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Interpreting a Tarot Reading

Skillful interpretation of a Tarot reading is a technical, artistic and inspirational feat, built on the meanings of the cards refracted through the prism of the spread and enhanced by some of the more advanced techniques covered here.

Spreads and Meanings

Nine of Cups The Tarot is normally used to provide a reading in which a particular question is explored or the questioner's life in general is considered. Each card in the Tarot pack has a basic set of meanings and associations attached to it, but interpreting cards according to these attributions alone would be an unsatisfying and one-dimensional exercise. In order to provide a framework that allows a greater richness of meaning, the reader employs spreads: layouts of cards in which the position of a card in the spread modifies the interpretation of the card.

For example, the Nine of Cups is a card of contentment and fulfilling relationships. If this card appears in a spread in a position indicating the future, then it suggests that a time of well-being and fulfillment is on the way. If it appears in a position that shows current difficulties, then it warns that complacency, taking things for granted or stagnation are problems that the questioner should avoid.

Reversed Meanings

As well as modifying the interpretation of a card according to its position in a spread, there are a number of further refinements that can be employed to adjust a card's meaning. One of the most common, and arguably the least useful, is that of reversed meanings. With this method, the cards are kept or shuffled so that they may appear either upright or reversed (upside down) in a spread. When a card is reversed, the meaning is modified, usually either tempered or reversed.

Fortune (Reversed)
Fortune (Reversed)

As an example, the Wheel of Fortune appearing in an upright position would indicate the felicitous intervention of Fate through a lucky break or good fortune. A reversed position would be more suggestive of bad luck and a downturn in fortune. Many readers do not use the system of reversed meanings at all, largely because it is a rather clumsy and inelegant mechanism, and there are better ways to refine the interpretation of a card.

Synthesis and Majorities

Celtic Cross All but the simplest spreads contain positions that can be considered together for a richer interpretation. Spreads like the Celtic Cross are arranged so that cards in certain locations explicate and refine the meanings of cards in related positions. For example, the Covering and Questioner positions are closely related, as are the Root and Past positions and the three positions dealing with future influences. The House and Inside positions show the external and internal influences on the matter in hand, in an analogous way to the Covering and Crossing showing aiding and opposing influences. There are many ways, some obvious and some subtle, in which the positions in a spread work with each other, and this synthesis of cards is a very powerful way of bringing a reading together as a whole.

Minor Arcana Majorities are a way of getting an overall sense of a reading and are another prism through which the interpretation of individual cards may be refracted. In most readings there will be a dominant suit of the Minor Arcana, and this is termed the Primary Majority. The attributions of the suit involved indicate the tenor of the reading. For example, Wands or Pentacles might suggest that the reading largely concerns objective events or objects respectively, and Swords or Cups could indicate a focus on subjective thoughts or feelings respectively.

Major Arcana The Secondary Majority is the next most prevalent suit in a reading, and this can impart a subordinate, weaker influence. The compatibility or otherwise of the suits in the Primary and Secondary Majorities (as outlined in the section on dignities, below) can give further clues to the dynamics of the forces at work within a reading.

The other significant majority that readers look out for is the proportion of Major Arcana to Minor Arcana cards. An important period with long-term consequences is suggested by a relatively large number of Major cards. If the cards are mostly Minor, then a less critical time is indicated in which events are less likely to have lasting significance.

Dignities, Resonance and Dissonance

Almost all spreads have positions that explicate other positions, or positions that may be considered sequential or neighboring in some meaningful sense. Some spreads even have multiple cards in each position for a deeper interpretation. In all of these cases, cards are easily linked to others through physical or interpretational proximity, and the meanings of these linked cards can be modified according to a system of dignities.

For this to work, certain suits of the Minor Arcana are considered as being beneficial and strengthening to each other (resonance), whereas others are considered to be antagonistic and weakening to one another (dissonance), while the rest remain neutral to each other. Resonant cards are well-dignified and dissonant ones ill-dignified. Suits of a similar nature strengthen; suits of opposite nature weaken. Cups and Pentacles are neutral towards each other, and the remaining resonances and dissonances are as follows:

Suit Resonances Dissonance
Wands Wands, Swords, Pentacles Cups
Cups Cups, Swords Wands
Swords Swords, Wands, Cups Pentacles
Pentacles Pentacles, Wands Swords


When a reading produces groups of identically numbered or titled cards - for example, three of the Eights or all of the Queens - then those groups or combinations may be given further significance. For example, all four Aces appearing together in a reading would be indicative of a momentous time of great energy and new beginnings in which the questioner must take care to make the most of opportunities in a positive way.

If a "recycle reading" (in which any card may appear multiple times) is being performed then there are even more possibilities. In this case, in addition to normal combinations, there may also be reflexive combinations that consist of repetitions of individual cards, adding further emphasis to their spheres of influence and making connections between those positions in which they appear. Our Free Tarot Readings offer you the option to try both recycle and normal readings.


Getting a sense of the time scales involved in a reading is notoriously difficult. Some spreads have positions dealing with the "recent" past, "near" future, "distant" past, "eventual" outcome and so on - all rather nebulous phrases. As a rough guide, the "present" may be considered as a few weeks either side of the current date, "near" and "recent" refer to a small number of weeks or months, and "eventual" and "distant" may be months or years away. Some readers employ mechanical methods of suggesting timing, using formulae based on such things as the suits involved in a reading, but these are usually less than helpful. Calendar Spreads are constructed around specific time scales, and these may be employed when timing is important.

Eight of Wands Certain cards, notably Judgment, can have an accelerating or decelerating effect on a reading. A well-dignified Eight of Wands, for example, can bring an end to delays and move things quickly along, but if the Eight is ill-dignified it can slow matters down and herald holdups and cancellations.

The greatest influences on the time scales involved, however, are the questioner's own actions. They may choose to go with the trends shown by the cards and speed things up, or they may oppose them and slow things down or avoid the predicted consequences altogether. The Tarot is actually an empowering rather than a fatalistic system - it helps to put a person in control of their own destiny, as long as it is approached in an intelligent way.

Puzzling Readings

For those times when all or part of a reading seems hard to place, when the cards seem contradictory or just plain wrong, some approaches are explored in Cardly Conundrums.