Chapter 1: What Is Tarot?
The tarot has entered an unprecedented boom period, with more than three hundred decks now on the market. Their motifs range from angels to legends, the Middle Ages to the millennium.
The lure of a particular deck lies as much in the artwork as it does in how the deck feels when you handle it. Favorite decks usually speak to something private and sacred within you; they are like old friends you haven't visited for a long time. They feel right.
If you're just beginning your work with the tarot, the best deck you can use is either the Rider Waite or any Waite-Smith clone. The latter includes: Universal Waite, Albano Waite, Golden Rider, Morgan Greer, Hanson Roberts, Tarot of the Cloisters, Robin Wood, and The Aquarian Tarot.
Learn the textbook definitions of the seventy-eight cards, practice the traditional spreads, read for yourself, your family, your friends, whoever will sit still long enough. Practice until the definitions become as familiar to you as your name. And then read for strangers.
The first time you read for someone you don't know, all kinds of emotions will wash through you: exhilaration, nervousness, triumph, uncertainty. You'll quickly discover which cards demand more of your attention, which ones you know by heart, which ones pertain most strongly to a particular individual. Whether you stumble through the reading or glide through it smoothly, you'll have a much clearer sense of the tarot's voice -- and the voice of the deck you're using.
As you work with the tarot, you'll find that some cards recur; no matter how you shuffle the deck or what spread you use, the same cards keep coming up. These usually depict patterns in your life or in the life of the person for whom you're reading. They assume a personal meaning that may not be in line with the textbook definition. If you're relentless, you'll eventually have highly personal definitions for all of the seventy-eight cards. And that's what the tarot is really about: What does this card mean to me?
There are certain cards you will love and welcome; there are others you will detest and dread. The Tower stands out as an excellent example.
Its image from deck to deck doesn't vary much. The Tower stands tall against a darkened, ugly sky that looms with menace. Lightning strikes its ancient walls, objects or people or both tumble from its windows, the water below it seems to bubble and writhe like a primal sea. Things are not in good shape.
In the beginning, this card will send chills up your spine, you'll be expecting the absolute worst: a pink slip in the mail, a legal judgment that isn't in your favor, car problems, electrical problems, problems, problems, problems.
But as you work with the Tower, you'll realize that it's also about breaking old routines and patterns that limit who and what you are. The card is the equivalent of the planet Uranus in astrology in that it symbolizes the breaking apart of structures that tend to restrict you. The Tower puts you on notice that change is required. If you don't change voluntarily, then change will be imposed on you by some external force.
As with any language, your grasp of the tarot will change, evolve, and deepen the more you use it.
The typical Tarot deck has seventy-eight cards that are divided into the major arcana (22) and the minor arcana (56). Think of the majors as archetypal events, big issues that concern character and destiny. Minors are concerned with circumstances and behavior and illustrate how the energy of the majors manifests in your daily life.
The majors, numbered from zero to twenty-one, are ports in a journey that begins with the wildly innocent enthusiasm of the Fool and ends with the sophistication and knowledge of the World. They are the most powerful cards in the deck. Sometimes, the majors tell you all you need to know to understand the dynamics in a person's life.
The minors are divided into four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles. They correspond to the four elements, the four personality types, the four seasons. The suits are the DNA of the minor arcana, the building blocks.
Each suit is numbered from one through ten and has four court cards. The pips, or numbered cards, represent the patterns which the archetypes weave in our lives; the court cards usually represent people or behavior patterns. In some decks, you'll find the court cards called something else -- the page and knight, for instance, are a prince and princess. But if you're just beginning with the tarot, it's easiest to work with decks that have traditional names for the court cards.
The mundane and esoteric meanings for the cards will vary, depending on which decks you use and which books you read. Once you become familiar with the cards, you'll supplement and expand the meanings from your own experience. Our meanings began with the traditional definitions, then grew and expanded through trial and error. So will yours.
The Tarot Journal
In the beginning, a journal can be an invaluable aid. It doesn't have to be anything complicated; a notebook or a file in your computer will do. Since you'll be reading mostly for yourself at first, jot down the date, your question, the cards you pulled, and your interpretation. Check back periodically to see how accurate the reading was.
There's nothing like success to bolster confidence. You may be surprised to discover how often you're right on target. The best readings are those in which your intuition speaks through the cards.
Sometimes, a journal points out a flawed interpretation of just one or two cards in a given reading. In the summer of 1994, for example, a friend of ours, Eva, was in the process of separating from her husband. She asked us to do a reading on how the divorce would go.
We did the five-card Direction Spread for her (included in the section of five-card spreads) and in the fourth position -- who or what will help -- drew the king of swords. Eva had recently spoken to a male attorney about possible representation and we interpreted the king to be the attorney.
But several months down the road, it was obvious that the king was Eva's husband. They had managed to work out mutually acceptable terms for the divorce and never needed an attorney. Her husband, in fact, didn't want an attorney involved any more than she did and ended up buying a townhouse for her and their daughter. Eva now pays her mortgage directly to him.
Given the information we had to work with, our interpretation wasn't wrong. The king of swords is typically a male over forty who communicates without emotion. He might be a businessman, a surgeon, a lawyer. He cuts to the heart of the matter. Eva's husband is a successful businessman in his sixties who communicated in a straightforward manner about what he could live with in a divorce agreement. It simply seemed inconceivable to her at the time that her husband would be of any help at all.
After a certain point, the journal may become cumbersome or your entries too erratic to be of much help. So set the journal aside. There aren't any rules. You don't have to keep a journal to read tarot cards. It's simply a tool and once you outgrow your use for it, don't keep doing it because you feel you have to. Above all, tarot should be fun, thrilling, liberating, empowering.
The spreads in this book can be used by beginners, pros, and everyone in between. If you're just starting out, the shorter spreads are easiest. In fact, the best way to learn the definitions of the cards is to pull a card a day, jot the card and definition in your journal, and at the end of the day note how this energy manifested.
If you've reached the point where you're reading for family and friends, you'll want to practice with more complex spreads. We recommend the spreads with five to seven cards, which can be adapted for just about any question.
The Ladle Spread, for instance, packs a lot of information into just six cards. It provides an overview of the question, pinpoints what is hidden, what is emerging, what is visible, what you "scoop out," or obtain; and explains the key element in the issue. You can lay out another six cards for additional information, for a total of twelve cards.
One of our clients wanted to know how his relationship with his current girlfriend was going to work out. The Ladle Spread told a rather accurate story.
The Lovers in the overview position made it clear he was going to have to make a choice about this relationship. The eight of cups appeared in the hidden position -- that he would soon walk away from the relationship because for him, it was finished. The six of swords in the third position indicated that, mentally, he had already moved away from this relationship toward something else that was unknown, but less tumultuous.
In the fourth position, what is visible, he drew the ace of swords. This indicated that he had already met someone else who interested him. Sure enough, the queen of cups, an older nurturing woman, turned up in the fifth position. The last card was the ace of wands, indicating that he would shortly begin a new job.
He wanted additional information about the queen of cups, so he drew three more cards for the fifth position: the four of swords, the five of swords, and the three of wands. This suggested that the new woman was currently in a respite period, perhaps recuperating from surgery or illness, or simply reevaluating what she wanted out of her life. The five of swords made it likely that she had recently won some dispute and, because of it, would soon be working in partnership with other people (three of wands).
The young man said it was all true. The relationship with this new woman had already begun, he had applied for a new job, and now he was prepared to walk away from his old girlfriend. This was a reading in which it wasn't necessary to draw supplementary cards for all six positions; the queen of cups was the woman about whom he wanted more information.
Most questions seem to fall into several broad categories: romance, work/career, finances, health, and spiritual matters. The spreads in this book address specifics within each of these categories.
A question about love, for instance, might be answered more thoroughly by the ten-card Ongoing Relationship Spread than by the traditional Celtic Cross. If you're inquiring about your spiritual progress, the five-card Belief Spread is a good place to start.
When Is It Going to Happen?
The trickiest part of tarot has to do with timing. Unlike astrology and numerology, the tarot doesn't lend itself to exact timing. This is actually one of the reasons we prefer tarot to other disciplines. We believe that the point of power is in the present and that the future is plastic and open-ended and can be changed in any moment.
Having said this, one of the questions we hear most from people is: When will a particular event happen? Everyone seems to want to know when. When will I meet the love of my life? When will that job promotion come through? When will I get out of debt, engaged, married, pregnant, divorced?
The best way to obtain a general time frame is to use one of the spreads that contains a built-in timing device. Some spreads that fall into this category are: six-card Timing, seven-card Pyramid, and seven-card Weekly. Before you begin the reading, state the time frame: X number of days, weeks, or months.
Other spreads have a timing factor built into them through a near-future position in the layout. In the Celtic Cross, this is the sixth position; you can decide before the reading what period of time it covers.
One quick method of answering the timing question is to pull cards until you reach an ace. Before you pull the cards, decide whether they represent days, weeks, months, or years. Then count the number of cards you turned over before you got to the ace.
The classic, but more cumbersome method, is to key the cards to the seasons of the year. This can be done in several ways. Our favorite is to remove the major arcana from the deck and to work with the court and pip cards. Pick one card from this deck of fifty-six. This becomes your timing card.
The key to this system is: wands = spring; cups = summer; pentacles = autumn; swords = winter. An ace then represents the first week of the season, a two is the second week of the season, and so on, through the queen as the thirteenth week of the season. Kings represent the transition from one season to the next.
Another timing method is to use the numbers on the cards as a timing device. With the major arcana, remove The Fool from the deck. The probable timing will run from one to twenty-two days, weeks, or months. With the pip cards you can go up to ten months; by adding the court cards, the time is extended to fourteen months. The meanings of the cards don't come into play; only the numbers are important.
Future changes depend on the questioner's beliefs, thoughts, feelings, choices, and decisions. When pressed for an exact date we'll provide answers using one or more of the methods discussed in this section. But any timing prediction should be prefaced with an explanation that a time frame can be changed through intent and desire.
What If a Reading Doesn't Make Sense?
It happens. The cards are in front of you, you know what they mean, but when you try to put them together they don't make sense. The best thing you can do it simply pick up the cards and try another spread. If this doesn't work, then try a spread using just the major arcana.
If the cards still seem confused, tell the person you're reading for that the cards don't seem to want to address that particular question or issue at the moment and suggest that you move on to something else. It's a bad idea to tell the person you can't read for them right now; the individual might interpret it to mean you have foreseen his or her imminent demise.
Should I Read Reversed Cards?
Reversed cards refer to cards that are upside down. Some readers feel the tarot is incomplete unless you read reversed cards, but you'll find pros and cons on this point. Other readers think there are already enough negative cards to deal with, so why add seventy-eight more? Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself if you should read them reversed.
At first, though, for the sake of simplicity, its probably a good idea to stick to the upright meanings for the deck. After all, it's much easier to learn seventy-eight definitions than a hundred and fifty-six definitions.
We tend to read reversed cards only if they fall out of the deck that way, which is why you won't find the meanings for reversed positions in this book. The only other instance in which we use reversed cards is to answer yes/no questions.
Quite often an individual will want a simple yay or nay about something. We then shuffle a deck so there are reversed cards and deal out five. If the majority are upright, the answer is yes; vice versa would mean a resounding no.
If you use one of the round decks -- Motherpeace or Tarot of the Cloisters -- reversed meanings become something of a moot issue. With round decks, there are no definite ups or downs to the cards.
Deck Care and Preparation Rituals
When you first get your tarot deck, you should shuffle and mix the cards until you feel they're ready to use. The idea is to infuse them with your particular energy to create a special link between you and the deck. Some readers suggest you sleep with the new deck under your pillow, but frankly, it isn't necessary unless you feel that it is.
The traditional method calls for wrapping your decks in cloth and keeping them in cloth bags or wooden boxes. Silk is the favored wrap, although any fabric that appeals to you can be used. Bags are usually velvet or satin, decorated with embroidery or hand painted. You can store your decks in wooden boxes, decorated tin containers, or the packages they came in.
But really, there aren't any rules. Do what feels right to you. One of us keeps to the ritual, the cards neatly stored in bags and boxes and stashed in an accessible place. The other has decks all over the house, most of them held together by just a rubber band.
If you're a collector of tarot cards, it's important to keep the original packaging because the value of any deck decreases when the box or booklet is missing.
Preparation rituals, like most things connected with tarot, are a personal matter. We do little more than clear our minds, take a deep breath, and focus on the question and whoever we're reading for. You may prefer to light a candle or a stick of incense, do a short meditation, or offer a prayer before you begin.
Clearing Your Tarot Deck
When you're doing one reading after another, the cards often seem to lose their zip, so it's a good idea to clear or cleanse the deck from time to time. The classic way to clear a deck is to put the cards in order. In new decks, the cards are in a particular sequence that begins with the majors in numerical order, followed by each suit arranged from ace to king. After restoring the cards to their original order, shuffle the deck thoroughly, as you would a brand-new deck.
f0 We occasionally use quartz crystals to clear our decks. Place a crystal on top of the deck in between readings to absorb whatever vibrations may remain from the prior reading. Crystals used for this purpose should be cleansed periodically in a mixture of sea salt and warm water, then dried and placed outside or on a windowsill where they can he recharged by the sun's rays.
You may purify your decks and crystals by "smudging" them, Native American style, in the smoke of sage or cedar. If smudge sticks are not available, burn some dried herbs like rosemary or sage in a fireproof dish. Pass the deck of cards or the crystal through the smoke several times.
If you don't want to be bothered with any of this, just use a different deck.
How Does Tarot Compare to Other Divination Tools?
Recently, a person we read for remarked that he was happy with his reading and pleased that his life was on such a positive track, but was this stuff really true? Was it really going to happen?
Any divination tool -- astrology, the I Ching, runes, medicine cards, sticks and bones -- is best used with the understanding that nothing is inscribed in stone. Your free will endows you with the power to write the scripts that you live, to change what you don't like, and to create more of what you do like. You set the course of your life -- not the tool, not the reader, not destiny.
When the cards are drawn or the runes are tossed, you have a picture of how your life exists in that moment and how it is most likely to evolve based on your present patterns of belief. When you change those beliefs, the pattern changes, and you end up with different cards, different runes, different hexagrams.
In this way, tarot and other divination systems are a way to track what is going on inside yourself or the person for whom you're reading. The beauty of the tarot, however, and its major difference from other divination systems, is that its language is visual. The artwork on a deck speaks directly to that part of us that lives and breathes in an archetypal world. Tarot is the internal made manifest.
Copyright © 1998 by Trish MacGregor and Phyllis Vega