A Beginner's Tarot
A Beginner's Tarot
A Beginner’s Tarot
Originally Published in the Beltane 1988 .K.A.M. Journal
Tarot cards are a useful tool in developing self-knowledge, particularly for those of us who work best with visual images. There are many stories about the date of their origin ranging from Egyptian mysteries to Romany Caravans to Atlantean priesthoods. The certain evidence is that there are cards dating back to the fourteenth century, about the time of the Black Death.
Majors and Minors
The classical Tarot contains 78 cards, divided into 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana are the “big” cards, dealing with the major forces that shape our lives, such as Death, Sex and Wisdom. Birth is not directly depicted. Minor arcana are images of more everyday situations — moving into a new house, learning a trade, winning a battle, getting stabbed in the back.
Some readers work only with the Major Arcana, presumably to focus in on larger concerns. These cards can be read to form an Initiatory sequence, and are sometimes used as meditation keys or doors to various realities. The focus of this article is limited to the use of Tarot in ordinary divination.
In this article I am referring to the Rider-Waite deck, which is the most popular and readily available deck. It stems from the Golden Dawn system of Magick, most popular in the late 19th century and still in use today. Unlike the classical tarots the Waite system offers pictures for the Minor Arcana rather than simply icons depicting, say, 10 coins.
The Minor Arcana survives in our regular decks of playing cards. It is divided into four suits; Cups, Wands, Swords and Pentacles. These suits correspond directly to the Hearts, Clubs, Spades and Diamonds of the modern poker deck, with the difference that each suit contains both a Page and a Knight, not just a “Jack”.
Sigils of the Elements
Cups represent the Element of Water and the direction of West, referring to emotions, love, family ties and spiritual fulfillment. The images of cups are colored blue, sometimes holding the water of life, sometimes spilling it. The court cards are dreamy, almost asleep in an undersea world of fishes and feelings. Often the fish in a Cup card represents a thought or idea in the sea of the unconscious.
Wands, represent the Element of Fire and the direction South. This suit refers to will, career and professional development. These Wands are a lively lot, blazing with sap and fire, threatening to sprout green even when severed from the parent tree. Wand cards often represent enterprise and struggle, but not to the death.
Swords display the Element of Air and the direction East, connected to intellect, assertiveness and goals. In the Waite deck many of the Sword cards have negative associations, echoing the classical antipathy of the mystic for the life of the mind, particularly the military mind. Sword landscapes are mountainous, sometimes desertlike — the Queen of Swords is often interpreted as being infertile. Swords bring the necessary power to cut through obstacles and overcome.
Pentacles show the Element of Earth and the direction North. This suit refers to material possessions, money, occupations and security. Pentacles are lush, truly the suit of Beltane with the hint of a Jack of the Green in nearly each card. At their best the pentacles are a garden sprouting with life and vigor; at their worst a stagnant swamp or stolid drudge.
Lay your cards upon the table
The mechanics of a reading are straightforward — the cards are shuffled, dealt and then interpreted. The shuffling and dealing present the opportunity to interact with the cards and the person having the reading, the Querant. It is often helpful to establish a set ritual for shuffling and selecting the cards. I prefer to shuffle the cards myself, cutting them into three piles and picking up and recombining the piles with my Left (intuitive) hand. A left-handed person might reverse the procedure.
The essence of the pre-reading mechanics is twofold — to enable the querant to establish a relationship between themselves, what they want to know and the cards, and to enable you as the reader to tap into the situation.
Some readers whisper an incantation or invocation to their Gods while shuffling in order to make spiritual connections to aid in the reading. Others have the querant handle the cards and concentrate upon the question at hand.
A tall dark stranger …
In divination most people go to card readers hoping to hear of often undeserved health, wealth and love — a sort of recital of good news that never comes true. Some are quite indignant when they aren’t told what they want to hear. “Other card readers told me I was going to win money!” they might snort. Well, did they win? Don’t hesitate to send the customer to another reader. There’s no point in annoying the person and aggravating yourself! People who know the value of the Tarot come sincerely seeking self-knowledge. A good reader can help in this quest by clarifying questions, pointing out alternatives and bringing hidden patterns to light.
The Celtic Cross
There are many “spreads” or ways to lay out the cards — some are very global, others very focused on, for instance, yes or no questions. The detailed spreads require a lot of experience to interpret and sometimes the simpler spreads lose too much detail to be helpful. The Celtic Cross is a spread which strikes a middle level of detail, and is therefore very useful as a beginning tool, whether you are beginning a detailed series of readings or beginning to read the cards at all.
Note that the physical layout is of an equal-armed cross with a wand beside it. The cross portion focuses mainly on events and possibilities; the wand on inner circumstances and possible results. The cards are laid out in the order and pattern noted in the central figure above.
A sample reading
A person I know works as a waitress in a restaurant where her husband is a cook. She came to me for a reading a few years ago where we both saw she was going to be married. You have to know me to realize that it would be easier for me to announce an impending death than an imminent marriage. But two weeks later she showed me her wedding ring. She has always taken her readings seriously. Her husband takes the cards seriously in another way — he refuses to let me read for him!
Part of the ethics of reading is selective forgetfulness — it is best not to remember a client’s secrets. It is also often wise to charge in some way for each reading, if not in money then in barter. The exchange of effort lends weight to the effort, for few of us value those things that are merely handed to us. For the purposes of this article I made an agreement with the querant — I would read her cards in exchange for the right to use the reading as an example, without identifying information.
The first card shows the Situation. It is not so much what the person wants to know but what they have the need to know at that point in time. A person might want to know about their mother’s health, but need to know that their job is in jeopardy. Sometimes it can be awkward, but it is often valuable to go along with a puzzling Situation card, returning to the desired subject in a subsequent reading.
Our querant’s situation card was the King of Pentacles, the sugar daddy of the deck. This indicates that her basic concern at this time is her husband, and yes, he is doing well for himself.
The second card is the Covering card. This card shows what is helping the querant in the situation; their strength. It could be a person, an attitude or an object. This querant’s covering card was the Six of Wands, the card representing Victory. Whatever happens will be to her long term advantage. She will survive and come out in a positive manner.
The third card is the Crossing card. This tells what is opposing the querant, what obstacles need to be avoided or overcome. The crossing card can be very enlightening as it helps to know what to watch out for. The crossing card was the Emperor. I told her that there were certain events that she needed to be aware of and that it was in her best interests to hire a lawyer. She laughed, but later I heard her repeat my statement to one of the other waitresses. Sometimes that is all the feedback you can expect.
The fourth card shows the Conscious Mind. This shows the querant’s reaction to the situation and their thoughts concerning it. Her card was the Three of Pentacles. Here I laughed. This card shows her going out, looking for a new job, taking her skills to the marketplace. Considering that the restaurant is in the process of being sold, everyone there is looking at their options. It is often a comfort to see an “obvious” card, which acts as a reality check to show the reading is on track.
The fifth card shows the Unconscious Mind, the querant’s underlying thoughts. This is what they are really thinking/feeling. Sometimes this can be an obstacle; sometimes it shows hidden strengths. Her Unconscious mind showed the Ace of Cups reversed. Reversed cards can mean the opposite, less of the thing, or something in process that is not yet there. Some card readers do not acknowledge a difference in meaning for reversed cards. Unconsciously she is preparing for a new beginning, a fresh start. She is not quite aware of it yet.
The sixth card represents the Recent Past. This shows the event leading up to the Situation. Because this is in the past it is the one card which cannot be changed. The Recent Past showed Justice, reversed. I interpreted this to mean that she had been hurt and felt used. This could be why she needs a lawyer now.
The seventh card is the Near Future. It shows what will probably happen in the next week or two in relation to the situation. She had the Three of Cups, reversed. Yes, she would have reason to celebrate, but it would be tempered with loss.
The eighth card represents Self. It is the person getting the reading. But it is the aspect of the person in relation to the Situation. The Self card in a reading concerning career will, in most cases, be different than the Self card in a reading on love. Here was the Seven of Wands, reversed. She is trying to stay on top, but it is hard when you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.
The ninth card shows the Surroundings. These can influence the situation and the person. In this case the Surroundings card was the Judgement card. Someone close to her was at the crossroads of life. There was a judgement being made by someone else. She cannot control that other person’s judgement, but must be aware of it. Another good reason for the lawyer.
The tenth card is the Hopes and Fears of the person. Sometimes our fear can immobilize us or our hopes can blind us. Often you see the Sun or the Knight of Pentacles in this position! Here there was the Death card. The Death card doesn’t necessarily mean physical death, but it does mean change and the human fear of change, the unknown.
Cards 11-13 show the probable Outcome based on our exercise of Will. The cards are not etched in stone, and if a Querant dislkes an outcome thie other cards will often suggest the means to change it. Here we had for the eleventh card the Fool reversed. While the upright Fool often shows a joyful innocence, the reversal signified to me that this was not a time to take impulsive chances.
The twelfth card was the Magician. She will have all the skills and power that she needs and the knowledge to go with it. The Magician has the tools of the Four Elements and the ability to use them. Don’t take foolish risks, proceed with learning and strength.
The thirteenth card was the King of Cups reversed. No, she should not seek the father she never had. Look for an equal.
So, what to make of this information? Consider:
1. A situation regarding the husband
2. Possibilities for ultimate victory
3. A suggestion of legal matters and need for counsel
4. A situation of change, job hunting, seeking new possibilities.
At this point a pattern should be forming in your mind. Is there a joint business deal? A new job? Divorce? A will? It is important not to suggest negative possibilities unless they are already in the querant’s consciousness — there is a dual risk of overwhelming with information they are not ready for, and making a mistake and introducing a negative that was not really there, but is because you mentioned it.
5. An unconscious image of an overturned Ace of Cups. This should guide your thoughts more to the emotional and romantic than the business sectors. Perhaps it is not the restaurant, but the husband himself that is unable to hold the waters of emotion.
6. The reversal of Justice in the recent past shows ill-treatment and possible deception. This, coupled with the crossing Emperor shows a potential situation of injustice and the need to assert rights under the (Emperor’s) law.
7. The reversal of cups is a sort of shattering. Threes represent friendship, but can also be romantic triangles. Is all well with the marriage?
8, 9, 10: The self struggling to overcome in the midst of change, again the Judgment motif suggesting legal matters, and Death suggest a dramatic situation culminating in major change.
11, 12: The Fool reversed and the Magus are dramatically different outcomes. The need for legal counsel has become the crux of the reading. She can be a naive and innocent fool, or seize her destiny in the midst of change and control it.
13: The King of Cups, the second “man” in the spread is reversed, overly emotional, weak. It looks like relationships are at issue, and we are on delicate ground as to whether to raise the question of how the marriage is doing. It would appear that her husband, having treated her unjustly, is unlikely to pull himself together, and she will need the resources of the law to preserve herself.
A Difficult Outcome
So, it is the marriage. Unless you know the querant very well it is very dangerous to suggest such a thing unless they already know it to be true. A middle path would be to suggest looking to her own interests and not yielding to sulking, pouts or weakness in others. Another might be to suggest that she must seize her own destiny in the face of what difficulties might come, and victory will be hers.
It is the burden of the reader to see, and suspect, and never be certain. Failing absolute knowledge, first do no harm.
Often readers are accused of being vague to the point of meaninglessness, but I wonder how many “veiled” statements are efforts to hint at a glimpsed problem without stating it outright. We are responsible for our readings, and their effect on others, and need to walk that balance well.