Easy Tarot Lessons
If you listen to just one voice, one teacher, Judika is for you
Where do I possibly begin?
Judika Illes is a pagan goddess among goddesses. She is an icon whose books are vast and authoritative (and fun to read). She has been studying magic and divination (metaphysics) since at least the age of 6. She has “been there and done that” so many times and in so many places that she can speak on practically any facet of witchcraft with experience. She knows a lot and she is very good at explaining how to do it. On top of that she is just a really nice lady. This is a long interview but it is absolutely worth reading, so I hope you will grab some coffee or tea and enjoy Judika’s take on things. I chose this interview to start 2012 as it is such an important one in the greater scheme of things. Take from it what you will, but I think you will have a good time here. Please remember to share the link with your friends. They could benefit from Judika’s wisdom as well. Her site by the way can be found here.
The Pagan community tends to be somewhat splintered or compartmentalized and so many in the tarot branch are not familiar with me, although ironically that’s where I got my start. I first encountered a deck of tarot cards—the BOTA deck to be exact—as a child and just passionately and instantly fell in love with them.
I have a sister who is significantly older than me: when I was six, she was entering college. She attended Cooper Union, which was located near the old Samuel Weiser bookshop in New York City’s East Village. She brought home that tarot deck, as well as books on astrology, numerology, graphology, and palmistry and I just seized whatever she brought home. So I’ve had a close relationship with the tarot since childhood, studying first by myself and later with Carole Murray in New York City. I’ve been reading professionally since 1988 and teaching others since the mid-90s. I’ve written books about spell-casting, witchcraft, saints, spirits, and the paranormal—I’ve yet to write a book about tarot specifically, but hope to, someday.
Alright Judika, let's say someone is completely new to our happy little pagan world of tarot or for some reason they have not yet heard of you. Would you mind setting the stage for us please? About how long have you been studying and reading the tarot?
Wow, was that an interview or what? I want to thank Judika for investing the time to answer all of these questions for us and provide such thought-provoking answers. I hope you have enjoyed her words and will check out all of her books (just click the book covers on the left to see her Amazon pages, which have all of the descriptions and reviews and comments, and whatnot).
Judika really is a treasure of the pagan world. She knows so much and is very generous with her knowledge and time, and is always open to new ideas. She does not preach a set gospel that you are required to accept or reject out of whole cloth. If you ever get a chance to hear her speak you should absolutely be first in line.
Okay, that’s enough for now. More interviews coming soon.
Decades after our first encounter, tarot is still my true love. I also read playing cards, oracle cards, and holy cards. But I love divination in general. I practice pyromancy (fire-gazing and candle reading) and scrying with a crystal ball or mirror, but that’s mainly for my own pleasure and edification. I rarely do either professionally, although there are always exceptions. I work with the I-Ching and the Oracle of Kwan Yin, again mainly for myself. I do read tea leaves professionally, usually in conjunction with tarot. Sometimes I incorporate Chinese oracle sticks, too. I also like spirit boards, working with a pendulum.
Also, kind of a random question, but would you mind sharing your favorite form of divination? (Scrying, candle reading, tarot, astrology, palm reading, cartomancy, entrails—you get the idea :-)
Don’t rush. Take your time. Develop your own personal relationship with the tarot. Try to have fun, rather than experiencing it only as stressful. And most crucially of all: for those of us who read for others, never forget that people will trust you with their most intimate secrets. Always be worthy of that trust.
I want to get right into the deep end if you don't mind. For your years of experience and your travels, you have been a lot of places, read for many many (many) people, and authored more books than I have probably read in my life. What advice would you give to people who are in their first year of serious tarot study?
I’m not a morning person either. I become increasingly more articulate as the day progresses. Given the choice, I prefer to read in the afternoon, evening, or even late at night into the wee hours. I lived in California for many years and, even though I’m on the East Coast now, many of the people I read for are in California and I like that time difference: I’m happy to read at midnight into the early hours. That said, if the situation calls for it, I can absolutely whip out a pack of cards at the drop of a hat and start right in. But I couldn’t do that when I first started reading; it took some years to achieve that ability. I served as a reader on a telephone hot-line for several years. I worked the graveyard shift, sometimes seven nights a week and it was like boot camp.
I am not a morning person and I hate doing readings first thing. Okay, so that's my problem, but it makes me wonder; have you found that you feel more aware at any time of the day or can you just sit down at the drop of a hat and whip out a pack of cards and start right in?
As I said, should the situation call for it, I can whip out a deck of cards and just start reading, no rituals required. But, given the choice, I do extensive work prior to reading. I cleanse myself, the space, the cards, and whatever other ritual tools I may be using. I perceive myself as a priestess: I pray to be guided to read accurately, to say what is helpful, necessary, and beneficial and not what may be inadvertently harmful. I do a lot of visualization work before readings, to get a sense of what sacred forces are at play and at hand.
I’m also perpetually concerned with my ability to be verbally articulate. Although I do have Aquarius rising, I have no planets in air signs. English is my second language and speech has been an issue all my life. So I wear blue crystals near the throat chakra to promote and enhance my ability to be articulate—not just during readings, but whenever I’m speaking publicly. I’ve amassed a nice little collection of lapis, kyanite, turquoise, and sodalite necklaces, specifically for this purpose.
Also; sorry if this is a bit too personal but do you have any special rituals you do before starting a reading or do just slip right into the zone? I ask this as I have met many good readers and I have found people have different styles. I was curious as to what yours is.
That’s a hard question to answer. I’m not really a one-deck woman. Dusty, I could discuss this for hours: I love many decks. I still love that BOTA deck, for instance. I love Kipling West’s Halloween tarot immensely—I use that one frequently and I have one of her spirit boards, too. I love Walter Wegmuller’s Gypsy Tarot as well as the Thoth deck.
When I’m reading for someone else over the phone—and most of my readings are over the phone---I tend to use the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, because it’s so consistently quick and reliable. When I worked on the hot-lines, I experimented with different decks, but always found myself returning to the RWS, because it is so dependable in every situation and circumstance. Lately I’ve been using the centennial edition.
On the other hand, when I read for someone in person, I often bring multiple decks with me and let the client pick. People enjoy this, but it’s also a bit of a reader’s trick—the deck chosen reveals something about the person. When I’m reading for a total stranger, it gives me a sense of what that person is seeking and something about their nature. Do they choose the pretty, romantic deck or the harder-edged one?
There are also tarot decks that don’t really “work”—at least not for me—but I appreciate and enjoy them aesthetically. Tarot has developed into an art-form, in addition to serving as a divination device, and so I expect different things from different decks.
What's your favorite deck? Well, what is your favorite deck when you need solid answers? And is that deck different from your favorite artistic ("pretty") deck?
It’s not a problem for me, but I do have multiple decks of cards. I have decks that I use specifically to read for other people. I’m pleased to say that over the years I’ve worn out and had to replace RWS decks, an Albano-Waite deck, and Kipling West’s Halloween tarot. But for me, the reading begins long before I look at the cards. I don’t really turn the divination process off: I’m constantly reading my surroundings for instance. So, quite honestly, I like to watch people handle the cards; I like to see them shuffle and pick cards. That’s part of my process.
Now, I also own decks that are very sentimental to me—that were gifts or can’t be replaced, because they’re rare or expensive. I don’t use those to read for other people, at least, not in person. So there’s no possibility of them being handled. Essentially, those decks don’t come out to play. If I feel strongly about a deck not being handled by others, then I make sure that the opportunity to do so doesn’t arise.
Recommendations for new readers: it’s key to avoid what distracts you from the true purpose of the reading. If the thought of someone touching your cards bothers you, then that’s a distraction: instead of reading the cards, you’ll be distracted by those dirty fingers. That’s your cue to not let people touch your cards—or at least not that deck.
Realistically, however, if you are reading for people in person, as opposed to distance-reading, then you must be aware that, as much as you try to avoid it, people will touch—or attempt to touch, depending on the assertiveness of your vigilance—your cards, often completely spontaneously and unknowingly. It can just be a knee-jerk reaction, performed without conscious thought, to reach out and touch or pick up a card. If you reproach them, their feelings will likely be hurt and that puts a damper on the reading.
If it’s possible, it is not a bad thing to have a deck that you use specifically for reading with others, one deck that can be touched and handled. Have one deck for yourself and another for reading with others, even if they’re duplicate decks.
Hmmm . . . Valid points. I have to agree on that all around. Oh! This is one that never fails to start an argument at a party! How do you feel about random clients touching a reader's deck? Aside from people's hands not being clean, do you care if people put their hands all over a deck? Do you have any recommendations for beginners?
There are no improvements I’d make to the tarot itself, but I’d love to roll back the price of decks to what it was a couple of decades ago. They used to be quite inexpensive and it was easy to become a collector. It’s a bit more of an investment these days.
If you could wave a magic wand and make a major improvement to the tarot, is there anything that you can think of?
I don’t really have a favorite spread. I read very spontaneously, I’ll choose the spread to suit the question. I can tell you that I have learned a lot from Rachel Pollack’s books. I really like your book, too, Dusty.
Would you mind sharing with our students your favorite spreads? (Just the names and how many cards—and possibly what book or training they might be found in if they are hard-to-find, and if you care to.)
Sometimes it’s hard to discern, especially when you’re beginning, whether the reason reading tarot is challenging is because you’re not experienced or because you have the wrong deck. In other words, is it you, the deck, or both? Look for a deck that really resonates with you, that speaks to you, that enables you to “see” and make connections. Once you find that deck—and you’ll know when you do—stick with it. Look for the deck that will serve as your teacher and guide into the divination process. Don’t distract yourself with other decks, until you feel you’ve mastered the process. Sometimes you’ll graduate from one deck to another, as your skills and your spirituality evolve.
Tarot cards serve many purposes: they can be art objects, meditation devices, and tools for spell-casting as well as for divination. If someone loves the genre and has disposable income, I wouldn’t tell them not to collect cards, but . . . for the purposes of learning, I’d stick to one deck until you achieve a certain level of comfort and expertise. For what this is worth, when I teach beginner’s tarot classes, I strongly encourage students to work with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.
Stop being so nice to me! (Ahem . . . thank you very much :-)
Now . . . It is always tempting to go tarot shopping and gather up a wide selection of decks, but this is the bane of new students. Without inserting my own bias into this can I have your thoughts on how many decks is too many when starting out?
Be patient with yourself and don’t let other people’s boasting make you feel inadequate. I am aware of how many readers advertise their instant affinity for the tarot; they’ll tell you they took one look at the cards and immediately understand all. So let me tell you: it took me YEARS before I achieved confidence in my ability to read. It took me years of study and practice before I felt that I really knew the assorted meanings of each card.
No one is expected to have instant comprehension of the world’s assorted sacred texts—well, that’s what the tarot is: sacred and complex. The tarot is substantial enough to provide a lifetime’s worth of studying. So don’t rush yourself. Take your time. Memorizing is tough and frequently superficial—it’s better to get to know each card, as if each was a new friend. When you know the cards, memorization becomes unnecessary.
All sorts of techniques exist to help you on your path: Pick a card every morning, then see what kind of day unfolds. Pick one card before you go to sleep and then see what type of dreams ensue. Read cards for yourself, before you read for others. Meditate on each card, incorporate them into visualizations and dreamwork.
Before you read tarot books, just spend time looking at each card, really seeing them. Then when you graduate from that, read everything you can get your hands on, not just one person’s take on the tarot. For years, I’d randomly flip open a book on tarot, either a book from my own collection or one randomly pulled from a bookstore shelf and I would just read whatever was on that page. I’d do that daily. I’ve been reading now for more decades than I like to admit, but I still study tarot. I would be very sad to think I knew everything and that there was nothing left to learn.
Do you have any specific advice for someone who has been frustrated with how hard it is to learn to memorize all of the cards and they are tired of always having to "look up answers in the book?"
Neither. As a fairly typical sun sign Cancer, I toss nothing. I still possess virtually every postcard anyone has ever sent me. Honestly, I sort of expect to see them in the box, they’ve become an integral part of the package, but most LWBs are fairly useless. The information within them is typically very minimal and superficial. Just get to know a deck of cards first, before you read or hear anyone else’s interpretation. One person’s interpretation may be completely different from another’s and the important thing when you’re reading is how YOU see those cards, what they mean to you.
That said, depending on the deck, I often buy the set with the accompanying book (the complete book, as opposed to the LWB that comes in the box). If you’re working with a deck featuring motifs and symbols that are unfamiliar, then the accompanying book can be very illuminating and also potentially very interesting. For example, I really enjoyed reading the books that accompanied the Tarot of Prague or Robert Place’s Vampire Tarot—in addition to loving both decks, I really learned a lot from the books, often on topics beyond tarot. I don’t necessarily need the books to read the cards, I just find them interesting reading on their own.
Okay loaded question: LWB.'s. I thank Stuart Kaplan for including them, but I know my own feeling on them. Would you say toss 'em or use ''em?
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