How Do I Read Tarot Cards, A Complete Guide

How Do I Read Tarot Cards, A Complete Guide

Tarot reading can be intimidating for the beginner. 

With 78 cards in a deck and intricate symbolism displayed throughout each card, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to start.  This article will hopefully help guide you and give you the confidence you need to read the tarot cards more thoroughly and with insight.

Table of Contents

So Let’s Start At The Beginning

As with all new subjects, it’s important to understand the origin story when possible. 

Not only can this potentially influence your perceptions and your approach to the cards themselves, but with the knowledge gathered, you can gain a certain amount of respect and consideration for the art of the tarot.  And more importantly, it can give a spark to your imagination.

Tarot originally came into widespread recognition as early as the 14th century.  Initially, Tarot cards were used as playing cards for the wealthy, they were later adapted for spiritual uses by French occultists in the 18th century. 

I talk a little bit about the history of Tarot in this article, “Are tarot cards religious?

The tarot deck you’re probably most familiar with is the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck.  These cards were illustrated in 1910 by Pamela Colman Smith under the instruction of A.E. Waite, both occultist members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which is how these two were first introduced. 

According to Pamela Colman Smith’s Wikipedia page, after the order broke up Pamela worked under the commission of A.E. to create the artful tarot deck as we know it today.

To Understand The Standard Deck We First Need to Divide It In Two

The standard tarot deck is divided into two sections known as the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.  Arcana is a synonym for deep secret or mystery.  A good way to differentiate the two Arcana cards is this:

The Major Arcana describes the universal force currently influencing your life, while the Minor Arcana explains exactly what can be done about this force and how to navigate it.

I’ve written 2 articles that are a great complement to this article. These articles review and discuss how to use and read these 2 sets of Arcana cards:

Major Arcana

The major arcana portion of the 78-card deck is made up of 22 cards otherwise known as the trump cards or triumphs.  These 22 cards are numbered from 0 to 21 and when viewed in order, separate from the minor arcana, they tell a story.

0 – The deck starts with The Fool which is a representation of the beginning of any journey.  The Fool depicts our naïve, trusting selves venturing out into the world without experience, without caution, and with only our dreams and optimism guiding us. 

Here is an article that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about the Fool: The Fool Tarot Card, A Complete Guide.

1 – The Magician.  After starting his journey, the Fool mines wisdom from experience and discovers within themselves: unlimited creative potential.

And from here…the Magician is further introduced to archetypes that help shape and define their journey along with their spirit.

Read more about the Magician here: “The Magician Tarot Card, A Complete Guide!”

2 – The High Priestess. Coming into their own the Magician meets the High Priestess who teaches them about inner wisdom and how to tap into their intuition, along with the mysterious nature of the world.

Read more about the High Priestess here: The High Priestess Tarot card, A Complete guide.

3 – The Empress can be seen as Mother Nature herself.  She encourages maternal, nurturing love, and for one to reconnect with the foundation of which the Fool started.

Read this article for more details about the Empress: “The Empress Tarot Card, A Complete Guide!

4 – The Emperor teaches self-discipline and righteous justice.  He is the epitome of authority, just and firm in his decision and actions.

Read about the Emperor tarot card here.

5 – The Hierophant encourages conformity and fellowship through religious structure and social norms.

Read this article for more details about the Hierophant “The Hierophant Tarot Card, A Complete Guide.

6 – The Lovers explore the power of choice and remind us that for every action there is a reaction.  It also is a symbol of lasting, meaningful partnership and love.

Read more about The Lovers tarot card, with this detailed guide!

7 – The Chariot provides stability and displays strength and power moving through all obstacles with force.

Read about the Chariot Tarot card here.

8 – Strength. Self-explanatory. Peace of mind and balance is what give us the strength to face our fears.

Read this article for more details on this card: “The Strength Tarot Card, A Complete Guide

9 – The Hermit.  Encourages quiet introspection and healing solitude.

10 – Wheel of Fortune. A card of good omens, it refers to the cyclical nature of life.

Read about the Wheel of Fortune here.

11 – Justice reminds us of karma. We all know the saying: What goes around comes around.

Read about the Justice Tarot Card here.

12 – With the Hanged Man we explore the themes of reassessment and spiritual awakening.  This is a card that encourages the seeker to get their affairs in order.

For more information about the Hanged Man, read “Is the Hanged Man a bad card?”

13 – Death.  Got to clear the old to make way for the new.  It really would depend on surrounding cards for this card to mean actual death.  On its own, it represents lasting transformation.

Here’s a great article that talks about whether or not Tarot cards can predict death

14 – Temperance. Balance is sought in all that we do. (Read more about Temperance here.)

15 – The Devil. Represents all secular pleasures and the temptations/addictions we’re enslaved by.

To some, this card looks and feels scary, but there are many nuances to this card and it’s meanings.  Read this article, “When the Devil Tarot card is positive…” and also this article, The Devil Tarot Card, A Complete Guide.

16 – The Tower aka the sh!t show!  Much scarier than the Death card in my opinion. 

It represents all the life-shattering things that can happen to someone unexpectantly.  The kind of thing that when it happens you question everything you once believed.

For more on the Tower Card, read these articles:

17 – The Star.  This card is about spiritual realignment.  Rest and renewal.

More about The Star, read this article: The Star Tarot Card, A Complete Guide

18 – The Moon.  Intuition, dreams, our hidden selves.  These are all the themes of this card.

I’ve written about the moon card in more detail, read these articles:

19 – The Sun. Deep-rooted happiness and contentment reign supreme with this card.  Dreams are coming true and playfulness is greatly encouraged.

Read more about the Sun Tarot Card here.

20 – Judgement.  Similar to the Justice card this teaches redemption, and liberation and reminds us that all our actions will eventually, if not immediately, lead to a consequence.

Read more about the Judgement Tarot Card here.

21 – The end of Fool’s journey comes with The World.  The cycle is now complete and fulfillment has been achieved only for the journey to start again…

Read more about the World Tarot Card here!

The major arcana can represent the phase of the journey you are in, the influences you need, and the guidance you are looking for.

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Minor Arcana

Consisting of the 56 remaining cards of the 78-card deck, the minor arcana helps us gain a deeper, more specific insight into our day-to-day and explore the broader themes that present themselves with the major arcana.

The Minor Arcana for simplicity’s sake can be separated into four suits much like your average playing cards.

  • Wands: Which represents passion and ambition
  • Cups: Which represents all emotions
  • Swords: Which represents ideas and the mind
  • Pentacles: Which represents the materialistic world

Each suit begins with an ace, includes cards numbered two through ten, followed by a page, a knight, a queen, and finally, a king.

Aces generally represent newness.  The beginning of something new, infinite potential, and all creative possibilities.

Pages are seen as messenger cards as in some good news may be coming your way…

Court cards (the page, knight, queen and king) can be interpreted as actual people and the page can represent a young person but more specifically it represents the spirit of a youth who is bright-eyed and ready to dive headfirst into their passions.

Knights are all about putting that learning energy of the page into action. Now your dreams/ideas/words are in motion.

Queens represent deep, mature feminine energy.  They nurture the force produced by the knights and do their best to rear it into fruition.

Kings represent the development of that nurtured force created by the queens.  Masculine and in charge, they have learned all the lessons of the preceding cards of their suit and have mined them for wisdom.

As far as the cards, two through ten go, you can turn to numerology for assistance.  For example, the number two represents duality, the number three creativity, etc.

Colour also holds an important narrative in tarot reading.

All of these pieces of knowledge can be weaved together for better understanding of a card itself.

Here’s a little quiz that I created that you can use to test your Tarot Knowledge!  Try it out!

It’s A Lot To Learn But No Worries

At this point, though it is important to understand the general themes and meanings of the cards, what makes reading tarot so incredibly awesome is that it is an incredibly effective tool in honing your intuition.

Though it’s good to know the basics and have a foundation to begin with, now is the time to explore and have fun.  You will find in your exploration of your deck similar symbols or themes that stand out to you and repeat themselves throughout the cards. 

My suggestion is to get a notebook and start jotting down your insights or general ideas regarding card meanings.  Before you do any further research into anyone else’s ideas.

Try activities such as picking a card a day and jotting down ideas surrounding the imagery and what strikes you, or asking your deck questions and pulling cards, such as with a 3 card spread (start small), for an answer.  Not only is it fun but it makes for a deeper connection with your deck.

Aside from individual card meanings, when a card is surrounded by other cards, such as in popular spreads like a 3 card spread or the more complex like the Celtic Cross, this also influences the meaning and interpretations. 

Tarot should read like a story.  With each card adding another layer to the narrative.

This is why I encourage a notebook.  There will be many first impressions and ideas to explore and it will be good to compare notes and assess your progress down the road.

Also, I used the Rider-Waite-Smith deck as an example.  Have fun choosing the deck that best suits your style.  Some people say it is good luck to be gifted a deck but I think it is fun to do the choosing.  There is power in choice.  People also recommend cleansing your deck first. 

Again, this is entirely up to you.  Personally, I will shuffle and tap the cards against each other’s edge before asking a question and pulling cards for a reading.  To me, that feels like an effective way to clear the energy.

As you get familiar with the symbols and the themes and your deck itself, reading will feel more and more natural.  Overcome any insecurities by reading for close friends and family. 

There are so many resources and tarot communities online to support you.  Create a soothing area in your home you can retreat to in order to clear your mind and set the mood for a reading. 

The important thing is to enjoy the learning process.  Each card doesn’t have just one meaning and the symbolism can get quite complex.  Take your time and have patience as you learn.  My advice: Have fun exploring yourself through the cards.

The Conclusion

Reading the tarot can be complex and scary but one step at a time.  I hope that this guide gives you the confidence to at least get started.  Be patient with yourselves and take the necessary time needed with your deck to go through it card by card and explore its multi-faceted meanings. 

Start a tarot journal and most importantly, have fun exploring your intuitive nature.  The tarot has multiple layers but it is an excellent tool for a deeper understanding of not only yourself but the world you live in.  Enjoy.

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