Learning to read tarot - first steps?
November 10, 2019 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Looking for suggestions -- books, websites, personal anecdotes -- about what to do once you realize, "I want to learn to read tarot." (Like, other than "Buy a deck," what are the literal next few steps?)

I thought I had a Rider-Waite deck stashed, unopened, in my desk, but I opened it today and it turns out it's a Tarot of the Witches deck. I also accidentally bought a Goddess Tarot deck, thinking it was a goddess oracle card deck. I went through the Witches deck tonight and like the artwork; I haven't really engaged with the Goddesses deck.

I'm looking for divination tools, mainly for myself. (I have no objection to reading for others, but I'm unlikely to do much of it.) Suggestions for next steps? Do I need to buy a standard deck? Just play with these more? Purchase books or check websites or pull daily cards or or or?

Woo-ish advice greatly appreciated, non-woo advice absolutely appreciated, comments about why tarot reading is nonsense not at all welcome.
posted by lazuli to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Start with this site right here!

It's a good introduction to the meanings of the various cards and some of the basic spreads. I also sometimes use tarot as a sort of meditation tool (not divination in my case, more like a prompt for "try looking at your situation from this perspective" kind of thing).

The actual deck you get doesn't necessarily matter so much, so long as it's pretty clear what each of the designs are meant to represent and how they relate to the standard Rider-Waite deck. I have two decks - one that is purportedly an "Art Nouveau" spin on the Rider-Waite deck (although half the time the men look more like Fabio), and one that's a tongue-in-cheek 50s kitschy design. If you like the Tarot of the Witches then that's your deck.

I actually have that web site above bookmarked so when I want to do a spread, I can then hop back and forth between each card and the site, so I can look up what each card means. I also have a notebook to write everything down as I go ("Okay, the first two cards are meant to represent my situation - here's what the first card is and here's what it means, here's the second card and what it means.") Then I go back and read my notes over and consider "okay, how do those two things relate to my situation?"

Thinking of it as a sort of "Look at things from this perspective" prompt helps for those times when you get cards that totaly don't make any sense at all and you can't figure out how to relate it to your situation - "Okay, that perspective on things just plain doesn't work. Fair enough."

(I literally just this morning did a reading because I was feeling really downhearted about a little financial hit I had this weekend that set me back from a long range financial goal I've had; the particular combination of cards reminded me that "that financial setback is just in this one moment, you already have a plan for getting back on track in a couple days, you'll be fine and you've got this" and I read that over and realized 'You know what, yeah," and I felt much better. Tarot doesn't always have to be about divination, it can be for self-reflection - I find it actually works better for that for me. Your mileage my vary, of course.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:31 PM on November 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

The first thing you have to do is understand the meanings of the individual cards. The nice thing about the Rider-Waite deck is that the symbolism is clear, so the cards serve as both learning tools and memory aids. Arthur Edward Waite wrote a book that explains all the cards in terms of the symbols, so, once you're read that, it's like the meanings of the cards are almost written on them. He also provides some basic layouts you can use for readings. I'm not saying it's easy — there are 78 cards to learn — but it's certainly doable, with that book and deck alone, and a lot of practice. Once you've nailed it with that book and deck, you can move on to some of more eclectic decks, such as the ones you have.
posted by ubiquity at 7:31 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I go through phases with tarot - I use it for reflection and mental wellness, primarily. Sometimes it's the right thing for my brain at the time and sometimes it's a great gateway to free floating anxiety. So I'll go for months at a time without tarot and then pick it back up depending on different factors.

As with every skill it's a matter of repetition and upkeep alongside introspection on your progress. I agree with the above folks suggesting that you get a simpler deck to begin with, but it doesn't have to be the standard Rider-Waite. My favorite is the Robin Wood. But find a deck that does align with the more common meanings as available on websites or a book of meanings that you like. There are tons out there, but actually the learntarot.com that EmpressCallipygos links to is great!

Then just do a few readings every single day. Make a notebook for them and write stuff down that's noticeable to you - you'll start forming responses to certain cards pretty quickly, and forming patterns (the power of tarot lies in the intersection of our amazing pattern-finding brains and the symbol-laden tapestry of the cards) and writing things down will reinforce that. You might find it useful to ask the same question every day for a while, like "what is my biggest challenge right now?" or something else simple but general, which will kind of calibrate a deck for you. You also might find it useful to do a very simple three card spread at first, and then some other more complicated ones as you start to get the meanings down as they apply to yourself. But repetition is key. If you use your cards even when you don't feel the need to, you'll form connections with them that aren't fraught or demanding.

Soon enough you'll have a grasp of things and be able to explore different deck styles and unusual spreads. But having a grounding in the shared symbolism will be very useful and you'll be able to pull up suggested interpretations and easily slot them into the gaps you've got.
posted by Mizu at 8:20 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you have a deck you connect with, visually, that's a good starting point. A lot of decks are based on Rider-Waite (and a traditional Rider-Waite deck can also be good for beginners, but also feel free to find something you like), so I'd pick up a basic book about the meanings of the cards (and a lot of specialized decks come with their own books about specific meanings of the cards, too). And then just start doing readings for yourself. It may feel tedious at first, looking up each card as you go, in whatever resources you have (and I really recommend writing down each reading, card-by-card) but you'll learn that way. And you'll also learn that sometimes the cards mean ... other things ... than the "written" meaning. Individual interpretations are absolutely important!

Yes, it's good to know what the cards mean instinctively without having to look them up. But I think it's also important to know what they mean in the context of the reading itself. Just practice with the deck (or decks!) you like and you'll get the feel for it as you go, even if you're consulting resources as you go. Don't feel like you're doing anything wrong. You're not. Just enjoy this journey and where it takes you.

(You may not be looking for new decks, but I absolutely love This Might Hurt Tarot, which is in the Rider-Waite style, but modern and fun and awesome. I also like the Linestrider Tarot, which is much more abstract in its imagery but I also feel like that works for what I want.)
posted by darksong at 8:21 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

You may not be looking for new decks

Yes! I should have added: If you have recommendations for good "beginner" or more easily accessible decks, I am open to those suggestions, too.
posted by lazuli at 8:29 PM on November 10, 2019

Your local city may have classes or groups who do tarot and practice with each other, which is a good way to meet people with similar interests and read for someone other than yourself.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:48 PM on November 10, 2019

The best deck is the one that speaks to you. Which isn't just fluffy woo-woo: you'll learn the cards' meanings much more readily if the symbolism in the art is symbolism you're familiar with or that resonates with you. For that reason my primary deck is the Alice in Wonderland tarot. The imagery there is familiar and known to me in a way that triggers very easy recollection of each card's meaning, in a way that decks with an art style or theme I don't connect with don't.

I learned by doing single-card readings every day. Ask a question, draw a card, look up the meaning in your resource of choice, think about what in the card connects with what the book/website says it's supposed to mean, write it down in a notebook kept for this purpose. After awhile you start getting a feel for it, and you start remembering the cards that repeat.
posted by rhiannonstone at 8:54 PM on November 10, 2019

I have a "fancy" deck that I read from, but I've been more comfortable learning from the Rider-Waite-Smith cards. Most books will use RWS as a base, so it helps to be familiar with them, and the RWS cards are so crammed with symbols that I find it easier than cards that are a littler sparser and more abstract.

Rather than have two decks, I have a RWS deck app on my phone. Obviously it's less tactile that way, but it does have the benefit of forcing me to do a daily one-card pull because I get a notification each morning. And daily draws are an excellent way to reinforce your learning.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:45 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

My favorite source for explications and ruminations concerning both the Tarot and the I Ching is Bradford Hatcher's site:


Hatcher's books are free and he is quite a fine writer and thinker.
posted by Agave at 5:16 AM on November 11, 2019

If you are on Android, the app Galaxy Tarot does a great job breaking down all the symbolism on each card and makes it easy to compare cards to each other.

There's a lot of good advice in this thread. To it I'd add: flash cards help (things like "What is the symbolism of the number 1?" and "What do Pentacles represent?"), and to remember that it's a learning process, not something that has an end. You can constantly be improving. I still haven't gotten to a point where I feel like I know tarot. I think it'll be a lifelong journey.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:02 AM on November 11, 2019

Truly Teach Me Tarot was recommended here before - it's an excellent website. I also love the book Tarot for Yourself, which was also in that same recommendations thread.

PM me if you ever want to practise readings with each other!
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:10 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've found the most traction and enjoyment by using the Aquarian deck (another Art Nouveau-ish take on Rider-Waite) with interpretive guidance from Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. Generally what's been helpful is to find a spread that works for you (I have found this site to be wonderful), and/or just do one card per day.
posted by witchen at 9:35 AM on November 11, 2019

Jessica Dore does a daily tarot reading on twitter. You can sign up for her newsletters. You can take a course in reading the cards. She is a very positive person, who knows what she'd doing. Try her first.
posted by Enid Lareg at 11:15 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like the Golden Thread Tarot app for quick overviews of each card's meaning and some basic spreads.
posted by torridly at 1:09 PM on November 11, 2019

I would like to add that it is not weird to own more than one tarot deck, so it would be good to get a Rider Waite deck to learn on, simply because most teaching materials use or at least reference it. And you can still also work with another deck whose imagery you find more pleasing. Many people (myself included) own a number of decks just to enjoy the different art work, and to have different decks to suit different moods or seasons.

If you get a Rider Waite, be aware that there are a number of variations. The original is the one with the garish primary color scheme. The Universal Waite has the same images, but in prettier, more natural colors. (Most decks with Waite in the name have some color variation on the original images.)

I was coming in to say learntarot.com as I used that website extensively when learning. The website author Joan Bunning has also written books, if you prefer that to online. She has "Learning the Tarot" which is similar to the website information, "Learning Tarot Reversals" and "Learning Tarot Spreads."

Two of my favorite books for learning, once you get to the point where you are doing spreads:

"The Instant Tarot Reader": this one gives you card meanings for each card when it falls into a particular position in the spread. For example, what does the Devil mean when it is in the "advice card" position? or what does the Empress mean in the "hopes and fears" position? (This book was originally part of a set with a tarot deck, which is out of print. There are a number of used copies on Amazon and probably elsewhere, usually without the deck included. You don't need the deck at all to use the book.)

"Power Tarot": this one gives the basic card meanings but then also shows what it might mean depending on the reading topic. For example, what might the Four of Cups mean in a reading about finances? Or in a reading about love? This book also contains a large number of spreads, as well as instructions for doing yes/no questions, timing events, etc.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:52 PM on November 11, 2019

Website: Biddy Tarot. I'm subscribed to the newsletter which features a card of the day and its meaning. Then Aeclectic Tarot.

Videos: There are several on YouTube that go through each card in the deck. 1, 2 (Part 1), 2 (Part 2), 3 (Part 1), 3 (Part 2)

I am subscribed to a few YT channels that do Pick A Card readings, which I like because I learn not just the meaning of each card but how they connect to the other ones in the spread.

Books: top picks are Kitchen Table Tarot by Melissa Cynova, Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis, WTF is Tarot by Bakara Wintner, Tarot For Yourself by Mary K. Greer. For the intermediate learner: Holistic Tarot by Benebell Wen.

I follow several tarot related hashtags on Instagram so they always show up in my feed. If you want to be exposed to a variety of tarot decks, there's currently #allmydecks2019. Warning: you might end up with a lot of decks in your wishlist.

Decks: I do recommend getting a RWS, if only as a foundation. I have several RWS decks to learn from, and it really boils down to personal preference. Look at them in person or images or videos online. some will even compare the different RWS versions. Find the one that speaks to you.

Once you're more familiar with the basic meanings of the cards, just keep on practicing! I've tried a daily draw and keeping a notebook, but really the best way I've found for me was to just offer readings to friends, family, co-workers. When I hear myself talk somehow I remember better. I used to feel shy about it, because what if I say the wrong thing? But lately I just try to make it clear that I'm learning, and would they please be my guinea pig? Many jump at the chance. By constant repetition the meaning will stick, and you'll surprise yourself at how you'll end up saying something different for the same card at different times. Usually after the reading I then double check with my references to see if I missed out anything, and that process helps reinforce the learning.

If like you said you'd rather just do this by yourself for a while, keeping a (private, if you want) IG account where you take a photo of your daily reading with your notes, at least for me, I found to be more organized, legible, and visual than a written tarot journal.

Random woo things: When I first started I used to get headaches after reading, or just felt off/buzzed/tired. Look into grounding. Imagine your feet growing roots in the soil. Hug a tree. Chakra visualization. I almost always have a crystal bracelet on now (primarily as jewelry, for aesthetic), and that seems to help. This is absolutely not necessary, but thought I'd throw that in there in case that was an adjacent interest. I like labradorite, black tourmaline, smoky quartz. Then possibly some add-ons for enhancing intuition and reflection: moonstone, selenite, lapis lazuli, sodalite, amethyst.
posted by pimli at 7:32 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I personally love Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea - it's what got me back into Tarot after a long time away from it. She has a very narrative style (she's best known as a memoirist) and uses stories from her and her friends' lives to illustrate the lessons of the cards. Very engaging.

If you're queer or just like the idea of a queer interpretation of the cards, I like Queering the Tarot too.

As for decks, I'm currently using the Wild Unknown a lot and I love it. It's very popular right now and for good reason - the art is gorgeous and accessible and, well, wild. It's not based on the traditional Rider-Waite deck though, and many other decks are, so it won't help you learn the "dominant" tarot language. But it is a really beautiful and fun deck. I've read for several friends with that deck and it's given people some strong emotional resonance.

I've also had my eye on the Witch's Tarot as well (different from the one you have). It's based on the Rider Waite but is less patriarchal and more diverse in its imagery.

You say you're not expecting to read for anyone soon, but I'd urge you to try! Doesn't have to be a big deal, you could just have a friend over and read each other's cards, relying heavily on books and the internet to interpret the cards. I have learned so much about the Tarot from reading for other people, and it's a surprisingly lovely and non-scary way to have really deep and intimate conversations with people.

One other thing: this is entirely a matter of personal preference, but I find reading for myself or others is more satisfying when we're asking questions like "what do I need to know in this situation?" or "what am I missing?" or "what do I really want?" vs questions about what's going to happen. Partly because divination is tricky (I'm pretty sure I can't see the future) but mostly because questions like "what do I need to know?" give agency to the querent and thus give you a more dynamic reading.
posted by lunasol at 9:40 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

After a couple days pulling daily cards and reading the explanations in the deck's instructions and also a few online sites (I love the Biddy Tarot site!), I realized I really needed to get a Rider- Waite deck. So I purchased that tonight (and got slightly shamed by the cashier for not getting a Thoth deck, grr) and am looking forward to working with it and with all the other resources you all have shared. Thank you!
posted by lazuli at 7:38 PM on November 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

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