Getting started reading tarot seems intimidating. Laying the cards out can take so many different forms: three-card read, Celtic cross, planetary, mandala…the list goes on. There are 78 cards in the deck, which includes four suits, the major arcana, and the minor arcana. Someone who’s new to tarot can feel lost in all this detail, all the possible rules, even before trying to interpret the cards.
But tarot is all about instinct, about using what’s already in your heart and mind to make sense of the nudges offered by the cards. I started using my own decks last year. Early on, I was guided by a friend with many years of experience, so when I did my first reading alone in my home, I felt sure I was doing it wrong. I laid out a Celtic cross pattern, but as I started interpreting the cards, it seemed like the past and future cards were in the wrong spots. The past card made much more sense in the future, and vice versa. It wasn’t just the reading of the cards that felt wrong, it was their placement; I didn’t see why the future card was on the left and the past card was on the right.
I sent a group text to a handful of friends who are into tarot and other witchy practices. “Am I allowed to read the cards any way I want?” I asked. They all said yes, reminding me about instinct—how the sense I get from the cards is more important than what a guidebook tells me about them. The reading I did that day, once I switched a few cards’ positions, was right on. Ultimately, it helped me deal not just with my question, but also with the months that followed.
As I kept reading my cards in the way I thought best, the answers I got made more and more sense. I adopted the Celtic spread for my own uses, altering the order of cards four through six, sometimes leaving out the ninth card altogether. I started doing dual readings, laying out two spreads and taking what seemed right from each one. I learned that occasionally I got someone else’s cards rather than my own. (Sometimes a reading makes no sense. It happens.)
All this practice led to a big reading I did for myself on New Year’s Day of 2018. I have three decks: the Linestrider deck, which I use most frequently; the Goddess deck, which is not tarot, but which I use for quick fixes and intention-setting; and a fun deck with characters and scenarios from the podcast Welcome to Night Vale on it, which I use for experiments. I chose the Goddess deck and the Night Vale deck, shuffled carefully, and laid out the cards in two large clock shapes, twelve cards each.
I based the layout on the game of clock solitaire, which I played when I was a child, and which I have dreamed about several times as an adult. I didn’t know what I was doing, exactly, but I set an intention of learning about my year and went with it. Each card on the clock represented a month, January through December, and each card represented what I could expect for that month. Finally, I placed a card from each deck in the center of the other clock; that is, I put a Night Vale card inside the Goddess clock, and a Goddess card inside the Night Vale clock. That card represented what I could expect from the year.
As I read, I realized that the Night Vale clock represented the progress of my year from an external point of view, and the Goddess clock represented my year based on my internal world, or my emotions. How things would go for me “out there” vs. how they would go for me “in here.” I didn’t know that using two decks would lead me to this conclusion, but that is how the reading turned out. I followed my instincts and laid out two clocks, but I didn’t know why, until I started interpreting.
I write this at the end of July, and I can tell you that every last card has been dead-on correct about what I could expect from that month. It would be tedious to explain them all, but the two “year” cards are helpful examples. Since I reversed the decks when I placed the year card, the Night Vale card is the internal card, and the Goddess card is the external card.
Internal card: The Hermit
I rarely pull major arcana cards when doing readings on myself, but when I do, more than half the time, the Hermit shows up. My default state is being alone (I’m an only child), and I can easily spend seven straight days in my apartment, immune to cabin fever. This card was both a prediction and a warning: I would spend much of the year alone, exploring my life unaccompanied, and I had to be careful not to let that practice dig me into isolation. This has proven true. I transitioned from office work to full-time freelancing from home at the end of March, and I’ve spent the bulk of my days joyfully alone. Prodding myself to leave the apartment has gotten harder and harder. The Hermit is here to remind me that, as a year-long theme, I’m happy alone, but it’s not necessarily what’s best for me.
External card: Sedna
“Infinite Supply,” she says. Her card is decorated with my favorite color, purple, and her long dark hair dazzles. My worst insecurity, which spreads tendrils throughout so much of my life, is the fear of not having enough—enough money, enough time, enough books, enough food. Leaving my office job this spring, the biggest life transition I’ve made in several years, was a leap into having much less money. It was frightening. Sedna told me that there would be enough, though; she told me that, externally, this would be the year of having enough, of having an infinite supply. It has proven true. Most of what I have enough of is time: at long last, there is enough time to sleep, care for myself, write, read, and think. From having enough time, infinite supplies flow. And although it would be nice for Sedna to apply to my emotional state, too, having her cover me externally has proven much more important this year.
The push and pull of the two cards against each other is interesting, too. I may be withdrawing inside, but outside, I have nothing to fear.
All this came from a spread that I simply invented. I used my instincts to lay out the cards and to read them, and they have proven helpful beyond measure, allowing me to stay calm when things are messy, assuring me that better things lie ahead when I feel stagnant. I still do regular readings with the other decks, using my own modified spread, but as I continue comparing my life to the year-long spreads I did, I always find that my original read was correct.
Tarot may seem intimidating to a beginner, but far more important than relying on rules or guidebooks is relying on your own instincts. The cards are meant to help find the truth that already lies inside. Be free with the tarot. Experiment and find your own way to read. And remember: if it doesn’t make any sense, you can always shuffle and try again. — By Katharine Coldiron
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, VIDA, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.