You’ve been wanting to learn about Tarot for a while, and you finally went out and got yourself a deck. Now that you actually have cards in your hands, what’s the best way to get started?
All Tarot decks consist of 78 cards that include four suits and 22 major arcana. There are many other types of decks that don’t fit this format, and those are called Oracle decks, rather than Tarot. Each Oracle deck is unique according to the ideas of the creator. Tarot decks, on the other hand, work within a common model and share certain themes, even though there are many different styles of decks available. Most people begin their study of the Tarot by learning the meanings of the major arcana, also known as triumphs. Here are four tips that will help you to develop not only an intellectual understanding of the cards, but an intuitive and very personal response to them as well.
Cracking open a few books is a prerequisite, to be sure. Two of my favorites are “The Tarot: A Key To The Wisdom Of The Ages” by Paul Foster Case and “Seventy-Eight Degrees Of Wisdom” by Rachel Pollack. Both focus exclusively on the major arcana, but there are many other books available as well. The Rider-Waite pack is an excellent starting deck, because the symbolism is specific and fairly obvious. Many people use it to learn, then eventually move on to another deck that may suit them better stylistically, while others like to use different decks for different occasions. Some resonate with the Rider-Waite deck and stick with it, like myself. I’ve used the same pack for over thirty years, a deck someone gave me in 1978. That’s all a matter of preference and style, though, and more clarity about that will come later. For now, just concentrate on getting a feel for the basic meaning of each triumph in whatever deck you have. Learning the traditional definition is the first way to get to know a card.
As you learn about each major arcana, always consider it in the light of the previous card. The triumphs don’t operate in isolation, they work together to form a map, and each card represents a step along the path of the human life. For example, the Tower, which suggests a mind reeling from the sudden destruction of old ideas, is followed by the Star, which signifies the healing power of meditation. The latter is completely dependant on the former. Without the forces described in the Tower, the traveler wouldn’t be able to move into the state found in the Star. It is only with the breakdown of the limiting beliefs of the past that a person can truly delve into the pool of the subconscious. As you come to understand the triumphs, remember that each one expresses a state of mind that is a direct result of the energies found in the previous card.
Now that you have a basic knowledge of traditional meanings and an awareness of the Tarot as metaphysical map of sorts, you’re ready for the third tip. This is where it gets personal. Living with the cards is the way to best way to breathe life into your new deck. That’s another way of saying there’s no substitute for personal experience. Try picking a card for the day, or a card for the week, or however often you have the attention to do on a regular basis. Draw the card in the morning and reflect in the evening on how it may have represented your day. Think of it as a meditation. In time, you may begin to perceive themes associated with certain cards, particular meanings that you could never learn from a book. Tell yourself (and others) the stories of how the energies described in the triumphs have appeared in your own life. Try and think of a time when you were in the state of mind expressed in each major arcana as you learn their meanings. Tell your stories.
The other tip for today is to try and view the card you’re studying in as many decks as possible. This may be even more important for the experienced Taroist than the novice. Working with an unfamiliar deck insists on an intuitive response, because the subjective tone of the illustration has a great deal to do with the interpretation. It’s not apples to apples, after all, because every variation of a card invokes a slightly different perspective. Some early versions of The Lovers, for instance, show Cupid about to fire on three human figures below, while others, including the Rider-Waite, contain an angel blessing two people beneath. Since an angel is a far more highly evolved being than Cupid, we know intuitively that the different cards are addressing somewhat different energies. Ultimately, the best deck for you is the one that speaks to you the most clearly.
Handle your cards a lot. Your learning process will involve all of your senses and all of your moods. It will highlight your successes and help you learn from your mistakes. Tarot is a tool that assists navigation on the path to bring higher meaning into our lives. Use the cards for contemplation, and as a way to think about the best course for going forward. Think positively. Above all, tell your stories!