I have heard it said far too many times: “Tarot is about asking the right question.” And frankly, I disagree with that contention entirely.
I understand where the sentiment comes from. Tarot works best as a descriptive tool, so it doesn’t do well (or, I suppose, I don’t do well using it) with “factual” questions like “Does he love me?” or “When will we get married?” In that sense, it’s helpful to encourage Tarot readers and clients to reformulate their approach and think about Tarot in more open-ended terms. Sample rephrasings of the previous questions might be things like “What are the energies surrounding our relationship?” and “What lies ahead for us?”, because these are questions that can be answered thematically, through the symbolic language of the Tarot.*
But there’s something problematic with this fantasy of finding the “perfect” question to ask in a Tarot reading–this idea that if you choose exactly the right set of ten words, then your reading will work out perfectly, but that otherwise it’ll be a complete disaster. In my experience, this leads to querents coming up with ridiculously complicated, self-referential, legalistic questions, dropping them on a Tarot reader, and then not providing any further context to aid the reading.
Let’s take an example. Susan comes to you for a reading, and, knowing a little bit about Tarot and having heard that it’s important to ask the “right” question, has already prepared what she wants to ask you. She’s even written it down on a little index card. Her question is as follows: “What are the exact steps I need to take in order to be married to Jonah by next year, but without hurting his current girlfriend too much?”
She hands this card over to you, and asks you to do a reading. And she refuses to tell you anything else about the situation.
I haven’t had anything this drastic happen to me, but I’ve certainly had instances where a querent asked a carefully chosen question and then refused to provide any contextual information. (A common one is “What can I do to get out of my current financial situation?”) And here’s the problem with that: a well-wrought question is all well and good, but the reader’s ability to interpret a Tarot reading and answer that question is, at the very least, greatly reduced without contextual information.**
Let’s return to the case of Susan and Jonah. What is the relationship between the two of them? Have they dated in the past? Are they friends? If she and Jonah are exes who now live on opposite sides of the country and haven’t spoken to each other in months, the message she needs to hear is going to be very different than if the two of them are currently having an affair and Jonah has been contemplating leaving his current girlfriend for quite some time. And consequently, I, at least, would be inclined to interpret her cards very differently based on that contextual information. For example, let’s say you pull the following three cards for her:
How would you interpret them?*** In Case A (Susan and Jonah no longer speak), the inverted Hierophant might represent a rupture or falling-out in the past. The Four of Pentacles would suggest that Susan is feeling covetous right now and is unwilling to let go of her past relationship, and the inverted Knight would say that the only way for Susan to move forward would be for her to release this young man from her life.
But in Case B (Susan and Jonah are having an affair), this might mean something very different. The inverted Hierophant could suggest that Jonah was pressured into his relationship with his current girlfriend and is now having regrets. The Four of Pentacles could be the current stagnation in his and Susan’s affair and an inability to move forward because of his current attachment, and the inverted Knight could well suggest a need for change and release in Jonah’s environment (i.e. ending things with his girlfriend) in order for him and Susan to be happy together. I see how the cards could read either way (although if I had to read blind, I would probably be more inclined to give the interpretation that came with Case A).
There are some who believe that in a case like this, the onus is on the reader to divine contextual interpretation from the cards–that the reader must somehow know or intuit everything about the situation that Susan hasn’t shared. I am not one of those people. Yes, if need be, I can read between the lines and try to understand what a querent hasn’t told me, but I hate having to do that and I think that such guesswork is always less accurate than getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth. For me, context is king.****
So yes, a well-thought-out question is always a bonus, especially because it tends to mean that a querent has taken some time to reflect on his or her situation before coming to me for a reading. But the question alone is not enough, and in my personal Tarot practice it’s not nearly as important as the background information that accompanies that question. Some of the most successful readings I’ve performed were ones where the querent didn’t even bother to ask a specific question at all, but instead provided me with detailed information that allowed me to perform a general overview of whatever the situation was.
A question is a good starting point in a Tarot reading, but it’s not everything. A good question with nothing else may well lead to a crappy reading, and a half-baked question accompanied by a boatload of background information can result in something beautiful and insightful. But this idea that “Tarot is all about asking the right question”? In my opinion, it’s a myth.
*As opposed to, say, “You will be married on the eleventh of June, 2019, to a man whose last name starts with the letter Q. You will be wearing a cream-colored gown with cap sleeves and pearls on the bodice, and your mother-in-law will wear a blue cloche hat.”
**Different readers have different perspectives on this, and the question largely boils down to whether or not a Tarot reader is psychically able to divine information not previously known to him/her. People who believe this is possible seem to be much more comfortable with this sort of question-without-context scenario. I, personally, am not psychic and make no claim to be. Asking me to read for someone without knowing anything about their situation is like turning off all of the lights in the kitchen and asking me to butcher a side of beef. I might be able to do it, but it’ll be a slow, painstaking process, and there’s a good chance I’ll slip at some point and end up causing harm. And regardless, the end product is not going to be nearly as clean as if I had been working with the lights on in the first place.
***By the way, for anyone wondering, I actually did shuffle a deck and draw these three cards.
****Boy, that really is far too many asterisks in a row. It’s aesthetically unappealing. But until I learn how to do superscript in my posts, it’ll have to suffice. Anyways, this phrase is key not only to my Tarot practice, but also to the way I interpret the world around me. I used to tutor middle schoolers in literary analysis, and I hammered this idea into their poor pre-adolescent brains. Context is king. Always work with the information you’re given before you proceed to your own ideas, because the nature of the latter should be reflective of the nature of the former.