FOR ANYONE UNFAMILIAR WITH TAROT, it’s what’s known as “cartomancy” whereby readers use cards to gain insight into the past, present or future. Different readers work in different ways, but generally speaking, they will draw cards, or get you to pick a few cards. They will then lay them out on the table before you, and then interpret not just what the cards mean, but what they mean according to the order they’re picked or laid out in.
The earliest reference to tarot is from the mid to late 1400s. Interestingly, there’s no indication that the cards used back then were for anything but games. Philosopher and tarot historian Michael Dummett wrote, “It was only in the 1780s when the practice of fortune-telling with regular playing cards had been well established for at least two decades, that anyone began to use the tarot pack for cartomancy.”
Tarot cards are different to regular playing cards. Regular cards have 4 suits—hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades—and 13 cards in each suit ranging from Ace (or 1), then 2 through to 10, and finally jack, queen, and king, 52 cards in total. There may also be a couple of “Joker” cards. On the other hand, tarot decks have 78 cards divided into two sections: major arcana (arcana means “mysteries”) and minor arcana, or minor mysteries. There are 22 major cards and 56 minor ones. The major cards deal with big life events such as love, relationships, careers, death and so forth. The minor cards, like a regular deck of cards, are grouped into 4 suites, cups, wands, swords and pentacles. Each suit has numbered cards from 1 through 10, plus four court cards: page, knight, king and queen.
I always thought tarot was about telling the future. Although it may include that, generally speaking, it’s more about exploring the Self. So, for example, you might ask a question, then pick some cards from the deck, and then reflect on the possible answers. In other words, tarot cards are meant for introspection, rather like if you were to go to a therapist and “talk things through” on the couch.
Questions might include:
- What do I need to know right now?
- What’s the biggest challenge I need to deal with?
- What do I need to know about my love life or my job?
- What should I be focusing on?
The idea is that you ask a question while shuffling the deck. When you feel you’ve thought about your question and are ready for an answer you stop shuffling and pick your cards. You might start with just one card, especially when you’re getting to know the deck. Just pick one card and see how it fits with the question you asked. Alternatively, you might pick three cards. The first might be, for example, your past, the second your present, and the third your future. You can assign whatever meanings you like to them. The three cards might refer to mind, body, and spirit for example. It’s completely up to you. There’s even what’s known as the “Celtic cross”, which uses 10 cards to approach issues from multiple angles.
As for reading the cards themselves, here’s a quick overview:
Minor arcana cards (the four suits).
- Cups are associated with water and refer to emotions, openness, and imagination.
- Wands are about fire and passion, representing energy, movement, and creativity.
- Swords are air, and represent your mind, how you think, communicate, and solve problems.
- Pentacles are associated with earth, focusing on how we relate to the physical world around us. They include things such as money, housing, jobs etc.
Court cards (each suit has four cards).
- Page and knight cards represent youth or inexperience
- Queen and king cards convey adulthood and mastery.
Major arcana cards (22 cards) refer to big events in your life.
- The Fool
- The Magician
- The High Priestess
- The Empress
- The Emperor
- The Hierophant
- The Lovers
- The Chariot
- The Hermit
- Wheel of Fortune
- The Hanged Man
- The Devil
- The Tower
- The Star
- The Moon
- The Sun
- The World
Some of these might seem intimidating at first but they’re always more nuanced than they may appear. For example, pulling the Death card might feel like a bad sign but it may just mean that something in your life is going to come to an end soon. That could be a good thing.
So, is it true? And if it is, is it safe? Some people like skeptic James Randi will say it’s all a hoax. The cards are just cards, the meanings and interpretations are whatever you give to them. There’s nothing supernatural going on. You can’t read the future. But like I say, that’s not really what tarot is about. In fact, although some tarot readers claim psychic abilities, with messages from “the other side”, not all do. UK tarot readers Jen Cownie and Fiona Lensvelt, who I would love to get on the show sometime, openly say they are non-psychic and that their practice has nothing to do with the occult. For some, tarot does overlap with occult practices such as spellcraft, astrology, crystal work, divination and so on, but for many, it doesn’t. This leads us to the question, does it work?
I guess if you’re looking for an answer from a dead relative, that could be quite a hard thing to prove. But if it’s just about getting your subconscious to think about things, and finding answers within, I’m going to say yes, it does work. There’s a quote that goes, “When faced with two choices, simply toss a coin. It works not because it settles the question for you, but because in that brief moment when the coin is in the air, you suddenly know what you are hoping for.” A coin toss is probably the simplest way of focusing your attention on a perplexing question and knowing, in yourself, in your heart, what you actually want. I see tarot cards much the same, just a bit more explorative.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, I was never allowed to look into things like tarot. Why? Because it was viewed as an occult, demonic practice, the work of Satan the Devil. In fact, it’s not just Jehovah’s Witnesses who are against tarot. Most Christians, Bible believers, would quote Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (NWT): “There should not be found in you anyone… who employs divination, anyone practising magic, anyone who looks for omens, a sorcerer, anyone binding others with a spell, anyone who consults a spirit medium or a fortune-teller, or anyone who inquires of the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to Jehovah.” Although tarot cards are not specifically mentioned there, I guess it could fall under the class of “looking for omens” or “fortune telling”, maybe even “inquiring of the dead”, especially if the reader claims psychic abilities. If the Bible is true, if Jehovah (or Yahweh) really exists, this would seem to suggest that there is something real going on. The implication, of course, is that these things are offensive to God, even dangerous because you’re dealing with wicked spirits. That’s how it was always presented to me as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Having said that, The Watchtower magazine that Jehovah’s Witnesses publish has also poo-pooed the idea of there being anything behind divination, fortune telling and so on. In one article they wrote: “From ancient times, people have consulted fortune-tellers. Some practitioners looked for meaning in such things as the entrails of animals and humans or the way a rooster pecks at its grain. Others made projections based on patterns in tea leaves or coffee grounds. Today they use tarot cards, crystal balls, dice, and other means to ‘read’ a person’s future. Is fortune-telling a reliable way to discern the future? No, it is not.” The article goes on to portray these things as bunkum, hogwash, and a load of old twaddle. But then I have to ask, if it’s not real, why would it be offensive to God? And how could it possibly be dangerous? This is another example of the Watch Tower organisation saying one thing (tarot works because Satan is behind it) and then another (tarot is made up, unreliable, doesn’t work). Which is it?
Some sceptics have tried to debunk tarot by pointing out that the deck might be dealt out in one particular way, and interpreted in a certain way, but then fifteen minutes later you could pull completely different cards, but I have an answer for this. Assuming that a reading gets you to think introspectively in the moment, that surely has an effect on you. Much like in quantum physics how an observer causes a waveform collapse. Thus, if you have another reading in a few minutes’ time your new “now” will have changed somewhat.
Anyway, on to my tarot reading now. I can’t remember the cards that were pulled. I think one of them was the Queen of Pentacles. Not sure. At the time I hadn’t done any research, but I do remember what the reader told me. First of all, she got me to shuffle the deck. While I was shuffling the cards she asked me to think about what I needed to know, right now, in the moment. I did that and returned the cards to her. She then dealt the cards out, 5 cards, in a cross shape. Then she told me that I had spent a lot of my life trying to please people, feeling controlled, but now I was entering a phase in my life where I felt more empowered. Spot on! As a Jehovah’s Witness, I had been in a high-control group, unable to express my personal thoughts on spiritual matters for fear of the consequences. Now, as a disfellowshipped ex-Witness “apostate”, I have nothing to fear. I can speak my truth. She was right, I do feel empowered now that I’m not living from a position of fear. She also said that she could see “happy families” and that a burden I had been carrying for a long time was soon to bear rewards. My thoughts immediately turned to my JW children and my dad who shun me because I’m no longer a Jehovah’s Witness. In my heart, I’ve always thought there could be a happy ending in sight, but how that could come about is beyond me. It seems impossible. But the reading has definitely focussed my mind on a happy outcome. Perhaps just thinking positively about these things will result in me manifesting what I desire, a reunion with my children and my dad. Who knows?
That was my tarot reading. It was short and sweet and there was nothing especially “spooky” about it. It felt more like I was looking within myself and asking questions about how I wanted my future to be, focussing my attention on the outcome that I desired. And if past experience is anything to go by, what I focus on usually comes to pass.