Tarot neophytes are often mortified when they reach the inevitable conclusion that they have to memorize the complex and often non-intuitive meanings of 78 images before they can effectively read the cards. While I believe that acquiring a solid grounding in traditional lore is vital to full comprehension of the tarot, the very thought of memorizing long lists of keywords with the forlorn hope of ever being able to assemble them into a compelling narrative can sound a death knell for any enthusiasm a beginner may feel. I call this the “Lego-block” approach to learning, and it is as dry as dust. My advice is always “Don’t memorize, internalize!”
But what is the best way to do this while assuring that you don’t wander too far down imaginative blind alleys and leave all sense of historical continuity behind? I took a hint from my work with Lenormand and decided that each tarot card should be assigned a self-chosen theme consisting of no more than a couple of key descriptors (single words and/or phrases) that summarize its chief qualities. In doing so, I think it’s important to ignore a lot of the charming but irrelevant folklore that has grown up around the cards (especially the numbered minor cards) and build your own core knowledge base using both conceptual ideas and visual cues. In that case, I suggest steering clear of YouTube experts, Facebook groups, tarot forums and other social-media outlets that offer educational content of tenuous pedigree and locate a few acknowledged master-works in the genre.
I recommend finding a fairly comprehensive keyword list from an established authority and spend some time with it. Run through the population for each card and single out the one word or phrase that strikes you as most descriptive of what you see in the image. Note that with the Waite-Smith deck and Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot, your answer may very well be “none of them,” in which case you should probably appeal to another original source such as the Golden Dawn’s Liber T or Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, or to second-generation RWS-based compilations like Eden Gray’s The Tarot Revealed or Mastering the Tarot. While I acknowledge that there are a great many more recent authors who might be consulted, I find that folkloric bloat has overtaken many of them when what is needed for our purpose is a critically-astute paring down of these excrescences into brief, pithy “hooks” that can be expected to bury themselves in the learner’s consciousness. (When he wasn’t being deliberately abstruse, Crowley was a master at this.)
Once armed with your personal “short list,” begin reading the cards and applying what you acquired in a fairly literal way, resisting at first any spinning-off into creative extemporizing. If you encounter a situation where none of your selected meanings make sense, go “back to the well” and find one that fits better, then add it to your repertoire. But do this sparingly and judiciously. The important thing is to undertake this gradual accumulation based on narrative need and not on any academic desire for a comprehensive vocabulary. Eventually, through repetition and reinforcement, your choices will jell in the form of subconscious associations that will immediately rise to the surface when you encounter the cards in a spread. It becomes automatic, after which you can bring client interaction and personal intuition to bear to make adjustments on-the-fly to fit the context of the reading.