Finding the Theme: A Tarot Exercise
I host a lot of free tarot workshops, both online and local meetups. This gives me an opportunity to see what tarot students are learning and doing, and to offer exercises that can enhance their development.
I’ve been hosting free in-person tarot groups for twenty years in different locations. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of trends in tarot practices come and go.
One thing that seems more prevalent since the modern Lenormand renaissance is a tendency for tarotists to read cards in the particular order they were pulled, paying close attention to the placement of the cards and how the cards interact with each other based on that placement. I wrote something about this in another recent post entitled “Reading Tarot Out of Order.”
It’s an imperative skill to be able to construct a story with the cards that appear in a reading. Over the past twenty years many of us tarot teachers and authors have made a priority of teaching tarot storytelling. I see the results of our labor in most of the tarot students I meet.
Yet, it takes proficiency at multiple skills to create a great tarot reading.
I’ve noticed recently that if you ask a group of tarot students to pull three cards with no position and read them, they will almost always make either a past-present-future story, or an action-outcome story. Those are two wonderful ways to work with a non-positioned three-card spread. If you, as a tarot student, don’t have experience with this method of reading, this is definitely a skill you want to practice and add to your toolbox.
Along with storytelling skills, the skill of finding themes and messages in groups and combinations of cards is important. With this skill, the order of placement of the cards isn’t important, unlike reading with Lenormand cards.
For example, if you see Justice and the Chariot together in a spread, it doesn’t matter which positions they are in or which card was pulled first. Those two cards in a spread together could always be read as the possibility of a traffic ticket.
It’s important to remember, too, that each card in that combination will give other information as well. In a good tarot reading, we will interpret the cards that appear multiple times in a variety of ways.
Some small groups of cards, like my traffic ticket example, provide easy themes, meanings and predictions. Further examples might include the Wheel of Fortune coupled with the Devil to present a gambling addiction, or the Empress coupled with an Ace to present a pregnancy.
The larger trick is to find themes, or a combined meaning, in cards that don’t necessarily go together so naturally.
Here is an exercise to help you learn to do that. We tried this exercise in two in-person tarot groups recently. It seemed helpful to get readers to think about the cards in different ways.
I will share the exercise by doing an example here, step by step. Please do it along with me! If you like, you can share your results in the comments.
First, pull three cards at random.
This is not to be a reading for or about anything, so no need to ask a question or focus on anything in particular. For this exercise, you can ignore reversals and turn all cards upright.
The cards I pulled at random are the Five of Swords, the Queen of Swords and the Six of Cups.
Do not react to the cards as you might in a reading.
Your first task is to make a list of every keyword and key phrase you can think of for each card.
Here are mine.
For the Five of Swords, I have the following: battle, conflict, the need to fight to win, the possibility of loss, mental indecision, a war of wits, lack of internal peace, girding your loins, preparing for battle.
For the Queen of Swords, I have these: adult woman born under an Air sign, widow, widowhood, infertility, woman who tells the truth, woman who is difficult to deal with, nurturing truth, nurturing communication, telling the hard truth, female writer, nurturing technical prowess, nurturing intelligence.
I have these keywords and phrases for the Six of Cups: a return to childhood, reunion, happy memories, childhood home, shared history, a sense of familiarity, a sense of spiritual connection, nostalgia, living in the past, remembering the past, honoring the past.
Clearly, the first part of this exercise is to list all the possible keywords and phrases you can associate with these cards. If you want to Google or consult books, that is fine.
The practice of listing all possible keywords is a good strength-building exercise for two reasons. First, it keeps you from limiting your understanding of each card to a single concept. Second, if you find yourself stuck in a tarot reading and not sure how to interpret a card, listing all the possible keywords will usually get you unstuck when one of those keywords strikes you as obvious and accurate.
Once you have your lists, look to see if there are any keywords that are common or similar between your lists. Then, look to see if there are any keywords that are obvious opposites.
Now, look at the three cards and think about what they have in common in terms of correspondences and images.
When I look at my three cards (I am used the Hanson Roberts Tarot for this exercise) the first thing I notice is that two of the cards are Swords cards. They are all Minor Arcana. There is a Five and a Six so the two numbered cards are in an adjacent place in their journey.
I think about the numerology of Five and Six, going from a place of expansion and difficulty to a place of victory. I think about the nurturing nature of the Queen, but also that the Queen of Swords has suffered, much as the Five of Swords can speak of suffering.
I think of the Six of Cups as dealing with the past, and, and that the Queen of Swords is reputed to have suffering in her own past.
Now, look at your three cards and think about the things that are dissimilar, or in contrast, amongst them.
When I look at mine, I immediately contrast the stark Swords images with the warm, floral Cups image. I think about Swords being masculine and Cups being feminine. I think about Swords as mind, and Cups as heart. When I look at the two Swords cards, I think about the Five as war, and the Queen as peace.
As you can see, this part of the exercise works to create a stream-of-consciousness flow as you consider the cards. This can often lead to significant insights in a tarot reading.
The next step is to consider all the things you have pondered about these three cards, and derive a cohesive theme, question, or message from them.
Once you have derived one theme, work to find at least two more.
Here are mine. First, I landed on ‘The need to heal from the past’. The two others I thought about were ‘fertility issues’ and ‘mother issues.’ Had I confronted these cards in a reading, intuition and context would have determined which of these themes made sense.
Of course, the themes we derive from multiple cards in a reading don’t give us the whole story. We still need to interpret the individual cards to get all the information. Yet, these themes can help us know what further questions to ask. These themes can help us give our client an overall understanding of what they are dealing with. These themes can help us tie the reading up at the end. They can also help provide a context as we interpret the cards individually.
The more techniques we have for understanding and working with the cards, the better our tarot skills will be.