The Tarot

I have a confession to make – I read tarot cards, and have done for over 15 years now, occasionally setting up my stall at the university end of year balls, or for charity events. But before you ask, no, I am not a medium or a clairvoyant, and no, I don’t think I am dabbling with the occult in any way. At their best, I think tarot cards are an excellent way of getting someone to reassess their life and their attitudes, entirely free of preconceptions and prejudices. How so? I hear you cry, and I can already see blossoming into the ether all kinds of images of Litlove with a spangly headscarf and a fringed shawl, red varnished talons hovering over a crystal ball. Don’t go there! The one thing everyone knows about me is that I am endlessly fascinated by the way that life and the telling of stories are productively entwined, and as with all my other passionate interests, the tarot is simply another variation on this theme.

The tarot is made up of a basic deck of cards – 14 cards from ace to King in each of 4 suits, and then on top of that a series of 22 cards known as the Major Arcana, which chart in images the allegorical journey that each individual makes through life. So the first card in the series is The Fool; the young man who steps off into the unknown, full of expectation and enthusiasm, ready for adventure in many ways, entirely unprepared in many others. He is then accompanied by the second card, The Magician, who stands for the possibility of realising dreams and abstract projects. The magician is extraordinarily powerful, manipulating the energy of life in its most creative form. But there is a darker shadow to the magician – is what we see the outcome of sublime alchemy or is it just a cheap trick – an illusion that entraps us? As the journey progresses so the subject encounters both guardian cards and challenge cards on the route to maturity. Eventually difficult trials must be encountered – and these are the cards so many people know about but fear in an uninformed way – Death, The Tower, The Hanged Man. But since this is an accurate symbolic depiction of the underlying dynamic of existence, once these obstacles have been negotiated the subject is then capable of attaining a whole new level of existence, and the cards that follow – The Sun, The Star, The World, speak of hopes renewed and fulfilled, the bliss of clear, lucid sight and the satisfaction of wordly success and honour. The story set out in the Major Arcana is at once simple, recognisable and powerful, and as these different cards come up in someone’s reading, so they indicate where that person may be on the journey to self-fulfilment and which strong influences will be the next to affect them. I think to call this fortune telling is to misunderstand the benefits offered by the tarot; for me it’s all about encouraging the subject to acknowledge what are often difficult and uncomfortable truths about their current situation and their relation to it, and then strengthening their resolve to tackle problems, reminding them of the qualities they possess and of the fact that all things change and pass in this life.

The Minor Arcana, or the 56 cards that correspond to your average deck, supply the details that flesh out the reading. Rather than clubs and spades, the tarot deals in wands, swords, cups and pentacles. These are aligned respectively to fire, air, water and earth, and each corresponds again to different elements of existence: fire means courage and energy, swords suffering and seeking the truth, cups indicate emotion and pentacles stand for money and material concerns. The court cards are perhaps the hardest to read as they have a number of interpretations; they can stand for people close to the subject of the reading, they can indicate quality of mood or identity in the subject of the reading, and sometimes they have separate meanings. For instance, the Knight of Cups (such a romantic) can indicate a proposal of marriage, or in the field of the arts, a conflict between one’s duty and inclination, as well as a strong encouragement to foster unusual relationships. Its interpretation therefore depends on where it falls in the reading and its relationship to the cards around it.

When I’m doing a reading, it feels to me like an exercise in a very formal kind of literary criticism. I’m reading and interpreting the symbolism on the cards and piecing together the story they have to tell me. I never ask for details of people’s lives – it’s not my business. Often people do tell me things, and that’s fine. It can be very helpful, but it’s not strictly necessary. People are always afraid that I will foresee something terrible in their future, and it’s almost impossible to dissuade them of this until their first reading is over. It really does not work that way. I always tell people that they will walk away saying: it hasn’t told me anything I didn’t already know in my heart of hearts. A friend of mine was kind enough to say that the reading I gave him was ‘like an x-ray of my soul.’ And most importantly the tarot does not predict the future – it predicts the likeliest outcome to events if nothing changes. That’s an important distinction. I couldn’t envisage a helpful tool to life that foreclosed the possibility of free will. Anyone can change their life from one minute to the next if they choose to do so. A tarot reading should encourage you to make an intervention in your own life, not submit passively to the hands of fate.

A good tarot reading should remind you of the strengths and moral qualities you already possess, of the experience and wisdom that you have absorbed in your progress through life, probably without really knowing it, and of the goals and ambitions that are really worth pursuing. I think my favourite card in the entire pack is The Empress, the card that stands for our worldly mother. I always use the Rider-Waite pack because the illustrations are so rich in symbolism, and my card depicts a beautiful woman wearing really quite the nicest, flowing nightdress sitting in the middle of a field of corn. Her necklace of nine pearls symbolises the nine planets, whilst her crown contains twelve stars for the signs of the zodiac. For the ancients, then, her jewellery is nothing less than the universe draped about her, and combined with the other symbols of fertility, love and stability, she emanates a tremendous power that unites the heavens and the earth. But what does she mean when she appears in a reading? Well, as the goddess of motherhood, she reminds us how unique and individual our role is in life. Just as the mother we have is always the right mother for us, for no one else could have done the job instead, so we have a me-shaped life, if we choose to accept it. We have a life of which we are the central and focal point, a life that only we can lead, comprising skills and knowledge whose permutation is unique to us, surrounded by people who are drawn to our intricate individuality. The Empress reminds us that we are the focal point in our own universe, and that we should think long and hard about how to enjoy the true splendour of that position. She invites us to ease ourselves into the full extent of our uniqueness, to celebrate and cultivate it, for the serene rightness of that sense of being is a source of great strength. And I can’t think of a better goal to have in life than that.

16 thoughts on “The Tarot

  1. I love tarot cards. I don’t read for other people usually, just myself and a friend from time to time. I have a collection of decks. My sister gives me a new one at Christmas every year. I love the artwork. But the deck I always return to and prefer to read from is the Rider-Waite deck. I even have a tattoo of Strength on my leg. It is my favorite card. Have you read Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies? If not, I think you would like it. Calvino uses tarot cards to tell the stories of the various people who meet at an inn.

  2. How very interesting!! I don’t know much at all about tarot cards, and I’m glad to read your explanation, and the way you describe what a reading can do sounds utterly convincing to me. I’m intrigued at the way you connect it to a literary interpretation. In that sense, thinking of you as someone who reads tarot cards doesn’t change my image of you at all — it fits right in with your literary persona.

  3. Stefanie – I haven’t read the novel – Calvino and the tarot! Fantastic! Thank you so much for telling me about it. And Dorothy, I’m glad you said that because it feels all of one piece to me. As we turn what happens to us into stories to make sense of events, so the tarot reconnects us with the collective underlying stories of human development; that’s the value of it for me.

  4. I’m a fan of the tarot as well. I rarely read for other people now, but I do still read my own cards periodically. My philosophy is similar to yours in that I think the visual symbols on the cards tap into an inner knowledge rather than some outside occult force. I link the process with dream interpretation. Of course with the cards you’re working from random images rather than ones that your subconscious has conjured up, but in both instances the value of the reading is dependent on the meanings that you draw from the symbols in the context of your own life. I have several decks that I’ve collected over the years. My favourite one visually is the Salvador Dali deck, but I’ve never actually done a reading with those cards. For a long time I preferred to read from the Motherpeace deck. It even featured heavily in one of the stories in my first book. But I find that deck a bit too touchy-feely new agey for me now. I switched to the Thoth deck for a while but it creeps me out a bit because of the Aleister Crowley connection. If I don’t think of tarot reading as an occult activity, why use a deck designed by someone who did? Now I’m back to basics with the Rider-Waite deck. I haven’t read the Calvino novel either. I will look it up!

  5. Ah now it’s interesting to come across someone who has multiple decks. I’ve only ever used the Rider-Waite pack because I got so comfortable with it, but I do wonder what difference another kind of pack would make. And I like the link to dream interpretation.

  6. My husband does Tarot readings and he is the most aggressively sceptical of people. If I even say “Touch wood” I tend to get a reproving stare because we don’t believe in such superstitions. But yet he does Tarot readings and has a number of Tarot decks including half a one which he designed and drew himself. I think it’s probably a form of story telling to him. Also the idea that you recognise parts of yourself in the process and it might help you to see more clearly what you want to do. He also uses them for triggering ideas when he is writing games.

  7. This is something I know nothing about — how lucky I am to have been guided through the tarot by someone who’s so clear-eyed about it. I particularly liked hearing this: “A tarot reading should encourage you to make an intervention in your own life, not submit passively to the hands of fate.”

    It makes me want to go out and get a deck!

  8. I’m impressed with anyone who can read tarot cards. They’ve always intimidated the hell out of me. My husband loves them, though, and your post is fascinating. Maybe I should take another look at one of his decks. And, yes, Stefanie, the Calvino novel sounds great. Once I’ve taken another look at the cards, I’ll have to take a look at that.

  9. Wow, so many tarot readers coming out of the woodwork! 🙂 I read them too, and have done for about 10 years, although very rarely in recent years. At first I read regularly for myself and for others, then, at university, only for others, and now hardly at all. For me the context was nearly always ritual, as part of neo-pagan groups like the Pagan Religions Society at St. Andrews and I started reading as part of my more general interest in spirituality and symbolism. I’m much more prosaic about it these days and like your lit crit analogy.

    Like Kate S I have multiple decks, all for different purposes. I use a “witches” tarot (whatever that means) for when I’m reading for Pagans or for meditations/ritual. These use the traditional Tarot imagery in ways that key directly into neo-pagan concepts and, because they draw on ideas that have shaped my adult life, I’m most comfortable with them. They don’t suit everyone however (not least because of all the nudity!) and so I also have a Rider-Waite pack for if I read publically or for non-Pagans. Additionally I have a very plain, extremely inoffensive set that more resemble playing cards. I used to use them at lot when I was younger as a test on my ability to remember meanings, but now I’m much more attached to an active, unlearnt reading of the images than book-tarot. 🙂

  10. I have to laugh – I posted this thinking, oo-er, this is a bit of an unusual thing to admit to, and lo and behold, the litblogosphere is full of tarot readers! Perhaps there is a natural inclination to be drawn to the cards where there in an interest in literature, symbolism and the furthest reaches of the mind?

  11. I just linked to this entry as I was just thinking about how difficult it can sometimes be for professionals, academics, etc. (read: intelligent, sane people) to come out of the tarot closet. So I saw this post and then blogged about it. 🙂 Your summary of tarot and how it works is one of the best I’ve ever read.

  12. Interesting blog! I`ve also been reading tarot for about 13 years. Not much lately for others but I used to before I got too busy with other things. And I switch around different decks as well. There`s too much great art out there to stick to one.


  13. Wow! This is so great!
    I don’t read tarot, but I have tabi read for me every month. And since one of my bestfriends is also learning to read tarot, I also ask him to read for me – which is also some kind of exercise for him.
    It’s a very interesting blog. I’ll make sure to drop by every once and a while. Thanx

  14. Sophia – thank you so very much! That’s a compliment I will certainly treasure. It is difficult for people who are in ‘rational’ careers to talk about something so many align with the occult. But it doesn’t have to be seen in that way at all. Tea – hello and welcome! Tarot reading comes in waves, I find. I do it a lot and then I stop for a while, without any particular decisions being made. I often toy with the idea of another pack but have yet to get one – maybe I will! Hello bitchspeakinarea – please do drop by and good luck with the tarot reading! I used lots of friends as guinea pigs when I was first learning. It’s really helpful. I hope you get some great insights from it!

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