The Beginner’s Guide to Reading Tarot Cards

Lindsey Lanquist
The Beginner’s Guide to Reading Tarot Cards
Illustration: Allison Kahler/StyleCaster.

A few Saturdays ago, I was at a party when a friend of mine pulled out a deck of tarot cards and invited us to sit down for a reading. I eagerly agreed, and after some convincing, my boyfriend, Darragh, did too. Science-minded and ruthlessly rational, Darragh was skeptical of tarot cards—lumping them in with other (fun) things he’d deemed silly, like crystals, horoscopes and aura photography. Still, he played along, posing a question and picking a few cards.

But as my friend began Darragh’s reading, he became noticeably enthralled. “Wow, that was—wow,” he said after she finished. Even hours later, after we’d parted ways with everyone, he was still hung up on how accurate his reading had been. “I wasn’t expecting anything, but it’s just—it’s crazy how spot-on that was,” Darragh said. “I mean, every card had to do with education or studying.”

What’s funny is that as I listened to Darragh’s reading, I’d heard nothing about education or studying. I’d missed his question (which I later learned had to do with career and education), and the reading I’d seen seemed more applicable to our relationship than anything else.

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It was then that I realized the true beauty of tarot: While it’s debatably a game of divination, it’s undeniably a game of introspection. That Darragh and I had looked at the same reading and landed in drastically different places speaks to the reflective power of tarot; both of us came to the cards with different questions in mind, and both walked away with answers—ones that, frankly, we already knew, but hadn’t fully come to terms with until the cards invited us to.

As the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (an organization dedicated to studying the occult) aptly put it, “The most powerful sources of information come from within; the tarot aids in coming in contact with one’s higher self.”

What Is Tarot and Where the Hell Did It Come From?

Tarot cards—which are really just playing cards with symbolic imagery on them—date back to 14th-century Europe, though many sources suspect they originated in Egypt. For several centuries, tarot cards were just used for fun and games, and packs included between 32 and 78 (often hand-painted) cards.

It wasn’t until 1750 that people began to attribute divine power to the cards, and the first tarot deck used for divination didn’t come out until 1789 (at least, according to the historical records we could track down).

Like most decks you’ll find today, the original one consisted of 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana cards (suitless cards with titles like “The High Priestess,” “The Lovers” and “The Fool”) and 56 Minor Arcana cards (four suits of 14 cards, with the suits being “swords,” “batons/wands,” “coins” and “cups”).

While tarot is debatably a game of divination, it’s undeniably a game of introspection.

Getting Your Hands on a Tarot Deck (the Right Way)

Within the tarot community, there’s some disagreement about whether or not you should buy yourself a tarot deck. Some people insist you shouldn’t—that it’s better if someone gifts a deck to you. But Derek Calibre, a New York City–based psychic, tells StyleCaster not to pay that any mind. If you want to buy yourself a tarot deck, you should; that’s what he did when he first started reading tarot 15 years ago.

What matters more to Calibre is not who buys the cards, but how the owner feels about them—kinda like how witches and wizards in Harry Potter acquire their broomsticks. “You have to think, This one resonates with me,” he says. “There has to be a relationship there.” According to Calibre, there’s no right or wrong tarot deck—all of them are equally authentic in the eyes of the artisan who made them. It’s up to you to find one you connect with.

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Mark Seltman, a master palmist in New York City, recommends going to Barnes & Noble and browsing one of the myriad tarot decks the store offers. “Choose what speaks to you—what attracts you—and work with that,” Seltman says. “That’s the best way to start the tarot.” If there’s no Barnes & Noble near you, you can turn to Etsy, Amazon or more niche retailers like Namaste Bookshop

A tarot deck can run you anywhere from $5 to $50, so invest as you see fit. Seltman recommends the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
, which is the industry-standard deck and the one he started with. Calibre suggests the Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Deck (one of his favorites) or Motherpeace Tarot’s Goddess Deck.

As for how to store your cards, Calibre says there are all kinds of rituals. Some people say you should keep them wrapped in silk, and others believe you have to bless your cards with salt. Whether or not you try these rituals is obviously up to you. “I remember doing that stuff and then thinking, I don’t need to do this. This isn’t who I am,” says Calibre. “It was too ritual-oriented for me, but a lot of people take comfort in that. It’s important to have your own personal way.”

That we heard the same reading and inferred such different things speaks to the reflective power of tarot.

Getting to Know Your Cards

If you were to take a tarot deck and spread all the cards out in front of you, you probably wouldn’t know what you were looking at (I know from experience). Without understanding what meanings are associated each card—and how those meanings change when combined with other cards—you can’t really do a reading. So before you get ahead of yourself, carve out some time to get to know your deck.

Seltman believes the best way to do this is to find a teacher—or if you can’t, to research what you can online, in books or the booklet accompanying your tarot deck. He also recommends selecting one card to study each day. Pick it up in the morning, learn what you can about it and go about your day as usual. Later that evening, reflect on your day: Did anything you learned about the card manifest? Did it do so in ways you weren’t expecting?

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Calibre opted for a similar approach when he first began studying tarot. “One of the books I read suggested that I, in my imagination, talk to the characters on the cards,” Calibre explains. So he began doing that. One of the first cards he drew was an angel mixing ice and fire in a bowl. “I asked her what she had to say to me, and she said, ‘I’m ice, and I burn,’” he says. “I thought that sounded stupid, but the book insisted you write down whatever the cards say to you, so I did.”

The next day, he went to the ice cream shop where he worked. In the freezer, he noticed that the wires had frayed. “A fire had caught hold during the night and melted the entire freezer, so I was just standing there looking at 500 gallons of ice cream melted on the floor,” Calibre says. “That was kind of an interesting sign for me—ice and fire. I felt like it was a guidance point that led me back to the cards and accept that, OK, maybe they can speak to me.”

Learning to Do Basic Readings 

So you’re ready to start reading—congratulations! Before you go any further, there are a few things you should know.

First, there are two kinds of readings: question readings and open readings. With question readings, you’re posing specific questions to the cards. These questions should be open-ended, so you’ll want to avoid anything with a yes/no answer. “Ask things like, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I?’ to give agency to your question,” Seltman suggests.

With open readings, on the other hand, you don’t ask a question—or specifically direct the reading at all. You simply sit back and reflect on your current situation, making it an ideal approach for a transition or new phase of life. (For what it’s worth, Seltman says he prefers the specificity of a question reading to the amorphousness of an open one.)

So how do you read? Well, you need to decide on a spread. A spread is simply a layout of tarot cards, with the position of each card carrying the same amount of symbolism as the card itself. “Single cards mean something else in relation to the cards next to them—and where they’re positioned in a spread,” Seltman says.

Let’s start with something basic: Put your deck in front of you, shuffle the cards to energize them, then select three cards. Lay them in front of you, side by side (faceup, so you can see the image). The card in the middle reflects the present, the one on the left reflects the past, and the one on the right reflects the future. Just marry the knowledge of the cards you gained in the previous step with the spread sitting in front of you, and voila—you’ve read.

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There are, of course, tons of other spreads you can play around with—many of which involve more than three cards. Labyrinthos has a webpage full of tarot spread ideas you can turn to, depending on your situation and level of experience.

And one last thing to note: When a card is “reversed” (upside down) in a spread, it often conveys a different meaning than it does right side up. The three of swords, for example, communicates heartbreak and betrayal when right side up. But when it’s reversed, it signifies a reduced heartbreak—loneliness that’s beginning to subside.

Experts say what matters isn’t who buys the cards, but how you feel about them.

Learning to Read for Others

One easy way to take your tarot skills to the next level? Start reading for friends and family. (If you’re doing a question reading, just make sure they know to pose an open-ended question.) “My teachers always said, ‘If you don’t read for other people, you’ll never take it to the next level,'” Seltman says, adding that it’s much easier to be detached and objective when you’re reading for someone other than yourself. 

In the beginning, Seltman suggests asking questions as you’re reading for other people. Let’s say you come across a card, and you’re not sure what to make of it in terms of that person’s question. Feel free to ask them what they think of it. He recommends saying something like, “I’m seeing this; what do you think this might mean?” Seeing the ways other people interpret various cards and spreads will help you become a more thoughtful reader.

As you continue learning, Seltman recommends branching into other disciplines—such as astrology, numerology and palmistry—as well. These disciplines connect. For example, “Cardinal” astrological signs (Libra, Cancer, Aries and Capricorn) are associated with kings on tarot cards; “Fixed” signs (Aquarius, Scorpio, Leo, Taurus) are associated with queens; and “Mutable” signs (Gemini, Pisces, Sagittarius and Virgo) are associated with knights. Knowing someone’s sign could affect the way you read their cards—and that’s really just the beginning.

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One final way to build upon your tarot knowledge: Look to the world around you for symbolism. Calibre says he made his own deck with contemporary imagery after a few years of using more traditional tarot cards because he liked having symbols people could more easily recognize and relate to.

And even when he’s without his deck, he’ll find imagery in the world around him. Let’s say he’s waiting at a doctor’s office, for example. He probably doesn’t have tarot cards on hand, so he’ll grab one of the magazines lying around and pick three numbers in his head: 33, 56, and 71. He’ll then turn to pages 33, 56, and 71 and see what the imagery says to him—treating the pages like cards in a standard three-card spread.

“It’s a kind of abstract language that requires a little bit of interpretive knowledge,” Calibre admits. “But the point is: We all have that interpretive knowledge within us.… It requires your imagination, but it’s fascinating.”