I was fourteen when I was given my first set of tarot cards. At the time my friends and I were obsessed with a subterranean shopping area under the train lines in Leeds known locally as Dark Arches (if you know it, you know, right? Hippie centralis!). It was a short walk from the station and full of small, slightly chaotic, shops selling the sort of flowing hippie skirts, silver jewellery, candles and pungent incense sticks we were all partial to back then.
I can’t remember the name of my favourite shop but it was the one with the strongest smell of patchouli oil, a mysterious robed owner and shelves full of occult books and tarot cards. I was always drawn to those cards for reasons I didn’t understand until Christmas 1991 when our gang decided to pool funds (acquired working after school in bakeries and retirement homes) so we could each receive a gift we really wanted that year. I knew straight away that it had to be the cards. So on 25 December that year I ripped wrapping paper off a small rectangular package and sat down with my cards – a beautiful 1JJ Swiss deck with woodcut imagery and French titles – to do my first self-reading.
It was like turning on a light. The cards made instant intuitive sense to me. They led me towards answers I wouldn’t normally consider. They signposted new ways of thinking and fresh takes on old thought processes. They helped me see the good in the bad and, sometimes, the bad in the good too. And because I was fourteen and believed in magic, I saw no reason for skepticism or cynicism or questioning my abilities. I just went with it, confidently reading spreads (usually a classic Celtic Cross) for myself and my friends – oh the teen love affairs (over)analysed with that deck – cross-legged on my bedroom floor surrounded by a variety of atmospheric fire hazards.
But then somewhere between the non-stop party that was university in late-90s Liverpool and the non-stop party that was a job reviewing bars and restaurants in early ’00s east London, my cards disappeared. Too many moves into too many decrepit housing estate flats? Lost under a pile of musty vintage dresses? Adopted by a guest at a debauched house party? It could have easily been any of the above. It wasn’t like I didn’t have other cards, because I did, I just didn’t have another set I loved quite as much as that tried and trusted starter deck. I like to think that it moved on to pastures new because I didn’t need it anymore.
And that was that. Until one day, I really did need those cards again.
I wasn’t exactly living my best life when I found the book that accompanied that long-lost deck in a box of old photos in 2017 (actual footage above). I was a few years into a work-related (my husband’s not mine) move from a city I adored (Bristol) to a small town in Kent I was really struggling to click with. I’d made friends, my kids had made friends, we’d made inroads into doing up a seriously rundown house, I had plenty of freelance writing work and loved being closer to London… but it still felt like something was missing.
Ever a believer in signs from the universe, finding that book was all I needed to know that there was a tarot-shaped hole in my life that had to be filled. So I headed to eBay and tracked down the exact same deck I’d been given 25 years earlier. Cue another happy Christmas sat cross-legged in front of a spread. To be honest, not much had changed on the excessive candle burning front either.
It was another defining moment and the beginning of a chain of events that led me to start this project. And I’ve been reading regularly again ever since.
Now I’m not going to lie, without the teenage witch bravado and multiple hours a day to shuffle away as I please, it took a while to truly get back in the swing of doing readings again. But the magic was definitely still there. For all the big questions and the small problems and everything else in between, there’s nothing that focuses the mind quite like getting a deck out and working it out through the cards.
I’ve amassed several beautiful new sets (see my favourites here, link to come) between 2016 and now and also discovered oracle cards (which I previously dismissed as being, well, not tarot enough for me) as another fascinating tool for daily guidance and inspiration. I also had a reading from someone else (amazing, inspiring, spookily insightful) for the first time ever last month while I was away in Byron Bay, Australia, which I will write about in due course.
But enough about me! What about you and tarot? Have you ever had a reading done? Do you own a deck? Do you read cards yourself? What does tarot mean to you? Are you interested in exploring it more? Are you wondering what the hell I’m banging on about? Are you scared of what the cards might reveal?
When I got my cards out at a weekend get together recently one new friend was quick to say that she ‘would never meddle with things like that!’. I asked if she though tarot was about predicting the future but she didn’t wait around for me to explain that they’re anything but.
As with so much of the mystical world I’ve been writing about here, tarot isn’t anywhere near as spooky or out there as some people might think. It’s not about predicting doom and freaking out over the Death card. Tarot is simply a divination tool that can be used to tap into our intuition or inner guide, a series of signposts that the reader interprets as they see fit… an interpretation that – quite rightly – could see the same cards in the same positions tell a completely different story one day than they would on another. And that ominous looking Death skeleton? It usually signals the end of a cycle, situation of circumstance or even a shiny new beginning.
SO HOW DOES TAROT WORK?
Tarot decks are usually formed of 78 cards, divided into the Major (picture cards such as The Moon, The Sun, The Lovers or Justice) and Minor (the suit cards: Cups, Wands, Swords, Crystals – sometimes called Coins or Pentacles in traditional decks) Arcana cards. Imagery varies from the traditional symbolism of the old school Rider Waite deck to the ethereal dreamscapes of my favourite Starchild Tarot. Choosing a deck is deeply personal with most people selecting one based on how much the imagery appeals or a simple feeling that this is the right one for them. There’s a superstition that it’s unlucky to buy your first deck yourself and that it should come to you as a gift but I’m going to put myself out there and say you can ignore that one. What modern mystic has time to wait around for someone to get it right on their birthday?!
So you’ve got the cards and you’re ready to read them. Make sure you take time to really tune in. Some people like to perform certain rituals before they start (light a candle, cast a circle, smoke cleanse their space), others just get straight on with it. No way is the right way. You shuffle the cards (thereby transferring some of your energy to them) while ruminating on a question (the broader the better) and stop shuffling only when it really feels right. If you’re having a reading done by someone else they will normally supply the cards but you will still shuffle them.
The Spread / The Pull
The reader (you if you’re doing your own reading) then lays the cards out in a spread. I mentioned my favourite, the classic Celtic Cross, above but there are countless others and new ones being created all the time. Some are as simple as three cards (signifying the past, present and future), others take in strengths, weaknesses, outside influences and actions that might need to be taken to achieve a certain goal. There are spreads to help with romance issues, careers guidance, money troubles and ‘am I on the right path’ issues. Check out New Age Hipster’s free ebook for some great options.
Once you’ve invested in (or been gifted) a deck, a great way to get to know the cards is to do a simple shuffle and pull each morning, using that one card’s meaning as a signpost to what you might want need to tune in to or be aware of that day.
This is where it gets interesting. With the 78 cards in a deck thoroughly shuffled and laid out into a spread there’s a certain magic (or randomness if you prefer to think in those terms) to where each card ends up. The moment you stop shuffling is the difference between The Lovers turning up in your chosen spread’s ‘future’ spot and something more challenging like The Tower. Sometimes the card that ends up in a certain spread position feels like it makes no sense at all. Sometimes every card in every position is completely and utterly obviously ‘right’. The magic lies in the interpretation.
Faced with a problem or a big question most of us will normally process things in a logical, predicable way, using ideas we know have worked for us in the past or calling on previous experiences and advice. What tarot does is throw in a few curve balls. It asks questions you might not consider and suggests possibilities outside our usual frame of reference. For example, you might be incredibly excited about a new relationship and want to ask the tarot where it’s all headed. But the card that comes up for you might turn out to be The Hermit, which indicates a need to take time out to contemplate, look within and seek guidance. This might seem incredibly boring when you want to get back to the wining and dining action but might also make perfect sense when you look beyond the relationship’s glossy newness to what really lies beneath. Without trying it for yourself it’s hard to explain just how brilliant the insights can be. And, of course, the more you read and get to know the cards, the better it gets.
AND WHAT ABOUT ORACLE CARDS?
Oracle cards are something I’ve only recently got into and I totally love them. Unlike tarot, which is bound by suits and arcana and a certain amount of convention, anything goes with an oracle deck. There’s no set number of cards or theme and many use phrases or wording as well as imagery. For beginners they’re often easier to use as there’s less to learn and they’re more self explanatory. I’d still always pick tarot if I wanted to work through something in depth but oracle cards are great (and great fun) for quick morning pulls or entertaining friends at parties. My favourite deck is Work Your Light by Rebecca Campbell and Danielle Noel (creator of the Starchild Tarot) but there are lots of other sets available featuring everything from spirit animals to angels to crystals.
I’m not sure this paragraph is really necessary. It’s a no brainer, right? In fact if you don’t own a deck already, I reckon you probably stopped reading a while back to hit up your local spirit store. Cards are an easy and insightful addition to any spiritual toolbox. And getting started is as simple as going with your intuition when choosing a deck and doing the same with readings for yourself and others. Who cares if you don’t know every card’s meaning off by heart? Whatever you feel when you turn over a card counts for as much, sometimes more. It’s all part of the same magical mystical journey. Best of all cards are affordable, beautiful and – if you don’t lose them for 25 years like me – last a lifetime.
SPIRITUALISM FOR CYNICS
Even if you can’t quite cast your sceptic side aside on this one, don’t be too quick to dismiss the potential benefit of a random card pull. Find an oracle card deck you like the look of (or borrow a mystical friend’s) and when you have a tricky day ahead or a decision to make (there are some great sets with handy ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cards as part of the deck), pull a card and take a few minutes to contemplate what it brings up for you. Pulling a NO card on a work situation when every fibre of your being is anxiously gearing up for a YES can really make you stop and think (in a way that a friend saying it might not). If after a few months you’re still not feeling it, banish them to the bottom of a box in the attic where hopefully they’ll one day be discovered by someone more receptive. No harm done.
Deck shuffle image @kayleewool
Grunge image @britishvogue
Elephant card Pinterest
Moonchild spread @moonchildtarot
Wild Unknown card pull @ravenewyork
Work Your Light spread @elestial_one