Advice for Beginners
by Lee A. Bursten
There are a lot of similarly-titled articles directed at beginners on the Internet, and most of them are full of good advice. I am writing this article not because I think it will be an improvement over any of these but rather in the hope that a different viewpoint may prove useful to the beginner.
Actually the title "Advice for Beginners" sounds somewhat pompous, as if I know more about Tarot than anyone else. Although I have studied Tarot on and off in a desultory fashion for about 20 years, and studied it in earnest for the last two, I still consider myself very much a beginner, and hardly in a position to offer "advice" to anybody. However, during the past two years I have read many Tarot books and looked through many decks, and I have a few observations that hopefully will help others avoid some of the pitfalls that I fell into.
Choosing a Deck
The first and most important subject in "Advice for Beginners" articles is usually choosing a deck. I feel myself qualified to discuss this topic because I have spent the last two years looking for that perfect deck and failing to find it. I usually spend a few days to a few weeks on one deck before I become disenchanted with it, and then its on to the next one. This is bad, because it has prevented me from establishing a personal relationship with one deck, which I believe is a prerequisite to reading the cards well. On the other hand, its given me an excellent education in the variety and depth of the decks that are on the market.
One cause of my "deck-hopping" problem is the fact that publishers like to put out "theme" decks, that is, decks which embody a particular cultural or religious background, usually one that happens to be in vogue at the moment. These can be very attractive to a beginner, since they usually are part of a deck/book set and are stylishly packaged, and the beginner may be led to think that this approach will be the one that clicks. However, unless one is already a devotee of that particular theme, or unless one is simply a collector who likes to own all different kinds of decks, I would suggest bypassing these decks. Someone who is interested in Tarot for itself, and not as a vehicle for a particular set of beliefs or cultural heritage, will probably become frustrated with such a deck, as the Tarot archetypes tend to get shoved aside to make room for whatever the decks author is trying to communicate.
Of course, the degree to which the "Tarot-ness" of a deck is diminished will vary in different theme decks. For example, the Robin Wood deck is flavored with paganism but still manages to stick to traditional Tarot iconography in most of the cards. In contrast, the Sacred Circle deck changes the numbering, the concepts, and the pictures for a large percentage of the cards, thus making it more of a teaching tool for paganism and less of a Tarot deck.
There are two "theme" decks that I would still encourage people to explore: the Mythic Tarot and the Alchemical Tarot. Perhaps because these decks take as their themes aspects which were probably involved the Tarots creation, or were part of the mindset of the creators, these decks dont seem to do the same sort of violence as other theme decks do to what Tarot author Cynthia Giles calls the "core images."
The standard advice to beginners is to choose a deck that you feel comfortable with and that speaks to you. Easier said than done! Ive found several decks that contain beautiful, evocative cards, but other cards in the same deck turn me off. Some people are lucky and find a deck they click with right away, but if you are like me, I think the best advice is to not expect perfection, but to find a deck where the qualities you like outweigh the qualities you dont like. Just as no person is perfect, and we must learn to live with parts of ourselves that we dont like, likewise we should think of a deck as a person with their own complicated personality, which if we want to enjoy that persons or decks company we must put up with their eccentricities (or at least what appears to us as eccentricities).
Cynthia Giles (obviously an author I like) says that a deck which we instinctively dont like may stimulate our intuition. I dont know that I would go that far, but I do think that decks which intellectually we might not agree with may be just right for intuitive purposes. For example, intellectually I prefer non-illustrated-Minor decks. To me they seem somehow "purer," and I enjoy working with a deck that looks substantially like a deck might have looked two or three hundred years ago. Yet I have to admit that such decks are rather dry to read with. They certainly can be read with, but illustrated-Minor decks are more enjoyable because the images on the Minors make a more immediate impact.
Likewise, when choosing between illustrated-Minor decks, I find that intellectually I prefer decks that belong to the sort of generic medieval fairy-tale setting of the Waite deck or its clones (i.e. Morgan-Greer, Aquarian, Hanson-Roberts, Hudes), rather than ones with other cultural settings. Despite this, the deck that I like reading with most right now is the Mythic Tarot, which not only has a particular cultural setting but makes the pictures on the Minors scenes from particular myths, rather than the suggestive but non-specific pictures on most decks. The point here is that if you find yourself drawn to a deck, dont try to resist your intuition just because intellectually you think you "shouldnt" like that deck.
My only other observation on choosing decks is that if one really hates a card or a few cards in a deck when one first looks at it (as opposed to mere dislike), its my experience that ones reaction to those cards will only get worse as one tries to work with the deck and will not get better. Therefore its a good idea to try to see as many of the cards as you can before spending your money. Two great sites (besides this one) to see specific cards from decks are:
Of course, one way to find the perfect deck is to make it yourself. Michele has plenty of great information on the site about making your own collage deck.
Finally, an admonition: please do not open a shrinkwrapped deck in a store and look through the cards without buying it. This makes it highly unlikely that anyone will buy that copy, thus depriving the artist and publisher of their well-deserved compensation.
Choosing an Approach
The easiest way to choose a Tarot approach is if you happen to love a deck that comes with a book, and you like the book as well. Mission accomplished! But if you like the deck but not the book, or if you use a more generic deck like the Waite or its clones which has lots of books written for it, youll have to do some investigation. Fortunately books dont come shrinkwrapped like decks do, and many large bookstores have a good selection of Tarot books, so you can look through them before buying.
It has been said that there are as many Tarot approaches as there are Tarot readers, and that certainly seems to be the case when you look at the variety of books out there. Look through the book carefully to make sure there wont be unpleasant surprises when you get it home. Keep an eye out for perspectives (and biases) that may not agree with yours. For example, some Tarot authors are extremely prediction-oriented. This kind of approach would be a mistake if you think (as I do) that it would be immoral to give somebody a negative, doom-and-gloom prediction.
Recently I saw a book which gave a sample reading for a 28-year-old man with AIDS who wanted to know how his health would hold up and how long he would live. The outcome of the reading in this book was that his health would not do well and he would die soon. I cant imagine anyone giving such a ridiculous interpretation to a sick person. Obviously, this was not the book for me. On the other side of the coin, some books are so "psychological" in their interpretations that you may lose patience with them. A reading that is over-reliant on this kind of interpretation can result in psycho-babble.
Inevitably youll end up with at least a few different books, and this is a good thing. Its important to remember that there is no fixed tradition in Tarot, only generalized trends with many exceptions. No Tarot author carries any weight of tradition. They either made up their card meanings or assembled their meanings from other sources, which you can do just as easily as they did. Some Tarot authors write as if their interpretations are the interpretations (Eileen Connolly comes to mind), but dont you believe it. If their approach works for you, great, go for it. But if a specific card interpretation doesnt work for you, dont hesitate to borrow from other books, or make up your own.
Many Tarot books contain long lists of possible meanings for each card. I think its a mistake for a beginner to look at these lists and feel they have to memorize them in order to learn to read the cards. Personally Ive found it much more valuable to decide on a core concept for each card and then try to creatively fit that concept to a particular situation when doing a reading.
For example, Rachel Pollacks card meanings in 78 Degrees of Wisdom make for fascinating reading, but its not very helpful to just memorize them, and I dont think the author would even recommend that you try. I suspect that she arrived at these meanings by recording them as they came to her over years and years of reading. I think the point is to arrive at your own nuances in interpretation over years and years of your own reading, not to memorize someone elses. Juliet Sharman-Burke and Terry Donaldson are two authors who offer short, succinct meanings for each card, which may be better suited for beginners than the long lists found in, for example, Tarot Plain and Simple by Anthony Louis.
The Internet can be a wonderful resource for the Tarot enthusiast. To begin with, ordering a published deck becomes a no-hassle experience when you use Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Many independently published decks can also be ordered on-line from their creators. Also, one has an opportunity, particularly from this site, to learn of the existence of independent or foreign-published decks which you just wont find at your local bookstore. For the collector, being on-line opens up whole new vistas.
Ive also found it gives me an opportunity to expiate my guilt at buying so many decks by writing reviews, which Ive found to be a very satisfying experience which I would recommend to anyone.
There are many deck creators who have sites of their own. Typing in an artists or authors name, or just the deck name, into a search engine will sometimes yield up such a site, although youll have to wade through a few hundred entries for stores selling the deck.
Another interesting feature is the existence of discussion lists, like alt.tarot or tarot-l. These can be valuable for information and also for a feeling of community, but I would caution beginners to proceed at their own risk. Open discussion is encouraged, and this may mean put-downs of those who dont agree with particular viewpoints. Alt.tarot is particularly extreme in this regard. I logged onto it a few weeks ago out of curiosity and was amazed at the ranting and raving, name-calling and general carrying-on -- and this was by one of its founders! Tarot-l is much better in this regard but can still be subject to insensitivity, hurt feelings, and other unpleasantness. I would recommend joining one of these lists and reading several discussions before you join in.
If you are a beginner and are overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety thats available nowadays, I would suggest first reading a book about Tarot, rather than a Tarot how-to. Here are a few I would recommend:
The Illustrated Guide to the Tarot by Rachel Pollack
The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore by Cynthia Giles
I probably shouldnt recommend particular decks and books, but I cant resist, especially since I love reading about other peoples preferences, so here are my favorites:
Finally, there is someone on the Internet who is fond of saying there is a right way and a wrong way in Tarot. I think this is absolutely true, but not in the way the author of the statement intended. The wrong way is to use an approach or deck because someone else told you to, even if its not working for you. The wrong way is to insist that your way is the only way. The right way in Tarot is to find or create whatever challenges you, whatever opens you to new viewpoints, whatever helps you connect with the person youre reading for (or yourself), and whatever is the most fun.
And one final, final thought: We are always in danger of being far too serious about this stuff. Cynthia Giles points out that the Tarot began as a game, and that the intuition works best when used in a light, playful attitude. To the famous words accompanying the Delphic oracle, "Know Thyself," I would add: "But Do Not Take Thyself Too Seriously!"