Tarot for Beginners: What Exactly Is It and How Do I Get Started?

You got a tarot card reading on the boardwalk when you were in seventh grade (and the reader was totally right about your crush—he did end up being a jerk). Ever since then, you’ve been curious about tarot cards, but never had the nerve to buy your own deck. Not sure where to start? We asked our friend Fahrusha, a psychic reader in New York who is a pro at all things tarot, to give us a crash course for beginners. Oh, and don’t freak out if you pull the Death Card…but more about that below.

1. What is tarot, exactly?

The world’s oldest known deck of tarot cards was commissioned for the Duke of Milan in the 1400s. At first, the deck was used to play card games, like the classic Italian game tarocchini, but it started being used by fortune tellers to make predictions in the 1800s. In Europe, the deck is still used to play card games, and it’s pretty much used for divination purposes only in the U.S.

Like a regular deck of playing cards, a tarot deck has four suits (although these suits vary depending on whether the cards are from Northern Europe, Southern Europe or Central Europe). A standard deck has 78 cards: 56 cards in the Minor Arcana (or Lesser Arcana) and 22 in the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana is broken up into four groups of 14 cards each. Also similar to a deck of playing cards, the 14 tarot cards in each suit are numbered from one (like an ace) to ten and include “court cards,” the page, knight, queen and king. (We’ll take a look at some of the other cards in the Major Arcana in a bit. They’re the ones you need to know if you’re trying to get in touch with the cards’ power.)

2. How do I get my own tarot deck?

You can buy tarot decks at bookstores, metaphysical stores and online. But Fahrusha warns that not all decks are created equal. To know you’re getting the real deal, she recommends the Rider-Waite deck or the Mary Hanson-Roberts deck.

“The Rider-Waite deck is the gold standard of fully illustrated decks and is filled with rich and useful imagery,” she says. “The Mary Hanson-Roberts deck is based on the Rider-Waite deck and is especially good for the faint of heart since the images have a bit more of a palatable, fairy-tale quality to them.”

A disclaimer for first timers: Our expert says to steer clear of cards that are all doom and gloom and look more ominous than they really should. “Please, do not pick an unillustrated deck or one filled with frightening images,” she says, since these will do little to inspire you. Instead, take a look at your options and go with the one that feels right to you.

3. What’s the point of a tarot reading?

Unlike other psychic arts (like palmistry, divination and fortune telling), a tarot card reading can focus on a specific question. Fahrusha says the question she is asked the most is “Does so-and-so love me?” But in order to get an accurate answer, you need to get a little more specific. “A better question might be, ‘How does Pat feel about me today?’” she says. “Accept the answer given to you by the cards and do not ask again for at least three days.” The reason behind the three-day waiting period? Fahrusha says this is enough time to let pass if you need to ask the same question without risking an incorrect reading.

Tarot cards can also help you make decisions by giving you a quick glimpse into the future. For example, if you can’t decide whether or not to go out this weekend, you might consult the deck. If the cards tell you there’s a love connection on the horizon, respond to that dating app notification.

4. Will every reader give the same predictions?

Tarot is an art, not a science, so the meaning of each card can be interpreted slightly differently, depending on who is reading the cards. And to further complicate things, each card has a different meaning if it’s flipped right side up or upside down when it’s dealt.

Here’s an example: Most tarot readers, when turning over the Fool card facing up (we’ll get into the meanings of this card in a sec), will say something like “You’re a spontaneous free spirit.” But it can also mean that the person being read is innocent and that they’re starting out on a new path in life. Or that they’re about to embark on a new beginning. The prediction will be different for each reader based on their own history with the cards and experience doing readings.

But don’t worry if you don’t feel a particular way about what the card means just yet. You’re a beginner! You’ll get there. In the meantime, Fahrusha recommends using a handbook for guidance—like A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot—if you want to get to know each of the 78 cards more intimately.

5. OK, I’m ready to read. What are the major cards?

Becoming intimately familiar with a deck of 78 cards can take years, so for our beginner purposes, we’re going to take a look at some of the Major Arcana cards that can reveal the most about our lives: the High Priestess, the Lovers, the Hermit, Death and Judgement. Here’s what each one means when flipped right side up and upside down.

the high priestess
McKenzie Cordell

1. The High Priestess:

She’s pictured sitting on a throne, with a veil draped behind her. This represents a division between the mind’s conscious and subconscious. The division is representative of two opinions or sides to every matter (whether that’s masculine and feminine, dark and light, etc.).

Right side up: Read your situation with your intuition, subconscious mind and feminine perspective.

Upside down: There might be some secrets behind your dilemma that are keeping you disconnected from your own intuition.

the lovers
McKenzie Cordell

2. The Lovers:

A couple that looks similar to Adam and Eve gaze at the sky, but instead of the wrath we know the biblical duo faced after giving into temptation, this pair is being physically and emotionally healed.

Right side up: There will be love, harmony and some important choices in your relationship.

Upside down: You might face times when self-love and misaligned values get in the way of your relationship.

the hermit
McKenzie Cordell

3. The Hermit:

No, this isn’t a picture of you staying in on Saturday night. The Hermit stands on the top of a mountain (a symbol of accomplishment). He went on a journey to get there and has been rewarded with knowledge and a heightened state of awareness.

Right side up: You’re doing some soul-searching that can only be guided by your own intuition. It might be a good thing to be on your own while you figure this out.

Upside down: There’s too much isolation in your life right now and it’s leading to loneliness.

McKenzie Cordell

4. Death:

Nope, pulling the Death card doesn’t mean you’re going to die. Instead, the messenger of death shown on the card is a reminder that none of us can dodge him forever. People who pull this card might be dealing with grief, going through a huge change or coming to the beginning or end of something significant.

Right side up: You’re facing the end of something serious in your life (whether it’s the end of a committed relationship or preparing to say goodbye to an elderly loved one) and you’re going through a transformation.

Upside down: You’re not handling a change in your life well and are resistant to what it might mean.

McKenzie Cordell

5. Judgement:

We’re not here to judge you and neither is this card. The Judgement card shows people reaching toward the heavens in an illustration of the ultimate reckoning we’ll all face one day, but pulling this card means something about how you’re currently feeling about yourself.

Right side up: There’s a possibility of a new beginning in your life, but you need to first absolve yourself for something you’ve done (or be absolved by someone else).

Upside down: Your inner critic is filling you with self-doubt. This loud argument in your head is drowning out the calling the universe is sending you to move on. Stop judging yourself, girl!

6. How do I read tarot cards with friends?

You know how it’s hard to be objective about your own life? Like when you know you shouldn’t text back that guy who blew you off a dozen times already…but you do anyway? If your best friend were in the same situation, you’d never give her that advice.

That’s why Fahrusha says it’s fine to learn and practice with yourself—and it’s even important to get a feel for the cards first on your own before attempting to read someone else—but it’s not likely that you’ll be objective with your own reading. “Practice with a friend who is also interested in learning,” she says. “It’s very instructive and will help you learn if you’re able to trade readings with someone else.”

  1. Grab your most intuitive friend and sit catty-corner from her (not immediately next to or across from each other) at a table or a desk.

  2. Cover the table with a clean cloth; the only things allowed on it aside from your cards are one or two special items that give you energy, like a crystal. (Sorry to say this isn’t snack time, so only water or tea are OK at the table...but this is also your party, so we won’t tell if a glass of wine sneaks in there.)

  3. Shuffle your deck like you would any other set of playing cards, but be thorough about it! Fahrusha notes that you and only you should handle your cards, because allowing someone else to touch them could throw off the energy you’ve given the deck.

  4. Deal a series of three cards, all facedown in front of your friend to set her up for the reading.

  5. Have her ask the cards a question or talk a little about what she’s looking to gain from her reading. Flip one card at a time, focusing on what it might mean before moving on to the next.

  6. When you’re finished, go back and take a look at all of the cards together to try to piece together a bigger picture about what they’re trying to tell you. Fahrusha recommends that beginners keep a notebook to jot down their thoughts about what they’re seeing and inferring from the cards. Her biggest piece of advice: Have fun when you’re starting out. Give yourself some time and patience while you’re learning. (And remember, don’t sweat the Death card.)

purewow author


From 2019-2020 Ariel Scotti held the role of Editor at PureWow covering trends, wellness and more.