Originally posted as a guest post on High Shadow Tarot. Thank you for the honor!
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Are you new to tarot and would like to learn how to read? Or are you a reader and would like a refresher, or to see some other perspectives on the reading process? You have come to the right place! This is a tutorial on how to perform a simple tarot reading, either for yourself or for a querent. A “querent”, by the way, is the seeker, or the person for whom the reading is being made. If you are reading for yourself, simply step into the shoes of the querent whenever that term is mentioned in this tutorial.
Mind you—as you progress, the reading process may become more nuanced or complex. Each step explained below could be expanded upon immensely! So, see this article as a cursory overview of the process. Additionally, please keep in mind that there are many variations of the tarot reading process, and each reader develops their own—not to mention the traditional reading methods that already exist!
A Word on Spreads
Speaking of methods! During a reading, the method through which you lay out the cards, and the meanings assigned to each position in their arrangement, is called a “spread.” There are many historical, traditional spreads; and there are numerous, amazing new spreads being created every day. Readers will commonly stick to smaller number of trusted spreads, even just one, or two, or no spread! Reading without a spread means you don’t assign meanings to the cards’ positions, instead taking in the whole thing intuitively or by other method. But that is a topic for another time. This guide will not get into spreads. As part of the demonstration, I will use one of the most common spreads, a 3-card draw that I’ll call the Past, Present & Future Spread. It goes just as the name implies: you pull one card for the past of the querent or of the question; one of the present and another for the future.
Sacred Space & Setting the Mood
Before starting your reading, it is a good idea to set up your space for this process. Whether a tarot reading evokes feelings of spirituality and sacredness for you; or instead you prefer to think of it as a personal development or psychological tool (or both!); being mindful of your surroundings will help ensure a focused, insightful session. Get comfortable, and make sure the querent is all set, too. You may put on some music like meditation music, ambient or other relaxing stuff. A candle helps create warmth. Other ideas include incense, crystals on your reading surface, or hot tea. Meditating or breathing mindfully prior to reading is an excellent idea, as it primes your intuition and your mind in general. Place yourself in an atmosphere of curious reverence and alert relaxation. Enjoy and savor the process!
As for materials, you will need a tarot deck—whichever one you have. Oracle decks are excellent, too. I believe the good ol’ Smith Rider Waite deck is an awesome tool for learning the tarot, as a whole legacy of symbols and concepts are all packed in its art. You will also need a reading surface—it can be a table, a bed, the floor, etc. Just make sure you and the querent are comfortable. A cloth to place you cards and other items on can help protect your cards, makes sliding the cards easier, and it creates a sacred space. But if you don’t have the cloth, don’t let that stop you!
It may be a good idea to keep references at hand to help you interpret the card meanings. That can be in the form of books or access to the web. When first learning, I suggest being careful with the guidebooks that come with the decks, the “Little White Book” (“LWB”). The one that comes with the Rider deck, for instance, in my opinion is not the best choice for beginners.
Before I even start the process of handling the cards in order shuffle them, cut and draw, I normally like to have the question ready for tarot reading. The question lays out the issue, the heart of the matter, or the topic of the reading. Of course, you don’t need to have a specific question. You may just ask for guidance for your day ahead; or insight into the day that passed; or what is in store for you in the coming week, month, and so on. Unless you are simply seeking guidance, it is best to have a question ready so that you may have context in which to interpret the cards that you draw. The type of question can vary greatly, from spiritual matters or relationship advice to dream interpretation and ancestor work. Whatever question springs from your heart, bring it to the tarot with an open mind and be ready for what messages it has for you.
If you are reading for a querent, discuss the question that they would like to ask (if any). Many readers do not read “Yes or No” questions, such as “will I marry her?” or “will I get a new job next year?” Readers that deny those types of questions may believe that they limit the messages that the tarot can bring. Or they may think that those questions create too much of a deterministic kind of prediction, when future in fact may not be set in stone. However, plenty of readers answer those questions with pleasure and with great skill. Experiment and see what works for you. But at first, you may want to keep things light and open, rephrasing those questions into open questions (for instance, “What do I need to know about my career in the future?”).
Now that you have your question or request in mind, you are ready to shuffle. I like to keep my question in mind in a meditative state as I shuffle. I like to think that this imbues the cards with the energy of the issue, causing the right ones to be primed for drawing. But that’s just my personal superstition, ha-ha! Be sure to create your own, if you wish. This helps prepare us mentally and emotionally for the reading.
During shuffling, you may incorporate reversals into the pack. “Reversals” are upside-down cards, and many readers and certain traditions assign specific meanings to the reversed cards. For the purposes of this tutorial, however, I will recommend you keep it simple and disregard reversals, keeping all your cards upside-up, and making sure they are upright before you begin to shuffle.
There are a few shuffling methods. A very common one is the overhand shuffle. Another one is the riffle shuffle. You can also use the pile method, putting the cards on a pile and shuffling them with your open hands, sprawling them over the surface and rearranging them. If you know how to riffle shuffle, that’s the method I recommend! It ensures that the cards are randomized and separated. A good number of times to riffle-shuffle is 7 times. Sometimes I do more, like 10, or even 8. I listen to my intuition then, going with the number that feels “right”. Choose a method that’s comfortable for you, and get those cards nicely shuffled! Here’s what riffle-shuffle looks like:
And this is how I overhand shuffle:
Shuffle until you are satisfied with it. You may want to decide ahead of time what will satisfy you, so you avoid having doubts or second thoughts after you’re done shuffling. Those may cause you to stumble and feel unsure of the cards selected. I like to say to myself and the cards, after I think of the question but before shuffling, something like “I will riffle-shuffle 7 times and then cut once.” That helps me feel confident in the process. You may also want to train yourself into letting go of any second-thoughts about the shuffling and cutting process once those parts are done. That is, you practice releasing the nagging feeling that you did something wrong, unless you were indeed very distracted, imbalanced or off center. But those should be the exception. Otherwise, assume the way you shuffled and cut were just fine, release the doubt, and proceed with the reading. It takes practice to release it, but it comes in very handy as you start to read more often. That nagging doubt can really get in the way, and oftentimes it is just doubt and not intuition.
Once nicely shuffled and packed back together, place the deck in front of you or within reach of the querent. This is to prepare it for “cutting.” By cutting the deck, we are in fact selecting the exact location in the deck in which the reading will start. In other words, if you think of the entire shuffled deck as a long book, by cutting you are picking which little story—out of many—that the tarot wants to talk about at that moment, in order to provide an answer for your question.
While some readers may elect not to cut the deck, instead simply drawing from the top of the deck once it is shuffled, I believe most do. Additionally, traditional methods normally call for cutting. In fact, cutting is considered an important part of the reading, believed to be crucial in the process through which the most relevant cards appear in response to the question.
If you are reading for a querent, have the querent cut the deck. This allows for a physical connection through which the seeker touches and influences the process. It is their fate that is being divined, after all. Sure enough, some readers do not let the querent touch the deck, cutting it instead themselves. If the reading is done online, you are going to have to cut it yourself, although there are ways in which you can have the querent virtually “cut” the deck, for instance by having them select a number from 0-78 (the number of cards in a traditional tarot deck). There are other little methods as well!
But today, we will use a simple cutting method, that simply entails the cutting of the deck with the querent’s non-dominant hand in any desired location in the deck, and placing the bottom portion atop the deck, so that the card atop the bottom portion is the first one on top of the pile. That card will be the first to be selected in the drawing sequence. I know, that sounded confusing. You can see what I mean in the image below:
As noted, if the querent (or you, if reading for yourself) is right-handed, the querent cuts the deck anywhere they desire, using their left hand. If they are left-handed, then some readers have them cut with their right hand. Reasons to cut the deck with your non-dominant hand include the left hand being nearest to the heart (for righties), or that it is guided by your subconscious mind and thus best prepared to cut intuitively. There are other reasons, too. Now, plenty of readers don’t follow this. And some readers take up the cutting for themselves, not really letting the querent touch the deck while it is being dealt. Choose what works for you, but here, just go ahead and have the querent cut the deck with their non-dominant hand. You, the reader, put it back together with the bottom part of the deck, left after cutting, right on top of the other part, as we saw in the previous illustration.
The deck is ready for drawing, hooray! This is where things get really taroty. Just to recap: you have your question on the ready; the deck is nice and shuffled; the deck is cut and put back together; and the first card to be selected is sitting pretty, right on top.
In this guide, we will draw the cards in sequence right from the top of the deck. The topmost card will be the first card on the spread we selected, which was a 3-card, Past/Present/Future spread. So, the topmost card will be the Past. The second card the Present, and the third card the Future. I mention that you draw in sequence because not everyone does it this way. Some folks shuffle the deck a bit and cut it again for each card in the spread. That may add some dynamic and movement to the process. I didn’t mention before, but some readers choose to only draw with “jumper cards”, which are the cards that naturally jump out or otherwise make themselves manifest during the shuffling (in this case, there is no cutting). Jumper cards are also incorporated by lots of readers while they perform a more formalized method such as what we’re doing here. That is, if a card jumps out, the reader may choose to bring it in into the reading. Personally, I can be a messy shuffler, so I only read jumper cards sparingly, and intuitively. Today, go ahead and draw in sequence from the top, just like in the image below:
Without revealing them, place the drawn cards one by one, face down, in their sequence as shown by the spread in the image below. The point of not revealing the cards just yet is that the interpretation method we will use involves making a preliminary interpretation of each card before the next card is revealed. That way, we allow our intuition to bring up our first thoughts and impressions on what the card may be pointing to, without it being busy trying to make sense of the whole thing. However, you will realize that oftentimes the cards won’t make much sense on their own and will require to be read in context with the others. Today we will look at them one by one.
Feel free to check back in with your breath or re-center yourself in however way you see fit. The point is to allow your intuition to shine through, and your mental faculties to come to your assistance in making sense of the reading and of any messages that may come through from within.
Flip over the first card, on the first position, the Past. The card in this position is very important because it can set the stage for the theme of the reading, or for what the reading is about—its topic. For example, if the querent gets The Star for their Past, it can mean that they underwent a transformation in their recent (or distant) past and that this reading is about their present and future journeys regarding that transformation. For example, if the querent had a damaging relationship with alcohol and went through a process to stop drinking, the tarot by bringing up The Star in their past may be speaking about how that transformation is affecting their lives in the present.
Plenty of times, however, the tarot will mention a past event that may not be immediately recognizable as directly related to the present. But try to see the connection to the past as a foundation however you can—that will give you a smoother, more well-rounded reading. Same thing as to the Present as related to the Future, and to the three cards in a whole. When all the cards tell a connected story, it makes for a very powerful and clearer message. But this comes with practice. Don’t get discouraged if things feel disconnected at first—but trying to identify the links between the cards is a good reading habit that you can establish now, from the get-go.
Back to the Past: besides laying down the past foundation for the topic or theme of the reading, the past card could mean, among other things:
- an event that just happened;
- an event that happened a long time ago;
- a past level of understanding or mastery by the querent (e.g., showing them in the early stages of a project, which could be shown by the Page of Wands). This level of understanding or mastery is usually tied to an area of life (research Court Card interpretation to understand this further, it’s a topic that can go very deep!);
- a relationship with or the influence of someone else in their life (if you decide to see court cards as pointing to actual people);
- a past feeling or stage of being (e.g., The World in the past could show the querent coming from a state of fulfillment or completion, feeling good about themselves);
- and other creative possibilities.
After considering the options, choose one or two main take-ways for the past and carry it forward in your mind, or in your dialogue with the querent. The point is to have a good grasp as to what happened.
The Present will show what’s going on in the present moment. It may show you the crux of the matter. What’s really affecting things right now and causing the querent to be in whatever state they are. How the past unfolded and what came of those events and things that happened in the past. It is the connection between the past and the future; it shows what may need to be changed in order to alter the course of events. The things that the Present card may be talking about are similar to the possibilities we saw in the Past. They are, in review: an event; a level of understanding or mastery of an area of life; a relationship or the influence of someone else; a state of feeling or being; and so on.
For example, if the Present card is the Nine of Swords, it could show the querent in a state of worry and fear about something in their lives. As if they can’t sleep at night because something perturbs them so. What is that thing that keeps them up? Discuss with the querent and browse your mind. After you find out what the fear is, how is that connected, if at all, to the Past card? Perhaps they are worried about the addiction we saw in the Past position resurfacing? Or they are scared about something else entirely? Find an interpretation that resonates with yours and the querent’s heart, even If it sounds unpleasant, and bring it along to your reading of the Future card.
The Future position is what folks commonly think of when they think of Tarot. After all, isn’t divination all about predicting the future? Well, it is, but it also about gaining insight into the past and the present and seeing how they are affecting the happenings in our lives. Oftentimes, we only have a superficial view of the past and present and the Tarot helps us see more deeper into them. But the Future is where things are headed; the likely destination; what is coming up ahead; how the story that we have divined from the Past and Present will unfold. Note, however, that the Future card doesn’t necessarily show an unavoidable future situation. The Future is a shifty thing. At any moment in time, our actions and thoughts can alter the course of things, affecting how the Future plays out. The mere fact of reading the tarot can cause you to take action and change a “negative”-looking outcome.
In interpreting the future, again consider that it may be pointing to: an event; a level of understanding or mastery of an area of life; a relationship or the influence of someone else; a state of feeling or being; and so on. It shows the conclusion of things. For instance, if the querent gets the Death card for their future, it could mean that things are being brought to their conclusion, to their end, and that a new period of transformation will begin after that. Were they to get the Knight of Pentacles, for example, that could mean that the querent is headed towards a period of learning and steady work, engaging in a new level of mastery in their material life.
Let’s take a look at a live demonstration. In this tutorial, I won’t be able to go over in much details as to interpretative techniques—that’s for another time! If you decide to follow along and perform your own reading, be ready with some references for the meanings of the cards, which you will employ (in addition to your intuition) as to what the cards may be saying. I recommend BiddyTarot.com, the meanings there are great. Just search the card name plus “Biddy” on a search engine and the right page will pop up.
This is an actual draw from the tarot, I didn’t pick the cards. I wanted to have a reading about more mundane matters but the Tarot is insisting in speaking about the inner world, so let’s go with it. Here are the cards drawn:
As shown in the image, the Past card is The Moon. This is a very deep card to which meaning I won’t do justice in a few lines, but it can often denote a period in the querent’s lives which they may see as dark or somber, but that is a period of transformation, shadow-work, facing of fears, and so on. So, simply, this means that the querent underwent a difficult period in their lives in which they were scared and couldn’t see clearly, but in which they were able to deal with some deep emotional issues and do something about them. Since the Past can be the foundation for the reading, I’m taking this to mean that the Tarot is likely choosing this cloudy period in the querent’s life as the topic of the reading. Now that I’m satisfied with the interpretation, I move on to the next card. If I’m not satisfied, I may ponder a bit longer, or I may choose to proceed to the following cards to gain more insight.
I turn over the Present card and it is the Nine of Swords. This card is often about worry, fear, anxiety, and sleeplessness. After I decide on some possible meanings for this card, I check it against the previous card and see how they can be connected. We can see here that the querent is still not out of the shadow period, they are still very much fearful and worried about certain things in their life. They may be having a hard time sleeping. I also consider that this card is Number 9, and this number can denote the beginning of the end of a cycle in life. So, this tells me that whatever shadow work started with The Moon is nearing its conclusion with the Nine of Swords. However, the querent is feeling very much deep in this darkness.
That interpretation of the Nine of Swords satisfies me. The querent seeks hope, and thankfully there is reason for hope. As I turn over the next card, the Future, I see Strength. This card means strength, inner fortitude, confidence, inner power, calm force, and being able to harness our inner forces. Again, how does this relate with The Moon card? And with the Nine of Swords? To me, this is a clear sign that the inner work that querent is doing will near some type of completion soon, and they will come out of this with some healing, feeling confident, and feeling like they were able to conquer the forces within themselves. Additionally, Strength could indicate that the querent is about to enter a period in which the lessons they have learned will come to the test as their inner fortitude is tested.
Note that I interpreted this reading mostly focusing on the “inner state” of the querent. To me, this reading happens to be about personal development. However, other readers could look at the same draw and see specific events in the cards, or other of the different types of interpretation available. The magic is in the reader, in the querent, and in the circumstances. Different sets of eyes will look at things differently, so spread your wings and allow your own intuitive insight, and your own acquired knowledge of the tarot, to come into play in the reading.
While interpreting, I would check with the querent as to what specific events in their lives could be causing the inner states that I interpreted. For example, could they have been going through divorce? Or some other major life challenge? I would weave those facts into the reading as much as possible, connecting the card interpretations to the events in real life.
After I figured out the “story” that the cards are saying, I may see if I can find some advice for the querent. Here, I would suggest that they be strong and continue on with the good work that they are doing, trying to release fear and anxiety because that is their mission at the moment, and also because if they do so, they will find themselves in a place of great strength and victory. You may also pull an additional “advice” card. That is very common and I do it often.
Throughout this process, be engaged with your feelings, the images or words that appear in your mind, with the querent, and with your intuition. Trust the process, trust the choices you’ve made as to how to perform the reading and trust that the energy behind the Tarot will take care of you as a reader. Seek to release doubt in your abilities; release the need to have everything be perfect. What is important is that you try, and that you continue practicing. If any part of your reading process works for you, take note of it and keep on repeating it on future readings. Habits and repetition are a great way to get you sure-footed in your practice. For instance, if a certain way of cutting brought you insight, keep on doing it, while knowing that as you grow you will learn new things.
Be sure to re-center yourself should you find yourself ungrounded at any point in this process. Take a moment to breathe. It’s ok to breathe and close your eyes for a moment in front of the querent. Respect the process, and it will respect you. Trust the cards even if you don’t like their message at first. While learning, you won’t know all the interpretations of the cards right off the bat at all times; it’s ok to mull over meanings for any length of time. Sometimes it takes me days to find out what a card really meant! Sometimes, weeks or months! Be open and receptive to how the tarot plays out in life.
In your interpretation, keep the images flowing and keep your awareness open and receptive. Trust the messages that come through even if they don’t make much sense at first. They will in their due time. Try to create a neat story or connection among the three cards. But if you can’t, it’s ok. Just keep trying, you’ll get better with time.
And above all, keep learning: from books, from experience, from other readers, from life. Tarot is a life-long learning journey. I hope this tutorial serves you well, and helps you perform a reading with confidence, power, wisdom and knowledge. I wish you a wonderful journey. I wish you insightful readings, and I wish that your readings bring light to others. You are here with the Tarot for a purpose. Rise up to meet it!
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