Ever since I published my review of The Illuminated Tarot, I’ve been getting the same question from folks looking to work with the deck: how do you actually read with it?
This question blooms from the fact that The Illuminated Tarot is a 53-card deck while the tarot is a 78-card one. Creator Kaitlin Keegan combined some of the pips and the Major Arcana, a choice resulting in cards that represent two different archetypes simultaneously (to find out how Keegan chose which cards to pair, check out The Illuminated Tarot Q & A).
In other words, at least twenty-one cards in the deck can be read in at least three different ways, making an already complex system even more so.
Because I love this deck and believe that it would become an instant classic were it not for this difference, I’m putting forth a bitty primer on how to read The Illuminated Tarot based on my thoughts and experiences. If you’ve been having trouble working with The Illuminated Tarot or are hesitant to pick up the deck, it’s my sincere wish that this guide helps you read it with ease.
Method One | Choose the Pips (and the Courts)
The “pips” are the cards numbered 1-10 in each suit, and the court cards are the face cards in each suit. For the purposes of The Illuminated Tarot, the suits are as follows: Hearts (Cups), Diamonds (Pentacles), Spades (Swords), and Clubs (Aces). Within each of these suits, you’ll find archetypes from the Major Arcana inhabiting the same space as a pip or face card. Here’s a breakdown of the correspondences:
The Magician | King of Clubs (Wands)
The High Priestess | Two of Diamonds (Pentacles)
The Empress | Queen of Hearts (Cups)
The Emperor | King of Spades (Swords)
The Hierophant | Five of Diamonds (Pentacles)
The Lovers | Six of Hearts (Cups)
The Chariot | Seven of Spades (Swords)
Strength | Ace of Clubs (Wands)
The Hermit | Nine of Diamonds (Pentacles)
The Wheel of Fortune | Ten of Hearts (Cups)
Justice | Eight of Spades (Swords)
The Hanged Man | Two of Spades (Swords)
Death | Four of Spades (Swords)
Temperance | Two of Hearts (Cups)
The Devil | Five of Clubs (Wands)
The Tower | Six of Clubs (Wands)
The Star | Seven of Diamonds (Pentacles)
The Moon | Eight of Hearts (Cups)
The Sun | Nine of Clubs (Wands)
Judgement | Ten of Spades (Swords)
The World | Ace of Diamonds (Pentacles)
Of course, some of the pairings are more obvious than others. The Hanged Man and the Two of Spades, for example, share a strikingly similar imagery. Likewise, the “pregnant pause before the choice” meaning of the Two of Spades translates incredibly well to the “surrender to that which you can’t control” meaning of The Hanged Man–in both instances, the figure is placed in a passive position that infers that reflection and greater understanding are needed before moving forward.
Some pairings are more elusive, however, and that’s where we run into problems.
The Hermit/Nine of Diamonds, The Wheel of Fortune/Ten of Hearts, and The Chariot/Seven of Spades are a few of the more tricky combinations. In order to circumvent any confusion, you can use the first method: interpret the card as a minor arcana card. In this case, you may read the card according to its traditional RWS minor meaning regardless of the imagery it conveys.
In the case of the The Chariot/Seven of Spades then, you may pull the meaning of deception and dishonesty from it even though that interpretation is not at all represented in the image on the deck. Perhaps the query you’ve received is such that it makes total and complete sense to interpret it that way, and if so, feel free to go for it. Likewise,The Hermit/Nine of Diamonds may speak more to abundance and body confidence (as it does as the Nine of Pentacles in the RWS) within the reading you’re giving, and if so, interpreting it that way may make much more sense.
Method Two | Choose the Majors
Favorite method or no, this is the one I find myself reverting back to most often. This is likely a reflection of the way that I read (more psychology-based than divination-based) than anything else–an appearance from a Major Arcana card indicates a more subconscious message to me. I find that the imagery of The Illuminated Tarot reflects the majors more overtly than the minors, so it’s “easier” in terms of reading for others one-on-one.
If you’re more a numerically-leaning person than an imagery-leaning person (or if you’re a beginner-level tarot reader), than it may be better to read according to the minor arcana correspondence–there’s no label for the major arcana, so unless you memorize the correspondences beforehand, things might get a bit tricky.
Method Three | Combine The Two
This is by far my favorite method for reading with this deck, and it’s the one I endeavor to use most often mainly due to the added nuance it provides to a reading. There are actually two ways you can approach this method: 1) Read the minor first and the major second, almost as if you were reading two cards instead of one, or 2) read an amalgamation of the two, almost as if you were allowing the minor and its corresponding major to have a conversation.
I use the second approach with this deck because I naturally gravitated towards creating a cohesive message for each card. By doing so, I generated a deeper understanding of the whole and the sum of its parts, and for tarot/critical theory nerd like me, that’s my idea of good clean fun.
The High Priestess | A Case Study
Initially, The High Priestess in The Illuminated Tarot utterly boggled my mind. Her archetype is one of esoteric mystery, of the deep inner knowing and intuitive messages that lie beyond the veil in the land of the hidden, of the subconscious. The Two of Diamonds (Pentacles), on the other hand, is grounded–very much concerned with the day-to-day practice of juggling our duties and responsibilities to bring our lives into balance.
After puzzling a bit, I decided to focus on the meaning of the infinity symbol–that which exists ad infinitum (like the bottomless well of wisdom The High Priestess guards). Without, our lives follow a pattern of constant flux; within, our visceral inner knowing guides our actions without logical judgement. Therefore, the two coexist like two poles of the same planet, one aspect ethereal, the other grounded.
Method Four | Read Intuitively
I tend to view the tarot as I do wine–the nuances and flavors of both are subject to interpretation by whoever’s enjoying it. In this spirit, feel free to read The Illuminated Tarot however you like.
No, I mean it. Look at the image and read what it conveys to you. Open yourself to a world where symbols speak through your consciousness in unique and valuable ways. Don’t limit yourself to meanings that don’t suit you or your querent. Walk on the wild side. And if you have no idea what I mean when I say “read intuitively” and you want to fall down that rabbit hole, check this out.
Much Love and Happy Cardslinging,
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