So you want to get started with tarot but either feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to start. I was just like you, before the slippery slope into a gazillion tarot decks and “I’ve got a tarot spread for that!” This article will give you a quick start and some tips on how to learn to work with the tarot without having to know everything or read a million books.
What deck should I start with?
It’s always a good idea to start with the good old Rider Waite Smith, since most beginning tarot books still reference that, and if you google “what does x card mean?” you’re likely to get an answer that shows the RWS card concerned. Many people don’t resonate with the original RWS because of the christian imagery, the medieval pictures, or the lack of non-binary representation. I wasn’t that fond of it myself, but that worked great, because it was useful to have a reference deck that I was NOT going to read with, so I could keep the cards in order so I could study with it. I even printed out the meanings of the cards and stuck them on the back of the cards, which meant that I could use them like flash cards and when I couldn’t figure out the meaning of a card I could just flip it over instead of digging out a book. The print was small enough that I wouldn’t read it while I was shuffling them.
Having said that, I also wanted a deck that I really loved, even if it might not be the easiest to read with. This turned out to be a great choice, because having two decks ended up being a great learning tool, as I’ll describe below.
But first, let’s learn how to get around the basics of a tarot deck
The tarot deck has three different types of cards: the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana, and the Court Cards. This is what makes a tarot deck a tarot deck and not an oracle card deck — an oracle card deck does not have to stick to this structure and can have cards that mean anything they want.
The Major Arcana are like major players on a stage. They’re the archetypes of humanity and the major processes of living; the Fool, the Priestess, The Wheel of Fortune, Death, Judgement. When you pull these, they refer to major ways of being or forces in your life.
The Minor Arcana are the nitty gritty situations in all the areas of our lives: going out with friends, feeling lost in the cold, moving on from a bad relationship. These cards can reflect situations you’re going through, identify challenges, or suggest solutions.
The Court cards are either people, energy types or stages of being. They may or may not look like people depending on your deck, and just because they have a particular gender doesn’t restrict them to that gender–it’s more of an energetic yin/yang thing. This is one area where the people have issue with the standard RWS–if tarot is non-binary, why does everyone look so cis-normative? Representation matters, and there are plenty of newer, more diverse decks to choose from (or ones that don’t have people at all). People often have difficulty reading the court cards, and there’s plenty written about them. For the moment, just remember they can represent either people, or a way of being (for example, knight of cups is someone who ventures out after some romantic goal).
While the minors can be overwhelming, it helps to look under the hood and get a little geeky about the structure of the tarot. There are four suits of minors: Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles. They refer to the different areas of your life: energy/spirit, thoughts/communication, emotions/relationships, and money/tangible matters. The suits also each tell a story, starting from the beginning at 1, though the often agonizing middle of the 5, and to the complete end at the 10 (actually 9 is pretty much the end and 10 is the aftermath.) Each number has a meaning (for example 2 refers to pairs, couples, duality, and threes are about creating something new or adding something into the mix.
So, you can get a general read on a card based on its number and suit. For example, the Two of Cups will be about some binary relating to love or relationships–and, surprise, most decks often show two people having a cup of wine together as aa relationship blossoms. This is a good way to learn how to read intuitively, because if you look up the “meaning” of a card, you’ll often get a whole list of meanings. How do you know which is right? If you have the way more general numerological/suit meaning in your mind, you’ll have an easier time feeling out what pulling the card means to you at that time, and it won’t restrict you to the first narrow “meaning” you might find. There’ll be an example of this below.
How to learn the tarot card meanings — compare between two decks
If you figure the tarot has 78 cards, and that some people read them differently upside down, that’s 156 different meanings. Yikes! Memorizing things as unrelated points of information is a difficult process, and not the best way to go about things. Instead, if you work with two decks and compare the same card from both decks, it’s much easier to learn and retain the meaning because you’re using more of your brain to ask “how can these two cards say the same thing? It’s especially helpful if one of the decks you’re using is quite different or more abstract than the other.
I absolutely love The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans, which by itself could be difficult to work with as a new reader because the pictures are often quite abstract. But working with it alongside the RWS lets us learn quicker than we would from each deck alone. As an aside, the quality of the deck for the price is amazing, and also Carrie Mallon has a great series of blog posts on the “unofficial” meanings of the cards here.
Let’s look at the Four of Pentacles from both decks:
The traditional read of the RWS card is someone being stingy or miserly. Look at that guy! It’s hard to come up with any other meaning. But what the heck is going on in the TWU card? We know it’s the four, which is a number of stability, and pentacles is about money or resources. AHA. Stability of money and resources can be a good thing; we can’t do much of anything unless we have a stable place to live and enough money to buy food. Those four pentacles wound with string make a nice bright nest, don’t they? Yet, you can see how that structure could be restricting. Maybe you’re all set but don’t reach out to or help others, or you don’t let anyone share what you have. Maybe you’re cranky because you feel like you’re outgrowing your surroundings. There you have it–both the “positive” and “negative” reading of the card, from which you can choose what makes the most sense for you when you pick it.
Now that you have a tarot deck, how do you use it?
Most people go to the tarot because they want to know something. Either they have a question, or maybe their life just sucks and they need to figure out a new plan. The most important thing is to realize that you have the ultimate power over your own life, and anything the tarot might show you is to give you the information you need to create the future you want. Tarot doesn’t “tell the future” in a way that can’t be changed. You could argue that there’s nothing magic at all about the tarot and that because the cards represent the entirety of human existence, any cards you pick will be meaningful. Yet, it’s amazing how just the “right” card will pop up, or one card will stalk you despite any rational understanding of probability.
Just as important as free will is asking the right question. Don’t ask yes or no questions, because you will not get any information that you will be able to act upon. The best questions are things like “How can I,” or “What will it be like if…” or the old standby “What do I need to know…” Often, you’ll find that if you ask the right question you’ll suddenly know the answer. Also, don’t ask dumb questions (there’s a standard tarot joke along the line of someone asking “will my ex boyfriend from 30 years ago who cheated on me five times and moved to Siberia and who I haven’t heard from ever again COME BACK TO ME?”
Instead of asking questions of your deck, you can get to know it by doing what’s called a “daily draw.” Pull a card at the beginning of the day, and play a game of guessing how that could relate to what might happen during the day, or how you might want to approach the day. Don’t forget to check in at the end of the day, and write down anything you’ve noted.
You’ll likely want to start with simple “spreads.” Spreads are arrangements of cards where each position represents a specific thing. This makes it easier to narrow down what each card might “mean.” For example, a few spreads using three cards in a row are “Past, Present, Future,” “Situation, Challenge, Result,” or “Mind, Body, Spirit.” If you were trying to pick between two jobs, you could ask “What will taking this job be like,” and pull a card for each job.
It’s often hard to have enough questions to ask of yourself to get any good amount of practice, so don’t try! You can read for characters on TV, for a teddy bear or other stuffy (mine evidenced serious issues including some amount of kink), or you can just pretend you’re doing a reading for someone else as practice. Even if you’re asking the same question you’ll likely come up with a different story or answer from the cards, and this is amazingly good practice.
My favorite tarot decks
Ah, this is like picking a favorite child, except that I can have way more tarot decks than I could ever gestate humans). There are SO many beautiful decks out there that fit different moods and questions, so in one sense there’s no pressure to pick the right one because you can (and likely will) just get another (and another…)
As I said before, the RWS isn’t very “modern” looking and is very gendered. My favorite modern, diverse deck that I’d recommend as a go-to is currently the This Might Hurt Tarot. The Modern Witch Tarot is somewhat similar, though I like the card stock and coloration of the This Might Hurt better.
If you’re looking for something that is really queer-friendly and non-binary, you can’t do better than the Fyodor Pavlov Tarot. There are other LGBTQ+ friendly decks out there, but this one is amazing. It’s not just about modern-looking diversity for diversity’s sake — the style of the deck is quite classical, and the idea of the deck is to include queer and non-binary people as if they’ve always existed, which is totally radical — because they have, of course. Pavlov is trans and the illustration on the Six of Cups, which is him walking with his young, female self makes my heart thump every time I see it.
And for a deck that doesn’t rely on human imagery, I very much love The Gentle Tarot. Like the name suggests, it’s a big hug of a deck. The cards this deck gave me when I asked, years ago, if my dog was going to pass away (Note: do NOT ask if your dog is going to die, because you probably already know the answer, and ok it was a really reassuring and poignant reading, but STILL.)
One more thing — DO NOT BUY fake tarot decks
You’ve been warned! Sites like Wish and Temu and Amazon (yes, even Amazon) are full of decks that are made from artwork stolen from the artists and publishers. If they’re “too cheap to be true” they probably are. You can also often spot a fake deck if it doesn’t come with a print guidebook and only a “PDF guidebook.” Even some metaphysical stores might be stocking “fake” decks intentionally or unintentionally.
Yes, they’re cheaper, but don’t do it. Some artist spent a huge portion of their lives painting or drawing 78 pieces of art, and WRITING A DAMN GUIDEBOOK. They deserve your money. Someone who scans in the art and the guidebook and fakes a box and sells the deck for $10 is stealing from the artist. This is amazingly common now, and a lot of tarot artists are deciding to no longer keep publishing decks because they’re not making a lot of money off them to begin with and having heir artwork stolen and resold cuts into what they make as well as sucking horribly.
It’s also worth watching out for decks created with AI (artificial intelligence) that may have been made by feeding someone else’s art into a program to make something “new.” While there’s a huge argument over whether AI art is “real” or not, that’s not really relevant as long as you’re not depriving an artist of what’s due to them. It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out whether a deck is legitimate or not. Check whether the publisher is for real, and if the deck is packaged as it should be. You can search on YouTube for deck unboxing that will show you how a deck comes packaged from the authentic publisher. You can also often reach out to the artist themselves!