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If you’re on Twitter or Instagram, you’ve most likely come across pictures of tarot card spreads and wondered just how they are used. Well, guess what? You don’t have to be tapped by the universe or use a diamond-and-gold-encrusted deck to learn how to read tarot. All you need is some patience, respect for the practice and its history, determination, relatively OK study skills, and your choice of tarot cards.
What is a tarot reading?
Tarot is a type of cartomancy or card reading that (usually) uses a deck of 78 cards, all of which have assigned symbolism and belong to one of two karmic categories–the Major Arcana or Minor Arcana.
- Major Arcana: Indicative of the larger forces at work in your life, these cards shine a light on life lessons and larger themes present in your personal world. They also set the tone for the reading (more on that here). This section of the deck includes 21 numbered cards and one main character–the Fool. Although the title of the card doesn’t have the most positive connotations, the Fool is all about experiencing new life lessons and change.
- Minor Arcana: These are reflective of the trials and tribulations that are present in your life at that specific moment. 56 cards belong to this category and are all representative of a temporary influence you ultimately can control, depending on the actions you choose to take. In short, Minor Arcana cards illuminate your current situation or struggle and provide you with insight on how to best navigate the waters.
The Minor Arcana cards are broken out further and organized into four suits, all of which contain 10 numbered cards and four Court cards (Queen, King, Page, Knight). Like a normal deck of playing cards, the representation of each suit is printed on the card.
- Cups: Represents your emotions, intuition, and creativity.
- Pentacles: Represents finances, work, and material possessions.
- Swords: Represents your thoughts, words, and actions.
- Wands: Represents your energy, motivation, and passion.
Readers use interpretations of the cards, the order in which you pick them, and the style in which you pull them (I.E. reverse or upright) to gain a better understanding of the path you’ve set out on and a rough vision of the journey that’s to come. That said, tarot isn’t a form of fortune-telling. It’s better thought of as a tool that can be used to help you flesh out your ideal future through manifestation, meditation, mindfulness, and intuition.
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Recommended books for learning how to read tarot cards
Learning how to read tarot isn’t an impossible skill, even though it may look complex. So if you can’t find someone to give you a crash course, you can always go the old-school route of picking up a book to teach yourself something new. Below you’ll find some of the most helpful (and bestselling) tarot books for beginners.
From the publisher: A top tarotist’s secrets to personal growth, one card at a time. The two volumes of Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom have inspired a whole generation of tarot students. It has often been described by readers, booksellers, and teachers as the “Bible of tarot readers.” It is also often cited as one of the landmark books in modern tarot, and it helped to launch the “Tarot Renaissance” of the 1980s. The two texts, one for The Major Arcana and one for The Minor Arcana appear together in this volume, which is a reissue of the 1998 edition first published by Thorsons. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom draws on mythology and esoteric traditions and delves deeply into the symbolism and ideas of each card. It also gives the cards a modern psychological slant based on the pictures rather than a system of occult symbolism. This endlessly useful reference tool provides a concise history of tarot, introduces common spreads, and is a clear and readable book for both the beginning and advanced tarot student.
2) Tarot for Beginners: A Holistic Guide to Using the Tarot for Personal Growth and Self Development by Meg Hayertz
From the publisher: The practice of ancient tarot in modern life requires a fresh perspective and new skills. In Tarot for Beginners, you’ll learn how to apply the history and symbolism of tarot to everyday events for your own personal growth and development. Tarot for Beginners introduces a new perspective to tarot and explains each card as it relates to your life today. From fortune-telling device to spiritual tool, this up-to-date beginner’s guide provides you with exercises and a clear method for connecting the themes of or your life with your day-to-day experience. Explore the day-to-day events in your life through a new lens with Tarot for Beginners, which includes:
- An Essential Overview that explains the history and symbolism of tarot, plus a guide on how to choose and use your tarot deck
- In-Depth Tarot Card Profiles that provide clear meanings, along with example questions and guided interpretations
- Easily Identifiable Illustrations that feature 10 sample spreads and images of each card in the Rider-Waite-Smith system
Price: on sale for $12.37 (regularly $16.99)
From the publisher: How to Read Tarot is an essential and straightforward guide for anyone interested in mastering the art of tarot reading. Find all the answers here that you can’t in other tarot books―then find the answers in the cards. Does the Empress mean good things for someone’s career? How should you use the Three-Card reading? Get the most modern interpretations out of any tarot books, along with easy-to-reference guides that make it simple for new and experienced readers alike to jump straight into the most important part of tarot―reading cards. Go beyond other tarot books with:
- A fast start―Get helpful beginner suggestions that other tarot books lack, including how to ground yourself before a reading, tips for interpreting on the fly, and more.
- Cards at a glance―Learn the meanings of every card―as well as their reversed meanings―with fully detailed descriptions and a handy quick-reference chart that beats other tarot books for convenience.
- Readings made simple―Start with the One-Card Draw, then move onto other spreads―your keys to understanding what the cards are saying―like the Celtic Cross and Wheel of Fortune.
Price: on sale for $11.53 (regularly $15.99)
4) The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: A Beginner’s Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot by Liz Dean
From the publisher: Uncover the facts, myth, history, and mystery of the spiritual art of tarot reading. Whether you want to learn to read the cards or deepen your tarot interpretation skills, The Ultimate Guide to Tarot honors the deep heritage of tarot, while guiding you through practical techniques. Tarot expert Liz Dean offers an overview to all of the important elements of each card, from interpreting their symbols to their links with astrology, kabbala, and numerology. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot also includes all the classic tarot spreads—Celtic Cross, Horseshoe, Star, and Astrological Year Ahead—plus, a mini-layout to try for each of the 22 major arcana cards. Learn how to combine the three essential ingredients of a great tarot reading: knowing the meaning of the cards, how to lay them out, and trusting the intuitive messages the images often spark within us during a reading.
Price: on sale for $18.61 (regularly $26.99)
Where to buy tarot cards for beginners
If you’re having issues hunting down your local psychic shop (or they just don’t have the deck you’ve been eyeing), rest assured that they’re not the only retailer with tarot cards for sale. Game shops, street vendors, book stores, and even Amazon have all been known to stock tarot decks in all different styles of art and languages. So, if you’re shopping for your first deck, don’t feel trapped into buying tarot cards for beginners–while they do exist, they’re not your only option. The only difference (usually) is that the deck may come with a handbook discussing the history of tarot and how to shuffle your deck, a “cheat sheet” for the names and meanings of the cards, and/or a guide for learning how to lay and read a spread. So, my only advice would be to choose the deck that you can read the easiest and calls out to you most.
To give you an idea of what’s out there, listed below are some of the most popular tarot cards for sale online.
Probably the most well-recognized of all tarot cards, the Rider-Waite deck set a standard for the design of tarot. Prior to the publishing of The Original Rider-Waite deck in 1909, tarot cards were designed with an illustration or representation of the suits–swords, wands, cups, and coins, or pentacles. Now they feature all sorts of lavish illustrations that allow for visual interpretations of the cards (instead of having readers rely solely on the explanatory text). Rider-Waite Tarot has been named one of the Top Ten Tarot Decks of All Time by Aeclectic Tarot.
Price: on sale for $14.66 (regularly $21.95)
Already have a feeling that you’re going to tote around your tarot cards as much as possible? It would benefit you to grab a set that includes a sturdy carrying case–like the Smith-Waite Centennial Edition Tarot Deck. But what makes this deck especially cool isn’t its pocket-sized tin storage case, but its ode to the original tarot deck created by Pamela Colman Smith (“Pixie”) in 1909. This deck features muted pictorials on every card and also includes two samples of Pixie’s non-tarot related art.
Price: on sale for $14.16 (regularly $18.95)
Designed by the creator of Biddy Tarot, the Everyday Tarot mini deck is the perfect pocket-sized tarot deck for people in need of practice. The deck includes a helpful guide to the meaning of each of the cards as well as a cute keepsake box to protect them while they’re not in use.
Price: on sale for $9.95 (regularly $12.95)
If you’re more interested in the history of tarot than in buying a deck with an aesthetically-pleasing design, The Hermetic Tarot is the deck for you. The subtle black and white designs printed on each card emphasize the Golden Dawn’s (the 19th-century secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities) astrological attributes with further angelic, geomantic, numerical, and kabbalistic elements. This deck also includes a 70-page instruction manual, detailing the historical significance of tarot, the meaning of each of the cards, the symbolism behind which way you draw a card, a diagram of the ten spheres and 22 Hebrew Letters of the of the 22 Paths of the Tree of Life, and instructions on how to lay the classic ten-card Celtic Cross spread.
Price: on sale for $17.54 (regularly $21.95)
5) Tattoo Tarot
Based off of traditional tattoo style and tarot iconography, the Tattoo Tarot deck is quite possibly one of the most beautiful (and unique) tarot decks to exist. This deck also includes a 28-page booklet which explains how to interpret the cards and conduct your own readings without sweating a bead.
Price: on sale for $14.39 (regularly $17.99)
Want a little more guidance? Check out our crash course on numerology or this guide on how to read a birth chart, we’ll also show you where to go for accurate tarot readings and what sites to use for a reliable psychic love reading.
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Marisa Losciale specializes in NSFW culture, audio gear, and photography. A former editorial and photo director for Spoon University at SUNY New Paltz, her work has been featured in the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Post-Trash, the New Paltz Oracle, and the Legislative Gazette.