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.