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Reading the Tarot
... a Few Ideas

Learning to read the Tarot cards is, in many ways, like learning a new language.

Have you ever tried to learn Greek?   The vocabulary (nouns) is the easy part: nauV means "boat;" glwssa means "tongue;" anqrwpoV is "man."

And then you start learning verbs, and you try to decipher whole sentences.   No longer are you translating just one word; you're translating an entire thought, a concept.   In English, you express a concept by arranging nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions in a certain way; in Greek, the arrangement is different (and word order is much less important, since Greek is so highly inflected).   Greek doesn't have very many prepositions, so the prepositions do double (and triple) duty, and many prepositional-type concepts are expressed without using prepositions at all (instead, you use the dative and genitive cases of your nouns).

Grammar is the tough part of any language.   That's because grammar involves the relationships among groups of words ... interaction.   It's a lot trickier, and more subtle.

It's the same with the Tarot.   Vocabulary: The Ten of Pentacles is "the Wall Street Card."   The Five of Cups is "dwelling on the past."   The Death card means "an ending and a new beginning."   When the Empress turns up, it means motherhood, abundance, increase, or fertility.   You can memorize a basic "root" meaning for each and every one of the 78 cards (it's also helpful to memorize one or two of the alternate meanings for each card).   This is, by the way, a lot of work.

But what happens when you try to do a reading, and you want to connect four or five cards (grammar)?   It isn't enough to "translate" one card at a time; now they're interacting with each other.   You have to develop a "feel" for how they fit together, how they tell a story.   It's as if you have the words there on the table in front of you, and you have to figure out which ones are nouns and which are adjectives, and then connect them in some meaningful way.   It's almost like creative writing.

After you've memorized a meaning for each card, you can do what I call the "two-card exercise."   Pull out two cards at random, put them side by side, and try to interpret them together.   For example:

The Fool and the Three of Swords:   Probably means that you're too trusting in your love relationships.   It's time to start looking beneath the happy surface.

The Four of Wands and the Five of Swords:   The next time you're in a group, you'll be called on to deal with a conflict.   When it happens, step up to the plate and do what you have to do.

Death and the Six of Pentacles:   You'll want to re-think your spending habits.   Become looser with your money?   Or perhaps become tighter with your money?

The best-known traditional Tarot card "spread" is the Celtic Cross (which involves ten cards).

The first thing to remember is that a Tarot card can have more than one meaning, depending on the context ... just like a word in a sentence.   Take the word "take."   It has more than one meaning, depending on how it's used in a sentence.   You can TAKE:

notice;
a shower;
offense;
a phone call;
a walk;
liberties;
somebody's head off;
an oath;
pity;
leave;
a test;
a deep breath;
vows;
your time;
a seat;
heed;
supper;
off your shoes;
a job offer.


A few guidelines for reading the Tarot:

1.   A Major Arcana card (The Tower, The Star, The Magician) is of greater significance than a Minor Arcana card (such as the Four of Swords).   It "dominates" the cards that come before it or after it (this doesn't apply to the Celtic Cross spread, where each card is assigned a "slot").

2.   Be honest.   Sometimes you'll lay out the cards and they just won't say anything.   When this happens, admit it, and ask the querent (the person you're reading for) for help.

3.   The Tower, the Three of Swords, the Ten of Swords, and a few other cards are, quite simply, negative cards; they are "bad news."   The Death card, on the other hand, usually does NOT mean that someone is going to die, and is usually NOT negative in meaning.

4.   One "alternate" meaning of a card might be what we would call the clear meaning of the illustration.   The Three of Wands looks like an explorer or a voyager.   If the querent gets excited when this card turns up, and exclaims, "My father played Christopher Columbus in a high school play, and I've been meaning to write him a letter!" (the figure in the illustration looks a lot like Christopher Columbus), then I would accept this as being the meaning for this card for this reading.   When your querent sees a card and "leaps" onto a meaning, don't argue with him.

And remember that you also have to figure out what "part of speech" the card is.   Does the card tell the querent where he is now   —   and is it therefore giving him a warning?   Does it tell him what the consequences of his current path will be?   Does the card show what will happen next week?   Does the card refer to someone other than the querent himself?   Is the card an "adjective" modifying the card that comes up next (the Tower, for instance, could be an event OR an "adjective")?

If you work with the cards and really study them, you'll begin to recognize certain pairs of cards that have their own meaning.   For instance, when I see the Lovers followed by The Moon, it usually means that the querent is in a relationship that he THINKS is true love, but it isn't; he's deceiving himself (or is being deceived).

Some cards, by the way, just don't have much of an "obvious" meaning.   The Moon card, for example, shows two dogs howling at the moon while a lobster crawls out of a pool of water.   Remember that the traditional meaning is "mysteries, deception, and hidden enemies" - don't try to figure out a "literal" meaning for this piece of artwork !

Look at the picture on the card, and see if it tells a story.   For example:


The Five of Swords.   What's going on in this picture?   Did the satisfied-looking boy in the foreground just win a victory over the other two (that is, he's a winner)?   Or did he convince the other two boys NOT to fight (that is, he's a peacemaker)?   Why is the sky cloudy?


Or consider the Three of Pentacles.   Who is the most important figure?   The craftsman with the hammer?   Or the two "inspectors" holding the floor plans?   Or is it the INTERACTION between them that is important   —   does this card stand for mentoring?   Auditing?   Supervising?   Craftsmanship?   Art that is scrutinized by non-artists?

5.   Always remember that the "expert" on the subject of the life you're looking into (past, present, and future) is the querent himself.   Listen to his feedback.   He'll help you interpret the cards.   It's good that you know the traditional meanings of the 78 cards, but the purpose of a reading isn't to show off your own knowledge.   Be flexible.   You are there to teach him, and he is there to teach you.

      Tarot does not "tell the future."   It tells what lies behind the PRESENT and shows what future is contained in the present.   Most "predictions" of trouble can be avoided if the querent has the courage to make necessary changes.   The tarot is a guide, not a boss.   It doesn't give orders; it gives tips.

6.   You may ask the querent beforehand if he has any special area of concern, or if he has a particular question.   This will help you interpret the cards as they turn up, and make the reading more accurate.

7.   I always shuffle the deck thoroughly, and then I "feel" for a spot about in the middle of the deck, and cut the deck there.   Then I lay out the top cards face up.   If the cards turn up "upside down," I don't use "reversed" meanings (Stewart Farrar suggests that it isn't necessary to do so).   I am told that a reversed card has the same meaning, but at a reduced level; it represents a suppression or blocking or thwarting of that card's energy.   The energy is at a different level, or it is fading away.   Or it is the "down side" of the right-side-up aspect (love can be a burden; abundance can be overwhelming; motherhood [the Empress] can be a challenge).   Reversed cards are not necessarily negative.   There's at least one entire book written on the subject of reversed meanings.


Tarot of Marseilles
This is the Eight of Swords from the Tarot of Marseilles (Kris Hadar edition), front and back.   If you used this deck to do a reading, how could you tell if this card was reversed?

I use my tarot cards as "flash cards."   78 meanings for 78 cards is a lot of memory work.   I've never been comfortable with the newer decks such as the "Goddess" deck; most of my decks are based on the traditional Rider-Waite deck (the Albano-Waite, the Universal Waite, the Golden Rider Tarot, and the Radiant Rider Waite are differently-colored versions of the Rider-Waite).   I don't care for the oddball "psychedelic" art that shows up on some of the newer decks.

Some of the "new and improved" tarot-type decks add "Princess" cards (to match up with the Page or the Knight); or they have cards named "Wisdom" or "Turmoil;" or in other fancy ways they try to "jazz up" the standard tarot deck.   I don't trust those decks, and I imagine that my querent wouldn't either.

8.   Some tarot readers use scuffed, ancient-looking decks.   I think that's an affectation.   I suspect that somebody told them that a beat-up deck looks more "witchy."   I suspect that their decks are no more than a few months old, and that they deliberately "roughed up" the deck just for show.

On the other hand, once you find a deck that you really like, you're going to be handling it a lot, and the wear will probably show.

9.   A "royal" card (a King or Queen) usually represents a person (as opposed to an aspect or a situation).

10.   A Page often represents a messenger, or a message.


Key to the Tarot

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