Tarot Cards and Me

This is a slightly edited repost from last summer that I thought my readers might enjoy. 

Growing up, I was always afraid to look at tarot cards. Not that I came in contact with them much, of course, but I’d see them for sale at a local bookstore and stay far, far away. I’d read Frank Peretti and other authors talking about witchcraft and tarot cards and the like, and the demonic influence these things invited. In Peretti, the demons were real and physical, plaguing people and looking for anything they could find to invite themselves into people’s homes.

One of my parents’ friends spoke of confronting a physical demon in her house in the middle of the night, casting it out and concluding that it must have been invited in by her daughter’s rock music. So yes, I stayed far, far away from tarot cards. I did not want to invite any sort of demonic influence or possession!

Once I left my parents’ beliefs, I was still afraid of tarot cards. I knew it was irrational, but these thought patterns can be hard to kick. At the same time, I was fascinated by tarot cards, curious about these things my parents and others like them considered so evil. Finally, a few months ago, I bought a deck of tarot cards.

That first night, as I went to bed knowing there were tarot cards in my bedroom, I was afraid. I knew it was irrational, but I was afraid nonetheless. But nothing happened. Nothing seemed changed. I had brought tarot cards into the house, and yet even after a few days nothing was different. There was no oppressive force, no sudden failure of school or family, no inability to concentrate, not feelings of hatred or anger. Now of course I didn’t expect any of these things – I am an atheist, after all – but my fear of the tarot cards only disappeared as I truly came to see tarot cards as simply pieces of card stock with pictures printed on them, nothing more, nothing less.

I’ve actually learned something from tarot cards that I didn’t expect to learn. It seems to me that the way people tell fortunes with tarot cards is the same way people find pertinent advice for their lives in passages of the Bible. Growing up, I would read a passage of the Bible and it would almost without fail mysteriously seem to relate directly to my life and what I was going through at the time. Clearly the Bible was divine! How else could this happen?

Yet after studying the cards, I have read my fortune several times (very badly, I’m sure), and each time I’ve been astonished at how closely it seems to apply to what I’m going through. It’s not that I think they actually work or anything. I don’t. It’s just that our brains are somehow hardwired to find patterns and applications, and so they do.

If you want to argue that there is something divine or spiritual going on when you read the Bible and find applications to your own life, you’ve got to argue that it’s going on in the case of tarot cards as well, and probably also in the case of the Koran and other religious texts. And actually, this is exactly what many Christians do when they link tarot cards or the Koran to demons.

When I was a Christian, I used to pick one verse and meditate on it, trying to see what I could learn from it that day. And there was always something, something I could work on or some promise I could claim. I always found this soothing, and interestingly enough, you can do the same thing with tarot cards.

This card, for example, is the page of wands. The wands stand for passion and energy, and pages indicate youth (sometimes foolish, sometimes innocent and idealistic). So a page of wands essentially stands for childlike energy and optimism. It’s easy to see how you could meditate on this – thinking about how you need to approach issues in your life like this, or perhaps thinking about the pros and cons of such childlike optimism as it applies to your life, or perhaps thinking about the fact that this childlike energy can be foolish as well as optimistic. Really, wherever you are in life, you can find some way to apply it and have it mean something to you, something to encourage you throughout the day and help you to better yourself. This is just like how I used to mediate on individual Bible verses.

I’m glad I bought this deck of tarot cards. First, it’s helped me face my fears of demons and face them down (what could be worse than owning a deck of tarot cards, after all?), and second, it’s given me interesting food for thought about religion, patterns, and the human mind. And, if I ever miss having a Bible passage to meditate on, I can always use a tarot card instead!

Note: To those of you who may be pagan, I apologize – I’ve probably butchered this explanation!

What Makes a Person an "Atheist" Parent?
You Can Count Me out of Atheist Tribalism
When Demons Are Real
I Have Never Seen a Supernatural Entity Create a Universe
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Robert

    When I was a kid, I used to have conversations with God with thunderstorms. I would ask a question and if lightning flashed within a couple of seconds, it meant the answer was yes.

    The funny thing was, if I didn’t get the answer I wanted, I would just think of a new way to ask the question, with some new detail or minor change.

    At the time, it didn’t even seem like I was deluding myself into the answers I wanted, it seemed totally legit.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Ah, this gives me a chance to tell a story I am fond of relating…

    Perhaps the most startlingly accurate Tarot card reading I have ever had was performed with an insufficiently shuffled deck, with a friend and I simply reading what it said out of the accompanying book.

    Because of the insufficient shuffling, the reading consisted mostly of a handful of long straights, e.g. “3 swords, 4 swords, 5 swords”, etc. But there was a significant event that had taken place between us, and it seemed like everything was exactly describing my reaction to that event.

    I regret that I’ve never once played with a Ouija board, I’m afraid. Ah well..

  • chrisj

    Yes, I’ve found Tarot cards useful like that too. Plus the fact that your subconscious can make up a huge range of stories to fit any given set of cards allows you to use them to help work out what’s going on in your own head, at least some of the time.

  • http://offseasontv.blogspot.com BrianX

    Rather like Oblique Strategies really.

    Also, you can go to pagat.com and find some games to play with it…

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    That’s a great use for something like tarot cards. As the commenter above says, it’s a good way to get a glimpse into what your subconscious is working on. It’s the same reason I often ponder my dreams–not because they’re prophetic, but because they can give me a glimpse of things that might be bothering me at a more basic level.

  • Andrew G.

    It probably spoils the effect of the story to point out that tarot was just a card game for a century or two before it became adopted as an “occult” thing :-)

    • MadGastronomer

      A) It wasn’t “a card game” it was a playing deck, just like the modern one (which descends from the tarot deck), with which many games were played. If you’re going to the history of it, it’s better to do so accurately.

      B) It doesn’t undermine it at all. The tarot is part of a long tradition of people using whatever they had handy to tell fortunes, either as a game, or as a way to better understand themselves.

      • Caravelle

        I do know that right now in France there is a card game called “Tarot” which is played with a Tarot playing deck (…or at least what we call a “Tarot playing deck”, which isn’t completely like all the descriptions of the “mystical” kind of Tarot cards I’ve seen), and it’s AFAIK the only game you ever play with a Tarot playing deck.

        I looked at Wikipedia for the history and the earliest dates it gives are for the cards themselves without specifying what they were for, but it does date early examples of the game in France the sixteenth century, and specifies that the cards’ association with fortune-telling dates to the eighteenth century.

        The English Wikipedia page says substantially the same thing, except it refers to a “group of games” including the Italian Tarocchini and the French Tarot. Looking at the pages in question it seems clear to me all those games are closely related and basically versions of the same game – the main reason they’re different is that there are a few centuries of separate evolution between them.

        So while you can say that there are different games one can play with Tarot cards, they all seem to come from the same game which probably originated with the cards themselves, and it isn’t a situation comparable to the modern non-Tarot playing deck which has thousands of different game you can use them for, falling into many completely different categories.

      • Caravelle

        Because I thought this was interesting I looked further into the history of playing cards in general (all on Wikipedia, usual disclaimers apply). Seems the direct ancestor to the European card deck seems to be the Mameluk deck, which was basically exactly like a modern 52-card deck except the figures had different names and the suits were like those of the fortune-telling Tarot deck – but they seem to be typical of playing cards in Southeastern Europe, not specific to Tarot. In fact it seems the Tarot playing deck, with the trumps and the extra figure, came along a century later. So while I’m sure that both evolved in parallel after that, it seems clear the “ordinary” deck preceded the Tarot deck.

        (crazy asides on French decks which I think are hilarious and don’t know where else to share : the “normal” French deck has names on all the figures, names of heroes apparently. What I’d never realized is that the name of the Queen of Clubs, “Argine”, is just an anagram of “Regina”. That’s right, medieval card-makers couldn’t come up with four female heroes. Issues of female representation have been around for a long time apparently…)

      • MadGastronomer

        I used to have rules for several historical games played with the tarot, not all of which were the of the same type. I’ll see if I still have them.

        And I admit, I haven’t looked at the histories in a decade or more. At the time I researched the history of the tarot, the sources I saw said the modern deck descended from it. Sounds like it’s time to revisit the topic.

  • Kevin Alexander

    You know, if you’re short of cash and can’t afford a set of tarot cards you can get pretty much the same effect from the oil stains on your garage floor or the way that clouds line up in a way that’s so significant.
    Give your imagination some credit, give it a round of applause even. It’s the most creative device ever created.

    • Uly

      One night, several years ago, I saw a cloud formation that quite literally looked like a skull. Nobody looking at it would have seen something different.

      Of course, over the years since then, nobody close to me has had any sort of misfortune, fatal or otherwise. But I just know somebody else in my area must have seen the same cloud formation, had their mom or friend die, and thought it was all an omen.

    • leftwingfox

      True, but being able to apply it to outside stimulus and structure has benefit too. You pull a card marked “Change” or “Stasis” and it helps you to examine areas of your life where you think you need a change or might have fallen into a rut.

      Of course, the flip side is that the cards can also magnify psychological problems as well. Reading disaster and pain in the future isn’t going to help someone with their paranoia.

      My concern about fortune telling mechanisms is not so much when a person does it for themselves with the understanding that the meaning comes from themselves. My concern is once they view meaning as coming from the spirits, the universe, or most dangerously, someone else doing the reading for them. They become another faith focus: trusting the fortune teller reading disaster into your life is a bad idea if they share an office with a partner selling insurance.

      • http://www.facebook.com/mvils leni

        Of course, the flip side is that the cards can also magnify psychological problems as well. Reading disaster and pain in the future isn’t going to help someone with their paranoia.


        I used Tarot cards all the time as a teenager. I was rather obsessed with them. We used to hang out an all-night diner and drink coffee and do readings for each other.

        One night our pregnant waitress asked if we would do a reading for her about her baby after her shift. I agreed, so she joined us when she was done and I got to work.

        I have never, ever seen such an awful reading. And by awful, I mean every single card in the layout was about negativity, death, selfishness, anger, evil, spitefulness, and so on. I half-wondered if her baby was going to be the anti-christ.

        She was understandably upset and I was “forced” into telling her that she shouldn’t read too much into it. They were, after all, just cards and I was no expert. Maybe I had interpreted them incorrectly. I told her that something must be wrong and perhaps we should try again, but she left clearly disturbed and near tears.

        I still feel really, really bad about this.

  • jemand

    I really enjoy doing a similar thing with pennies, I get a whole bunch together, toss them, and then, with various things like splitting into groups, looking at dates, seeing which fall up or down, which ones are darker or lighter, more or less worn, whatever strikes my fancy, I set out a story or pattern that “answers” the “question” I asked them.

    It’s pretty silly, but when I want to be silly, or when I want a sort of routine but don’t want to go back to the “familiar” biblical fortune telling /advice extracting routine I grew up with lol.

  • microraptor

    I had a brief interest in Wiccanism when I was a teenager, and as part of it, I decided to get a set of Tarot Cards. I have to admit that I was rather amused by the instructions about how important it was to store them in a certain way so as to prevent “negative energy” from contaminating them even though they’d spent who knows how long sitting (probably years, given the area I lived in) on a store shelf in the mall after they’d been stored in a warehouse that they’d been sent to after they were mass-produced in China, and at no point between printing and my purchasing them had they ever received any such protections.

    • MadGastronomer

      “Wiccanism” is not a word. There aren’t Wiccan Dominionists. The religion is called Wicca.

      And, BTW, most traditions of Wicca teach that the reason to take those measures with any ritual tool is to set it aside in your mind as something special, to get a particular psychological effect.

      • John Morales


        Yeah, it is a word, whether it’s a neologism or not.

        (You’ve just seen it written, and you obviously got its meaning)

        Note that, regardless of what most traditions of Wicca teach, you can hardly deny microraptor’s experience.

      • MadGastronomer

        Fine, but it isn’t the correct word, and is kind of insulting to Wicca, given the parallel contructions of “Christianist” and “Islamist”, so the correction stands. The word is Wicca.

        And I did not deny his experience, I informed him of the wider experience.

    • John Morales

      Upon what evidence do you assign the male pronoun to microraptor?

      • microraptor

        I’m more curious about how MadGastronomer is qualified to say what it is that most Wiccans believe. It sounds suspiciously like “most Christians understand that the bible was never intended to be read literally.”

      • Caravelle

        To be fair she didn’t say “Most Wiccans believe”, but “Most traditions of Wicca teach”, which is a much more verifiable statement.

        I won’t say much more since I don’t know enough about Wicca to know whether it’s a [i]true[/i] statement or not, but it does strike me as a statement someone well-versed in Wicca would be able to have an informed position on, and Madgastronomer is much more well-versed in Wicca than I am (confusions on the origins of Tarot cards notwithstanding :)).

        (speaking of, I confused Southeastern with Southwestern in my last comment on that subject. Not noteworthy enough to correct it specially, but since I’m commenting anyway…)

  • F

    There was a short period during which a fellow at the place I worked would read a bible quote of the day off this calendar and explain how it applied to something in the news or some situation in the work environment. So I put a copy of Byzantium Endures in my locker from which to pick a random passage and divine a meaning.

  • Uly

    Yet after studying the cards, I have read my fortune several times (very badly, I’m sure), and each time I’ve been astonished at how closely it seems to apply to what I’m going through.

    You’d be even more astonished with a good psychic. Not that they’re actually psychic, but they have years of experience in figuring out what the person they’re talking to wants to hear and then making the cards say that. And then the client does the rest of the work, hearing the parts they like and discarding the rest. (Done really very well it can be almost like therapy, though it’s less stigmatizing to just go see a shrink.)

  • ismenia

    I’ve frequently find elements of books I’m reading applying to my life. When I was at school I read one novel that seemed to deal with all the issues on the religious studies syllabus, which was a surprise as nothing in the blurb had indicated this.

    When I researched my dissertation, my tutor (an atheist) said that he was a great believer in serendipity and assured me it would all come together. It was very true. When you’re thinking about a topic all the time, you’ll find things connected with it everywhere. As with the scenario above, I would find relevant material when I wasn’t actually looking for it.

  • John Morales

    The I Ching is basically the same thing, only far older, more complex, and cleverer.

    • Dunc

      I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying both the I-Ching and the Tarot, and while you’re right that the I-Ching is older, I’m not convinced that it’s more complex. Once you begin to understand the relations between the various cards in the Tarot it becomes capable of almost infinite complexity.

      • John Morales

        Fair enough, I’m certainly no expert.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    I won’t let anyone do a reading. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like prayer: a chance to say things about someone while disclaiming all responsibility for what you say. Hell if I’m enabling that.

  • Gordon

    A gay friend tried to use the tarot cards to come out to me when we were both credulous teens. He had me do a reading and clearly his unspoken question was “am I gay?” so I gave, what he considered to be, a remarkably accurate reading, and had no idea what the question had been.

    A few weeks later he had another friend just tell me while we were all having a sleep-over in my room. I think I just mumbled “oh, that makes sense” and went back to sleep.

    Clearly the accuracy of my reading was all in his head (where the answer was there for the images to cluster around) than in the cards, because the cards told me nothing.

  • Gordon

    I also remember how nervous I felt the first time I lit a coloured candle in my bedroom, certain that nothing evil could come of a coloured candle, but not certain enough not to worry.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=611455454 boselecta

      In fairness, quite a lot of evil can come of a coloured candle if you accidentally knock it over, or light it too close to the curtains. If someone manages to burn their house down in a tarot card accident, though, I’ll eat my hat.

      • Gordon

        Yeah, carelessness with candles can be dangerous. The worst a tarot card could do is give you a papercut.

      • Caravelle

        Some candles can also release chemicals that may or may not be entirely good for you in the long run. I imagine that would be even more likely with scented and colored candles.

  • http://homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/s0930006 John

    Here we have it, folks: irrefutable proof that atheism leads to witchcraft and sorcery! :-D

    • Gordon

      Or vice versa

  • http://www.l-a-s-h.blogspot.com Eric

    Here’s another use for tarot cards: Toss out the major arcana, buy a round of beer steins and you got yourself a tip-top night of midieval poker. You can spook your friends by slipping the Death card back in!

  • http://www.brooksandsparrow.com Angelia Sparrow

    I own several decks. I only bought one, the rest seem to come into my hands, mostly as gifts. I know your fear. I had it when I bought a deck. I had been wanting one, and finally found one that said “You need me” instead of making me go “meh.”

    The cards know nothing. What they do is give you a framework to hang what YOU know upon, and maybe inspire you to think outside the box about the situation.

    I have a GreenMan Oracle that isn’t tarot, and I found it a very useful meditation tool. (until I lost the book)

  • Emma

    Yeah, I grew up in that kind of environment, too. But, over the years, I’ve been at events where people were giving readings, and observed them closely, and came to the conclusion that it was like horoscopes, but with live feedback.

    Now, Ouija boards, on the other hand… I’ve actually gotten *more* scared of those over the years. I guess it’s because if my Wiccan friends and my fundie acquaintances say that something is bad and evil, well, I’m not going to risk messing with it. (and if the spirit world isn’t real, or if it’s harmless, I’m just missing out on one silly game).

    • John Morales

      Without denying your experience, I gotta say: Spirit world? Seriously?

      Have you seen the episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! about the Ouija Board?

    • Gordon

      Ouija boards used to freak me out too, but now I know how they work it is a little embarassing. It’s called ideomotor movement.

  • MadGastronomer

    It’s not that I think they actually work or anything. I don’t. It’s just that our brains are somehow hardwired to find patterns and applications, and so they do.

    Libby Ann, you put so much effort into explaining the actual positions of the religious culture you were raised in, it disappoints me so much when I see you say things like this, as if everyone else who uses tarot cards think they “work” by means of spirits or something.

    I’ve been studying the tarot for twenty years, and I am a neopagan. Most of the other pagans I know would say that, at least most of the time, the tarot works because our brains find patterns and meanings in the cards and spreads, not because the gods are telling us things. And most of us think that the ones who insist that it’s always psychic powers or whatever are flakes.

    I’ve seen you do this several times now, where you characterize members of a group you don’t belong to as all being like X, especially where X is something that either you think is wrong, or that society in general does. I really wish you would put as much effort into understanding groups you’ve never belonged to as you’d like others to put into a group you have belonged to.

    • John Morales

      I am somewhat bemused at how your first paragraph is phrased as if it were against that which you quoted whilst entirely agreeing with it.

      (Unless you think she was referring to neopagans rather herself in specific (and the beliefs with which she grew up in general)?)

      • MadGastronomer

        She says that she doesn’t believe they work, while saying that she does think they work in exactly the same way many actual tarot readers think that they work. By doing so, she certainly seems to be saying that tarot readers think that they work in a particular way. That is how she has failed to understand the views of other groups in this case. As I’ve read back through her archives, I’ve seen her do this several times, either implicitly or explicitly attributing a particular view to a group in general, without taking into account the actual views of those groups.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      Huh. I said this was a repost, as it was, but somehow the disclaimer on the original post got left off. I’ll go re-add it. It went like this:

      Note: To those of you who may be pagan, I apologize – I’ve probably butchered this explanation!

      And as John points out, I didn’t actually say anything about how pagans think they work or don’t work. It’s just that I grew up being taught that they do actually tell the future by means of the power of demons. I was merely responding to this, or attempting to do so.

      Also, if you ever find I’m misrepresenting groups I don’t have a lot of experience with, please let me know, especially if you have experience with those groups. I like to correct my misunderstandings. Petticoat Philosopher, a regular commenter on my blog for months, has done this a lot for me with regards to what Jews do and don’t believe and it has been very interesting.

      • MadGastronomer

        Heh. At least one other commenter here could tell you I’m generally extremely ready to jump in with a better explanation. And I’ll be happy to come back and give a more detailed one on this topic, after I’ve slept.

        I did, as I went back through the blog archives on the old site, comment on one post that I felt had seriously misrepresented a group I belong to (polyamorists). It was a post on placing spiritual and emotional importance on sex, I think. I’m sure you didn’t see it because you were in the process of transitioning over here. If you’re interested, I could probably find it again.

      • Rosie

        I don’t know that you butchered the explanation of why tarot (and any other kind of divination) works, though you maybe misunderstood what most Wiccans and pagans think on the issue. It is possible to be both atheist and pagan; I manage it, anyhow. I find my subconscious mind, which is, unfortunately, where all the “deep beliefs” that influence my emotional responses hang out, to be inaccessible and unaffected by logic and reason. Therefore I make rituals and practice divination as a way to access those beliefs and, if I don’t like them, change them to something that works better for me. It’s cheaper than therapy, and works as well for me (I’ve done both, and, yes, benefited from both). I prefer tarot to the bible for divination, though, because I have so many bad/triggering past experiences with the bible.

  • LeftSidePositive

    Man, I just had to laaaaaaauuuugh about the bit about demons entering one’s house through rock music!!! I mean, do people still BELIEVE that!?!?! They weren’t magically stuck in 1963, were they?!

    How parents could possibly be so afraid of rock music! I mean, my earliest memory of rock ‘n’ roll was me & my dad dancing around the living room to Pink Floyd and/or The Beatles. I was the happiest little three-year-old you could imagine! Who could possibly think that kind of pure joy was the result of evil spirits?! I just look in bewilderment at those who would be so afraid of such a thing, especially when it can be a great source of enjoyment and bonding for the whole family!

    I am, yet again, incredibly grateful to have been spawned by atheist parents…

  • grumpyoldfart

    One of my parents’ friends spoke of confronting a physical demon in her house in the middle of the night, casting it out and concluding that it must have been invited in by her daughter’s rock music.

    What do you reckon? Blatant liar, or raving lunatic?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      In my experience, it doesn’t have to be either. It’s easy to misinterpret a noise, or a movement, or to let your imagination run away with you, and then of course stories like this get shaped in the telling. I don’t doubt that she thought she encountered something, and that the whole experience felt really creepy and she got goosebumps and all, and I don’t doubt that she invoked Jesus’ name and then felt better. Our minds are more suggestive than we like to think.

      • grumpyoldfart

        Ah, you tricked me when you said she was talking about a “physical” demon. I didn’t realise it was just a noise she heard.

      • Libby Anne

        You can think there is something physical there based only on hearing a noise, or feeling a draft, or thinking you see something shadowy in the dark. Of course, I suppose turning on the light would just clear everything up. :-P

      • grumpyoldfart

        No. No. No. Fans of woo will never turn the light on – they might learn the truth and ruin a good story.