Tarot as collaborative storytelling
This is a short tutorial about how to participate in a Tarot reading, both as the person reading the cards, and as the person on whose behalf the cards are being read. The purpose of the tutorial is to demonstrate that a Tarot reading is a kind of collaborative storytelling in which two individuals help one another build a narrative from set of symbols and tropes, randomly drawn from the Tarot deck. In this way, a Tarot reading is very similar to the other subjective and collaborative storytelling games we’ve discussed in class, like Once Upon a Time and Story War.
The symbolism, semiotics and culture of Tarot have been finely honed over hundreds of years specifically to produce a feeling of spooky serendipity, which is one of the strengths (and drawbacks) of using Tarot for collaborative storytelling. A strength, because it can produce a visceral sense of uncanniness; a drawback, because this effect can be offputting or even feel threatening to some individuals. My choice to focus purely on the structure and mechanisms of reading Tarot in this tutorial isn’t meant to deny or minimize the role of ritual and mysticism so often associated with the practice, but instead to make Tarot more accessible for readers and querents of all backgrounds (especially in the context of a college course).
Disclaimer: I am a student of Tarot but not an expert! The following is based only on my own understanding, which continues to grow and change. My intention is to help my students (and hopefully other newcomers) to grasp basic concepts and practices of Tarot, not to be a categorical or authoritative source of information. I defer to the experts wherever my facts diverge from theirs.
What is Tarot?
The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, divided into two types: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The 56 Minor Arcana resemble traditional playing cards: there are four suits, each with ten numbered cards (ace through ten) and four “court cards” (page, knight, queen and king). The 22 Major Arcana are numbered from one to twenty one, and individually named; they don’t belong to a suit. (One of the Major Arcana, the Fool, has no number.)
The origin of the Tarot is unclear, though it likely has its origins in a trick-taking card game that became popular in northern Italy in the 15th century. Cartomancy has been widespread as a folk practice for hundreds of years (or more), and there are indications that the Tarot cards were used for divination as early as the sixteenth century, but the practice came to wider cultural attention in the late 1800s, starting with the publication of Gébelin’s Le Monde Primitif. Much of the cultural associations that we have with Tarot (e.g., its supposed Egyptian origins, its occult symbolism, and its use in divination) are relatively recent, dating back only to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875) and Aleister Crowley (1875–1947) are two key figures in Tarot practice from that era.
There has never been a “standard” set of illustrations or significations for Tarot cards, and today there are thousands of different Tarot decks in commercial production, each with their own opinions on what the cards should look like and what they mean. Different decks may even have different names for the suits, the Major Arcana, and the court cards.
Every individual approaches Tarot differently, and there’s no one “right way” to use the cards. However, there are some well-known and widely-accepted methods and associations for the cards that are useful for newcomers to know about.
As mentioned previously, there are 22 “Major Arcana” and 56 “Minor Arcana” in the Tarot deck. Each one of these cards has a cluster of traditional meanings and significations, along with commonly-accepted ideas about what the illustration on the card should look like or depict. In some cases, the “meaning” of a card follows logically from the card’s name and illustration (e.g., The Emperor indicates a person with masculine energy in a position of authority), but in other cases the meaning of a card is more arcane and must be memorized by rote (e.g., the Moon indicates anxiety and illusion).
The Minor Arcana are divided into four suits (Wands, Cups, Swords and Discs), each of which has commonly-accepted associations:
- Wands: element of fire; will and action
- Cups: element of water; emotions
- Swords: element of air; ideas, mind and intellect
- Discs (also called Coins or Pentacles): element of earth; the body and money
Some Tarot commentators also assign classes of meanings to the “ranks” of the Minor Arcana, saying that (e.g.) aces indicate beginnings, twos indicate balance, threes indicate completion, etc. Using these correspondences the meaning of any Minor Arcana card can be determined by composing the meaning of the suit and the meaning of the rank, so that the Ace of Swords would be taken to mean “the beginning of an idea.” (In my opinion, such systems are only mnemonic, and each Minor Arcana card has its own unique signification that goes beyond the combination of its suit and rank.)
The court cards (i.e., the page, knight, queen and king of each suit) are notoriously difficult to interpret, though they’re usually thought to represent specific individuals that embody the signification of the individual depicted on the card and its suit. So, for example, the appearance of the Queen of Cups in a reading would indicate the presence or importance of an emotional woman in a position of authority.
Oh wow. That is a lot of stuff to remember.
You don’t need to have memorized all of the traditional significations of the Tarot cards in order to do a reading. In fact, you don’t need to know the traditional meanings of the cards at all; you can rely on your own instincts, or simply on the scenes and people the cards depict on their face, the same way you would interpret, say, Dixit cards.
If you want, you can consult any one of the many books or web sites that have lists of card meanings. Almost any book on Tarot will have an index with card meanings, and doing a web search for “[name of card] tarot meaning” will always return many thousands of results.
For online resources, I recommend Mark McElroy’s Guide to Tarot Meanings, available for free as a text file here. (Mark’s book is easy to understand, ad-free and in the public domain.) I also find Little Red Tarot to be invaluable, especially their posts on Queering the Tarot. My favorite book for Tarot beginners is Mary K. Greer’s Tarot for Your Self.
To perform a Tarot reading, you first need to choose a spread. A Tarot spread consists of a visual layout of how to position cards on the table, along with a meaning for each position in the layout. The most well-known Tarot spread is probably the Celtic Cross, but there are many others, and many readers invent their own spreads or create a new spread for every reading. The Aeclectic Tarot Forum has an extensive list of user-submitted spreads for nearly every conceivable use and occasion. Mary K. Greer has a great list of simple three card spreads).
A spread can consist of a single card, a handful of cards, or as many cards as there are in the deck. In addition to indicating positions and meanings for the cards, the description of a spread usually also includes instructions on how it’s to be used: who should participate in the reading, whether or not a particular question should be asked before performing the reading, what kinds of answers the reading is supposed to supply. The spread we’ll be using is called the “Horseshoe spread”; read on for more details.
In a Tarot reading, the interpretation of a card depends on the juxtaposition of three elements:
- The meaning of the card
- The meaning of the position in the spread
- The situation at hand (i.e., the subject of the reading)
The effect of this threefold juxtaposition of elements is to cast the situation in a different light. In this way, a Tarot reading functions as a kind of poetic metaphor, challenging you to understand one idea (aspects of the situation at hand) in terms of another (the meaning of the card in its position), and in the process consider characteristics of both that you might not have thought of otherwise.
In most Tarot spreads, the cards are drawn at random from the deck, and as a consequence each reading is different. In my own practice, I like to think of Tarot readings in terms of the story of the Blind men and the elephant: each reading gives you a new perspective, a new sensation, about the underlying nature of the situation.
Traditional Tarot readings are similar to interpersonal conversations or conventional talk therapy sessions, with the additional imposed framework of the spread, which gives the interaction forward momentum and a particular goal to work toward. A reading has two parties: a querent (the person asking a question) and a reader (the person that handles the cards and guides the interpretation of the reading). The querent and the reader might be the same person (such as when you’re doing a reading for yourself); it’s also possible to perform a reading for multiple querents, or with several readers working in collaboration. The goal of a reading is to help the querent achieve greater insight about a situation in their life that is troubling them.
It takes skill and practice to be a successful and fluent reader. But it also takes skill and practice to be the querent. Before performing either role, it’s helpful to have some context and ground rules.
A helpful tip for both beginning readers and first-time querents: leave your skepticism out of it! Tarot isn’t a magic trick, and it’s not your role to “debunk” it or show that it has no mystical properties. If you’re a skeptic, you’ll be tempted to say that any serendipitous insights that present themselves in your reading as “coincidence.” And yes, that’s exactly the purpose of doing a Tarot reading: to create that feeling of coincidence, and to use it as a means of examining your own unstated (and perhaps subconscious) feelings and expectations.
Readers and querents
The role of the reader is to handle the cards, and to know how the spread operates, and to present the meaning of the cards to the querent. (If you’re just starting out, being the reader means spending a lot of time looking up card meanings while the reading is in progress.) The reader is also responsible for finding and pointing out patterns and commonalities across the cards in the reading, such as the frequency of cards in a particular suit or cards that evoke similar themes. Beyond this, the reader’s role is to keep the querent engaged throughout the reading by encouraging them to “close the gap” between the signification of the card and some element of whatever concern the querent brings to the reading, and suggesting fresh approaches whenever that process reaches a dead end.
But the success of the reading is not solely the responsibility of the reader! The querent is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the reading goes smoothly and must also take an active and creative role. Although the querent isn’t expected to have a detailed knowledge of the cards or the details of the spread, they are expected to do the work of connecting the card, through the spread, to their own experiences. This can sometimes be exhausting work, both mentally and emotionally. The querent is also ultimately responsible for “synthesizing” the reading and incorporating anything it reveals into their own life.
The horseshoe spread
In my opinion, a good spread for beginners is the Horseshoe spread. The spread involves eight cards, which is enough to produce interesting synergies and patterns between them, and each position in the spread has an evocative meaning that invites interesting interpretations.
Here’s the layout:
1 S 7 2 6 3 4 5
And here’s a guide to what each of the positions in the spread mean:
- Significator (S). This card represents the querent in this situation.
- The past (1). Refers to circumstances or events in the past that are relevant or still in effect.
- The present (2). Events currently in progress that are related to the querent’s inquiry.
- What is hidden (3). Events or individuals that are relevant to the situation at hand, but currently unknown to the querent.
- Obstacles and challenges (4). Factors that hinder the querent.
- Surroundings (5). Factors that surround the querent (home, relationships, employment, etc.)
- Advice (6). Indicates what the querent should do.
- Outcome (7). The potential outcome of the situation.
To perform this reading, the reader or querent should shuffle the cards; the reader then places cards, face down, in all eight positions. After all cards have been dealt, the reader turns them over, one by one, interpreting the meaning of the card in relation to its position in the spread. While the reading is in progress, both the reader and querent should feel free to discuss what the cards are “saying” to them. When you’ve reached the outcome, engage in a more detailed discussion about what the spread means.
Other uses of the Tarot
Performing the divinatory/interpretive “readings” discussed above is only one of the ways to use Tarot cards. Here are some links to descriptions of other uses.
- Story generation games and Tarot; Tarot as a tool for writing your novel
- You can actually play card games with Tarot cards. Here’s a good overview of the rules for the traditional trick-taking Tarot/Tarok/Tarocchi game. See also the “Tarot Games” tag on Mary K. Greer’s blog
- Alice Notley and CAConrad discuss the use of Tarot in composing poetry
- Meditation and Tarot
Further reading and resources
- Books that have been helpful to me in learning Tarot: Mary K. Greer’s Tarot for Your Self; Jana Reilly’s Tarot Dictionary and Compendium; Vicki Noble’s Rituals and Practices with Motherpeace Tarot.
- Sacred Texts has a good collection of books about Tarot in the public domain from the Belle Époque. This includes A. E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which is the original source for the Pamela Colman Smith illustrations that are perhaps most closely associated with the Tarot in contemporary culture.
- Fool’s Dog produces a number of Tarot apps for mobile phones. These apps feature high-quality reproductions of cards in many dozens of decks, and easy-to-use reading modes that do a good job of reproducing the feeling of doing a reading with physical cards. The apps also include the interpretive books that come with the decks they’re based on. I personally recommend The Classic 1910 Tarot.
- If you want to buy a deck of your own, but you’re not sure where to start, read this list of tips from Biddy Tarot. My deck for daily readings is the Albano-Waite Deck from U.S. Games. The Steampunk Tarot is another attractive deck that is friendly for beginners.
- Mary K. Greer’s blog is fantastic. If you’re interested in the history of Tarot and cartomancy (divination with cards) in general, see this post.