Tarot cards and, more recently, oracle cards are outstanding tools for psychological and spiritual work. Each year they become more and more a part of the common vernacular and readily available in mass-market venues, especially the online retailer, Amazon. The number of decks available in and out of print is mind-boggling, easily in the thousands, especially if you go do a search for decks on eBay.
Once shrouded in mystery and a “tool of people with questionable character, dark intentions, or acolytes of heathen beliefs”, tarot and oracle cards are enjoying widespread acceptance. In this article, I will write about the most effective way to learn to read tarot cards, by connecting them to your personal experiences.
What Makes an Archetype an Archetype?
An archetype is a recurrent, essential example of a situation, quality, or experience represented by an image, artwork, or concept. The most common archetype for a father is “the provider”. A man who works successfully enough to provide for the care of a partner and children could be seen and understood as the archetype for the father.
Many forms of artwork attempt to capture archetypes for beauty, love, success, and power. “There is nothing new under the sun”, just variations on archetypes. Tarot cards represent 78 archetypes and 78 experiences we all encounter in life, repeatedly, in different degrees, and with different lessons. As an example, we all fall in love repeatedly in life, whether it is the 2 of Cups flirtation or The Lovers passion and commitment.
And the love we feel, understand, and seek is different when we are 13, 23, 33, 43, 53, 63, 73, and so on. It is the same, archetypically, yet different based on culture, gender, economic status, age, health, and on and on. The particulars of our love experiences still connect to the essence of love and relating.
A Different Way to Learn the Cards
The typical, and often very difficult way to learn to read a tarot card is by trying to memorize the meaning of the card in the booklet or book that comes with the cards. If there is a book, then the card might also have an expanded description to help “put something in your brain” that will keep the meaning of the card clear in your mind when you see it again and again in your own readings or readings for others.
Many decks attempt to make the meaning clear with insightful and helpful artwork that is what I like to call “visually accessible”. If I look at the 5 of Cups from the Crow’s Magic tarot, I do not get much if any visual help understanding the card. I just have to accept the keywords at the bottom of the card if I am shown this card with no prior knowledge or study of tarot cards.
If someone shows me, or I draw this card from the Steampunk Tarot, I get a much more visually helpful image that does not need key words for me to interpret the negative emotional meaning of the card.
However, there is a very simple and powerful way to understand and remember the card meanings readily available to all of us … make a specific connection of each card with your life experience that best represents the card.
The Archetype and Your Relationship with It
You can start with the Fool and the Major Arcana and go sequentially through all 22, then select one of the suits and start with card 1 and go through all 10, then the court cards. Or, you can shuffle the deck and pull the card from the top until you have gone through all 78 cards. If you want to deepen the connection, consider getting a journal and writing down the card and your life experience that best exemplifies the core meaning of the card.
Below are some examples when I first studied the card from the first and second decks I purchased, the Mythic Tarot (1989) and the Osho Zen Tarot (1995).
The 6 of Wands (Victory and Achievement) – the Mythic Tarot
At the time, I associated this card with my high school graduation. I completed my high school journey ranked 2nd in my class, the Salutatorian, which put in a position to give a speech to my fellow classmates on graduation day. I had a long academic career, and each graduation – Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and PhD – was a variation on this card.
The Queen of Rainbows (Material Stability) – Osho Zen Tarot
At the time, I associated this card with teaching, which I did at the university level from 1992 until 2010. Each class I taught fed into my experience and helped me improve as an instructor. Coupled with my studies while I was working on my PhD, I continued to make practical strides towards better and better teaching techniques and outcomes with students. I also got paid for my work, not a lot, but a steady and predictable amount.
5 of Cups (Disappointment) – the Mythic Tarot
When I was in college working on my undergraduate degree, I fell in love for the first time in way that represented mature, adult love. It was a heady and wonderful experience, until I found out the woman, I loved had a boyfriend back in her home town. Turns out I was the secret affair, which she needed to break off. She basically kicked over four out of the five cups and I really looked like Psyche desperately reaching for my lost lover. Fortunately, one cup was still upright, and I did find love again, and lost it, and found it, and lost, and found it.
Inner Voice (Major Card 2) – Osho Zen Tarot
When I first thought about this card, after reading the description and looking at the visual design, I connected this card to my decision to tell my father I did not want to play for the high school golf team my senior year. My father loved golf and put a club in my hands when I was five. I had a lot more talent than him, but not his pure love for the game. I tried to achieve to my potential for him, but my heart was never in it.
Finally, I told him I no longer wanted to play for the team or even the game. To his credit, he accepted my decision graciously. After my first semester in college, I called him and told him I want to play again, and he got my clubs out of storage and I played a round with him. I told him I only wanted to play the game when we could play together, and that’s what I did for the next 20 years. I played over a thousand rounds, and only four of them were without him. Trusting my Inner Voice led to a great outcome.
The Cards Are Your Story
If you connect your personal experiences with each card, you will be able to learn them in one pass through the deck, especially if you write them down as you go. The personal connection will make the cards “real” and then you will know how to interpret them in readings for yourself and others.