Tarot Cards: What They Mean & How To Read Them
The season of the witch is upon us. No, we’re not talking about Halloween. Witches, mystics, and oracles are having their biggest zeitgeist moment since “Rhiannon” thanks to shows like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, American Horror Story: Coven, and the new Charmed. If your soul is aching for some spiritual enlightenment, consider the ancient art of Tarot, a playing card deck that was adopted for divination by 18th-century French occultists.
Today, Tarot is probably the most popular it’s been since its European youth, swept up by the Gen Z and millennial fascination with astrology, oils, and other ethereal practices as part of our regular self-care routines. We talked to a panel of experts — Jenna Matlin from Queen of Wands Tarot, Carrie Pitzulo of Ancient Magic, Modern Living, and Extraordinary Tarot‘s Calley Nelson — to get the skinny on understanding Tarot cards.
Every expert reader polled cited the tried and true Rider-Waite-Smith deck as the best jumping-off point for novice readers due to its popularity and simplicity.
“If you can read the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, you can read any deck,” Calley explained, adding that the images are fairly self-explanatory, making them easier to learn than other decks. Not all RWS decks are created equal, however, and following your natural intuition is only part of the battle. Jenna warns against falling for the prettiest deck you see as your first foray into Tarot.
“The funny thing about using tarot for readings is that some decks will really look beautiful but in use, they don’t read very well,” Jenna advised. “The intuitive eye requires different things than the artistic eye so you may be surprised to work well with a deck that you would otherwise dislike from an aesthetic point of view.”
This doesn’t just apply to the ornately decorated sets that might come to mind when you think of gorgeous Tarot decks. Even trendy minimalist decks can lead newcomers astray.
“While very simplistic decks are in fashion right now, I recommend a deck where there is a scene going on,” Jenna said. “Your intuition will pick out symbols in the card that have a distinct meaning for the question or situation at hand.”
Jenna and Carrie both recommend buying your decks in person, and we can understand why. Aside from the obvious moral grey areas surrounding Amazon (which is bad juju we don’t want anywhere near our cosmic connection to the universe, thank you very much), finding cards that speak to you energetically is easier when you can physically feel them in your hands. Harry Potter didn’t order from Ollivander’s Prime store, so why would we outsource our world’s practical magic to some shady internet retailer? Stopping by a New Age or Holistic bookstore in your neighborhood should give you a decent selection of decks to choose from, and weirdly, every town seems to have at least one. Websites like Tarot Passages and Aeclectic also feature in-depth deck reviews for hundreds of sets if you’re a reader who likes to do your research before making a long-term commitment.
Contrary to what you might’ve read online, there are no definitive guidelines for deck care. Most readers have their own rituals to refresh a deck’s energy in between readings, but don’t let random internet gurus tell you what’s right for your peace of mind — they don’t know you *or* your deck.
“There is no right way to care for your deck, other than keeping it clean and dry,” Jenna affirmed. “You don’t have to swathe it in silk, nor do you need to bathe it in the light of the full moon, unless that makes for sense for you. Treat your deck with respect and care for it like you would any handy tool and over time your relationship to the deck will grow just out of use.”
“Since Tarot is a folk art, there are no rules,” Calley agreed. “You determine them as you go.”
For Calley, deck cleansing consists of knocking on her deck to physically remove the energy from them. Next, she places Selenite on top of the cards, burns some Sage over them, and places them on her windowsill to soak up the sun and moonlight.
Palo santo is another beloved “smudging” tool that dispels bad energy as it burns, like Sage, but Palo santo a great alternative to that particular herb for apartment dwellers wary of filling their unit with smoke. Palo santo, for whatever reason, emits less smoke, but you get the same healing results.
Now that you’ve chosen and cleansed your deck, it’s time for the big event: actually understanding Tarot cards. With over 78 cards in each deck with meanings to memorize and what can feel like the weight of the world on your shoulders, your first readings can become a strange intermingling of excitement and fear. Most decks come with some sort of instruction manual to guide you along your journey, and websites like tarot.com offer their own common card interpretations, but Jenna cautions against becoming overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there.
“Learning tarot is like learning a new language,” Jenna says. “You need a few basic words, and with them, you will build basic sentences.”
Building from this analogy, she recommends putting one-word Post It notes on each card to remind you of their main ideas and memorizing them flashcard style, like you would for an AP French test in high school, in tandem with regular readings. Together, these will teach you the language of Tarot hand-in-hand with its reading structure, and as in all things, practice makes perfect. This is why Jenna disagrees with the common beginner’s advice to start by reading one card a day because it’s just not enough practice to familiarize yourself quickly. Read for your friends, for current political issues, for relationship questions on Quora — just read.
“Instagram and Reddit are also great resources for learning tarot and reading practice,” Calley says of the blossoming Tarot community on social media. “Many new readers start Instagram accounts and track their musings on each card there. It helps you connect with Tarot enthusiasts from all over the world.”
There are even Tarot Facebook groups now where you can practice readings with like-minded Tarot enthusiasts. Don’t worry, we were surprised people still use Facebook, too.
Practically, Jenna suggests asking your question, then using the single words you’ve assigned to your cards to help string together the cards in a sentence. For example, if you pull the 5 of Cups/Despair, the 9 of Wands/Discipline, and the Hierophant/A Professional in a spread for upcoming car travels, this could mean your car might not make it (despair!) on a journey (which requires discipline!!) unless you see a mechanic (the professional?!) for a tune-up.
Alternately, Carrie *does* recommend starting with one card daily, spending a few minutes on each card to become comfortable understanding Tarot cards through your intuitive reactions to them. Remember, there are no rules in love and Tarot.
“What are the colors? Does a particular symbol stand out? What catches your attention?” Carrie asks. “Keep that card in mind throughout your day, and look for synchronicities that call your attention back to the card.”
When interpreting individual messages, Calley looks for the most helpful meaning in each card, focusing on how it can help you move forward instead of projecting any feelings of doom and gloom. Just sit with it a second and listen to it before immediately jumping to the worst-case scenario.
“It’s easy to draw a card like the Lovers reversed and jump to the conclusion that a break up needs to happen,” Calley offers, illustrating how a little digging can uncover hidden depths. “In that case, it could simply be about reviving passion and acknowledging a desire for more romance.”
This is where your gut feelings come into play. When the Lovers come out reversed, how do you know whether your relationship is doomed or just needs a tweak?
“Context is key,” Calley said. “Each card has several meanings. The best way to learn tarot is by practicing and trying your best to listen to your intuition.”
“It takes time to get to know your deck and form a relationship with it,” Carried added. “You’ll begin to create your own associations with certain cards, which will inform your readings.”
And, as Carrie points out, there’s always the instruction book to fall back on.
When first understanding Tarot cards, some are harder than others, like the court series. When you’re first starting out, there is the option to read with a “broken” deck by setting your struggle cards to the side until you’re more confident understanding Tarot cards in the rest of the deck.
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the individual cards, expand to two or three cards at a time to experiment with how the cards relate to each other and the story they tell as a group. This is a stepping stone to more complex readings, often in what is called card “spreads.” These are the aesthetic card formations you see on social media that can range from a sort-of mystic Texas Hold ‘Em vibe to spiritual Rorschach tests. Walk before you run: ditch the intricate spreads, positions, and reversals (AKA upside-down cards) until you’ve gained a little hands-on experience.
Like Calley, Jenna thinks pulling one card a day is silly advice. More accurately, she thinks it’s hard to read effectively with just a single card, which can cause confusion and overwhelmed feelings, killing your natural intuition. For Jenna, reading in a line like her sentence simile is the most organic spread, which ~aligns~ pretty well with Calley’s preferred layout:
“Past, present, future!” she raved. “It’s a classic for a reason.”
With a beginning, middle, and end, this spread gives you the entire story for a clean and simple reading.
“My mentor taught me a 5 card spread that you can use for questions. It’s so simple and smart: draw one card for a short answer, then three cards for a long answer, then one final card for divine guidance,” Calley offered. “If you don’t believe in a higher power you can call the last card an additional perspective. She calls this the Spiritual Commentary spread, and it works with pretty much any question you have.”
The spread can be tweaked for relationship-specific questions, too, picking a card for them, a card for you, a card in the middle suggesting the shared energy, a card for what you need to work on, and a final card for how to move forward.
“One of the rookie mistakes is to forget that the cards are answering the question,” Jenna said, emphasizing that tangential musing can lead you away from your original goal. “Trust that the cards can and will answer any question put to it, so if it seems unclear, walk away and let your intuitive mind sit with it a while, the answer often appears, no need to force it.”
“The stories that the tarot tell are always within your control,” Carrie concludes. “You control your destiny and can change it at any time.”
And that, friends, is probably the most important takeaway for understanding Tarot cards. No matter what the cards say, your future isn’t set in stone. Use the insights and new perspectives gifted by these powerful tools to guide you towards the path that leads to your best self.