How to Read Tarot Cards with Michelle Tea : Life Kit : NPR

Three cards taken from the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. Michelle Tea suggests beginners start with a three-card reading.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


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Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


Three cards taken from the iconic Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. Michelle Tea suggests beginners start with a three-card reading.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Growing up, my family often relied on tarot to make tough decisions – we would draw cards to talk about my brother breaking up or whether I should drop out of school.

I didn’t always listen to the readings, but the rituals provided space for me to ruminate and find my own answers to the question posed to the cards. Years later, along with many others, I returned to the practice as a way to stay grounded during this time of indecision and overcoming.

As tarot reader and writer Michelle Tea says, some people mistakenly come to tarot to predict the future, when it’s really about self-reflection. “If you’re someone who wants to incorporate more spirituality into your life or look at life a little more philosophically, this is a great tool for even just choosing a daily card.”

Modern tarot, which derives from mid-15th century European playing cards, has rules and a structure that often seem inaccessible to newcomers: even if you’ve already gotten a reading, you may be intimidated by the cards or wonder if you are a wizard. or cool enough to practice tarot yourself.

Tea says this is yet another common misconception about tarot. “Tarot is incredibly welcoming to a novice. If I could learn it, anyone could,” she says. “It’s just about getting to know the pictures, memorizing them, and understanding how the cards talk to each other so that when you draw a series of cards you understand how they fit into a type of story.”

In his book Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards, Tea guides budding readers through each card in a tarot deck, shares reading tips and ways to incorporate tarot into your self-care practice. Here’s a beginner’s guide to tarot with tips and resources.

Michelle Tea is the author of Modern Tarot: Connecting with your higher self through the wisdom of the cards.

Left: Harper One; Right: Jenny Westerhoff


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Left: Harper One; Right: Jenny Westerhoff

Choose a deck that speaks to you

Especially for beginners who find tarot unattainable, Tea says the first step is to “assume tarot welcomes you, and I think the best way to do that is to pick a deck that really resonates with you,” says- she. “You want a deck that makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m intrigued by these images; I want to know what this means.'”

While most standard decks come with 78 cards, each set assigns different names and artwork to each card. The images on your deck will also inform your readings: your knowledge of different flowers can guide how you interpret a floral deck. Your deck will likely come with an instruction book that will explain each card specific to that set.

If you want to start with the basics, Tea recommends picking up the classic Rider-Waite-Smith, which was also his (and my) first deck. Some of Tea’s other favorites include:

  • The Thoth Tarot by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris
  • The Next World Tarot by Cristy C. Road
  • The She Wolfe Tarot by Devany Amber Wolfe
  • The Cosmic Sleep Tarot by Tillie Walden

Learn your cards

The ace card of each of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck’s minor arcana combinations: wands, cups, swords and pentacles.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


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Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR


The ace card of each of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck’s minor arcana combinations: wands, cups, swords and pentacles.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

A standard tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into two groups, 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor arcana cards. The Major Arcana present the great events of life, while the Minor Arcana look at the traits and speak to our daily lives, although this largely varies depending on the reader.

the major arcana are composed of the archetypal cards like the sun, the magician and the lovers. They are often numbered from zero (the fool) to 22 (the world). “When the major cards appear in the readings, they usually speak to a really important moment,” Tea explains, “like a highlight in our lives or an important learning opportunity, a lesson that is going to have a lot of impact for we.”

the minor arcana are divided into four elements, similar to traditional playing cards – ranging from one to 10, followed by face cards. Elements are represented by symbols, which Tea breaks down here:

  • Suit of Wands: Represents the element of fire we have in our hearts, where our passions and ambitions live. “It’s a really sexy costume, it’s really playful.” He wants us to go out into the world and pursue whatever we want.
  • Suit of Cups: Represents water, which is often used as a metaphor for our emotions. He often talks about our emotional landscape and the people who change it. It’s very relational; it’s about love, friendship and community.
  • Suit of Swords: Represents air, which is considered “the most unstable element in tarot.” It serves as a metaphor for our mental processes. “It’s electricity; it’s inspiration, it’s communication, but it’s also our inner worlds and how we can spin and torture ourselves with anxiety.”
  • Combination of pentacles (sometimes called disks or coins): Represents the earth. It roots us in our body, our home, our workplaces, the places where we are embodied

As for the readings, “it’s 100% about learning the game and getting comfortable with it,” says Tea. You don’t have to give someone else a full read to practice. Familiarize yourself with the deck of your choice first, both the names and the images of the cards. Then read the instruction book and practice giving yourself readings. This can be daily readings or drawing an intention card every week. It’s hard to memorize all the cards at once, so try to get into the habit of grabbing your deck and learning a card or two every day.

Ask specific questions

Tarot cards arranged in the shape of a question mark on a floral patterned tablecloth.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Tarot cards arranged in the shape of a question mark on a floral patterned tablecloth.

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

To receive more insightful readings, try to avoid asking general questions that cover the span of a year or speak to your overall mood.

“If you’re overwhelmed and want the tarot to reassure you, that’s really not the tarot’s job,” says Tea. “The tarot isn’t there to tell you that everything will be fine, but if you’re going through a tough time, the tarot can help you deal with it.”

You can always, of course, lean on the cards. Rather than asking a muddy question like “Is everything okay?” you can reframe it into “What actions can I take?”

Tarot can also answer yes or no to questions such as “Should I quit my job?” Or even everyday questions like “How should I talk about sharing chores with my roommates?” If you don’t agree with the cards, that’s okay too. As Tea says, “Tarot is a tool that allows you to be proactive in your own life and approach your own destiny with confidence.”

Build your own prep routine

Come on time to read, there are no set rules for setting intentions and shuffling. As Tea says, what makes tarot such a strong spiritual practice is that there is so much you need to figure out on your own, first learn and then rework and personalize the readings.

Remember to focus on card weight and shuffling by cutting the deck in whatever way works best for you. You can place the deck in one hand and release a section of cards at a time in the opposite hand; split the maps into two files and split them; or mix them in big piles on the ground. Most important is your mindset: focus on the question being asked.

Take a screenshot of this document to help you with tarot readings. Or print it here!

An illustrated page explaining the basics of tarot reading.

Claire Marie Schneider/NPR

Try different readings

There are different ways to give tarot readings – the most important thing is to find one that works for you and who you are reading. Tea suggests beginners start with a three-card reading. Each of the three cards you draw can be assigned a different role such as: past/present/future, nature of your problem/cause/solution, situation/action/result, among others. Maybe give yourself some time to think about different scenarios with the cards in front of you to determine if there is a command that speaks to you.

You may have also heard that reverse cards reverse their meaning. How to read them is a divisive issue among tarot readers. Tea says she doesn’t believe in inversions.

“Because I was sloppy putting the cards back together, they get a happy card turned into a sad card? I don’t like that,” she said. “But if you’re interested in inversions, you can give it a try. You can review it and find out why people like it.”

Like a lot of tarot, it all depends on what you want to bring to the question and the reading.

The name of the tarot deck featured in this story has been updated from Rider-Waite to Rider-Waite-Smith to reflect contributions from artist Pamela Colman Smith.

The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with technical support from Stuart Rushfield.

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