Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Growing up, my family often relied on the tarot to help us make difficult decisions – we drew cards to discuss my brother’s breakup or whether I should drop out of school.
I didn’t always listen to the readings, but the rituals provided a space for me to reflect and find my own answers to the question posed to the cards. Years later I have returned to the practice along with many others to stay grounded during this time of indecision and overwhelm.
As tarot reader and author Michelle Tea puts it, some people mistakenly come to the tarot to predict the future when in fact it is about self-reflection. “If you’re a person who wants to incorporate more spirituality into your life or look at life a little more philosophically, it’s a great tool for even just picking a day’s menu.”
Descending from mid-15th-century European playing cards, modern tarot has rules and structure that often seem inaccessible to newcomers: even if you’ve read before, you might be intimidated by the cards or wondering if you’re a witch are cool enough to practice tarot themselves.
Tea says this is another common misconception about tarot. “Tarot is incredibly inviting for a beginner. If I could learn it, anyone can,” she says. “It’s just getting familiar with the pictures, memorizing them, and understanding how the cards talk to each other so you understand how they flow into some sort of story as you draw a series of cards.”
In her book Modern Tarot: Connecting with your higher self through the wisdom of the cards, Tea walks aspiring readers through each card in a tarot deck, shares reading tips, and ways you can incorporate tarot into your self-care practice. Here is a tarot guide for beginners with their tips and resources.
Choose a deck that appeals to you
Especially for beginners who find the tarot unapproachable, according to Tea, the first step is to “assume that the tarot welcomes you, and I think the best way to do that is to choose a deck that you really like.” appeals,” she says. “You want a deck that makes you feel, ‘Oh, I’m intrigued by these images; I want to read about what that means.’”
While most standard decks contain 78 cards, each set assigns different names and illustrations to each card. Images on your deck will also inform your reading: your knowledge of different flowers can guide the way you interpret a floral deck. Your deck will likely come with an instruction book that explains each card specific to that set.
If you want to start with the basics, Tea recommends grabbing the classic Rider-Waite-Smith, which was also her (and mine) first deck. Some of Tea’s other favorites include:
- The Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris
- The Next World Tarot by Cristy C. Road
- The She Wolfe Tarot by Devany Amber Wolfe
- The Cosmic Slumber Tarot by Tillie Walden
Learn your cards
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
A standard tarot deck has 78 cards divided into two groups, 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards. The major arcana depict major life events, while the minor arcana look at the strokes and speak to our daily lives, although much of this will of course vary by reader.
That major arcana consist of the archetype cards like the sun, the magician and the lovers. They are often numbered from 0 (the fool) to 22 (the world). “Usually when important cards come up in readings, they’re talking about a moment that’s really important,” Tea explains, “like a highlight in our lives or a significant learning opportunity, a lesson that’s going to be very impactful for us.”
That minor arcana are divided into four elements, similar to traditional playing cards – from one to ten, followed by face cards. Elements are represented by icons, which Tea breaks down here:
- Suit of Wands: Represents the element of fire that we hold in our hearts, where our passions and ambitions reside. “It’s a really sexy suit; it’s really playful.” It wants us to go out into the world and pursue whatever we want.
- Suit of Cups: Represents water, often used as a metaphor for our emotions. It often speaks about our emotional landscape and the people who change it. It’s very relational; It’s about love, friendship and community.
- Suit of Swords: Represents Air, considered to be the “most unstable element in the Tarot”. It serves as a metaphor for our mental processes. “It’s electricity; it’s inspiration, communication, but it’s also our inner worlds and how we can twist and torment with fear.”
- Pentacles (sometimes called discs or coins): Represents the earth. It grounds us in our bodies, our homes, our workplaces, the places where we are embodied
Reading “is 100% about learning and getting comfortable with the deck,” says Tea. You don’t have to give anyone a full read to practice. First, familiarize yourself with the deck of your choice, both with the names and pictures of the cards. Then read the instruction book and practice giving readings to yourself. This can be daily readings or drawing an intention card weekly. It’s hard to memorize all the cards at once, so try to make a habit of grabbing your deck and learning a card or two every day.
Ask specific questions
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
For more insightful metrics, try not to ask overall questions that span a year or address your overall mood.
“If you’re overwhelmed and want the tarot to calm you down, that’s really not the job of the tarot,” says Tea. “The tarot is not here to tell you everything will be fine, but when you are having a challenging moment, the tarot can help you deal with it.”
Of course you can still rely on the maps. Instead of asking a muddy question like “Will everything be okay?” You can rephrase it as “What action might I take?”
Tarot can also answer yes or no questions like “Should I quit my job?” Or everyday questions like “How should I talk to my roommates about the division of housework?” If you don’t agree with the cards, that’s okay too. As Tea says, “The Tarot is a tool for you to be proactive in your own life and face your own destiny with confidence.”
Create your own prep routine
Come read time, there are no hard and fast rules for intention setting and shuffling. As Tea says, what makes tarot such a powerful spiritual practice is that there is so much to figure out for yourself, learn first, then revise and personalize the readings.
Remember to focus on the weight of the cards, and shuffle by slicing the deck in whatever way feels most comfortable to you. You can place the deck in one hand and release a portion of the cards into the other hand at a time; Split the cards into two files and fan them out; or mix them up in a big heap on the floor. The most important thing is your state of mind: focus on the question being asked.
Take a screenshot of this handout to help with tarot reading. Or print it out here!
Try different readings
There are different ways to give tarot readings – the most important is finding one that works for you and who you are reading for. Tea suggests beginners start with a three-card reading. Each of the three cards you draw can be assigned a different role including but not limited to: past/present/future, the nature of your problem/cause/solution, situation/action/outcome. Maybe take the time to think through different scenarios with the cards in front of you to see if there’s an order that appeals to you.
You may also have heard that reversed cards reverse their meaning. How to read them is a contentious topic among tarot readers. Tea says she doesn’t believe in reversals.
“Because I put the cards back sloppily, does a happy card become a sad card? I don’t like that,” she says. “But if you are interested in reversals, you can try it. You can watch it and find out why people like it.”
As is often the case with tarot, it’s all about what you want to contribute to the question and the reading.
The name of the tarot deck featured in this story has been updated from Rider-Waite to Rider-Waite-Smith to reflect the contributions of artist Pamela Colman Smith.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider with technical assistance from Stuart Rushfield.
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