Six years ago, I’d use tarot and journaling as procrastination—welcome respites from tedious term papers and long witching hours logged in the design studio. Now tarot is where I turn when September’s descent activates those 17 years of conditioning that compel me to hit the library stacks and curl up with a pile of books, a pack of hi-liters, and enough tea to sink a horse. Like so many crafts and labors of love, tarot is a vehicle for life-long learning.
In this article, Part 1 of 4, we’ll go through the first five cards (The Fool through The Emperor). These tips and exercises are not just about memorizing card meanings, but about learning the whole system and developing a tarot practice in a deeper, broader sense, too. Everything in this series is catered to longterm, self-directed learning. Some of the exercises I’ve done, some I’m chipping away at now, and some are on my long list for later. Nobody has to do all of these. They’re just ideas to get you going. You can jump around, go at your own pace, and pick and choose what works for your style and schedule.
The Fool does not study. She does not do research. She does not look before she leaps. She gets up and goes, leading by instinct, heart, and innocence.
There are many ways to learn, and one of the very best is to learn by doing. It’s neither wise nor ethical to bill yourself as a pro reader without experience, but you can start reading for yourself without knowing anything about the cards beforehand. Sit down with the cards—no books, no notes. Look at the pictures, and see what comes to mind.
Do readings often, for yourself and for friends who love you enough to give feedback and take what you say with a grain of salt if you flounder.
The Magician channels divine energy (above) into his magical workings and manifestations in the physical world (below). He sees the spiritual/esoteric/macrocosmic and the physical/mundane/microcosmic worlds as connected mirrors of each other.
We can use the tarot as a tool for mapping out our daily patterns, for brainstorming, and for advice on immediate, practical matters. We can also use it as a sacred text, for inspiration and wisdom in our spiritual lives.
List out keywords for each card in two columns: one for mundane, everyday, little-picture meanings; one for esoteric, spiritual, big-picture meanings. Consider the connections and the distinctions between each set of keywords.
The High Priestess
The High Priestess lives on the outskirts of society, at the edge of the veil. Deeply intuitive, she pulls insights from the other world to be applied in this one.
Not all tarot readers ID as psychics or even believe in psychic phenomena. Tarot cards do not have to be used or approached psychically, but if you do intend to use them as a psychic tool, add psychic development and protection routines to your list of homework.
If you haven’t yet, read up on psychic protection 101. There are tons of great books and articles out there on the subject. Many are written through the lens of a particular spiritual path, so you may wish to begin your research through your own spiritual or religious framework. This is a huge topic, and I’m chagrined to admit I don’t have a list of go-to resources to recommend to you all. I think I’ll make this a topic for a future post or series, and get back to that.
The main goal here is pretty simple: find a protective practice that appeals to you. Do it at the start and end of your day, and before any big tarot sessions. It doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be as simple as picturing yourself in a bubble of light, reciting a prayer, or stating a positive intention before opening yourself up to other people’s energies and/or the influence of any unseen passers by.
Don’t worry about having to be psychic when you use the cards. Everyone has an intuition, and we can hone our intuitions with attention and practice. Everyone has different intuitive strengths and weaknesses. In addition to working with tarot cards, meditating once a day and keeping a dream journal are great ways to get your intuition flowing.
The Empress is a gem, with her bare feet on the ground, a glimmering crown of stars, and a whole lot of creative power. Her domain is All The Good Stuff, and we definitely want some of what she’s having. She invites us to bring our creative minds to our every pursuit, to embrace wealth and fertility, and to make tangible things.
Not everyone feels like a master artist or craftsperson, but everyone has a pet medium they can connect to creatively. When we think of creativity, the fine arts spring immediately to mind: painting, music, sculpture, poetry, performance, and so on. Then there are the crafts: knitting, needlework, jewelry making, woodworking, scrapbooking, and decorating, to name a few. Besides the obvious, there are countless activities that utilize our creative drives in different ways. Passionate gearheads pour their artistry into reconstructing vintage motorcycles. Rockstar chefs craft delicious meals that appeal to all the senses. Thoughtful landscapers sculpt the earth and greenery into alluring atmospheres. There’s a creative outlet for everyone, be it the focus of a career or an occasional hobby.
What’s your medium? What’s your outlet? Take it and apply it to your tarot studies. Writers, start a tarot blog or write tarot-inspired poetry. Musicians, write songs inspired by each of the cards, or try performing a single piece of music as different tarot characters. How would Bach’s cello suites sound played by the Fool? How about The Emperor? DJ’s, make playlists for each of the cards. Visual artists, draw pictures, paint paintings, and sculpt sculptures. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, design an original deck and get that sucker published. Scrap-bookers, collage yourself a practice deck out of the billions of magazine and book clippings I know you have lying around. Chefs, bakers, and mixologists, come up with tarot inspired recipes. What would Lady Justice order at your café? Gardeners and herbalists, explore which plants remind you of which cards. Take notes on any botanical symbolism in your favorite decks. Plant a tarot garden.
The key here is to connect what you’re trying to learn with what you already know and love, and to learn by doing stuff. For me, making a collage deck was such a turning point in my tarot journey, even if the final product was a hot mess. We absorb so much information when we actively, physical, and creatively make connections between our pet crafts and the object of our studies.
The quintessential authority figure, The Emperor’s approach is analytical, strategic, and objective. This one’s a toughie, because tarot is such a subjective, wibbly, artsy, woo-woo field. What place does objective analysis have in such a practice? An important one, actually.
The Emperor’s way of thinking is rational and informed—a balance to all our intuitive musings. He engages our academic side, reminding us to keep a healthy sense of skepticism, and pointing us towards research, rote memorization, and discipline.
Start a list of tarot research questions. Note anything in the pictures and anything you come across in your tarot books that you don’t understand, or think you could explore in greater detail. What does this symbol (bull, salamander, eagle, sphinx, pomegranate, pentacle, etc.) mean in my culture? What does it mean in other cultures and mythologies? What’s the history behind this figure? What’s the history behind tarot as a whole? How does astrological symbolism tie into the cards? What is this author’s or this illustrator’s background? What books are they reading? Do I agree or disagree with what they say? Are there flaws in their arguments or gaps in their scholarship? And so on.
Clearly, this is not a list you’ll write out in one sitting. Just have a list somewhere that you can add to anytime something your read or see raises a question you’d like to explore. I like to use smartphone apps for listing and note-taking on the go. Mindly and Tomorrow are my two current favorites.
Set aside one hour each week to look at your list and research one of your questions. Remember to look closely at your sources. Is this info coming from a book many tarot readers reference? A classic mythological text? A scholarly article? Some random chick on the web who hasn’t cited any sources? (Hello!) Remember that not all information is created equal. And don’t worry about getting this all done in a day, or even a year. This is a life-long learning approach. You’ll begin with a flood of questions, and generate more and more as you go.