Learning How to Read the Tarot

Please NOTE that the content on this page was contributed by Shannon O'Brien.
Copyright 2006 by Shannon O'Brien. All rights reserved.
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Creative Commons License.


            I was taught how to read the Tarot when I was 16 years old by a woman who originally passed me over and proclaimed my oldet sister, Elizabeth, as having 'the gift', the one who must be developed and taught to read Tarot. My heart sunk at this proclamation as I watched my sister and Marian beam at one another in anticipation and kinship. Marion was a highly admired psychic yet I was certain with little sister experience that 'the gift' my sister was demonstrating was was her Eddie Haskell-like way of snowing adults. When it came to getting what she wanted, I was out maneuvered every time by her greater charm, wiles and experience. Though generally amiable and content with my limited lot as the youngest of four, I finally had run across something I wanted bad enough and called forth actual wiles of my own: I asked if I could stay and watch, my youthful innocence playing the cloak of invisibility and they both agreed.

Elizabeth and I watched as Marion spread the cards on the table and began explaining the symbolism of the very traditional Rider-Waite deck. The Rider-Waite and its medieval symbology is the de facto standard today and there are probably tens if not hundreds of tarot decks created since based on the joint late nineteenth work of architect Edward Rider and illustrator Pamela Coleman Waite. Marion found the crudely drawn symbols fascinating for their intricate and surprising depth, so do many others today, including myself.

She began pointing to various images and asking my sister to repeat back to her what they meant. Elizabeth stumbled, this clearly was not sinking in very well. I was surprised as she was bright and generally performed quite well in these kinds of tasks. However, with this she was out of her element. I, in true annoying younger sister fashion, began correcting her before Marion had a chance to step in. Eventually what was also clear was the Tarot really wasn't actually that interesting to my sister; the symbols were medieval, obtuse and weren't nearly as interesting as listening to Marion talk about her. Finally Marion looked at me and said, a bit surprised at her getting that one wrong, "I guess you're the one I should be teaching." And so it was.

We sat down another afternoon a week later in her bright kitchen nook with two cups of tea tinged with milk. We spent the afternoon absorbed as she went through the meaning of each number, pictorial symbol and color on the cards (after awhile one quickly notices repetition), explained the story of each suit (wands, sword, pentacles and cups having immediate corollaries to the familiar clubs, diamonds, spades and hearts of everyday playing cards), and the deeper mystery of the major arcana and their life altering ways. It all made sense to me, more than anything else I had ever studied before. If I ever lean toward the rhetoric of reincarnation, it is because of that experience of grasping something so complicated so quickly and feeling so at home doing it.

Here was the also the genius of Marion: she didn't try to teach the rote meanings of each card. Most tarot teachers treat each card as a finite step of the Fool's journey, providing very specific meanings such as "the three of swords means heartache". These universal meanings can be frustrating when they're recited to you, after all, we all experience our life as unique and "You're experiencing heartache" may only hint at the trauma or actually miss the boat altogether.

Marion understood that the real meaning of that card for that person at that time could only be unlocked by intuition, not by reciting a rote definition. Getting to intuition was a step-by-step process for her; this is the path she showed me: for each reading to pray, to meditate, to look at each card, let aspects of them jump out at me and to read the cards through the filter of my intuition.

So the three of swords (a rather grim looking card with three swords piercing a heart shape in the sky, dark rain pouring down), could actually mean that this person has experienced an emotional (water) epiphany (cloudburst), they're heart is having the affect of changing this person's beliefs (the swords tips drawn by Pamela Coleman that have pierced through the heart have actually lost their shape a bit and the duality and sharpness are now softened). Or it could mean that this person is feeling stung by the words of someone. Or it could mean that this person's emotions is their downfall. How does a reader know or decifer one possible meaning from another? Intution, not emotion, but intution: that still internal voice that you don't want to always believe or can't hear, but that always gets the "I told you so" at the end.

To help me unlock the power behind a Tarot reading, after she was done explaining the card symbolism, she taught me to ask for the Querant's (the person asking the question) name at birth and to say a prayer. In this prayer I ask for protection for me and the person I'm reading for. I ask for their spiritual friends, guides and loved ones to surround them. I ask for mine to surround me as well. I then ask for God's guidance and protection for us both. That I only speak healing words of love and truth. I ask for permission to see that person's imaginary record of being (Marion called them "The Akashic Records") using their birth name, and that I see only what I am authorized to see, what I need to see in order to read for them that day. I then ask the guardians of their records to show themselves and show me the record. And then Marion told me to wait and see what comes up in my mind's eye. This is the key of 'psychic', what comes up in one's imagination, if you will, and one's willingness to truthfully repeat what one sees. It is a real act of faith: it feels foolish to literally leave one's beloved reasonable logic behind, yet there is no way around doing just that to get to the reality and truth that the tarot lives in.

After doing this for 28 years, I can say that for myself and those I read for continue to be astounded by what comes up in that moment. The images and small stories that I see at that moment are the key to the narrative of all the images in the cards I then spread. It's those images and stories that illuminate the cards specifically for that person. It's what gives personal power to each reading. It's the mystery of the Tarot.

No 'up' or 'down' meanings ("Always read them right side up. If there is something negative there, you're intuition will let you know."), no locked in meaning for each card, no dire warnings, no payola requested for desired outcomes recieved. That was Marion's way. It's my way today.

I continue to use the Rider-Waite, or another humorous deck that is derivative of them, the Housewife Tarot filled with sunny and ironic images from 1950s advertising. The pictures in tarot can be grim and frightening and because the tarot is very rarely literal, a happy deck is a friendly introduction. If there is a reading I believe is going to be challenging, I use the Rider-Waite. It's more complete imagery is helpful in readings if I myself am not feeling up to par. I've used several decks over the years though, the imagery that appeals to me through different stages: photographic and colorful, sexual and steamy. What I do avoid though are cards that have descriptive words printed on them, like "Strength" or "Darkeness". I find these single words limiting to the point of even inaccuracy at times.

Am I ever wrong in readings? I have to be, my perception gets frequent corrections in every other aspect of my life, but people have always been kind and when they follow up with me later they only seem to remark on the accurate things that were said. I know that the reading is a success though if at the end the person says someting along the lines of "You know, I always knew that." And that they feel recharged, more in touch with their reason for living and loving. That my friend, is reading the truth.

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