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by Dr Adrian Vaughan Hillman
So What if You Want to Learn Tarot Reading?
You need a deck and a guide book. In general the two should be bought together since the book will invariably be related to a deck of cards.
If you are superstitious, there is a tradition that you should not actually buy your tarot pack for yourself. You should choose which deck you want and then get somebody else to buy it for you. Like all superstitions, there is a logical basis to this that has been lost in time. In an ideal world it is best not to buy a Tarot pack. You should make your own cards, individually crafting each one with contemplation and love. The Tarot will be your Tarot, a part of you and you will be bonded with it. For this reason many authors, whilst recommending a Tarot pack, often their own Tarot pack, will tell you that a part of the initiation into the Tarot is a meditation on each card in turn. During these meditations you should try to feel the cards and their significance in the complex game of life chess that I have described. One idea that works very well is that of writing down your own thoughts and colouring the black and white pictures of the cards as they are displayed in your guide book. You may well need to run these outline drawings through a copier due to the poor quality of the paper used in the majority of books but there is one book, The Mythic Tarot Workbook, which is actually designed to be used in this way.
Choosing a deck is maybe the most important things that you need to do. There are three basic sorts of deck available in a variety of larger bookstores and New Age shops. Each type of tarot deck works and your choice is partly dependant on how you have approached the Tarot.
My preference is the traditional category of Tarot packs that were designed by Kabbalists. The classic is the Rider Waite deck. The Rider Waite deck looks unfortunately bland due to the fact that it was produced in with a very limited colour palate. There have been many adaptations of the symbology of this pack. I personally use one of the many decks that fall into this category, the Hanson-Roberts deck which is closely based on this source pack but beautifully illustrated.
Of the other Tarot packs that were designed by Kabbalists, the two most famous are the Golden Dawn and Thoth decks. Both of these were given to us by British occultists of the early 20th Century. I have owned the Golden Dawn Tarot many years ago but virtually never used it. Half of the problem is that I found the cards were simply too big to shuffle. Like many Tarot decks, these cards seem to be designed to be shuffled by placing them on a table and mixing them with a circular movement like dominoes rather than shuffling them more traditionally in the hands. The second reason is that the Minor Arcana, the Ace to Ten in the four suites, are like playing cards. Instead of having pretty pictures on them, the Three of Cups only shows three cups on a blank background.
These may seem like very superficial reasons to reject a pack of cards that is the result of the inquiries and meditations of some of the most famous gentile Kabbalists of the last century. I suppose that the size of the cards is unless you think that there are other Kabbalistic decks available that do 'handle well', like the Rider Waite deck and its derivatives. The reason that I prefer all of the cards to have pretty pictures drawn on them is that every card tells a story. The picture on the card reminds you of the meaning of the card. In the Rider Waite pack the Three of Cups shows three women happily drinking a toast together. The card is associated with celebration with emotional rather than material overtones, close friendship, cordial relationships usually in a non-sexual way.
Compare that to the Ten of Cups that shows a man and a woman holding one another, facing a rainbow of cups with children playing happily at their feet. Obviously this will mean that the person is in a happy relationship in terms of their partner their nuclear family. This is a card of contentment and completion. When you compare these two cards you also get the feeling that the Three is not as permanent as the Ten, it is a matter of toasting a recent triumph. The Three is the drink with your girlfriends after you have been asked out on a date, the Ten is marrying that man, having his children and living happily ever after.
So what the pictures on the
lower cards do is to help the reader to remember what the meaning of
each card is. This is especially good when you are just starting out
in Tarot reading since it means that you do not have to look up the
meanings of the cards so often. The querient usually likes to see an
illustration of what you mean with every card too.
This is the best category of deck to start off your career as a Tarot reader. It also gives you a wide choice of books to guide you. In general the books will have pictures of the cards that they relate to on the cover and if these pictures are of any of the traditional packs, you cannot go far wrong. All that you do is to look at the pack on the front cover.
The second category of Tarot deck is the themed deck. These decks relate to another form of mystic philosophy. These are a good starting point if you are already heavily involved and learned about another system of mysticism. For instance you may be a practicing Wiccan or Celtic Druid. In that case you may well be interested in one of the packs that ties Tarot into your culture. The Mystic Tarot deck relates each card to a parable of Greek Mythology to illustrate the cards value and meaning.
There is an insidious side to this type of deck. The Tarot is a serious tool, not a toy. When you read the Tarot yourself you are taking on a responsibility far greater than having a reading done. I know of one person who, as a young man, threw away the Tarot having predicted three family deaths within days of their occurrence. He was devastated and left with the feeling that he was somehow responsible for the deaths. Before you think of taking up the Tarot you must think about how you are going to use it and how you will yourself react with having to tell people bad news, maybe the worst news.
The themed Tarot decks that I have mentioned so far are for people that are serious about spirituality and are going into the art of Tarot reading with their eyes open. The type of deck that I have considerable problems with is the ones that are targeted towards adolescents with no idea of what they are getting themselves into. Fortunately I have yet to come across the Harry Potter deck with the four school houses representing the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana being represented by the characters, Neville the Fool and Voldermort the Devil. Then again, I have not researched the availability of the Tarot in toy shops, where the Harry Potter deck may be sitting in between plastic broomsticks with added side effects and wands with lights in the end of them that flash every time that you wave them. A Harry Potter deck may not be available but there are other similar decks out there that are based on fantasy novels to lure children. There are others that are so cartoon-like that they are obviously intended for teenage girls that want to play at being witches because they like to wear black clothes and make-up. This may be a highly profitable marketing ploy but I believe that all Tarot packs should carry at least a 15 certificate and probably only be available to people who are 18 and over.
Then there are the rest of the packs, the esoteric ones. Whilst a few of the decks of the themed category are designed for commercial reasons, all of the decks of this ilk are personal expressions of a talented individual who is portraying in their cards what they see. In these cards too you see other influences rather than pure Kabbalism but these esoteric images are far more personal rather than having any tradition to them.
These relate less to the true basis of the Tarot and so are difficult to define. Each has its own individual flavour and different rules by which it is interpreted. These are highly personal choices and I can only suggest that you use one of these packs if you are magnetically drawn to one of them and fall head over heels in love with it. You would feel that the pack itself spoke to you directly with its images and feel that it absolutely belonged to you. It means that you are very much in tune with the designer of the pack. But you really do need a book that specifically relates to that pack.
I had an unusual experience with one of these decks. A professional Tarot reader was trying to read my Tarot with an esoteric deck. She let me shuffle the cards and then she dealt them. She could not make any sense of the spread. The meaning was blatantly obvious to me. I had laid the cards out to the traditional Kabbalistic meanings that she was not familiar with. For this reason I would advise all Tarot readers, particularly those that are using the more esoteric decks, to always shuffle the cards themselves.
Guides for Tarot Readings
The Tarot guide book is essentially a Tarot to English dictionary. It is a means of translating the language of the Universe and of our thoughts into everyday English. It will invariably tell you a little about the history of the Tarot and tell you something of the form of how the Tarot cards relate to one another. It will also tell you a few different configurations of how to lay out the Tarot cards for different types of reading. The most common three layouts are the Celtic Cross for specific areas of the querient's life, a Zodiac layout for the telling a person how the next year will pan out month by month and a Tree of Life for how three different times interrelate. The Tree of Life spread is commonly used for past, present and future but it can be sent further back, even into examining past life issues.
Once you have read a single
Tarot guide book for beginners, you will probably stick to it. It is
surprising how quickly you can settle into your own system of reading
the cards. The information sinks in after only about a dozen readings
of the cards. From then on you will probably find that the next book
that you read will evoke responses like 'well that card does not mean
that to me'. It is not that the second book is wrong; it is that the
second book will have different fine print interpretations of the cards,
particularly in relation to the more mundane matters that the cards
Most people learn better if they are working by example rather than just reading a book, so you can now get on with doing some readings. Yes. That is all that you need to do. Read the book once and start practicing.
Reading the Tarot
Obviously you are not ready to do this as a professional and people are not going to believe everything that you say, especially when you have to look up each card one by one in the book to find their meanings. As you improve the pictures of the cards will remind you more and more of the meaning and significance of each card as it comes up. The more that you use the cards and become familiar with there explanations, the more you will understand the story behind the images of each card. Add to this a brief daily contemplation or meditation of each card and its meaning, one card at a time and it will soon fix into your memory.
The books never tell you much about shuffling the cards. As I said, I always look through the order of the cards before I do anything else. I then perform a ritual that is rationally inexplicable. I breathe life into the cards. I have vague memories of having started this as a means of ensuring that the cards did not get stuck together. I press the cards to my lips and then blow into them, my breath separating them as I do so. I do this five times, starting at the top edge of the pack. Then I rotate the pack so that the top is facing me and blow into the long edge. I continue this for all four edges of the pack to represent the four elements or four suites of the deck and then blow into the top again to represent the spirit or the Major Arcana.
It is whilst performing these rituals that I let my mind change gear. This is the most important step of Tarot reading. This is the point that you slow the ordinary, everyday consciousness until it is barely present. It is meditation by any means. Your mantra may be your question or it may be silence. Visually your mantra is the person that you are asking the question about, associating with them, letting your consciousness meld with theirs, allowing your mind to drift into the collective unconscious but tethering to their super-consciousness.
You may experience a sinking sensation as you do this. You sink as your consciousness floats upwards. A strange paradox but usually your ordinary consciousness fills your own body, particularly the head. Now your everyday consciousness is sinking into its natural position in the top of the abdomen. You are entering into a state of your natural balance. You are used to perceiving only with your ordinary consciousness and so those feelings can seem stronger than the feeling of the rest of your being rising and becoming free.
The only purpose of your everyday consciousness at this moment is to focus the super-conscious mind, the part of you that knows more. Only a question and six senses of perception of the person that you are asking about. The cards will be shuffled by the super-conscious as it drifts. The ordinary consciousness will tell you that it is time, that it is bored. Just ignore it.
As you shuffle, turn a few cards upside down. Thinking that you have finished shuffling is a strong and definite feeling. Ignore it. It has come from your ordinary consciousness. Knowing that the cards are in the correct order is a gentle and indescribable. It does not intrude upon you like a thought does. Do not let go of the feeling as you place the pack face down and cut it three times. Only then have you stopped shuffling.
At this point the super-conscious has performed its job. You may return to your ordinary consciousness but people like you to keep the mystique just a little longer. Most books recommend that you whisper the names of the card positions under your breath as you lay them out.
Now it is time for the everyday
consciousness to interpret the cards using the dictionary definitions
and try to make sense of the fragments, to build a single picture or
story out of the pieces that it has been given.
Further Tarot References