Tarot and oracle cards are powerful tools for exploring your inner development, getting an insight about people and situations in your life, and critical thinking. Since the 1990s decks have been published in staggering abundance and there are hundreds in print and currently available through online and traditional retail outlets. Thousands more can be found through online used items resellers, bricks and mortar new age shops, and used bookstores. They have found their way, though rarely, into psychological practice and high art gallery presentations. More often than not they will appear at some point in the story of a fantasy TV series or movie.
Doing a reading for yourself, getting a reading for yourself, or doing readings for others is and should be, a sacred process. This article, and others I write on this subject, will explore the very serious and helpful process of using tarot and oracle cards, both personally and professionally. I have been reading cards professionally since 1992 and have done thousands of readings. Over the period of my professional work, scholarly study, and personal use, I have learned many forms of knowledge about the cards and their use that I want to share with you.
Decks come in “genres”, much like books. If you go into a bookstore or shop for a book online, they often reside in definable “sections”, such as Romance, Science Fiction, Autobiography, Cooking, and so on. Tarot decks often have definable narrative themes, such as cats, dragons, Zen Buddhism, Renaissance Italy, post-modernism, zombies, Halloween, Shamanism, and on and on. Learning the cards is certainly easier if you select a deck that contains a theme you are interested in. The first deck I purchased was the Mythic Tarot, which is based on Greek Mythology. My interest in Greek Mythology began when I discovered Bulfinch’s Mythology in my middle school library. I studied Ancient Greece as a History major for my undergraduate Bachelor’s degree.
Most decks follow the Rider-Waite narrative and visual structure, but more and more new decks are developing new visuals for the core concept of each card or even modifying the core concept to make the overall deck more cohesive, narratively speaking. Regardless of the theme or the overall narrative structure of the deck, you must learn the meaning of each card in order to prepare and execute a reading. It helps if you think of each card as a standalone narrative, which you can experience if you decide to use your deck for a daily card draw and meditation.
Once you have a solid foundation in your mind for each card, you can begin to connect cards together to start building a larger narrative. Connecting the cards is a separate process from learning the cards that is also a skill. Learning the card is more a matter of memorization than skill. The meanings of the cards have already been “made” by the historical creators of the first decks and modified by subsequent thinkers and artists. The act of “reading the Tarot” is a creative action on your part using the cards as the medium for your creation.
The Two Card “Spread”
To “spread” the cards means to lay them out in a particular way to achieve a particular outcome. Technically, you can have a one card “spread” since “spreading” the cards really refers to drawing one out of the deck, assigning it a value (such as “this card is about the present” or “this card is my meditation for today”), and interpreting the meaning of the card within the framework of the assigned value. For example, I drew the 6 of Swords while asking the question, “what do I need to think about today?” Based on the meaning of the card I need to consider how I am moving from one way (shore) of thinking to another way (shore) of thinking, as shown by the figure traveling in a boat filled with six swords.
This would represent the simplest narrative structure for a Tarot reading. I can increase the complexity of the reading by adding another card. In the case of the two-card reading I will assign the value of the first card to be, “what do you need to know in the present moment?” and for the value of the second card, I will ask, “what is the challenge you need to be aware of?” I will keep the 6 of Swords as the first card and I have selected the Chariot as my second card. Keep in mind that a challenge can be either an obstacle I have to overcome or a goal I need to reach, or even a blend of both.
Creating the Narrative
The reading of two or more cards is a skill you develop with practice and creativity. Tarot readers are storytellers and storytellers learn and develop techniques for “spinning” the narrative. In the case of my two-card reading above, the narrative I would offer to a client would go something like this:
You are in the process of changing your thinking about an issue, leaving one shore of thought to travel to another shore of thought. At this time, you are “in between” and traveling, which gives you time to reflect before you get to your new destination. Your challenge involves asserting your willpower and being clear about your intentions once you arrive. Essentially, you want to hit the ground running and not look back.
Over the years of my practice, I have found many opportunities to present to small and large groups. In doing so, I have developed a presentation where I do a two-card reading like this for the participants. When they come to my presentation I have them select two cards from a deck I have brought with me to do the presentation. I have them hand me the cards in the order they want them read and I give them an interpretation (narrative) about their two cards. Then I reverse the cards. Now, we will look at the Chariot as the first card and the 6 of Swords as the second card.
The value of the first card, “what do you need to know in the present moment?” and the value of the second card, “what is the challenge you need to be aware of?” remain the same. But now the narrative changes:
Right now, you need to assert yourself about an issue or within a situation; you need to use your willpower to move you forward. The 6 of Swords indicates that your challenge will be to use your willpower to launch yourself away from a pattern of thinking, person, or situation and travel to a new shore. While you travel, you will have time to reflect on the effort it took to get launched and what you hope to accomplish at your new destination.
I am going to refer to a children’s game to conclude this article. When my daughter was really starting to read more, I found a dice game, Rory’s Story Cubes. The game comes with 9 cubes (dice) with images on all 6 sides. You roll the dice, look at the images, put them in any order you want, and tell the story. Like a Tarot reading, you can use 1 dice/1 card or multiple dice/cards. For fun, I picked three, rolled them and got someone parachuting, a turtle, and a sad face. To complete the game, I need to put them in an order and then tell my story about how sad I am that my turtle could not come parachuting with me.
When you get or perform a reading, the spreading of the cards is like the casting of the story cube dice. They will come out “random” and require you or the reader to weave the narrative, knowing that the images on the cards will give you narrative “markers” to help you construct the message of the reading. Just memorizing the cards is not enough to get to the full power of the Tarot; it is the skill of building and delivering the narrative where the real “magic” takes place in a reading.