How to Read Tarot Cards

by Suzanne S. Wiley

Reading tarot cards involves more than just shuffling the cards and parroting the meanings in the booklet that comes with the deck. The cards are useful as a way to look at the deeper issues surrounding the question at hand. In addition to using the meanings in the booklet and in your tarot instruction books, you need to look at suits, numbers, clusters and other odd patterns that occur in a reading.

Clusters of Cards

Cards can sometimes present you with clusters of similar features; a spread might have a lot of cards from the suit of swords, for example, or all the threes may appear. When you see this kind of pattern, look at the overall meaning of the suit or number to enhance your reading. A bunch of fives indicates some sort of change or freedom, for instance. You also may see spreads with lots of major arcana cards, which typically imply that the subject of the reading will have a major impact on the client’s life.

Negative Cards and “Bad” News

Remember that the interpretations of tarot cards are fairly loose. You don’t have to interpret a card as negative; instead, focus on its core meaning. The classic Death card doesn’t really mean someone’s going to croak; it signifies endings and change, both of which can indicate some very positive developments. The Tower card is often feared because of its imagery of lightning knocking people out of a tall tower, implying that they’re falling to their deaths. But at its core, the card means massive change that can turn your life-as-you-know-it upside-down, for example, making a move to a country you’ve always wanted to live in. That’s overall a positive event, but the change can be so drastic that your life might seem as if it’s been blown to pieces. If you have to interpret a card like the Tower for someone in a reading, always present the news in as positive a light as you can. Be constructive.

Recurring Cards and Personal Meanings

As you read the cards more and interpret more spreads, you might start to see certain cards popping up when you ask specific types of questions. A card will show up again and again, and not always in a way that jibes with the traditional interpretation. For example, the Four of Wands typically implies a marriage, satisfactory resolutions and other very positive conclusions. However, you may start to see the card when any type of ending is afoot, from a date not calling you back to not getting a job you applied for. In that case, the card would take on a more personal meaning for you of “endings” or “no more.” When you interpret spreads in the future, that personal meaning can override the traditional meaning.

Reversed Cards and Querents

Querent cards, meant to represent the client or situation, and reversed or upside-down cards are traditional, but they’re not completely necessary. Adding a querent card to a reading -- usually laid down first before the rest of the spread -- removes a potential interpretation from the spread. Using a querent, which is often a court card denoting a specific personality, can also make the client feel pigeonholed. Reversed cards are helpful, but they often lend a negative air to the entire reading, if only because they look as if they’re “reversing” the entire reading. The imagery in the cards in their basic, upright forms is already so rich that you shouldn’t need the reversed cards to get the message. If you’re a beginner, practice reading with reversed cards and upright-only spreads to see which type you prefer.

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About the Author

Suzanne S. Wiley is an editor and writer in Southern California. She has been editing since 1989 and began writing in 2009. Wiley received her master's degree from the University of Texas and her work appears on various websites.