For centuries, reading tarot cards has been a way for people to connect with their intentions and deepen their intuition. A lot of people are drawn to tarot for the insights it can offer, but how does someone get started? Katelan Foisy, a Chicago-based writer, artist and occultist, has been reading tarot both professionally and personally for years. She knows better than anyone that reading tarot can be intimidating when you first start out, and she has some advice for the best experience.
Getting to Know Your Tarot Cards
Because the process of reading tarot is so personal to the individual, it’s important to have a deck that you feel connected to. “Look for the deck that speaks to you. Don’t look at the decks that are really popular.” Katelan says even if you’re shopping online, try to look closer at each deck to see what feels right to you. “Look at the way they’re drawn, the way they’re set up,” to find a deck that resonates. She says that more than once she bought or received a deck that was beautiful, but didn’t quite work for her. Katelan says that you can’t force it if you want to have accurate tarot readings. “It’s worth it to find the deck that works for you.”
When you first get a tarot deck, it’s important to make sure you’re attuned to it. Energy is a big part of tarot, and you want to make sure that you cleanse the cards of anyone else’s energy while getting used to them yourself. Katelan says that when you get a new deck, you should take some time to look through the cards and absorb the imagery. “Make sure you shuffle them really well; you can take some incense to get rid of any energy [from other people]. I wrap all my cards in scarves, and then I sleep with them under my pillow for three days. You’ll get some really strange dreams during that time, but it attunes your energy to the cards.”
When it comes to deciding where to read your tarot cards, Katelan says it should be wherever you feel most comfortable. When she reads cards professionally she’ll do it at a table, and the Bronx botanica she used to practice at had a table set up in an altar room, but her personal setup is less formal. “I am always sitting on the floor. I have these antique trays, and I like to pull cards on the trays if I’m doing a three card spread. If I’m doing a full spread I’ll do it on the couch or on the floor.”
Katelan also recommends learning more about the history of reading tarot to feel more connected and grounded in the practice. She points to its roots in the Romani culture, and in the Jewish New York tenements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “You’ll always notice with the history of fortune telling and card reading and tea reading and all of that, there were often surges of interest in it when wars were occurring, when something was happening. Now, in the pandemic, people are looking for answers and for meaning in their own lives.”
How to Start Reading Tarot
There’s no one right way to read tarot cards. Everything from the questions you ask, your approach, your interpretation, and even the number of cards you pull is up to you. Katelan says it’s more helpful when you don’t ask a yes or no question. “You’re going to want to ask a question that digs in more. ‘Where are my blocks? What can I do to alleviate these blocks? What’s the best course of action to live my best life and align with my higher self?'”
As for the number of cards you pull, it depends on what you want to accomplish. You could start by simply pulling one card a day to get a message for that day’s energy and intentions. You could pull three cards for a “past, present, future” spread. For a fuller reading you could pull a Celtic Cross, a ten-card spread that captures your current moment and the factors surrounding it. Katelan says this spread “gives you the core issue, what the basis of the matter is, the people you’re surrounded by, and gives you some insight into your dreams and fears about it.”
When it comes to reading the cards themselves, Katelan says you’re going to want to have a website or book reference on hand to look for individual meanings. The cards are broken up into two categories: the major arcana and the minor arcana. The major arcana cards mostly feature archetypal subjects like the fool, the devil, the lover or the priestess, while minor arcana cards are the ones that come in suits of “pips:” the swords, coins (or pentacles), cups and wands. Katelan says “The major arcana is mostly about the psyche, so it’s whatever you’re thinking, the changes that are occurring around you.” The minor arcana are mundane, signifying the external issues that surround you. The coins or pentacles signify issues of family, money, or stability. Cups are associated with emotions and relationships (“or anything else you feel emotional about”). Wands are about taking actions. And swords? “People get really scared when they see a lot of swords in their spread, but swords are communication. It can be action oriented but it’s usually mental conflict. When someone’s overthinking you can guarantee the spread will be full of swords.”
Katelan says everyone reads their spread differently, but one common way is to start with the majors first. “Let me focus on what I’m internally going through first, then look at the minors to see the everyday actions I need to take or look out for.”
She says that you could think about tarot like a little town in and of itself. “The majors are the places you would go for greater knowledge. Say you get the High Priestess; it’s indicating that you need to focus on your own intuition, focus on the greater mysteries. If you’re really feeling something, maybe take a couple of days to see if the feeling’s still there. Say you come to The Lovers. That’s a choice you have to make.” The Lovers card indicates that you’re going to be faced with leaving an aspect of your life behind to make room for something new. The minor arcanas can help inform these bigger insights. “Say you get a minor as the outcome [in this three card spread]. Say it’s the ten of coins. So you have the High Priestess that’s asking you to look at all the facts, take a few days to mull over it, follow your intuition. You have The Lovers, meaning if you make this choice you’ll leave one aspect of your life behind, and then the ten of coins is leading into stability.”
You can also look at your spread as a whole, like a landscape, and glean meaning from interactions between the cards. Katelan says that the way the cards “interact” with each other in the spread can also give you information when you’re reading tarot. “If there are figures in the cards, are they looking towards each other or are they looking away from each other? That will indicate whether you’re stepping towards yourself or your goals or stepping away from them. For instance, if you’re thinking about switching jobs, and you go in for an interview. If two cards in their spread are facing each other, they’re thinking about you or you would be received well. If they’re facing away from each other, this might not be a good fit for you.”
Katelan describes how she’s used the cards’ combined meanings to glean a direction. She said at one point in her life, she found the Three of Cups guiding her to spend more time with her female friends. “That time in my life I had gone through a slew of really turbulent relationships. When I saw the three of cups along with two female cards, I think they were two queens, it was a sign I needed to focus on my relationships with women.”
Trust Your Instincts and Your Interpretation
Tarot is deeply subjective; reading the cards requires you to bring your own perspective and interpretation to each card’s meaning. Reading tarot is only as useful as the knowledge and intuition you bring, which is why Katelan suggests you spend a lot of time with your cards. “One of the things that people are going to want to do especially if they’ve never worked with a deck before is just to spend some time with them. There’s so much symbolism in them.” She says one way you can get to know your deck is by looking at just one or two cards a day, taking in the symbolism of each one, and writing down what you think their meaning is. “Then, look them up online or in a book and see if it coincides. A lot of times you’re going to pick up on things.”
Looking up the meaning of each card is crucial to reading, but so is being able to think about how the meanings apply to your own life. It might be confusing, as a beginner, if you’re asking your deck about the blocks you’re experiencing and you get a card like The Star. “You might say, ‘how is the Star card, a genuinely good card, my block?’ And that might mean that the person is only ever looking at the future hope of things but never taking actions to make it a reality.” The same thing goes if you see a more troubling card, like The Devil, in your future. Katelan says there’s no cause to worry about lurking evil. “The Devil card would be associated with Capricorn energy, so what you’re stepping into right now is the need to get out of your head and take action the way a Capricorn would work on something. Focus on your goals. The main thing is just looking at a lot of these interpretations and seeing how they fit into your life.”
Like The Devil, there are a few other cards that might frighten someone when reading tarot for the first time. You might be worried about the possibility of pulling a “scary” card, but Katelan says these cards are less likely to spell danger and more likely to show you areas of your life that need care, or places where change is coming..
“The Death card, Devil card, Three of Swords, Ten of Swords, Eight of Swords, Nine of Swords, Five of Coins… People get really worried when they see those. For instance, the Five of Coins is two people shivering outside in the snow in front of a church with its lights on.” She says this is the wounded healer card, signifying that you’re spending too much energy trying to heal others when you should be healing yourself. “Obviously people get freaked out by the Devil card, but it’s not necessarily bad.” She says The Devil can indicate a vice or an unhealthy area in your life like a relationship or a thought process. “Someone who overthinks so much that they spend hours procrastinating because they’re worried about something and they don’t do it: for that the Devil card would come up. It’s not necessarily something horrible.”
There is one card that can be a bit more troubling, Katelan says. “The Tower card is rough, I’m gonna say. It’s rough. It always is for the good of the person, but it usually indicates that something they either believed or something they were building is going to crumble down. It says that you’re going to have this moment of truth but it’s not going to feel good. But,” she says, “it’s also not going to be forever and you’re going to move forward. Sometimes it could just mean a huge breakthrough. It’s not always super rough but it can be.” Every year Katelan pulls a card on her birthday to read the energy of the year ahead, and one year she knew she would pull The Tower before she even flipped the card. “It was the most turbulent year of my life,” she says. “Afterwards I understood why everything had to happen but I didn’t expect to have a year of crying.”
She says that her response when she pulls one of the more challenging cards is to pull more cards for more context and clarity. She tells a story about a client who got The Tower and knew it meant their marriage was failing. “We pulled more cards and we saw that this person’s career was about to take off, so it was good that it was all coming up now because it would have held them back. A lot of times when The Tower comes up it means something is holding you back that you need to let go. You may not want to but you need to, in order for something better to come along. That person ended up finding a partner that was great for them.” She says pulling more cards can also give you guidance on how to cope; pulling other cards to inform The Tower is how she pulled the Three of Cups that pointed her towards her female friends. These supporting cards can help give you a direction or guidance. For instance, “if you get the Ace of Swords it might be telling you to journal so it doesn’t get bottled up inside you.”
If You’re Not Ready for Tarot…
Not everyone is ready commit to purchasing a tarot deck, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use tarot’s lessons of intention setting and clarity. “If someone doesn’t want to go full into the tarot, they can go for oracle cards,” Katelan says. “They’re easy starters and a lot of people like them because they’ll give insight on what to focus on for the day.” She recommends the Rumi Oracle deck, which has cards with poetry and meditations on them for a daily message. For something more to-the-point, Katelan illustrated a deck of oracle cards called the Sibyls Oraculum. “It gives you a core issue and can be very matter-of-fact. It’s like your grandmother who tells you, ‘Yeah, you know what your problem is? This.'” If the imagery on some tarot cards is too intense for you, she recommends the The Wayhome Tarot and its beautiful, soothing illustrations.
The principal of reading tarot is looking for symbols and applying them to life, which means you can harness the same energy by seeing how symbols show up for you throughout your everyday. You can start to look up images that appear in your dreams and see if they give you any baring on your circumstances. Keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary in the course of your routine. “A sign can be anything,” Katelan says. “It can be a rose blooming in the winter. You can watch for certain animals and look up their symbolism. I know when I have to be more gentle with myself I’ll see deer everywhere. If someone needs to take hold of their time and restore their energy, they might see squirrels gathering nuts. If you’re worried about prosperity, look out for money on the ground. When you pick it up, thank the universe for your prosperity and all of a sudden you’ll start to see more money. Things will start to shift. It really is focusing on your surroundings and changing a little bit of the energy of that reality around you.”
No matter your approach to reading tarot, Katelan’s parting message is just not to get frustrated when you’re first starting out. Like any discipline, reading tarot takes time and intention. In time you can start to learn the cards and learn your preferences, maybe even picking up a favorite card or two along the way.
“The wheel of fortune has always been my favorite card,” she says. “I feel like it keeps me grounded because there are going to be times when everything’s fantastic and there’s going to be times where everything is awful, so remember that the wheel is turning.”
You can read about Katelan Foisy’s work on her website or view her art on Instagram. The decks that Katelan illustrated with author Tayannah Lee McQuillar, The Sybils Oraculum and the Hoodoo Tarot deck, are both available for purchase now.