Tarot Reading For Skeptics, Cynics, Nonbelievers And Side-Eyers

I'm giving you the divination-for-personal-growth hookup, yo.
Publish date:
March 15, 2013
shoppables, new-agey, tarot

There were a few years there in my early and mid-20s that I fancied myself a Wiccan. It was a good fit, as it allowed me to enjoy the stories and the candles and the ritual (more on my love of ritual in a future post) with none of the negativity I associate with the church religions I grew up around (this is not to say that church religion is, intrinsically, negative, just that I personally have negative connotations with it). Whereas churchy faiths were often sexist and over-reliant on guilt as a motivator, Wicca was womany and foofy and chill. An it harm none, whatever you’re into, dude.

Eventually I fell out of it, and my Silver RavenWolf books went to the local Goodwill. But there was one aspect of this phase of my life that I never quite gave up, even as I moved away from religious thinking in all but the vaguest, hand-wavingest terms -- I never quit my love of tarot.

Tarot cards date from around the 15th century. They evolved out of traditional playing cards, with the addition of 22 “trumps” cards, also known as the major arcana, for a total of 78 cards. The first popular mass-produced tarot deck (with gratitude to Johannes Gutenberg) was the Tarot of Marseilles, which would become one important symbolic standard on which future decks would rely heavily.

The first tarot decks were used for playing games, and it is only around the 17th and 18th centuries that we begin to see accumulating evidence of people using playing cards (tarot and otherwise) for divination purposes, with standardized individual meanings assigned to each of the cards. And it really isn’t until the 19th century that these cards begin to take shape as the ones we think of today when somebody mentions tarot.

This brings us to 1909, when the Rider-Waite tarot deck was first published, which would become the standard on which the overwhelming majority of modern tarot -- both in symbolism and usage -- relies. The deck was designed by Arthur Edward Waite, a British occult authority and “mystic” who rather famously beefed with such impressive weirdo contemporaries as Aleister Crowley and H.P. Lovecraft.

It featured the 22 "trumps" of the major arcana, and 56 minor arcana. Prior to this, the minor arcana bore a greater resemblance to standard playing cards of their origin, but in Waite's deck each minor arcana card was fully illustrated with a unique scene of its own.

The deck was illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith, an artist and commercial illustrator born in England to American and Jamaican parents, who would eventually befriend and collaborate with William Butler Yeats and Henry Irving and Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker to illustrate their projects (am I the only one more interested in the relationships between celebrities of the 19th century than today?). Smith and Waite met through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the drama-prone late 19th century magical organization to which Wicca owes much of its modern origins and ideology.

I started collecting tarot decks early on in my Wiccan phase, even decks I had no plans of ever “using” in their intended manner. A big part of the appeal for me, collection-wise, is that each deck is like a little pocket-sized art collection. But even in the years when most of my cards were in storage, I always had a tarot deck someplace easily accessible. You never know when you’ll need one.

Where once I thought of tarot as an exclusively pagan-y mystical practice, now I know that all sorts of people with a variety of faiths (or no faith at all) use tarot cards, for reasons both spiritual and purely intellectual -- not to divine the future, but to better understand themselves.

I use my tarot cards almost daily, myself. Lately I’ve been throwing occasional pictures of tarot spreads up on my Instagram and as a result I’ve gotten quite a few questions about it, because I suppose I do not really come across like your typical tarot-reading person (aside from having once been a goth, I guess). Here are some of your more common inquiries.

Why use tarot cards?

Personally, I use them for focus and meditation. I don’t tell the future, I don’t see other people’s secrets, and I don’t think I’m communicating with the divine. (It's cool if you do, though -- I ain't judging.) I find the archetypes and stories in tarot symbolism to be resonant and meaningful for understanding myself and my life. I do self-directed readings to give myself points to think about, or to reframe my perspective. For me it’s really just a self-help practice with pretty props.

Do you “believe” in tarot as a supernatural/occult/magic thing?

Personally, no. And in general I believe any sort of faith associated with tarot use is fully optional. People will probably argue with me on this point -- as I would have done when I considered tarot reading a spiritual activity -- but no, you can be a flat-out atheist and still get use out of tarot cards, if you want.

Rational (if not fully scientific) efforts at explaining the efficacy of tarot for some folks often use what Carl Jung -- founder of analytical psychology -- termed the “collective unconscious.” Jung believed that this was a separate psychological aspect from our personal unconscious, and was not dictated by our individual experience but by the breadth of human existence, taking shape as our shared ability to recognize a series of basic universal forms that he called archetypes.

Examples of archetypes are pretty familiar to human storytelling, and include our ideas of the hero, the mother, the self, the wise old person, the trickster, and so on -- most of these broad archetypes can be found in myths and folklore throughout time and across diverse cultures. Thus, Jung argued that this collective unconscious passes from one generation to the next as an inherited understanding shared by all humans.

Tarot cards -- especially those who take their symbolism from the Rider-Waite standard -- often employ these so-called universal archetypes. Even if you think Jung is full of shit, much of the symbolism used, especially in more modern decks, comes from human experiences many of us can relate to on some level -- heartbreak, joy, falling in love, achieving a goal, a fleeting moment of feeling in tune with the world around us -- and so with practice they will speak to you in their own ways.

How do I choose a tarot deck? Does it need to be a gift to “work”? Do the cards need to be blessed/wrapped in a certain way/used only under specific circumstances?

There’s quite a few rules out there for this sort of thing, but in my experience none of them are necessary. No, your tarot deck doesn’t need to be a gift, although if a friend wants to buy you one, totally accept it. No, you don’t NEED to do anything special to or with the cards to keep them happy, although if you want to, by all means do so.

You choose a tarot deck based on what appeals to you. Back in my day (cough cough, swings cane) I had to buy decks sight unseen (in an ACTUAL STORE) and open them up to find the sets of cards I connected with -- in retrospect this is probably how I got started collecting, as I kissed a lot of frogs to find one or two prince/sses, and it wasn’t always that I disliked the non-useful decks on an aesthetic basis, just that trying to do readings with them didn’t seem to help.

Today you have the Internet and sites like Aeclectic Tarot to take all the surprise out of opening a deck and seeing the cards for the first time after you’ve already forked over $15 for them. Really though, this is good because it allows you to browse for images that strike you on a personal level.

Do I have to memorize the meanings for 78 different cards? Really?

Yes and no. Yes because you have to remember meanings, but no because those meanings are probably going to be somewhat personal to you and thus will not need a lot of effort to remember, given practice and time. If you look at a certain card and get an impression, that impression is important, regardless of whether it matches the card’s established meaning. (That’s your brain, talking to you.)

Some will undoubtedly argue with me on this, but I don't think card meanings are fixed and universal -- while there may be very basic points that are fairly commonly read (this is a card about love, this is a card about ambition, etc), just like when we’re reading a book or watching a movie, our impressions will always be influenced by our personal experiences in our own lives.

That said, decks with especially well-written guides are treasures to be appreciated. Arthur Edward Waite’s original “Pictorial Key to the Tarot” is about as interesting to read and full of personal insight as your electric bill, but newer decks often come with guides that are marvelous self-help books all on their own. Also, there's plenty of how-to tarot books out there that will work with any deck.

Can I read for other people?

Maybe. But even in the days when I was dramatically invoking the goddess with every drawn card, and was doing readings for other people quite a lot, I never told anyone that I could tell their future. Because seriously, if our futures are already set down such that they can be read as lines in a book, then that is the most depressing thing ever. Mostly when I did readings for others I would ask questions and offer insight. Kind of like therapy.

Or like a cold reading, except without trying to convince anyone I could magically see their innermost desires and impress them with my perceived powers. That’s kind of evil. Don’t do that.

What if weird things happen?

They might. I recently had the same card (the eight of cups) turn up in four different readings over seven days. It was a weird coincidence, for sure, but just because something may be a coincidence doesn’t mean it can’t offer any meaning to you. Life is full of coincidences that take on an unexpected importance. In this case, the personal meaning of that particular eight of cups in that particular deck was something I really did benefit from thinking about for those few days.

Paradoilia is the psychological term for the human brain’s effort to see familiar objects in random patterns -- the most famous example of this is the alleged “face” photographed on the surface of Mars by the Viking I orbiter in 1976. It’s not actually a face, but the arrangement of features tricks our minds into seeing one there, or into seeing a bunny or a pirate ship in an arrangement of clouds, or even an emoticon in a pile of cow poop (for the "Bob’s Burgers" fans in the room).

So weird things may seem to happen, which are probably just coincidental. That said, if the coincidence is speaking to you, go with it. You don’t have to attribute it to some magical force in order to recognize that it has personal meaning.

OK, OK, how do I start?

Get a deck. If you're a beginner, I recommend the original Waite deck or a close variation on it, as once you learn those cards, it makes learning other decks easier. But, hey, go with whatever deck you’re drawn to -- I didn’t get a Waite deck for a few years because I thought it was mad ugly (I like the recolored Universal Waite version way better, just saying).

There are about a zillion different tarot spreads out there, from simple three-card options to elaborate 15-card patterns for which I can never remember all the different positions’ meanings. For daily readings I prefer a straightforward three-card spread in which the center card offers perspective on my current mindset and the cards on either side represent potential actions/changes.

Most decks will come with a variety of suggested spreads included, but feel free to experiment to find what works for you. Actually, I recommend experimenting as a matter of course. Pull some cards and look at them. Pay attention to how they make you feel, the impressions they leave. See what the guide to your particular deck has to say. Or don't.

Some people like to thoroughly read the deck's guidebook and rely on that for reading. Some people like to combine their personal impressions with those intended by the deck's author. Some like to rely exclusively on their own feelings and ignore the book. Some like to just look at the cards and link them together in whatever way makes sense to them. There's no right or wrong way to do this, so long as you come to it with a mind for self-reflection and not in search of easy and straightforward answers.

What decks do you like, Lesley?

I’m SO GLAD YOU ASKED. These are some of my current favorites.

The Wildwood Tarot

The art in this one is straight-up comic book style, which is totally why I love it. The theming is very white Eurocentric pagan, but I guess it connects with my inner hippie that I keep locked in my psyche’s basement.

Unfortunately, the guide that comes with this deck is sometimes incomprehensibly woo-woo. Like I’ve found myself checking it for cards I’m less familiar with (which happens a lot, as this deck deviates from the standard Waite symbolism in some notable ways) and will read the same sentence three times without understanding what it’s trying to say.

Fortunately the imagery on the cards themselves is gorgeous and detailed so I just don’t use the book much. You can also buy this deck as an iOS app if you’re one of those people who no longer believe in accumulating physical paper objects like books and stuff.

Tarot of the Magical Forest

This is probably no surprise, but I really strongly prefer decks without, um, people in them. Anthropomorphic animals? YES PLEASE. This Waite-style deck is adorable but also super creepy, like a Mark Ryden painting. Only with tiny kitties speared with swords.

Tarot of Trees

Again with the lack of people, this deck exclusively features trees as its actors, and as a result tends to employ the natural settings that one would ordinarily find trees in. It’s self-published by its artist, Dana Driscoll, and has fast become one of my favorite decks in recent memory. Apparently I really connect to trees. (You can also buy this deck as an iOS app.)

Gummy Bear Tarot

Yes, this is a real tarot deck. It’s basically a super-simple coloring-book version of the Rider Waite. It only comes with a wee paper guidebook but even these tiny descriptions are hilarious: “This little bear is hanging upside down.” “The bear of doom rides through the world, wearing the robe of death.” “An angelic bear holds two goblets.” AAAHHHH.

The Collective Tarot

I love this deck so much. It a gorgeous, modern, collaboratively designed, social-justice-flavored, queer-friendly deck of beauty and wonder. It dispenses with much of the traditional tarot symbols, and as an anarchist-influenced effort, avoids the typical use of authority figures and gender norms.

For me, this deck is just pure loving self-care, which is the best thing I get out of using tarot cards. And maybe it’s even a little magical, too.