Interest in tarot cards is booming right now. Here's why — and what you need to know before you get started.

By Julia Malacoff
Jan 05, 2021 @ 10:00 am
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In uncertain times, people search for answers. That may be one of the reasons tarot cards are more popular than ever. In fact, searches for the term “tarot cards” spiked in December, according to Keywords Everywhere, and they’re continuing to rise. The #tarotreadersofinstagram hashtag has over two million posts, and one InStyle editor even shared how she feels addicted to buying astrology readings on Etsy, which often include elements of tarot.

What are tarot cards, exactly?

The history of tarot is a bit murky, according to Elisa Robyn, Ph.D., a professor-turned-life advisor who uses tarot and astrology. We know that tarot cards were used for games in Italy in the 1400s, and from there, they evolved into a spiritual tool used for divination and prediction — i.e. fortune-telling.

Today, there are many different versions of the tarot deck, but they almost always have 78 cards, divided into major and minor arcana. The major arcana cards are numbered from zero to 21, and tell the story of a spiritual journey. The 56 cards that make up the minor arcana are broken into four suits — wands, swords, pentacles, and cups — and are numbered just like a regular deck of cards, from Ace to King.

Each card has a traditional meaning, but they’re all up for interpretation. “The meaning in each card can vary based on the theme of the deck, the reader, and the cultural beliefs of the group using them,” Robyn explains. “The cards are meant to be used as a way to open our psychic senses, so while there are hundreds of books and decks teaching us how to use them, there really is no one right method.”

Some people prefer to work with professional tarot readers, who may pull many cards in a specific formation called a spread while they do a reading for you. Other tarot enthusiasts like to work with a deck on their own, reading their cards daily.

But what can tarot readings actually tell you?

“I personally refer to tarot as ‘metaphysical therapy,’ because it merges spirituality and psychology,” says Solaris The Hii Priestess, an intuitive tarot reader. In fact, she recommends thinking of tarot as a source of self-care. “The cards hold a lot of wisdom, but they also are used as an icebreaker to help you relax and vent.”

While some tarot readers do use the cards to make predictions, many readers don’t speculate about what could happen in the future. “I tend to use the cards as a way to spark conversation,” explains Colleen Conroy of Wellness Witch Tarot. “I use the images on the cards, as well as more traditional meanings, to encourage clients to reflect on themselves and their situation in order to give some guidance on how to handle life’s ups and downs.”

Solaris agrees, noting that tarot cards mimic our journeys here on earth by depicting all of the possibilities we have available to us. “The cards may be pulled at random, but the magic is how accurately the timing of each card can connect to your current situation,” Solaris says. Rather than looking to tarot to provide yes or no answers about major life decisions, it’s a tool that can be used to enhance and confirm the journey you’re already on, she adds.

Tarot cards can also be used to reflect on what’s currently happening in our lives, and consider all our options before making important choices. “We improve our lives when we’re willing to explore deep questions around our personal meaning and purpose,” Robyn says. “We improve our lives when we stop and think about our actions and behaviors before making important choices. The act of pulling cards is an investment in self-discovery. The cards do not hold the answers, but the synchronicity of the question and the card we pull will lead us to new and different answers."

Why is everyone so into tarot right now?

There are a couple of big reasons people are into tarot, psychic readings, astrology, and natural healing methods right now, experts say. “Perhaps the major reason is the continued unrest we see daily, and minute by minute, in U.S. and international politics,” Robyn says. “Social media is overwhelming and often in a negative sense, convincing people that there is little to trust in the world, and, simultaneously, that other people are happier, richer and more fulfilled than we are, leaving us bathing in fear, guilt, and longing. In this climate, people reach for answers and support in new ways, many of which are very effective.”

“We are going through the most intense and incredible shifts that we have ever seen,” Solaris adds. “We are being forced to sit with ourselves and fix generational traumas because we have time to do it without any distractions. We are being isolated and it feels very uncertain how long life will be this way or if it will ever change.” And because it’s scary to grow and work on yourself without any guidance, people are looking for ways to cope and connect with their higher selves, she says.

How to get started with tarot

You have two main options: get your own deck, or work with a tarot card reader. And by the way, these options aren’t mutually exclusive. It just depends on what you want to get out of a reading.

“If you’re looking to explore, have fun, and begin learning a bit about the cards, having your own deck can be a great way to do that,” says Emily Ridout, a professional AstroYoga specialist, tarot reader, and astrologer. “If you go to a reputable professional, they should know the deep symbolism of the tarot such as what the colors, numbers, symbols, and relationships among the cards represent.” Going to a professional for a reading can help you gain clarity in regard to a specific question. For those deeply interested in tarot, she recommends trying both.

For tarot newcomers, here’s a collection of experts’ top advice for starting your journey.

Find a deck you love.

“Don’t worry about finding a ‘beginners deck’ since it might not appeal to you,” Robyn says. “Look at several decks and see what colors and pictures you are attracted to. Ask yourself which deck seems to tell you a story, which ones that speak to you, which deck you want to take home with you. This is the deck you should start with. Most decks have a book to get you started on the typical meaning of the cards.”

Get to know your deck.

“To strengthen the bond with your deck, I recommend pulling a single card each day and spending about 10 to 15 minutes journaling about your pull,’ says Aliza Kelly, Birthdate Co's celebrity astrologer and tarot expert. You could answer the following questions, for example:

  • What’s the card?
  • What's the symbolism?
  • How do you feel looking at the imagery?

“The goal is to create a personal connection with the deck, so patience is absolutely essential,” Kelly says. Since decks contain 78 cards, this exercise should take approximately 11 weeks. “Go slow, be gentle, and give yourself plenty of room to explore!”

You might also consider reading a book or taking a class on tarot to learn more about your deck. The symbolism within the tarot can be learned, and once you understand the way the entire thing fits together, you’ll have a much easier time in your readings,” Ridout says. “My favorite tarot book is The Thursday Night Tarot by Jason Lotterhand. But there are many, and you can choose a book that suits you!”

Think of a question you want to answer.

“It’s best to use the cards in a quiet place away from distractions,” Robyn says. It’s good practice to set the scene by lighting a candle or grabbing a hot cup of tea — whatever helps you relax. “Then, start by asking a question and pulling one card from the deck. Look up the meaning. Look at the card. What does the written answer say? What does your intuition say? Now tell a story weaving the two thoughts together,” she adds.

From there, connect the cards to your life. “See if you can find moments in your day that correlate to the card you pulled,” Conroy suggests. In your journal, keep note of your observations. ”This will help you learn the meanings of the cards, and how they look in day to day life.”

If working with a reader, make sure it’s someone you trust.

Robyn recommends trusting your gut instinct about any card reader you work with. “Do they seem honest and open to listening to you? Are they forcing an opinion on you or telling you to return on a regular basis? Just like a therapist or other mental health care support person, you need to feel comfortable with anyone you work with.”

Doing some research ahead of time can be helpful, too. “There are many different types of tarot readers out there,” Conroy notes. “Some read in a more predictive/fortune-telling way, some have a more coaching/counseling style, some will tell you what you want to hear, and some will tell it like it is. Just like finding the right pair of shoes, you have to shop around. Every reader isn’t the right fit for every client. Reviews, testimonials, and word of mouth recommendations are a good way to find the right match for you.”

Don’t freak out.

“People have so much fear about getting their cards read because they think they will find out that they’re gonna die,” Solarios says. Rest assured, if you get the death card, it doesn’t mean you’re going to die in the near future.

“While some cards seem harsh, it’s important to recognize that the tarot is an esoteric symbolic language,” Ridout says. In other words, cards that look frightening don’t necessarily mean scary stuff is coming your way.