Meditations on the Tarot: A Conclusion UPDATED

The Pope design, from various editions of the Tarot de Marseille

Note: This is the last in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. This series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

I was beginning to worry that God and the Machine would be All Tarot, All the Time, but the series is done and you’re all free to get outraged now that the facts have been laid out from beginning end.

This was never just about playing cards. This was a tiny sliver of European Catholic cultural history, and by reclaiming it we begin to feel some of the life of our ancestors in the faith. That’s what cultural history should do. By looking at a small or seemingly insignificant subject in detail, it brings an entire people back to life.

I feel the pulse of medieval Catholics and their uniquely beautiful and challenging world in the cards. When you know how people dressed, sang, danced, and, yes, played, you know that people a little bit better. What it reveals is a people who let faith and wonder imbue even humble pieces of paper used to play games. That should inspire us.

I never imagined when I first starting researching this subject four years ago that I would write over 10,000 words about it, but I followed the story where it led me. As I explained in earlier posts, this is an expanded version of a feature story I wrote for Games Magazine (where I’m Editor-at-Large), and it will appear in the November 2013 issue. The expansion fleshes out the religious themes related to tarot, exploring some of the specifically Catholic issues in more depth.

Along the way, as expected, I angered both Catholics and New Agers, pagans, and occultists. Let me address both groups.

To My Fellow Catholics: I had comments here and many messages in social media (as well as emails to my portal editor, Elizabeth Scalia) objecting to the fact that I was even writing about this subject. Some of these were made early in the series and were reasonable expressions of concern that the link to the occult was too strong to overcome.

Others were of the “Tarot cards are playthings of the devil and no good can come of them, and don’t bother me with the facts” variety. I think many of the latter comments came from people who didn’t read past the word “Tarot.”

Honestly, I’d like to be polite and say how much I respect their opinions and sympathize with their perspectives … but I don’t.

In fact, that kind of reactionary anti-intellectualism is what’s driven Catholic culture into the ground, leaving us with a pietistic, Precious Moments-style faith with all the marrow sucked from it. It refuses to ask hard questions and make challenging inquiries because “intrigue is one of the enemy’s tools,” and Satan might … I dunno, jump out of the cards and strangle them. I’m fuzzy on the details.

My point was always this: The cards are not innately wicked. They only become so by misuse.

I believe in Satan. I believe he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking souls to devour. That’s why we must be innocent as lambs, but also cunning as serpents.

The pietistic Catholics have the lamb part down.

The serpent part? Not so much.

It was the devil who took a plaything created by Catholics and reflecting their faith, and turned it into a tool of evil.

“Cunning” means taking it back. It then becomes one less tool of the devil.

Tarot is shrouded in a history of lies, but that history was trapped in specialty publications and only rarely acknowledged by occultists. My goal was to tear that shroud away for a wider audience. Given the thousands who have already read this series, and the many thousands more who will read my magazine, I’d call that a success.

No one says you need to be interested in this. I doubt most readers of this series will ever pursue the cards as objects of entertainment. If you don’t like the cards, or if you were wrapped up in the occult and can’t trust yourself, then by all means, avoid them.

But making the truth known in a detailed, thorough way serves to demystify something wrapped in a gauze of arcane mumbo jumbo. See also John 8:32.

To New Agers and Other Occult Dabblers: I was one of you once, and I don’t really know how better to say it than this: you’re on the wrong path. You’re following a road of spiritual emptiness  and destruction. There is one God, and he has one Son, Jesus Christ.

St. Paul addresses the pagans

You draw gods from your imagination and worship them; which is in fact worship of the self. Some truth can be found on this path. The Fathers–and even St. Paul–acknowledged that which was true in paganism, and kept it. That process of Hellenization–the very thing stripped from Christianity by the Protestant Reformation–was part of the true genius of the early faith.

It took the idol To A God Unknown and said, “I will make Him known.”

And you’ve chosen to make Him unknown again.

Much of this is purely reactionary: people who grow up with a defective religious experience or a poor religious example fleeing their own heritage in search of some new truth of their choosing and their own invention. It’s rebellion. People are wounded and searching, and react against the dominant religious culture. Christianity can often be unappealing, largely because it’s filled with Christians: the wounded and broken.

That was me. I didn’t want any part of this Catholic thing, so I concocted my own belief system. Oddly enough, it reaffirmed all my thoughts and wishes and biases, because it came not from without, but from within.

I didn’t find a Truth: I manufactured one to my liking. My ego was my idol.

You can’t rebuild a broken soul using broken materials. The patient needs a doctor with a clear eye. Only a healthy spirituality can fix a broken spirit.

As The Prophet said, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

If you use tarot for divination, you are doing one of two things: deluding yourself, or trafficking with evil forces. There is no option three. There are no gods and goddesses, and the only spirits who would allow themselves to be manipulated by you are fallen spirits with evil intent.

Just turn away from it.

Valentin Tomberg

One man turned sharply away from just such an occult path and embraced Christ and his Church. His name was Valentin Tomberg, and he was one of the leading intellects of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. He abandoned the occult and became a Christian mystic, writing several books, including his most important, Meditations on the Tarot, for anonymous posthumous publication.

This weighty book on the meaning of the symbols is considered one of the classics of modern Christian mysticism, albeit one with some serious problems which are the result of Tomberg’s long immersion in anthroposophy prior to his conversation. He uses the images of the tarot to analyse different aspects of the Christian’s inner life, drawing on a vast well of knowledge, both Catholic and pagan.

Meditations shouldn’t be approached by someone without a firm understanding of theology and the literature and imagery common to Christian mysticism. It requires grounding in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who uses a unique terminology) and Hermetic Christianity, but will reward the judicious reader with profound insights. Tomberg’s mad erudition zips from St. John of the Cross to Eliphias Levi (!), from the Gospel of John to the Buddha, taking worthwhile images and ideas wherever he finds them and molding them into an almost-orthodox vision of deep Christian wisdom.

Some of the gnostic still clings to Tomberg and mars the work in places, and the bizarre juxtaposition of occultists and saints is hard to swallow at times, but there’s no question that it’s an important and challenging work by a writer who considered himself a devout and faithful Catholic.

An edited version of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay on the the book is included as an Afterword, and you can read more about his impressions of the work here. Von Balthasar greatly admired the work, with reservations. (Von Balthasar’s measured appraisal of the work is one of the sins trotted out to condemn him–and Bl. John Paul and Benedict XVI by extension–by certain rad-trad sites.)

Flannery O’Connor famously called the South “Christ-haunted.” She only got it partly right: the entire world is Christ-haunted.

Because Christ is the ultimate Truth, all things trend toward Him. All things that were true before Him anticipate Him, and all things that are true after Him reflect His incarnation.  Truth is found everywhere and in almost all religious traditions, but the fullness of Truth is found in Christ alone. And the more people turn away from Him, the more they find Him.

The great punchline of this entire series and the whole history of Tarot is this: Occultists think they are fleeing as far from Christ and His Church as possible. They adopt absurd and exotic practices. They create idols of the self and of imaginary beings. They use tools, which they imagine to be ancient and thus “pre-Christian” (and therefore “pure”)  for these practices. One of these tools is the Tarot.

The cards never would have caught on without the appeal–which still lingers for the vast majority of Tarot users–that here was something authentically ancient, mysterious, and wholly outside of the dominant Christian culture. That was the entire allure of Tarot: that it was non-Christian.

And now, when they can no longer deny the false history they peddled for so long, they act like it never mattered and everyone knows it anyway.

The original cards reflect our faith. The pope and the Church, the virtues, the mysteries of life and death, and the idea of a divinely ordered cosmos are all embedded right there in images create by a wholly Christian culture.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but the two books on the bottom of the pile on St. John Paul II’s desk have been identified as “Meditations on the Tarot”: a gift from Von Balthasar

I know I repeat these words of T.S. Eliot endlessly, but that’s because they contain the entire story of my life in four short lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

People “explored” the tarot so deeply they got lost, and only now can we really know these things for what they truly are, not for what charlatans and dupes imagine them to be.

You can’t escape God. Even when you wander far afield and into error, He is there. He holds Fr. Brown‘s unseen hook and invisible line, which is long enough to let you wander to the ends of the world, and still bring you back with a twitch upon the thread.

I couldn’t escape Him for trying. Even when I’m writing about playing cards, it all comes back to Christ. Even if you’re deep in the occult, Christ is there, waiting for your return: the one lost sheep of the ninety-nine.

God finds a way.

Posts in this series:

UPDATE: I always find the good stuff late.

The site pre-Gebelin Tarot History by Michael J. Hurst is absolutely jammed with material on the real history of tarot. We’re both working from the same wellspring (Sir Michael Dummett, who he appears to admire as much as I do) but he’s dug further and written far more.

He wrote a post on this series, and I won’t argue with his criticisms except to say I was writing a different kind of thing for a different audience. I was more interested in general, striking examples of potential card meaning, which is why I “took them out of context” rather than examining their place and exploring just “why” these cards are in the sequence, and in particular the position they occupy in that sequence.

I also spun out some fantasies of interpretations–such as the Franciscan/Dominican thing, which I don’t actually believe–in order to show how easy it is to read meaning into a card (or anything, for that matter).

I think it’s possible that the order of the images does not have meaning. Dummett allowed this possibility as well.  That’s an unsatisfying answer, however. If the order does have meaning (and it seems odd that it would not), we don’t really know for sure what that it is. Indeed, Hurst asks a worthwhile question: “Why does [The Hanged Man] follow cards like the Triumphal Chariot and Love, then Time and Fortune, and why does he precede Death?”

I have no idea.

We’re also working opposite sides of the same street. My writing here is catechetical and, in a sense, evangelical. From the “Out Campaign” icon on his page, I assume Hurst is an atheist. Our historical “agendas” are the same, but my theological agenda gives my writing a different purpose. Hurst is looking at pure history. I’m looking at what history tells us about the life of faith. Faith has to be grounded in history and reality or it’s worthless.

Here’s how he describes himself:

Caveat Lector

I’m a Tarot geek, fascinated by the factual history and characteristic medieval allegory of this remarkable artifact. The bad news is that I’m not an art historian. My only credentials are having read most of the salient books on the subject and having a strong preference for facts over fiction. The good news is that I am not an apologist for occult, paranormal, or other New Age nonsense, nor a sucker for pseudo-historical fantasy. That has made me a skeptic among the true believers who dominate the online Tarot community. These are some of my musings, to provide an occasional counterpoint to the pervasive New Age pseudo-history of Tarot.

He’s doing good work. Read him for more detail on the history.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com/ Melanie B

    I just discovered this series and I am so very grateful. I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on Eliot’s The Waste Land and have been stuck for months on the Madame Sosostris section, not knowing exactly what I wanted to say. Now I begin to see the way forward and am looking forward to resuming my series, having a much better perspective on the origins and symbolism of Tarot. Thank you for this excellent work. Really well done.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    One of the prior posts (not sure which one) has a longer thing on the Waste-Land in the comboxes, and the previous post goes into the errors Eliot got from Weston.

    Eliot on the Waste-Land is hard to track, because he changed his story after his conversion and acted like his footnotes and the debt to From Ritual to Romance was no big deal. He knew it reflected his pre-Christian self, but he was unable to disavow the work that made him famous.

    I also recommend this: http://www.touchpress.com/titles/thewasteland/ It’s annotated.

  • joannemcportland

    Thank you! This is just the best. I’m glad to have the Tarot back as windows into a very Catholic world.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Glad to be of service. Now you have to find a new copy of Meditations…

  • kenneth

    “And now, when they can no longer deny the false history they peddled for so long, they act like it never mattered and everyone knows it anyway.”…

    You really seem to think you’ve struck some body blow to modern paganism with this series. Tarot is not a central mystery or rite for any modern pagan religions of which I am aware. It is not our Koran, nor even Rosary, and any of us trained in any tradition even tangential to Golden Dawn and western esotericism know that the cards are heavily infused with Christian origins and symbolism, at least in their classic renditions like Waite. Tarot’s appeal to 19th and early 20th Century occult circles had much more to do with apparent Kabbalistic correspondences than with rebellion against Christianity.

    To the extent young and newly minted pagans seek symbols of rebellion against Christianity, Tarot is not even a third-tier contender. (They DO tend to wear pentagrams the size of tea platters, for example). Your position on divination (and paganism) as a general matter is what it is and that’s fine, but if you want to credibly attack us, learn what our central practices and beliefs really are, not what you’d like them to be for the purpose of scoring a point.

  • Rachel

    I enjoyed this series on the Tarot. As a history graduate student who knows a bit about Medieval and early Modern European history, I’m familiar with some of the symbols, etc you mention. I wished that you had gone into more detail of all the cards. That would’ve been interesting. As for as what you stated about anti-intellectual Catholics, you are correct. I consider myself a traditionalist but I know that Catholic culture in previous centuries is nothing like the watered down version you mentioned in the post. If some of these folks think the cards, the symbols are evil then they better not look at art books on Medieval cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts. They would probably faint at the looks of some of the gargoyles, etc.

  • http://www.parafool.com/ victor

    This post is a fitting keystone with which to cap off the most interesting series of blog posts I’ve read this year (even nudging out the the Iwata Asks interviews that the Nintendo CEO conducts with his developers). One thing that has always struck me funny (well, sad really) about those who attempt to use diviniation techniques like tarot: putting aside all the moral and spiritual objections to such tools — why aren’t all of these people insanely wealthy? When you consider what you have to throw away to get to the point where you consider tarot to be an effective means of fortelling the future, the payoff is rather lousy.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    How on earth did you read all that into what I wrote?

    My interest in dealing a “body blow” to pagans is non-existent. My plea to abandon a false and destructive path is just that: a plea from a prisoner who escaped the cave, adjusted to the light, and now wants to help others find their way out. I wasn’t even “attacking” occultists, “credibly” or otherwise. That you read observations of fact and personal history and experience as an attack is rather telling.

    My characterization of various aspects of the new age “movement” (using the term loosely) is based on direct experience. The people I encountered tended to be smart, highly literate, and often troubled or from a troubled past. They were, to a person, reacting to pain and experience. I include myself in that as well.

    When did I claim tarot was an essential part of neopaganism? Please, tell me the post and paragraph. Argue the point on the page, not the one in your imagination.

    By the same logic, you could argue that I’m claiming tarot is really an essential part of Catholicism. (Hint: I am not claiming this.)

    Tarot is just one element of the grand myth of neopaganism, which only exists as a movement in 2013 because of a string of falsehoods. That some people–such as yourself–seem to have read more deeply and may know the truth (for example, the lies of Murray and Gardner) is nice, but hardly evidence that the entire “movement” (again, using the term very loosely) has come to grips with their historical fantasies and jejune practices.

    It’s strange how you emphasize the tarot element, and pass right over my observations about the reactionary nature of new agers and the way they manufacture religions tailor-made to sooth their own egos and reaffirm their biases, drawing imaginary “gods and goddesses” from their own minds, and creating “religions” tailor made for themselves. Even something like Religio Romana is more modernist than historical.

    As I said, we can’t manufacture Truth: we can only discover it.

    Honestly? I’m not sure why you’re here. I assumed occultists would find these posts, and they’re certainly welcome to read them, but as I’ve said roughly several dozens times: I write for my tribe, as a teacher. I’m not really interested in what occultists think any more. I’m sick to death of it, in fact, having spent so long on the wrong side of right. Been there, done that, did the rituals, bought the shirt, lost the shirt…

    … and then I grew the hell up.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Exactly. If people who claim to practice ritual magic are in fact doing what they imagine themselves to be doing, why aren’t they all winning the lottery.

  • LeeAnn Balbirona

    I can’t stand to play card games, but I really enjoyed reading the history of tarot. I was one of those attracted to the artwork on tarot cards during my university years. Thank you for demystifying the subject. Valentin Tomberg is someone I will have to read up on further.

  • http://www.parafool.com/ victor

    Exactly! That’s what I’d be doing. Well, that and drinking polyjuice potion so I’d look exactly like Rebecca Romijn Stamos and then uh…I’d uh… winning the lottery. Right. The lottery.

  • Jo

    Thank you very much for this truly excellent, informative, and challenging series. I’ve enjoyed it a ton.

    With some preparation, I may have to give ‘Meditations’ a try. On the other side of the coin, one time I picked up one of Rudolf Steiner’s books not really knowing anything about him and stopped reading within 10 pages…majorly creepy stuff.

    I go back to the Four Quartets ALL the time-I reread it at least once a year. It describes so many truths about life (and death) so lucidly. If there’s one poem that all people should be required to read in their lifetime, that is it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

    As a Pagan and an occasional Tarot reader, I’ve enjoyed this series. The history of the Tarot is steeped in mystery and misinformation, much of it intentional. It’s good to see facts and plausible theories instead.

    The imagery on the cards you have shown as well as on the better-known Rider-Waite cards is strongly Christian. Contemplating these images is a very effective way to meditate on the themes they represent, and you are right to reclaim (or perhaps, rehabilitate) the Tarot for Christians.

    Though I occasionally make observations like those above I rarely debate religion on non-Pagan blogs and sites. This is your sandbox, and it doesn’t concern me if you want to believe in transubstantiation or the infallibility of the pope. But although I am neither a New Ager nor an “occult dabbler” (get in or get out – dabbling is a waste of time), I am a polytheist and your comments were clearly intended for me. And so I must respond.

    There is exactly as much – and as little – evidence for my gods as there is for yours. We can go over to the atheist channel and they’ll laugh at both of us. That you have a long-established tradition and I’m trying to restore and re-create a tradition that was wiped out (one of many – ancient Paganism was not monolithic and neither are its contemporary expressions) has no bearing on the validity of our theological claims. Ultimately, they are all based on personal revelation and are impossible to prove or disprove. That doesn’t mean they’re all right, it means we can’t say with certainty who’s right and who’s wrong.

    The idea that divination is either self-delusion or trafficking with demons is an unhelpful concept that has long been used for nefarious (dare I say, evil?) purposes. It denies our connections to each other, to the gods, and to the Universe. It tells us to forget our heritage, to ignore our intuition and assumes we are blind, deaf, and helpless. We are not.

    Believe what your brain and your heart tell you is true – if that’s traditional Catholic Christianity with its claims of exclusivity, so be it. But have a little respect for those of us whose brains and hearts tell us something different.

    And have a little humility – in the absence of conclusive proof, you might be wrong.

  • Kenneth

    You claim not to care what occultists think, yet you invested considerable effort in research (well done, I think), which clearly seems to be motivated by your disdain for the occult movement. You give much more weight to Tarot as an element of neopaganism, and frankly, you give neopaganism far too much credit for the development of Tarot as an occult tool. Your seething negative opinion of a vast and diverse spectrum of religions, from what you’ve written at least, seems to be grounded entirely in your own experience of it in one tiny corner of it during your teen years (a troubled time in the best of circumstances). How is this less reactionary than those who rebel against Catholicism out of some bad experience of it in youth?

    You might be surprised to know my own path was not born of teenage rebellion. I spent 12 years in Catholic school, was an altar server, had a generally positive experience with it all and got an excellent education. I was even encouraged by some to consider the seminary. I left the faith as it became increasingly clear I did not believe its core doctrines at a deep level, and not just superficial things like birth control. It was years after I settled into the role of a humanist and skeptic that I felt drawn to a pagan path. I denied it and fought it for much of a decade. When I finally discerned it as my true calling and surrendered myself to it, I felt truly home and at peace. The same experience, which (I hope) attended your conversion/return to the Church.

    You say you don’t care about what we think, and that is well, except for one thing: Your tribe, whether they seek to become apologists or not, will never be able to effectively engage the occult, or any other phenomenon, if they hold a stilted and simplistic and dismissive understanding of it. That is as true of Catholics just as much as of pagans who cling to uncritical accounts of Gardner or who take all that is “New Age” at face value.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I have not read this whole comment, partly because I’m on my phone partly because, frankly, it’s getting repetitive. But I just need to correct something at the outset: my experience with Golden dawn was in my teens, but I spent much of my 20s following Harner-style shamanic practices and I even wrote a few things for Shaman’s Drum magazine.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I have really enjoyed this, though I think I missed a few articles in the series and will have to go back and look again. I’m not going to even try to discuss this with my grandma, though. :D

  • Howard

    I understand what you’re trying to do, but I think that it can be a Quixotic waste of time to try to undo some connotations. The swastika used to be just a decorative pattern, but it will take centuries, maybe millenia, for it to again become just a decorative pattern. The word “gay” used to mean “lighthearted”, but it would take centuries for people to forget what it meant in 2013.

    The people who produce Tarot cards today are producing them for use in divination, not for a medieval game. If we buy such cards, we financially support people who are trying to promote occultism, and even if we use the cards only to play games, we run the risk of scandalizing others. This seems to be a situation parallel to the buying and eating of meat sacrificed to idols, but with two differences: (1) nutritious food is more essential than a card game, and (2) the meat sacrificed to idols was cheaper than unoffered meat, whereas Tarot cards are more expensive than a pack of Bicycle cards.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    That’s just not accurate. None of the many decks produced and sold for use in France are usable for divination at all.

  • Howard

    Really? OK, then, I stand corrected. I assumed the place to look for Tarot cards would be next to the Ouija boards on a shelf I have never looked for. I’ve certainly never seen them next to Uno and Monopoly.

  • Ron Criss

    Right on, Brother!

  • Jim Wickson

    What you’ve overlooked is that the occult Tarot is not the only modern Tarot. The Tarot is still used for card games today but Americans seldom see it unless they stumble across it on the internet. Tarot is not just a game for medieval times. It is an Anglo American prejudice which associates standard playing cards for playing and the Tarot for divination because the game playing aspects have yet to be imported to us in a major way. The Tarot game is most popular in France where decks for this game are as available as Uno or Monopoly. On the standard 52 card pack produced by companies such as Bicycle, these were actually used for divination prior to people using Tarot for divination.

  • Jim Wickson

    Steiner was indeed quite creepy. He was a racist pseudo-scientific crank.

  • Howard

    I have to disagree. An American who does not know what is available on the shelves of French toy stores need not have “overlooked” anything. This discussion is certainly taking place in English, not French or Chinese, and the presumed context is the United States.

    Yes, yes, and mirrors have also been used for divination, going back to ancient times. That’s not their primary use, though, and most mirrors at least (there may well be specialty exceptions) are not marketed to highlight that use, and they are sold next to tweezers, not Ouija boards. The fact remains that Tarot cards are NOT sold next to Uno and Monopoly in the United States; the people whose business it is to know their markets know that Americans do not buy cards to play an innocent game. In a better world, or even in France, this might be different, but that’s how it is in the America of the real world.

  • Jim Wickson

    At one time the occult Tarot was confined to France. The Golden Dawn members imported it to English speaking countries. While it may be true that Tarot cards for gaming are not currently sold by major retailers in the US, it doesn’t mean that they never will be. Before the end of World War II, pizza was unknown by most Americans.

  • Howard

    I would bet you a slice of pizza that occult items will be openly sold by major retailers before Tarot as an innocent game, but that would be cheating. I’ve already seen a book of love spells in the check-out line at a grocery store. It is one thing to say that the Tarot began innocently enough, or even that the cards can be used as an innocent game today. If you think that in today’s society the innocent use, however ancient, will displace the vile use, however recent, you are very naive. I don’t say that the innocent game may not dominate in the year 2113, because “today’s society” will no longer exist at that point; but *right now*, whenever society can choose between innocence and corruption, we are always choosing corruption. We won’t start on the way back up until we hit bottom, and when we hit bottom, we will break.

  • Marcia Wyatt

    I just want to say how much I enjoyed this series! I’m a Missionary Baptist (from the religious tradition that some people in America call “The Black Church”) who reads tarot cards. I was aware of a little of the true history before I ever took up the hobby–which is why I always rejected any divinatory meanings of tarot–but you’ve put it all in one place, added a LOT that I didn’t know, and connected the dots, so to speak, into a cohesive whole. Thank you for that!

    If you do further writing on modern tarot, I hope you’ll consider the following. As I’ve met tarot enthusiasts across the USA over the years, I’ve found that a growing number of them are like me. They reject any mystical or occult associations with tarot, and instead believe that the cards are a non-religious, non-occult way help them tap into their own creative, brainstorming subconscious.

    I’m of the latter, “brainstorming” persuasion, myself. I think that all of the evidence indicates that tarot–when used for so-called “divination”–is nothing but a glorified Rorschach Test (and I suspect this may be true for other forms of “divination”, like astrology). Many tarot enthusiasts take a very Jungian approach to readings. We think that the human psyche, because of its structure and affinity for narrative, will create a narrative out of blank symbols when given the right framework.

    For example, I find that I give myself very good advice when I use a Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck to draw it out of my subconscious. Because the symbols are so ambiguous I find they’re good at narrating my own common sense. So if I ask about, say, a guy I’m interested in, and the results seem very negative, my subconscious is telling me via the cards that I have a bad feeling about him that I’m not ready to admit to myself.

    When I read tarot for others, I see my job as to help draw their narrative out of the cards, and allow the person receiving the reading to find the connections with their own life and situation. I do my best to remain a blank narrator and help the other person weave their own life-narrative into the cards. This practice, when performed properly, allows participants to “climb up out” of their life and sit on an imaginary hilltop and look down upon the layout of their situation and get new perspective.

    Tarot readings are gaining in popularity as a non-occult, non-religious way to support and facilitate personal understanding and psychological insight. With the right deck and a quality reading, there’s a lot to be gained from the exercise.

    You might take a look at Dr. Arthur Rosengarten’s book Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility for more information on this approach. Rosengarten
    is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professional tarot reader/teacher with over twenty-five years experience. He wrote the first accredited doctoral dissertation on tarot divination (1985, at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco) and is currently in private practice in Encinitas, CA. A
    central theme of this book is that tarot “divination” and the field of psychology are essentially compatible – a long way from the occult or New Age-y crap that’s usually associated with tarot cards. From what I can tell, his book has been pretty influential in tarot circles.

    Anyway, thanks again for a great series!

  • Ross G. R. Caldwell

    Thomas, there are books using the French-suited Tarots for fortune-telling here in France. Any cards can be used for divination. However, the “Tarot de Marseille” pattern is sold as “Tarot divinatoire” here. This pattern is still used mostly for playing in Switzerland, as well as Piedmont/Savoy (where the cards are double-headed now (so there is no upside-down)), and the same trumps are used in Bologna. So the old cards are still used for their original purpose in some places in Europe. It is very hard to get used to them though.


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