This is a living guide to Tarot, in the sense that it is incomplete and intended to grow and change with personal experience. I will be basing it on the original Rider-Waite deck, but there are many variants out there. Also, my own views and perspectives are necessarily incomplete so please use them as a starting point if you wish. Use your own judgement to improve or ignore pieces you feel to be misguided! If you have any suggestions or insights of your own, please do share them. Finally, for reference, the reader is the person tasked with interpreting the cards for the querent who asks the questions of the cards.
Anatomy of the Deck
The basic Rider Waite tarot is composed of 22 Major Arcana cards, and 4 suits of 14 Minor Arcana cards. Each card represents a significant theme in human life. The 4 suits of the Minor Arcana are in no particular order: Cups, Wands (or Staves), Swords and Pentacles (or Coins). There is historical significance to the similarity with common playing cards bearing corresponding suits of Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds for anybody who wishes to research further! The suits mark out 4 ways of life (not necessarily independant of course!), substrands of life’s rich tapestry: Cups for emotions and relationships, Wands for willpower and creativity, Swords for thought and ideals, Pentacles for health and wealth. The Major Arcana are powerful symbols in their own right like a rope bridge marking out a journey. The Minor Arcana cards are powerful too but pertain to one of four substrands of the rope itself. Hence a Major Arcana card like ‘The Lovers’ which is at first glance associated with matters of the heart and the suit of Cups is also about choices and dilemmas which are very relevant to the other suits too.
The Major and Minor Arcana pages will be linked off this page on the main menu. Alternatively, see Major Arcana.
Like most tools the Tarot can be misused, but in essence it is a a kind of symbolic language for meditative purposes. When used by yourself it provides random symbolic connections for you to puzzle through consciously and subconsiously – like basic word association games, or gazing at the colours in a fishtank or lavalamp until thoughts and ideas spring forth. Unexpected configurations of the cards can challenge you to consider possibilities previously ignored. The advantage is that you are the solitary wellspring for any revelations, so you need not worry about undue influence from another person interpreting for you. The disadvantage is also this very lack of another person’s assistance which one gets working with another person: You have nobody else to assist you by asking difficult questions, prompting novel avenues of thought, or summarising matters into simpler and easier forms. I like the way that where many consider Tarot as a path to answers, it is in effect asking the querent more questions for themselves to answer – a method commonplace in therapy!
When used to help another person there is a public conception of Tarot readings as a kind of charletan’s trickery. Like crossing the palm of a Gypsy lady with silver to have your fortune told in a caravan. The reader uses subtle cues, generic statements and street savvy to manipulate and feed the querent what they want to hear and make it seem particularly relevant. This conception of Tarot can lead some people to clam up and expect you to somehow read their mind. The advantage of being perceptive and able to ‘cold read‘ a person from their mannerisms, language and appearance is significant, but the greatest connections and insights are to be made by the querent volunteering information they are willing to share with the reader so that together they can resolve issues and discuss troubles. Learn to listen and encourage your partner whilst they are speaking, to become more sensitive to both verbal and non-verbal communication.
It is important to develop an affinity for your chosen Tarot deck because the understanding of the symbolism requires quite a deep connection. If you prefer Faeries or Dragon themed art, go for it if it helps you recall the meanings and attune yourself to the task. If you want a deck with different cards, then it’s up to you. As long as you understand the significance of the cards you sacrifice and import into the Tarot lexicon you will do well. Traditionally the Tarot decks would be wrapped carefully in storage and only handled carefully. Frankly, this seems a healthy form of reverence for any such meditative tool as it is not to be taken lightly. Even the time the querent spends shuffling the deck is precious, revealing many subtle aspects of confidence, dexterity, rings on fingers, as well as providing a manual distraction to help relax them somewhat (unless they prove exceptionally mal-coordinated!). Finally, when using premade guides to Tarot, including this one, it is important that the suggestions for meaning in a reading be treated as a starting point that you will flesh out for yourself with time and experience.
Health and Safety
Any form of self-reflection can reveal positive and negative truths about oneself. This may well be unsettling. Always remember that the future is uncertain, and all the cards can do is give you insights into possibilities and help you to chart your way. They do not control people or events. The only power the cards have is what you choose to imbue them with, as with most symbols and objects. e.g. The old gnarled spooky tree is just an old gnarled tree in the light of day, but a sinister form of malevolent intent in the dark of night.
Similarly, be careful of what you say and how you say it. Ill chosen words can prompt extreme reactions in the querent, so listen and watch them for any signs of distress. Be careful.
Another thing to be aware of is that reading the Tarot takes a lot of effort. If you are tired and half-asleep you can hardly expect to do a good job of it. After all, using the wrong words or turn of phrase with a querent can cause offense or put them on edge. It is best to approach Tarot reading with a fresh and alert mind.
When conducting a reading, remember that the deeper you wish to delve into the psyche, the more open and receptive the querent must be. If you conduct a reading in a group situation with onlookers as a kind of spectacle you are naturally constraining the answers to ones the querent deems appropriate. In more relaxed surroundings, they might open up more as their mind calms and walls of privacy come down.
This is a concept very important in Tarot. The idea that chance occurrences and coincidences are in fact not so random at all. This is not about saying that the Tarot is making these things happen per se, but more about helping you notice things previously ignored. For instance, if you are going through a period of life where you are becoming more confident and assertive, it seems natural that you will start to pay closer attention to these qualities in yourself and in others. As a result you may well end up meeting people of a like mind at some social or whatever.
The Tarot is necessarily a theoretical model of human life in all its complexities and intricacies. This means that it has to be somewhat vague in order to remain flexible to the varied and changing nature of humanity and remain applicable today as it has done in the past. This is part of the power of symbolism in that the meaning imbued into a symbol, as with any living language, can change with time and with individuals. The Tarot symbolism is in effect a language of the physical and spiritual aspects of humanity. Some Tarot variants add and remove cards from the deck, which is an interesting project but I strongly recommend using the basic Rider-Waite set until you feel you have become confident using it. Changing any language is subtly powerful so be careful.
The tradition of taking the inverted Tarot cards to signify more negative aspects is not a practice all practitioners adopt. Some argue that it is unduly negative, and that these negative connotations are always present alongside the positives anyway. Personally I do currently use the negative reversals but in the sense of an emphasis on the hazards posed by the card in question – as a kind of cautionary warning of possible pitfalls.