How to Learn Tarot: Learning How to Learn

If you are new to cartomancy, you might be wondering: how do I get started with Tarot? Well, this post will give you a complete guide on how to learn Tarot. I will nnot be teaching you Tarot itself. Learning Tarot is a lifelong endeavor. Instead, I would be teaching you how to learn Tarot.

They say, “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

Well, most articles you find online give you fish. I want to teach you how to fish. How to teach yourself. How to learn. Because if you know how to learn Tarot, you can do all the heavy-lifting yourself, spread out over the course of a lifetime.

First step is aquiring a Tarot deck. If you already have one, great. But if you don’t have a traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck, I highly encourage you to get one. See my post for an in-depth explanation of why I think the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot is the single best deck for beginners.

Second step is learning to read the Tarot cards.

In Tarot there are, generally speaking, two different ways to learn to read Tarot.

First, there is what I call the keywords approach

Second, there is what I call the phenomenological approach.

The keywords approach

The keywords approach is perhaps the most common way to learn Tarot. The idea is to memorize a set of keywords for all 78 different Tarot cards. Often keywords are called “divinatory meanings”

The keywords approach is usually facilitated by reading Tarot books, usually the ones that come with the decks and are written by the deck creators, which are called “Little White Books” in the community (LWB).

The most famous and influential LWB is A.E. Waite’s, of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck fame, A Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which you can read for free here. Waite’s Pictorial Key was itself mostly just a rip-off of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s Book T, which was their internal, members-only guidebook to the Tarot, which was supposed to be kept in strict secrecy but ultimately was made public by disgruntled members.

In the section, THE GREATER ARCANA AND THEIR DIVINATORY MEANINGS, Waite gives perhaps the most influential set of meanings in Tarot history. This set of keywords had a major impact on the collective unconscious of Tarot and “what cards means” (more on that later).

For example, The Fool. Everyone knows that The Fool means “New beginnings” right? Well, here’s what Waite says:

ZERO. THE FOOL.–Folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy, bewrayment. Reversed: Negligence, absence, distribution, carelessness, apathy, nullity, vanity.

tarot the fool

That’s a little on the dark side, all around, compared to modern Tarot writers. Compare Waite’s divinatory meanings to the writer of the popular Modern Witch Tarot deck [affiliate link]:

“The grand adventure begins! The fearless Fool with her devil-may-care attitude is ready to take the first steps toward the unknown. Pure passion and optimism fuel her as she dances to her music, to joy itself. She doesn’t know what lies beyond the cliff’s edge, but she’s left behind her life in the city. Goodbye to normalcy, to routine, to the structured life she’d had within society. She fully trusts her instincts to carry her beyond the ordinary.

Don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith. Now is the time for you to start your journey, because you’re ready. Be spontaneous and let your wildness run free. Don’t look back in fear, look ahead and up to the sky and sun and let your instincts guide you. You got this.

Or consider the LWB that comes with the CBD Tarot De Marseille [affiliate link]:

“Freedom from conventions and norms. Something or someone unique and exceptional. Options kept open. Giving up control, spontaneity, Uncertainty, attention to the here and now. Going on a trip.

Or consider something a little more esoteric, from the Tabula Mundi Tarot:

The fabric of space-time has curved inward and a portal is revealed. All things are possible; and naught is known. O Fool, as you cross the veils towards manifestation, take heed. The portal leads somewhere new. The right attitude is all. Inhale. This is an original idea; wisdom and folly are but two possibilities.

I could go on but you get the point: every Tarot reader will have a different approach to the Tarot. There might be some shared themes or motifs echoing across different authors e.g. the theme of “possibilities” for The Fool, but the exact set of keywords, correspondences, and associations with the The Fool will differ from person to person.

Many authors, stemming from the influence of the Hermatic Order of the Golden Dawn, rely on an elaborate system of astrological and quabalistic associations with each Tarot card. These esoteric layers can add depth and nuance to your readings, but remember: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn kind of just made them up, so take them with a heaping grain of salt.

Thus, as a Tarot learner, you are faced with the question: if there are so many different sets of keywords and correspondences out there, which ones do I memorize? Which ones do I start with?

Well,  as we know from over a century of psychological research on memory, it is easier to memorize things when we have strong semantic (meaning-laden) associations.

Consider memorizing two different sets of numbers: 836 vs 666.

Which set of numbers is easier to memorize? Arguably, 666. For starters: it’s just six repeated three times. But more critically, if you are raised in a Christian culture, you will recognize it from the Book of Revelations as the Number of the Beast, the number of Satan himself. Thus, if your phone number ends in 666, “Number of the beast” will be a really strong semantic anchor that your brain can use to easily memorize it.

Compare that to 836. That might mean nothing to you. Pure randomness is the hardest to memorize. But if 836 is the area code of the city you live in, it will be super easy to memorize.

The point is: if you are tasked with memorizing keywords for 78 different Tarot cards it will behoove you to memorize a set of keywords that has meaning for you. 

Memorizing someone else’s keywords can be a useful scaffold to get you started but eventually you want to memorize your own set of keywords.

If you wanted to be efficient, you could use a free software tool like Anki and use the scientific phenomenon known as spaced repetition to build 78 flash cards with a few keywords written on 78 digital flashcards. The software will then drill you in an optimally spaced manner until you have all the keywords memorized.

This is an excellent strategy also because the very process of creating the 78 flash cards will be a good learning opportunity, for you will have to physical type the keywords into the flash cards. Researching and writing about the Tarot is a great way to learn the Tarot.

Another way to memorize a set of keywords for the Tarot is to simply do tons of single card readings. It doesn’t even matter if you perform an act of fortune-telling or gain some deep insight. It doesn’t have to be a serious reading. Just pull a card and then read a description or set of keywords someone else has written.

Ideally, you consult many different sources during this process of 1-card pulls. Over time your brain will automatically detect patterns and thematic similarity across different lists.

It’s important that while you do this 1-card pull method that you are all drilling for reproduction.

That is to say,  before you look up a set of key words or phrases in a guidebook, challenge yourself to produce a few keywords for the card.

As you do the 1-card pulls, try to make unique associations that make sense in your mind.

For example, The Fool card often has a dog or animal tagging along the Fool. You might think to yourself “Dog. My own dog reminds me of starting a new life in New Mexico after my wife left me. New beginnings. Possibilities. The Fool represents new possibilites.”

That’s just an example. The personal associations you build up with the Tarot cards are uniquely yours. Make them as detailed as you need.

Keep doing these 1-card pulls and eventually you will have a set of associations for all 78 cards.

The downsides of the keywords approach

If you do what I just described and now have a memorized set of keywords you can be way more effective as a reader. But there are several downsides to this approach that you need to overcome if you are to become a truly skilled Tarot reader.

You risk sounding like a boring robot.

If your Fool always just means “new possibilities” or “happy-go-lucky” then you risk having your readings sound stilted and lifeless. To breathe life into your readings, you need to learn how to tell mythological stories.

Instead of just saying, “The Fool means new beginnings” you might say:

The Fool is the zeroeth number of the Major Arcana. This the Fool represents nothingness. Out of nothing comes everything. So nothingness has the potential for +1 and -1 because adding +1 and -1 together cancels out to Zero. This positivity and negativity are born from the Egg of Zero. The Cosmic Egg, the pure zero-ness of the void, holds within itself the potential to spring forth the manifest forces of positive and negative sedimentation. Similarly, humans are born with the potential for activity and passivity within us. Operating under the dynamic tension between these two poles of force and matter, we express ourselves in the world as gradations along a spectrum of negativity and positivity.

This is just an example. You could tell any story you wanted. The point is to go beyond a stock set of meanings to understanding narrative, story-telling, and mythology at an archetypal, symbolic, historical, mythological, and psychoanalytic level.

You can say the The Fool represents the story of someone’s life. You can draw upon the history of the Court Jester, who was a dancing Fool, but also, socially, the only person allowed to tell the King the Truth. You can draw among fools you know from your own personal life. The Fool can be the archetype of young person tripping on acid or mushrooms, discovering the secrets of the mind. The Fool can be the wise, old hermit in the desert who has seen God. The holy fool. Dostoevsky’s Idiot. The examples are endless.

When you begin to deepen your Tarot learning you can learn to draw upon literature, mythology, history, and the entire corpus of human existence to flesh out the keywords.

Then you will understand the origins of the keywords.

You will understand how keywords change over time.

You will understand how keywords change over both a single person’s lifetime and over the centuries since it has started accumulating occult meanings.

The collective unconscious is not a static, timeless thing. While yes, The Empress as the archetype of The Mother represents certain similar motifs shared among humanity, over time and place the meaning of The Mother changes from culture to culture, time period to time period.

Furthermore, our own concepts of what mother means is influenced by our own personal experience. This is where our neuroses come from. Our complexes and complexities.

Neuroscience has taught has that the human brain is marvelously plastic and adaptible to its environment, constantly updating its software as it learns and changes from its interactions with both its body and the environment the body is embedded in.

The phenomenological approach

The second approach to learning Tarot is what I call the phenomenological approach. The basic idea is to read the meanings off the phenomenal “surface” of cards. That is to say, you read the cards based on the sheer appearances of the cards without resorting to “keywords.”

A classic example is using the head position of the characters in the cards to give you clues.

Let’s say you ask a question about whether you are making progress or not on a work assignment. You lay down 5 cards and of the cards, three of them have people that are looking towards the left.

In our culture, we narratize time such that “right” means the future and “left” means the past. So since all the characters are looking left, you might take the Tarot reading to mean that you are not making progress on your work assignment, that you are going backwards.

You didn’t appeal to anything about what the cards “mean” according to some set of stock associations. Instead you read the cards based on their surface-level features. Like, oh there’s a green tree in that card, which reminds me of Christmas, so this card is talking about Christmas.

The advantage of the phenomenological approach is that you train your intuition to effectively read the cards without needing to rely on memorization.

Because you don’t have to memorize anything, the phenomenological approach is appealing because it seems “quicker” than trying to memorize all 78 cards.

Which is great. If you just want to dive in quickly, practicing the phenomenological approach is fantastic and really works your creative muscles.

But I would argue that if you really want to deepen your learning, it is best to combine both the keyword approach and the phenomenological approach as you learn, for they are complementary.

Combining the keyword and the phenomenological approach

So, naturally, focusing too much on one or the other approach will make you a less well-rounded reader.

Relying only on static keywords via rote memorization will turn you into a lifeless, robotic reader. No good.

Relying purely on your intuition and phenomenology will risk making your readings shallow, and not able to address the deep spiritual and archetypal needs we have as humans.

So obviously, some combination of these two approaches is optimal. One can even use your phenomenology to help you memorize keywords and the keywords can act as an aid to the creativity of your phenomenology. This is the beauty of the human mind. Appearance and meaning are complementary and inform each other.

Perceptual experience influences the meaning of symbols and the meaning of symbols influences perceptual experience. Culture changes us and we change culture, being a part of culture.

Human existence is a vast semiotic web of overlapping beings who create meaning, breathe meaning, exchanging signs and symbols.

This is what makes the Tarot so appealing as an occult tool: the richness of its symbol tapestry is a super-saturated symbolic solution out which our own experiental input crystalizes and actualizes meanings.

The symbolic web of belief holds near-infinite semantic potential and our entire bodily, emotional, intellectual, and perceptual experiences interacts with that web to spin the story of our lives.

But suppose you now have a rich set of symbolic meanings and you’ve honed your phenomenological reading skills. Can you thereby claim to be a skilled Tarot reader?

Not quite.

For it is one thing to have a rich set of answers. It is quite another to have a rich set of questions. For indeed, what we ask the Tarot is almost as important as what the Tarot tells us.

The art of asking good questions

So the art of asking good questions is deeply personal and will change from person to person. Nevertheless, I will give my personal opinions.

The key is finding the right balance between specificity and generality. When in doubt, lean towards generality. 

For example, take the following two questions:

  1. What will happen next Tuesday at 1pm?
  2. What will next week be like?

In my opinion, the second question is a “better” Tarot question.

The only way to get an answer to the first question is to (1) either already have fore-knowledge e.g. a doctor’s appointment in your calendar or (2) have some psychic powers

Many people claim to have psychic powers that give them “intuitive” powers such that they might know the answer as to what will happen next Tuesday at 1pm.

They might have an internal voice tell them, “Be careful” and then conclude the spirit world is telling them that something bad might happen next Tuesday at 1pm.

As I discussed at length in another post, I believe that the weight of scientific evidence on the phenomenon of precognition as studied in laboratory settings suggests its theoretically possible to perceive the future.

With that said, I think it is a bad idea to base your approach to learning the Tarot on the supposed existence of psychic powers. If they don’t exist at all, then you’re wasting your time. If they do exist for some people, but not you, then you might also be wasting your time. If they do exist, and you might have them, then at best they would complement the more fundamental skills associated with Tarot reading that don’t depend on psychic powers.

So it seems, regardless of your beliefs on psychic phenomena, you are best served by learning how to ask questions that don’t depend on the existence of anything spooky or weird.

For example, consider the situation of deciding whether you should quit your job.

You could ask:

  1. Will I be happier if I quit my job?
  2. Will my highest self be served if I quit my job?
  3. Will I find my dream job if I quit?
  4. What is my dream job?
  5. What do I really desire?
  6. If money wasn’t a concern, what would I want to do with my life?
  7. How important is authenticity to me?
  8. How much risk am I willing to take to live authentically?
  9. How much do I care about financial security?
  10. Is this job crushing my soul?
  11. Do I want to have more security or take more risks to follow my dream?
  12. Will everything work out ok?

All of these questions can be answered by means of reflection and contemplation not psychic powers being real.

But what about number 12, will everything work out ok? Doesn’t that ask about the future?

Well, not quite. Consider the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. The Stoics taught that whether things “work out ok” is a matter of how we perceive the world, rather than the world itself. Consider this example of Stoic advice:

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Thus, the answer to “Will everything work out ok?” is relative to our mental attitudes, which we have power over. We cannot control outside events. But we can control our reaction to outside events. The Stoic philosophy is encapsulated in what I consider the single greatest piece of advice, The Serenity Prayer:

Oh, Higher Power, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference

Interpret “Higher Power” however you wish. It could just be your own unconscious self.

Thus, Tarot reading offers us a potential opportunity to develop our mental powers such that we can prepare ourselves to be content with the future no matter what happens. And is that not a superior strategy than trying to simply predict the future?

If you are anxious over whether your boyfriend will breakup with you, instead of trying to predict whether it will happen, use the Tarot as an opportunity to reflect on (1) do you have control over whether your boyfriend will break up with you and (2) how to develop the serenity necessary to thrive regardless of whether he does or not.

This guide to learning the Tarot is not complete by any means. Learning the Tarot is a lifelong process because the Tarot is a microcosm for Life and learning how to live is a lifelong process.

How to learn Tarot with awesome Tarot books

The following is a list of links to books I can personally recommend for the general Tarot student.

[The following are affiliate links]



Related Links

How to Get Started With Tarot

Learning Tarot? Here’s How to Make That Easier

Learning the Basics of Tarot

How to Do a General Tarot Reading

Tarot Card Cheat Sheet with Major Arcana Guide

Tarot Theory and Philosophy

101 Daily Tarot Spreads

How Does Tarot Work?

Is Tarot Reading Hard?

Leave a Reply