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Notes & Thoughts
My introduction to Tarot happened one sunny afternoon in 2015, while standing in line at Barnes & Noble. My then-fiancé (now husband) encouraged me to buy the cards, after he saw me playing with the Running Press Tarot Kit at the register. I played around with the kit a few times, but didn't really find it very interesting beyond the initial novelty of something I was taught as a child was necessarily satanic and evil.
I discovered Robert M. Place's Alchemical Tarot (5th Edition) in 2017 by what I can only see as kismet. I came across images of this deck while searching for something online, and I was immediately drawn to the esoteric woodcut style of Robert's artwork. I bought the deck, which comes with a little white book, but I didn't use it seriously until the next year, when I finally bought a copy of his in-depth Tarot book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism.
Robert's detailed breakdown of the evolution of sorcery, Magic, and occultism in the west created a foundation for me to start investigating more deeply the various folk beliefs and spiritism of my American and European ancestors, and it's through this research that I've developed my own view of the Tarot and its usefulness in modern life. I definitely recommend Robert's book if you're interested in learning more about Tarot and the history of magic, with less of the ahistorical, metaphysical narrative that's common with many New Age authors and the original author of modern Tarot theory, Arther E. Waite.
My Reading Philosophy
My approach to Tarot is as rational as Tarot can be. That is to say, I don't view Tarot as a tool for divination, predicting future outcomes, or controlling what any free-willed person does. I've found, pretty consistently, that Tarot readings serve to reinforce important cultural and ethnic archetypes that are innate to white, Western, European-descended civilization (see note). These archetypes matter, because they help us contextualize and understand the world around us. Human behavior isn't predetermined or predestined, but there are basic behavioral characteristics common among any population that form the basis of a cohesive society with share ideals and values and expectations.
When I first started seriously examining and researching Tarot, Robert Place's Alchemical Tarot deck was my guide, and his deck includes deep, consistent imagery around the idea of balance in the alchemical allegory of the Major Arcana. I've learned that balance is a lot more important than enforcing some ideal of Absolutism, where things are purely evil or purely righteous. As a result, I don't view a Tarot reading as any message of what's “the right thing to do”.
Instead, I view the cards as the building blocks of a narrative. Sometimes it's very accurate, in the way that a preacher's biblical selection one Sunday strikes you deep in your heart, in a different way from your average sermon. Other times it's generic, and it takes a little introspection to see how it might apply to your life. Since the cards depict normal human archetypes we've consistently seen throughout western human history - remember, the first French cards were very Catholic! - it becomes easier over time to apply their narrative to your life in the real world.
Again, I liken this a lot to bible study. The difference is that you're not reading a book that was set by a council of fallible humans in the Roman Empire who were choosing a specific dogmatic creed and therefore selecting writings that endorsed that chosen creed, which provably synthesized a lot of Roman non-Christian folk beliefs into its ideals. Instead, you're taking the parables of the human condition - the beggar who is so focused on his own plight he doesn't realize help is right in front of him, or the miser who is overly consumed with amassing wealth (whatever that wealth may be) that he's forgotten what matters, or the picture of an abundant family unit that puts the health of itself before the individual - and turning them into a sort of algorithm, which uses the layout of a spread to make it easy to remember which card happens to align with which indicator.
I never expect a Tarot reading to tell me something I don't know. You can call that confirmation bias, but I call it considering other angles of what I've already decided to do, just in case I'm missing something worth noticing. I've considering doing readings for other people, but so far, I've found it to be too personal to be something I could do for a stranger. Not only that, but I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea of someone basically asking me to make a decision for them. People need to make their own decisions, not depend on a deck of cards and a Tarot reader to “point them in the right direction”.
I'd already decided to make a major career and life change when I decided to read a spread on the outlook for my decision. The results were extremely positive. Does that mean I won't change direction if it becomes obvious I need to? Of course not. More than anything, it helped me emotionally move on, which allowed me realize that it was okay to accept the idea of leaving my current job…which was something I'd had a really hard with even considering. Once I was actually ready to move on, it became a lot more clear what to do next.
By the way - because I read Tarot as a narrative rather than a roll of the fortune-telling dice, I do not use reversals, and I discourage their use. Reversals suffer two flaws: they distract the reader from the artwork, which is usually designed to be read one-way (I know there are some specific decks with bidirectional artwork), and they encourage Absolutism. When you're reading cards that put things into black-and-white negatives and positives, it's a lot harder to understand how the spread's story might relate to you in real life. It's also harder to look at an upside-down picture, which is an important part of narrative Tarot reading. I agree with both Robert M. Place and Benebell Wen's general view on reversals, but I'm probably less open-minded about it than they are, and I'm ok with that. I'm no expert, just putting out what I've found makes sense.
Tarot for Self-Improvement
Looking at both the history of the Tarot's major arcana and the use of folktales, imagery, and language to create archetypes through which various elements of the human condition are manifested, I've found that Tarot can be a very useful tool for self-reflection and self-improvement.
The Major Arcana of the Tarot are the original story cards found in the earliest French tarot playing card decks. The trumps are laid out sequentially and illustrate the essential human condition - the struggle every person must take on when confronted with a difficult decision or crossroads. The story of the trumps reflects the cyclical nature of humanity itself, both as individuals and as whole societies.
Life is never in stasis. Things are always changing around us, and it is truly how we handle these changes which makes our character. In the Tarot story, there is a redemption arc, just as there is in real life. After all, every time you make a mistake, you have an opportunity for redemption through self-improvement. Even though the original French trumps reflect a clearly Catholic worldview, the essential language transcends the foreign religion imposed on the West, tapping into the philosophical truths on which white, western civilization has been premised since time immemorial.
As a tool of self-improvement, every Tarot card offers a profound message to the reader. The truths in the cards are deceptively simple and basic - they are truths we all know, but easily forget, and the cards serve as reminders that these truths are immutable and ever-present.
The guidance offered by a Tarot reading is intentionally vague, because every person and every situation is unique. It's impossible to create an objective, explicit message when the question is necessarily deeply subjective. For some people, the idea of such ambiguity is difficult to accept, because a clear message is much easier to believe than a muddled one. The messages found in a reading are only as vague as you wish them to be. Approach self-readings with an open mind and a desire for guidance from both your own unconsciousness, and the energies that are eternally present in our universe.
the energies that are eternally present in our universe
I re-read the stuff I write on the regular, and I realized this kind of contradicts the section on channeling spirits. What I mean by guidance from the universe isn't about working with sentient entities, beings, spirits, or forces. It's more that the way things go isn't ever as under our own control as we'd like, and reading Tarot for your own introspection and self-improvement is an excellent way of reinforcing the wisdom of discerning between that which you can control, and that which is effectively at the mercy of the universe - everything you can't control.
The archetypes found in Tarot imagery are universal to the western world. They're present in unseen ways around us, because these are innate to our people. When you're more in tune with how these archetypes are manifested in physical reality, it becomes easier to recognize them - and thus have better footing on which to make judgements and decisions.
As I've noted in other essays on Tarot, I liken Tarot to how Christians study their holy book, the Bible. Although much of what the Bible teaches is actually pretty insidious at its core, many of the moral lessons found in the book of Proverbs, as well as the Gospels, are relatively universal in western culture. Christians study sections of the Bible in-depth, and will many times revisit the same section repeatedly through the course of their personal religious practices.
Concepts like being kind to others seem obvious to us, but such things shouldn't be assumed to be obvious to everyone - so memorizing short Bible verses serves as a way to reinforce such teachings to the point that they become second nature in society.
Christians use certain Bible verses to provide comfort, strength, courage, or even just to reinforce their own internal biases (which are healthy, natural, and normal!). I've been reading Tarot semi-seriously for about three years now, and I continue to return to the same conclusion about its parallels with Christian Bible study. To the serious student of spiritual growth, any Bible verse can have a deeper meaning. Tarot cards are no different. The messages, stories, archetypes, and lessons are universal to our people in Western civilization. By learning the cards, you are really learning a mnemonic device for remembering the sociological, existential truths about our people, which have provably transcended religious tribes and political boundaries.
The universe is a powerful force. Tarot will help you understand the why of these forces, without getting you tangled up in attempts to manipulate or change things outside your own realistic sphere of influence. When the timeless truths of our civilization become second nature, you'll feel like you have a lot more control over your life, because you'll be well-equipped to recognize and understand human behavior, allowing you to respond to life's variety confidently and courageously.
Tarot and the Abrahamic Occult
Tarot enjoyed a resurgence in western interest in the 19th century, during the Romantic era. Romanticism was a pendulum-swinging reaction to the stoic rationalism of the Enlightenment. Remember, it was the Age of Enlightenment that created the framework which has protected the United States from tyranny for nearly 250 years. Romanticism sought to bring back emotion and spiritual awakening. It was in this movement that several Christian factions were created, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and Mormonism.
At the same time, there was an increased study of Abrahamic mysticism, which includes Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufism, and Christian Gnosticism. All of these movements seek to better understand and commune with the Abrahamic deity. The trouble is, this deity isn't native to the west, or to white, European-descended peoples. One of the challenges of reading Tarot as someone who wholly rejects Abrahamism is sifting through available information to identify what was influenced by such mysticism, particularly Kabbalah - which is the arbitrary assignment of numerical values to abstract concepts and material things in an attempt to divine the future, and what was influenced by more sincerely western philosophical theories about humanity and the human condition.
The traditional Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck is heavily influenced by Abrahamic mysticism. For many people, this is incidental, a nonissue, or even an important part of reading Tarot. I, however, much prefer decks with symbolism and imagery that is evocative of western ideals and philosophical concepts. I don't read with Pamela Colman-Smith's cards, because the artwork heavily favors a Kabbalistic view of esotericism and spiritual enlightenment.
If you are of a similar mind, and you want to learn Tarot without the corrupting influences of foreign mysticism, I can again confidently recommend Robert M. Place's book on Tarot. He clearly details the various mystical and spiritual influences of both Tarot and the greater 19th-century occult world, which will aid you in discerning how to best approach Tarot in a way that aligns with your own spiritual and esoteric beliefs.
Tarot for Divination
I was raised an evangelical Christian in the Midwest, surrounded by people who very much believe divination is a serious sin. While I tend to dismiss any argument premised on arbitrary morality, I've come to the conclusion that there is an objective and pragmatic reason to avoid divination - if it doesn't work, it's misleading, and if it does work, it's addicting. I've never used tarot for divination - I've never tried to channel a spirit or connect with some other plane of metaphysical existence to allow an ethereal spirit to determine which cards I pull. Thus, I've never succeeded in divination.
I know a lot about the human condition, though, and it's obvious that any tool which enables the user to see the future is going to inevitably be too powerfully addicting for anyone, no matter how well-intended. So, if you can successfully divine the future - thereby knowing beforehand what another free-willed person will do, you're probably playing with fire. I don't recommend it.
The other end of divination is the one where you become dependent on divination to make decisions in your life. Don't rely on anyone - including a deck of cards - to make your decisions for you. Learn about the world around you, and make your decisions based on what you learn. Be willing to learn from others. The minute you become reliant on someone other than yourself to make choices, you're no longer a free person. Taking others into consideration before doing something is one thing; refusing to do something before checking with your psychic is another.
Tarot and Channeling Spirits
So, this. Tarot brings with it a lot of baggage. A guy named Alec Satin made a name for himself on the Internet for about twenty years as an expert in Tarot reading and interpretation. In 2015, he experienced a significant conversion event and became a devout Lutheran Christian, at which point he not only ceased his own Tarot work; he loudly denounced it as evil and a connection to Satanic forces. Similarly, angel spiritist Doreen Virtue had a supernatural conversion event which led to her denouncing angel readings and immediately taking her angel products out of print in a desire to purge all association with the occult and New Age thought.
Are their claims legitimate? I have no reason to believe otherwise, so I have no choice but to say “for now, yes”. Of course, it's worth noting Doreen Virtue recently scrubbed her conversion testimony from the Internet and has now stated she's pretty sure her vision of Jesus Christ was actually of a demonic being trying to mislead her, but that somehow led her to Christianity as The One True Religion. It's difficult to lend credibility to someone who seems uncertain of her own experiences, at the very least.
I do know that there are people who do genuinely experience interactions with what appear to be sentient apparitions, forces, feelings, or angels, or other entities. I have no idea if these are hallucinations, neurological defects, or legitimate spiritual beings. It doesn't actually matter, in the end.
Don't trust any ethereal beings or spirits who claim to be your guide into the metaphysical realm. The reason I say this is simple: you have no way of knowing if the thing you're interacting with is benevolent or malevolent. Since there is no Angie's List of spirit beings, your best bet is to just avoid them entirely. I've noticed that a lot of conversion stories from ex-Tarot enthusiasts involve a lot of interactions with some supernatural entity that's able to predict the future in undeniable ways.
I have no idea if any of those stories are true (and there's a good chance they aren't, this is the Internet after all), but if even 1% of them are, that means there's a non-trivial chance your channeled spirit is actually a malevolent, chaotic entity trying to do something that definitely isn't good for us here in the mortal realm.
There's a line from Harry Potter that I really like (judge me if you want; cultural landmarks are important ways of conveying timeless concepts to new generations, so embrace them):
“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven't I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain?”
You can't vet a spirit, because nobody else can see it or confirm what you're experiencing. It's best to avoid anything of the sort, because you simply cannot know its motives and have no way of countering whatever it is they have in store for you. It's just not worth it.
As far as whether or not Tarot cards are a door to the spirit realm, I'm pretty confident the answer is “no”. I'm a Second Amendment advocate, and one of the arguments I hear from gun-control advocates is that guns kill people. This is a fallacy - guns don't kill people. Guns are tools, which in the wrong hands, are used to wrongly take the lives of others. On its own, a gun is an inert tool. There is no morality to its existence, and its existence does not necessarily result in death.
Tarot cards are a tool. Like all tools, they can be used for good, used for evil, or just used for some innocuous purpose. If you want to actually try and access, contact, or channel a sentient non-corporeal entity, you don't need Tarot cards (or an Ouija board, etc.) to do so.
Like firearms, a deck of Tarot cards can be a powerful tool - one that is seductive for some, making it increasingly harder for the individual to make decisions without consulting the cards. If you find you can't separate yourself from such a persona, my advice is to stay away from reading Tarot. There's no reason to entertain your own self-destruction, even if you think you can control yourself and prevent it.