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Each person’s entrée into the world of tarot cards and readings is different. Mine came at age 13, at a Bat Mitzvah for a girl in my class that featured a tarot reader as part of the cocktail hour. When she pulled the Death card—lucky number 13 in the major arcana of cards—in my spread, I near fainted and squarely decided tarot was not for me. That opinion changed when I was introduced to the work of Rachel Howe, a Brooklyn-based artist, Reiki healer, and tarot reader—you might know her from her Instagram handle, @smallspells. It was Howe’s mystical, black-and-white drawings that first caught my eye, and her recently released illustrated tarot deck and guidebook has inspired this writer to get into tarot yet again.
To those who think the practice of reading tarot is an occult art reserved for spook sessions, let me say: You’re wrong. As Howe describes it, the practice is more about the discussion between the reader and the person whose cards are being read. Think about it like an in-depth conversation that’s merely facilitated by the cards and their implied meanings: “Tarot, a tool, and the real healing work is going to be done by the person,” says Howe. “A lot of people describe tarot as a mirror, so it’s not like I’m pulling some secret out of you.”
Still, trying to enter into the vast world of tarot readings, of which there are centuries of literature about, is daunting. “There’s a lot of rules about tarot, which I think have been used in the past to have it be this secret esoteric thing and to keep people away, which was necessary as a protective measure. I don’t think that’s as necessary now. I think anyone can read tarot,” Howe says of the practice’s sometimes-exclusive practices and rules. “I’ve heard people say you’re not supposed to buy your own deck, you’re supposed to have someone gift it to you. My feeling is, I bought my deck and I can read. What if no one buys you a deck? Then you never get to learn how to read! Anything that feels like it’s a sort of boundary between people who know and people who don’t know, I don’t think applies anymore.”
So in the spirit of inclusivity, I asked Howe to share some of her tips for new members of the tarot club. Those who still want to find out more—and happen to live in the New York area—can attend one of Howe’s workshops in Williamsburg.
Get to Know the Cards
After you’ve purchased a deck, the first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the cards. “I think establishing a relationship with the cards is important. It can be so intimidating because it’s a deck of 78 cards and they’re all different. It’s a lot of information that I think a lot of people feel they have to memorize,” Howe admits. Her tip? “If you are starting out, just working by yourself, a lot of people do a daily card pull where they pull one card from the deck and just think about the meaning of the card. If you do it in the morning, you can keep it in mind as you go through your day. That’s a nice way to get to know the cards on a deeper level.”
Be Ready to Talk
“Tarot is really like a tool, a tool to facilitate talking about things. Because there’s this sort of added mystical energy to it or some sort of mystical connection, you can see people start to open up in a way that they might not if you were just having a conversation about something. There’s something about the special energy about it that kind of melts away the walls that people have and then the conversation can really get in there and make changes,” Howe says. As such, it’s important for tarot readers to be ready to communicate. That means both keeping an open mind and trusting one’s own intuition. “Intuiting is definitely a big part of a tarot reading; that’s what makes it so special. That’s where energy comes in, being able to sense what someone is feeling, thinking, or going through.”
If this sounds intimidating, Howe says it’s important to relax and trust your own agency. “Use language that you already have, or knowledge that you already have, so you can see it less as ‘This holds all of these secret meanings that I have to do all this work to access,’ and more like ‘I know all the meanings; it’s just a matter of making the connections and being able to articulate them.’ ” She notes that the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air—play a large role in the tarot, which is helpful because most people already have some ideas about the meanings of each element that they can draw on. “If you do that then it’s more your own perspective and you can be a little freer with the things that you’re saying.”
Get to Know Some Basic Spreads—But Be Ready to Change Them
For beginner readers, Howe recommends two basic spreads, a three-card pull and the Celtic Cross. The former is where three cards are drawn from the deck to represent the past, present, and future or mind, body, and spirit of the person being read. Howe says you can even up the ante to a six-card pull, with one card representing each area.
The Celtic Cross, though slightly more complicated, is also a good starting point. “The Celtic Cross spread is a classic spread where each card has an assigned position and an assigned meaning for that position. It’s 10 cards, so it’s a lot of information and it’s a very clear spread. Personally, I use a modified version of the Celtic Cross where I use the format, but I like to be loose with the positions because I want the cards to be whatever they want to be. What I do is I start out with the Celtic Cross layout, and as we’re talking, I’ll move cards around to make [it so] the point of these cards are talking to each other. Sometimes, by the end of the reading, it looks totally different.”
Her other tip is not to keep the big picture of the layout in mind. “It’s really about the connections between the cards. Depending what cards are around a certain card, it will influence the meaning. They’re all being influenced by each other, sometimes they’re really amplified by each other,” she explains.
Find a Space With Good Vibes to Conduct Your Readings
“I think it’s important to think about the energy of the space because you’re opening up,” she explains. “If you want to be an open person, it means that you want your environment around you to be a healthy one so it’s okay for you to be open. I do readings in my apartment, which is great because I can control the environment. Burning sage, burning palo santo, lighting candles, even having an intention, like, ‘This is a space where I can be open so it’s a loving space and I don’t allow non-loving energies,’ helps.”
But it’s not just the physical space that needs to be in sorts before a reading. “Even your headspace matters,” Howe says. “I like to meditate before I give a reading so that I’m not preoccupied with any of my own issues or problems, so that I can be open to let whatever is coming to my mind be for them and not for myself.”
Find a Way to Start a Reading That Feels Right for You
Traditional tarot books or readers might advocate for a lengthy or ritual process of beginning a reading. Howe says the most important element is to just do what feels right for you. “I went to a reading where the woman had me sit on the deck of cards for 15 minutes!” she laughs. “So whatever ritual makes the most sense for you that you feel like is letting you have access, you should just do that.”
She outlines her personal process for starting a reading thus: “I usually sit across from the person, but when I lay the cards out, they’re facing me. I like to talk to the person beforehand to get some context about what they’re working on. While I’m shuffling the cards and they’re talking, sometimes I start to get insights even then. I have them cut the deck, pick a pile, and then I have them lay the cards out from the pile that they’ve chosen. Then I usually give a minute just to settle, to let whatever’s going to come to the surface come up. A moment like that is when you have to shed a little self-consciousness, when you’re just sitting there not saying anything. It’s actually really important. It’s not going to matter once you start talking, they’re not going to think it’s weird anymore. You have to just figure out whatever it is that will make the reading flow the easiest.”
Whatever You Do, Don’t Panic
After hearing my story of the Death card, Howe let’s out a laugh. “I really love the Death card, it’s the one that always shows up in the movies,” she begins. “The Death card, in my experience, doesn’t actually mean death. It’s more about our fear of death and our fear of change. Change is really positive. I drew the Grim Reaper in this jungle atmosphere with all these plants and life and butterflies that symbolize change and transformation. Death is just the necessary component to transformation—you can’t become something else without the loss of something.” For this writer, maybe losing the fear of the Death card is exactly what needed to happen for me to reaccept the tarot. See, not spooky at all.