If you’ve ever asked a question, pulled a tarot card, looked up the meaning of said card, and felt called out, then you’ve probably wondered how does tarot work. The answer may surprise you. Or piss you off.

a set of carrying capsules hung on a wall next to a pneumatic tube with the text "Okay, But Like, How Does Tarot Work It's Pneumatic Tubes.:

I’m one of those obnoxious people that believes we all know the meaning of tarot cards already. The symbols and archetypes are ingrained in our subconscious because we’ve seen them our whole lives in works of art, in stories, and in everyday life.

So, while it may feel like the cards are mysterious or esoteric or difficult to interpret, those feelings are largely a result of how we try to think about the cards when we’re presented with them. However, if someone asked you out of the blue what an image on a card meant without telling you they were specifically referencing a card, you’d be able to give a pretty good explanation of the card.

I'm one of those obnoxious people that believes we all know the meaning of tarot cards already. Share on X

Don’t believe me? Let’s try this.

What do you think of when you see an image of a person staring out into a vast expanse and surveying the blank canvas ahead of them? Don’t overthink it. Just shoot from the hip.

Did you say opportunities or the possibility of expanding into the openness? Maybe you thought of thinking ahead and making plans.

Either way, that’s the three of wands, and those meanings listed above are all acceptable.

When I talk about how to read tarot cards for beginners, the first thing I typically recommend is to simply look at the cards and think about what the images mean. That’s why having a good beginner tarot deck is so important. It allows you to look at the cards and know the meaning without having to look it up all the time.

This may sound simplistic, but that’s tarot in a nutshell. What is tarot reading? Simply looking at the cards and determining what all the images and archetypes mean when presented together and in the context of whatever question you asked.

And, for what it’s worth, when you ask what do tarot cards mean, you aren’t going to get the same answer from any two people. Archetypes and symbols (and the English language, for that matter) don’t work that way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about my tarot philosophy.

My Tarot Philosophy and Roberta

There are different ways to read tarot cards, and all tarot readers will approach them differently. So everything I’ve said up until now in this post? Might not be true for other tarot readers.

But this is my blog, so we’re going to talk about what I believe about the cards.

All cards in the tarot are simply tools to help us access our own intuition. And they work by showing us an image that triggers something in our subconscious.

It works like this:

There’s an overworked file clerk in everyone’s brain. Her name is Roberta and she wears orthopedic sneakers with her A-line skirts and turtlenecks. She’s been working in the records department for years and she hasn’t had a cost of living raise in decades. But she’s got a few years until retirement, and it’s just easier to stay on than try to find something new until then.

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When you see a tarot card, a request is sent through a pneumatic tube in your brain. Roberta receives it in the records department, and she combs through the card catalog that is your subconscious to find the meaning of that particular image. She’s quick and the best at her job, and honestly, when she retires you are absolutely fucked.

Once she has the meaning of the image, or rather, the meaning your particular subconscious assigns to the image, she puts it in the carrying capsule, and sends that capsule through the pneumatic tube to your conscious mind.

Now, here’s what Roberta knows that you maybe you haven’t thought of:

Every brain assigns a different meaning to an image or archetype or symbol. Sure, they may be similar based on the connotations and denotations we assign to these images as a culture, but they are never the same when they get inside the head of an individual. And if you’ve read some of the best tarot books for beginners or think of tarot in terms of storytelling and how to outline a novel with the tarot, your meanings will be different than people who don’t.

(Yes, Roberta read a lot of Lacan in school. And Baudrillard. And before you ask, yeah, she started with Saussure. When she retires, she’s going to settle down and finally get into Jung.)

So everyone’s Roberta has to tread different paths through the files to find meaning. Everyone’s Roberta doesn’t come up with the same record in the card catalog. And when the capsule is sent through the pneumatic tube, everyone will come up with a different result, even though their Robertas are all working and doing functionally the same job.

Roberta and the pneumatic tube system fundamentally shape how I believe the tarot works.

When you see a tarot card, a request is sent through a pneumatic tube in your brain. Share on X

How Does Tarot Work?

So, essentially, tarot works because we have enough cultural context to understand what the images mean to us as a whole, and from there, we add our own spice.

It’s like mashed potatoes. Some people just boil potatoes in unsalted water, drain, and mash, and lightly season them. And if you come to my house, you’re going to get potatoes boiled in very salty water, drained, and then mashed with butter, sour cream, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

We know a pile of mashed potatoes when we see it because that’s an image we’re all familiar with. But we also know that not all mashed potatoes are created equal.

(For the record, your Roberta keeps your mashed potato recipe in her files as well.)

So, when it comes time to read a tarot card, we know that it’s a tarot card because we know from cultural context that it’s a tarot card. But the meaning we assign to it comes from our own files. And the weightier, more dogmatic notions we have surrounding the cards are defined by the subcultures we belong to, and the context those subcultures put the cards in.

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To me, as someone who was raised in a completely secular home and has continued that secular existence into adulthood, the cards are simply archetypes. That is consistent with the subcultural context I learned and still believe in.

For someone raised in a church, the cards may mean something else entirely. And that church upbringing will also shape the meaning of individual cards within the tarot to that specific person.

This isn’t to say that any one person is right or wrong. It’s also not to say that there’s a set meaning that we should be searching for in the cards. I mean, there’s not a set meaning of anything. (Remember, no two people have the same Roberta, and everyone’s records department is organized differently and full of different cards in the card catalog.)

But it does mean that every single person who reads tarot will come up with different meanings for the cards, and every single tarot reader will give a different reading to you even if they pull the same cards.

This may feel like a scam and like maybe the tarot doesn’t have any meaning. For what it’s worth, every single person will assign a different meaning to commonly used words. That’s why miscommunications are common, and what one person believes to be a good way to greet someone can be insulting to another.

Which is the whole point of this post. Nothing means the same thing to any two people. Not words. Not tarot cards.

So the tarot works with what we have inside our own heads, and the meaning of a card is never the same across the board.

About the Three of Wands

Earlier I mentioned the three of wands, and how it typically means opportunities or planning ahead or expansion.

Those ideas can mean different things to different people.

To me, that card is all about surveying the opportunities ahead of you and taking your time when it comes to choosing. To others, it may mean you should try each and every opportunity ahead of you.

If you subscribe to the expansion notion, you may feel that it’s about creative expansion. The wands are ruled by fire, and often thought of as creative energy. (To me, maybe not to you. See? More layers of meaning.) This creative expansion can be in your art skillset, or maybe monetizing the creative work you do.

There’s a lot to unpack with just one card, and depending on how you feel about each card, that will color the meaning you come up with.

And when you pull that card along with a few more, then it’s easy to see how the meaning can shift and morph into something new.

That’s not a design flaw in the tarot. It’s a feature. Intuition isn’t a science. It’s an art. And the tools that help you access that intuition are more like a lump of pliable clay than a sextant or slide rule.

Intuition isn't a science. It's an art. And the tools that help you access that intuition are more like a lump of pliable clay than a sextant or slide rule. Share on X
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One Final Note on Tarot

It’s obvious I’m pretty casual and laissez-faire about the tarot. Decks are mass produced. To me, they are more consumer goods than mystical items. The magic is in how your Roberta brings up the meanings and connects them.

But it should be noted that some people associate the tarot with bad things, and one question that comes up often is can tarot cards ruin your life. I guess the assumption behind the question is that tarot must be evil, and looking at the deck can be bad for you in the long run.

To me, the answer to that is no. It’s literally just a deck of cards and the images trigger a response in your brain. Your brain determines the meaning. The cards aren’t evil. They are inanimate objects with no intentions. They just are. It’s your brain that determines the meaning of each card. (With the help of Roberta.)

So if you see a card and see evil, that’s because your brain put it there. That doesn’t mean that you’re inherently evil. It means that you have been taught to associate that card or even the whole deck with evil. The subcultural context you were/are in formed the meaning that was then filed away in your records department in your subconscious. That doesn’t make it universally true. It makes it true to you.

To conclude:

Can tarot cards ruin your life? I guess. I mean, if you’re stubborn enough, I suppose a pad of Post-Its could ruin your life. A tube of chapstick could be your downfall. And watch out for that pair of socks. They are also inanimate objects and could pose a problem if you’re in the habit of having your life ruined by mundane things.

Sure, tarot may fall anywhere on a spectrum from problematic to heretical to some religions. That doesn’t make it true outside the context of that religion. If your Roberta attends that church, then she’ll believe it. My Roberta spends her Sundays reading romance novels and eating donuts, so she doesn’t have access to the same records that maybe your Roberta does.

Not to be too critical of the church, but maybe if they spent less time psychologically abusing their people into believing a deck of cards was out to get them, the Southern Baptist Convention would have time to address the sex abuse scandal they’ve been covering up, and evangelical Christians would admit that they metaphorically throw their daughters to the wolves by refusing to protect them against sexual abuse in the church.

See? We all assign different meanings to different symbols and archetypes. Where you see an evil deck of cards, I see a mass-produced consumer good.

Where you see a faith community of good people, I see corrupt organizations willing to protect abusers while the survivors of that abuse suffer in silence.

We both have Robertas, though. Isn’t it weird how that works?

2 Responses

  1. I know this is very old, but I randomly stumbled on your blog tonight as I’m learning and practicing tarot. You are a wonderful writer and I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts! I hope you are having a beautiful, prosperous career.

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