This is a short guide to reading tarot cards. If you want more detailed information about working with tarot, please take a look at my book The Compleat Psychic.
How to begin. Before you start working with tarot, you need to understand what happens in divination. The word divination means, quite simply, that you receive information directly from the Divine. Don't think for one second that getting messages from the Almighty cannot happen to a nobody like yourself. In a universe where all energy manifestations are equal, little old you is just as important to the Divine as anyone else. So you don't have to be a Greek sybil or a Hebrew prophet to receive guidance from the Divine. All you need is skill with an oracular tool, which is something that anyone can learn.
Recognize that your oracle will not be right 100% of the time. No human tool works flawlessly all the time, up to and including oracular tools. So don't be surprised if your oracle sometimes seems to mislead you. The good news here is that the more you work with tarot, the better you will be able to interpret what the cards are telling you. I have experimented with various oracles over the years and now believe that tarot cards are the most accurate oracular tool available today.
Get the right tarot deck. In my opinion the only tarot deck worth using is the one designed by artist Pamela Colman Smith, which was originally published in 1910. This deck is generally known as the Rider-Waite deck, the name coming from the deck's Rider Company publishers, and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, who hired Smith to devise the deck. I prefer to call this deck the Smith deck after its illustrator since I think it is the product of her considerable genius and has little or nothing to do with either the Rider Company or Arthur Edward Waite. In the United States, this deck is published by U.S. Games Systems and retails anywhere from $12-20.
Pick a quiet time and space for your reading. You need to pick a distraction-free space for your reading, out of range from any kind of disruption, and most especially anything electronic. That's right, don't even think about divining and texting at the same time. I have learned that the enchanted time of day called twilight is usually the best time for a reading.
Recite sacred words. The first step in an oracular consultation should be the recital of a prayer or a mantra, or any other kind of sacred words which you find meaningful. I always recite the Gayatri Mantra before I touch the cards, which helps me to focus my energies. The recitation of sacred words, no matter how brief, will alter your consciousness and make you more receptive to the energies of the Divine.
Ask for Divine protection of your reading. Next, you must set the intent of your reading and ask the angels to protect your physical space. To do this I recite the following words:
The intent of this reading is the summum bonum. I ask Archangel Michael to protect the space of this reading, and I give him permission to do so. I only give permission for angels or the Divine to give me information through these cards, and I thank them for the information which I will receive.
Summum bonum is Latin for "the supreme good", and this should always be the intent of your reading. In other words, you need to focus on how your oracular answer will affect not just you personally, but the rest of the universe. As both Eastern spiritual traditions and quantum physics tell us, everything in our universe is interconnected. So if you want to ask a question like this: I have concluded that it will be best for both me and my boyfriend to marry, am I correct? you need to say: It will be best for me, my boyfriend, and the rest of the universe if we marry, am I correct? This way, you are acknowledging the reality of universal interconnection and will receive the best possible answer.
Devise your questions. One of the most important rules about divination is that you should always apply logic to your problems before you try to obtain divinatory information about them. So you need to think about your issue(s) as carefully as you can and come to a tentative conclusion about a potential plan of action or the best way to interpret a situation before you start working with your oracle. In other words, you should always try to make your questions confirmational. This means you should formulate your questions so they can be answered with a YES or a NO. You don't ask: Which option should I choose: A or B? Instead you would say, I have concluded that Option A is the best course of action, am I correct?
Shuffling the cards. Once you have prepared your questions, you can now shuffle your cards. I prefer to do the riffle shuffle, but if you like you can simply stir the cards or try any other kind of shuffle. What matters is that you must mix the cards as thoroughly as possible and get a good blend of upright and reversed cards. I am a strong believer in reading card reversals, which means that when you pull an upside down card, that is how you should interpret it. So as you shuffle the cards, you should also occasionally give the half-deck in one of your hands a clockwise or a counterclockwise turn, and then continue to shuffle. You can also turn the entire deck several times in either direction after completing your shuffle, which will create an even better chaotic mixture of upright and reversed.
Pull three cards only. You only need to pull three cards to get a clear answer to your question--pulling more will only muddy the response. And forget about tarot spreads--the cards themselves are all you need for an answer. Also it is a good idea (and very old cartomancy advice) to pull the cards with your left hand, since this stimulates the right or the intuitive side of your brain.
Interpreting the cards. You don't need to memorize a particular author's card meanings in order to interpret your reading (but you can check Chapter 11 of The Compleat Psychic if you want to learn what mine are). You only need to follow a few general guidelines about how to interpret what you see, as follows:
Focus on the energies of the cards you pull. To determine the meaning of a card, you need to ask yourself whether the illustration is either conveying positive/benevolent energy or some kind of harmful/negative energy. Human figures who are jumping for joy (such as the Three of Cups) obviously convey the first, while a card like the Five of Pentacles isn't exactly showing a fun situation.
Never think that a particular card is a portent of doom. There are some scary-looking cards in the Smith deck, such as the Devil or the Ten of Swords, but these cards are not necessarily a prediction of disaster. When a negative energy card turns up in a reading, it is usually a sign that you that you are wrong about something, or that you need to release something. The Death card, for example, does not mean that you're about to be hit by a truck. It usually means that there is something in your life that you need to kill off, such as a bad habit or an obsession, or it simply means NO.
Try to notice how your body responds when you turn over the first card. The first card you turn over will probably give you the answer to your question. And the best way to get this answer is by flashing on the card instead of trying to interpret it. In other words, try to notice what kind of physical response you make when you turn over the card. Generally speaking, if you recoil or go tense when you see the first card, you are probably seeing a NO. If you feel relief, you are probably seeing a YES. How your body responds to the sight of your cards is discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 10 of The Compleat Psychic.
The three most important cards in the deck. As far as I'm concerned, the following three angel cards are the most powerful cards in the Smith deck:
If you pull any of these three cards upright during a reading, you are almost always seeing a YES response, regardless of the other cards you pull. Conversely, if you pull one of the angel cards reversed, you are almost always getting a NO, also regardless of the other cards you turn over. Like everything else in tarot, this does not hold true all of the time, but my own experience tells me that an upright angel=YES and a reversed angel=NO at least 98-99% of the time.
In my opinion, the three angel cards are the reason why the Smith tarot deck is so effective. We need to remember that winged supernatural beings have always been considered to be messengers of the Divine throughout human history, and not just in the Abrahamic tradition. When you work with the Smith deck, there is one way to see whether you are truly receiving Divine messages through the cards: you will start pulling one of the three angel cards more frequently than is statistically possible. Here I will admit that an angel card does not always appear every time you pull three cards to get an answer to your question, but when you keep seeing them as you work with this deck, you will realize that something out of the ordinary is happening. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself and see what happens. Just make sure you follow all the initial steps listed above: say a prayer, ask/give permission for both guidance and protection, devise a YES or NO question which includes the idea of the summum bonum, shuffle thoroughly, and pull three cards with your left hand. And what you are going to get is POW!
Pay attention if other cards repeatedly appear. Sometimes when you are asking multiple questions of your oracle, not only will you pull an angel card over and over, you might pull one or more of the other cards in the deck with equal frequency. If a particular card keeps turning up as you ask your questions, you should pay special attention to it, since it will probably represent the key piece of information that you need.
How to interpret the other cards. Tarot decks are divided into three types of cards: major arcana, minor arcana, and court cards, and these can be interpreted as follows:
Major arcana cards. The major arcana cards are the twenty-two cards in the deck which usually display a single figure. These cards, which include the three angel cards, have the strongest energy in the deck. With the exception of the Death, Judgement, and the Tower cards, the appearance of an upright major usually indicates that energies are positive and that you are getting a YES answer to your question.
Court cards. There are sixteen court cards in the deck, with four cards for each suit: king, queen, knight, and page. If you pull one of these cards, you should interpret it as some kind of energy manifestation: the kings put out yang or active energy, the queens indicate yin or receptive energy, the knights show some kind of energetic movement, and the pages indicate newness or a beginning. The suit will then reveal what kind of energy is manifesting: if you pull one or more Cups cards, for example, you are dealing with some kind of emotional issue or solution. Swords indicate communication or the intellect, Wands are spiritual or creative cards, and Pentacles are concerned with physical energies or objects in space.
Minor arcana cards. There are ten minor arcana cards in each suit. When you turn over a minor arcana card, you need to pay attention to what the suit means as well as the numbers. Aces indicate new beginnings, twos duality, threes synthesis, fours stability, fives instability, sixes balance, sevens blockage, eights increase, nines integration, and tens completion. So, for example, the Four of Wands cards would indicate some kind of stable spiritual energy, while the Nine of Pentacles shows a contented woman enjoying her physical existence. The minor cards can indicate either positive or negative energy depending upon the illustration or whether you pull them reversed or upright. And don't forget than a reversed card can frequently mean some kind of release, instead of just NO.
The five most negative cards in the deck. Whenever I pull one of the five following cards, I always consider the answer to be a NO (unless an upright angel card appears to cancel it out): the Queen of Swords, the Five of Swords, the Devil, the Tower, and Death. However, as you continue to work with tarot, you will probably discover that these cards might not always mean NO for you, and you will need to determine for yourself what your personal NO cards are.
You need to pull at least three cards for your answer. I have learned that while the first card you turn over will usually give you your answer, you need to pull at least two more cards for the most accurate response. Sometimes you can pull two strongly upright positive cards after a negative first card which will cancel out the NO energy of the first card. On the other hand, pulling two very negative-looking cards after a YES first card can demolish the YES.
Getting a MAYBE answer. When you pull a mixture of upright and reversed cards, or a mixture of positive and negative looking cards, you are probably getting a MAYBE answer to your question. I have learned that when I get this kind of mixed response, it usually means that the energies of the situation are still in flux, or that it doesn't matter very much what you should do in a given situation.
Never ask the same question a second time in a row. The most sacred rule about oracular consultation is that you should never ask an oracle the same question twice in a row, nor should you pull extra cards if you don't like your initial pull. However, I have learned that if you are disappointed in your answer, you can ask your question a second time, but only after waiting at least twenty-four hours to do so. And you can continue to ask the question several more times if you like, but only if you wait twenty-four hours between readings.
Learn how to deal with disappointing responses. Once you become skilled in working with an oracular tool, I guarantee that you will frequently receive disappointing answers to many of your questions. When this happens, the one single thing you don't want to do with your honest-to-God messages is reject them. You must accept the fact that you are probably not going to get what you want, and then deal with it. I give suggestions about how to deal with disappointing responses in Chapter 13 of The Compleat Psychic.
To sum everything up .
. . Most people don't realize that they spend their lives
stumbling blindly through their days, relying upon little more
than guesswork to make their decisions. Working with an oracle
can give you the clarity you need to interpret the world around
you with greater accuracy, and then make better decisions. If
you give my suggestions a try, I guarantee that your life will
start to improve in ways you never thought possible.