Interpreting Tarot: developing a skill set

For people trying to learn the skill of tarot, the key is not just the deck, but also the interpretation. It is a skill that takes time and practice to develop and for some it is easier than others. If you are used to viewing the world or taking in information in a very ‘black or white’ way, then learning tarot is more likely to be a difficult task.

Interpretation uses the same brain skill as observing patterns: just as a child learns to read the nuances of a human face and the emotions expressed upon that face, so a reader has to learn the subtleties of each card and the patterns that they work within. It is not a skill that can be book studied and then applied in all its glory: like all aspects of magic, tarot truly is an art form that takes practice to develop a proper skill.

All interpretation needs boundaries if it is not going to devolve into flights of fancy, and the boundaries that tarot operates in are context, specific questions and time spans.

Let’s have a look at a practical example. A person, let’s call him Bill, buys a tarot deck, settles himself down and decides to have a look at his own future. So Bill shuffles like fury, and asks the question, “what does the future hold for me?”. He lays the cards out and the last card, the answer card, is death. Immediately panic sets in and Bill freaks out.

So what went wrong here? Well, nothing really. He asked what the future holds for him and death is the inevitable outcome for all of us. His question was too far reaching, too vague. So he decides to try another question; “what job should I do?”. Bill lays out the cards and is totally unable to make any sense out of the various cards that present themselves. So he is still no wiser as to what the future holds for him or in what direction should he go.

The cards do not have the vocabulary to answer such a wide ranging question: there is no card for ‘you should be a welder, or you should be an analyst’. The key is to pose the right question! So while Bill has a heart attack, let’s have a look at the major elements.


The High Priestess by Stuart Littlejohn

Making Sense of the Oracle

If Bill had asked questions like, ‘Show me what major events will happen in my life over the next five years’, he would have been shown the events in that time frame that would have the most impact on him. If he had asked the same question with a time frame of twelve months, he would have been shown major and not so major events for that twelve month period. The detail and specifics he would get from the reading depend entirely upon what layout he uses and what meanings the positions have.

Remember the ‘tree’ I talked about in the last post on tarot? The longer the time span, the more options appear for future events as it is likely any fate paths you are walking over a five year period would have different potential branches.

If you narrow it down to a year or a month, then you are deeper into a current fate pattern and it is likely that the ‘branches’ on that path have narrowed right down. The key is, the shorter the time span, the more chance there is that the potential events have become more or less fixed. Some are totally fixed and cannot be avoided, some are fixed only so long as you carry on the pattern of behaviour and action that you are currently operating within.

So Bill has narrowed down his question. What then? The next element is the shuffling. People forget that how you shuffle is a major element for success in reading cards. People will half heartedly mumble the cards around while chatting or watching tv. If you are not focussed, the reading will not be properly focussed. Close your eyes to shut out the world, think only of the question as you shuffle and learn to feel the cards ‘finding’ their own places. When every card is where it needs to be, you will not be able to shuffle anymore: you will feel that they are done. They do not need ‘cutting’: you are not playing poker… once they are all in place, simply put them down and start laying them out.

But what layout to use? Every layout has its strengths and weaknesses. And the layout needs to be relevant to the question; many experienced readers will have quite a few different layouts that they use to get specific answers. I use health layouts, layouts for magical questions, a specific layout for yes/no answers, a layout for energetic details and a specific layout for when I need a lot of information. (I will put up some layouts on my website for people to use –

Let’s go back and visit Bill who is still struggling with his readings. He is at a job crossroads and wants to know what he needs to be doing in the future. Rather than asking the open ended question that he originally attempted, Bill has decided to think a bit more carefully. He has a few options open for him in regards to what path he can take for a job. He writes down a few options, e.g. should I stay with the company I am currently working for? Should I go back to college and study nursing which I have always wanted to do? Should I take the job offer to work in the local store that I was offered? Should I go self employed?

There are four distinct questions but he still has not really focussed the question properly. He has asked ‘should I’?, but to what end?  Is he concerned with finances? Is he concerned with satisfaction and happiness? First Bill needs to think about what he wants from a job, why is he looking for change. Bill decides he is looking for satisfaction and happiness: he has a well paid job but he is deeply unhappy. He is willing to take a pay cut in order to be happy, if that is what it takes.
bill decides to use the Tree of Life layout (will be on my website). With this layout, the last card is the answer and the other cards are the details of how that answer happens. So he asks his first question. The last card is the Tower. That is a simple answer – no matter what other cards appear, the outcome is shit, so best not to even consider that option.

He asks question two (college); the answer is a bit broader. The layout (Tree of Life) and the cards that fall in the specific positions tell him he will mentally enjoy the challenge (3 pentacles in 8th position), he will make friends and enjoy the experience (4 wands in the 7th position), he will struggle financially (5 pentacles in the 9th position) but for the outcome, he would be disappointed and most likely will have a bad time in the job or even may not get one (10 swords in the 10th position). So you start to see how the different options can present themselves.

Interpreting the cards

At first the vast array of meanings for each card can be confusing and overwhelming. To get basically proficient, the best method is to narrow down each card to a key word or phrase, and also to look at the pictures. Using the Rider Waite deck is very good for this as the card pictures are simple and straight forward… someone has a bundle of sticks on their back (10 wands) so they have a burden. What that burden is depends upon the question and where it lands in a layout. If you are asking about a job and that card turns up in a relationship position, it could mean that your relationship will have problems if you take that job, or that you will have burdens of difficulty with someone in the job itself. To narrow that down, you would then do a yes/no reading to ask how that job would affect your relationship with your partner. If it shows no particular problem, then you know the issue would be with someone at work. It is all about context and simplicity. No psychology, no deep self analysis, but also no trying to fit a square peg in a round hole: do not become narrow in your interpretation capacity.

For example, in a reading, the King of Pentacles can mean a man of wealth/finances/property, or it can mean an ancestor or male elder within your family/community. If your question is about work/money, then it is likely it is showing a boss or financial advisor who is experienced. If you are asking a magical question, it could be an ancestor or older man who is an astrological earth sign. Use your common sense and make sure the interpretation is relevant to the question.

The more you work with the simple word keys for each card the more confident you will become. Your own natural ability will slowly take over, and over time you will find that you have your own meanings that develop for each card.

With practice and time, you will become far more proficient at the subtleties of interpretation, plus you will develop your own natural inner sight which will in turn expand your interpretation abilities. Remember when you first learned to drive and you were like an accident waiting to happen? But over time you developed your own style of driving and now can drive without having to think about every action, every person on the road, every junction, sign, other car etc. You work on auto pilot and can process lots of input at high speed: it is the same with tarot. Do lots of readings, write them down and go back to look in retrospect: that is one of the greatest habits to get into for learning. In hindsight, you will be able to see what the cards were trying to tell you.

……….Coming next: reading for the past and the present… and what if you do not like what you see in your future… what then?

About Josephine McCarthy

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8 Responses to Interpreting Tarot: developing a skill set

  1. I have put up layouts for the Tree of Life spread, A health layout and a layout used for magical questions (Inner Landscape/desert) on the page Magical Beginnings on my website


  2. I like your new decorations!


    • I’m still working on it and it is a slow process as I really don’t understand klingon, which most web stuff seems like to me. I spent hours trying to figure out how to get side listings.. I gave up after nearly head butting the laptop… then figured out it was the ‘style’ I was using doesn’t allow for side feeds etc. Sigh. So..another day, and I will change the style so that I can have a side bar and widgets (who the hell thinks up these names!!)


    • peakofnormal says:

      It’s taken me awhile to navigate my own wordpress built site. I’ve been fighting my main computer in general lately -crashes, etc.
      I don’t speak Klingon either. They have a Klingon version of Hamlet at the library, and some theater group here did a Klingon Christmas Carol. In that respect I feel I’ll have a better handle on beefing up my tarot skills.


  3. Jase says:

    I always tell newbies that a precise question is important…. Vague questions = vague answers. I’m with you on that one.

    It only occurred to me when reading your blog entry that I don’t cut often nowadays. I did it for a long time, as it was a habit and part of my routine. Some readers do read the cut, although this is more common outside of tarot cards. I call that feeling of when to stop shuffling “heavy hands,” because it’s like my hands — or the deck — get too heavy to continue.

    I’ve always liked the Rider Waite Smith deck, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many people diss and dismiss it nowadays. Nice to see you speak favorably of it.

    I’ve been using your take on the Tree of Life spread for a while now and it works really well. I don’t always know what to do with the 9th position as home or tribe, so I tend to read it as a general fact or what leads up to the outcome in 10. (After all, it’s the Foundation, hehe.) I’d say that works for your example here, although I can see where the 5P might specifically refer to problems financially supporting his family.


  4. Suzi Petito says:

    Wow! I’ve just connected with your site, and Tarot Blog. Thank you, Josephine, for giving of your wisdom and experience so freely. I only wish that you lived closer, and that we could chat in real time over food and wine……….I am so, hopelessly, Old School. Do you ever plan on doing Youtube videos? I LOVE the way you write, and feel your presence in all of your words (that is a real skill, these days). I am home today with piles of snow in New York – and thankful that during my time on line, I have found your blog, again. I will be checking back as often as I can, but still can’t help but wish you lived closer:-)


  5. Pingback: Interpreting Tarot: Developing a Skill Set « WiccanWeb

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