Tarot myths debunked! Nine "rules" of Tarot you can (mostly) ignore

Tarot myths debunked: 9 rules of Tarot you can (mostly) ignore

As soon as you delve into the world of Tarot, you encounter a bunch of do-this, don't-do-that warnings and prescriptions about how to use the cards. (Why, it's almost as if we were dealing with something magical, not just 78 pictures on cardstock!) Some of these superstitions undoubtedly have a grain of truth in them, while others are just baloney dipped in snake oil. Now, for your amusement and your edification, Madame Michelle will feed each “should” and “shouldn’t” into the Truth-O-Matic Machine (i.e., her brain!) and declare a verdict.

You shouldn't read Tarot for yourself.

 Mary Greer put a stake in this old truism with her groundbreaking 1984 book, defiantly titled Tarot for Your Self. Her Tarot method is based on the premise that Tarot is a mirror of the human psyche, and that relying on a reader to interpret your cards makes no more sense than asking someone else to explain your dreams.

 These days, Tarot has become as mainstream as the Mississippi—we have weekend workshops, decks to suit every persuasion, and shelves of tarot books that owe more to 1970s self-help literature than to the Western esoteric tradition.   The more accessible Tarot becomes, the fewer people believe that reading the cards is the provenance of a gifted few. And even professional cartomancers have to learn somewhere—usually, by reading for themselves.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to do Tarot divination for yourself. The potential for self-deception is high. Accurate readings call for a clear head and an impartial attitude—easier said than done when it’s your burning question on the table. But with some practice, you can cultivate the necessary detachment to be your own best Tarot reader. Learn to distinguish the whining voice of worry and desire from the subtle whisper of intuition. And be ready to get a second opinion when your well-calibrated bullshit detector starts beeping.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Yeah, but…no.

Using Tarot cards is dangerous.

 Well, it depends on what your definition of danger is, doesn’t it? If you believe that opening a deck of Tarot cards is going to unleash a frenzied horde of demons that will drag you kicking and screaming into the dark world of the occult, then you need a reality check. If, however, you're worried that diving into Tarot will change your perceptions, scramble your priorities, and launch you into a lifelong obsession, then your fears are entirely justified.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Maybe.

Don't let anyone else touch your cards.

 This warning is based on the assumption that a Tarot deck collects and stores the psychic energy of the reader. When another person handles the deck, according to this idea, their energy scrambles, contaminates, or wipes away this accumulation of energy, making the deck less attuned to its owner.

Most readers I know do have a “professional” deck which many clients will handle, and another deck(s) reserved for their personal use. But their concerns are usually mundane—germy, grimy, or clumsy hands fondling a treasured deck, or cards going missing during a long evening of giving readings in low light. Bad vibes are really a non-issue. A Tarot reader who is skilled enough to detect psychic imprints left on their deck will easily be able to give it a good cleansing before the next use.

 Not only that, but readers who allow the querent to handle their cards give better readings than people who bogart the deck. Passing the cards back and forth facilitates the exchange of energy that allows information to flow more freely during the reading. Not only that, allowing the querent to shuffle, cut, and/or draw cards is a great way to keep the person actively involved in the reading. We've all experienced the client who wants to sit passively on their side of the table while the all-knowing Tarot reader tells them exactly what fate has in store for them. Blech. Letting the querent choose their own cards from the deck gives them a greater sense of control over their destiny, and perhaps encourages them to take positive steps after the reading is over. Also, many people are nervous about having their cards read, and keeping their hands busy helps allay those jitters.

 On a side note, my permissive attitude about Tarot-sharing doesn't go for other magical tools. I'll let any curious person thumb through my Tarot cards, but I'm choosy about who, if anyone, gets to see my scrying crystal or athame. To make an analogy, I'll happily lend a sweater or scarf to a friend, but not my lucky undies. (And shame on you for even asking, Mark.)

Truth-O-Matic reading: Nah.

Don’t buy a used Tarot deck.

A corollary to the above, this caveat is also based on worries about psychic contamination. There’s nothing wrong with buying a pre-loved deck (as long as you make sure all the cards are there). Just cleanse the used deck according to a method you trust, dedicate it to your purposes, and have fun reading it. Shunning used cards makes trees sad!

 Incidentally, I’ve found that plenty of readers actually prefer vintage decks. They’re usually easier to shuffle, and may have acquired a patina of incense smoke and hand crud that newly-minted cards just can’t match. (And, if you’re seeking a rare or out-of-print deck, you may have no choice but to acquire it secondhand.) Of course, if you favor a crisp deck that’s never been read by anyone else, that’s fine too.  

Truth-O-Matic reading: Whatever floats your boat.

You should “reset” the deck by putting the cards back in order after each use.

This myth must be perpetuated by those folks who mistake their OCD for some kind of special magical sensitivity. I’m pretty sure the only people who follow this rule are Tarot dilettantes who read the cards once a year on their birthday. A pro would never undertake the Sisyphean task of “resetting” the deck after every spread. Sorting the cards and placing them back in their proper sequence can be a relaxing, meditative activity—but it's by no means necessary. A good shuffle or two to mix in the cards from the last reading is all the maintenance a Tarot deck requires.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Oh hell no.

You can't purchase your first Tarot deckit has to be received as a gift.

 Try as I might, I haven't been able to track down the origin of the idea that it’s somehow improper or inauspicious to buy your own Tarot deck. An acquaintance of mine who comes from a Romani (Gypsy) family tells me that this is one of their customs. To wait to be given a deck for card-reading exemplifies patience, humility, and a true calling—while buying one for yourself signifies vanity.

The prohibition against buying your own deck may also be a legacy of the 19th-century occult societies. Before the publication of the Rider-Waite deck made the Tarot images widely available, knowledge of the Tarot would have been mainly conveyed from initiate to aspirant. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, for instance, the Tarot Trumps and their “true” meanings were treated as a powerful secret. Members built on their knowledge of the Tarot in stages, as they progressed from grade to grade. Each initiate was expected to make his or her own Tarot deck from a master copy (probably painted by Moina Mathers) upon achieving the grade of Adeptus Minor.

These days, of course, there are few secrets left in the occult world, and self-initiation is the norm. So, go ahead and buy your own Tarot deck—I’m sure the powers that be have better things to do than to hang out at Barnes and Noble punishing Tarot interlopers. Besides, if you’re a Tarot beginner waiting for someone to guess that you want a Tarot deck and to buy it for you, you might be waiting for a long time. Just choose a deck that appeals to you, as long as it’s Rider-Waite (Kidding! Sort of.), and dive right in.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Piffle.

Beware the Death card!

We can thank Hollywood for this one. It’s a B-movie cliché that any character who gets this card won’t live until the credits roll.

 As every single beginning Tarot book points out, drawing Death does not necessarily portend someone’s impending demise. It signifies change—often positive change. But let’s not be tempted to de-fang (de-scythe?) this card completely. The change it speaks of can still be dramatic, scary, and presently unwelcome. When drawn, it’s a wake-up call to embrace the flux within and around us, and to face the inevitable. In recent years, with the trend toward Tarot for self-development, the pendulum has arguably swung too far the other way. Now, instead of “Death” we get “Transformation,” “Renewal,” “End of Cycle,” and other polysyllabic affirmation-speak. O Death, where is thy sting? Why dost thou blatherest on so?

Truth-O-Matic reading: Don't fear the reaper (but don't ignore him, either).

Don’t ask the same question twice.

“Does this shirt look okay on me?”


“No, really, how does this shirt look?”

“It's a little tight—”

“Aw, c'mon, don't you like my new shirt? I got it on sale.”

“It looks fine.”

 And then, because you asked the same question too many times, you leave the house looking like a stack of donuts wrapped in Spandex.

The danger is not that the Tarot will punish you for your impudence—that's superstition. No, the danger is in finally hearing what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear, and making poorer decisions because of it. It's hard enough to keep your hopes and biases out of a reading without giving yourself multiple spreads to choose from. Didn't get a clear answer the first time? Some readers will keep the spread in place and draw additional cards for clarification, but even that practice has its pitfalls. (Do you really not understand the answer, or are you just angling for cards you like better?)

You may have also noticed that the cards are, for lack of a better term, impatient with persistent needling on one question. Ever try for a re-do and get the same answer phrased a different way? Or even the same exact cards? That's the Tarot gods trying to clue you in—the answer you've received is the right one, so take it or leave it. Persist in fishing, and the tone sometimes turns a little nasty.

 Of course, there are times when you may want to do a follow-up reading on a question that has been asked in the past. But that's recommended only after some time has elapsed, and only then if the situation is actively evolving.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Mostly true.

Sleeping with your Tarot deck under your pillow will enhance your bond with the cards.

Now isn't this just like one of these lazy-ass New Age fluffy-bunny ideas: “To become a Tarot master, all you have to do is take lots of naps!” No, sorry. I’ve tried the osmosis method, and it doesn’t work. The only way to become familiar with the Tarot images is too look at them, read them, read about them, and read them some more—preferably at regular intervals, and across several decades. If exploring the cards in dreams is your objective, you’ll probably have more luck if you to choose an image to meditate on before bed. However, if you happen to like the corner of a cardboard box poking you in the cheeks all night, then be my guest.

If it’s a bond with the physical deck that you crave, the best way to connect with your cards is to handle them—handle them a lot, until your cards smell like your hands and your hands smell like cards.

Bend ‘em and scuff ‘em up until the edges are all soft and you can shuffle with your eyes closed. Mentally acquaint yourself with the texture and dimensions, so that picking up your deck feels as comfortable as sliding into your favorite T-shirt.

Will taking your deck to bed imprint it with your personal energy? Yeah, I guess so, a little. But folks who practice psychometry (the art of reading vibes from objects) generally agree that paper is a poor conductor of psychic energy, compared to non-organic materials like metal or stone. So the energy clinging to a Tarot deck may not feel as potent or last as long as with other tools. Still, if you want to infuse your cards with your personal energy, you can do that with a ritual or visualization. I recommend charging them purposefully and consciously, rather than soaking them in the psychic equivalent of pillowcase drool.

Truth-O-Matic reading: Hmmph.

This article is excerpted from the book Tarot Tangents, or Little Essays Toward Thoth.

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