I think the possibilities for different methods of interpreting Tarot readings are virtually endless; as I contemplate the decks in my collection, I sometimes consider the method the creator of each would have had in mind for using his or her deck, or the method that elicits the best results from each.
While I marvel at all of the potential, I’ve given it some thought and I believe I’ve managed to narrow down the vast amount of possible methods to three distinct categories of interpretation.
Cartomancy. This is the most traditional way to read the Tarot, or indeed, any pack of playing cards. I am not particularly well-versed in these methods (yet), but my understanding is that cartomancy involves attaching a number of keywords to the upright and reversed positions of each card, and then laying the cards out to be read as if it were a sentence written on a page. This method of reading requires great skill to master, because the reader must be able to draw from an extensive store of keywords and string together a coherent sentence from those most appropriate to the situation on a moment’s notice. This seems to me to be the method most often associated with actual “fortune-telling”.
Because this method relies largely on rote memorization, it is most suitable for Tarots with unillustrated pip cards. These sorts of decks include Marseille packs especially, but also Etteilla decks and various historic decks, as well as normal packs of 52 or 32 playing cards. Etteilla in particular is responsible for the basic standardization of cartomantic definitions for the Tarot cards, and in fact his system is so well-ingrained that many other, non-cartomantic decks still draw from his meanings for inspiration for their own.
Etteilla’s isn’t the only version of this method, just probably the most prevalent in Tarot divination. Other methods may incorporate numerology or elemental dignities, but if they rely too heavily on these sorts of things, they begin to slide into the territory of the next method.
Occult. This relies on the correlation of Tarot cards with various occult theories and doctrines, most notably Astrology, Kabbalah, and Alchemy. Whereas cartomancy is essentially a self-contained system, occult methods require knowledge of esoteric subjects outside of the Tarot, and therefore usually can only be used with success after much study. Some degree of memorization is still necessary, although rather than keywords, readers must remember the significance of occult symbolism as it appears on the cards.
With the occult, as with cartomancy, there are several variable methods. Occult Tarots include any decks steeped in Astrology or Kabbalah or any number of other esoteric systems. Particularly relevant are packs such as the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based decks. Oswald Wirth also created a pack of Major Arcana chock full of occultism, but neglected to provide the Minor Arcana. All the same, his influence is still widely felt in many subsequent occult decks, and he offers an alternative to the very popular and heavily influential methods of the Golden Dawn.
The small cards in occult decks are often reminiscent of regular pips, but will typically include occult symbols and glyphs, as well as intentionally symbolic color and geometric schemes. Illustrated small cards are not out of the question, though.
Intuitive. The widest range of possible reading methods falls within the intuitive category. All that is required for intuitive readings is that the reader trusts the images on the cards to stir the subconscious in order to relay the divinatory message. An understanding of the occult is unnecessary, as is a list of cartomantic definitions, although both can be incorporated into this sort of reading. Other ideas outside of the Tarot can have an influence, too, such as psychology or mythology (my personal favorite). Intuitive readings can be as self-contained within the cards or as all-inclusive of other ideas as the reader likes. The only requirement is that it is all inspired in the moment of reading by the images on the cards, and is not confined to a previously ordained system of correspondences. Really, this method is not a method in the same sense as cartomancy or the occult; rather, it’s almost like a lack of a method.
What does this picture remind you of? How do you react to seeing this one? Etc.
It is very difficult not to oversimplify this one (well, I’ve run that risk with all three of these methods, but I think it’s the worst here). There is an entire spectrum of possibilities, ranging from total formlessness (this is the type of reader who may be struck one day by the importance a certain flower or leaf, for example, and totally ignore it the next day – there is no consistency), to an almost cartomantic approach, by which I mean that a reader probably has a good idea formed in his or her mind ahead of time of the general meaning of each card, but will ultimately decide in the moment of the reading which aspect is important. The difference between this and cartomancy is that the meaning in this case is based on personal ideas and experience rather than an established tradition. Of course, more often than not, personal interpretations are at least partially influenced by cartomantic, or sometimes even occult, traditions.
Because of the role intuition plays in this method of reading, decks with illustrated small cards are the most effective, although it is not unheard of to use decks with Marseille pips or occult symbolism intuitively. The majority of these illustrated decks are based on the Rider-Waite Tarot.
The Rider Tarot itself, in my mind, works best as an intuitive deck, although I seriously doubt it was created for that purpose (was intuitive reading even a thing back then?), and the argument for its uses as an occult deck (because of veiled references to the teachings of the Golden Dawn in the Major Arcana) or a cartomantic deck (because of the inherent influence of Etteilla’s definitions in the design of the Minor Arcana illustrations) are strong. The pictures on the cards are vague enough on these points, however, and are evocative enough in general to be very conducive to intuitive readings.
Unlike cartomantic or occult methods of reading, no prior knowledge is needed to read intuitively, and a complete novice can read by this method with as much success as a seasoned Tarot veteran. With that being said, however, the constant addition of new knowledge that comes with time and use makes intuitive reading unique to each person who does it, and can become incredibly complex and insightful in ways that more traditional methods seem unlikely to achieve. On the flip side, though, intuitive readings are far more subjective than other methods, and they are easily prone to the projection of the reader’s biases.
As you can probably see, it is the style of the Minor Arcana of a Tarot that tends to define the method best suited for use, at least as I’ve presented them. I think that is interesting in itself, because we so often find ourselves focusing on the Major Arcana. In most Tarots, though, the Major Arcana is only subtly different from one to the next, while the style of the Minors can change quite drastically. And no matter how much stock we put into the Majors, I think it is the Minors that really add nuance to a reading.
I should probably say for the sake of completeness that I would add a fourth category called “uncategorizable,” which, obviously enough, doesn’t fit into any of the above. The first example that comes to my mind would be a pack like the Wildwood, which has an intended method of use that is fairly unique to it (not that you couldn’t read it intuitively or otherwise).
These are some broad generalizations that I’ve made in this post, and there is certainly plenty of overlap (I think the Medieval Scapini Tarot, for example, is a perfect example of a deck that can easily be used with any of these three methods). It’s just something I’ve been pondering, though, so I thought I’d share.
What methods do you use? Is there anything I’ve left out? Feel free to comment.