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Tarot beginner? Straight answers to 9 newbie questions about the cards

Michelle Gruben beginner tarot tools

Hand holding Tarot cards

Interested in getting started with Tarot? You’re in for a remarkable journey. When used intentionally, Tarot has the power to teach you about yourself, reveal hidden knowledge, and totally change the way you look at the world.

As an avowed Tarot nerd, I sometimes forget what it’s like to be brand new to the cards. I’m often at a loss for words when I try to talk about Tarot to absolute beginners. This article is all about getting back to the basics of Tarot.

The following questions come from customers (and strangers) who have asked me about Tarot. If you’re just getting started, you may find answers to your Tarot questions here.

What is Tarot?

Tarot is a system of knowledge based on images and numbers. The most familiar form of Tarot is the 78-card deck. The Tarot deck has a specific structure, but different artists have interpreted it in different ways over the years. The earliest Tarot decks were made in 15th-century Italy for gaming purposes. Yet occultists believe the roots of Tarot stretch back to the beginnings of human civilization.

Most people are aware that Tarot cards can be used for fortune-telling, but there are many other ways to access the wisdom encoded within the Tarot. Students of Tarot use the cards as an aid for personal growth, meditation, and magick.

How do you read Tarot cards?

You can read Tarot for yourself or someone else. Reading methods vary a lot, but a typical card reading involves shuffling the deck and dealing out one or more cards at random. The number and position of the cards is known as a “spread.” The reader may have a specific question in mind, or not.

The reader then interprets the cards that have been drawn. Many factors influence the interpretation: The readers’ intuition, his or her knowledge of the card meanings, the orientation and position of the cards, and the relationship of the cards to each other.

Is Tarot evil?

Many people have been raised to believe that reading Tarot is evil, or that the cards themselves have some sinister power. This is simply untrue. The Tarot is a collection of symbolic images that have lasted throughout the centuries. It is a picture-book of the human experience, nothing more and nothing less.

Fears about Tarot usually stem from the Judaeo-Christian rules against fortune-telling and image-making. However, divination and the use of sacred images are a part of many spiritual paths around the world. They are not evil practices. They are things people do to try and understand ourselves better.

Tarot may not be appropriate for everyone. A clear and open mind is always the best way to approach divination. If you have guilt or fear about using the cards, it will certainly affect the quality of your readings.

Is Tarot part of the occult?

In the strictest sense of the word, yes. Occult means “hidden” and there are many, many wonders hidden within those simple, two-dimensional images. Tarot is also connected to occult subculture. Many occult groups, from the Golden Dawn to Wicca, have used Tarot cards and Tarot imagery in their rituals and teachings.

People make a mistake when they conflate the occult functions of Tarot with the cards themselves. Tarot is a tool. Just because the Tarot can be used for spirit communication, divination, and spell-casting, doesn’t mean it has to be. Tarot has non-occult talents, too. Fiction writers have used Tarot to brainstorm new story ideas. Psychotherapists and counselors have found therapeutic uses for the cards. And—though grandma may not approve—Tarot is still good for a rummy-like game of chance, Tarocchi.

Is it true that you shouldn’t buy a Tarot deck for yourself?

There’s an old superstition that says buying a Tarot deck for yourself is improper, or bad luck, etc. Nowadays, most people happily ignore this advice and shop for their own decks.  After all, a first Tarot deck is a very personal choice. It may not be a decision you want to entrust to someone else.

It’s perfectly fine to obtain your own Tarot deck through any (ethical) means. Most of the time, that means buying it from a website or shop. If you wanted to be really cautious, you could decide on a deck, then ask a friend or family member to buy it for you as a gift. (See also: Tarot myths debunked.)

What Tarot deck should I choose for my first deck?

There’s no one right answer to this question. Your first deck should be one that works for your Tarot practice. Look for a deck that has artwork you enjoy, and that feels right for you to be using. The more you like a deck, the more you’ll read with it—and the experience will make you a better Tarot reader.

There are hundreds of different Tarot decks in print, and any one of them could become your first deck. However, there are good reasons to opt for one of the more traditional Tarot decks. Check out our recommendations of the best Tarot decks for beginners.

Can you learn Tarot by yourself?

Sometimes people wonder if you need a class or a teacher to learn Tarot. The answer is, “certainly not.” Tarot is a teacher, and a remarkably patient and articulate one. The cards, a book (or twelve), and your own observations will get you very far without ever needing to take a class.

That being said, studying Tarot with others can be a fun and rewarding experience. You will learn much more about the cards if you’re able to get out of your own head. You can check online to see if there are any Tarot classes forming in your area. If not, forums and online discussions are another way to share your Tarot study with others.

Do you have to be psychic to read Tarot?

No, but it helps! (I knew you were going to ask that.) In all seriousness, though, it is possible to perform perfectly illuminating Tarot readings without a shred of psychic ability.

How’s that, you say? Because human beings are excellent pattern-finders. We have a special ability to weave seemingly random images into stories. And the stories we spot in the chaos can tell us a lot about what’s going on deep inside our heads and hearts.

A shuffled Tarot is a blank canvas where psychic insights often emerge. Most readers say that using the cards helps them access their natural psychic gifts more readily. Practicing with Tarot can help develop psychic awareness, but don’t be discouraged if you feel your third eye needs glasses. Tarot is used productively by lots of people who don’t believe in psychic ability at all.

Does Tarot require memorization?

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill here, but Tarot is heavy stuff. There is a great deal of meaning condensed into the cards, and it will take some effort from you to learn to unpack it. If you approach the Tarot in a shallow way, your relationship with the system will also be without depth.

The best readers combine deep understanding of the cards and intuition. Anyone who says you can read the cards purely intuitively (without any study) is soft-pedaling the power of Tarot. They aren’t just pretty pictures to stimulate the mind—they are part of an esoteric language with a specific vocabulary and grammar.

Fortunately, learning the card meanings doesn’t have to feel like cramming for a test. There’s no need to commit the little white booklet to memory, or spend hours drilling on keywords. As with any language, the best way to “speak” Tarot is to use it daily. Reading, meditating, and practicing with the cards will help you far more than rote memorization. Try studying one card each day until you feel confident that you can connect with its meaning when it comes up in a spread.

Read more posts about Tarot, or shop for decks. You can also browse the entire blog archive here.

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