So You Want to Learn Tarot (Baby Witch Bootcamp Ch. 13)

Tarot Stock Photos And Images - 123RF

Tarot is one of the most popular forms of divination, and my personal favorite tool to use when I’m seeking answers. I talked about tarot a bit in my last post, but I feel like it deserves further discussion here since a lot of new witches are intimidated by it.

Before we get into what tarot is and how to learn it, let’s discuss some popular misconceptions.

Tarot is not…

  • … evil, demonic, or Satanic. This one probably goes without saying, but tarot has a very mystical reputation in pop culture, and some people genuinely believe that it is evil. In the Christian group I grew up in, tarot cards were viewed with the same fear as seances and Ouija boards. So, for the record, tarot has nothing to do with demons, and in fact classic tarot decks contain a lot of Christian imagery. (There are also modern decks on the market that really play up the Christian themes, if that’s your thing.)
  • … negative or scary. Some of the most well-known tarot cards are those with frightening names and/or imagery: Death, the Devil, the Tower, etc. For this reason, some people think that tarot only contains negative messages or that using tarot cards invites negative energy into your life. Actually, I find tarot to be very balanced between light and dark, with several cards that are purely positive (like the Sun or the World). Even cards like Death or the Tower aren’t 100% negative — their meaning depends on the context in which they appear. While it’s true that tarot does sometimes hit us with difficult messages, this is true of every divination method if you’re using it right. Part of the appeal of divination is that it allows us to see the truth of a situation, even if that truth isn’t pretty.
  • … ancient. One popular myth claims that the cards are based on the Book of Thoth, an ancient Egyptian wisdom text. In reality, tarot comes from a card game that was popular in medieval Italy — originally, the cards were just entertainment. The use of these cards for divination was popularized by the French in the 18th century. It wasn’t until 1909 that Edward Waite and Pamela Coleman-Smith created the Waite-Smith deck (or Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as it is sometimes called), which established the “classic” tarot symbolism that we all know and love.
  • … something you can only use if you’re psychic. As I’ve mentioned before, we all have psychic senses, although most of us are not aware of them. However, you don’t have to be a professional medium or be deeply in touch with your psychic abilities to read tarot. Tarot is a tool, and like any tool it has a variety of uses. Your experience with the cards will be exactly as magical or as mundane as you choose to make it. You don’t need to worry about tapping into magical energy you can’t control, or anything like that.
  • … hard to learn. Learning tarot is not difficult, although it is time-consuming. No one becomes an advanced reader overnight. However, it isn’t actually very hard to learn how to read the cards. Most readers interpret the cards intuitively, which means that how the images make you feel is more important than the traditional interpretation. Being familiar with the traditional meanings helps, but there’s no rule that says you can’t keep a couple of good books on hand to help jog your memory. If you’re trying to memorize all the card meanings so you can just repeat them later, you’re doing it wrong.

Now that we know what tarot isn’t, let’s take a second to discuss what it is. Tarot is a modern system of divination using illustrated cards. Most tarot decks contain 78 cards, which are divided into two groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is what probably comes to mind when you think of the tarot: these are the named cards like The Fool, The High Priestess, Death, etc. The 22 Major Arcana cards represent major themes, patterns, and events, so they tend to be the dominant energy in any readings they show up in. The remaining 56 cards make up the Minor Arcana, which deals more with day-to-day life. The Minor Arcana is further divided into four suits, which are each associated with one of the classical elements. The suits are wands (fire), cups (water), pentacles (earth), and swords (air).

If you want to learn to read tarot, the first step is to find a deck that you resonate with. Because tarot cards act as a conduit for your own psychic abilities, you want to make sure that the energy of your deck vibes well with your own energy. You can absolutely order your deck online (and you’ll have a wider selection to choose from if you do), but if picking one out in person is important to you, most bookstores and metaphysical shops will have several to choose from.

Some questions to ask yourself as you’re choosing your first tarot deck: 

  • Are there any themes or motifs you feel called to work with? There are tons of themed tarot decks on the market, from goddess decks to crystal decks to pirate decks. What symbolism speaks to you?
  • What art styles do you enjoy? You’ll spend a lot of time looking at your cards, so it’s important that you like the artwork!
  • How does this deck make you feel? It’s best not to choose a deck that makes you uncomfortable, at least while you’re still trying to learn the basics. For me, the decks that I end up working with the most feel like an old friend — comforting and familiar. (Note that some of my favorite decks have dark themes and imagery, but I still find them comforting on an energetic level.)

If you don’t feel called to any one deck, starting with the Waite-Smith deck is always a good idea. Most tarot books base their interpretations on this deck, so it’s helpful for beginners who are still learning card associations. There are several versions of this deck on the market — my personal favorite is the Universal Waite Tarot, because I find it easiest to read. (It’s also cheap and widely available, so it should be easy to find a copy.)

Once you’ve chosen a deck, take some time to get to know the cards. Before you begin reading with your deck, go through the cards one by one and write down how they make you feel, as well as any associations they draw up for you. It’s best to do this exercise before you begin learning the traditional meanings for the cards, so you can capture your authentic first reactions to them.

There are other ways to get to know your deck. There’s an old superstition that says you should sleep with the deck next to your pillow for several nights, so that it can become attuned to your energy. Another option is to meditate with the deck, allowing yourself to feel it out.

Once you’ve gotten to know your deck, it’s time to learn the traditional meanings of the cards. Don’t get too hung up on this part — remember that readings are done intuitively; the traditional meanings are only a guideline, and you may find that the information you receive in a reading differs from tradition. In those cases, always trust your intuition. What the Ace of Wands means FOR YOU is more important than what it means for so-and-so author of such-and-such book. (This is why it’s a good idea to write down your own thoughts and feelings about the cards before you begin studying tarot books.)

The book I recommend starting with is Tarot For Beginners by Lisa Chamberlain. At just over 100 pages long, this is a very brief, accessible, “just the basics” introduction to tarot. The book is just long enough to give you a taste of what reading tarot is like, to determine if it’s really right for you.

Books can be very helpful, especially for learning the traditional meanings of cards, but the best way to learn to read tarot is by doing it. Once you’ve found a deck you resonate with, connected with your cards, and learned a little about card meanings, it’s time to start doing readings.

Start by pulling one card each day. Write down your immediate reaction and any messages that come to you when you look at the card. Experiment with it! Try holding the card in your hands and trying to “feel” it energetically — what vibes does it give off? Does a certain word or phrase pop into your head when you look at it? Do certain images on the card leap out at you? Write all of this down. Once you’ve written your own interpretation, look up the traditional meaning of the card in Tarot For Beginners or another book, or online (the website has a really great guide to card meanings and is 100% free). If anything you read about the card resonates, write that down as well. The goal here is to see how your initial intuitive reading compares to the card’s traditional meaning — eventually, as you get more familiar with the cards, you won’t need to look them up at all.

As you go about your day, keep your daily tarot card in the back of your mind. How do the card’s messages relate to what happened to you throughout the day? Before you go to bed, write about how you saw the card’s message in your life.

Eventually, you’ll begin to get the hang of reading tarot intuitively. You’ll also begin to develop your own readings styles and your own rituals for doing a reading.

When you’re ready to deepen your understanding of the cards, I recommend The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals by Mary K. Greer. This book contains detailed information about the upright meaning of each card, as well as several methods for reading reversals. Reversals can add new layers of depth and dimension to your readings, although not all readers choose to use reversed meanings. It’s entirely up to personal preference, but I still recommend The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals to help you develop a deeper understanding of the cards.

If you’re interested in learning more about tarot without spending any money, there are lots of free resources online. I’ve already mentioned the Biddy Tarot website. The Fat Feminist Witch podcast has an episode called “Tarocchi” that goes into the history and origin of the cards. The Missing Witches podcast has an episode about Pamela “Pixie” Coleman Smith, the illustrator of the Waite-Smith deck and creator of much of the symbolism found in modern tarot decks. Kelly-Ann Maddox and Jessi Huntenburg are both YouTubers who read tarot professionally, and both of them have a lot of interesting and helpful tarot-related videos on their channels. 

Above all, remember that learning to read tarot is a journey. No one becomes a master reader overnight. It’s going to take time for you to feel comfortable with the cards, and that’s okay. Don’t rush the process — allow your understanding to grow naturally over time.

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