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Updated: May 10, 2017

Here is the advice of 45 experienced reader and teachers of tarot and a few newbies. The contradictions are intended to foster respect and understanding for alternate views.

History is based on facts and therefore can express only what can be demonstrated with evidence or carefully deduced from an in-depth understanding of the facts, the culture, the period and the people. New facts can totally change what was formerly thought to be true.

Myths are false stories that reveal some kind of inner Truth. That Truth is often not what the myth conveys on its surface. Someone called them “the Great Imaginings behind this World.” However, they can lead us along paths that aren’t real or can even be harmful, for instance when they become “rules” that unnecessarily limit our experience.

It’s been said that history is true on the outside but a lie on the inside (for instance, we’ll never know what people actually felt and did). Whereas a myth is a lie on the outside and true on the inside (however, discerning the truth it points to can be tricky).

There are at least two kinds of tarot myths:

  • Stories of tarot’s origins (mostly romantic and mystical stories with great inner significance),
  • “Rules” that should be followed only if you find them helpful and meaningful.

We actually know quite a bit about tarot history:

It originated sometime between 1420 and 1440 in Northern Italy, probably in the court of Milan or Ferrara or possibly even Florence, amid other experiments in creating a suit of triumphal cards. We also know fairly precisely what the images signified in the “High Gothic”-to-early-Renaissance Italian culture. A trip to Northern Italy will confirm the ubiquitous nature of the allegorical images in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

Playing cards (as shown below) appeared in Europe and spread quickly about 60-75 years before the Triumphs were added to the deck. For the first 350 years ‘Il Trionfos’ were known almost entirely for playing games similar to whist or bridge as attested to by several frescos and text references. 

While there are are rare indications early on that both playing cards and tarot were used for divination and character delineations (in poems called Tarocchi Appropriati), true “reading” practices were not widely known until the late 18th century. This is when Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Comte de Mellet, and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla) wrote about tarot and fortune-telling and made up stories about their being brought to Europe by the gypsies from their mystical place of origin in Egypt (none of which has been substantiated in the slightest). Likewise, the idea of Tarot originating with either Jewish or Christian Kabbalists or with the Cathars has not a shred of evidence, even though both were known to exist in Milan during the period. Regarding the 22 Hebrew letters, early references always describe the Trumps as numbering 21, with a separate mention for the Fool (or ‘Excuse’) card.

There is still a lively debate about the etymology of the plural word Tarocchi for the deck and Tarocco for the game (which was shortened at least a hundred years later in central Europe to Tarot, Taroc or Tarock). My favorite origin story is that the root of Tarocchi is similar to that for the Sicilian Blood Orange, Tarocco, that has a pitted skin. This makes it look like the hammered gold leaf backgrounds of early court decks, from the Arabic word for ‘hammered’ (taraqa) describing a design technique used on gold and leather.

Please read Sherryl Smith’s Tarot History ChronologyTarotL History Information Sheet and my post: “Origins of Cartomancy (Playing Card Divination).” The serious student will want to check out trionfi.comCultural Association “Le Tarot”, the Tarot History Forum and Tarot History & Iconography at aeclectic, among others. Books are recommended on these sites and here.

The advice given here regarding the importance of history by our panel of tarot experts (and a few newbies) wasn’t easy to organize. I’ve done quite a bit of condensing and of merging of similar statements. Personally, I was originally intrigued by the myths as they supported my interest in esoteric studies and in doing readings. It was only later that I came to truly appreciate the vital importance of history and how it adds great depth my understanding of the meaning of the cards. Factual history adds to our knowledge; it doesn’t subtract from it.

Anti-History

• Just starting to read tarot? No, it’s not important to know tarot history and myth. All that’s important to know is that tarot is a divination tool.

• History is not necessary for newbies. Myths and archetypes work even if you don’t know how or what their history is. They are timeless, that is, relevant to all times. Newbies need the Magic first!

Read the rest of this entry »

Over 60 experienced tarot readers offer their best advice for what every Newbie Tarot Reader should know. Not everyone will agree with everything. Add ideas you think belong, in the Comments. Feel free to post this anywhere, so long as you include the source and contributors (listed at the end).

 The Rules

• There are no rules. All rules are made to be broken.

• You may hear and read a LOT about tarot, much of it contradictory. Listen, read, discuss, try, and decide for yourself. No one knows how you will read or work with the cards except you.

 Learning Tarot

• The more you know, the more options you have.

• Read books, Lots of books.

• PUT THE BOOKS DOWN!

• There is nothing wrong with books. Knowledge gained from them  gives you a fantastic starting point and framework and can lead to more assured reading.

• Try to read a card first, before you look it up. You will be surprised by how much of the gist of it you get.

• Get to know your deck – pull a card a day and/or go through your deck and take notes on each card.  Write your thoughts and feelings about each card in a journal.

Read the rest of this entry »

The three-card spread is one of the most basic formats for quick-and-easy tarot readings. Yet, it can be surprisingly deep and insightful. It is perfect for a daily journal or when friends or people at parties want you to demonstrate what you do. Furthermore, the three-card spread is amazingly flexible as I hope to demonstrate. Most of these spreads are laid out in a row, left to right, although any pattern is fine.
Updated!! Check out some new spreads at the end.

Probably everyone is familiar with the basic timeline spread:

  • PAST
  • PRESENT
  • FUTURE

Most of you will have used the following inner trinity for a quick diagnostic as it shows what’s going on at  three levels of experience:

  • BODY
  • MIND
  • SPIRIT

An interesting variation on this is:

  • HEAD – What does my Head want?
  • HEART – What does my Heart want?
  • SOUL – What does my Soul want?

Three-card readings are also great for evaluating potential actions. To compare options lay out a three-card spread for each possibility: The Pro-or-Con Spread:

  • The PRO or BENEFIT of a particular choice or action.
  • The CON or LIABILITY in that choice or action.
  • SOMETHING ELSE you need to take into account.

This can also help you deal with problems via the dialectic imperative: The Thesis Spread:

  • THESIS, idea or issue
  • ANTITHESIS, obstacle or problem
  • SYNTHESIS, integration or solution

Zoe Matoff came up with a more prescriptive version of this that is brilliant when you want to cut through all the nuances and get a (relatively) straight answer with “Zoe’s Do/Don’t Do Spread” (a favorite of both Rachel Pollack and myself):

  • Card 2: DON’T DO THIS
  • Card 1: The ISSUE or SITUATION
  • Card 3: DO DO THIS

Zoe wrote me this explanation of her spread: “Often cards two and three will describe such disparate courses of action as to make it very clear what course of action needs to be taken or what decision is to be made. And, of course, card #1 can turn out to be a total surprise, delineating the situation as it really is, or in a light in which the questioner has not yet seen it, or a totally different situation that requires attention but has been overlooked. Last, but not least, all the cards need to be seen together to make clear the urgency or nature of the issue.”

Three-card readings form the basis of all the more complicated relationship readings: The Relationship Spread:

  • PERSON A  (is, wants, needs, gives, receives, etc.)
  • THEIR RELATIONSHIP  (as if it were it’s own entity)
  • PERSON B  (is, wants, needs, gives, receives, etc.)

And, as I was reminded by James Ricklef in the Comments, they are the core of choice spreads: The Choice Spread:

  • CHOICE A
  • OTHER considerations
  • CHOICE B

Three-card spreads are also great for simple Yes/No questions: The Yes/No Spread:

Upright cards are yes.
Reversed cards are no. 
The center card counts twice.
Thus, there can be a tie, which indicates that the answer is not yet determined, or it’s better not to know, or __?__.  You can interpret the individual cards or not. (Any odd number of cards can be used.)

Inspired by John Gilbert, James Ricklef used this smart variation on the Yes/No Spread in his excellent book Tarot Reading Explained (originally Tarot Tells the Tale). (By the way, this is one of the best books available for learning how to read the cards. The “Yes, If” Spread features practical advice and entertaining examples that demonstrate the techniques.)

  • YES, IF . . .
  • NO, IF . . .
  • MAYBE, IF . . .

James adds: The cards indicate the conditions under which the answer would be Yes, No, or Maybe. Thus the “Maybe” card can indicate a deciding factor or a decision or action that the querent has to make in order to arrive at the outcome s/he wants.”

You can find many more examples of three-card spreads in James Ricklef’s book and in my own Tarot for Your Self, where the three-card spread is recommended for daily readings and developing a tarot journal.

Added: The Subject-Verb-Object Spread is good practice for integrating three cards into one statement: Jacob (subject) goes (verb) to the store (object). Alison loves Max.  Day turns into night.  Note: Your sentence may be much longer and more complex.

  • SUBJECT: person, place or thing
  • VERB: action or state of being, try an active verb here
  • OBJECT or PREDICATE: goal, what’s affected or changed, recipient

Also, brought up from the comments: The Bridge Spread offered by Kyle McKenzie:

  • Where I am
  • Where I want to be
  • How I can get there (placed horizontally between the first two cards)

Feeling overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time? Thanks to Beth Maiden of Little Red Tarot for permission to share her handy Do One Thing Well Spread (click on the link for an example reading), which was new to me. 

  • Do this!
  • Ditch this!
  • Yeah, okay, but not until tomorrow

What’s your favorite Three-Card Spread? You’ll find several more Three-Card Spreads contributed by readers in the Comments section. Be sure to check these out, too, and add your own. Please remember to give credit where credit is due if you pass on any of these.

Here’s another forgotten tarot classic.

This “Yes-No Oracle” is by Irys Vorel in an article entitled “How the Gypsies Use the Tarot” from the February 1955 issue of Fate Magazine.

A version of this spread, expanded greatly by me, is now available at the commercial site Tarot.com. Check it out.

1. Write your problem or question on a piece of paper in such a fashion that “yes” or “no” could be the answer. Don’t ask ambiguous questions like “Should I marry Rick or Jason?” Situations such as this should be split into two questions.

2. Remove the Wheel of Fortune from the 78 card deck and place it before you face up.

3. Shuffle the rest of the deck, with your mind on the problem. Spread the cards in a fan, face down. With your left hand, draw seven cards at random. Put them face down on top of the Wheel. Set the remaining deck aside.

4. Turn the Wheel of Fortune face down like the other seven cards. Shuffle these eight cards until you no longer know where the Wheel is.

5. Deal the eight cards in a square consisting of four positions (see next), so that there are two cards in each position:

• Top Left: The 1st position (cards 1 & 5) signifies – YES.
• Top Right: The 2nd position (cards 2 & 6) signifies – SOON.
• Bottom Left: The 3rd position (cards 3 & 7) signifies – DELAY.
• Bottom Right: The 4th position (cards 4 & 8 ) signifies – NO.

6. Turn the cards over looking for the Wheel of Fortune. Its position gives you the answer.

• If the Wheel card has fallen in the first position, it indicates “Yes,” and the speedy and favorable solution of one’s problem.
• If in the second, “Soon,” position, it means: “You should not unduly press your interests.”
• If it lies in the “Delay” position, the indications are that some obstacles will have to be overcome.
• If it lies in the “No” position, it indicates adjustments have to be made and circumstances at the moment block the harmonious solution of the problem. Therefore, the wish cannot be fulfilled immediately. After changes have occurred this same wish could be answered in the affirmative.

7. If your answer is either “Delay” or “No,” then look at all the cards in the layout (the reversal of a card has no significance):

• Many Pentacles indicate a financial hitch.
• Swords show opposition.
• Wands suggest journeys and changes.
• Many Cups indicate fortunate circumstances and ultimately a happy ending, especially if the Grail [Ace of Cups] is among them.
• Many Major Arcana indicate that the situation is out of your hands: destiny is at work.
• Many Court Cards indicate that the wishes of other people determine the outcome.

This is not my favorite kind of spread as it seems too deterministic, but it’s worth checking out to see if it works for you. Let me know what you think.

Sample reading: Should I post this spread on my blog?

We can see that the answer is “No” (the Wheel of Fortune is in the bottom-right pair), but I decided to post it anyway. How else can we determine if the advice is good or not? There are three Major Arcana (in addition to the Wheel) indicating that the situation is in the hands of destiny, and two Cups cards, which slightly leans toward a favorable outcome over the long run. I’ll let you know if anything untoward occurs. The deck used is Le Grand Tarot Universel by Bruno de Nys.

 

Pamela Colman Smith (also known as Pixie), artist of the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot deck, wrote nothing about the deck she created except in a letter to her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, “I just finished a big job for very little cash!” She did tell us, however, in an article called “Should the Art Student Think?,” what must have been her own approach to reading the cards. This is the core of my own reading style.

“Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose. . . . First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body. . . . After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details. . . . Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! . . . Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.”*

Essentially, she’s suggesting the following steps:

  • Describe the card literally.
  • Describe what seem to be the emotions, style and attitudes of the people on the card.
  • Physically embody the card—act it out.
  • Make up a story about what’s happening and turn it into a first person account (so you are feeling everything yourself).
  • In your mind’s eye, step over the border of the card (through the door).
  • Enter into that world, seeing beyond the borders to things you never knew were there.

In my opinion, this is the best way to discover what these cards mean for you in any situation.

*“Should the Art Student Think?” by Pamela Colman Smith in The Craftsman 14:4 (July 1908), pp. 417-19. Read the article here. See also my post on the Art of Pamela Colman Smith.

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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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