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Tarot for Skeptics

A Skeptic’s Guide to Tarot: Where to Start and What’s the Point?

Fortune teller, astrologist or tarot reader, my reaction will be the same.

You say you can see the future? I say you’re full of crap.

As much as I love imagining wondrous realms and supernatural powers, I’m also a bona fide skeptic. If I’m staring into tea leaves I can promise you it’s because I’ve had a long day and my brain is fried, not because I’m trying to scry my fortunes.

This made it all the more surprising when I found myself poring over a tarot deck one evening, studying the cards with an intensity and hunger not unlike the sort I reserve for spring rolls from my favorite Vietnamese place.

That’s right. This doubter is a tarot convert.

Isn’t Tarot a Scam?

Bear with me, fellow naysayers. I’ll never try to convince you the cards can prophesize a future lover or give you the winning lotto numbers.

What they can do is offer a little peace of mind and guidance. And if a cynic like me can benefit from them, you can too.

When you think about the internal struggles people deal with, you realize many of the questions we ask ourselves have answers that lie within. This isn’t “woo woo” so much as an honest assessment of human nature. We ignore the simplest solutions because change is hard.

Many of us lead busy lives that make avoiding personal truths easier than ever. But tarot can provide that little spark which turns into a flash of revelation.

My own path to arcana-fueled wisdom was a slow one thanks to a scarf-laden woman at a New Age store.

It was the early 2000s, and shy schoolkid Rhylan was hiding behind a bookcase to avoid further contact with her bad perfume. The “seer” sat behind a dilapidated lawn table in the corner of the shop, hawking fortunes to whoever would relinquish enough cash.


Fortune Teller
Would’ve been nice if the tarot reader had looked like this. At least I would’ve been entertained.

My mother had accompanied me on this fateful trip and was drawn to the reader like Sleeping Beauty to a spindle. I knew it could only end with piercing psychological pain. Specifically, mine.

I’d hoped the meaningful looks I’d thrown her way would communicate some hesitancy, but it was all for naught. I was summoned from my papery shelter and sulked toward the armchair alchemist.

Lady Fortuna flipped over a few cards and proceeded to tell me the spirits knew I was a doubter (their keen eyes must’ve noted the pout, side-eye and crossed arms), but that I’d eventually have a career in higher education and conceive two sons after taking a journey across the sea.

What can I say? She was right.

About nothing.

Years later, I ended up hating college and left early in favor of a job. I’ve never had the slightest desire for children, and the first time I took a journey across the sea was to sunbathe on a Caribbean island.

No canoodling was involved, considering I was a preteen on a family Disney cruise.

Romancing the Cards

After that I forgot all about the arcana until I ran across a deck called the Dark Tarot featuring art by Luis Royo.

While I held no love for the format, Royo has always been my favorite fantasy artist, and in the end I couldn’t resist owning more of his work.

In a twist of fate, it was my mother who got me the deck as a gift. She saved tarot after all!

I began exploring the cards’ meanings out of simple curiosity, then started looking for connections between their themes and the art.

The process felt similar to deciphering metaphors, which pleased the literature nerd in me. While Mr. Royo has another deck (the Labyrinth Tarot) which he specifically created for tarot, the Dark Tarot uses images pulled from his art books and attempts to place them in relevant roles.

I was surprised by how well the art aligned. For example, The Hermit is traditionally shown as a robed, older man with a lantern. In the Dark Tarot, however, “he” is represented by a beautiful young woman gazing into a lake.

The Royo piece is called The Wings of Reflection. In it, a naked woman is curled against a rock, remnants of a vanquished foe nearby, while a haze of moonlight and fireflies curl above her body to form ethereal wings.


The Wings of Reflection - Royo
The Wings of Reflection by Luis Royo

So now you know why people are always so keen on seeking hermits.

Joking aside, I did find aspects of the Hermit archetype in the image.

The card represents wisdom, isolation, spirituality and finding truth. The woman peers at, or seemingly into herself through the lake, a representation of “seeking answers within.”

The glistening wings serve to illuminate knowledge, similar to the role the lantern plays. The foe’s skull and sword show she’s overcome attachment to worldly possessions in favor of introspection.

At least, that’s how I see the card. And that’s the thing about tarot which rarely gets said: It’s all about your interpretations.

Finding Meaning

Like the Pirate Code, the traditional meanings are more like guidelines than actual rules.

Several resource sites I recommend to build your tarot “vocabulary” are:

Once you have a basic understanding of the cards’ meanings, holding a query in your mind will prime you to notice different aspects of each.

Let’s say you want to know why you’ve been procrastinating on a work project. You draw The Moon, and that day you focus on its theme of “domestic versus primal urges.” Maybe the project is forcing you to do something you don’t agree with on a fundamental level, preventing your “civilized” mind from getting it done.

Later you might ask about whether you should stay friends with someone. You draw The Moon again. This time, you notice the water’s reflection and its references to illusion. The more you think on it, the more you realize your buddy has been taking advantage of your time without returning the favor.

You probably didn’t want to admit these feelings, but they were always there, waiting to be discovered.

Catch my gist?


The Moon - Fyodor Pavlov
The Moon by Fyodor Pavlov

Your subconscious clues you in to the most meaningful aspect of the cards depending on your mental state. Think of tarot like a prettier Rorschach test with a side dish of magical lore.

I prefer decks with less traditional art precisely because they help me consider the cards’ themes from new perspectives. Reputable readers, even those with a more spiritual bent, will typically adapt to their querents’ needs as well, with varying levels of tolerance for extrapolation.

My tarot methodology may lean toward a more fluid, breezy style, but hey, tarot was originally devised for a game called tarocchini in the 15th century. You can use it however you darn well please.

Another reason to avoid strictly adhering to traditional readings is because you can end up leading yourself astray, which is the exact result you don’t want.

Example: Let’s say Oliver Occult draws the Nine of Swords to describe his mood. He’s been feeling great lately and was expecting something happy, like the Ace of Wands. Believing tarot can only be interpreted one way, he sees this card—which normally represents fear, anxiety and suffering—and freaks out.

He spends the next week in a pit of despair, imagining some terrible fate will soon befall him. The problem is, Oliver’s own irrational response has already ruined his happiness.

This scenario might seem like an exaggeration, but I’ve honestly watched people obsess over tarot to the point it might as well be their new religion. All because a piece of paper “told them” they should feel a certain way.

It’s ridiculous. Make the cards suit your circumstances, not the other way around.

Help Me Help You

When I see cards that challenge me, I use the standard meanings as a springboard, then reinterpret them until they make sense. If I was in the same position as Ollie, I would dig deep. Is there anything underneath my happiness that’s worrying me?

I could be scared of losing everything I’ve gained. Maybe I truly am fine, but the card is reminding me to stay grounded. Maybe it’s representative of a family member, telling me I shouldn’t ignore their struggles just because I’m flying high.

There are a million ways to read things and you should let your mind toy around with possibilities until something sticks.

“Bad cards” don’t exist. Only bad interpretations.

As you get to know the cards, your readings will not only vary from day to day, but depending on the deck and spread used. A “spread” is a group of cards laid out in a way where each position represents a different question or focus. This interplay between the cards can influence how you read them.


Master - Lenka Šimečková
The Devil? Not always bad news.

Another example: The Devil drawn alone might represent a harmful obsession, but paired in a spread with the Star, it might show you’ve been immersing yourself in altruistic pursuits.

Working with tarot is almost like bouncing ideas off of friends, minus any judgmental asides. That’s not to say other people can’t be an immense help in overcoming adversity, but in the end we all have to slay our demons alone.

Tarot is a wonderful tool to have in your arsenal if you’d appreciate a fun and structured way to explore your thoughts.

Stay tuned to learn more ways you can benefit from the arcana!



Image credit: Fortune teller by Sue Cro and devil by Lenka Šimečková

Rhylan Dane

Rhylan Dane

Formerly a freelance copywriter, Rhylan now manages Armorbelle and creates marketing thingamajigs for personal clients. She has wanted to be a pirate since the age of 3, and although she still has no idea how to sail, she’s become very adept at stabbing and plundering.
Rhylan Dane

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