How to Interpret Tarot Cards: A Beginner’s Handbook

Updated October 15, 2021
deck of tarot cards and mineral stones

Learning to interpret tarot cards requires intuition and familiarity with what each of the 78 tarot cards symbolizes. There is no right or wrong. Eventually, every tarot card interpreter or reader develops a technique they're comfortable with. However, in the beginning, there's just you, your tarot cards, and your tarot journal. This beginner's handbook is a step-by-step process that can jump-start interpreting tarot cards for others.

Choosing Your Tarot Deck

When interpreting tarot cards, you'll be creating stories using the image symbols of the deck. This means choosing a deck whose artwork resonates with you is essential. Each of the many decks available has its own unique artwork, but the most common deck and a great way to begin is with the Rider-Waite deck.

Get to Know Your Tarot Cards

Woman is reading Tarot cards

Open your deck, handle, study, and meditate on each card. Ask yourself what each card's artwork intuitively says to you. Write these intuitions down in a tarot journal before reading the card interpretations that generally come with a new deck of tarot cards. Reading tarot takes a personal understanding of each card, making friends with your tarot deck, and establishing rituals.

Shuffle Your Cards

Physically handling your deck while shuffling is a great way to connect with your deck and bring yourself into the cards. While shuffling, carefully think about the area of your life you're seeking more clarity on. Shuffle as many times as you feel necessary to get the cards "cleared." Then cut the deck into 3 piles to reorder the cards. When you feel connected and ready, it's time for your first personal tarot reading. (Note: beginners should always record everything in a tarot journal.)

Spreading Your Cards

Tarot spreads provide a structure for exploring your question. Each position in a spread reflects an aspect of the question under consideration. There are many tarot card layouts, but it's best to begin with a 3-card spread.

A Daily 3-Card Draw

Three Card Spread

Learning to read tarot takes patience and practice, practice, and more practice. A daily 3-card spread is a simple reading you can use daily to familiarize yourself with the cards as you learn to weave the cards into a coherent story.

  • Place the top card face down in the card 1 position. The number one position represents a daily message from above.
  • Place the second card face down on the right. The number 2 position represents what you will consciously bring to the day.
  • Place the third card face down on the left. The number 3 position reveals the subconscious programming you bring to the day.
  • Starting with card one, turn the cards face up one at a time.

Your Immediate Reaction

When you're doing a reading, the first thing you need to do is scan your layout and absorb your immediate reactions to the images. Use your intuition and consider things like emotions, feelings, objects, and symbols. Give yourself time to contemplate the order of the cards, allow yourself to feel their energy, and see if you can find an overall theme to the layout. This puts your intuitive powers to work before you even begin to look at individual card meanings. It's this technique that will help you develop a personal interpretation of every spread.

Interpreting the Tarot Cards

A Tarot deck has 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana. Each card has a traditional meaning.

Interpreting the Major Arcana

Set of 22 tarot major arcana

The Major Arcana cards tend to garner the most attention in a tarot reading. Major Arcana cards include 21 numbered cards and 1 unnumbered card (the Fool). What a beginner needs to know about these cards is that they pertain to major happenings in life.

  • Cards zero through five: These cards signal a variety of beginnings.
  • Cards six through 11: These cards focus on the way we apply the lessons we've learned to each new challenge we face. They tend to appear in readings related to making an important choice that sets the future course of a life, such as decisions about marriage and careers.
  • Cards 12 through 16: These cards show your struggles and reveal something about how you face them as well as what you learn from them.
  • Cards 17 through 21: These cards view issues from a broader perspective, rather than just by how issues personally affect you.

What the Minor Arcana Reveals

The Minor Arcana contains 40 numbered cards and 16 Court cards. What a beginner needs to know about these cards is that they pertain to everyday events and people in your life. The Minor Arcana has four suits, and each represents an area of life.

  • Wands represent fire, action, and enterprise.
  • Cups deal with emotional matters.
  • Swords deal with intellect, decisions, and conflict.
  • Pentacles are mainly about work, money, and achievement.
  • Court Cards represent a person--either yourself or someone else. They reflect personality traits and characteristics and give insight into motives.

Upright or Reversed

As a beginner, it is best to read all the cards as if they were upright. However, once you're more familiar with each card, you can begin reading reversed cards. Upright cards facing you project the typical meaning assigned to each card. When reversed, or facing upside down and away from you, the cards take on an opposite connotation from their original meaning. This reversed meaning shouldn't automatically be interpreted as a negative. This depends on its position in the complete layout.

How to Read Scary Tarot Cards

Bad Luck tarot cards

When you first begin reading tarot cards, you can gasp when you see a card in the spread whose imagery unnerves you. The truth is that spooky tarot cards all carry important messages and are some of the most useful cards in a reading. These cards are meant to draw your attention to hidden enemies, poorly constructed plans, bad habits, weaknesses in yourself and others, and the potential for significant change. Insights such as these can be disconcerting at times, but they can lead to personal growth.

Card Combinations

Perhaps even more important than the meaning of any individual card is the meaning each card takes on in relationship to each other as part of an entire spread. The cards in a spread can be compared to adjoining paragraphs in a book chapter. The reading should make sense and have a flow that leads to a conclusion.

Ending Your Reading

Conclude your tarot reading with a short summary of the pithiest points in the reading. What do you most want yourself or the person you're reading for to remember about the tarot interpretation? What is the most significant thing(s) that should be kept in mind going forward?

Tarot Cards As a Valued Friend

Keep in mind that once you've developed a relationship with the cards, they will tell you secrets. So, treat them as you would a valued friend who you can always count on to "tell it like it is."

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How to Interpret Tarot Cards: A Beginner’s Handbook