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21 Ways of Looking at the Tarot

This article was written by Mary K. Greer
posted under Tarot

Forget those long, complicated spreads; try spending an hour or more with just one tarot card. With a little diligence you will receive more detailed information with one card than from a large spread read quickly.

You will need a full deck with scenes depicted on all the cards, or just the twenty-two Major Arcana from any deck. Shuffle and draw one card while asking, “What do I most need to look at in my life right now?” Read the card upright using the following steps, trying all of them, in the order given, at least once. After that you can focus on the steps that suit you best. When reading a spread, use these techniques to ignite your own ideas and explore significant cards in greater detail.

While learning, it is ideal to work with a tarot partner who acts as a witness to your own process and insights. Barring this, speak aloud, write in your journal, or tape your responses. Draw one card a day, and go through any selection of the steps below. The next day make notes about what actually happened.

  1. Say the name of the card aloud. Sounds simple, but I’ve seen many people stare at a card without knowing what to say or where to begin.

  2. What number is on the card? What does this number signify? For instance, twos are about choices and decisions. Research the significance of numbers in several tarot books, and make a list of relevant words and themes. Then lay out all the cards of one number, including the Trump, and narrow your list down to several keywords that best fit all those cards. Likewise, develop keywords for each type of Court Card, such as, “Knights are about quests and using the skills of their suit.”

  3. What suit is the card? Name several characteristics of that suit, such as, “Cups are about feelings and emotions.” Or, “Trumps are principles that help you transform yourself.” Create your own keyword list as in step 2.

  4. Put step two and three together in a short sentence or a question: “What choices are you making in your emotional life?”

  5. Simply describe the card. Be literal. No interpretations or meanings: “Two people hold out cups to each other. The one on the right reaches forward with his right hand . . . above them are. . . .” Speak for two or three minutes or write for five. Repeat your description in the first person, present tense: “I hold out a cup to another. I reach forward with my right hand. . . .”

  6. In this and later steps, turn your statements into open-ended questions as needed, such as, “What are you reaching out to?” Respond with your first thought. Also notice images and scenes that arise spontaneously in your mind. Try to capture and describe these mental or memory snapshots.

  7. Describe what seem to be the emotions, feelings, and attitudes of the figures on the card and the mood and atmosphere of the environment. Repeat this description in the first person, present tense.

  8. Make up a children’s story or fairy tale about what is happening in the card. Be silly and outlandish. Don’t think, just talk. Begin “Once upon a time . . .” Repeat your story in the first person, present tense.

  9. Notice any thoughts, beliefs, or opinions that come up while doing the above steps. For instance, “It is good to be emotionally open and giving.” Don’t become attached to any ideas or opinions as being “right” or “wrong.” If reading for another, don’t make judgments about whether something is good or bad for them.

  10. What expressions, sayings, or clichés are suggested by the image on the card? For instance, “out in the cold” for the Five of Pentacles, or “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” The Ten of Swords might be “stabbed in the back,” “overkill,” or “pinned down.”

  11. What are the traditional or book interpretations of the card? Pick the ideas that jump out at you. Looking up cards is not “cheating,” it is gaining a wider perspective.

  12. What is the significance of each image, symbol, and color on the card? Symbol dictionaries will help here.

  13. How do all of the above relate to your life right now? Just describe the first circumstances that come to mind, and make associations as you go. This step may come at any point and be repeated.

  14. Imagine the entire range of the card’s meanings stretching along a dial or spectrum from the most problematic to the most beneficial (I prefer these terms to “bad” and “good”). Give a concrete example from each extreme. To help you get out of your head, physically move your hand like a pointer along the dial until you “sense” where you are now. Determine where you want to be. What shade of meaning is suggested by this new point? How can you move from where you are to where you want to be?

  15. Physically act out the scene depicted on the card. Be precise. Take your time and really feel yourself in the situation. What are you doing? How does it feel? What do you want or need? Why are you here? Examine, handle, and use objects found in the card.

  16. Close your eyes, or gaze at the card through narrowed eyes, while breathing deeply and evenly. Imagine the card growing larger and larger until the figures are at least life-sized. Step over the border and into the card. Look around. What do you see? Touch an object and feel its texture. What do you hear? Smell the air. Merge into one of the Beings or Archetypes in the card and take on its unique energy. How does it move and act? What is its attitude? Speak as the Being. What advice and explanations can it offer? How should objects and symbols in the card be used? Separate from the figure, and thank it. Then step out of the card, seeing it shrink down. Take a deep breath, feeling yourself back in your own body, and open your eyes. Remember that the Being’s advice is not definitive, but merely its own perspective. You may need to hear and evaluate several different perspectives, expressed by other cards, before making up your mind.

  17. Write out a dialogue with one or more figures on the card—don’t think before you write or worry about spelling and grammar. Each figure (including yourself) has a different voice. Ask questions. You may, for instance, ask each figure in the Five of Wands or the Five of Swords to tell their story, including what they want. Make up the answers.

    18. What does the card (and its figures) have to teach you? If still in doubt, simply ask these figures. Speak the first thing you imagine them saying.


  18. What are the qualities you see in the card that you would most like to develop in yourself? Every card portrays something of value. Write down words and phrases describing these qualities. Now turn them into an affirmation.

  19. If the card appears in a spread, then look at how is it modified by other cards or by being reversed. Certain aspects of its meaning will be strengthened, opposed, or brought into focus. Look for repetitions of suit, number, colors, shapes, figures, background or clothing details, or theme. Anomalies can be equally important. Note in which direction the figures are looking or moving.

  20. When reading for others look at the cards through their eyes. Simply guide them through these processes. Don’t make judgments about the client or the situation. Let the person experience the cards and speak for the figures. Repeat what they say to help them recognize their own knowledge and to emphasize their own inner wisdom.

By using these techniques you can be a competent guide and a clear mirror both for your own inner processes and for that of other people in the process of self-discovery.

From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more Llewellyn tarot books and decks, click here.

Mary K. GreerMary K. Greer
Mary Greer is an author and teacher specializing in methods of self-exploration and transformation.  A Grandmaster of the American Tarot Association, she is a member of numerous Tarot organizations, and is featured at Tarot conferences and symposia...  Read more

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