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No-Nonsense Guide to Reading the Tarot

Jean teaches astrology, tarot & metaphysics. She is an author, ordained nondenominational minister, & member of the NJ Metaphysical Ctr.

Are you hoping to learn to read the tarot?

Are you hoping to learn to read the tarot?

Teach Yourself to Read the Tarot

I know you have a tarot deck sitting somewhere on a shelf, and there was a time when you were excited about learning to read it. You thought it was fascinating at the bookstore; the images really spoke to you. Then you got home, opened it, and decided, “This is way more complicated than I thought. I can’t do this.”

Learn From My Experience

How do I know? Because I once did that too! I received my deck as a gift, along with a certificate for a beginner’s class. I attended the class, but nothing clicked, until around ten years later, when something made me pick up that deck and try again. This time I was determined to figure it out, and was successful. So although my methods may differ from yours, I thought maybe I could explain how I learned to read tarot. Perhaps you can use some of what I did as a plan for how you will do it.

The most important thing I have learned in my metaphysical studies is that when we open our minds and take time to learn something new, we grow spiritually. Don’t be a martyr. You can order take-out to gain an hour to study the cards. And do you really need to waste time listening to your friend complaining about the same old issues? Tell them somebody’s at the door and you have to go.

So let’s start! The most common and beloved deck is the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, and I recommend starting with that one. Many other decks are more interesting, but also have the same structure and meanings as the Rider-Waite, so if you master that one, you can always go back in your mind and recall a meaning for a card in a more complicated deck.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck.

The Rider-Waite tarot deck.

Quick Summary of the Deck

The Rider-Waite deck consists of seventy-eight cards. Twenty two of them are called Major Arcana cards. Forty cards are the Minor Arcana or pip cards, and stand for the suits, like in a regular playing card deck, except the suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Then each suit has a Court of four people cards, the King, Queen, Knight, and Page. That’s easy, right? When you first open the deck, all the cards will be in order.

The deck does come with a small pamphlet which supposedly explains the card meanings, but it’s useless. However, you will need some reference source to begin study, so I recommend The Complete Idiot's Guide to Reading the Tarot and Fortune-Telling. I checked my bookshelf and was surprised at the ragged condition of this book: proof of often use.

Begin Looking at the Pictures

So to begin, take some time to just look at the pictures. See which cards stand out for you, or interest you more. You will find you have an affinity for some of them. If you find one particularly soothing or uplifting, you can just look at it and meditate for a bit. That’s another use of tarot cards.

As you begin learning the tarot, you will start doing a few small readings, because it’s the quickest way to get familiar with the cards. The most common reading is The Celtic Cross, a ten card reading with specific placements which also have meanings. You will try one, but aren’t ready to read it the right way yet. Try every now and then, but stay with easier readings at first, since you don’t yet know what all the cards mean.

Use a Journal to Document Your Studies

I suggest using a journal or notebook and choosing one card to learn each day. Write down the date and the card you chose. Guess what it means or write how the picture makes you feel. Look up the card in your reference book. Then at the end of the day, (or whatever schedule you decided upon) go back and see how right you were, and record what really happened that day.

Let’s say you chose The Tower. You had a fender bender on the way to work, told your boss what he could do with your job when he complained about your lengthy calls to the insurance company, then got home to a broken hot water heater and wet carpeting. Now you know what The Tower means! Or maybe you chose the Ace of Pentacles. You had a job interview and were offered a better salary and position than the one you were there to discuss. The love of your life had a bottle of champagne chilling and a dinner reservation made to celebrate when you got home.

A three-card reading is a great beginner's tool!

A three-card reading is a great beginner's tool!

Next, move onto a three card reading each day, and write down your thoughts on that. Three commonly used ones are pictured above. Do the same exercise in your journal. You will begin to see a pattern; a certain few cards will keep coming up. This means The Universe is trying to tell you something. Keep writing in your journal, study your book, and then in a month, go back, and you may understand what the readings really meant. Be especially sure to find out more about the cards that come up most often, as those have an important meaning at this time in your life. The journal method will help you get familiar with more cards faster, and it will be very meaningful, because the readings are about you and those significant to you.

Keep on Studying!

Also, as you do small readings and write about your findings, you need to choose a few cards each day and study their meanings in your reference book. This isn’t hard, but it’s a lot of material, and if you want to learn, you need to commit to it. Each card has a different interpretation depending on whether it’s upright or reversed when you lay it down. When a tarot card is reversed, the four “D’s” come into play, so the energies are diminished, delayed, there is denial, or it’s the dark side or opposite meaning of the card. This doesn’t mean reversed cards are bad, it just tells you something is going on that will take more time to resolve, or you just aren’t ready to deal with it yet. Perhaps the situation has not yet come up.

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Read More From Exemplore

The "Fool's Journey," aka the Major Arcana cards.

The "Fool's Journey," aka the Major Arcana cards.

The Major Arcana is very important, and you will see much detail in these cards. All twenty two cards have their names printed at the card’s bottom. Each one denotes a lesson each soul must learn before they can move onto the next level of existence, if that is your belief, or at least gives you the necessary knowledge to live a life in which you can find understanding and meaning. They are also referred to as “soul cards.”

The Fool, or number zero, is the beginning of life, when a person is young and innocent, and trusts life will just work out by itself. Whenever you take a leap of faith or try something new or daring, you are feeling the influence of The Fool. The following twenty one cards represent all the other types of love, hate, health, illness, balance, birth, death, celebrations, divorce, trials, joys, and secret issues we experience during our lives, ending with The World. When feeling the energy of this card, you have reached your full potential for the moment. You will continue to experience The Fool and all the other influences of the Major Arcana cards all throughout your life. Once you understand what specific cards have to teach, other ones will come up more often in readings.

The passage through all the lessons of the Major Arcana cards is called “The Fool’s Journey.” Not everyone succeeds at every lesson; sometimes we have to be thrust into the same situation over and over until we finally realize how we are supposed to handle it. Some of us miss certain illuminating and interesting soul lessons, since some are more attuned to their spirituality than others. Just be aware that when several Majors show up in your readings, they symbolize very intense matters, not petty, everyday ones. These cards are picked by your subconscious because you have issues in certain areas of life which need attention. The tarot is trying to offer you a way to deal with the situation more effectively, helping you to devise a coping strategy. Pay attention!

Minor Arcana Cards Are Everyday Situations

Now let’s tackle the Minor Arcana cards. These are really just the everyday actions and interactions which we face with the people around us every day. They are pretty self explanatory, although as you learn more you will see more in them. In fact, you probably have learned more meanings for some of the cards, the ones from your own experiences with reading and journaling. But there are forty Minor Arcana cards, so that will keep you busy. It helps to just get used to them at face value at first, as you are still trying to be able to recognize the card and attach a meaning to it. Later on you will notice other details. Don’t freak out, it takes time, discipline, and patience. It’s really the suits with which you need to get familiar. So here is the basic information on the tarot suits in the Rider Waite Tarot Deck.

Aces displayed in the four tarot suits.

Aces displayed in the four tarot suits.

The Tarot Suits


These cards all have staffs or items which look like large tree branches, and they have leaves growing out of them. Wands represent the element of Fire. New things come into your life when you see Wands. They represent growth, energy, will, passion, libido, desire, inspiration, initiation, and enthusiasm.


Each Cup card features a gold cup or chalice on it. They represent love and feelings of well being, and the element of Water. Other meanings for Cups include receptivity, reflection, subconscious, imagination, vision, feelings, emotions, and relationships.


When Swords come up, they stand for new ideas and new directions you may take in life. You or someone will be doing a lot of talking, and some of it will be painful, as Swords are all about communication, good and bad, and stand for the element of Air. Other meanings include; mental activity, thought, intellect, logic, reason, analysis, decision, communication, action, conflict, and volatility.


Pentacles cards all have gold coins with a black five pointed star inside, and this is NOT the sign of the Devil, so get over it. The Pentacle symbol represents North, South, East, West, and Spirit. This suit rules security issues and how good we feel in our own skin, also representing the element of Earth. This also includes appreciation of nature, being grounded, strength, resources, money, wealth, commerce, labor, prosperity, security, value, generosity, charity, body, and material possessions.

Spread These Cards Out and Compare Them

It may take some time to get used to the suits, so spend time with your reference book for help here. I found it helpful to take out the whole suit and look at it together, because I could see how each card was different, yet still a part of that same suit, and how each fit in. Try to study each suit separately. Or once you feel comfortable with the suits, take out the same number card of each of the four suits, for instance, all the fours. You will get a different perspective but also see that there is a sense of stability or trying to get there in fours.

Tarot Card Numerical Meanings

Numbers on tarot cards matter, they all have a meaning. Don’t be discouraged, I understand this is a lot of material to put together. You won’t feel really comfortable for some time; we all study and learn at our own pace. Some people may still only read for themselves and those close to them. Some never feel comfortable reading for others. But the cards are a good source of information and meditation too.

So this is what the numbers mean (and you can reduce the ones on the Major Arcana cards and use this information for those as well).

  • Zero— A Void, emptiness, unrestricted potential, creative energy.
  • One—Beginnings, seeds, unity, self, ego
  • Two—Duality, choices, decisions, relationships, balance, resolution
  • Three—Creativity, integration, reproduction, progress, growth, expansion
  • Four—Structure, stability, boundaries, rest, consolidation
  • Five—Changes, conflict, strife, crisis, struggle, learning opportunities. Fives are better in reverse.
  • Six—Readjustment, difficult choices, reciprocal friendships, appreciation, peace, harmony
  • Seven—Tests, mastery, success, victory, reassessment
  • Eight— Fast Acceleration, movement, strength, power, regeneration, progress.
  • Nine—Endings, completion, climax, accomplishment
  • Ten—Results, epilogue, rebirth, a new cycle, community, the last straw, overkill
The Wands court cards.

The Wands court cards.

The Court Cards

Last but not least are the cards that confuse most students, the Court Cards. They are the four people cards of each suit, those Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings. Let’s take a better look at these to take out the mystery.

  1. Pages are young people, innocent and inexperienced. Pages are about newness, and represent the beginning of a new endeavor, a tentative experience, and serving others. Sometimes the Page in the reading is a part of you, the part who is bored and needs a change. Sometimes a Page is a messenger there to tell you something.
  2. Knights are where action is going on, and in this deck they always appear on horses. Knights like to push boundaries, get experience, and test their abilities. This rank indicates adventurous, exploratory, revolutionary, and goal oriented energies. It’s all about movement and development. Knights often mean a journey is going to happen.
  3. Queens are the ones most at home in their element. They are mature and competent in whatever endeavors where their mastery is demonstrated. The Queen is supportive, nurturing, expressive, and relationship oriented. She is sympathetic, understanding, and intuitive. The Queen deals with individuals on a one to one basis.
  4. Kings are usually experts or authorities in the area of their suit. They are self directed, controlling, and commanding. They define and direct, and are often associated with aggression and rationality. Kings have much responsibility with civic duties and social responsibilities. They express themselves in an outer way, more in a group setting than a Queen.

When we work with the Court though, like life, age isn’t everything. A Page can act with the utmost maturity, while a senior citizen can act as immature as a Page. An eighty year old person may start a new hobby, and show the enthusiasm of a Page. A young person can nurture an older one with the maturity of a Queen or King. A Knight can be a serious leader. Neither sex is limited to certain Court Card ranks. A King can be nurturing (especially The King of Cups) and a Queen can be in a leadership position and carry great authority (particularly the Queen of Swords). So there are varied ways to come to understand these sixteen cards.

The Universe Is Speaking to You

When I first began studying the tarot, I kept getting the Wheel of Fortune. It was a time of great change in my life. I began dieting and exercising, and lost a lot of weight. I stopped drinking alcohol. My Mom had to move because of an eminent domain issue, and I got involved with environmentalists in my town because it was not necessary. Before I knew it, I joined the local Democratic Club, as they worked with local environmental organizations.

I became its Treasurer, and soon people from my city were coming to me regarding their problems with the administration and asking for help. This all happened in a six month period, so that’s how much good change you can expect when you get The Wheel of Fortune. It’s also an example of how I told you that when you make time to learn something new, outdated modes of behavior leave your life, and new and better ways to spend your time appear.

Try to Take a Tarot Course

If you have the opportunity to take a tarot course, you should. If you don’t have a metaphysical bookstore in your area, look for one in a larger city or sometimes regular bookstores offer similar courses. Or get a group of friends together who want to learn. I didn’t learn a whole lot at that first class, as some courses and teachers are better than others. But the last night was the test. The store advertised free readings, and we had to read for anyone who came in. It was a good way to see if we enjoyed reading for others, because you do need to establish a rapport with your querent. So if you can find a group that meets regularly to study metaphysical topics, that’s a great opportunity.

Tarot Card Reading Takes Time, Patience, and Materials

In my state of NJ, a fifteen minute reading costs $25.00, and a thirty minute reading costs $50.00. People balk sometimes, just as they do about astrology charts. But they don’t understand that first tarot course I just described cost me $125.00, plus the book. The books, the time involved, and the numerous other courses and workshops you will have to take to learn are all valuable and time consuming. You spend a lot of money on materials to get good at your craft. And you also spend years of your time to perfect it.

That’s why it’s so rude to ask people for free readings. I’ve studied for years and put in my time, and I expect to be paid for it, although I will read for free if the person needs help and can’t afford it. Be flexible. Plus it is hard to mix spirituality and money, so you have to decide how it works for you. I often let the person pay what they can, or not at all, as I make most of my money with astrology chart interpretation and freelance writing.

Tarot Is Also About Self-Reflection

Reading the tarot has benefits other than just looking into what’s happening now and in the future. As you delve more into interpretation, it helps you to become more introspective and honest about your life and self. It’s important to take time to just quietly think about yourself, your direction, and your dreams. Time goes fast, and inner reflection should not be neglected if you want to make the most of your life.

So I hope you feel motivated and want to get started learning to read tarot right away! If you have any questions I have not answered in this article, please feel free to ask me. But please don’t ask for a free reading. You will do fine! Then there are so many really fascinating decks to discover, and you will find one that feels like it was made for you. Most readers use several other decks besides the Rider Waite, it’s just that reference books use it in most cases as the example, so it’s best to learn it first. So start soon, there’s no time like the present!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Jean Bakula


Jean Bakula (author) from New Jersey on April 21, 2019:

My brother is dyslexic, but reads a lot in his adult life. He figured out a way just for him. Maybe you can do that too. And there is somebody, I'm here if you need to talk.

brian from uk on April 18, 2019:

Well thank you for replying the tarot class was just the right number about five or six if memory serves. But I have noticed I pick things up from people like I'm starting to fit the jigsaw together on what I beleave is an un consious level some times its just a word or whole sentence and a min or two later they would speak the sentence word for word this used to happen a lot when I was a young child and turn me into a nervous wreck I was so sensative I did not know we're to turn and it's started to rear it's ugly head again I'm not scared this time I just don't say anything to anybody but it's not constant thankfully finally I like to thank you it's good to talk were as before there was no body

God bless

Jean Bakula (author) from New Jersey on April 17, 2019:


That's what happened to me at the first tarot class I took years ago. Maybe the teacher wasn't good, or went to fast. It was such a blur, I couldn't keep up. It's really a lot to take in. You can't just pick it up in a few days. If the Major Arcana did that to you, why don't you start with a suit you like? Maybe Wands or Cups, Wands have energy and Cups are emotional. You can go in any order you want. Just be prepared to spend time learning. But some can just look at the pictures and feel things. We all learn differently.When I tried learning myself, and just picked one or three cards a day, I was learning and liked it. I kept the journal. Go at your own pace. It sounds like the class overwhelmed you!

brian from uk on April 12, 2019:

Hello Jean

I went on a beginners Tarot workshop some time ago we started learning the major arcana we were using Ryde waite cards I was asking questions etc we finished the first part and went to lunch when we came back I suddenly felt wiped out although we were only listening and asking question, I could not concentrate or focus it took some time for me to pull My self together but all I could do for the second half was to listen and nod my head have you any ideas what could cause this many thanks brian

Jean Bakula (author) from New Jersey on March 13, 2019:

That's great! I hope you enjoy it!

manoj yadav on March 12, 2019:

Thanks for sharing information, SIPL Training Institute provides in summer Training in Lucknow.

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