Interpreting the Cards
I have already discussed the process behind throwing the spread, and now it is time to discuss another important aspect of reading the tarot – perhaps the most important aspect, in fact: interpreting the cards themselves.
Assuming that you have already laid out the cards, having gone through the process of formulating your topic, asking a question, choosing your spread and deck, invoking your guide, and then finally placing the cards down,it is time to start interpreting them.
The most important thing to keep in mind when reading the cards is the question that you asked. Your inner guide, your subconscious mind, is trying to help you answer your question through the medium of the cards. You need to interpret the cards with the intention of answering the question you spent so much time formulating. For example, if you asked “What factors should I consider when trying to understand and handle Larry’s frequent thefts?” (sound familiar?) it wouldn’t do you any good to interpret the spread as advising you to invest in fish. Certainly, you can find a way to interpret the spread as almost anything you want. That is the beauty of the tarot: it is vague, simple, and meaningful enough that each card be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, leading to countless avenues of mental exploration. However, the cards will only help you if you interpret them in a fashion that directly answers your question.
A second critically important aspect of reading the cards is to interpret the card and its position, or else the spread itself is meaningless (more on this later).
Like with laying out the spread, there is no single way to do interpret the cards, and every reader will give you a different answer if you ask them about it. So, instead of laying out meaningless “rules,” I will merely give my own take on the process.
I tend to interpret the cards individually first, and then use these interpretations to color wider relationships and patterns between and among the cards. It is perfectly valid, however to do the opposite, and use broader patterns in the spread to inform your interpretation of individual cards. I have been known to do both. Generally, it is easier to focus on interpreting individual cards, and when just starting out, often it helps to just focus on this and ignore larger patterns at first.
The first thing I do, after laying out all the cards and carefully placing the remainder of the deck to the side, out of the way, is methodically go through each card in each position and meditate on its meanings. When I say “meditate,” here, I mean think very hard about it, while simultaneously attempting to shut out all distractions. This can be very difficult to do, as the world has a great many distractions. If you can, you should perform a reading when you will not be disturbed by those not involved, and with no easy access to the internet (unless you are still learning a deck, when having websites open might aid you). If you are reading for someone else, in person, this might be harder, but it is still important to concentrate greatly on each card.
For each spread, I go through the cards in the same order; ritual, I find, helps focus the mind and make the cards easier to interpret. For example, in the Celtic Cross spread, I always start with the central factor, then supporting factor, then influence of the past, then the future, then the unconscious influences, then the conscious ones, and then I work my way up the staff from bottom to top.
For each card, I go through the following steps:
1). Remind myself of the meaning of the card’s position. (It’s later). It is easy to sometimes get so wrapped up in interpreting the meaning of a particular card as it applies to your question that you forget to also take into account the meaning of the card’s position. Each position in a spread has its own meaning, like that of the card, and functions like astrological houses. The question serves to focus your thoughts (and serve a function similar to the date and time in astrology), the cards give you language to speak in (like Sun Signs, Planets, Asteroids, and Nodes in astrology), and the positions in the spread show you where the actions represented by the cards take place (like Houses in astrology, and in Geomancy, for that matter).
By reminding myself of what the card’s position means first, I ensure that I am thinking about that when thinking about the card. For example, when reading the first position of the Celtic Cross, I will remind myself that this is the central factor that will help me answer my question, or when reading the ninth card will remind myself that this card is what will offer me advice or illuminate my hopes and/or fears (it’s always interesting when a single card can do both of these). I will then apply the card’s position to my interpretation of the card itself.
2. Interpret the Image on the Card. This step is relatively simple; answer the question “What do I see on the card, and how does this apply to my question when relating it back to its position?” This often does not take all too much time, as eventually the picture’s image will help define what it means to you. If you are using this deck for the first time, spend a long time noticing every aspect of the image, and how it reinforces its meaning. If you have used it before, it is often helpful to spend a long time looking at it, but not always necessary. Instead, look at the image for any parts of it that might directly apply to or shed insights on the question.
3. Interpret the Card’s Meaning as Seen by You. This is closely related to the previous step, but slightly different. Each card, over time, will come to have a specific meaning for you, and you will develop different relationships with the cards. For example, the Devil and I have a very special relationship, and I can generally almost instantly divine an interpretation for it (even though one might be able to do this, however, it is always good to not rely on an instant reaction, and think instead about that reaction for a while before moving on to the next card). This meaning is not the meaning espoused by others; always at first interpret the card on your own, using your own understanding of it. This makes your reading unique, helps develop your mind, helps you learn the cards, and is a more direct conduit to your inner mind. Let the card speak to you before you turn to others’ thoughts. This is most easily done by looking at the image on the card, as explained above.
4. Interpret the Card’s Universal Meaning. This step is not as important as the previous two, but helps provide some cohesion and legitimacy to the cards. For example, it is generally not considered appropriate to interpret Death (XIII) as meaning that your life will remain the same forever (though if the card is reversed, some might argue it can be interpreted that way). There are certain “universal” interpretations and meanings associated with cards, which come from generations of scholarship and personal interpretations; in the end, the universal meaning of a card is merely the result of countless generations of personal interpretations. For most decks, the universal meaning of a card is the result of occult and esoteric theories, particularly those from Qabalah and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Many of the cards also have equivalent symbols in other esoteric arts, such as Geomancy, Astrology, and Alchemy.
However, one should always interpret a card on their own and understand it on a personal level before ever consulting an outside source on the card’s meaning. The instant one does that, they will never interpret the card the same way they would otherwise. It is best, I have found, to first learn the card’s meaning according to your own system, and then research it and take in what parts of it you agree with, and leave out others. Sometimes you might reject everything the universal meaning says (which is perfectly fine!), and sometimes you might reject everything you thought about it (also perfectly fine!). The outside research won’t change because of you, but you will change because of the outside research. Remember that.
So, once you have interpreted the card’s meaning according to image, personal interpretation, and universal meaning, I would recommend next looking at the card’s suit.
5. Interpret the Card’s Suit. This becomes more important when looking for wider patterns, but even when looking at it initially, interpreting the suit can be helpful. In this step, simply look at the card’s suit and apply that meaning to its position. Wands/Fire are associated with the willpower and activity, Cups/Water are associated with emotions and passivity, Swords/Air are associated with logic and the abstract, Disks/Earth are associated with the material and practicality, and the Major Arcana are associated with the spirit and life’s journey.
6. Interpret the Card’s Number. This is often more helpful when reading an individual card than interpreting the suit is. After determining the effect of the suit on the reading, I look at the card’s number (or, in the case of court cards, its rank). Each number generally has a specific meaning across the suits, though this meaning varies from deck to deck. Most commonly, the numbers represent the different Sefirot of the Tree of Life. This is where the interpretation of the suit can become useful, as it is the card’s number and its suit that determine its universal, original meaning. Aces, for example, represent the beginning of the suit and stand for everything it represents, completely purely. Tens represent the logical conclusion of the suit, with it being applied to earthly, material life. One should adopt a system of interpreting the number and stick to it. Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth is helpful in this regard if you wish to examine Qabalistic interpretations. Numbered cards (1-10 in the four suits) generally represent aspects of the energies of a particular suit as they apply to events relating to the question.
In the cases of the Court Cards, instead of looking at the numbers, look at the position. The names of these positions vary wildly, from King, Queen, Knight, and Page to Knight, Queen, Prince, and Princess, to King, Queek, Knight, and Knave. No two decks have exactly the same court card setup, and Court Cards are often the hardest cards to master. Court cards generally represent strong personalities in the situation you are examining in your reading, and might represent actual people or forces of nature and society.
Major Arcana cards do have numbers, but not in the same way as the numbered cards do. The numbers of the Major Arcana reflect the card’s position on the journey of life, and Major Arcana cards appearing in the spread represent powerful forces in a reading. They generally are given more weight when interpreted, and represent aspects of life’s journey as manifested in a particular situation.
7. Is the Card Reversed? Reversed cards are a matter of much debate in the tarot world, and nobody interprets them the same way. When a card appears upside down, some people choose to interpret it differently. Some people don’t at all, and just flip the card over. Whatever you wish to do about reversed cards is perfectly fine.
Many people interpret a reversed card as meaning the opposite of its normal meaning; for example, Death (XIII) reversed would be that one’s life will lack any major changes, and that no major forces would interfere with his life. This interpretation works fine, but I find it personally lacking.
Personally, I interpret reversed cards as meaning that the energy of that card is still present, but blocked by something. Going through the rest of the spread, or if that fails, drawing a clarifying card, can help you figure out what exactly is blocking the energy. When the energy is blocked, the card’s effects can be reduced, hidden, or expressed in an unusual way.
But, the meaning (and existence) or reversed cards is up to you. If you are just starting, it might be best not to interpret reversed cards differently at first.
8. Relate the Meaning of the Card Back to Its Position. Remember how I said to keep the card’s position in mind? Did you, when reading all of the above? Chances are, you didn’t. I didn’t. It can be hard, like I said. So, after interpreting all of the above aspects of the card, before you move on to the next one, take a minute or two to remind yourself of the card’s position, and relate the card’s meaning back its position. This also serves to help you formalize what the card means in this particular situation in your own mind.
So, after going through that for each card in the spread, its time to look for patterns! There is, again, no set way to do this. Generally, the first thing I look for is patterns of suits. Are there a lot of Wands in the spread? Perhaps, then, the situation calls for courage and forging onwards without looking back. Lots of Disks? Perhaps you should be cautious and think things through carefully before moving forward. Are there a lot of Major Arcana? This might be a major turning point in your life. The tone of the spread overall can be drastically affected by the various amounts of each suit represented. Make note also of absent suits.
After this, I look for patterns of numbers. Are there a lot of Aces? Perhaps a new beginning is coming your way. A lot of tens? Perhaps an ending. Lots of sixes? Your life may be well-balanced at the moment. If there are a lot of a particular rank of Court Card, perhaps this personality has come to dominate your life and the choices you make. Additionally, if you have all four of the Court Cards of one suit in a spread (or even, to a lesser extent, just all four Court Cards), make a note of that, as it indicates that all aspects of that suit are represented somewhere in the spread.
Some decks have other classifications of cards specific to them. For example, the Wildwood Tarot was designed with the Wheel of the Year in mind. When using the Wildwood deck, after interpreting the spread initially, I often rearrange the cards to that each card is in its position relative to the Wheel of the Year, to better understand the spread’s composition. Doing similar other things can be helpful in determining other patterns, too. Just remember to make sure that you are done interpreting the cards’ positions before rearranging them!
Once you have looked at broad patterns, you can focus. Many cards have associated opposites or complements; Learning the Tarot here has a page on some of these, and there are many others. For example the Magus and the Priestess are opposites, as well as the Emperor and the Empress. The Seven of Disks and the Six of Disks are often opposites. Opposites are often easier to see than complementary cards, such as the Seven of Cups and then Ten of Cups. Also, remember that the numbered cards form a progression, from one to ten. If you can see this progression in the spread, it can also be interpreted in its own special way. For example, if in the past you see the Two of Swords and in the future you see the Three of Swords, you might want to consider how the path of Swords influences your life, as you might be going down it. It might be worth it to ponder how the rest of the suit might manifest in your life.
The meaning of these linked cards can be reinforced if they are also in linked positions. The positions in each spread, as I have said many times, have specific meanings, and some positions are linked to others through these meanings. For example, the past and present positions in the Celtic Cross are opposites, the central and supporting factors can be either opposing or complementary positions, the Conscious Influences, Future, and Advice/Hopes/Fears positions in the Celtic Cross are complemantary, the bottom two positions on the Celtic Cross staff are linked, the Past and Subconscious Influence positions are linked, and the entire Yin-Yang spread is composed of opposites. Learning the Tarot has a page on linked Celtic Cross positions here.
If you see opposing or complementary cards in these linked positions, it can either strengthen a certain message or weaken it. Watch these positions carefully!
If reading the patterns in a spread isn’t enough, and you really want the meaning of a particular card to become clear, you can draw another card from the unused deck and place it next to the card in question. This card will clarify the meaning of the card you drew it to help you understand. It can clarify the card in a number of different ways; either by showing how the card’s energies will be expressed, where they will be, how strong they will be, or can add a second factor to the card, sometimes showing the situation to be even more complex than before. Try not to try a second clarifying card if you can; always try to use the cards before you already before drawing more.
Most spreads have a single card that “sums up” the rest of the spread. This card is good to end a reading on. Of course, interpret it individually along with the rest of the cards, but at the end, after you have taken everything else into account, return again to this card and look at it in a new light, and determine why it is that this card applies to the entire spread, and how the rest of the spread represents various aspects of this single card.
Once you are done interpreting the cards, it is time to put them away. There are countless ways to do this, as with every other step, but my own personal method is to thank my inner guide, move the cards together into a big pile, shuffle them among themselves, and then shuffle them back into the deck, before putting them away and moving on.
It’s very difficult to be specific with posts of this nature, but hopefully this was interesting and at least mildly helpful!
I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also
with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself?
Anyway keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a
great blog like this one nowadays.
February 7, 2014 at 8:02 pm
Thank you for this in-depth look at interpreting cards.
I have just started out and am using Thr Wildwood as my tarot. It appears to be a variation on the RW decks. This may sound like a silly question, but I’m curious as to whether I should be looking up guidance on the RW versions, or the interpretations given in the WW book. I do work thru my own ideas first, but like to hone that skill by checking back with the universal definitions. I find the information on the RW descriptions more accessible than what is written in the WW book. Would love to hear your thoughts on this!
October 5, 2015 at 5:45 am
Everyone does things their own way, and of course there are no hard and fast rules about how to arrive at your personal interpretation of the cards! I personally didn’t check back with the Rider-Waite definitions when figuring out the Wildwood (both because the Thoth is my default deck, and because my Rider-Waite interpretations probably came through a bit when going through them on my own), and I feel that the Wildwood is sufficiently different from the Rider-Waite that I, personally, didn’t find it useful in helping me to understand the deck.
Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case for you! If the Rider-Waite is your baseline, then by all means refer back to it! Just remember to not transpose the meanings with no change from Rider-Waite to Wildwood, but let the images of the Wildwood change and alter the meanings you draw from the Rider-Waite.
Happy readings! 🙂
October 5, 2015 at 5:10 pm