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July 18, 2019
Tarot 101: Understanding the Basics
As tarot continues to grow and expand in popularity, my heart has been warmed by those finally embracing it as a divination tool for good instead of the false perception of it being demonic. My philosophy with tarot is as follows: Tarot is much like a picture book full of archetypes (parts of our collective human psyche) and characters. As we lay out the cards we get to piece together a story that helps us form an energetic snap shot of what’s going on and what’s most relevant for the querent. When it comes to reading the outcome or future of a situation, I like to refer to it as the “space of opportunity.” In this space you get to see if your energy and choices are in alignment with what you desire. If it’s something positive then that’s great; your energy is already headed in the direction of your goals. However if the space of opportunity reveals an undesired outcome, then now based on the energetic snap shot, it will become clearer to the reader what choices the person is making or not making that’s creating that outcome. Therefore giving the person the power to make different choices and change their future. In summation, you are the master of your fate not the cards.
Contrary to popular belief tarot isn’t actually fortune-telling. While it’s not necessarily impossible to predict the future, there are simply too many free will choices to predict the future with 100% accuracy every time. Anyone guaranteeing that they can predict your future is most likely a scammer so keep your eyes open! As with most things that enter into the public eye, tarot’s use has been watered down in my opinion, and I feel some don’t give it the respect it deserves. But with my previously mentioned philosophy in hand, I believe we can all help shift tarot into being a tool for healing, clarity, and truth. With that intention in mind let’s explore more of where tarot comes from, how to use it for your highest good, and how to get better at using it without having to look up definitions.
While the exact origins of what we call tarot aren’t crystal clear, the staying power of this divination system has much to do with its transformation over the centuries. Most sources credit 15th century Italy (or Europe in general) as the birthplace of this now extremely popular deck of cards — however back then, it wasn’t a tool for divination, it was simply a card game. The transformation of the tarot deck has gone from hand painted cards to mass produced decks with thousands of variations. Today the hashtag “#tarot” has 4.8 million tags on Instagram alone. For the purpose of this article, I want to focus not so much on how tarot got here, but rather how to best use it for it’s most popular modern application — divination. I would like to make a distinction and further define what divination actually is. I’ve been studying tarot for ten years and I’ve learned that it’s not so much a fortune telling devise as it is an intuitive visual tool. Anyone claiming to be a diviner knows this and takes the time to inform their clients what the session will entail. This is an important comment because your intention with the magic of the tarot should be less about arbitrarily predicting the future and more about tapping into your own intuitive gifts and guidance.
The most popular tarot deck today is the Rider-Waite deck created by Arthur Edward Waite and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith originally published in 1910. A close second is the Thoth deck by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris completed in 1943 and published in 1969. To keep things as simple as possible we will focus this on the Rider-Waite deck, as Crowley’s deck dives extensively into his own occult writings, Ancient Egyptian cosmology and other sacred teachings. For more information on the Thoth tarot deck and tarot in general, I highly recommend, “Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot” by Lon Milo DuQuette. For reference, when I refer to specific cards I will be talking about the Rider-Waite images only.
In almost every tarot deck there are 78 cards total:
These distinctions are what separate tarot from a more general oracle card deck. While an oracle deck can have any theme, name, or order of cards, tarot decks must have some variation of the major and minor arcana system. Arcana means secrets or mysteries — again further implicating tarot as a tool to tap into the collective consciousness. The major arcana cards are the most important, then the court cards, and finally the rest of the minor arcana. A tarot deck is a technically a type of oracle, but not all oracle decks are tarot decks.
My favorite way to approach learning about the mystic system of tarot is to overlay research done by professor Joseph Campbell who popularized the term, “The Hero’s Journey.” His book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a perfect compliment to understanding the ancient wisdom tarot has to offer the reader and the querent no matter what deck you’re using. Jospeh Campbell expanded upon the meaning of an archetype concept created by Carl Jung and applied it to many mythical stories. Tarot as well emphasizes the importance of understanding archetypes and myth. Archetypes are parts of our human psyche that can be embodied (in this case) via the characters on the tarot cards. For example The High Priestess is an embodiment of the Crone Divine Feminine energy — a wise grandmother archetype — and represents our intuition. The Fool in tarot represents the Inner Child, the feelings of needing to do something new but not knowing where to go, and taking a leap of faith. After studying thousands of folklore tales, myths, and stories from different cultures, Campbell discovered a formula that most epic tales follow. At the beginning of The Hero’s Journey model, the hero starts out on a quest or a “call to adventure” into the unknown, and receives some supernatural aid. In Tarot this translates into The Fool leaping off the cliff, and then meeting the Magician and the High Priestess if you follow the order of the major arcana. A great exercise to get more familiar with the deeper meaning of the archetypes in tarot is to try to match up each event in the hero’s journey with one (or more) of the major arcana cards.
So how can we shift from having to look up the meaning of each card to learning how to get intuitive and specific information about each card? The way I learned was from pulling cards in the morning everyday and writing down the meaning of each. At the end of the day I would go back and reflect on how those cards showed up in my life. Now, a HUGE caveat to doing self pulls: if you pull cards that are “negative” you do not lie to yourself and reshuffle or keep pulling until you pull The Lovers card or The Sun! This is self-deception and will not serve you at all. Pay attention to the desire to shove away what looks ugly or unpleasant, and above all else face the truth. Your state of mind is important when you’re working with tarot, so perhaps a short mediation to focus you will be beneficial. There are lots of great tarot workbooks out there that will give you prompts, spreads, and exercises to do if you need more structure, but find what works for you. That’s a huge part of all learning; copying exactly what I or anyone else does might not work for you, and part of the journey is discovering your own powers and strengths.
A great rule of thumb I like to go by is use the book with descriptions for as long as you need. The moment that you look at a card and instantly receive some type of intuitive guidance about the images and how it relates to you or the querent, stop using the book. When I first started reading tarot I only did it for myself, and gave myself time to let the mysteries of tarot seep into my subconscious. I sat with it for years and never gave anyone a reading other than myself. I don’t think my intention at the beginning was to read for others. I was honestly just fascinated with the images and symbols within tarot since I was a child. Most of my work was done in secret because everyone around me thought tarot was evil, but I knew the truth and stuck to it. Eventually my friends were comfortable with letting me give them a short reading and when you’re ready to do this, you will know. There’s no exact formula. To my surprise at the time I would get comments afterwards saying how accurate the readings were. And as that increased and my intuition expanded I started attracting people who wanted to pay me for my services. Now when I give tarot readings they’re all clairvoyant, meaning I’m receiving visuals and other psychic information about the querent. If you’re at that level you should definitely be charging a fee. Usually you’ll start to notice you feel drained after giving a free reading and that’s a big sign that it’s time to start charging. Do not charge people if you still need practice! Instead ask people if they would allow you to give them a free reading so you can hone your craft. Just like with any modality you will get to a point where your skills are seen as valuable and it’s up to you to fairly price your work based on your skill level, clientele, and quality.
Some other minor questions have come up from my clients and friends who’re interested in learning how to read tarot — like how to read reversed cards, and how to best interact with the person receiving the reading. It’s my personal opinion that reading reversed cards is an advanced technique that is unnecessary until you’ve mastered the intellectual and intuitive meanings of each card. Until you get to a point where you can give a reading without referencing the a book, I would stick to reading the cards upright. Reversed cards essentially ask you to look at the shadow aspect of whatever archetype is present. If you pull The Fool, he can be in his light of being a brave adventurer, or in his shadow of being foolishly naïve and incompetent. However if you pull The Fool and then ask for a clarification card and you pull the 7 of swords, then you know that archetype is showing up as its shadow. On the inverse if you pull The Fool and the 3 of wands, you’ll know he’s in the light. It’s important to trust that the 78 cards in the tarot deck are designed in a way where they will give you the truth of a situation either “good” or “bad.” Sometimes reading reversed can confuse things, so if you’re a beginner, keep things as simple as possible.
When it comes to interacting with your clients having a routine will help. Make sure you cleanse your space, ground your energy, and have the client put their intention into the cards somehow. You can do this by guiding them through a brief mediation, letting them shuffle or cut the deck, or pull some or all the cards. When you get to the level where you’re giving other people readings, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re in control, not them. Sometimes people will talk your ear off or try to direct the reading themselves towards what they want you to say. Be gentle, firm, and honest with them. I always tell people, “I’ve already been paid; I have no reason to lie!” People should leave your readings feeling uplifted and hopeful, even if you discovered during the reading that some tragedy may arise. Never lie to anyone about what you see, but for the love of God don’t scare them! Fear doesn’t serve anyone and you should respect that they came to you to receive clarity. If the outcome does look harsh for yourself or another person, allow your mind to frame it in a way of teaching you a lesson that will make you better and stronger instead of it being a punishment. This is a great technique to apply to life in general! Again your free will choices greatly effect the future and sometimes situations pop up in life to show us that our choices no longer serve us and its time to take a different path. Trust and surrender.
I hope these bits of information from my own studies assist you in using tarot as a powerful tool of transformation. Show the deck respect and it will start speaking to you. Being a clear channel is important and allowing your practice to bloom and grow at it’s own pace is essential. I wish you all happy reading, studying, and card pulling!
Spellwork Spread: Where Am I? Where To?
This is one of my favorite spreads from “The Sacred Tarot Unveiled” by Allyson Walsh.
3. Where I Am Headed
4. Support - Universe
2. The Next Step
5. Support - Environment
1. Where I Am Now
Camille reading Tarot. Image by Ani Carla/ @ani.vibes
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Camille Langston is a Reiki Master teacher in Usui Shiki Ryoho technique, psychic medium, tarot reader, musician, and actor living in Los Angeles, California. Read her bio here.
Read more on astrology, horoscopes, occultism, magick & ritual on our blog, Esoteric Insights!
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Welcome to your January 2021 Tarot Scopes! To make the most of my astrological horoscopes, please read your ASCENDANT sign, followed by your SUN and MOON sign. This will give you the best advice and be the most appropriate timing-wise. Don’t know your personal astrology? Check out this free astrological calculator, or book a session with me! To read this month's lunar and planetary happenings, along with any specific ritual and symbolic inspiration, look out for our article Celestial Insights later this month!