How to Read Tarot Cards

Learning to read tarot cards can be a daunting task, especially if you consider you need to know 78 cards and their meanings “like the back of your hand”.  Even if you are reading just for yourself, looking up the meaning of the cards every time you decide to work with them will limit your ability to tap in the intuitive insight they can provide when you have a very difficult situation or relationship you want some guidance about.

This AskAstrology basic guide will give you some helpful hints on how to learn to read tarot cards, so you can enjoy the experience and get the most out of the power of the tarot.

Get a Visually Accessible Deck (With Key Words) to Start

There are thousands of decks to choose from, so you do not need to pick a traditional deck that will require you to become a tarot scholar just to interpret one card.  AskAstrology provides reviews of some of the best decks available and guidelines for picking your first deck in their deck review section.  You can also read the article “Picking a Tarot Deck to Learn Tarot” by professional reader, Philip Young PhD

Once you have your deck in hand, let us get you from opening the deck to reading the cards effectively as quickly as possible.

Become One with Your Deck

Tarot cards represent archetypes of human experience.  You have experienced and will experience all the cards in the deck, repeatedly throughout your life.  So, the easiest way to learn the cards is not by trying to memorize the meanings of the cards, but by connecting an experience from your life with each card.

Get a Journal

Your next purchase, after you get your deck, should be a nice journal.  In this journal you will start with the Fool card and work your way through all the Major Arcana, then all the Minor Arcana, writing about your life experience that best reflects each card.

Before you begin to write your experience, you should read the explanation and keywords for the card provided by the booklet or companion book that comes with the deck.  Again, you do not need to memorize the keywords or the description and interpretation, you just need to UNDERSTAND the key words and the description.

The Fool card represents a leap of faith, pure potential, fearlessness, trust in the universe, and taking a risk.  When, in your life, did you embody the Fool.  You may have to go back to childhood, or yesterday, but you have a string of Fool moments in your life.  Pick the one you think best embodies this card and write that experience in your journal on the Fool page.

Once you have completed your Fool story, read about the Magician and determine when you embodied coming to a crossroads in life to make a significant choice, problem solving with your skills and knowledge, or learning something new that would be useful to you in life.  Pick the most vivid memory and write about it in as much detail as you can.

Go through the entire deck and capture the details of your tarot story; we all have one.  After recording all your memories, when you draw a card from the deck, you will not be trying to recall the keywords from a detached memorization process, that really only works for a select few in the whole of the human population.  You will immediately know and remember your experience of the card and be able to understand the meaning of the card instantly.

Test Yourself

Like any new skill you want to acquire and excel at, you need to practice and practice.  In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the key to mastery or expertise is 10,000 hours of continuous practice.  If you want to become proficient and capable of reading tarot cards to maximize the value of the tool, then you need to “touch” it every day.

First, start by putting the cards in order in the deck, beginning with the Fool and going to the World.  Organize the Minor Arcana in suits so that the cards are 1 to 10, then the court cards.  Go through the entire deck and recall each story you chose for each card.  They are your stories, so you should not have any trouble understanding the meaning of the cards.

Reorganize the deck, keeping the Major cards in their natural order, but this time, take all the same number and court cards and put them together as a group, in order.  All the 1s, then all the 2s, and so on.  Go through the deck again.

And finally, shuffle the cards and go through them once more.  You may find some cards feel very familiar and others not so much.  Pull out all the most familiar cards and set them aside.  Keep the less familiar ones and reshuffle them and go through them until you feel like you have a solid recall of each card.

Start Reading Tarot for Yourself

To Reverse or Not to Reverse, That is a Question

When you start out reading cards, use them in the upright position as part of your learning and initial mastery period.  If you turn the card over and it “comes up” reversed, rotate it into the upright position.  At the beginning stages of learning, reversals double and complicate meanings.  There are plenty of cards in the deck that can function negatively upright (5 of Cups, 5 of Swords, 5 of Pentacles, 8 of Cups, 9 of Swords, and so on), so you do not need reversals to get “no” answers.

One Card Draw (No Question)

One of the best ways to learn tarot is by making a daily card draw in the morning, once you are awake and alert, or at night, just before you go to bed.  You do not need to ask a question, merely select a card as a meditation for the day or as an intention for meditation in your dreams state.

How to Ask a Question of the Tarot

As tempting as it may be to want to ask about other people’s intentions or actions, such questions are not appropriate; it is a psychic invasion of privacy.  So, while you may want to ask, “how does my lover feel about me?” (an inappropriate question), the appropriate question you might ask is, “how do I feel about the way my lover treats me?”  That is your question and the cards will help you reach an answer.

Therefore, questions should always be self-focused even if they involve another person.  You might have this situation, “my son is in an unhappy marriage, will he get divorced?”  Not your question to ask or answer.  Instead, “my son is in an unhappy marriage, how can I best support him?”  Questions involving other people should never be about getting access to information they should provide.

Three Approaches to A Reading

It does not matter if you are drawing 1 card, 10 cards, or using the entire deck.  There are 3 fundamental ways to approach reading the cards:

  1. Ask a specific question, such as: “I have a job offer in another part of the world, should I take the job?” Or, “I went out with someone I really like, but have concerns; should I go on a second date?”
  2. Ask about an area of life, but nothing specific: “What do I need to know about my relationships.” Or, “What do I need to know about my career?”
  3. Be open; do not ask a question. Just see what comes up.

Doing A Tarot Reading

To do a reading, choose which of the three approaches you want to take.  Ask a specific question, think or ask about an area of your life, or relax and be open.  Once you have your choice clear in your mind and shuffle the cards.

After shuffling, you may choose to spread the cards out in front of you (fan them out) so you can pick a card from anywhere in the deck.  Or, you can finish shuffling and take the top card or bottom card from the deck.   Or, you can finish shuffling and cut the cards into any number of stacks and take the top card off one of the stacks.

Regardless of how you shuffle and draw the cards, you want to create a repeatable process so you can “ritualize” your reading technique.  Ritual practice helps focus your mind and hone your intuition.  Try different techniques until you find the one that resonates with you and use it regularly when you do readings going forward.

One Card Reading (Question and Answer)

The question is, “I have a new job offer in another part of the country, should I take it?”  You follow your shuffling and drawing process and select the Queen of Pentacles:

She represents financial stability, proper management of your resources, and cautious investing.  She invests in the long term, low risk solutions.  Your answer is “yes”, you should take the job if it improves your financial security and provides a safe and secure opportunity.  It is “no” if the risk his high and the financial reward is unclear; you need to take the stable path now.

Let us consider a different card and its meaning, the Knight of Cups:

The Knight of Cups follows his heart and pursues his dream.  He is guided by his feelings, trusts his instincts, and follows a quest using his feelings.  The answer is “yes”, if it feels right or the decision “warms your heart”.  The answer is “no” if you are trying to make the practical choice and play it safe by taking the new position; if your “heart is not in it”, then it is not the right job.

Two Card Reading (Area of Life Reading)

For this reading, you decide to just ask about or think about an area of your life, but without a specific question in mind, so “what do I need to know about my romantic relationship?” or “I want to know about romance.”

You shuffle and draw two cards, assigning them values.  The first card will represent what you need to know now and the second card will represent what you need to know for guidance going forward.  You draw two cards and select The Devil first and the 8 of Swords second:

Right now, you want to “go for it” and act without any concern for the consequences.  However, going forward you will face anxiety and worry if you choose to act selfishly.

Now, let us reverse the same two cards and see how the message changes.  The 8 of Swords is your first card and the Devil is your second card.

You have negative thinking and worry about your romantic relationship and romance.  However, your guidance going forward is to “go for it”. Go after what you want and deal with the consequences later.  Do not trap yourself!

As you can see the order of the cards dramatically changes the interpretation of the answer.

Practice, Practice, Practice … and Consider Studying with a Professional

If you really want to learn to read tarot cards, practice and application on a regular and ongoing basis is key.  You may also find it helpful to study with a professional reader.

Ultimately, whether you read for yourself, others as a gift, you want to be able to know the cards inside and out, so you can see the message coherently, especially if you decide to do readings with as many as 5 to 10 cards.

By Philip Young, PhD - a spiritual adviser located in Cary, North Carolina. He provides spiritual guidance using different tools: astrology, tarot/oracle cards, numerology, and past life regression (using muscle testing).