How to read the tarot for yourself or your friends — with advice from the experts

closeup on multiple brightly coloured tarot cards laying scattered on a white surface
(Credit: Unsplash/Viva Luna Studios)

As Halloween draws near, tarot may be top of mind — or, at least, at the top of your For You Page on TikTok — but there’s nothing spooky about this practice. Witchy? Maybe, if we’re talking about the archetype associated with intuition, knowledge and healing. But wicked? No. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about tarot, according to the experts, is a tie to the immoral or evil. Instead, they describe it as a language, an art form and a tool for looking inwards. And that might explain the practice’s popularity at this particular moment in time; it’s incredibly visual (read: perfect for social media) and, at its core, it’s about reflection, empowerment, self-exploration and personal growth at a time when spirituality outside of organized religion is trending.

“We’re moving away from relying on somebody else to help us and we’re taking that process into our own hands,” said Toronto-based intuitive tarot reader and coach Daniel Pillai of Queen Dee Tarot. “Ultimately, at its source, the tarot deck is a tool to help you better understand yourself.” 

The act of reading tarot cards is closer to interpreting Rorschach’s inkblots than gazing into a crystal ball, and the practice is a lot simpler to pick up and master than most art forms. In fact, it started out as a card game.

“Knowing that it has these very humble origins all of a sudden makes it a lot more accessible,” said Liz Worth, a Toronto-based tarot reader, teacher and author. “That pressure to look at these cards as something that contains some kind of hidden knowledge that’s only accessible to people who perhaps have some kind of psychic skill or ability  … that starts to fall away when you understand that tarot cards are really just a deck of cards.”

Like any new undertaking, however, the practice is not perfected overnight. As with learning a new language, instrument or painting technique, there’s a process to becoming a confident reader. 

Could this be a skill that’s in the cards for you? Read on to reveal a beginner’s path to understanding the tarot. 

Step 1. Understand the history of the cards

Grounding yourself in the history of tarot is an important first step, according to professional readers. 

Erin Bee of Queen Bee Tarot in Nanaimo, B.C., traces tarot’s history back to 13th-century Egypt. Bee, a tarot reader and teacher who has studied the topic, says invaders from the south brought such cards into Europe, where they evolved into what were known as the Tarocchi deck in Italy and the Marseilles deck in France.

The cards were initially used for trick-taking games similar to hearts or bridge, but evolved into something much more. 

“These playing cards came in just as a game, but ended up being adapted by persecuted people as a way of preserving information, stories, folk legend, folklore and oral history,” Bee said. “Within these playing cards, they started depicting characters, like a corrupt priest accepting money and all these things that were subtle, covert political commentaries.”

According to Bee, the Marseilles and Tarocchi decks endured until the early 1900s, when Arthur Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith, who were members of a secret society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, amalgamated and expanded the information in the original decks to create what became known as the Rider-Waite-Smith (or Rider-Waite) deck. This deck, which is still used today, consists of 78 cards, combining major arcana — the cards associated with words like “death” and “strength” — and minor arcana, which are also called “suit cards.”

“[Waite and Smith] started to apply to the major arcana cards astrological associations, Greek letters and Hebrew letters, and what started to happen was this understanding that the major arcana is basically a synopsis of the human experience summed up into 22 cards,” Bee said. “Everything from birth to childhood to early goals, early feelings, up to having a lover … being a master of your craft, life, death, rebirth, all of it. There is a wealth of knowledge contained in just one picture.”

illustrative editorial Rider Waite tarot cards on the table
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Step 2. Pick up your supplies

Though countless modern tarot decks exist today, the experts stress the importance of starting out with the Rider-Waite version. 

“The reason I encourage people to start with that one is that it’s one of the most popular tarot decks in the world, so it’s very easy to find,” Worth said. “And because of its influence, many modern decks have taken their imagery from that deck, so it becomes a lot easier to understand other tarot decks if you’ve worked from the root of those images already.”

Going immediately to a modern deck may create confusion in the long run, explains Pillai. “I think before you get there, understand the basics of what the tarot deck is — the cards, the images. Once you’re able to read those and you’re comfortable with them, then when you pull, let’s say, the High Priestess in a brand-new, futuristic Star Wars tarot deck, you’ll know what that means.”

Guide books can also be helpful when it comes to familiarizing yourself with the iconography of the Rider-Waite deck. Pillai recommends Tarot for Beginners, Bee points her students towards The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot and Worth wrote Going Beyond the Little White Book: A Contemporary Guide to Tarot.

Step 3. Study the deck

According to Pillai, a common error tarot beginners make is picking up a deck and immediately attempting to derive meaning using what’s called “the little white book” that’s included in the box with the cards. 

Worth refers back to the idea of tarot as a language. “Remember that tarot is a whole. It has a whole structure. The cards all speak to each other, they fit together, they work together. So, when we give ourselves the chance to see everything that’s in the deck before we start pulling out cards and trying to make them speak to us, the easier it is to start to get a sense of what kind of language is in the tarot deck.”

Try making some space on a kitchen table or the floor and spreading out all of the cards. Take time to really look at each one and study the fine details, the experts suggest, paying particular attention to the colours, body language and symbols of their imagery. You’ll notice that each card is actually a miniature work of art with subtle winks, such as a tiny ship on the Death card to perhaps signify a journey or a rabbit on the Queen of Pentacles to represent fertility but also maybe forthcoming opportunities.

Step 4. Understand the iconography

Pillai says that when it comes to studying the cards, it’s also important to understand the basics, so you know what you’re looking for. In tarot, there are four suits: cups, wands, swords and pentacles. 

Pillai associates cups with water energy and the water astrological signs, which typically speak to emotions and feelings; wands with fire energy and fire signs and in turn passion, creativity and taking action in everyday life; swords with air energy, air signs and also thoughts and perspectives; and pentacles with earth energy, earth signs as well as the material world and how we go about our day-to-day lives. 

Just as with typical playing cards, these suit cards are numbered ace through king. The numbers on each card also hold specific meanings. Pillai describes the ace as a beginning; two as balance, partnerships or decisions; three as collaboration and manifestation; four as stability or foundations and building firm structures; five as change, conflict or discomfort; six as movement, balance and sometimes reflection; seven as resistance, change, discomfort or confusion; and eight as labour, working, doing and creating. He reads the nine and 10 of cups and pentacles as happiness and wish fulfillment, but says the nine and 10 of wands and swords point more towards anxiety, resistance and challenge with attachments in life, as well as stress and lack of sleep.

“When you understand the suits in that fashion … the little booklet you get with your deck will resonate a little better,” said Pillai. “It will allow your imagination to flow.”

In addition to the suit cards, which Pillai says generally provide guidance for everyday living, there are 22 major arcana cards. “The major arcana is usually emblematic of bigger moments, bigger shifts in your life, like a-ha moments or gigantic shifts in perspectives that need to occur,” he explained. “So, when you pull those cards, you know that you’re dealing with bigger energy, stronger energy and something a little bit more potent and poignant to what you’re going through in that moment.”

Step 5. Try a simple spread

Armed with a basic understanding of the cards, you’ll be ready to do your first spread. The pros recommend starting with a three-card spread, with the cards laid out in a horizontal line, which you’ll read from left to right, as if it were a sentence.

Before pulling cards, Bee advises starting with a question — either your own or have the person you’re reading for tell you their question out loud so you have some context as you begin. 

She advises taking some deep breaths and clearing your mind before focusing on the question and beginning to shuffle. She says you should instinctively know when to stop shuffling the cards. “Sometimes, people feel it like tingling in the hands or a hot or cold feeling,” she explained. “For me, it feels like my arms get really heavy all of a sudden.”

You can draw the cards yourself or, if you’re comfortable, you can ask the person you’re reading for to draw the cards. 

Worth says the three-card spread is a good starting point because one card will not typically give you enough information concerning the question at hand. “If you pull three cards instead, then your reading starts to get a little more interesting, and you can start to see how the cards are interacting with each other,” she said. “You can start to really practice the skill of looking at the artwork that’s there and what’s going on in these cards. Is there a story? … When you’re just isolating one card at a time, you don’t have that interplay of looking at those patterns or looking for repeating symbols.”

If the message revealed in the spread is not immediately apparent, Bee recommends snapping a photo of it and taking some time to think about it rather than trying to pull new cards. “Don’t reshuffle a million times,” she said. “You got your answer.”

Step 6. Respect the limits of the practice

As you embark on your journey with tarot, it’s important to ground yourself with the understanding that this is not a psychic tool that can be used to decipher the lives and motives of others. 

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s about fortune-telling,’ or ‘it’s about knowing the future,’ and ‘Will he love me?’ or ‘Will she come back?’ or ‘Will I be rich?'” Pillai said. “It’s less about that and more about a reflection of where you are currently at a moment in your life.”

Bee sees “third-party readings” as an abuse of the tarot. “I can’t tell you how many times people say: ‘Does my ex still love me? They won’t talk to me anymore, but I want to know about them and are they thinking about me?’ And I have to say: ‘I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.'” She stresses that tarot is instead about activating your own inner sense of knowing and your own intuition by using pictures to jog your mind into understanding or moving forward.

Step 7. Make it your own

While there’s a lot to learn, Pillai suggested that with some time and commitment you can become a confident reader in a matter of weeks. The key is finding your unique entry point. Are you drawn to the colours? The astrological element? The numerology? There are multiple ways to unlock meaning, and every reader will have a slightly different interpretation of each card and spread, which is a huge part of tarot’s accessibility and appeal.

“We might all join for the sake of learning a message and healing ourselves, but we’re all going to access it in different ways,” Pillai said. “You’ll realize eventually, as you start understanding things, that there will be one point of access that you like and that’s how you’ll access the meaning of the cards. Then, at some point, you’ll realize that they’re all pretty much interconnected … they all come back to telling you one similar message.”

The more you work with the cards, the more intuitive reading them will become. “That misconception that you have to be psychic to read tarot [is] something that I think blocks a lot of people from even getting started, ” Worth said. “If you’re interested in it, give it a try … I think it’s important for people to know that if they want to start reading tarot, the best thing to do is just begin.”

Jen O’Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien.

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