Getting to know the cards – Part 1

So last week we talked about getting your cards, but what should you do when you get your new deck home? Well let’s go over some things you can do to get acquainted with your Tarot which should help you prepare to start reading them. 

Examining the deck – What do you see?

This is my usual starting point for any new deck I get, whether it’s a deck of playing cards, an oracle or a Tarot deck. I enjoy the tactile feeling of looking through my cards, and generally having cards and books in my hands.

With a tarot deck there will be a lot of symbolism to unpack, but this is more about generally looking through. What aspect of the cards draws your attention first and foremost? What do you feel when you look at each card?

The thing to remember is that the cards aren’t inherently bad or good on their own, it all comes down to context. In a reading that context is dependent heavily on the type of spread, the cards position, the cards surrounding it, and the question. As you take the time to go through each card in turn, spend no more than a minute with each. This is more of an icebreaker exercise and it doesn’t need to be long or drawn out. Think of it as an introduction, handing the cards and getting a feel for them also lets them get a feel for you.

Looking through the guide book

The next thing I like to do once I’ve introduced myself to my new deck, is place them down beside me and look through the guide book.

As discussed previously, most decks will come with their own. Although you do not need to use the one the cards come with when learning to read, I would highly recommend at least taking some time to familiarise yourself with the meanings listed within. 

When working with any oracle that uses symbolism to convey a message, there is a fair amount of wriggle room for how they can be interpreted. Reviewing the guide provided by the deck’s author can help give you some insight into the deck’s personality, and in my experience some cards are better suited to certain readings. I will talk about this in the future; for now we’re just getting started. 

Your guide book will usually be split into several sections, with the main parts focusing on the 22 Major Arcana cards, and then individual chapters for each Minor Arcana suit which contain 14 cards each. As well as these, most guides will include a small chapter with spreads and sometimes even an example reading. Common ones you can expect to see will be the single card reading, three cards for past, present and future, and most often in my experience the celtic cross or some variation of the 12 months ahead spread. 

There are many spreads you can use, and you are not restricted to the ones in your guide book. When doing in depth readings myself, my preference is for a 14 card spread that I was taught by a friend with a strong family history of practising the tarot. For more generalised readings I have my own expanded version of the single card draw which I’ve found to be fairly useful. 

One of the best ways to start using your guide book is to look for the keywords, all of the cards have basic summaries of their meanings. These can be expressed in a handful of keywords for it’s upright, and for it’s reversed meanings. Pick a card which caught your attention to start, it doesn’t matter which; although I would recommend using a Major Arcana card to begin.

Take a closer look at the card’s image, and then look at the keywords for it. Can you see anything in the card’s picture that would link up to the associated meaning?

This exercise can take a while, but I found it particularly useful when I was starting out. It’s an approach I worked out on my own, and I have not seen it suggested in any book, yet. The main idea is to build a mental map of what messages the cards typically convey. As you work through the cards, it should become easier.

Finding patterns

When working with the Minor Arcana you’ll find the symbolism is more repetitive than those in the Major Arcana. Every sword card will show you the corresponding number of swords, much in the same way you get pips on a normal playing card. The exception will of course be the court cards.

In a Tarot deck you will have four court cards for each suit instead of the three you’re familiar with. Like normal cards, you will have a King and a Queen, however instead of a Jack traditionally you will see a Knight and a Page.

As you look through the suits, most decks will have a colour scheme which is prevalent throughout. Although this is not always the case, with some decks having unique details instead if this fits the deck’s theme better. It is worth taking the time to look for these patterns, as each suit is linked to a particular area. The things to generally look for with the suits of Wands and Cups are the orientation are they pointing up or are they upside down? The other two suits are more varied generally, in particular the suit of Pentacles, where it will need to rely on the backgrounds more often than not. The symbolism of the Swords suit is more tied up with what the swords are pointing at in my experience.

These are simply generalisations based upon the decks I have worked with, not all decks will have this type of symbolism. Some older cards are closer to playing cards and simply show an arrangement of the suit, without a full picture like you find on the Major Arcana. At a later date I will likely write a post focusing on the symbolism used in my oldest deck. For now let’s focus on finding meanings. 

General Associations for the cards

One of the things that I found helpful when I started learning how to read the cards was their relationship with another form of divination. That of the western zodiac.

Each of the Major Arcana cards has a link to a planet and/or sign in Astrology which can help you get a more indepth for the card and even help with interpreting it.

For example, we can take one of the more infamous cards, the ‘Death’ card, which has, in newer decks, had its name changed to ‘transformation’. As an update to the tarot I find this to be a very interesting idea, as this card is linked to the sign of Scorpio. In turn the planet Pluto is the ruler of Scorpio, and in mythology is the name for the Roman God of the underworld, and is the equivalent of the Greek God Hades.

As you can see, with just this one card we can branch into Astrology, and Mythology to learn more about the concepts it represents. The change of name to ‘transformation’ works well, because Pluto in astrology is a planet that represents this concept.

Now let’s look at the Minor Arcana and how they relate to Astrology. In their case each suit is linked to one of the four classical elements, in the same way the Zodiac is broken into four groups of three signs each linked to one of those elements. Knowing about these can help you build a picture of the focus of a spread’s message.

Starting with Wands, we have fire. As such these cards are generally associated with passion, ambition, and creativity. All concepts that the fire signs are known for. In a deck of playing cards they equate to the suit of clubs, which is also another name for the suit of wands.

Next we will move onto Pentacles, also known as coins which relates to the element of earth. As you’d expect they are generally associated with financial and career matters. It’s not uncommon to see plants and harvest imagery on these cards. As you would probably expect they are analogous to the suit of diamonds.

Swords are linked to Air, and the playing card suit of spades. These cards are more focused on matters of the mind, communication and in some cases even education. Out of all the cards in tarot I find the swords cards can be changed the most in a contextual sense. I attribute this to the idea of the double edged sword; something can be good in one situation but a liability in another. If you see a lot of swords in a spread I’d pay extra careful attention when interpreting them.

Finally we’re left with the suit of cups, which is linked to the remaining element of water and the suit of hearts. This is especially fitting for the suit of relationships.Water in astrology is associated with emotions. However, the cups cards talk about any sort of relationship not just the romantic sort. If they appear in close proximity to a pentacles card they could be drawing our attention to a career related relationship. Whereas if it is paired with a card from the suit of wands this could be more to do with how we interact with people who share our passions and hobbies.

The important thing to remember is that the meanings aren’t completely set in stone; the meanings listed in your guide book are the cards in isolation. When reading a spread of multiple cards you need to take into account the position, and the cards touching it.

Next week I’ll talk more about bonding with your cards, but the topics discussed today should help you to build a solid foundation to build up from.

As always, thank you for joining me.

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