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Lithium A beginner's guide to tarot

Jan. 27, 2021
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Chances are that if you’re on TikTok, Instagram, or even (gasp) Tumblr, you’ve probably already heard of tarot cards. They’re elusive, complex, and definitely enticing to someone who wants to dabble in divination but doesn’t know where to start. For an art form that’s been commodified by social media, it’s surprisingly hard to find reliable information on tarot. Because everyone uses tarot for different reasons, there’s no comprehensive guide on how to “correctly” use them, which can be daunting for beginners. However, that also means you have an enormous amount of freedom with your practice. Whether you want to use readings as markers of fate, symbols to help you understand your own psyche, or a gateway into witchier practices, there really isn’t a wrong way to use tarot. That being said, here are the very basics of tarot, no matter which path you choose. 

Picking a deck

Picking a deck is the first and possibly most important step in the process. No matter how you feel about spirituality or intuition, it’s crucial that you find a deck you can connect with. You can find tarot decks at any metaphysical shop or at your local bookstore; pay close attention to which one attracts you the most. You can buy other decks later down the line if that strikes your fancy, but remember to use one deck at a time for more accurate readings. When you take your deck home, try to familiarize yourself with it; carry it in your pocket, spread out the cards, and try to get to know the symbols. 

Deciding how to read and why (include one-card reads and reversals)

Next up: how do you want to read the cards? Do you want to pull one card only for a daily forecast, or do you want to interpret multiple cards together? One of the most popular spreads is a three-card reading, which can apply to pretty much any situation or question you might have: one for the past, one for the present, and advice for your future. There’s also the “Celtic cross” tarot spread, which offers a more comprehensive look at a problem. You can use any spread at any time, but it’s a good idea to look through some layouts and see which ones suit you best before diving in. Finally, there’s the issue of reversals; this means you read the card differently if it appears upside down. Some practitioners use them, some do not. It’s entirely your choice. 

Understanding the major arcana and suits

Once you’ve decided which deck you want to use and how, your next step is to understand the major and minor arcana. The major arcana are the “trump cards” that carry more significance, and the minor arcana—cups, coins, swords, and wands—correspond with the clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds of the standard card deck. While the major arcana represent huge issues, concepts, and turning points in your life, the minor arcana cards dig deeper into a situation—and can sometimes change the meaning of a whole reading. Pay attention to major and minor arcana cards that repeat frequently during separate readings. If you’re routinely drawing The Lovers or flipping over Seven of Swords, it could mean you forgot to shuffle your deck, but it probably means you’re hung up on finding romance or creating problems for yourself. (Seriously, though. Don’t forget to shuffle your deck.) You can find more about each card’s symbolism here. We can’t go into the meaning of every card, but this is a good rule of thumb:  

  • Wands deal with creativity, inspiration, and energy (associated with fire).
  • Swords deal with thoughts, words, actions, and concrete decisions (associated with air).
  • Cups deal with emotions, feelings, love, and relationships (associated with water).
  • Pentacles/Coins deal with finances, work, and material possessions (associated with earth).

Ensure accuracy and do your research 

Ensuring complete accuracy is one of the most difficult parts of the practice. While tarot readings are always correct in some sense, reading them to the best of your ability is crucial. Picking the cards that pull you in the most, not necessarily picking at random or chronologically, will definitely give you an edge. However, it’s important to keep in mind that some cards change the meaning of others. While The Emperor is a card associated with a strong will and the ability to manifest one’s goals, reading it with a card like Knight of Swords can indicate selfishness and defensiveness. Keeping the bigger picture in mind can help you keep your circumstances in mind, too, no matter what you’re reading for. 

No matter who you are, tarot is a deeply rewarding practice that can be used in a plethora of ways. Maybe you need advice, a connection to a higher power, or even just a way to better understand yourself. Whatever the case, tarot can help you see the bigger picture and make informed decisions about your life. Even though starting might seem intimidating at first, it can be a simple and comforting practice with the right resources and a pinch of mental clarity. When I started practicing last January, I never could’ve anticipated the profound effect that readings would have on my decisiveness and my emotional intelligence. Especially at the start of a new year, tarot can completely transform your life—one card at a time. 

Illustration by Kaylina Kodlick