The scenario: Your best pal calls you up, frantic. They need emergency advice about their relationship and are wondering if you might be game for pulling a few tarot cards to see what comes up.
As a true blue friend, you grab your tarot deck and head out the door, maybe imagining yourself as a caped crusader off to save the day.
But once the cards are dealt and you begin to turn them over, you panic: None of the cards make sense in relation to the question. You freeze, momentarily, and then start to slowly talk it through, but you’re worried it’s already too late. You’ve let yourself feel thrown off, and you’re wondering if you’ll be able to help your friend the way you’d hoped.
Does this sound familiar? It ís something that every tarot reader – from newbie to pro – has to go through time and time again. The more you work with the cards, the better the chances of running to card combinations that just seem impossible to decipher.
But learning how to put any tarot card into the right context is one thing that can help you take your readings to a new level. This is a big learning curve in tarot, but once you train yourself to see how different cards correspond to different scenarios, tarot’s messages become much more fluid and flexible as you begin to uncover their various layers.
Plus, pushing yourself to stretch past a card’s traditional meaning is one of the best ways to flex your intuitive muscle.
1. Let the question lead the way home
When in doubt, think back to the question – that’s where the heart of the reading will be found.
When the cards are turned, it’s tempting to go into overdrive. There can be so many factors to consider: The spread itself and the positions it holds, the card combinations, the number of Major Arcana versus Minor Arcana.
But all of the cards will be showing up in support of an answer to the question. The question will dictate the context of the reading, and help to establish the parameters of your interpretations.
For example: You might ask, ‘What can I do to strengthen my friendships this year?’
You pull a card, expecting that perhaps the loving suit of Cups will appear, but instead you see the Hanged Man. So what is there to deduce from it?
First, think back to the goal of the question: If it’s about taking an action, like strengthening a friendship, then how might these cards relate to relationships overall?
The Hanged Man might not be the most social, active card on the block. It could be tempting to think it’s telling you to take a time out altogether, retreat into solitude, and rethink your friendships overall.
But does that answer the question about strengthening friendships? How would rethinking those relationships help to deepen them?
This is where it can help to keep your reading in context. What is the function of the Hanged Man? What does this card encourage us to do? To change perspective, to look at things differently.
So first, you might think about it in terms of how that could play out with your friendships:
Maybe it’s time to see your friends in a new light. Are you taking them for granted? Have you fallen into routines together? Do you allow for deeper connections to happen through the conversations you have, or activities you participate in?
It can help to practice this on your own. Ask a question, see what shows up, and then make a list of questions, situations, or other ideas that you might associate with it based on the topic you are exploring.
2. Read the cards like a weather forecast
The Minor Arcana can sometimes be trickier to interpret than the Major Arcana. Depending on the type of deck you’re using, the Minor cards don’t always give you much to go on.
So when in doubt, get to know the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
The Earth element (typically seen as Pentacles, Coins, or Discs) is often slow moving. Its energy can be grounding and nurturing, but it also represents work. Earth is where ideas or emotions become tangible – this element is grounded in reality.
Often, when we see a lot of Pentacles or Coins, we might think it relates to money or career. But that association doesn’t apply to all questions – it can put you out of the context of the reading.
If the earth element is prominent in your reading, your forecast might be showing that it’s a great time to garden – to plant a seed, to water your soil, harvest, and work your land.
In other words, the answer you’re asking about will require patience, persistent, or deeper commitment. Just as a career might ask you to work hard, a relationship might require the same, and might take just as much time to feel successful.
Get to know the elements. They are all around us. We can’t survive without earth, air, fire, or water. You don’t have to dig deep into esoteric meanings to determine how the elements can work through a reading. Listen to the news. Check the weather reports: Air – Swords – might move in like a whirlwind of energy, whereas Fire – Wands – can be warming and inspired, or raging out of control. Water can be up and down, like the tide.
What might these energies indicate in your reading? Perhaps you are starting out slow in the earth element, but progressing towards a fast, passionate destiny with the element of fire.
Whatever you’re seeing, remember to relate it back to your original question.
3. Think of a tarot reading like a puzzle
You don’t always have to start by reading the first card in a spread, especially if the first card is stumping you a little bit.
I often find that there is one card in a reading that acts as an anchor or entry point for the rest. It almost feels like it’s calling out, “Me first!”
Sometimes, I also find readings come together best when I work backwards by looking at the outcome card and thinking, “Okay, this is where it all leads to. Let’s retrace the steps and see how that happens.”
This can feel like you’re putting together a puzzle sometimes, and that’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to have all the pieces in place from the start, even if you have the whole picture staring right at you. Like an actual puzzle, some people like to tackle it by doing the edges first, while others like to start in the centre.
Every reading will have a different entry point. It doesn’t have to be determined by the spread itself. Let the cards call to you. The ones with the strongest presence will make themselves known. If in doubt, begin with the card that feels most related to your question, even if the others don’t seem to fit at first.
Go with where the flow seems to be. You’ll be surprised at how the other pieces of the puzzle come together from there.
4. Look for patterns and progressions
When your cards don’t make sense, ask yourself why. Are they clashing together, with some feeling harmonious and easy and others feeling tense and dramatic? Do they start out positive but point towards a disappointing outcome?
What fits together, and what doesn’t?
Start talking about what you’re actually seeing in how the cards interact. If they make you feel confused, that might be a key observation in your reading – the situation itself could be confusing. If they feel contradictory, that can be telling, too.
Maybe there is a push and pull happening between two paths, and it’s time to choose a direction. Maybe there is a lot unsettled energy, or lack of focus around the issue at hand.
You will also want to look at what seems to be changing from one card to the next. Maybe your reading starts out with a solitary figure like the Hermit, but it ends in the celebratory Three of Cups. Do those cards show similar stories, or completely different energies?
Once you start looking at how the cards interact, you can begin to find different flow between them, which you can bring back to the question at hand by asking: “How do I see this question playing out?”
5. Remember that tarot takes practice
I think this always bears repeating. It takes time to train your eye to look for patterns, to develop the confidence to experiment with techniques, and to trust your interpretations as you learn to intuit tarot meanings.
It does take practice, and that’s okay. If any of these tips do inspire you, why not try one on for size for the next few weeks?
Maybe you want to study the elements a little bit more, or pull some cards at random and see what kind of patterns you can pick out.
Maybe you want to challenge yourself to think of 10 different scenarios for your favourite tarot cards, just to see how many layers you can build upon it.
Remember, you don’t have to nail it all the first time. Tarot is a practice that can always evolve, whether you’ve been at it for two months or twenty years.
And if you are looking for more tarot prompts, interpretations, and tips on contextualizing the cards, my new book Going Beyond the Little White Book: A Contemporary Guide to Tarot offers a deep-dive into each card and the various meanings the tarot can hold. It’s available now at lizworth.com/shop