Pictorial for Reading Tarot Cards

01
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Using Tarot as an Art Form

Tarot Reading
Tarot Reading. Amanda Edwards / Getty Images

Because Tarot cards are such a powerful and flexible magical (or "magickal") tool, it deserves special attention. Reading tarot cards is both an art and a science. Reading tarot cards is a science because magic is a precision science, so all procedures need to be duplicatable and produce reliable results. At the same time, reading tarot cards is an art form that both requires and enhances the development of intuitive and psychic abilities. In this article, we will review all the basics of reading tarot cards.

The first thing most people want to find out is the meaning for tarot cards. Because there are so many Tarot decks out there, and so many different Tarot spreads (or ways to throw and interpret the cards), assigning a specific meaning for tarot cards, across all decks and spreads, is quite impossible. However, it is possible to develop a strong working relationship with specific decks of cards so that the meaning for tarot cards in your specific deck or decks becomes very clear. The more you work with a specific deck, the greater your connection with that deck will be. And the more accurate your readings will be. In addition, the more you practice the more you will be able to intuit the meaning for tarot cards, regardless of the deck or spread. As you will find out later in this article, tarot card meanings can become a very personal issue and are often the result of your own intuition.

This step-by-step pictorial gives you the basics necessary for reading tarot cards. These basics include:

  • A short history of tarot cards and decks
  • Major uses of the tarot
  • Choosing a beginner tarot deck
  • Keying your tarot cards
  • Using a signifier
  • Real tarot card spreads
  • Meanings for tarot cards
  • Major and minor arcana
  • Getting started - tarot for beginners

02
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A Short History of Tarot Cards and Decks

Royal Dalton Gypsy Tarot Mug
Royal Dalton Gypsy Tarot Mug. (c) Phylameana lila Désy

The underlying symbology and concepts found in the Tarot go back thousands of years. For instance, in the early Christian Church, around 600 AD, the priests had little memo cards with pictures on them. The gypsies also used similar cards. The old emerald tablets in Egypt also had pictures of plates and discs. These concepts are very old but they are at the root of modern day tarot card meanings.

However, the modern Tarot is brand new, revised by the Order of the Golden Dawn to work more intimately with the Tree of Life and for spell work. It's a development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is, in our estimation, the major advance in magical practice within the last 2,000 years.

The word Tarot is a disguised word. It was originally spelled ìRota,î which means wheel, because the deck represents all phenomenal experience, the wheel of life. We use the Tarot as a living form that is tied into the existing Universe. In essence, the Tarot is a simulacrum of the Universe.

03
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Uses of Tarot Cards and Decks

Exploring the Uses of Tarot
Exploring the Uses of Tarot. (c) Phylameana lila Désy

Before the advent of the more modern decks that were updated by the Order of Golden Dawn, tarot cards were used primarily for divination. Divination is the art of accessing any information not directly available to the five senses. Gypsies and the Egyptians used the Tarot primarily for divination, and many modern day Gypsies continue to use their own unique decks for such purposes.

However, when the Order of the Golden dawn updated and modernized the tarot cards, they did so as magicians ñ they wanted to be able to use the tarot cards for magical purposes. The three main uses of tarot cards are:

  1. Straight divination
  2. Spell work (these decks are especially designed for spell work)
  3. Working the Tree of Life (for doing a great work)

While you can use almost any tarot cards for straight divination, only the updated decks can be used for spell work and working the Tree of Life. Tarot cards are used heavily in designing safe and effective spells (for instance, to predict the effectiveness of candle symbols and carvings, and also spell parameters, called "Directors and Limiters"). Tarot cards are also used as the primary medium for tarot spells, in which the tarot cards are actually tied to elements in the Universe and re-arranged so as to re-arrange reality in the physical universe.

Working the Tree of Life is reserved for magicians at the more advanced levels and are related to the Major Arcana cards. To read more, refer to Dion Fortune's excellent book "The Mystical Qabbalah."

04
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Choosing a Beginner Tarot Deck

RThe Waite-Rider Tarot Deck
The Waite-Rider Tarot Deck. (c) Phylameana lila Desy

If you are just starting to read tarot cards or have never done any work with the tarot, we suggest you start with the Waite-Rider deck, typically acknowledged as the easiest deck to work with for beginner magicians.

The people who created the modern tarot, all of whom were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, designed the Waite-Rider, Morgan-Greer and Thoth decks. Arthur Edward Waite created the Waite-Rider deck (Rider was the name of the publisher) and Pamela Smith, also of the Golden Dawn, did the artwork for the cards.

Lloyd Morgan and William Greer disagreed with Waite's approach, arguing that the Waite-Rider deck was too austere, too mental and too intellectual. They created the Morgan/Greer deck by adding fancy symbols, such as vines, to the top half of all the cards in the Waite-Rider deck.

The Waite-Rider, Morgan-Greer and Thoth decks were created by magicians for magic. These decks, and only these decks, can be used for all three magical purposes described above. For instance the Aquarian deck is a beautiful tool for divination if you are used to working with Zen or Hindu concepts, but itís virtually useless for spell work and has no relationship at all to the Tree of Life.

05
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Magical Use of Tarot - Keying Your Tarot Cards

Magical Use of Tarot
Magical Use of Tarot. (c) Morrhigan / stock.xchng

Because your tarot cards are magical tools (like the wand, athame, chalice and plate), they must be keyed. Keying is the means of personalizing magical tools for your own use. In this case, keying ties the cards not only to your own personal energies, but also to the Universe at large. This means that when you throw a tarot spread with a keyed deck, the cards not only represent elements, people and concepts in the Universe they are tied to them.

Keying is what allows tarot spells to work. Because the cards are actually linked to physical things in the Universe, when you change or re-arrange the tarot cards, you also change or re-arrange things in the physical Universe.

In the progression of magical studies, the study of tarot cards comes almost at the end. This is because you need the plate, athame and sun candles to key your tarot cards. You need to have studied and practiced with these other tools before you can key your cards.

While it's possible to throw tarot spreads with unkeyed tarot cards, the results will be less accurate than with keyed cards.

06
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Using a Signifier Card in Tarot

Using a Signifier Card
Using a Signifier Card. (c) Ruxandra Moldoveanu / stock.xchng

A signifier is a card that stands for someone or something. The signifier in a Tarot reading poses the question that we want answered. We tie our Tarot readings to specific issues and questions by using keyed signifiers.

Most people who use the Tarot today do not use signifiers. This leads to readings that are both less accurate and less effective. Using a signifier guarantees that the reading will be about the person or thing you want to find out about, and only about that.

As a guide, we choose signifiers for people based on chronological age and sun sign. For instance, children 12 and under are usually represented by pages, teenagers by knights, adult females by queens and adult males by kings.

In the Crowley deck the page has both a male and female card - the prince or princess. The adult male is signified as a knight in the Crowley deck because Crowley said that there are no adult males ñ males never reach maturity!

07
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Real Tarot Card Spreads

Celtic Cross Tarot Spread
Celtic Cross Tarot Spread. Thos Robinson / Getty Images

There are so many different kinds of tarot card spreads around that it can be difficult to decide which to learn and which to use. There are two tarot card spreads that we have found to be both effective and easy to use: Celtic Cross and 12 Card.

The Celtic Cross, also called the Gnostic Cross, is a type of Tarot reading that gives you a character sketch or personality profile of the person you are reading. The Celtic Cross is like a photograph or stop action picture of a person, a cross section or slice of their life. This type of reading is useful for people, animals or any kind of animate beings but not for situations. The Celtic Cross does not answer specific questions on situations but is a quick and easy way to get a personality profile on someone.

Unlike the Celtic Cross, which can only offer a personality profile, the 12 Card layout is suitable for reading people, situations, businesses, financial issues, relationships and other situations involving multiple people. While the Celtic Cross is a still picture snapshot of a person, the 12 Card is a moving picture that shows past, present and future. This allows you to track cause and effect chains much more effectively. The 12 Card layout is so flexible that you can use multiple-card signifiers to capture complex situations, expand certain portions of the reading to get more detail or move the reading back and forth in time. In fact, the 12 Card reading is so flexible that you can actually track your history back through all your past lives. You can also use the reading to predict the probable outcome of situations, from personal life situations to global ones.

08
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Meanings for Tarot Cards

tarot cards, symbology
Meanings of Individual Tarot Cards. (c) Phylameana lila Desy

While there are lots of books out there that give you the meaning of tarot cards, one of the best and most personal ways to develop meanings for the cards is to actually study the cards themselves. The cards were developed with symbols and pictures that represent the concept being expressed.

For instance, in the Waite-Rider deck, the Four of Swords depicts a man lying on a bier, on which is pictured a horizontal sword. The meaning of the card is "to bury the hatchet" or let past conflicts come to resolution or rest. The man is literally resting on top of the sword (swords are the fire element, which includes conflicts or fighting) - he is resting on old issues and allowing them to come to rest. He has "buried the hatchet!"

Similarly, in the eight of wands you can see flying wands coming down to land. Because wands are the air element, and stand for ideas, inspiration, thoughts and communication, the eight of wands represents new ideas or inspirations. Once you know the element associated with each suit and look at the card for the concept being expressed, you will begin to intuit the meaning for tarot cards easily. This approach is both more reliable and more intuitive than relying on someone else's interpretation (although you may want to use someone else's definition as a starting point).

Many of our students learn the meaning for tarot cards by taking one card a day, intuiting the meaning, then looking for examples of that meaning or concept in everyday life. For instance, the in the seven of swords card, a thief is stealing away with 7 swords. Swords are fire, which is also power, therefore the seven of swords is the loss of power. Once you intuit this meaning, looking for places in your life or in everyday life where you or someone else is losing power. When the concept is translated into everyday life, the meaning becomes real and you will never forget it.

09
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Major and Minor Arcana

Major Arcana Cards from the Morgan Greer Tarot Deck
Major Arcana Cards from the Morgan Greer Tarot Deck. (c) Phylameana lila Desy

The tarot is comprised of Minor Arcana cards in four suits and Major Arcana cards, which are not in suits. The four suits of the Minor Arcana are Wands, Swords, Cups and Plates, which match the four elemental tools. Minor Arcana cards are the numbered cards in each suit (ace through 10) plus the court cards (page, knight, queen and king).

Major Arcana cards are all the other cards in the deck and are related to but not tied to a particular suit. They represent principles, concepts or ideals while minor arcana cards represent the many ways that those principles manifest in the everyday or mundane world. The ideas expressed in the major arcana cards are not taught in our culture so we have lost touch with them and we have no foundation for them. Therefore, we have to be careful not to apply present day meanings to these past time symbols.

10
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Getting Started - Tarot for Beginners

Tarot Deck
Tarot Deck. (c) Phylameana lila Desy

Anyone can learn the art of reading tarot cards - it's not difficult. Like any art or science, it just takes practice and a strong desire to learn. One easy way to start learning the tarot is to get the Esoteric School Tarot Home Study course, which will teach you everything covered in this article, including the art of reading tarot cards, Tarot Spreads, meanings for tarot cards and two real tarot card spreads.

Discovering the Meaning of Tarot Cards

There are so many tarot decks around (and books that teach how to use those decks) that it can be difficult to know which meanings to apply to tarot cards. So many "gurus" give conflicting meanings - which one should you use?

While there are lots of books out there that give you the meaning of tarot cards, one of the best and most personal ways to develop meanings for the cards is to actually study the cards themselves. The cards were developed with symbols and pictures that represent the concept being expressed.

For instance, in the Waite-Rider deck, the Four of Swords depicts a man lying on a bier, on which is pictured a horizontal sword. The meaning of the card is "to bury the hatchet" or let past conflicts come to resolution or rest. The man is literally resting on top of the sword (swords are the fire element, which includes conflicts or fighting) - he is resting on old issues and allowing them to come to rest. He has "buried the hatchet!"

Similarly, in the eight of wands you can see flying wands coming down to land. Because wands are the air element, and stand for ideas, inspiration, thoughts and communication, the eight of wands represents new ideas or inspirations. Once you know the element associated with each suit and look at the card for the concept being expressed, you will begin to intuit the meaning for tarot cards easily. This approach is both more reliable and more intuitive than relying on someone else's interpretation (although you may want to use someone else's definition as a starting point).

A great way to learn the meaning for tarot cards is by taking one card a day, intuiting the meaning, then looking for examples of that meaning or concept in everyday life. For instance, the in the seven of swords card, a thief is stealing 7 swords. Swords are fire, which is also power, therefore the seven of swords is the loss of power. Here is a quick guideline to help you with the elements and their meanings:

  • Wands (Air) - Ideas, communication, thoughts, enlightenment, concepts
  • Swords (Fire) - Power, motivation, action, force, conflict
  • Cups (Water) - Emotions, feeling, compassion, language of Spirit
  • Discs or Plate (Earth) - Manifestation, physical expression in the world, physical creation

Once you intuit this meaning, looking for places in your life or in everyday life where you or someone else is losing power. When the concept is translated into everyday life, the meaning becomes real and you will never forget it.