"For entertainment purposes only"
April 4, 2015 4:39 PM   Subscribe

I want to get more familiar with the tarot — especially its use as a symbol system and personal religious/artistic/introspective tool, and to some extent also its (actual nonfiction real-world) history. What books or blogs should I read? Study tips for improving facility and speedy recall of card meanings would also be helpful.

Things I'm very interested in:
  • Understanding the very most common and basic sets of associations that are assigned to the cards, and maybe some stuff about ways that those associations can be conceptualized or systematized.
  • Being able to call those associations to mind quickly and easily on seeing a card (or call a card to mind quickly and easily on hearing one of it's associations). I'd especially love to hear mnemonic devices or practice tips for gaining this sort of facility.
  • Knowing some of the actual real-world history behind the deck and how it's been used.
Things I'm not really at all interested in:
  • Pseudohistorical nonsense about how all this comes from ancient Egypt or the Knights Templar or whatever.
  • The nitty-gritty details of anyone's One True System of high-protocol ceremonial magic.
  • Stuff like cold-reading, showmanship, or sleight-of-hand skills that might be useful to people reading cards for money.
I'm starting basically from scratch: I could probably name most of the major arcana, and have vague associations with some of the big-name ones (The Fool, The Magician, The Tower... that might be it, actually).
posted by nebulawindphone to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I like the Tarot and Psychology book. I'm not a believer in the Tarot at all, but I do think that what people think about the cards they draw says something about them, and that can be a useful thing.
posted by xingcat at 4:51 PM on April 4, 2015

This book, which argues that tarot cards were originally simply used for game playing, and only later acquired an occult significance, is back in print.
posted by thelonius at 4:56 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Look for works from Ronald Decker, Michael Dummett, or Robert Place. They have a skeptical bent and are interested in actual history. The actual history, however, is a history of pseudo-historical nonsense, so understanding Tarot means gaining an understanding of stuff like Egyptology, Cabala, Hermeticism and the like. That is where the symbolism and associations the cards have in the present day comes from.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 5:08 PM on April 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy this blog by a former Mefite.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:20 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

You could do worse than memorizing the Order of the Golden Dawn keyword for each card. Nine of Cups is "The Lord of Happiness," for example.

You don't have to believe in Golden Dawn metaphysics to use the keywords. The reason they work well, especially if you are using any of the numerous Rider-Waite clone decks, is because the original Rider-Waite Tarot deck was drawn at the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, a Golden Dawn member, and the cards thus reflect the GD keywords. Here is a page that lists them all. Further down the page is also a list of the titles of the Major Arcana which are less well-known, but highly evocative. My personal favorite is The World: "The Great One of the Night of Time." [There is an interesting history behind the Rider-Waite Tarot in that A.E. Waite was under oath to not reveal the planetary and Hebrew letter GD associations of each card, so he had the artist, Pamela Colman Smith, put oblique clues into each card.]

Many years ago, when I was memorizing the Tarot, I'd run through the keywords in my head as I waited in line or stood in the elevator. It helped me become familiar and comfortable with the cards in no time. I have since been recommending this method to Tarot newbies, with reported good results by those who took the time to commit the keywords to memory.
posted by Atrahasis at 5:53 PM on April 4, 2015 [7 favorites]

When I've had to memorize lots of things (like foreign language vocabulary) I've found Anki incredibly useful. The computer program is free; the online program is free; the mobile ios app is $20 but I found it absolutely worth it.

I would recommend putting either the title or the card image as the "front" of the flashcard and the meanings as the back.
posted by Hypatia at 6:00 PM on April 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I like Biddy Tarot for clear, extensive, understandable meanings of each of the card. Skip all the spammy stuff and go straight to Tarot Card Meanings.

I developed the ability to remember the card meanings by working with them over the span of years. I also find that having a tarot app on my phone (I like Galaxy Tarot) is helpful, because I can do quick readings or look at individual cards anywhere.
posted by jeoc at 6:47 PM on April 4, 2015

Argh, I took too long writing this post and someone already beat me to Biddy, which has some of the best, most comprehensive writeups on the cards I've ever seen online. I've also come across https://askthecards.info/ recently and am really impressed at that site, especially the readings. And look, free books! As for reversed cards, Crystal Reflections covers them pretty well. Author Mary Greer (read her books too) has a lovely tarot blog, here's the section on tarot card meanings. Tarot Teachings is great on symbols. Learn Tarot has keywords since you want some way to remember things the short way.

But really, you don't so much need to memorize definitions. Hell, if you show any random person on the street a card, they can figure out its story from the picture alone. I've done giant tarot circles with Mary Greer in which people were giving readings when they knew diddly-squat about what the supposed meaning is.

As for books: virtually ANY tarot book you pick up will give you enough information to figure stuff out. I rather like the "Dummies" and the aforementioned Mary Greer, but really, any book will do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:50 PM on April 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I was doing this, I liked Tarot for Your Self by Mary Greer.
posted by matildaben at 7:06 PM on April 4, 2015

I think the easiest way to learn the Tarot is just to do a bunch of readings (for yourself, or for patient friends), book in hand. That way, you link the cards with specific people or events, as well as the images themselves.
posted by yarntheory at 9:01 PM on April 4, 2015

There aren't enough of these, but you might enjoy them anyway: Reading the Tarot by Jessa Crispin
posted by corvine at 2:36 AM on April 5, 2015

I am no expert, not by a long shot, but Tarot has been in and out of my life for a few decades. For a long time I found it helpful to read what people wrote about the meanings and symbols, and that was definitely helpful to start to be more attuned to features of the pictures and color choices and stuff, and sometimes more arcane stuff like specific symbols or texts. But in time I finally just figured out that I could get what I needed to just from looking at the cards themselves, and carrying with me the notion that each feature/picture/theme had both positive and constructive aspects as well as negative or destructive aspects.

Think of it like looking at a movie with the sound off, or a graphic novel with no text. You can still figure out what's going on by watching, right?

I'm not sure if no one ever told me that when I was first getting started, or if it just didn't sink in, but I thought I'd throw that out there since it has made a big difference in how I relate to the cards and it might make a big difference to you too.

Since there are so many facets of what's going on in each card, it may be helpful to lay out a spread and, as a practice, focus just on the story that is reflected in a single aspect. What does the story tell you if you only look at the landscapes? (Is the sky blue, gray, black? What are the characteristics of the land, water, buildings? What's near, what's far?) Then take a break, and sometime later look at it fresh while looking at the story that the people tell you (men, women? Young, old? What's their status? Emotional state? Are they still or in motion?) Lots more ways to do that, too, of course, like colors and flora/fauna. Notice that this isn't even getting into arcane stuff like suits and numerology and hoary occult symbols. I think if you trust yourself that you can get a lot just from what comes up in the forms/signs/signals that you encounter all the time in your everyday life, it makes it easier to layer on (and indeed, gain depth of understanding about) more specialized symbols.

Good luck! It's a great journey.

PS. Watch it, your dog is right behind you.
posted by Sublimity at 7:06 AM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Book of Thoth by the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley is, surprisingly, actually a pretty good interpretation of Tarot symbolism. (this from someone who is otherwise pretty skeptical about Crowley and occultish things in general;)
posted by ovvl at 5:16 PM on April 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Late to answering but wanted to add for archives. I am only just starting out myself. I am also veering away from any dogmatic subscription to the 'TRUE WAY' of tarot. I found some of the blog posts/resources via Little Red Tarot to be quite useful for me. I am interested in alternative/radical perspectives that deliberately challenge norms/archetypes that are not relevant to me (masculine =active, feminine=passive.. among other problematic assumptions etc.) In a way that identifies patterns/structures and struggles that exist in a world that I recognize. One that celebrates the diversity of my peers (queer, POC, dis/abled, trans, poly folk etc). Am looking for a deck to reflect that atm. Might make my own one day.

Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Tarot
posted by abhardcastle at 4:18 PM on March 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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