Deck Dissection: Figuring Out What Cards Mean

Decks used: Morgan's Tarot (Morgan Robbins and Darshan Chorpash, US Games) and Osho Zen Tarot (Osho)

Decks used: Morgan's Tarot (Morgan Robbins and Darshan Chorpash, US Games) and Osho Zen Tarot (Osho)

But what does it all mean?

When I was new to tarot I honestly did not think I would ever memorize what all 78 cards meant. I tried to study everything through memorization when I first got the Jane Austen Tarot—I had a cheat sheet on me at all times and when I was stuck in traffic, I would try to test myself. It stuck for a few days and all that "work" eventually wore me down and that was that.

I do think it's necessary to put in some study when it comes to really understanding the structure of tarot. It takes a bit of rote memorization to just drill all of that information into your head. In the same way memorizing the multiplication table just helps us do math minus calculators or pen and paper, just having that foundation with us at all times creates a base or stock knowledge that allows us to pick up symbolism and metaphor at the snap of a finger.

Once you know the "rules," you're allowed to break them. You can then read intuitively and sort of have permission to spot things in cards that have no connection to our fundamentals. That said, if you're not yet serious about really learning the tarot and would like to use a deck of cards as an oracle deck or a source of prompts for intuition, you can read freeform and just see what works for you.

Check out the picture above—both are cards from unconventional decks. Morgan's Tarot is actually an oracle deck that doesn't follow a set structure and allows your imagination to run free. While you can look at the LWB to figure out what the author intended for every single card, you're, of course, allowed to go at it on your own too.

The first layer of deriving meaning can come from the keywords. What does the phrase "In Significant Change" conjure up for you? What comes up doesn't even have to connect to the illustration. If you can answer this question quickly and in a rapid fire fashion, then you've got your meaning.

The second layer, can come from the drawings. What do you think of when you see a butterfly and a caterpillar? Does the yin and yang symbol mean anything to you? Do the three illustrations have a connection that you find meaningful? You may be able to answer all these questions or just one of them. Just know that whatever comes up can certainly point you to an intuitive hit.

The Flowering card from the Osho Zen Tarot, on the other hand is rife with color and illustrations that can provide meaning. You can compare the keyword to the visuals. Flowering clearly points to the lotus flower, which has a lot of rich tradition and story. Researching the lotus can provide you with a lot of inspiration.

Maybe what pops out to you the most is the woman. Check out her position and her facial expression. When you're in that exact pose, how do you feel? Does the background or foreground matter to you? Do you know anything about the full moon and its connection to the sea? 

You can even strip everything down to the colors. How do the greens, pinks, and blue violets make you feel?

Deck used: Circo Tarot (Marisa dela Peña, Tightrope Press)

Deck used: Circo Tarot (Marisa dela Peña, Tightrope Press)

Sometimes associations come as a whole rather than from little details. When I see the Circo Tarot's Page of Wands, I remember the pilot from "The Little Prince." Whether or not it was intended by the author for this card to represent that character isn't important because when you're reading the cards, what really matters is what your subconscious spells out for you.

There's no need to pressure yourself to connect what your intuition tells you to what's written in the guidebook, although that's also a fun practice I get into when the mood strikes. I take what I first spot in the card and see if it connects to the LWB meaning. If it does, then I do get a sense that I'm "on the right track." If it doesn't initially match, then that gives me more fuel to meditate and figure out how one idea can actually lead to another.

Decks used: Small Spells Tarot (Rachel Howe, Small Spells), Lumina Tarot (Lauren Aletta, Inner Hue), and Circo Tarot (Marisa dela Peña, Tightrope Press)

Decks used: Small Spells Tarot (Rachel Howe, Small Spells), Lumina Tarot (Lauren Aletta, Inner Hue), and Circo Tarot (Marisa dela Peña, Tightrope Press)

Do you know how speed reading works? Some people look at entire paragraphs instead of breaking them down word by word and sentence by sentence. You can use this technique to find meaning in three-card (or bigger!) spreads by just spotting what pops out to you when you see the cards spread together. 

For example, I see similarities between the appearance of the candles in the 7 of Wands from the Small Spells Tarot with the pointy single wand of the Lumina's Ace. Both cards' sharp and very angular sticks, on the other hand, contrast the curves and roundness of the curled up figure in the 5 of Knives. Immediately, the message that comes to mind is how a fiery personality with a lot of passion, perseverance and pursuit, can overcome the defeat that confusion can create.

You can leave your reading with just that and not have to figure out what each individual card means, or you can use that initial hit as a thesis statement that you can continue to weed through as you look at the cards individually.

How do you derive meaning from your own card pulls? I hope my own self-taught techniques help you out! Whatever your purpose is for turning to the tarot, trust what your intuition tells you and go with the first thought that pops up—it's usually right, no matter what the guidebooks say. ;)