Simple Steps to Reading Tarot Cards

by Bonnie Cehovet

The Tarot is one of the oldest divination oracles still in use today. It can be used in many ways, including meditation, visualization, and ritual work, but its widest use is in performing Tarot readings. The archetypes that make up the Tarot lend themselves to acting as a gateway between our conscious and unconscious selves, enabling us to connect with ancestral voices (and universal knowledge).

There are many different reasons for wanting to do a reading: to better understand the past; to bring the present into sharper focus; to see what our current options are; to see what the effect of taking a given action (or actions) will be on our life; as a tool for spiritual growth; as a tool for both mental and physical healing; as a tool for understanding/healing our relationships; as a tool to help us guide our careers - these are just a few of the myriad reasons for doing a reading.

So you sit down with your deck of choice. You may or may not have an idea of what you want to read for, or how you want to phrase your question. You may be at a loss as to which spread you want to work with, and you may truly be at a loss as to how to best interpret the spread once it is laid out. Time to take a deep breath, and exhale slowly. There is magick in the Tarot, but the key to unlocking that magick lies within the reader. Every reader needs to be open to allowing information to come through to them. Do not be afraid of what you see - you may see some shadows, but we all have them. They are a part of every reading that has ever been done.

Defining Your Question

Let's start our reading by defining the question/issue at hand. That is all we are going to think about right now. If you are reading for someone else, ask them to take some time, and think about what they want to ask. If, in the end, the question is open ended (i.e. along the lines of "What do I need to know about?), then form the question in exactly that manner. The answers that we receive are only as good as the questions that we ask. We want to state the question (which acts as the foundation for the reading) in as succinct a manner as possible. In other words - it should be brief, and to the point.

Note: As readers, we also need to make it clear to our clients that questions about finances, health, or legal advice are best left to professionals in those fields.

Then there is the issue of third party questions. Third parties can be defined as anyone who is not present during a reading. My personal point of view is that if my client has a direct relationship with the party they are asking about, I will read for them. But I place definite boundaries here - I will read only in the areas that affect both people. If a client asks about a significant other, for instance, I will read for that. But I will not read for the significant other and someone else in the significant other's life, nor will I read for areas in the significant other's life that do not directly affect my client. I firmly believe in sacred space (personal boundaries), and feel that we should not cross these boundaries.

If you decide to read for yourself, try to be as objective as possible. Pretending that you are reading for someone else may help here. Your own emotions, if they enter too far into a reading, will essentially negate it.

I have found that questions are best expressed in the form of "What", rather than "Why". "What is the lesson that I need to learn?" will elicit a deeper response than "Why did this happen?" If you (or your client, if you are reading for someone else) know the general issue that you want to address, but are having a hard time formulating a specific question, take a few minutes and write down all of the questions that you might have. Go over these questions, define what is similar about them, and form a question that is relatively inclusive. For instance, if all of the questions are formed around career, a good question to ask might be: "What do I need to know about my work environment, and what actions will allow me to feel in greater control?"

Shuffling the Cards

Once the question has been defined (and don't be afraid to help your client reformat their question into something that will bring them a more inclusive, deeper answer), repeat it back to your client. Ask your client to hold the question in their mind as they shuffle the deck (or as you shuffle it, if that is your choice). (Note: If you choose to read with reversals, make sure that a certain percentage of the cards are reversed before they are shuffled for the reading.) It is this focus that will allow the Tarot to bring through the most in depth answers. A lack of focus at this point will result in a reading that may make little or no sense at all.

Note: At this point in time, I silently ask my guides, and the guides of my client, to be with us during the reading. I ask that the information that is about o be brought through be of the highest quality, and that it bring clarity to my client.

Picking the Cards

Once the client is done shuffling, I ask them to take the deck in their left hand, and break it down into three piles, left to right. I then pick the cards up, placing the center pile over the pile on the left, and the combined pile on top of the pile to the right. There is no hard and fast rule here - this is just what I do. It is actually not necessary to do this at all.

Before laying out the cards, one more decision needs to be made. Some spreads have a built in significator (a card drawn to represent the Seeker), and some do not. I have never felt the need to read with a significator, and simply do not draw for that position when it is built into a spread that I am using. There is not hard and fast rule about this - it really comes down to what the reader is comfortable with.

Significator Cards

If you decide to read with a significator, there are various ways that the card can be chosen. A card can be drawn at random, you can use your client's Zodiac sign to determine the suit (Wands are Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius; Cups are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces; Swords are Gemini, Libra and Aquarius; Pentacles are Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn), or you can use physical characteristics.

In the method using Zodiac signs, once the suit has been defined, the Court Card that best matches your client is chosen. Pages are most often seen as children (or teens) of either sex, Knights as young adults of either sex; Queens as adult females (or married women); and Kings as adult males (or married men). In the method using physical characteristics, the traditional view is: Wands are fair, with light or reddish hair and either light or dark eyes. Cups are fair, with light brown or dark blond hair, and gray, blue, or hazel eyes. Swords are olive complected, with brown or black hair, and light eyes. Pentacles are dark skinned, with black or dark brown hair, and dark eyes. Use the same system as above for determining which card within the suit best defines your client.

Laying Out the Cards

As a reader, you are now going to lay down the cards in some type of format, and interpret them. You can choose to use a formal spread here, or you can read the cards at random. In either case, you need to keep the question in mind as you do the reading. In reading the cards at random, the technique of "free association" comes into play. The colors, and the images, within the card determine the meaning of the card, and the context that it is read in. Te best use for this type of reading is when you are reading for yourself, or at the end of a more formal reading. It is also a technique that works well for psychic readers.

Tarot Spreads

In most instances, a formal spread will be used. This can be a spread that has been created by the reader themselves, or it may be a spread that has been developed by someone else. Each position within the spread will be defined, as well as the format of the spread itself. Certain spreads will relate better to certain questions. The smaller the spread (the fewer cards that are used), the easier it will be for a beginning reader to interpret.

A one card spread can be used for any question, as can the traditional ten card Celtic Cross spread. (The Celtic Cross spread is also good to use when the question is more general in nature.) A three card spread can be defined in many ways, and can bring out a great deal of information. The format can be linear, or set in a triangle. Some of the ways that it can be read are: Past/Present/Future, Morning/Noon/Night, Opportunity/Challenge/Outcome, and Issue/Challenge/Action. However you want to define this reading, it is great fun, and will bring out a great deal of information.

A simple four card format that looks at the question/issue from the perspective of the four levels of life is the Elemental Spread. I define the positions here as: East/Spiritual, South/Emotional, West/Physical, and North/Mental. A fifth card can be drawn to represent the Seeker, and placed in the middle of the other four cards (which form a diamond pattern).

Observing the Cards

You have focused in on a specific question or issue, the cards have been shuffled, and the manner of reading (using, or not using, a formal spread) decided upon. Now you need to decide, as a reader, whether to lay the cards face up or face down. This is an individual decision - do whatever you are most comfortable with. I have always chosen to read with the cards face up, because I want to see the larger picture before I begin my reading. Other readers prefer to allow the story to unfold as the cards are turned over. It is up to you to determine what works best for you.

Take a deep breath, exhale, and allow the images on the cards to come to you. Now is your time to shine, as you interpret the cards individually, and as a group.

The first thing that you want to do is to take a look at the overall pattern of the spread - which symbols are you drawn to, what do the colors tell you, what kind of flow do the cards have? Is there a predominance of Major Arcana cards? If so, the outcome is largely out of the Seeker's hands, and the reading itself is highly spiritual in nature.

What is the balance between the suits? If there is a predominance of one suit, the energy of that suit is predominant in the reading. (In general, the energy of Wands is active, creative, and having to do with personal will power; the energy of Cups is that of the emotional world, the subconscious self, and intuition; the energy of Swords is the energy of intellect and communications; the energy of Pentacles is the energy of finances, work, and the environment around you.)

I take this one step farther, in that if a particular suit does not come up in a reading (especially in larger readings), then I feel that the "way out" of the Seeker's dilemma is to be found in that suit.

Wherever Aces appear, you are looking at "potential" - at unmanifested energy. Wherever Court Cards appear, there will be people involved in the issue. If you read with reversals, look at which positions they fall in. Are they in the past? Are they in the present? Are they in the future? If you do not read with reversals (which I do not), work on another method of determining the strength or weakness of a card. Using Elemental Dignities is an excellent choice here.

Beginning the Reading

Where do you begin a reading? At the beginning, of course! Start with the first card. Look at the landscape, the colors, the images, and the symbols. What stands out for you? How does what you see relate to the question the Seeker is asking? If you are reading for someone else, ask them how they feel about the card.

I normally tape readings that I do for others, so that they can take the tape home with them. Readings are ripe with emotion - no one is going to remember everything that was said, no matter how important is was. Having a tape of the reading will help your client work through the information that they were presented with. If you are reading for yourself, you may want to either do a tape for yourself, or make notes as you go along. Some readers will choose to wait until the end of the reading to make notes, if they are reading for themselves.

The story begins with the very first card, and winds through the labyrinth of cards to the last card. If a card seems unclear, draw one card from the deck to act as a clarifier, then move on to the next card. If the end card is a Trump (Major Arcana card), there is little the Seeker can do to change the path of the issue. In this case, they need to work on understanding it. If the end card is a Court Card, then other people are involved with the resolution of the issue. If the end card is a Pip (numbered card), then the Seeker can take actions that will change their path.

Above all, a reading is a snapshot of the Seeker's life at a specific place in time. It is a reflection of the energies in their life, and it shows where their opportunities and challenges are. This is their story, a story that will unfold as it should from card to card, each card gaining meaning from the others. Each card holds a basic (traditional) meaning, but each card also holds a meaning that it gains from the cards around it.

When you first begin to read the cards, go through a reading intuitively, speaking what comes through to you from the images in the cards. Then, if you wish, go back and check the "traditional" meaning of the cards. Know that as you do more and more readings, you will develop your own sense of what a card means, and where it is taking you. Keeping a journal of your readings will allow you to see your progress on a very real level, as well as allowing you to see how specific issues develop in your life.

Happy reading - and remember to have fun!

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer.

Home > Blog > Simple Steps to Reading Tarot Cards