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Tarot guidebooks: what they can and can’t teach you

When I first started reading tarot, every time I drew a card, I’d reach for my guidebook to see what it meant. I’d dutifully write down the card drawn, position in the spread I was using, and the guidebook’s interpretation. Sometimes I’d consult multiple guidebooks, trying to be as thorough as possible. (AKA, Maybe that card REALLY means… <insert desired outcome here>. We’ve all done it at least once. Don’t judge.)

But sometimes, even with the guidebook, I couldn’t figure out exactly what a card meant. At the time, I thought that meant that I wasn’t a good reader–I must have been doing something wrong.

I was.

I was depending on guidebooks to put the cards in context for me. I didn’t realize that’s where intuition comes in.

What you can learn from tarot guidebooks

Guidebooks are great for helping you learn the core meanings of the cards. I’m a huge fan of consulting guidebooks to get to understand different perspectives on a card, or learning what the artist had in mind. Tarot guides provide a necessary starting point for many readers.

One of the first things I do when I get a new deck is flip through the guidebook (if it has one). I want to see if the author’s suggested meanings align with what I already know or add something new that I’ve never considered. Reading a different interpretation or expanding on what you know about a particular card adds versatility to your readings.

For beginners, I think guidebooks can be helpful in driving home the basic correspondences of the different suits. They can help you learn how wands and swords are different, even though sometimes the images and messages may seem similar. They can clarify the distinction between Justice and Judgment, two cards rooted in similar concepts. A well-written guide can explain how the energy of the Emperor both reflects and goes beyond the energy of the Kings. Guidebooks can give you a place to start when you get stuck or draw a blank in a reading.

Why guidebooks don’t tell you everything you need to interpret a reading

Human experiences run the gamut, and as a result, each card has a certain level of flexibility to accommodate a variety of interpretations. If you want to understand how a specific card applies in a particular reading, you’ve got to go deeper.

Here are some examples. Let’s start with the Six of Cups. Here are some highlights from Biddy Tarot–this card can represent:

  • childhood, nostalgia, naïve happiness, and generosity.
  • a return to a familiar environment or to a childhood place.
  • your inner child and a need to experience child-like joy.
  • children in your life. It can denote a pregnancy, birth or adoption, depending on the other cards in the reading.

So how do you know which meaning applies? Yes, the other cards in the reading will give you some clues, but how do you decide for sure that in this particular reading, the Six of Cups represents reconnecting with a childhood friend and not pregnancy or a need to be nurtured?

How about the Devil? Sure, he represents ego, temptation, and vices, but is there one particular weakness or character flaw the reading is trying to identify?

Or look at the court cards. Lots of readers struggle with them, and I think it’s largely because there are so many ways they can apply. In your reading, is the Knight of Wands a sudden change in a situation? A person? An aspect of someone’s personality or way they’re reacting to a situation? Even if you’re pretty sure the Knight represents a person in this case, what if you have several possible choices? How do you know whether the Knight is supposed to be Casey or Terry or Cody?

The missing piece

Your intuition fills in the blanks you can’t get from guidebooks. When you ask your guides for clarity and trust the messages you receive, your readings become substantially more accurate.

Here’s what that might look like: Let’s go back to the Devil. Say you’re doing a reading on what’s holding you back in your career and the Devil comes up as your biggest obstacle. You may be tempted to cast your boss in that role. After all, you’ve been passed over for promotions twice now and he’s shared plenty of criticism in your most recent reviews. But maybe that criticism is justified and your boss is trying to help you grow. Your ego and inability to accept an honest critique are holding you back–not someone plotting against you. And if your intuition is jumping up and down on your shoulder telling you to stop being such an arrogant jerk… well, then, you’ve got the clarity you need from the reading.

The more you incorporate intuition into tarot readings, the easier it gets. Starting can be as simple as asking your guides something like, Does this card represent a person or an aspect of my own personality? Tune into your guides. Based on your primary means of receiving messages, you’ll get a sense of knowing, see a picture in your mind’s eye, or maybe feel one of your hands tingle. Trust the signs. Watch your readings become more focused and accurate.

Ahhhh. That’s magic.

How do you blend intuition and traditional card messages in your readings? 

One thought on “Tarot guidebooks: what they can and can’t teach you

  1. Very insightful, per usual. XO

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