A Compendium of Tarot Reading Techniques

I was recently talking to someone about “reading style.” It’s a subject worth examining in more detail. Although I can be a bit flippant in calling myself “half mad scientist and half mystic,” what it boils down to is that my own mode of reading the cards partakes slightly more of the analytical than the mystical. It comes from having thoroughly internalized the card images and meanings over many years of study and practice, thereby building a solid platform from which to launch more imaginative forays into ad-hoc interpretation.

Tarot neophytes are often mortified when they reach the inevitable conclusion that they have to memorize the complex and often non-intuitive meanings of 78 images before they can effectively read the cards. While I believe that acquiring a solid grounding in traditional lore is vital to full comprehension of the tarot, the very thought of memorizing long lists of keywords with the forlorn hope of ever being able to assemble them into a compelling narrative can sound a death knell for any enthusiasm a beginner may feel. I call this the “Lego-block” approach to learning, and it is as dry as dust. My advice is always “Don’t memorize, internalize!”

But what is the best way to do this while assuring that you don’t wander too far down imaginative blind alleys and leave all sense of historical continuity behind? I took a hint from my work with Lenormand and decided that each tarot card should be assigned a self-chosen theme consisting of no more than a couple of key descriptors (single words and/or phrases) that summarize its chief qualities. In doing so, I think it’s important to ignore a lot of the charming but irrelevant folklore that has grown up around the cards (especially the numbered minor cards) and build your own core knowledge base using both conceptual ideas and visual cues. In that case, I suggest steering clear of YouTube experts, Facebook groups, tarot forums and other social-media outlets that offer educational content of tenuous pedigree and locate a few acknowledged master-works in the genre.

I recommend finding a fairly comprehensive keyword list from an established authority and spend some time with it. Run through the population for each card and single out the one word or phrase that strikes you as most descriptive of what you see in the image. Note that with the Waite-Smith deck and Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot, your answer may very well be “none of them,” in which case you should probably appeal to another original source such as the Golden Dawn’s Liber T or Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, or to second-generation RWS-based compilations like Eden Gray’s The Tarot Revealed or Mastering the Tarot. While I acknowledge that there are a great many more recent authors who might be consulted, I find that folkloric bloat has overtaken many of them when what is needed for our purpose is a critically-astute paring down of these excrescences into brief, pithy “hooks” that can be expected to bury themselves in the learner’s consciousness. (When he wasn’t being deliberately abstruse, Crowley was a master at this.)

Once armed with your personal “short list,” begin reading the cards and applying what you acquired in a fairly literal way, resisting at first any spinning-off into creative extemporizing. If you encounter a situation where none of your selected meanings make sense, go “back to the well” and find one that fits better, then add it to your repertoire. But do this sparingly and judiciously. The important thing is to undertake this gradual accumulation based on narrative need and not on any academic desire for a comprehensive vocabulary. Eventually, through repetition and reinforcement, your choices will jell in the form of subconscious associations that will immediately rise to the surface when you encounter the cards in a spread. It becomes automatic, after which you can bring client interaction and personal intuition to bear to make adjustments on-the-fly to fit the context of the reading.

There are numerous posts on the subject of reading style scattered throughout my previous blog output (www.parsifalswheeldivination.com), but I thought it would be instructive to enumerate them in one place. Although I will try to rank them in order of significance to my practice, whether or not I use them depends upon the nature of the question and the goals of the consultation. They are divided between what I would call the more “clinical” side of my approach and those aspects that fall under the “anecdotal” or informal umbrella. (Be aware that the “curmudgeon quotient” is a bit high in some of this and it could push a few buttons. Don’t take it personally, it’s just one man’s opinion.)

Use of Formal (and Usually “Positional”) Spreads:

This is a contentious topic among modern readers because so many of them only read “jumpers” (cards that fall out when shuffling) and never lay the cards in an orderly fashion. For me, a spread imparts focus and discipline to my readings, giving me a narrative shell for my storytelling. Creating personal spreads with topic-specific position meanings is one of my most rewarding pursuits when working with the tarot at a theoretical level.

“Subconscious Induction:”

This is the linchpin in my personal theory about “how tarot works.” Although I’ve always felt this way in general, I was greatly impressed by Joseph Maxwell’s observation that “Coming events cast a shadow before them; each individual has a presentiment about his own destiny, which may remain latent: the normal processes of consciousness do not include such presentiments.” For this reason, I believe that shuffling the cards “induces” that subconscious awareness into the array of cards by putting it in the proper order to tell the story (note that this isn’t “randomizing,” it’s purposeful arrangement through subliminally-directed tactile manipulation). Consequently, I don’t like to shuffle the deck on behalf of someone else; it’s their subconscious we’re trying to induce, not mine.

“Gestalt” Overview:

I always try to take a “wide-angle” or “big-picture” scan of the entire spread before I get down to specifics. In this way I can immediately see whether something stands out in important ways that can help steer the reading in a particular direction. The rest of the cards will sometimes become subservient to that main thrust.

Dignities of Various Types:

This usually involves an abundance or absence of any quality in a spread: suit, element, number or rank. This is one of the first things I look for during the “gestalt overview” phase of a reading. A good example is seeing no Cups or other Water cards in a reading about romance; another would be encountering no Fire or Earth cards in a business enterprise reading. In both cases there would be little encouragement for a successful outcome if things are left to themselves. In her book, Tarot Decoded, Elizabeth Hazel does a thorough and altogether admirable job of covering this subject.

Correspondences in General:

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came up with an elaborate system of esoteric correspondences for the cards that adds another dimension to their basic interpretation. By-and-large, these are qabalistic, numerical, astrological, elemental and chromatic (color-theory-based) in nature. Although I don’t use them consistently, they can help to introduce both vitality and nuance into a reading. (However, I usually keep these details to myself; most clients have little exposure to them, so I just use them to “season” my narrative without naming them.)

Storytelling Tropes:

These are narrative conventions that can lend considerable vigor to a reading. I group them under the heading of “Inspiration/Imagination/Ingenuity.” What often arise from their application are anecdotal observations that take the form of shared cultural, social, literary or historical metaphors or analogies that can neatly summarize a point that otherwise proves elusive. It’s sometimes the only way to get the “Aha!” response out of a client who is puzzling over the more straightforward version.

“Clinical” Bias (aka “Just Read the Cards”):

I try to begin my readings in a literal and pragmatic rather than visionary way, drawing from a deeply-ingrained knowledge-and-experience base and augmenting that with more imaginative (and hopefully inspired) narrative embellishments as the spirit moves me. I’ve always had reservations about a purely “intuitive” approach to reading the tarot. In a recent post I rather grumpily suggested that it can amount to “starry-eyed self-hypnosis” and being “adrift in our own heads,” but there are sound metaphysical and esoteric reasons for my misgivings. Part of it has to do with “subconscious prejudice,” by which we inadvertently impose our own preconceptions and assumptions on the reading rather than simply “reading the cards.” We may feel that we’re accurately “channeling the Universe” (or the Divine) via our intuitive epiphanies but we may just be indulging in self-deception fueled by naive trust in the unseen realms and the assumed purity of our own intentions. Those who like to say “it’s all just energy” into which we can cast our net and invariably come up with legitimate insights should spend some time reading up on the Astral Plane.

Face-to-Face Reading:

This is my favorite way to read the cards for other people and, at an earlier point in time, it was the only way one did it; I’ve never seen evidence of anyone performing cartomancy over “snail-mail.” When I discovered that modern readers have gravitated toward remote reading by email, Skype, telephone or social media, I was taken aback. If you don’t trust the “all-pervading aethyr” to deliver the goods through psychic channels (and I don’t as described above) how does one accomplish “subconscious induction” with a seeker on the far side of the world? After several years of resisting the allure of being able to read in my pajamas, I hit upon a way to do it reliably: I have my online clients either pull their own cards and email me the list in the order drawn or send my a set of intuitively-selected random numbers between 1 and 78 (enough for the spread I’ll be using) and I will pull the cards from a randomized deck here. It’s worth noting one exception to this approach: horary astrology charts are always cast for the astrologer’s physical longitude and latitude using the time the question is received and understood.

Client Point-of-View:

Because of my belief in the efficacy of subconscious induction, I tell my clients “It’s your reading, not mine. I’m just the interpreter.” As I see it, clients know more about their private reality than I can ever hope to learn by reading the cards, so I always try to engage them in a dialogue to obtain their concurrence or disagreement with my observations. This allows me to shape the reading along lines that will be most meaningful and useful to them. Joseph Maxwell again:

“. . . in the interest of making a full and helpful divination, it is necessary to verify with the enquirer at each step if the intuition is taking the right path.”

Comprehensive Narrative Write-up (E-mail Only):

When performing a remote reading and delivering it by e-mail, it’s difficult if not impossible to follow Maxwell’s advice to the letter while in-process (unless I have questions for the querent before finishing); in fact, I would consider it a distraction. I include in the price one e-mail exchange after delivery to answer their questions, and my clients have been good about not abusing it. To head off as many of these after-the-fact questions as possible, when I write up the reading I will try to include all aspects of the cards that may have a bearing on the subject. This is especially valuable with the court cards, which can be interpreted in a number of ways. It does make for a longer epistle; a 10-card Celtic Cross can take five or six typed pages, about half of which are specific to the answer, the rest are comprised of “canned” introductory and connecting text. My pricing acknowledges that while still trying to stay within striking distance of the “cheap” readers out there.

“Changing Gears:”

There are occasionally times when the straightforward, literal reading of a card as a description of external circumstances makes no impression on the client, who can’t relate to the interpretation in any way. At these times it becomes crucial to “peel back the layers” of meaning that every card contains to find a degree of resonance with the client’s self-awareness about the matter. This might be psychological, as in describing the characteristics, attitudes and behaviors the client should either adopt or avoid in the situation; it might also be impersonal (societal, universal or even “spiritual”), describing a broader landscape in which the client may not be the central figure, and across which “bigger game” may be afoot. This sort of open-ended conjecture can be a lot of fun for both client and reader as we seek inspiration.

Reversals:

There seems to be a strong and ever-growing sentiment against the use of reversed cards. “The cards already carry both positive and negative meanings,” the argument goes, “so why do we need the artificial emphasis provided by an upside-down card?” I will grant that even as blatantly cheerful a card as the Sun has a “dark side” (ever get a really bad sunburn?), but I can’t see spending a lot of time trying to tease that out within the context of a reading when reversal provides a shortcut that will send me directly there. Plus, reversal can open interesting byways of inquiry that might otherwise go unexplored because, like the Hanged Man, it shifts the perspective away from the norm, bringing a different mode of delivery and angle of attack to the expression of a card’s energy. I tell people who don’t use reversals that they’re “missing half the fun.”

Situational Awareness and Developmental Insight (aka “Fortune-telling”):

Divination seems to be faintly disreputable for people who are on the path to spiritual enlightenment and psychological self-discovery, which they see as the only legitimate use of the tarot. I counted myself among them for decades but got tired of plowing the same old furrow. Now I exuberantly embrace divination of the action-and-event-oriented kind, and generally steer clear of navel-gazing for myself and psychological profiling for other people. I’m more interested in how a situation might unfold as reflected in the cards than how someone might “think or feel” about it.

That’s all I can think of at the moment. I will add to this list if I come up with any more.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store