Tarot and Memorization

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So this bit of conversation happened in the most-recently-active Lenormand thread

Quote Originally Posted by Aster Breo View Post
I’ve always been intimidated by tarot. I have a very bad memory, so the idea of learning 76 cards plus the same number of reversals plus the variations of different decks is very daunting.
Quote Originally Posted by SunflowerP View Post

78, but who’s counting?

I wish you’d said something about this around me years ago! I have advice for that! Basically, the idea that what one does is memorize all the meanings is, at best, misleading. I’ve lots more to say on that, but this is a Lenormand thread; I’ll (try to remember to) start this topic its own thread. Probably tomorrow; I don’t have enough brain left for threadstarting tonight.

Whether the advice I have on this topic will be helpful to Aster specifically, I don’t know – but I’ve been running into the notion that one has to memorize the meanings repeatedly over the many years (well, decades) I’ve been studying, reading, and occasionally teaching tarot, so it’s likely something that will be helpful to people generally, and worth having a thread about.

Contrary to the widespread misconception, most tarot readers don’t know the card meanings ‘by heart’, or at least not the card meanings as expressed in words in this or that book. (I could come at this from the angle that ‘by heart’, as distinct from ‘memorized word for word’, is exactly how an experienced reader knows the cards, but I fear that ship has already long since sailed; ‘by heart’ is effectively synonymous with word-for-word memorization.)

So what do they know? That depends on the individual tarot reader.

Some don’t rely on ‘book meanings’ at all, but instead work from the visuals on the cards, either intuitively/improvisationally (‘what does this picture seem like it might indicate in this case?’) or by familiarity with the iconography/symbolism (either of their preferred deck, or the iconography traditional to the Rider-Waite-Smith family of decks – or others, but this is a largely RWS approach), or both. While it’s rare for an iconographic reader to have not studied book meanings at all, since there’s considerable correlation between book meanings and iconography, some visual/intuitive readers have never looked at book meanings, even when they were first learning.

Many develop familiarity with cards and their meanings through studying and/or meditating on each card individually (one common way to approach this is by drawing one card per day to study/meditate), gradually developing and internalizing a sense of what the cards mean, in a way that derives from but isn’t necessarily specifically of the book meaning.

Some place more focus on layouts, positions of cards, and the relationships between the cards/positions – this is a skill any reader should develop, to go beyond just basic-level reading, but some readers make more of a specialization of it. Tarot is a system, a cohesive art, not just a set of meanings bundled together; focusing on the systemic level is a perfectly viable approach.

Some – of whom I’m one – are ‘word association’ readers. I get my sense of how to interpret a card in a particular reading by springboarding from the words related to that card; while I can (because I started studying tarot in ’73; some of it’s bound to have stuck to my brain by now) supply at least some words for most or all cards out of my brain, I will always give better, more precise, and more useful readings by consulting the book, preferably one that provides a wealth of single-word or short-phrase associations.

The latter are the readers most disfavored by misconceptions about memorization; if memorization is necessary, we really would have to do word-for-word rote memorization rather than committing the general sense of a card’s meaning to memory. When I was first considering going professional, this was one of the things I had to consider, the conception that a ‘real’ reader is one who ‘doesn’t need’ a book, and how that would affect my ability to draw clients. I decided my best move was to be completely candid about my reading style, explicitly kick that misconception to the curb – not only was it a more honorable business practice (why should people be paying me good money for readings that are less good than I’m able to do?), it would help dismantle that false standard for all word-association readers.

And the notion that ‘no longer need to use the book’ is some sort of gold standard of tarot acheivement disfavors everyone (except maybe those who are better at rote memorization than at actual doing readings). Use the books! Use as many books as you need! Choose books that are useful to you, and use them as much as you need, for as long as you need, and never be afraid to pick one up to help you suss out a difficult interpretation, or just for more study!

I’ve probably missed any number of other reading styles, and a slough of other angles to this, and likely (hopefully!) have given rise to new questions. So put them in replies, please!