Tarot Reading

Written by: Grace Duong - Published: Jul 20, 2022


The rich history of tarot documents an impressive evolution from card game to mystical divination tool. Throughout the centuries, it’s been celebrated and demonized, but there’s no denying the grip it has on those with mystical and spiritual inclinations. Some have made a living with the tarot telling fortunes and others have used it to perform psychological analysis. In this guide, you’ll discover everything you need to know about tarot reading and how it works. We’ll also go over how much it costs to have a tarot reading and provide helpful tips about the cards. First, let’s take a look at what a tarot reading is and where it comes from.

What is Tarot Reading?

Tarot reading is a divination practice (also known as cartomancy) that uses a deck of cards to gain intuitive insight into life. Today, people use tarot cards for more than just fortunetelling. It’s a popular tool used to develop intuition, explore the self, and predict outcomes. People seek the wisdom of the tarot for personal guidance and answers to questions about their lives, relationships, and careers. Many tarot decks are full of vibrant illustrations that provide deep and detailed answers even to the simplest of questions. Whether for personal or professional use, tarot is a way to connect with the collective human experience as told in the cards. 

The History of Tarot Reading

Originally used as playing cards, tarot decks were used to play a game similar to Bridge called Tarocchi. This game was played by the wealthy aristocrats of Europe in the 15th century. Before the dawn of the printing press, each card was painted by hand, making it an extremely expensive deck of cards. By the late 1700s, people began studying the deck as more than just a game. 

The French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette was the first known person to make a living as a tarot reader. In 1785, he published a book titled How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot, in which he explains his tarot methodology. His first deck was created in 1788 and is recognized as the first tarot deck made specifically for occult divination purposes. 

In 1909, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck was published by two British members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It is arguably the most popular tarot deck ever created. The mystic A.E. Waite oversaw academic interpretation and worked with illustrator Pamela Colman Smith to determine what kind of imagery and symbolism should be present on each card. There are 78 fully illustrated cards in the deck, and although some of the images are simplistic, the art is abundant with symbolic references and impressive detail.

How Tarot Reading Works

As an occult creation and practice, tarot reading was developed to engage the intuitive abilities of an individual and pull information from unseen places within. People often find a deep connection with the cards and their symbolism, with each one depicting some aspect of what it means to be human. The tarot represents a collection of universal experiences and lessons we all learn along our life journey. Although the meanings are seemingly endless within tarot, and people spend years memorizing and learning the symbolism, the reading process only follows a few steps:

How Tarot Reading Works
Shuffle: The tarot reader shuffles the deck, ensuring all of the cards are distributed in random order.
Question: The focus of the reader shifts to asking a question out loud while they continue to shuffle the cards, stopping when their intuition tells them to.
Draw: The deck is then cut in half or thirds and the reader will draw a specific number of cards — at least one but sometimes up to 10 or more.
Interpret: The tarot reader will then interpret the card meanings and present them as an answer to the initial question.

Common tarot spreads

Before a tarot reading, the spread will be decided by the reader or by request from whoever is receiving the reading. The spread can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. For those who like to participate in personal daily practice, the single-card spread is a nice way to check in before your day begins. Readers can spend some quiet time setting intentions as well as thinking about the symbolism and potential influence of whichever card comes up. 

Another layout is the three-card spread. The simplicity of this option allows the reader to easily see how each card relates to the other and builds upon the progression from the first card to the third card. A few ways to use this spread:

  • Past, Present, Future
  • Choice A, Choice B, Choice C
  • You, The Relationship, Your Partner

A step up in complexity would be the five-card spread. This layout allows the reader to gain even further insight into the question being asked. Five-card spreads are also easily customizable — yes, you can make up your own spread! Here are some ideas:

  • Past, Present, Future, Cause, Outcome
  • You, Your Partner, The Relationship, Positives, Negatives
  • Pros of Option A, Pros of Option B, Cons of Option A, Cons of Option B, Deciding Factor

Those looking for a large spread to either answer a question or explore a topic openly may want to give the 10-card Celtic cross spread a try. This can be a little complicated for beginners, so you may want to consider scheduling a reading with a professional tarot reader for your first try.

Here’s how it’s set up and used according to A.E. Waite himself:
1. Present: The first card is drawn and laid down. It reveals the present influence that is affecting the querent or situation.
2. Cross: The second card is laid horizontally over the first. This is an issue that “crosses” the querent for better or worse.
3. Crown: The third card is placed above the first and second. It “crowns” the querent and represents the ideal outcome or the best of what is possible in the situation.
4. Beneath: The fourth card is laid below the first and second. This is the foundation or basis of the situation at hand.
5. Behind: The fifth card is placed to the left of the first and second. It represents what lies behind the querent and influenced the situation in the recent past.
6. Before: The sixth card is placed to the right of the first and second. This is what lies before or in front of the querent, a near-future influence.
7. Self: The seventh card is placed on the bottom of what will be a vertical line of cards to the right of the cross that has been created. It represents how the querent sees and feels about themselves in the current situation.
8. Environment: The eighth card is placed directly above the seventh. This card represents the querent’s position within their social circles and how friends and family influence them.
9. Hopes/Fears: The ninth card is placed above the eighth. It reveals the querent’s hopes and fears around the situation at hand.
10. Outcome: The tenth card is placed above the ninth. This represents the likely outcome of all that was discovered within the previous cards.

The standard tarot deck

Standard Tarot decks are made up of 78 cards. The deck is split into two groups: the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana contains all 56 suit cards, which are wands, swords, cups, and coins. Each suit has cards numbered ace through 10, a page, a knight, a queen, and a king. The Major Arcana contains 22 cards numbered 0 to 21. They’re also called the trump cards.  Below we’ll take a look at the images and meanings of the Major Arcana cards:

  • 0 – The Fool: Carrying nothing with them but a small bag, the Fool is shown as a joyful youth making their way into the world.

    Upright: adventure, freedom, beginnings
    Reverse: naive, reckless, boring, distracted

  • 1 – The Magician: The Magician is shown with one hand pointed above and one below behind a table containing the four elements. An infinity symbol is seen above their head.

    Upright: manifestation, willpower, focus, desire
    Reverse: deception, manipulation, untapped potential, trickery

  • 2 – The High Priestess: Seated on a throne between two pillars, the High Priestess sits as the go-between for the conscious and unconscious.

    Upright: intuition, unconscious, spirituality, sacred knowledge
    Reverse: silence, repression, confusion, superficiality

  • 3 – The Empress: The Empress sits atop a throne deep in the forest surrounded by natural abundance and is often thought to be depicted as pregnant.

    Upright: abundance, nature, femininity, fertility
    Reverse: negligence, overbearing, codependent, insecure

  • 4 – The Emperor: The Emperor is shown as a mighty ruler sitting on a throne with an orb and scepter in hand, watching over his land and people.

    Upright: structure, authority, discipline, protection
    Reverse: inflexibility, domination, stubborn, tyrannical

  • 5 – The Hierophant: Seated within a temple, the Hierophant is a religious leader teaching and blessing his acolytes who are seated at his feet.

    Upright: knowledge, religious belief, education, tradition
    Reverse: challenging status quo, nonconformity, ignorance, rebellion

  • 6 – The Lovers: Both masculine and feminine are depicted in the Lovers card as the two are standing in a garden under the protection of an angel.

    Upright: romance, love, harmony, partnership
    Reverse: conflict, disharmony, imbalance, poor choices

  • 7 – The Chariot: The Chariot is pulled by two sphinxes, one black and one white, and carries an enlightened individual crowned and armed with a weapon.

    Upright: ambition, power, determination, action
    Reverse: opposition, obstacles, out of control, aggressive

  • 8 – Strength: A lion sits calmly as its face is held by a beautiful woman who seems to have tamed the wild beast, showing her propensity for strength and courage.

    Upright: bravery, compassion, influence, confidence
    Reverse: weakness, cowardice, self-doubt, inner strength

  • 9 – The Hermit: A lone figure stands on a mountain top holding a staff and a lantern. Both items represent power and wisdom.

    Upright: solitude, withdrawal, introspection, soul-searching
    Reverse: isolation, loneliness, rejection, anti-social

  • 10 – Wheel of Fortune: This vivid illustration depicts a large wheel in the sky inscribed with symbols. The wheel is surrounded by a bull, snake, angel, eagle, and lion, each holding the Torah. A sphinx sits atop the wheel and Anubis lies below.

    Upright: cycles, fate, fortune, good luck
    Reverse: bad luck, delays, breaking cycles, resisting change

  • 11 – Justice: Lady Justice sits upon her throne with a sword in her right hand and the scales in her left hand, representing her ability to deliver fair justice.

    Upright: fairness, justice, karma, law
    Reverse: injustice, corruption, dishonesty, unfairness

  • 12 – The Hanged Man: A man hangs from a tree, upside down with one foot bound. He hangs there seemingly by choice with his hands held behind his back.

    Upright: contemplation, sacrifice, pause, surrender
    Reverse: resistance, indecision, stalling, stagnation

  • 13 – Death: Death is depicted as an undead armored skeleton sitting on a white horse with a flag in hand, riding past humans of all classes and genders.

    Upright: endings, release, transition, change
    Reverse: resisting change, decay, repeating bad patterns

  • 14 – Temperance: An androgynous angel stands with one foot on land and one foot in the water, showing a balance between the material and immaterial worlds.

    Upright: peace, balance, purpose, patience
    Reverse: excess, imbalance, discord, recklessness

  • 15 – The Devil: The Devil is seen as half goat and half man in satyr form. A man and woman stand naked before him, chained to the pedestal he sits upon.

    Upright: dependency, obsession, addiction, attachment
    Reverse: release, independence, reclamation, revelation

  • 16 – The Tower: As lightning strikes this mountainous tower in the night, two people fall from the windows and the whole structure goes up in flames.

    Upright: destruction, sudden change, chaos, upheaval
    Reverse: delaying the inevitable, averting disaster, fear of change

  • 17 – The Star: A naked woman kneels beside a pond as she pours one bowl of water into the pond and another onto dry land. In the sky above her shines one large star and seven smaller stars.

    Upright: faith, healing, rejuvenation, hope
    Reverse: despair, faithlessness, despondent, negative

  • 18 – The Moon: A dog and a wolf stand on either side of a winding path that leads from a lake to the mountains. A crayfish emerges from the water between the animals who stand in the shadow of two towers.

    Upright: intuition, confusion, illusion, unconscious
    Reverse: anxiety, fear, misconception, deception

  • 19 – The Sun: Riding atop a white horse with a red banner in hand is a naked child. The sun shines down on the child and the sunflower field they’re riding through.

    Upright: joy, success, vitality, truth
    Reverse: pessimistic, overly enthusiastic, conceit

  • 20 – Judgement: A resurrection of the dead on judgment is depicted as an angelic figure trumpets the sound to awaken people from their graves.

    Upright: reckoning, self-evaluation, absolution, rebirth
    Reverse: self-criticism, self-doubt, unaware

  • 21 – The World: The bull, angel, eagle, and lion are again in the clouds, this time watching a woman. She dances with legs crossed and wands in either hand. She is wrapped in a blue sash and encircled by a wreath.

    Upright: wholeness, completion, achievement, integration
    Reverse: short-cuts, emptiness, delays, incompletion

Frequently Asked Questions

  • question
    What kinds of questions can I answer with tarot reading?

    Try to keep your questions as open-ended as possible while still being specific. Instead of asking, “When will I meet my soulmate?” try asking, “How can I improve my love life?” You can also use tarot to help with decision-making, using specific spreads to weigh the pros and cons between multiple choices. Avoid yes-or-no questions and questions about other people, medical issues, or things you’re not ready to hear.

  • question
    How much do tarot readings cost?

    Online tarot readings can be done through psychic websites. Readers will either receive your question and send you the answers or set up a video call to do the reading in real time. Large psychic websites usually charge on a per-minute basis and can range from $1 to $30 per minute. A local tarot reader or individual practitioner will likely charge a flat rate for a 15-, 30-, or 60-minute session. Those prices run between $50 and $300, depending on session length and spread complexity.