How to Tarot: So you're curious about the cards!
Greetings fellow tarot nerd!
I have been creating tarot decks now for 6 years. In that time the word has gotten out in a few small circles and I field a variety of questions from artists and budding tarot enthusiasts about learning/creating/reading tarot. Today I'm going to share a little bit of my journey with the hopes of lowering the barrier for the curious about how fucking awesome tarot is and inspire you to get started with your own journey. This is the beginning of a series of posts I am calling "How to Tarot".
Before I get started I want to point out: I'm not an expert but I have a lot of experience reading about tarot, reading the cards for myself and loved ones regularly, and over time I have formed my own opinions about it. I don't read cards professionally and I have no desire to ever do so. Honestly, there is a part of me that wants to get my PhD in tarot—I'm that into it. Until then, I am just a nerd who has read some books and made some decks. I also talk a lot about tarot with other people and have a sense of where it's at within our current culture.
So you have the tarot bug...
When I ask people if they are a tarot fan I usually hear some version of "I like it but I don't know anything about it" or "I love the art". I think at first glance tarot appears to be a very opaque subject but what's cool about it is that you can make as simple or as complicated as you want.
The market is flooded with decks that are STUFFED with imagery and symbolism but also rife with minimalist decks that streamline the meanings with intentionally simple illustrations. If all you want to do is flip through a deck and admire the way an artist has captured a particular theme in their deck—that's a completely valid way of enjoying tarot. You never have to learn how to read cards to "get it". Hell, the Rider-Waite (the deck everyone thinks about when they think about tarot) was created with the idea that you NEEDED the guide to "demystify the meaning of the cards". Arthur Waite for better or worse, wanted that aura of mystic around his cards because he didn't make the actual deck, he wrote the guide for it. It was Pamela Coleman Smith who produced that bad boy in like 6 months and made hardly anything on it.
If you are interested in using the card for daily reflection or reading for others then learning to read the cards is really fun. Just know that anyone who says that their way is the only way is full of shit. Take one look at a forum, FB group, or hell just look at the amount of DECKS out there and its clear that reading the cards is as much a personal journey as it is about memorizing meanings.
When I first became interested in tarot I went to a friend who had been reading cards for 15 years at that time. She explained to me the basic structure of the Rider-Waite tarot which I will share with you!
The major arcana are numbered from 0 to 21. The Fool is the first card and starts at zero, symbolizing the tabula rasa or blank slate. The rest of the major arcana illustrates the journey of the Fool through different experiences in life. The major arcana are the gods of the tarot and address the big moments in time that we all experience at one point or another. Creation, love, pain, death, fear, all of that is in there. Learning that journey helped me understand the impact of each card. For example: The Star card is about hope after suffering or trials. In the order of the major arcana it comes after The Tower—a spooky ass card about quick and devastating change. The Star is positioned as a brief haven for the Fool to recover and rebuild, a promise that tomorrow is another day and there is hope.
So the major arcana seems pretty straight forward once you get your feet wet but the minor? That's too much! The reality is, once you grasp how the minor arcana is built it makes a lot of sense. But I will warn you—learning the minor arcana has ruined some tarot decks for me. I prefer a deck that lets the story of each card show through and so super minimal decks that just have like 6 identical cups on them kinda bum me out. There is nothing wrong with these decks! It's just me sharing my preference. I like a bit of character!
Each suit of the minor arcana is associated with an element.
- Cups are water 💦
- Wands are fire 🔥
- Swords are air 💨
- Coins/pentacles are earth 🏔
Then you take the number of the card and using that you can triangulate a general meaning. I wont go into each number (I'm making a full on guide for that) but here are come examples:
Aces are distilled to their most essential and powerful meaning (the water is clear and flowing, the fire is bright and raging, the wind is gusting, the earth is tall, sturdy, and proud.
Fives are generally pretty shitty. You're broke, sad, angry, or jealous.
Tens are all about completion and finality. Sometimes, like with the Ten of Swords, that finality is a sad one but they are companions to the ace cards—where there is an end there is another beginning.
Each card tells a story and when laid next to other cards they becomes something new and interesting, talking to each other and building a different narrative.
Finally we have the court cards. These aren't always listed separately from the minor arcana but I prefer to do that because they feel very different even though they also rely on elements and number order. The court cards are representative of people. That person could be you, someone you know, or symbolize someone (the protector, the aggressor, the boss, the messenger).
There are elemental associations to the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. I personally rely on that rather than stereotypes of gender roles when reading these cards. You will notice in my decks that any person can be a king or a queen. In CULT I used the same model for each court card and did phases of life, from childhood to adulthood to elderhood.
Earth are Pages (aka the messenger cards); Fire are Knights (the teenagers of the tarot who have learned a lot but have a lot to learn); Water are Queens (the social skills are on lock and the creativity to conform to any situation is there); Air are Kings (the analytic strategists of the tarot)
Hopefully this breakdown of how I look at tarot has helped you feel a little bit better about exploring it further. It's a lot but I swear it's not so much. And honestly, the journey is what makes is facinating!
In my next post I am going to go further on how I BUILD a tarot deck. This one is for the artists! In future posts I will delve further into the meanings of the cards and share history about where they came from and how they have evolved.