What does this card mean?
“What does this card mean?” is a question that I’ve been asked over and over. Students ask it about a card that came up in a reading they did in the past, and all sorts of people ask me this kind of question when they find out that I do Tarot readings. The problem is that this question, as generally intended, implicitly puts undue limits on a card. After all, how much can I say about a card in the course of a finite conversation?
Often people want a pithy statement of meaning for a card, a cozy little cubbyhole into which they can put it. Perhaps it’s a security thing or a control issue. That way, whenever they see the card, they know exactly what it is saying. However, a better way to state the question is, “What does this card mean to you within the context of this situation?”
Every Tarot reader has their own dictionary (so to speak) for the cards that works for them, and within that dictionary, the appropriate meaning (from among many) comes through based on many factors including the Seeker’s question, the position in the spread, etc. Also, we can consider a card as the proverbial finger pointing at the Moon. Each Tarot “finger” points at a vast “Moon” of meaning.
If you want to explore the range of meaning possible for a given card, you have to spend time studying it. Read what various authors say about it. (Rachel Pollack’s classic Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is a good place to start.) Listen to what Tarot teachers / experts say about it. Consider what impressions you get from it as you work with it in readings, visualizations, affirmations, etc.
But even then, realize that all of that is just the beginning because no amount of definition can contain the fullness of a card’s meaning. Truly, even now, after many years of Tarot study and practice, the cards still surprise me occasionally with new meanings and insights that I’d never before associated with them. And it’s important to realize that having such openness is important for the sake of our ability to do Tarot readings.
Recently I did a reading for someone where the World card “told” me that the problem for her in her current situation was that she felt like she had all the pieces of the puzzle, but that she just couldn’t make them fit together. This is not something I’d ever associated with that card before, but it’s the message that I got very clearly from it then, and it does seem to fit the sense of that card. After I said that, the client’s eyes went wide, and she asked how I got that message from the World card. (She knew a bit about the Tarot, and that meaning didn’t fit with her knowledge of this card.) I said that’s just what came to me, and her reply was: “Well, I’m amazed that you said that because I just said that exact same thing to my husband earlier today.”
Score one for being open to new meanings from the cards.
 There is a tale about a student who asked his teacher “What is the Moon?” The teacher pointed up at the Moon, and the student mistook the finger for the Moon.