Getting started with tarot cards

Maybe you dimly remember seeing them in high school, always presided over by that crushed-velvet-and-clove-cigarettes girl. Maybe you’ve noticed the infiltration of tarot imagery into design and culture, and you don’t know why, but you think they’re interesting. That’s how I was with tarot cards for a long time: I found them fascinating, both mysterious and familiar. But I also felt somehow unqualified to explore my interest. After all, I wasn’t the crushed-velvet-clove-cigarette girl in my high school — she, and others, perhaps unintentionally passed along the idea that tarot cards chose you because you came from a long line of cartomancers.

I wish I had gotten my first deck sooner. So let me be the one to tell you: If you’re interested, you’ve been chosen. It’s as simple as that.

Buy a deck‌‌

You may have been told that it’s bad luck to buy your own deck. But please, let go of that superstition and just go for it. >> how to choose a tarot deck

I tried to find the origin of that superstition, but I couldn’t even find a direct source. It sounds like garden variety gatekeeping b.s., in other words, so please disregard. I wish I had gotten my first deck sooner.

Many bookstores sell tarot decks; check the occult or new age section. Some highly specialized bookstores carry a wide range of divination books and run the gamut of spirituality-adjacent materials. You can probably also find a metaphysical supplies store/botanica somewhere nearby. Your deck will typically come with a booklet of interpretations and suggestions, so you don’t need to get any other books right away.

You’ll also want some kind of case or pouch for your cards. I like to wrap them up in scarves, which can double as a surface to read them on. But it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The main thing is that you’ll want to keep your cards clean and unbent to make them easy to shuffle.

Build a relationship‌‌

Building a relationship with anything is exactly like building a relationship with anyone: You say hi, you ask questions, you listen.

You don’t have to clear the cards with incense or salt, although you can certainly do those things if you like. You don’t have to sleep with the deck under your pillow, but you can do that, too.

Personally, I’m constantly traveling between the idea of the unseen as a simple function of physics and a greater, possibly occult mystery. I suspect that those two worldviews connect somewhere in the backend. Sometimes I clean my cards by putting the deck in order and leaving it on the windowsill during a full moon. Sometimes I don’t. Both ways work perfectly well.

You don’t have to perform any incantations to greet the deck. You can also just familiarize yourself with its images. Shuffle it, look at it. Just say “hi,” in whatever way makes sense.

Ask questions‌‌

Now that you’ve introduced yourself to your deck, you may be overwhelmed. Pentacles, wands, intricate scenes, repeated symbols: there’s a lot of imagery and meaning layered into each card. Don’t expect yourself to learn all of the symbolism and meaning of each card overnight. You can gain familiarity and confidence the exact same way anyone ever has: By asking questions.

The daily card pull is one practice that helps lots and lots of people gain a sense of familiarity with their cards. It’s simple: You pull a card at the beginning of every day and journal about its relevance to you, or simply keep it in mind as you go about your business.

A daily card pull is essentially asking: “What will I encounter today?”/”What should I look out for today?” But you could also ask things like:

“How can I prepare for my job interview?”‌‌”What is my fight with my sister really about?”‌‌”What’s blocking me from writing my novel?”‌‌‌‌In my experience, questions that provide extra context to a situation rather than asking for an outright yes/no answer are more successful than “Does X like me, circle yes or no.” Of course, you’re probably going to ask a ton of those questions anyway, so you might as well get it out of your system. But also keep in mind: It’s bad form to read cards in a nebby, snooping way. Meaning: Leave people out of it unless they have given you explicit permission otherwise.

Listen

‌‌The benefit of the daily card pull method is that it ties what you’re learning about the cards and suits into your own lived experience instead of teaching you to rely on the interpretation booklet that came with the deck, or the commonly circulating interpretations of each card. Let’s say you draw the Lovers one day. Does that mean that you’ll meet a lover, or get in a fight with your sweetie? Not necessarily. Maybe you’ll realize in the course of the day how reliant you have become on a specific relationship to define you.

This is why listening is such an important part of developing a relationship to the tarot. Sure, you can read dozens of books about what each card means. And, yes, tarot is powerful because it’s a system of symbols which have already acquired lots of layered meaning and recognition as archetypes. But that doesn’t mean that anyone else has more insight into the cards than you do, and that’s important. You are just as qualified as anyone.

While I was still internalizing the basic elements of the major and minor arcana, I would pull a card and listen to my innate connections with it before I looked up the meaning in a book. That way I learned the broad outlines of the archetypes and stories, but only after I had checked in with my own guidance. I recommend doing it in this order especially if trusting your innate interpretations is a newer skill. Practicing that will give you confidence and courage, and it won’t take long.

If this all sounds a bit fuzzy wuzzy to you, that makes sense: The experience of seeing the way a tarot card clicks with the mundane life stuff going on is a little bit spooky, and somehow simultaneously so obvious that it feels like nothing at all. It’s an odd sensation to say the least, and nothing I could say about it could replace the experience.

That’s all!‌‌

Reading tarot is kind of like wandering alone into the woods. There are landmarks and recognizable figures that we might be able to describe to others later, but what we see there is ours.

Hopefully this post has given you a place to start. Other questions? Ask me here. I also have a free Tarot for Novelists starter guide specifically for long-form prose writers looking for a little bit of guidance to get through their book-length projects. Check it out! And if you’ve found this article helpful, please share it with anyone you know who’s also interested in learning more about tarot!

Novelist. Tarotist, poet, lazy Virgo. Nothing is real; magic is real. Writing is a way to see in the dark. sarahelainesmith.com, @braindoggies