Dec 7, 2009

Why the Tarot Works

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Some years ago, I was perusing books in a Wiccan shop, when I overheard a conversation between the owner and a customer. She was looking at the many tarot decks in the glass case by the front counter. "Do these really work?" she asked.

The owner was deeply knowledgeable about western esoteric traditions, and had a fondness for tarot. I had heard him, on more than one occasion, give detailed explanations of the symbolism in complex decks like the Crowley-Thoth. Yet, he answered this woman very matter-of-factly. "A deck of tarot cards is just 78 pieces of paper with pictures printed on them." Not the answer she was expecting, I'm sure. Quite truthful, however.

I had similar conversations with customers when I worked in a new age bookstore, because it became clear to me that people tend to give their power away to things like the tarot. For some, that creates a fear and superstition about these inanimate objects that seem to know so much about us... even future events. When people asked me if various divination and ritual objects "worked," I would respond that they were "tools." They could no more fix your life than a hammer could build you a bookcase.

Like that shop owner, I endeavor to demystify tarot and other divination tools, by putting them into a genuinely mystical context. Tarot has no power of its own. It does not do anything. It does, however, "work." The reason it works speaks to the very heart of mystical thought. It works because we live in a reflective reality. All things reflect all other things, always. It cannot be otherwise, because nothing is really separate. We are at one with everything, including tarot cards, astrological alignments, runes... Everything. Tarot, and other divination systems, simply offer a focal point in our reflective world; all be it, a very rich and nuanced one. In truth, you can read any reflection, that comes up in your life; the weather, the flight patterns of birds, what songs come up on the radio... It's not where you look. It's how how you look.

I no longer read cards. I haven't in some years. When I started reading professionally, I soon found that, for me, they were something of a distraction. It's easier to take the information from my guides more directly. But, when I was first learning how to tap into the great mysteries, the Motherpeace Tarot was the key that opened the door. I read mostly for myself, and used the cards whenever I had to make major, life decisions. I found their accuracy stunning; even in predicting future events that I could not conceptualize until their later occurrence.

I have been immersed for the past few days in tarot imagery, while updating the Tarot Gallery, on my site. I am constantly amazed at the artistry and creativity that has been brought to this ancient system. It's a remarkably flexible system that has been adapted to a range of myths, artistic styles, and even specific stories, like Alice in Wonderland.

One thing I learned early on was that the perspective of the authors -- the way they interpret the archetypes and which myths they choose to incorporate -- can drastically change what cards will turn up in a spread. For example, The Hierophant has a very negative connotation in Motherpeace, but a positive connotation in other decks. This is because Vicki Noble and Karen Vogle are very anti-patriarchy and against ideas of moral authority. So, The Hierophant in a Motherpeace reading indicates something imposed, restrictive, and authoritarian; closer to The Devil than any sort of spiritual wisdom. When using another deck, The Devil would be more likely to represent that type of energy, and come up in your spread.

Of course, your own perspective is the most important component of a reading. Tarot is, after all, only a jumping off point. It was only when I started reading for total strangers, whose situations and histories I knew nothing about, that I began to understand how the cards function as triggers for your own intuition. I'd look at a card and a particular image would look brighter and steal focus from the rest of the card. The images would suggest things that had never before occurred to me. I would somehow know that a card represented the client's sister, mother, boss, or husband. I had no idea how I knew these things. The information would simply appear in my mind.

I compiled the tarot gallery many years ago because I learned early on that not all decks will work for all readers. It's important to get a feel for the style of a deck and see if it connects. I was frustrated by the sealed packages in most book stores, when I first started shopping for cards. At the time, I was working at St. Martin's Press, in the Flatiron Building. Back then Samuel Weiser had an amazing bookstore on 24th. I spent many a lunch hour there. They had an ingenious system for introducing tarot decks. There was a giant photo album on the counter, with a handful of cards from every deck they sold. That way, you could flip through and look at a sample of the images to see whether or not they spoke to you. I've only found two decks that spoke to my intuitive mind enough that I could read them; Motherpeace and the Haindldeck. Something about the way Haindl's use of perspective creates an almost 3D feel pulls me right into the cards. But, that's just me. Everybody's different. Some people can read from virtually any deck. It's really a question of picking your medium, or, more accurately, your focal point in the reflective world.


  1. This is a wonderful article. I have been studying and reading the tarot for practice, and it's a wonderful tool in its accuracy and precision. I also find it's a good reflector or radio for insight into what is going on in a situation. Someday, I would like to work on my own deck (I am an artist), although perhaps just the Major arcana as a way of further study. Love your blog and have been lurking lots! :)

    1. So glad you found this one edifying. I love tarot artistry and how different people have reenvisioned those same archetypes in so many different ways.


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