Fixed vs. Adaptable meanings when reading cards?



I'd be really interested in getting people's good natured thoughts on whether or not they use fixed (traditional) meanings when interpreting a card or if they take a more adaptable approach .... I'd also like to know why they feel it's the best approach for them.

Personally, I see the sense in both.

On the one hand, if you believe that cards appear for a specific reason in relation to a question (as opposed to the ink-blot effect), then I don't see why they couldn't have shown up to trigger an idiosyncratic interpretation or association in the reader.

Conversely, it could be said that traditional meanings have centuries (?) of experience and evolution (natural selection, even) behind them....

I'd love to get some perspectives on this.


P.S. Please, I'm definitely NOT asking for opinions on which method is superior!
P.P.S. I may be a little slow for a day or two in posting replies.


I believe both are relevant to varying degrees at any time, and my own approach is a synthesis of the two. The traditional meanings are the bedrock that most of us learned as beginner's, but they're mainly "training wheels" that we grow beyond as we gain confidence from our own experience. The basics are still there in our memory, in the background and available to be tapped when inspiration fails, but they aren't usually the first thing that comes to mind when I see a particular card in a spread. On the other hand, I feel the same way about the traditional images on the cards. The folklore that has grown up around those is equally optional when reading the cards; sometimes an impression comes from a story-telling trope (metaphor, analogy, allegory, etc) or cultural reference that speaks right to the essence of the card with no historical or folkloric basis whatsoever. The best of these I mentally file with my accumulated knowledge base, and after a while they become part of my personal tradition.


I'm pretty well fixed on RWS meanings, myself, as they seem to be utilized most often by others and have tended to jibe with my interpretations, accuracy-wise... But sometimes an intuitive card visual will come across that overrides "typical" meanings... And it's important to follow such leads when they occur, I've found, or an important detail can be missed/misread.


Hi Barleywine & IndigoWaves,

I'm definitely still at the stage of learning the ins and outs of the traditional meanings. But I must say, my best results reading wise so far have come about when a creative 'leap of imagination' has been involved.

Still, traditional meanings are surely a helpful test, ensuring beginners like myself don't float off into internal fantasy land! As the poet Wendell Berry once wrote, art must always be tested against reality.

P.S. Barleywine, "Personal tradition" is a beautiful phrase.


But I must say, my best results reading wise so far have come about when a creative 'leap of imagination' has been involved.

Still true for me as well. I consider it part of continuing to learn something new with every reading I perform, even after many years of doing it.


Whatever meanings I have for a card are the jump off point, so I would say both.

There are various meanings a card can have for me based on the question and, from there, intuition, my own thoughts, take over.

I would say depends where a card is in a spread, except I do one card, one question, so it is more the question, what meanings I generally have given the card, and then my intuition.


Chiming in to agree with Indigowaves and Barleywine. The 'textbook' meanings are the springboard/lynchpin, and I think it's important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the symbolism and origins of whatever system you're using. But as you learn and practice, certain cards may come to mean specific things to you, or come up as indicators of particular situations, that will be your own lexicon. And intuition can flash unusual, weirdo things from a card that may not be a traditional connection but relevant nonetheless! So yes, a blending of both.


I use both I guess but not in the manner described above, I stick to traditional meanings and the symbolism serves to jolt my memory of all the meanings I've pinned on a card. I don't deviate because I don't see there's any need to, every possibility is covered therein so why confuse things, anything I pin on a card myself would be doubling up somewhere along the line as the traditional tarot is a complete system in itself.

The intuitive part for me is deciding which rote meanings apply to which cards in any given combination, aspects of the card that are being highlighted by the surrounding spread,the dynamics between cards.


I read pretty much only intuitively/visually now which means sometimes the message I get when I read the cards can deviate a teeny tiny bit from the traditional meaning. I think a lot of that is also because I have so many varied decks that don't inherently follow RWS imagery that my personal understanding and relationship to each card has shifted a great deal from when I first started reading. I still keep the base definitions in mind since, regardless of the deck, it's still a certain level of influence. But I enjoy digging deeper into each card and enjoy the process of learning about how other people relate to each card as well.


If textbook meanings did it all, there'd be no need for readers; you (generic) could just draw the cards and look them up. That doesn't do it, though - so I think you have to allow that there are extra nuances, that meanings are adaptable.