How to Read Tarot - The Basics


To understand occult Tarot, we need to approach it as a multi-layered system that requires us to recognize an order of importance, synthesize patterns, and determine direction and nuance. The Tarot cards that you randomly pull act as a reflection of your question, so the more information you can glean from their correspondences, the better. If you approach the study of Tarot by first memorizing definitions, you may limit your intuition with preconceived answers, making the message difficult to translate.

If you read the blog or listened to the podcast, "History of Tarot", you'll remember that Tarot itself doesn't have any magic, you create the magic by connecting the story of the cards and trusting your intuition, which deepens your relationship with the practice. Let's compare the magic of Tarot to the magic of a piano. Just like Tarot, a piano is man-made. While sitting idle, a piano has no magical power to perform itself nor does it sound magical when banged on by a child. We'd be crazy to think that, just by sitting down at a piano or learning only the keys, we'll be magically transformed into concert pianists. But, when we hear a piano PLAYER who's mastered their craft and developed their intuition, allowing them to perform from the heart, we witness the magic of a human expressing themselves THROUGH a piano. Reading Tarot, like playing the piano, is an art form that appears to us as magical.

The first step to learning Tarot is to establish what you're looking for when reading one card or many. By starting with foundational cues, we learn to read tarot as a language rather than a dictionary. Though we'll go over all of the definitions in upcoming episodes, the best approach is to first identify pronounced patterns that offer immediate information.

Ok! It’s time to bring out your Tarot deck if you have one! Pause this episode and put your cards in their original order. The Majors first, from the Fool to the World, followed by the suits starting from the Ace to card 10, then the court cards from page, to knight, to queen, and then king. The suit of Wands should be on top of the suit of Cups, on top of the suit of Swords, on top of the suit of Pentacles. With the bottom of the deck facing you, you should see the Fool and the last card of the deck should be the King of Pentacles. Use this website for additional reference.

As I said at the start of the episode, we have to approach tarot as a multilayered system, so our first Tarot lesson begins with identifying Tarot’s most outward variances, which are the splits within the deck. Recognizing these splits will cue your intuition to establish a level of importance in a spread. The first and most obvious split is between the 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. Arcana means "secrets", making this a symbolic split between the Major or "spiritual" secrets and the Minor or "human" secrets. Go ahead and separate the Major Arcana from the deck and take a closer look at them. At first glance, we can see they’re a complete suit, there’s no further differentiation; they continue in a linear numerical order from The Fool at card 0 to The World at card 21 and they all have their card name most likely engraved somewhere on the card. This initial split and its completeness elevate the Major Arcana, giving any card pulled from this suit the highest level of importance. Whether you've pulled one card or many, if a Major Arcana appears, you can expect something profound is at play.

The Major Arcana heralds large life events and life lessons as well as archetypes. In other words, the Major Arcana represents the fated qualities of your life. They can be figures like your mother and father or spiritual interventions such as a grace period or an answer to your prayers. Like weather patterns, the events that arise from a Major Arcana come and go in your life, but you'll have to dress appropriately. You can't change a rainy day and you can't change the effects of the Major Arcana. Why? Because life happens and absolutely nothing is truly in your control. We can all relate to these moments in life that seem to just happen to us. So, when you pull a Major Arcana, watch out for events that you either embody or that seem bigger than you.

Turning our focus to the 56 Minor Arcana, we immediately see multiple splits. Please separate each suit in your deck and place them in a horizontal line to the left of the suit of Majors, starting with the Wands, then Cups, then Swords, the Pentacles. There should be 14 cards in each suit. These splits determine the energy of the experience. Wands represent fiery passion and inspiration, cups represent emotions and fantasy, swords represent problem-solving and strategy, and pentacles represent hard work and growth.

We see an additional split between the numbered cards of each suit, labeled Ace - 10, and the four Court Cards. Please separate the Court Cards from Each suit and place them above the number cards. There are 16 Court Cards in total, 4 for each suit, giving them a special quality, though not on the same level as the Major Arcana as the Court Cards still belong to their suit.

Though the Court Cards are a part of the Minor Arcana, they stand apart as physical embodiments of their suit. These are our personas or different personalities we come in contact with. They also indicate a degree of maturity or our level of commitment in a relationship. We'll go more into Court Cards in later episodes, but for now, imagine them as people enacting their roles in the suit.

The 40 Minor Arcana that make up the rest of the deck operate on their suits’ energy and their number. The 40 numbered cards should not be considered less important or throw-away cards. Rather, they depict the internal quality of what's happening and provide clues and direction to the story.

To better understand, let's return to the comparison of Tarot to a piano. Looking at a piano, the first obvious split we see is between the Major and Minor Keys, reflecting the split between the Major and Minor Arcana. The Major keys are the white keys and they determine the octave. The Minor keys are the black keys, and they play notes WITHIN the octave.

When listening to the piano, we can distinguish higher and lower frequencies throughout the octaves. The frequency of the higher octaves represents the frequency of the Major Arcana. When we hear high notes, our energy moves upward into the spiritual and universal qualities of life. Here we find transformation, destiny, healing, shadows, fertility, authority, and change.

The frequency of the middle octaves represents the frequency of the Court Cards. When we hear middle notes, we think of the human voice and conversations. Most songs are written toward the middle as they’re relatable in tone. Here, we connect with different aspects of the personality such as independence, intelligence, communication, materialism, determination, practicality, and longing.

The frequency of the lower octaves represents the frequency of the 40 numbered Minor Arcana and the different suits that represent basic energies. When we hear lower notes, we connect with our internal world. This is where we feel, think, commit, take action, plan, visualize, and analyze. Looking at Tarot this way, we can see how these splits inform us of the different dynamics that are at play in everyday life.

So, let's quickly recap, if you pull cards and see Major Arcana, those cards set the tone of the reading, regardless of where they are in the spread. You look to the Court Cards next followed by any numbered cards. If you see mostly Majors, you know there’s something bigger going on. If you see mostly Courts, you know a lot of people are involved. If you see mostly Minor Arcana from Ace to 10, you know the person is dealing with their immediate experience as well as their internal life. This way, you get an overall understanding of what's going on without having to recall a single definition.

Now, let's analyze specific Tarot cards that seem to share the same notes but in different octaves. Please pull out The Emperor and any or all of the Kings. The Emperor represents authority and the ability to make decisions that result in security and ownership. The Emperor is powerful and can overcome their mood to do what needs to be done. When you pull the Emperor, you might have to contend with someone who has more power than you or summon your inner Emperor to clean up the chaos in your life. When pulling a King, however, we still have the quality of someone who is in charge, but their energy is controlled by the element represented by their suit, making them a more tangible and personal experience. For example, the King of Wands is someone who is ready to take charge of their life or career, working toward a vision that requires their full energy and focus.

Now, let’s analyze Death and the 10 of Swords. Death, being a Major Arcana, has to do with permanent change. Often likened to the process of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, Death represents a painful transformation but promises a new and more powerful ego in the end. The 10 of Swords, however, being a numbered Minor card and the final number in its suit represents an end to a problem, oftentimes when something has gone too far to mend. Though these cards are in many ways similar, Death is an inevitable process we all go through at different stages in our life while the 10 of Swords can be read as a warning to prepare for the feeling of ultimate betrayal.

Now, let's look at the Page of Wands and the Ace of Wands. Both are Minor Arcana, but one is a Court Card while the other is the beginning of its suit. They both depict excitement and a resounding "yes". But, the Page of Wands represents a persona or personality while the Ace of Wands represents our immediate experience. The Page of Wands tells us of an exciting message or a youthful and passionate attraction to someone or something. The Ace of Wands is the excitement one feels about a new idea or opportunity that may not have anything to do with anyone else.

Now that we've gone over the first determining factors of Tarot reading, it's time for your first exercise. It's very simple, but you do need a deck, so please buy one if you haven't. I suggest the Rider Waite Smith, Morgan Greer, or The Aquarian deck simply because the imagery clearly matches the card's meaning. Please turn all cards upright.

Exercise #1 - Thoroughly shuffle the deck however you’d like, but make sure all of the cards are upright when you finish. Then, pull three cards and point to each card in their order of importance: first point to any Major Arcana, then point to any Court Cards, and then point to any numbered Minor Arcana. You can do this in the morning or in the evening. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can keep pulling three cards until you get to the end of the deck. This will help your intuition automatically recall the order of importance and it will naturally start to develop a language around these patterns.

Join me for the next Tarot lesson as we dive into the nuances of the Minor Arcana and get ourselves ready for the definitions. See you then.

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