Review by Solandia
The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Tarot is designed to be a simple, comprehensive, and approachable guide to working with Tarot cards -- no prior experience necessary.
Mark McElroy, author of the Bright Idea Deck and the down-to-earth Tarot manuals Putting the Tarot to Work and Taking the Tarot to Heart, favours a more practical, less mystical approach to tarot with ‘no focus on hocus pocus’. Here in his ultimate beginner’s book, he doesn’t promote a single or dogmatic way to work with the cards, but presents a range of reading methods and introduces a broad range of applications for the cards – divination, dream analysis, self-analysis, free association, meditation, magic, or collecting - not just the most well-known, fortune telling.
The Guide explores the cards from many points of view, addressing specifically the differences between practical and mystical thinkers through tips scattered throughout the book. On the topic of using a used deck, for example: the practical side mentions concerns with smells (such as cigarette smoke), while the mystical talks about vibrations and how to spiritually cleanse your deck.
In structure, the book is set out like a textbook, with clear headings, bullet point lists, tips in set boxes, lots of white space, and summaries at the beginning and end of chapter. It’s definitely not as boring as it sounds, though, but clear, succinct and easy to follow. The end of chapter summary is also called ‘The Absolute Minimum’, which condenses what is in the chapter for the impatient or attention-impaired.
The book’s introduction, which has an outline of the content and explains the way the book is structured, also helps you decide just where to begin with you new book on Tarot cards and how to go about it. This a manual that helps you, the beginner, to do whatever you want with the cards. Whether that’s ‘I’m curious about Tarot but I want to know more about it before using it’, or ‘I need a reading – now’, ‘I want to know more about what the cards mean’, ‘I want to read the cards for other people’ or even ‘I want to take Tarot to the next level’ - or you’ve just been given a deck and you don’t know where to begin or what to do with it. For each of these desires, there is a cheat sheet with the pages and sections you’ll need to read in order to quickly achieve your goal.
The book has three main sections. Part I – Getting Started with Tarot begins with the reasons for and benefits of using the cards, and addresses common concerns and questions such as tarot and medical issues or the perception of Christians to tarot cards. It moves on to a very brief history and evolution of the Tarot; a factual and straightforward explanation of Tarot’s history, evidence and timeline, and sets straight the persistent myths and legends.
Chapter 3, Exploring Today’s Tarot, starts with the most basic of information about the structure of a tarot deck; the cards, divisions of major arcana, minor arcana and court cards, and how it differs from other oracle decks available on the market.
Chapter 4 concentrates on your personal tarot deck. Mark offers advice on choosing your own deck, starting with the very pertinent question – why do you want one? It’s a good question, because what deck is best for you depends on what you want to do with it: study tarot, read the cards for yourself and/or others, meditating with it, or using it as a creative tool. Once you’ve answered this question, there are the deck factors to consider in your choice. Artwork, size, illustrations, text on the cards, structure, companion books… or you can just use Mark’s list of great decks for beginners. Also included are sources for buying your deck, online and offline, and where to find deck reviews. The book works with a wide range of Tarot decks, not just the Rider-Waite or its clones.
Consulting the Tarot, Chapter 5, prepares you for a reading from the beginning of preparing your space and defining your questions to the spreads you can use, dealing and shuffling, and finally onto interpreting your cards. The spreads are organised logically beginning with single card draws, three card variations, a five-card Minor Cross (the Celtic Cross spread without the right-hand staff), the Celtic Cross, and making your own custom spread. Interpreting the cards explains the various methods and techniques of finding meaning in the cards, under two broad headings of intuitive and analytical. The chapter closes with a sample reading.
Now we come to the reference section of the book: Part II – A Guide to Traditional Card Meanings. Mark prefaces this section with a short chapter that promotes traditional meanings versus intuitive meanings, their uses, and how the meanings have been derived from and influenced by historical sources through occultists like Etteilla through the Golden Dawn, from other divinatory systems, and Mark’s own practical associations.
Each of the 78 cards is illustrated by four images from different decks - the Bright Idea Deck, the Gilded Tarot, and the Tarot of Marseilles, Universal Tarot (four other decks also appear through the deck - the Legend: The Arthurian Tarot, the Nigel Jackson: Medieval Enchantment Tarot, the World Spirit Tarot, and Visconti Tarot). The main text headings are Overview, Advice, Symbols & Insights and Questions to Ask. The overview has a few quick keywords, a range of meaning with phrases for the light and shadow meaning of the card., and correspondences (archetypes, Hebrew letters, numbers, planetary associations, mythical, in a story, and so on).
The Advice addresses relationships, work, spirituality, personal growth and fortunetelling individually, tailoring the meaning and illustrating aspects from the card that particularly apply to each area. Symbols and Insights focus on major symbols and gives snippets of information and questions to make you think. Questions To Ask does the same, from the perspective of the card, such as for the Fool – ‘what would I do if I felt free to take a leap?’ The meanings also have occasional notes to explain controversial points or variations, such as the ordering of Strength and Justice.
Part III, Tapping Tarot’s Full Potential, moves onto more advanced applications with Tarot cards and where to go next. Getting and giving readings helps you find a professional Tarot reader should you wish for one from someone more experienced – and how to choose a good and ethical reader. Mark also mentions common cons and deceptions so you can recognize them, and stay well away.
Reading for yourself is next, mentioning common problems such as lack of familiarity or objectivity and possible solutions. Reading for others gives some quick tips on what to do if your interest in Tarot gets out and people start asking you readings, how to build your reading skills further and how then to go about becoming a professional reader.
The second-last chapter offer Thirteen Fun Things Anyone Can Do With Tarot Cards. – from listing gift ideas, making your own deck, trimming off the card borders, collecting, or – most traditional of all - playing games with it. Following in the last chapter are ample resources for finding out more about Tarot, via a starting list of beginner, intermediate and advanced books, online resources and software. The book’s index is also comprehensive.
I was looking through some older tarot books from seventies and eighties recently, and boy, have times changed. Once the interested beginner was faced with dense, heavy, arcane tomes, difficult and often uninteresting to read; books that propagated old myths about the cards and made learning to use the cards seem like a chore indeed. The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Tarot is the complete opposite - extremely straightforward and approachable, clear, logical and inclusive.
Regardless of whether you’re a complete skeptic, or naturally intuitive and spiritually inclined, this is the perfect step-by-step introductory guide and reference manual for literally anyone to begin their journey with Tarot.
Kate Hill (also known as Solandia) is the founder and editor of Aeclectic Tarot, and has reviewed more than 200 decks over the years.