Tarot 101: A Beginner’s Guide

by Steff Yotka | Vogue

Each person’s entrée into the world of tarot cards and readings is different. Mine came at age 13, at a Bat Mitzvah for a girl in my class that featured a tarot reader as part of the cocktail hour. When she pulled the Death card—lucky number 13 in the major arcana of cards—in my spread, I near fainted and squarely decided tarot was not for me. That opinion changed when I was introduced to the work of Rachel Howe, a Brooklyn-based artist, Reiki healer, and tarot reader—you might know her from her Instagram handle, @smallspells. It was Howe’s mystical, black-and-white drawings that first caught my eye, and her recently released illustrated tarot deck and guidebook has inspired this writer to get into tarot yet again.

To those who think the practice of reading tarot is an occult art reserved for spook sessions, let me say: You’re wrong. As Howe describes it, the practice is more about the discussion between the reader and the person whose cards are being read. Think about it like an in-depth conversation that’s merely facilitated by the cards and their implied meanings: “Tarot, a tool, and the real healing work is going to be done by the person,” says Howe. “A lot of people describe tarot as a mirror, so it’s not like I’m pulling some secret out of you.”

Still, trying to enter into the vast world of tarot readings, of which there are centuries of literature about, is daunting. “There’s a lot of rules about tarot, which I think have been used in the past to have it be this secret esoteric thing and to keep people away, which was necessary as a protective measure. I don’t think that’s as necessary now. I think anyone can read tarot,” Howe says of the practice’s sometimes-exclusive practices and rules. “I’ve heard people say you’re not supposed to buy your own deck, you’re supposed to have someone gift it to you. My feeling is, I bought my deck and I can read. What if no one buys you a deck? Then you never get to learn how to read! Anything that feels like it’s a sort of boundary between people who know and people who don’t know, I don’t think applies anymore.”

So in the spirit of inclusivity, I asked Howe to share some of her tips for new members of the tarot club. Those who still want to find out more—and happen to live in the New York area—can attend one of Howe’s workshops in Williamsburg.

Get to Know the Cards
After you’ve purchased a deck, the first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the cards. “I think establishing a relationship with the cards is important. It can be so intimidating because it’s a deck of 78 cards and they’re all different. It’s a lot of information that I think a lot of people feel they have to memorize,” Howe admits. Her tip? “If you are starting out, just working by yourself, a lot of people do a daily card pull where they pull one card from the deck and just think about the meaning of the card. If you do it in the morning, you can keep it in mind as you go through your day. That’s a nice way to get to know the cards on a deeper level.”
Be Ready to Talk
“Tarot is really like a tool, a tool to facilitate talking about things. Because there’s this sort of added mystical energy to it or some sort of mystical connection, you can see people start to open up in a way that they might not if you were just having a conversation about something. There’s something about the special energy about it that kind of melts away the walls that people have and then the conversation can really get in there and make changes,” Howe says. As such, it’s important for tarot readers to be ready to communicate. That means both keeping an open mind and trusting one’s own intuition. “Intuiting is definitely a big part of a tarot reading; that’s what makes it so special. That’s where energy comes in, being able to sense what someone is feeling, thinking, or going through.”

If this sounds intimidating, Howe says it’s important to relax and trust your own agency. “Use language that you already have, or knowledge that you already have, so you can see it less as ‘This holds all of these secret meanings that I have to do all this work to access,’ and more like ‘I know all the meanings; it’s just a matter of making the connections and being able to articulate them.’ ” She notes that the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—play a large role in the tarot, which is helpful because most people already have some ideas about the meanings of each element that they can draw on. “If you do that then it’s more your own perspective and you can be a little freer with the things that you’re saying.”

Get to Know Some Basic Spreads—But Be Ready to Change Them
For beginner readers, Howe recommends two basic spreads, a three-card pull and the Celtic Cross. The former is where three cards are drawn from the deck to represent the past, present, and future or mind, body, and spirit of the person being read. Howe says you can even up the ante to a six-card pull, with one card representing each area.

The Celtic Cross, though slightly more complicated, is also a good starting point. “The Celtic Cross spread is a classic spread where each card has an assigned position and an assigned meaning for that position. It’s 10 cards, so it’s a lot of information and it’s a very clear spread. Personally, I use a modified version of the Celtic Cross where I use the format, but I like to be loose with the positions because I want the cards to be whatever they want to be. What I do is I start out with the Celtic Cross layout, and as we’re talking, I’ll move cards around to make [it so] the point of these cards are talking to each other. Sometimes, by the end of the reading, it looks totally different.”

Her other tip is not to keep the big picture of the layout in mind. “It’s really about the connections between the cards. Depending what cards are around a certain card, it will influence the meaning. They’re all being influenced by each other, sometimes they’re really amplified by each other,” she explains.

Find a Space With Good Vibes to Conduct Your Readings
“I think it’s important to think about the energy of the space because you’re opening up,” she explains. “If you want to be an open person, it means that you want your environment around you to be a healthy one so it’s okay for you to be open. I do readings in my apartment, which is great because I can control the environment. Burning sage, burning palo santo, lighting candles, even having an intention, like, ‘This is a space where I can be open so it’s a loving space and I don’t allow non-loving energies,’ helps.”

But it’s not just the physical space that needs to be in sorts before a reading. “Even your headspace matters,” Howe says. “I like to meditate before I give a reading so that I’m not preoccupied with any of my own issues or problems, so that I can be open to let whatever is coming to my mind be for them and not for myself.”

Find a Way to Start a Reading That Feels Right for You
Traditional tarot books or readers might advocate for a lengthy or ritual process of beginning a reading. Howe says the most important element is to just do what feels right for you. “I went to a reading where the woman had me sit on the deck of cards for 15 minutes!” she laughs. “So whatever ritual makes the most sense for you that you feel like is letting you have access, you should just do that.”

She outlines her personal process for starting a reading thus: “I usually sit across from the person, but when I lay the cards out, they’re facing me. I like to talk to the person beforehand to get some context about what they’re working on. While I’m shuffling the cards and they’re talking, sometimes I start to get insights even then. I have them cut the deck, pick a pile, and then I have them lay the cards out from the pile that they’ve chosen. Then I usually give a minute just to settle, to let whatever’s going to come to the surface come up. A moment like that is when you have to shed a little self-consciousness, when you’re just sitting there not saying anything. It’s actually really important. It’s not going to matter once you start talking, they’re not going to think it’s weird anymore. You have to just figure out whatever it is that will make the reading flow the easiest.”

Whatever You Do, Don’t Panic

After hearing my story of the Death card, Howe let’s out a laugh. “I really love the Death card, it’s the one that always shows up in the movies,” she begins. “The Death card, in my experience, doesn’t actually mean death. It’s more about our fear of death and our fear of change. Change is really positive. I drew the Grim Reaper in this jungle atmosphere with all these plants and life and butterflies that symbolize change and transformation. Death is just the necessary component to transformation—you can’t become something else without the loss of something.” For this writer, maybe losing the fear of the Death card is exactly what needed to happen for me to reaccept the tarot. See, not spooky at all.

Rachel Howe’s Small Spells Tarot Deck is available at smallspells.com.

The Basic Structure of a Tarot Deck

When you shuffle a deck of tarot cards and lay them on the table, you’re actually putting an entire universe into motion. Every time you deal the cards, you’re creating a new reality—just as the planets and signs of astrology align to represent a new reality for every child born on Earth.

A typical tarot deck has seventy-eight cards. At first glance, the sheer number of cards can seem overwhelming—and some people spend years trying to memorize them, studying the symbols and signs of each image, and attempting to decode the hidden meanings of the deck.

While that’s a fascinating pursuit, you don’t need to devote countless hours to a study of the cards before you can read them. You just need to understand the structure of the deck.

The tarot’s seventy-eight cards are divided into two groups: the Major Arcana, which is Latin for “greater secrets,” and the Minor Arcana, which means “lesser secrets.”

The Major Arcana cards are the big-picture cards. They depict monumental, life-changing events and experiences, like falling in love, giving birth, starting a new job, or finding a new home. Sometimes, because the Major Arcana cards are so dramatic, the experiences they depict seem as if they’re outside our control.

The Minor Arcana cards, on the other hand, are the everyday cards. They picture ordinary people doing everyday things, like dancing, drinking, eating, and sleeping. The Minor Arcana cards are divided into four suits, just like a deck of ordinary playing cards. Each suit has ten numbered cards and four Court Cards, and each suit represents a separate area of life: spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical. As a whole, the Minor Arcana cards are just as important as the Major Arcana cards, because they show us how we live out big events on a day-to-day basis.

Together, the major and Minor Arcana cards combine to form a cosmology—a framework for seeing the world and for categorizing the human experience.

The structure and the symbolism of the tarot deck make it easy to study the human condition—and even to grasp some of life’s greatest mysteries.

The Major Arcana cards are the cards people tend to remember most after a tarot reading. That’s because Major Arcana cards are forceful and dramatic. They feature figures and characters that seem larger than life, and which just happen to correspond to the planets and signs of astrology.

The figures on the Major Arcana cards are archetypes—cosmic stereotypes that transcend the limits of time and place. They are the heroes of ancient myth and legend, and they still populate the lead roles in contemporary movies, television shows, plays, and books. Artists, writers, and musicians regularly tap into the waters of the collective unconscious for inspiration and explanations of the human condition. Psychotherapist Carl Jung believed that the symbols, myths, and archetypes that regularly appear in our dreams, our myths, and our stories all spring from that same source—which explains why so many people and cultures share similar legends and make use of the same symbols, regardless of time and place.

The Major Arcana cards all depict major events that can change one’s life. While we can classify them as cosmic mysteries, they’re not inexplicable puzzles: each one also depicts a life lesson that makes each mystery clear.

On a symbolic level, the Major Arcana cards are also mentors, teachers, and guides: they hold the keys to the mysteries of life, and they help guide our passage through every station of the journey.

The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, just like a deck of ordinary playing cards. Those four suits are usually called Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Depending on the deck you use, Wands also can be called Rods, Batons, Staffs, or Staves. Cups may be called Chalices. Swords may be called Blades, and Pentacles may be called Coins, Disks, Stones, Worlds, or Stars. Those subtle variations, however, don’t make any difference in how the cards are read.

While the Major Arcana cards depict the mysteries of life, the Minor Arcana cards show how you experience those mysteries on a daily basis. They depict the way you live your life, and how you manage the various facets of your existence.

Some people call the Minor Arcana the “pip” cards, because pips are the marks that indicate the suit or numerical value of a playing card—six hearts, for example, or seven diamonds.

In the tarot, however, pip cards take on a significance that most poker players would never dream of, because each one of the four suits corresponds to a separate area of life.

  • Wands cards symbolize spiritual life and inspiration.
  • Cups hold the secrets of emotional matters.
  • Swords illustrate intellectual concepts.
  • Pentacles represent the realities of physical and material existence.

There’s also a second, equally important layer of symbolism to consider—one that’s so simple, it’s elementary.

The four elements—fire, earth, air, and water—have played an important role in science and philosophy for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Greeks identified them as fundamental components of the physical world.

Obviously, modern science has changed our understanding of the universe. Even so, the four elements still serve as a useful psychological model. We often describe people as “fiery,” “airy,” or “earthy,” for example. Elemental associations are essential to an understanding of astrology, and they’re a fundamental component of some Eastern beliefs, too, such as feng shui.

In the tarot, each one of the four suits of the Minor Arcana is associated with one of the four elements, and each element corresponds to a separate area of life. The imagery on each card makes those associations easy to remember.

Wands, the fiery cards of spirit, are associated with passion and inspiration. In most tarot decks, Wands look like wooden branches that could be set on fire like a torch. Wands can be a source of illumination and, sometimes, they can spark an entire conflagration of ideas.

Cups, the watery cards of emotion, are associated with deeply felt affairs. Cups can hold water, of course. We also use Cups to hold other liquids with emotional significance: we toast each other in celebration. We commune with others during religious ceremonies and, sometimes, we even try to drown our sorrows.

Swords, the airy cards of the intellect, are associated with conscious awareness and communication. Swords symbolize our thoughts, ideas, and attempts to communicate. Swords, like words, move through the air. We even compare our words to the double-edged weapons when we say, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Pentacles, the earthy cards of material existence, are associated with the physical realities of life in our four-dimensional world. In most tarot decks, Pentacles look like coins with star-shaped designs. That pattern is symbolic of the human physical form. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man: his body, with arms outstretched and legs spread wide, creates the shape of a five-pointed star. Pentacles symbolize the tangible realities of physical existence: the things you can touch and feel, and the money you need to keep body and soul together. Pentacles also symbolize spiritual and emotional treasures, including the values you hold dear, the traditions you cherish, and the people you love most.

Those people, by the way, have their own place in the structure of the tarot deck.

Each suit in the Minor Arcana has a set of four Court Cards: a page, a knight, a queen, and a king. Depending on the deck you use, the Court Cards could have other titles. Crowley’s royal families in the Thoth tarot, for example, consist of princesses, princes, queens, and knights. The cards themselves are roughly equivalent between decks, as long as you can keep their respective hierarchies straight in your mind.

The four members constitute an ideal family on a symbolic level: a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. Some of the Court Cards are masculine, and some are feminine. Some are active, and some are receptive. Together, the sixteen Court Cards are well suited to reign over the four realms of the tarot—spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical—and to describe the unique combinations of qualities and characteristics that make up your personality.

Pages, knaves, and princesses are young and enthusiastic. They are students and messengers, children who must learn the fundamentals of the family’s rule. During the Renaissance, pages were the youngest members of the royal court. It was their job to study—and to run errands, like ferrying messages from one person to another.
When pages show up in a tarot reading, they typically represent young people, students, or messages.

Knights. When pages grow to the age of knighthood, they must be tested. They’re expected to embark on a quest, master a challenge, and demonstrate that they are not only strong enough and smart enough to succeed, but also that they can live up to the family’s heritage. Historically, knights were rescuers and adventurers.

When knights show up in a tarot reading, they may suggest that a new quest or adventure is about to begin, or that rescue is on its way.

Queens. As adults, both men and women ascend to the throne, where they control the monarchy. Generally speaking, the tarot’s queens are all mature women who tap into their feminine qualities to safeguard, nurture, and protect their realms. Queens are stereotypically female; they represent ideal women. They are compassionate, creative, receptive, empathic, and intuitive. They also are able to exert their power behind the scenes, convincing—or cajoling—others to adopt their point of view.

When queens show up in a reading, they often suggest that a similarly caring person will be working to safeguard, nurture, and protect your realm.

It’s interesting to note that in Crowley’s Thoth tarot, the transfer of power from one generation to the next takes on a complicated, soap-opera quality, as the Court Cards battle it out for power and authority. In an endless, overlapping cycle, the princes fight the knights for the throne. When a prince vanquishes the knight, he marries the princess, and she assumes the throne of her mother, the queen. And then, the cycle repeats.

Kings. The tarot’s four kings are protectors, providers, and seasoned, experienced leaders. All four successfully managed to complete the mission they undertook as knights. They are skilled commanders, confident in the knowledge they acquired during their quests. They are also stereotypically masculine: they are authoritarian, assertive, and alert. They can even be aggressive. They guard their kingdoms with passion and force, and they’re not afraid to make executive decisions.

When kings show up in a reading, they may suggest that someone is willing to mount an aggressive defense or even wage war on your behalf.

Other Sources: “Tarot and Astrology: Enhance Your Readings with the Wisdom of the Zodiac” by Corrine Kenner; The Beginners Guide to Divination” by ???; “The Ultimate Guide to Tarot” by ???; “Tarot and Astrology” by ???; Astrology.com;