Over the years, I’ve seen the Tarot attract many people. The images on the cards, the history of the deck, the mystery of it—no matter how they are drawn to study the Tarot, I’ve watched dozens of would-be readers buy their first decks, and dive head-long into their studies.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen nearly as many people slowly lose their interest and enthusiasm over the days and weeks following. The decks come out of their boxes on fewer and fewer occasions, until they end up just sitting on a shelf.
Sometimes this is for the best. As much as I love the Tarot, it’s not for everyone. Some people never develop an affinity for the cards, or find that they don’t have a meaningful connection to them. This is perfectly fine, but a lack of connection is neither the only reason I see people get frustrated and give up the Tarot, it’s not even the most common one.
The most common reason people abandon their Tarot studies is, I think, because they don’t approach the cards in the best way. And, to be quite honest, many of the books written about the Tarot tend to encourage these less-than-ideal approaches.
So, if you’re new to the Tarot, or otherwise find yourself struggling to wrap your head around it, let me highlight some of the most common “mistakes” I see new students make.
People don’t look at the cards
One of the most common mistakes I see beginning Tarot students make is that they get their first deck, open it up, and go straight to the Little White Book without even looking at the cars themselves.
Don’t do this.
When you acquire your first Tarot deck, set aside some quiet time to open the box. Ideally, you’ll want about one hour, in a room to yourself, where you won’t be disturbed.
Once you’re in that quiet place, look over the box. Turn it over in your hands. Really get a sense of the weight of it, and allow yourself to feel at least a little anxious about opening it. Not fearful, mind you. What I mean is that you should come to your first deck with a sense of excitement and anticipation.
If you can open the box with the same thrill as you might have done when opening a present as a child, you’re in the perfect frame of mind.
After you’ve opened the box, set that Little White Book aside, along with any other promotional materials or add-in cards. The only thing you want in your hands are the seventy-eight cards of the Tarot deck itself. Turn them over and over in your hands. Feel the size of the cards, the stock they’re printed on—just run your hands all over them.
Also? Give them a smell.
Seriously. Try to engage all of your senses during this first encounter. Really attempt to absorb and remember everything you can about this experience. They say first impressions are everything when it comes to human relationships. Why should your relationship with the Tarot be any different?
Now—and this is the most important part of this initial meeting—look at the cards. Examine their backs, then turn over each one and really, really study it.
What do you notice first? How does the card make you feel? What do you think of the art style? Do you notice any symbols, animals, or people on the cards? Do any of these stick out? Do you notice any objects or themes repeating from card to card?
Take your time, study the images, and think about what they might mean. What questions might they answer? What questions might they be asking?
If doing all of this touching, feeling, and “impression gathering” seems strange to you, remember: this is what the first Tarot reader had to do.
The Tarot was originally conceived as a deck of cards to be used for playing games. Divination came later. And the first people to use the Tarot for divination didn’t have a Little White Book to tell them what the cards “really meant.”
Instead, they looked at the cards and used their intuition.
For your first encounter with the Tarot, why not approach the deck in the same way as those earliest of readers?
After you’ve taken this quiet time, then you can go ahead and read the Little White Book that comes with it. Check out the meanings given for each card, look at the card in your hand, and try to see where the author or deck designer is coming from.
Just give the deck a chance to speak for itself, first.
People think of the Tarot as work
A lot of the Tarot readers and students I know explain their practice as “working with the Tarot.” I use this phrase myself, from time to time.
Why is that?
Why is the first word which comes to our minds a word associated with labor? Even if you are (or wish to be) a professional Tarot reader, why use the word “work” when you could use words like “play,” or “talk to,” or even “hang out with?”
To borrow a quote, why so serious?
Yes, the Tarot is a wonderful ally which can provide wisdom and guidance to help you, and those you read for, even at the most serious and desperate of times. And yes, when you’re preforming a reading, you should treat the questions you’re asked, and your answers, seriously.
However, I think you’ll have much better results in your readings if you treat the Tarot as a friend, first and foremost. It’s not your co-worker who you never see outside of the job.
It’s also not your priest or your therapist.
Some readers treat their Tarot decks like holy objects—sacred things which must only ever be approached with reverence and timidity. Or, perhaps even worse, they treat their decks in the same way that they treat a medical professional—thinking of the cards as cold, objective, and secretly disappointed in you.
I’ve never understood this attitude.
Try grabbing your Tarot deck, sitting on the couch, and binge watching your favorite show while shuffling the cards.
This is one of my favorite things to do, especially when I’ve just acquired a new deck. I’ll keep the Little White Book next to me, shuffle for a while, then flip a card out. I’ll look at, maybe check to see what the book has to say, then shuffle it back in.
This is a great way to learn the “traditional” meanings of the cards if you’re not already familiar with them.
Another fun thing I frequently do is ask the deck what it thinks of the show or movie we’re watching together. Or I’ll ask it questions about what’s going to happen next.
“What!?!” You might be shouting. “You ask the Tarot ‘whodunnit’ while watching some police procedural on Netflix?”
Yes! And why not?
What’s wrong with hanging out with a friend, watching television, and getting to know each other?
People try to read way too many cards
In many Tarot books, the first spread you’ll encounter is almost certain to be some version of the “Celtic Cross.” This is a spread of ten (or eleven) cards which you lay out on a table and interpret.
To be perfectly frank, this is way, way too many cards for someone just starting out with the Tarot. In fact, I think it’s too many cards for most readers in most situations. I can count on one hand the number of times in the last month that I’ve felt this spread was necessary. It’s a good spread, to be sure, but only for certain situations.
Most of the time, I use either a three cards or five cards. Sometimes, I’ll use only two.
A two-card spread is good as a kind of “daily check-in.” If I’m looking at a busy day, or otherwise feel a bit overwhelmed by what I need to do, I’ll throw two cards. For the first card, I’ll ask “What should I focus most of my attention on?” For the second card, I’ll ask “What should I not worry about too much?”
I’ve used slight variations of this two-card spread at various times, and even wrote about it here. It works really well to help me navigate those challenging days where I feel like I’m being pulled in too many different directions.
My go-to three-card spread is pretty close to your basic “Past, Present, Future” reading. This is great when I have a clear picture of a situation, but I’m just not sure of what specific action I should take.
The first card in this spread represents the situation up until the point I asked the question. The middle card represents either the best action I can take right then, or else it shows me a hidden factor which is influencing the present. The last card shows me either the most probable outcome of the situation, or a further action I can take.
Knowing which cards mean what in which position is a bit of an art, and is something I was only able to become better at through practice.
As for the five-card readings I do, they’re what I use when someone has asked a question (usually a client, sometimes me) but I feel like I don’t know enough of the context in which the question is asked. I lay out five cards from left to right, with those on the left usually indicating the past, and those on the right usually indicating the future. In these cases, the card in the middle is related to present.
I say “usually,” because sometimes the question or situation involves a choice between two alternatives. In these cases, the card in the middle will often depict or suggest a choice, and the cards on each side will carry a definite theme.
Again, practice and time will help you sort things out.
So when do I actually use the Celtic Cross?
When I absolutely, positively need to know everything I can about a confusing or complicated situation. And I have a solid hour to spend in ceremony pulling on all of the threads. Mostly, these situations involve either myself or a client being in a tough spot, and I’m contemplating doing a whole lot of magic to get things moving in the right direction.
I wrote before about the importance of using divination before performing magic, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I rarely dive into “big enchantments” without getting a good read on the situation first, and the Celtic Cross is my preferred spread when it comes to such reads.
The bottom line? If you’re just starting out, begin by reading with as few cards as possible. Start with a daily two-card reading as I described above. Once you’re comfortable with that, bump yourself up to three cards, then try your hand at five.
Remember, Tarot cards are meant to be read in relationship to one another. We don’t typically read cards in isolation (unless for a daily meditation, or perhaps to get a sense of the overall “theme of the day”). Rather, we either compare and contrast them, or else we are attempting to weave them together into a story which answers our question.
That’s a lot to ask of someone just coming into relationship with the Tarot, so start small.
Less really is more.
Good luck on your journey!
If you would like a Tarot or natal astrology reading, please visit my Consultations page. I would be happy to help.