A True Skeptic's Guide to Tarot

You don’t have to believe in divination to get something from reading tarot. When it’s done right, tarot can be a Waze route to a clear head, and a super-chill, not over-indulgent self-care ritual. Curious? This guide’s for you. Inside is a quick history of tarot, a reading and resources list, and some practical tips for beginning your secular tarot story.

A really, very short history of Tarot

The cards we call ‘Tarot’ today have their history as a fifteenth-century European deck of playing cards. These were like the cards you can buy in any CNA (non-spon, lol), and were used for fun rather than for predicting the future, or anything fancy like that. Fast forward a few hundred years and you begin to see fans of the occult starting to imbue the cards with meaning beyond their four suits.

A Frenchman and clergyman named Court de Gébelin made popular the idea that Tarot had ancient and mystical ties to Egypt. Things picked up and famous cartomancers grew in vogue; Marie Anne Lenormand was one such fortune-teller, and she had direct dealings with Napoleon. Later came the beautiful Rider-Waite deck most of us have seen at least a few times. When in London, I was lucky to work at Rider, the publisher that first released this deck by occult enthusiast Arthur Edward Waite, and artist Pamela Coleman Smith. This deck still sells like hotcakes, but new ones are popping up all the time and they are B-A-N-G-I-N-G. Which brings me to…

Choosing a deck

Traditionally, it’s said that your first deck should be gifted to you, but modern users agree that waiting around hoping someone will gift you a deck is a damn waste of time. Buy one that you like, something that shouts at you - like, in a good way. I went old-school, but there are loads you can buy online and have it sent to South Africa, or shop local on Takealot or House of Isis (the latter being a little less user-friendly, tbh).

Getting to grips

Once you have your deck, you need to feel your way around it. There are Major and Minor Arcana, and all of these will work together to give you a reading. ‘The Empress’ - a card related with ‘fruitfulness’ is an example of a Major Aracana. Cards like ‘the three of cups’ or ‘five of wands’ make up the Minor Arcana. Go through them, turn them over, learn their meanings. Arming yourself with some good resources is key, here. I use Danielle Noel’s Book of Tarot as reference after drawing my cards. I also use the ‘Golden Thread Tarot’ app to learn more about each card so in future, maybe I don’t have to rely on these tools so heavily.

Doing a reading

Find a quiet space, and make it pretty. Candles, comfy pillows, your favourite music. Think of a question you want to answer in your session, or a problem you want to work through. I tend to turn to Tarot when I’m undecided or confused about something. Because of this, I usually look to answer the questions, ‘What’s going on? Why am I feeling low? How can I change this?’ I then draw three cards from a thoroughly-shuffled deck. Each card determines the answer to a question. Since there are three cards, this (unsurprisingly) counts as three-card-spread. Three-card spreads are great for beginners.

If you don’t want to use my go-to spread, Tarot boss babe, Biddy Tarot has a useful list of questions and meanings for those stuck for inspiration. Some other times I just pull out one card and ask, ‘What should I do to make the most of the week ahead?’ It’s a nice way to buckle in for another week.

Watch your frequency, though. When I first got the Golden Thread app, it was so beautiful I did a reading every day, but I stopped when I noticed it had started informing me of how I was supposed to be feeling. Drama. A reading once a month when you need to still your mind or when you need to think through an issue is best. Quality over quantity an’ all.

Once you’ve got your questions, and you’ve drawn your cards, turn them each over individually, looking up their meaning before turning over the next card. When they are all revealed, think about what they mean as a group. A good thing to note is that cards that are upside down are ‘reversed' and will have a different meaning to their ‘normal’ selves. But they aren’t by any means ‘bad.’ They’re just cards. Know that there is nothing that you can read that can affect your life negatively. They aren’t determining your future. They’re a useful way to access what you already know and believe. If you don’t like what you read, you can dismiss it. It’s that easy, babe.

Resources & Reading list

The Book of Tarot - Danielle Noel

Craft: How to be a Modern Witch - Gabriella Herstik

The Power of Crystal Healing - Emma Lucy Knowles

Biddy Tarot

Golden Thread Tarot app