This past weekend I taught an online workshop for the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup on how to develop tarot keywords specific to your deck. These are my notes from that class. I also link to the video recording that showcases plenty of examples.
Etteilla, the grand-père of tarot divination, was a proponent for using single word meanings for the cards. Today we call these easy-to-remember significations “keywords.” Keywords provide a surface gloss that can jump immediately to the basic interpretation of a spread. When doing fast readings on phone lines or at parties, keywords are your key to success. In this article and video, I’ll distinguish between keywords, card titles, and card meanings. We’ll contrast working with prepared interpretations against reading intuitively. And we’ll learn a process for developing your own keywords that are unique to and evocative of your deck.
My belief is that the cards have no meaning except in the context of a querent, a question, and other cards. I discourage the idea that each card has a more or less specific meaning that can be learned in advance and applied across all decks. Card meanings differ according to deck lineage, reading style, and many other factors. However, within each lineage, commonly used interpretations, built up through accretion, aggregation, and sometimes excrescence, reach a high enough mass that they are hard to budge. These solidify into card meanings.
Card Meanings: The Dictionary
Where do card meanings come from? Meanings are an interpretive combination based on the card rank (position in sequence), symbols, correspondences, image, and title. A card meaning often, but not necessarily, includes a moral, theme, or advice. The meaning is more comprehensive and unified. It can also be more nuanced. Compare card meanings to a dictionary definition.
Here are some examples:
- Four of Cups – You feel dissatisfied (image: downcast face) with what you have (symbol: three visible cups), but yet are also ignoring new opportunities (symbol: unseen fourth cup). Someone is offering something, accept it (advice). You might need to meditate on the situation (correspondence to another story: sitting under tree like the enlightenment of the Buddha).
- Eight of Swords – You are stuck (image: tied up) because of too many thoughts or ideas (symbol: swords). Get more in touch with your emotions (image: receding water) to release yourself (advice)
- Fool – Jump in (image: edge of cliff, like he’s going to jump) and start your journey (rank: beginning of Majors sequence). You might fly (image: sleeves like wings) or fall (image: edge of cliff), but you’ll never know if you don’t take the chance (advice). Follow your instincts (symbol: dog).
- Page of Swords – This inexperienced person (rank: starting position for the courts) is quick and smart (symbol: sword). They are on the lookout for threats and opportunities (image: character stance). You’re ready to move ahead (advice).
Keywords: The Thesaurus
What are keywords? Tarot keywords are interpretations made up of single words or short phrases. As above, they can be based on card rank (position in sequence), symbols, correspondences, image, and title. Keywords are less likely to include a moral, theme, or advice. Keywords are to the point, simplifying, clarifying. Unfortunately, they can be one-note. You might think of keywords as a list of synonyms.
The following are examples of keywords you might commonly come across in tarot books or used by your average tarot reader:
- Four of Cups – ambivalence, apathy, meditation, contemplation
- Eight of Swords – “analysis paralysis,” overthinking, worry, stuck, “tyranny of the urgent”
- Fool – innocence, optimism, beginning of the journey, “jump in with both feet”
- Page of Swords – Young person, disruptive, searching, on the lookout.
Card Titles: The Continuum
The card titles, formal phrases used in some reading styles, differ from keywords. You can think of the names of the Majors as titles: Fool, Magician, High Priestess, etc. The Golden Dawn system provides a set of titles for each card in the deck. Whereas you can develop multiple relevant keywords, a card will have only one title (there are of course always variations). Titles are not necessarily related to the card image. Instead, they are one piece of an overarching system of symbolism. When working within the system, you can transfer the titles from one deck to another, layering the standardized system onto a variety of decks.
The Golden Dawn Minor Arcana titles are all “The Lord of..” “Lord” means master, ruler, overseer. Think of the card as overseeing the area named by the title. For instance, the Two of Wands, the Lord of Dominion, rules over anything to do with establishing territory. He asks us, what is your area to manage, and what is the other person’s area to manage. Card titles are more abstract, sometimes to the point, sometimes convoluted. I use a card title as a continuum: from one extreme to the other of the quality indicated by the title.
Card Titles Examples
- Four of Cups – “Lord of Blended Pleasure.” What is your pleasure blended with? Is that diluting it or making it more palatable? Or, do you need to blend your pleasure with something to achieve your goal? Note: The “pleasure” will be related to the question asked. Thoth Title: Luxury
- Eight of Swords – “Lord of Foreshortened Force.” Is your perspective too broad? In that case narrowing it will help you direct your energy/focus more productively. Or have you taken too narrow a perspective so you can no longer see where to put your energy/focus? Thoth Title: Interference
- Fool – “The Spirit of Ether.” Ether in esotericism is the vital force, like prana in Hindu. It presides over the four elements, and they emanate from it. It is their source. Likewise, consider the Fool card as the source (as opposed to the beginning) of all the cards of the Major Arcana. For practical purposes, this gives rise to such questions as: What is the source of your goal? What stimulates or vitalizes this in you? To what degree are you connected to or disconnected from this source/vitalizing quality? Would connecting to or disconnecting from this source allow you to better achieve your objective? This relates well to the Fool card. When you feel vitalized by your objective, you have the wind beneath your wings and will fly off the cliff. Otherwise, stepping off the cliff will sever you from the circumstances (which in itself might be a necessary step). (This works, but keep in mind that the Golden Dawn uses a different image for the Fool.)
- Page of Swords – “The Knave of Swords is The Princess of the Rushing Winds, The Lotus of the Palace of Air.” The part of this phrase that most distinguishes it from the other court titles is “Rushing Winds.” This paints her as rushing headstrong into situations, as quick on her feet, thinking quickly, but also being caught up in storms.
You can use the titles as keywords, and likewise, card keywords can create continuums.
Benefits of Keywords
The shorter your list of keywords, the better (otherwise you might as well be working with full, nuanced meanings). When you develop tarot keywords specific to your deck, you create quick, direct, and to-the-point interpretations. Yes, keywords limit the meaning. You might feel this closes off options, but on a practical level, it opens up a straight path, with no possibility of detour, to the spread interpretation.
Using keywords establishes a handbook for how to communicate with your intuition. You are letting your intuition know, these are the basic things I will say when this card comes up, and nothing else. Then your intuition knows to turn up that card to get that message to you. (How does it work? Who knows. But it works.) They can be a start to building tarot vocabulary, much like a children’s book with a limited lexicon.
Keywords can either give an overview of a spread before digging into the meat of it, or provide a simple summary to highlight the most important features of the reading. Keywords, or, for that matter, titles, can be mnemonics that bookmark a more thorough interpretation. If you have time, or the querent asks, you can explore the deeper interpretation. On the other hand, when you’re short on time, stick to the keyword and move forward quickly.
Prepared Meanings vs. Reading Intuitively
Prepared meanings or consistently used keywords give you an entry into the spread. They are great for a fast start, and sometimes that’s all you need and you’re on to something else. But if you want to delve deeper, you’ll want to take the time to ask the querent how the cards feel applicable or not, and clarify the spread based on the particulars they tell you.
If you read the cards intuitively, pulling from the images and the basic tarot symbols, then you will develop your own meanings for your deck naturally. Go ahead and let this happen. There is no “right answer” out there. You have to read the image on your deck. Your understanding will evolve over time, which is also fine. And working with a variety of decks will help crystallize more general meanings.
Finally, there is the question of pulling a whole reading together. Even as you work with the set of keywords or surface meanings you developed for your deck, intuition will come into play. That’s what binds everything together, forms the images into a story, and somehow magically relates this set of random cards into a coherent sequence that speaks directly to the querent’s question.
Developing Your Own keywords
If you’re ready to develop tarot keywords specific to your deck, you’ll want to get up close and personal with the cards. The fastest way to understand a tarot image is to ask these five questions. Working through this process will allow you to understand any scenic card.
Ask These Five Questions To Develop Tarot Keywords Specific to Your Deck
- Who is the character?
- What are they doing?
- Where are they?
- What is the mood or atmosphere?
- What props and decorations are in the scene?
Deck-Specific Keyword Examples
Four of Cups – What Is This Cup and Where Does It Go? – In the Legacy of the Divine, the figure sits under the tree, chin in hand, looking up at an offered cup. Three cups line up in front of him: one cup, then an empty space, then two more cups. What is this cup you’re looking at? Is it one of yours flying off? You don’t seem to care that it’s leaving. Is it a new one coming in? You have room for it, but you don’t seem to want to take it. What is the cup? Where does it go? Is it something you need to take, or something you need to let go?
Eight of Swords – Caught in the Spider Web – In the Legacy of the Divine, a bound and blindfolded woman is caught in a spider web. Eight swords are pointing in at her. Perhaps these swords are threats, fears, responsibilities, worries, and demands that keep the querent stuck.
Fool – Leap of Faith – In the Legacy of the Divine he’s jumping, leaping, and the hourglass is full. There’s not the threat implied in the RWS, instead it’s a world full of possibility.
The Page of Swords – The Road Not Taken – In this Page of Swords there are two crossed swords on the cushion. But it’s not a card of choice. It can represent being pulled in two directions or having trouble making a decision. But I’ve mostly found that this card refers to rethinking a decision that has already been made. The two swords in this image, combined with the stance of the RWS page, in which one foot points one direction but the character looks/faces the other direction, combine to create a new meaning. You chose one path, have gone down it and now are wondering what would have happened if you’d chosen the other path. To what degree is it possible to go back and revisit that choice? Or are you past the point of no return?
Although I made what (I hope) sounds like a strong argument for keywords, I could probably do another workshop arguing against ever using any prepared meanings. Ultimately, I think the best way to hone your reading skills is by working with a deck until you know it backwards and forwards, then learn a different deck backwards and forwards, until you have at least six working decks that you have a full set of unique keywords/interpretations for. Also, if you have developed your own keywords or interpretations for at least three decks, I recommend that you start learning traditional correspondences from a different lineage. For instance, if you usually work with RWS and RWS-derived decks, try out something different, either a non-standard deck, or one following a different lineage such as Golden Dawn, Thoth, Tarot de Marseille, Etteilla, or whatever interests you.
It’s great practice to read periodically for others with a brand new deck, forcing you to work on the fly. This is fabulous exercise to see if your techniques are supporting you! You should be able to do totally accurate, fresh, relevant readings using a deck you’ve never seen before. Use the five questions to jump straight to the relevant expression of the card. Don’t forget to place it in the context of the querent, the question, and the other cards!
Somewhere in this great mess of meanings, your intuition will take over and guide you to the pearl in each card in each spread. You will still be reading from the cards, their images, your standard interpretations, and their correspondences, but you will know exactly which meaning is the right one to go to.
Watch the Video: How to Develop Tarot Keywords Specific to Your Deck (Tutorial)
In this video of the workshop, we unfold the topics listed here, plus explore examples with cards from the Hayworth Tarot, the Mythical Goddess Tarot, the Urban Tarot, and others.