Most Tarot readers would agree that Tarot speaks a symbolic language. Language is tricky, though. Meanings can be subtle and hidden, or they can turn around as circumstances change. The word "blue" can represent the sky on a sunny day, or it can indicate depression. A sunny day is cheerful in most contexts, while in a severe drought it’s not. In the same way that words change meaning with context, a Tarot card does as well.
It can take years to build one’s Tarot vocabulary. But just as toddlers begin to chatter as soon as they learn a few words, and manage to say quite a lot, it’s possible to start reading Tarot as soon as one begins to apply meaning to the cards. One way is by looking for how the cards in a spread interrelate.
According to Gail Fairfield, in Everyday Tarot: A Choice Centered Book, a good way to understand first the three numbers of the Minor Arcana is to view them geometrically. One is a point, Two is two connected points forming a line, and Three is three connected points forming a triangular plane (Figure 1). When we move from the one-dimensional, or linear, Two to the two-dimensional plane of the Three, something recognizable begins to take shape. Ideas, feelings, urges, or seeds of effort begin to develop into definite plans that seek a multi-dimensional form. In much the same way, when we work with more than one card in a spread, the interrelationships form a shape for interpretation.
Suit and element are important to consider. Sometimes Cups are empty, or dry. Earth requires moisture to be fertile, but a flood is a problem. Sometimes Swords are watery, as the air can be humid at times; and most people know about the triad that makes fire: oxygen (air), heat, and fuel (Figure 2). Fire produces smoke (air) and ash (earth). Water can put out a fire, but in doing so produces steam, releasing potent energy. When hydrogen is burned, the resulting byproduct is water. Seldom in nature do we see the elements in their pure forms, but it’s sometimes useful to try to separate them in order to understand a situation, especially in a Tarot reading.
Tarot numbers may be even more interdependent and overlapping in meaning, if that’s possible. Taking Threes as an example, we need to first look back at the Twos. Two can be seen as balanced polarities. That balance is frequently wrought with tension, conflict, struggles for dominance, or a stalemate between unresolved concerns. When we come to Three, that prior tension is released. The energies that built up in the Twos move forward in a more stable or cohesive way at Three, or they may fall apart, to merge or dissolve back into One.
The Threes in Tarot are mostly perceived as positive, and perhaps that has to do with their relationship to the Empress of the Major Arcana, which bears the number III and is usually seen as benevolent, loving, prosperous, creative, nurturing. But even she can have her bad days, and the negative side of the Great Mother archetype can be very bad indeed. It’s important to keep a balanced frame of reference when considering the minor Threes as well. No card is entirely positive or negative. Each represents a spectrum of meanings that come into play depending on the situation and point of view.
Threes relate to The Empress, which in turn relates to all four Queens, as well as numerologically to The Hanged Man and The World. One can think of The Hermit, as well as each of the four Nines of the Minor Arcana, as equivalent to 3 x 3. The Empress represents gestation and birth. In turn the Death card, with its digit ending in Three, completes a cycle. Six, which numbers the Lovers card as well as all four Sixes of the Minor Arcana, is the sum of 3 + 3. This can be considered when reading all the Three, Six, and Nine cards, and considering how they might represent a situation as it develops.
The same card can have multi-layered meanings within the same reading. Some of the best Tarot spreads show us the development of a situation from one stage to another. One example is the Dynamic Hexagramme offered at FourHares.com. When using that spread, a card read as a clarification of the opening card can carry one meaning, while the same card can take on another meaning altogether when viewed as part of another trigram (Figure 3).
A significator in another spread can work in a similar way, since every other card in the spread relates back to it, but each in its own way. Reversals, when used, provide yet another dynamic.
This means we need to be adaptable when assigning meanings to cards in a reading, and we need to keep in mind that their meanings can shift and flex, sometimes dramatically, from one reading to the next, or even one part of a spread to the next.
Does all this make Tarot overly complex? Yes and no. It is at times a good reason to limit a reading to a spread of just enough cards to answer the question or concern at hand.