This was supposed to have a boring boilerplate title like “2023 Tarot Reading For People Who Don’t Believe In Tarot” but I really wanted your attention. As a 23-year-old, I’m well aware that I am in no position to be telling people how to find meaning and wisdom in their lives. A lot of people don’t have that at 32 and in extreme cases, 82.
Here’s the thing, though: Wisdom and knowledge come from a lot of places. A Little Bit Human writer Joseph Sherwood’s “Occult Captured“, a column about folklore from all around the world, is all about folk stories and the cultural knowledge passed on through them. A lot of our strangest superstitions and weird customs contain a grain of truth, no matter how faded that truth has become through centuries of being passed on.
And that brings us to tarot.
Tarot Through a Different Lens
Tarot cards have a well-earned reputation for being little more than superstitious hogwash. I’m no stranger to women offering to read my destiny, tell me who I’ll marry, and how many kids I’ll have. So when an acquaintance from law school told me I should check it out, I turned my nose up at the idea. You know, like most “logical” people do.
But my phone already heard the conversation and after days of ads and looking at cool card art (shout out to Trungles’ Star Spinner deck), I stumbled upon Jessica Dore’s Offerings on Substack where she talks about tarot cards through the lens of massive forces that shape our lives—history, folklore, sociology, anthropology, and psychology—and braids all of that back into the personal realm.
After a little more digging, I discovered that there are tarot readers out there who don’t think tarot can see into the future. Author Bennebel Wen writes in her blog: “I do not believe for a second that what the cards reveal will absolutely happen. I believe that the cards are a flashlight that you can use to illuminate the dark terrain we walk through in life.”
Together, these two blogs introduced me to the idea of tarot as meditation. Wen talks about tarot cards as a way to tap into your subconscious in the sense that they can serve as a psychological mirror, imagery that forces you to recognize what you already know despite you denying it.
Tarot, in this way, is a lot like the Rorschach inkblot test, the Color test, and the Thematic Appreciation Test psychometricians and psychologists use on clients in the counseling room. As a psychometrician, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: these tests are mostly conversation starters. We know they aren’t completely reliable or valid by psychometric standards, but they work anyway because of what they get the client to say about themselves and their worldview.
If you don’t believe in tarot, whether for religious reasons or for the same sense of haughty intellectual superiority I used to hold against it, this is a good place to approach tarot from. Think of tarot cards as a psychological mirror, not as predictors of fate.
How to Read Tarot Cards
If you go on Google right now and ask it for tarot card meanings like “Justice tarot meaning” or “Eight of Swords meaning”, you’re going to see a lot of differences in the specific meanings of cards but no massive differences in overall theme. There is difference but cohesion—a thematic oneness.
Going back to the Rorschach analogy, a lot of people will look at the same card and have different interpretations. This is because their interpretation is shaped by their personal experiences, current circumstances, and influences. What you see will not be what others see, but it’s a good thing. It makes what you see specific and true for you and your circumstances and experiences.
That said, you’ll want to be familiar with the symbolism of the cards before drawing your personal interpretations. Think of it this way: Many cultures see the sun as a symbol of power and vitality, on a personal level the sun may remind you of the emotional vitality you feel on a warm summer day spent at the beach with friends. That kind of thing.
What the Major Arcana Cards Mean
The major arcana are the “big” cards of your tarot deck. These are the cards that don’t have Cups, Wands, Swords, and Pentacles in their names. It is alternatively called “The Fool’s Journey” because the 22 major arcana cards describe a process of growth for the Fool a.k.a Card #0 as he goes through life-changing experiences and shifts in perspective that allows him to discover his best self.
- The Fool: The card of new beginnings. With the Fool comes the promise of an adventure and the joys that come with it, but also the dangers that a new unknown can bring. His foolishness is joyful innocence and ignorance.
- The Magician: The Magician is a creator bringing forth new realities from his mind. His willpower and creativity are a reminder of the immense focus it takes to turn idle daydreaming into something real.
- The High Priestess: While the Magician is a manifestation of the conscious mind, the High Priestess is a reminder of the creative potential hidden in us. There is an even deeper wellspring for the Magician to pull from.
- The Empress: A powerful maternal figure, the Empress nurtures us from a place of power. She symbolizes abundance and reassurance in all the forms these may take.
- The Emperor: The Emperor is power and control over the self, situations, and others. He is an institution also, a reminder that it’s good to impose rules and follow them to create structure in our lives.
- The Hierophant: The Hierophant is an emperor of his own realm, that of social and religious convention. Think of the superego, ethics, etiquette, and morality.
- The Lovers: The Lovers can be about literal lovers or figurative ones. The general theme is that there’s a coming together of things here, whether they are beliefs, people, or ideas. In the Lovers, we find the wholeness of existing in relation to other things.
- The Chariot: While the creative will of the Magician is mostly mental, the Chariot pushes forward with courage and most importantly, the ability to take action. He is sometimes described as “triumph in the mind“, a figure in whom emotion, belief, will, and perception become one and the same through action.
- Strength: In contrast to the Emperor and the Chariot, whose ideas of power are more overt, Strength is often depicted as a woman holding a lion. There is a gentle reassurance between them. In her, we find quiet emotional strength that more often manifests itself as the backbone to be dutiful and kind rather than the forceful strength of conquest and victory.
- The Hermit: The Hermit retreats into himself, taking the time to contemplate his own values, beliefs, and truths away from the influence of societal pressure and expectation, even if it’s coming from those he loves and loves him.
- The Wheel of Fortune: The Wheel describes the natural turning of the seasons and the seasons of a person’s life. It is also a reminder of how odd circumstances outside our influence can be, one moment putting us at the top, the next at the bottom of the world.
- Justice: Justice is discernment. It is the ability to bring together what we know, what we know to be true, and what we know to be correct and use this as a guiding compass. It is also the card of accountability to justice.
- The Hanged Man: Hanged though he may be, the Hanged Man is relaxed as he dangles by his foot. He is a change in perspective in a cognitive and empathic sense.
- Death: Don’t let his name fool you! Death is a card of rebirth for the Fool. With his experience, it is time to turn a new leaf. The old self dies to make way for the new self.
- Temperance: Balance in all things. Temperance is finding a harmonious middle ground.
- The Devil: Ignorance and obsession bind the female and male figures in the Devil card into complacency. You can take the Devil as a warning of what could feel comfortable now but is ultimately not serving you in the long term.
- The Tower: Upheaval and sudden changes. The Tower is considered by some to be a terrifying card, but it can also point to a “moment of truth”.
- The Star: The change brought by the Tower can be painful even if necessary. The Star symbolizes the hope of something new arising after it.
- The Moon: A symbol of intuition and illusion, the Moon points to the imagination that allows us to create but also one that causes us to imagine unreal threats that make us anxious.
- The Sun: Vitality and illumination, the Sun brings renewed enthusiasm for life that is self-assured and wise compared to the almost ignorant overenthusiasm of the Fool.
- Judgment: Judgment is a scary word but the figures in the image of Rider-Waite decks celebrate its arrival. In Judgment, we find the identification and solidification of the new self and forgiveness for the old self.
- The World: Fullness and wholeness become manifest in the World. Everything has come together in one meaningful moment. The Fool’s experiences and wisdom allow him to act wholesomely in all areas of his life.
What the Minor Arcana Cards Mean
We’ll be here all day if we go through all of the minor arcana cards because aside from their sheer number, there are more ways to interpret them, in a way, than the major arcana cards. Having said that, let’s go over the general meaning of the suits instead. The suits are the Cups, Wands, Swords, and Pentacles of the tarot deck.
Each suit carries a general theme. The Cups pertain to the emotional and relational realm, the Wands to creative energy (as in the Magician), the Swords to intellect and logic (as well as their dangers), and the Pentacles for material comfort in both the domestic and financial sense.
At the end of the day, what the cards mean is up to you, or, to be more accurate in case you’re in the mood to be dismissive in contrarian, the meaning of each tarot card depends on how the images in the cards connect to you. What in your life do they remind you of? Treat it like a free association activity.
Picking a Deck
Sound good so far? Let’s move on to picking decks. If you’re starting out, you might want to stick to Rider-Waite-based decks but not necessarily the Rider-Waite deck itself. This is because RW cards can have some very dominant imagery that’s hard to interpret in a more flexible, true-to-you way. You may also want to pick out a deck you genuinely like. Go with a deck with pictures that draw you in. Seriously.
Using Your Tarot Deck
Okay, so we’re reading tarot but we don’t think it’s magic. At the same time, just free associating the cards doesn’t feel very useful in terms of guidance. This is where meditation comes in. You know that “mumbo jumbo” about focusing your intentions? Meditate. You gotta meditate. Just really focus and calm yourself, and find your emotional center. Do you like your guidance in the form of Buddhist, Tao, or Stoic meditation? It’s the same idea. Parse the fancy language away and they’re all saying the same thing. Meditate and really see your cards.
Books To Read if You Want To Keep Exploring Tarot as a Non-believer
Jessica Dore’s Tarot for Change has been out for a while now and honestly? It’s a really good book that you may find interesting even if you decide not to get too deep into the whole tarot thing. She goes over world mythologies, cultures, sociology, psychology, and all the fun sociocultural stuff you can think of as she talks about using the card for self-discovery.
GET TAROT FOR CHANGE
Another tarot book for the non-believer is Benebell Wen’s Holistic Tarot which pushes aside the more mystical ties of the tarot deck in favor of focusing on how it can help you re-focus your life and mental energy. It also goes into in-depth explanations of the card and how to read for different situations and areas of life.
GET HOLISTIC TAROT
Tarot and Jungian symbolism? It’s a match made in symbolic heaven. This book from Sallie Nichols explores the relationship between the tarot and Jungian psychology, an area of psychology known for being centered on the idea of archetypes, collective knowledge, and psychological states.
GET TAROT AND THE ARCHETYPAL JOURNEY
Like the idea of using tarot for self-discovery? Read on with this article on tarot reading as self-care.