learn the tarot. There are videos that promise you can learn all the cards in 2 hours. Or that you can read like a professional tarot reader in 1 hour.
It’s nonsense. As I mentioned, just learning the card meanings is going to lead to some terrible readings if you don’t learn to use your intuition as well. Reading tarot is a skill and, like all skills, to get good at it takes practice and time.
You will likely forget half the cards meanings after 2 hours of rote learning.
If you want to learn tarot, then take the time to learn to read tarot. Your effort will be rewarded, shortcuts don’t work and will just end in disappointment.
Everything I discussed above should get you going at the start of your tarot journey. It does take time to become familiar with the cards but it’s worth it.
Once you start to feel confident with reading the cards for yourself, the next step would be to practice reading for other people. There is a lot of content in this blog to help you with reading the cards, both for yourself and other people, so have a wander around.
One of the things you may be wandering is whether you need to use reversed tarot cards in your readings. I mention this here and not in the main advice because you do not need to know tarot reversals to get started with the cards. Some people use reversed cards, others don’t. If you choose not to use reversals nothing bad will happen; the 78 upright cards provide all the information you will need.
If you want to learn an easy way to read reversed cards see the post ‘Read Reversed Tarot Cards With W.I.N.D.‘ here. If you want to know about elemental dignities – an alternative to tarot reversals – see the post ‘Using Tarot Elemental Correspondences In Your Readings‘ here.
And above all, enjoy yourself as you explore the tarot.
To get the most out of reading tarot cards requires more than just whipping out the deck whenever, wherever. In this post I cover 10 steps on how to read tarot cards that have helped me to get the clearest, most accurate tarot readings possible. I have developed these 10 steps after many years of my own experience reading tarot plus knowledge gained from other experienced readers. This post is mainly aimed at people new to tarot but if you’ve been reading tarot awhile you may find some interesting nuggets! In this post I refer to people seeking a tarot reading as querents – the traditional term.
Of course, as with all tarot content I post on this blog, take what works for you and leave the rest!
This post is very much a companion piece to my post ‘Reading Tarot for Yourself – 7 Things to Avoid’ which you can read, here. This post does cover some of the same ground as that one but I go into more of what I do to create a great reading experience whether reading tarot for myself or others. Taking both posts together should provide a good primer on how to read tarot cards.
1. Set a time and place for your tarot reading
To really be able to focus on the reading ideally I recommend allocating a time and special place to throw down the cards. A quiet place where you will not be disturbed is great; some people fortunate enough to have the space devote an entire room for just reading tarot. Other people who use tarot as part of their spiritual practice create altars and read tarot there. A particular time when you will not be disturbed is also important and you want to make sure the time is long enough to get what you need from the reading.
Personally, my own readings usually last 20 to 40 minutes or longer depending on the complexity of the issue but you will find your timescale. I tend to do my personal readings early in the morning or late in the evening in the privacy of my room – it’s quiet, I won’t be disturbed and I have the time I need to absorb the message provided by the cards.
What if you are travelling and what to do a quick reading on the train? Or what if you are at work and just want to do a reading during a break? Of course you can read tarot where ever and when ever you like! I’m not saying you can’t but it is not the best way to really reflect on the reading.
Before the current coronavirus pandemic, I would often attend tarot Meetups here in London where I would read cards for others in a really busy pub. I also took my cards into work where I would read for myself and other interested people during lunch and sometimes after work. Those readings were valuable but the distractions and time constraints meant I couldn’t really achieve the focus and time needed to really dig deep into the reading. I reserved my most important questions for when I could give the tarot my undivided attention.
2. Be sure you are emotionally ready for tarot
For a clear, unbiased reading I definitely recommend not reading the tarot for yourself while you are experiencing strong emotions. Reading tarot, particularly for yourself, when you are experiencing strong emotion can skew the message you receive from the cards. If you want to be objective as possible, wait until you are feeling calmer!
Also, if you are feeling tired and you want to do a reading on an important issue, it would be better to delay the reading until you are rested. If you are tired you will not be able to concentrate on the messages the cards provide.
So there you go, i’m writing in a tarot blog about when not to read the tarot!
For more information on how to be objective as possible when reading tarot see my ‘Reading tarot for Yourself’ post linked at the top.
It’s actually easier to read for other people if you are feeling emotional since you focus on the other person’s needs and not your own but it is still a good idea to begin the reading in a calm state. Meditation is a good means of feeling calmer and more focused on the reading ahead.
3. Have a clear question in mind
Have a clear question in mind when you are going to do your own tarot readings. This is important to provide a context for the cards you draw. It is O.K. to ask general questions like ‘What is the energy today?’ but you need to have something in mind. If you don’t have a question and just pull out the cards you won’t be able to relate them to any situation and the messages will be vague and unhelpful. Not very useful!
Sometimes when I read for other people they just ask for a general reading – that’s all they tell me! I explain to them that they will get more out of the reading if they can at least narrow the focus of their question down to a particular area of their life that they are concerned about at the moment. For instance, career or relationships. This isn’t about changing the querent’s question, it’s about providing a reading that will be more helpful to them by providing a better context for the cards.
If you are just starting out reading for other people don’t be afraid to gently help them narrow the focus of their questions. They will get more out of the reading and the reading will be much easier for you too!
For more on which kinds of tarot questions are most helpful – and which to avoid – see the post ‘What Tarot Questions Can You Ask?‘ which you can read here.
4. Make sure the reading space is private and comfortable
Privacy is really important when reading the tarot for someone else. I find that people really open up during a tarot reading divulging all sorts of personal issues and feelings they wouldn’t tell anyone else. In essence you almost become a counsellor. They confide in you and you have an obligation to respect that trust and make sure that confidentiality is maintained. A private, comfortable space will relax your querent and encourage them to open up.
As I mentioned previously in point 1, I used to do readings for others in pubs. Even then, though, I would ensure we had a table to ourselves and that we could not be overheard easily.
If you are reading for someone online or even over the phone, this privacy is still important. Make sure you will not be disturbed during the reading. Pets excepted! And young children in an emergency!
5. Ask Questions
Related to some of the earlier points, when you are reading the tarot for someone else, don’t be afraid to ask them questions! Some people seem to think that tarot readers are also psychic mind readers and don’t need to provide any information. Unfortunately, like most people, I am not a psychic mind reader and information is crucial for any productive and meaningful tarot reading.
As well as asking your querents to, at the very least, narrow the focus of their question to a particular area of their lives, also ask them questions during the reading. Practical, useful, tarot reading is almost more of a conversation and counselling session than an exercise in psychic ability.
Asking people questions during the tarot reading is not cheating, it will help you to understand the messages the cards are giving you. You should explain to the querent that you will be asking them questions during the reading and this is to help them get the most out of the reading.
6. Choose your Tarot deck
If you are fortunate enough to own more than one tarot deck you have the luxury of choosing the appropriate deck for the reading. Some people have particular decks they like to use for particular questions. Other readers have favourite decks for use at particular times of the year. For instance, some decks work well during the spring as they have that new growth energy; other, darker, decks may be more appropriate for shadow work or for readings during the autumn (Fall).
If you have several decks and you are reading for someone else perhaps give the querent the choice of what deck they would like you to use; it gives them a greater investment in the reading if you use a deck they like.
Personally, I do choose the deck I want to use based on the question. Certain decks have an atmosphere or vibe that resonates particulary well with certain questions. The Bianco Nero tarot pictured above is a deck I favour when I want a clear, no nonsense reading due to the starkness of the black and white imagery.
However, if you only have one or two decks then don’t worry! Your readings are not going to be any less effective because you don’t have a library of decks to choose from. If you do read for other people I personally recommend having a deck just for yourself and one for reading for others. A public deck is likely to get grubby and damaged and you may want to keep a pristine one for yourself. Also, if your favourite deck happens to be expensive and/or out of print you probably don’t want that deck to get ruined.
7. Shuffle and cut the deck
Shuffling the tarot deck is vitally important. If you believe that a deck can absorb the energies of the person using it then getting the querent to shuffle it will mean the deck absorbs their energy. This means the deck will be more attuned to the querent resulting in a more focused, accurate reading. Even if you don’t believe in this, a good shuffle will randomise the deck and prevent the previous reading from contaminating the current one.
See my post titled ‘How to shuffle a tarot deck‘, which you can find here, to discover my technique for shuffling a tarot deck regardless of the size or thickness of the cards – riffle shuffling is not required!
Some tarot readers don’t like the querent to shuffle the deck, preferring to do that that themselves. But the querent can still cut the deck.
Cutting the deck is very important. For me, this is really the point where the energies of the person – their psychic state – may have an influence on the reading. The traditional method is to use your left hand and cut the deck twice to create 3 piles before then recombining the piles into one deck. There are several reasons why the left hand is used – my favourite is that this is the hand closest to the heart and so allows the person’s emotions to affect the reading.
If this helps you get into the mental state necessary for the reading then follow this traditional method. You don’t have to of course – so long as you cut the deck using some other method. For me, I do cut the deck with my left hand; it’s part of the ritual involved in tarot reading useful in that it helps mentally prepare me for the reading ahead.
Of course, at the time of writing this post, we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. If you are, by some chance, managing to read safely for other people face-to-face or online, how can you get the person you are reading for to safely cut the deck? Answer – use Pick a Pile:
Popular on YouTube tarot channels, the pick a pile reading enables the querent to effectively ‘cut the deck’ and have an influence on the reading. You simply give them the choice of which pile they want to use based on intuition and then do the reading only using the cards in that pile. Not as good as physically cutting the deck themselves but it’s a pretty good alternative.
8. Make note of everything that happens
This is a really, really important part of any tarot reading. What do I mean by noting everything that happens? Exactly that.
From the time you sit down and prepare yourself for the reading – through shuffling the cards; laying them out; and interpreting the reading – make a mental note of anything that occurs. This can be sounds during the reading like a creaking house; cars beeping outside; pigeons landing on your window sill. Any sensations you might experience like a twinge of pain that suddenly occurs; perhaps a sudden itch. You get the idea.
Particularly important, make a note of any cards that fall out of the deck while shuffling – commonly known as ‘Jumpers’. Even if these cards don’t actually appear in the reading they may have some relevance you should consider. If they do appear in the reading pay special attention to them because there is definitely something you need to know about the message that card has.
Why do I talk about noting what happens during a reading? As it happens, through personal experience both related and unrelated to tarot, I have come to believe in the concept of synchronicity.
Synchronicity is a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. He used it to describe observed events occurring at a particular time which appear to be meaningfully interdependent to the observer but which do not have any causal link. A classic example of this is where you are thinking about someone you haven’t seen for a long time and then that person calls you. This is meaningful to you but other than just having thought about that person there is nothing else to have caused these two events to happen together.
Synchronicity has been claimed to be nothing more than coincidence or confirmation bias where a person merely chooses the information that fits their beliefs.
With regard to tarot, I have gradually come to believe in the concept of synchronicity over many years. I’m aware of confirmation bias but, rationally speaking, I don’t believe that explains many instances where you draw the exact card that explains the situation. Or when the same card appears in the same position in the spread over and over again.
Quantum Physics May Explain Synchronicity
How to explain synchronicity? Well, quantum physics teaches us that reality doesn’t work the way we think it does. Quantum physics experiments have demonstrated that objects can instantly connect and influence each other over huge distances – with no causal link. Theoretical quantum mechanics hypothesises that the unconscious can influence the conscious world. I personally would like to believe that this is part of the answer as to why the tarot works – your psychic state can actually influence the reading!
Will we ever prove this is true? Who knows. But keep your eyes peeled and ears straining while doing a tarot reading.
9. Reading the Tarot cards
A very important aspect of knowing how to read tarot cards is using a tarot spread. Tarot spreads will help you get the most accurate and useful answers. A tarot spread consists of different positions, each one with a different meaning, in which you place the cards. You then read the card in the context of that position and then bring the whole reading together.
Ideally, you should know a selection of different spreads to cover a range of possible questions. There are many sources, both books and online, where you can find spreads. There are spreads for most of the popular questions, including general spreads. Even better, if you feel confident, you can create a custom spread tailored to exactly answer the question to be asked. It’s not difficult.
Here’s a brief example of creating your own spread to answer a specific question.
How To Create Your Own Tarot Spread
I want to keep things pretty light and cheerful so we’ll create a spread to answer a frivolous question.
The question is: What should I feed my cat this evening?
If you own a cat – as I do – you will know that this can be a challenging exercise because cats are connoisseurs when it comes to food!
The way to create a custom tarot spread is to break the question down into all the aspects you want to know. These aspects then become the positions in the spread.
So, for instance we might want to know the following:
What do I need to know about feeding my cat Tuna (Option A)? What do I need to know about feeding my cat Salmon (Option B)? What does my cat feel about Option A (based on previous experience)? What does my cat feel about Option B? (based on previous experience)? Overall advice
This creates a 5 card spread where you can essentially think about what your cat might like based on previous experience with some general advice to help guide you.
That was a fun little example but the general idea can be applied to any question: think about all the aspects of the question you feel are important and include a position for overall advice or action to take. These become the positions in your spread.
Try practising this: Carry a little notebook and a pen or pencil with you and when you have a question you want to ask the tarot, think about it, break it down into all the aspects you want to know and create your own spread.
Reading The Tarot Spread
The various methods of actually reading all the cards is a topic too huge for this post alone but here are some pointers.
Some tarot readers like to get an overview of the whole spread first noting how many major arcana cards are present and whether there are a lot of any particular suit present. This will help determine the energies involved in the reading.
For instance, many major arcana cards indicates that there are major forces at work in this question and you may not have much control over how the situation develops. If there are many pentacles or coins present this indicates that the energies mainly involve work, money, health or other material concerns.
Having done the overview, the readers will then pay attention to the individual cards before tying the whole reading together to create a story, or summary, of the reading.
Of course, other readers may do things the other way around; giving individual cards attention before moving to an overview of the reading.
Personally, I use the first approach – I look at the big picture and then narrow the focus down to the separate cards. Do whatever works best for you including ignoring all of this if that works for you!
When talking about how to read tarot cards, the ability to connect the cards in the spread is important to create a solid summary, or story, of the overall reading. Whatever you do, don’t just read each card in the spread in isolation and just leave the reading there – the reading will be disjointed and confusing! Developing your intuition in tarot reading is crucial here.
For more on developing your tarot intuition and an easy method to read tarot intuitively, see the posts ‘How To Do An Intuitive Tarot Reading‘ which can be found here and ‘Starting With Tarot: A Guide For The Beginner‘ here.
10. Finish the reading
Once you have finished the reading I strongly recommend making a note of the reading in a journal so you can reference the reading again in the future; particularly valuable if the reading was very important.
If you’re like me, you tend to forget readings over time so a tarot journal is actually really valuable. See my post ‘Reading Tarot For Yourself – 7 Things To Avoid‘, which you can read here, for more on tarot journaling.
If you are reading for someone else online or over the phone make sure they are happy with the reading and if the reading has answered their question. I have found that you need to ask this as some people will remain quiet but still aren’t sure about certain aspects of the reading. By asking them you give them the opportunity to speak up.
If you are reading for someone else it is important to maintain boundaries, especially if you are reading tarot professionally. You are not beholden to your querent, you are providing them a service. And the service ends when the particular reading does!
I hope this post on how to read tarot cards is helpful, it’s certainly helped me achieve focused, accurate tarot readings over the years.