A Beginner's Guide to Tarot

Jan 2, 2018 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

The first time I found myself interested in a tarot deck I was walking around Seattle. I saw The Wild Unknown deck, the moon card facing outward, and felt drawn to them. They were so beautiful and evocative. Not long after, I ordered the deck and found an incredible amount of insight from pulling cards for myself.

In starting to explore tarot myself, I learned you don’t need a specific belief system to work with it. You can be religious, atheist, somewhere in the middle, and tarot is still available to you. You can think of it as a meditative device or a future-reading one, and there are as many ways to practice tarot as there are practitioners. Basically, if you’re interested in it, there’s a way tarot can be useful for you.

To learn more about tarot, I spoke with Sasha Graham, who has written several books on the topic, including her most recent, 365 Tarot Spells.

What is tarot?

“It’s a metaphysical device for understanding yourself and the world around you,” Graham says. Put simply, it’s a deck of 78 cards, divided into minor and major arcana. The minor arcana play out the same as regular playing cards, though the suits are different (wands, pentacles, cups and swords vs. clubs, hearts, diamonds and spades). The major arcana are what separate the two; the major arcana are a series of archetypes, like the fool, the empress and the tower. Some people use it as a meditation device, others as an oracle.

Finding a deck

There’s an old wives tale that your first tarot deck must be given to you, but it’s nonsense. “You want to find something whose artwork totally appeals to you, something that you think is beautiful and evocative, because you’ll want to go back to the deck over and over again,” Graham says. If that means a Shakespeare- or yoga-themed deck or a totally black and white deck, go for it. It’s all about what looks interesting to you.

How to pull a card

“I think one of the most beautiful things a person can do with a brand-new deck is to make a space — mark out a specific space and time to meet the deck — and looking at each card through a stream of incense, saying hello,” Graham says.

After that, she recommends starting with a daily card, just one, for a few minutes a day. If you find you have more time than that and are interested, go further. But one cards a day is a great place to start.

When you pull tarot, it’s good to have a question in mind. “You shouldn’t ask a predictive question,” she says, so avoid asking something that can be answered with a yes or no. And the best questions put responsibility back on you. “What can I do? How can I take personal action? You would never ask the tarot, ‘When will I fall in love?’ You would ask the tarot, ‘How can I best attract a relationship in my life?’”

More: How to Ask the Right Questions for Tarot Readings

From there, you shuffle the deck in whatever way you’d like, keeping your question in mind. Cut the deck into three and stack it again. And then you can either pull the top card or spread the cards out and pull the one (or several) that feel right.

How do I know what the cards mean

“The first thing is you should just go on instinct and visual. And get rid of the phrase, ‘I don’t know what that means,’ and thinking of yourself as a novice,” Graham says. Your first step should be seeing what comes up for you when you look at the card. What element of the card drew your attention first? Trust that your impression of the symbols is accurate. “The second stop is a book. The third stop is looking the card up online. Each card has an infinite number of meanings, the most important one is one that resonates for you.”

More: 6 Tips to Read Tarot Cards Without Any Experience

What spreads you should learn

A spread is what we call a layout of tarot cards. Pulling one card is a one-card spread. A popular but complicated pull is the Celtic cross spread, which involves 10 cards. By pulling a card a day, you’re already working with a one-card spread. Beyond that, Graham recommends a three-card spread that represents past, present and future. “The reason the past-present-future is perfect is because it’s also the linear nature of our stories, beginning-middle-end. It gives us that, like, three-act thing that we all innately recognize,” she says. “[It’s] a great way to see how the cards create stories when they’re placed together.”

What to do if the cards don’t make sense

“Make note of the symbol or message [you] receive from the card, even if it makes no sense. Write it down. It may make sense at a later date,” Graham says. “In the meantime, [you] can pull a second clarification card, but be careful to not start pulling cards like crazy.”

What to do if the cards come up upside down

Although some practitioners will read these cards as having different meanings than right-side-up cards, Graham says it doesn't matter. “When you’re first starting to read, don’t read reversals or upside-down cards; don’t even bother.” She promises you won’t face any intense misunderstandings about the card meanings if you skip it.

More: 5 Ways to do More With Tarot Cards Than Just Read the Future

On using other elements in your readings

Crystals, essential oils, incense, you name it — if you’re into it, try it. “Tarot is sensual,” Graham says. “A good tarot reading is seducing yourself. It’s like seducing your creative juices...” she explains.

“Ultimately, what happens when you work with tarot, what you’ve learned to do is read a symbolic language that can transfer to everything in your life around you,” she says. “And that’s when tarot leaps out of a deck, [when you] see that everything shares this common language through which you can cultivate meaning and understand yourself in the context of your entire life.”

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