As noted in my early essay on How to Get Started With the Tarot, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word “ritual” with regard to card practices because of the connotations it holds. For people who see Tarot as evil, the conjuring of demons and such, speaking of Tarot rituals may serve to fan the flames of their fear and suspicion.
Still, ritual is the most accurate word to describe the sequence of activities and the environmental setting which can help us get the most out of a Tarot reading or practice.
It ought to be said that there certainly are folks who use the cards as part of magical or religious rituals and rites of all sorts, but that is not the subject of this post. I’m writing here about the series of things that we do to prepare for and to enjoy the Tarot reading itself.
In essence the only ritual one truly needs in this practice is to shuffle and deal the cards. The shuffle is important to create a random selection, and obviously one has to deal a card in order to see it.
I have found, though, that making a bit more effort to establish the proper environment and circumstances for a card reading can help create a more pleasant, more meaningful and even more powerful experience.
I’ll do my best to describe a basic Tarot ritual here, along with my own personal practices. I welcome your questions or thoughts.
The Physical Environment
Again, in essence, all you really need for a Tarot reading are the cards and a flat surface upon which to deal them, but many of us find that it is helpful and fun to create a special space of some sort when we work with the cards. Just as we might pay special attention to setting the dinner table to enhance the enjoyment of a meal, or we might go to some length to decorate for a party or occasion, adding items of beauty or meaning to the Tarot table can make a reading more special and memorable.
I use a decorative silk altar cloth with Celtic designs on it for my Tarot “workspace.” My wife gave me the cloth (and another star-laden one that I carry along to read in other locations) as gifts early on when I first started working with the cards.
There is a wide variety of decorative mats and scarves that are available especially for use with the Tarot. Some are mass produced and some made by artisans, some themed to coordinate with a specific deck or season or whatnot. Any surface, decorative or not, which sets the space apart will do. The only important specification is that you have enough room to lay out the cards for the size of spread you’re using.
I also keep a candle, a glass bottle with water, a small stone and an incense burner on my Tarot table. These items represent the energy of the four elements (fire, water, earth and air), and hence the four suits. Some practitioners like to add crystals, statues, or other items to their tables.
Choices about the physical environment are personal and idiosyncratic. Just as tastes in music or food differ, so are the styles of each Tarot reader. Is it important to have all four of these elements present? Is there a certain kind of incense required? Should we use only beeswax candles? Must the water be naturally sourced from a local spring, or sat out under the full moon’s light? Of course not. But if any of those specifications are meaningful or delightful or for any reason preferable to you, go right ahead and abide by them.
It is helpful, if possible, to have a relatively quiet environment for card readings, but in a pinch even this is optional. Some readers enjoy and offer marvelous experiences with the cards in crowded pubs or at parties.
My practice if I’m reading from my usual table space is to light the candle and incense just before I sit down to begin shuffling the cards. As an athlete might have a pre-game ritual (or routine before a serve or free throw), I find that this helps me get into the right frame of mind for what is to come.
Ritual Before the Cut
Shuffling the deck thoroughly will be the single most important element in your ritual before throwing the cards. Part of what makes a card reading effective and meaningful is the randomness and unpredictability of the cards that are drawn. There are lots and lots of ways to mix up the cards. Some folks spread them out on the table (or even the floor) and move them around in what is called a “pile shuffle.” Others use a riffle or overhand or Hindu shuffle. What you use is up to you, but the goal is to get the cards into as random an order as possible before they are cut.
Our friends in the gaming industry have studied this subject well, and tell us that a riffle shuffle is generally the most effective, achieving a random deck in seven shuffles. Some Tarot readers are adamantly averse to the riffle though, feeling that it demeans or “profanes” the cards to the level of a poker game or cheap amusement.
As for me, I use a riffle to get (and keep) my decks in random order, and then use an overhand shuffle just prior to the reading. If I am reading for someone else, I will tend to shuffle overhand as we’re discussing their question or what they would like to get out of the reading.
Once we decide what questions are being asked, or what issues being explored, and settle on the spread to be used, I will spend a moment with the entire deck of cards in my left palm, and my right hand resting on top of them. Some readers will use an invocation or set a formal intention of some sort at this point. I generally do not. I just take a moment to breathe and still my mind a bit, setting aside other thoughts so I can concentrate more fully on the experience. As far as I am concerned, this moment to get still and get in touch with one’s intuition is second only to a thorough shuffle as the basis for a good experience with the cards. The stimulus of a random card, as interpreted by a quiet, intuitive mind, is the very nature of my practice.
Cutting the Cards
This step would be optional, but most card readers do it. The purpose of cutting the cards is to “keep the dealer honest.” Some readers allow the querent to cut the cards, which was likely first adopted in order to satisfy folks that it was truly a random draw. Other readers absolutely forbid anyone else to ever touch their cards, for fear that foreign or negative energies might be imparted to the deck.
I am not fussy about this. When I am reading for myself, I place the cards in the center of the table after shuffling, and cut the deck more or less in half, once, to my left, using my left hand. If I am reading for someone else I would allow them to do it.
Why cut with the left hand? It’s the one closest to the heart, and the one associated with the right hemisphere of the brain (the holistic, intuitive side). Does cutting the cards with this hand have any effect on them? Who knows? It’s just one of those customs that I adopted when I first started with the Tarot, and it feels familiar and comfortable, so I keep doing it.
At this point I deal the cards one by one from the top of the deck and turn them up, placing them in their spot for whatever spread I’m using. If I am reading for someone else I like to say the name of the position and what card is going there as I lay them on the table.
For a Celtic Cross spread, I would have already parsed from the deck whatever we’re using as the signifier card (a card used to represent the querent), and placed it on the table prior to shuffling the rest of the cards.
Reading the Cards
I like to take a moment after all of the cards are thrown to look at the table and see if any insights or impressions jump out at me before examining each of the cards and positions in order. I will also ask the querent if they have any intuitive reactions or thoughts. Then I will work through each position, in the order that the cards were dealt, describing how I see each card, perhaps some of the history or traditional meaning of the card, how I think it relates to the position and the other cards in the spread, and ideas about what it may mean in the context of the question or issue being examined. I like to stop from time to ask the person for whom I am reading for their impressions or questions, and to see if anything is especially resonating with them.
At the end of the reading, I like to look at the full table again, and summarize what I have found. Once the reading is over, I’ll take a photo of the spread for my Tarot Journal, and extinguish the candle and incense. I usually jot down at least a few notes while the reading is fresh in my mind. If the reading is for someone else, I like to send them the photo and notes so they can review and consider the reading further.
At the table in my basement that I use for creating Tarot videos and readings over Zoom, I’ll usually leave the deck stacked and out in the open between readings, though some folks insist on placing the cards in a box or wrapping them in a silk scarf when not in use. This is another one of those points where you should simply do what feels best.
Find What Works for You
There is a lot of lore and tradition concerning the Tarot and the rituals which make up a Tarot reading. Some books or readers tend to be extremely prescriptive about the proper way to use the cards. Some of those prescriptions are well reasoned, and may add to the enjoyment and benefits you receive from the cards. Some, perhaps, not.
The true measure of whether or not a ritual or routine has any validity is whether or not it works for you. The words of occultist and tarotist Aleister Crowley are called to mind. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”