What is Tarot Good For?

Last weekend, I gave a local workshop on the astrological correspondences of the Tarot deck. We went through all the Golden Dawn correspondences, starting with the Sepher Yetzirah and examining the attributions of the Major Arcana, then looking at the Minors and the Court Cards. It was tremendous fun.

At one point during this workshop, a friend of mine (who is an expert Tarot reader and whom I would never claim to be able to teach) stopped me with a raised hand.

“This is all very cool,” she said, “But what use is it?”

This question caught me off guard. Not because I don’t think these correspondences are useful–there are some significant ways in which correspondences like these can contribute to a Tarot reading–but because it hadn’t occurred to me that usefulness was ever a necessary criterion for Tarot. (Silly of me, I know.) I grew up reading Tarot primarily for myself, and the authors from whom I learned Tarot–Mathers, Waite, Dummett, Etteila, and (ugh) Crowley–all focused on Tarot reading as a process of connecting with one’s higher self. Tarot as I learned it was not a practical science. It wasn’t oriented towards finding a lover, or a job, or knowing how a court case was going to go. The Tarot I learned was all about examining oneself, knowing the depths of one’s own psyche.

This is still very much the way I read. If someone comes to me asking for a relationship reading, or a decision-making spread, or something similarly pragmatic and concrete, I will give them what they want without turning the spread back around on them. (That’s rule #1 of offering any service: give the client what they asked for.) But if someone just wants a general reading, or just wants to better understand a situation, then I will almost always psychologize. A reading from me turns into “I’m seeing a lot of self-doubt here because of your relationship with an authority figure” or “It really looks like you’re projecting your own anger onto other people” or “You’re not being honest with yourself about what you really want in a relationship”. I always prefer for a Tarot reading to serve not as an examination of the outside world, but as an indictment of the self.

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Stolen shamelessly from the Internet. I got the image off someone’s Pinterest, so I figured it’s fair game. Let me know if there are copyright issues.

This is not to say, of course, that the outside world doesn’t or shouldn’t factor into my Tarot readings. Of course it does. The outside world provides crucial contextual information, a backdrop that helps to explain the issues that a querent is confronting. But when it comes to the real meat of a reading, I will always look first at my querent’s psychology.

However, some people, like my aforementioned friend, read Tarot in wildly different ways. For many readers, and certainly for most querents, Tarot is a fundamentally practical tool. It’s a fortune-telling medium, meant to answer fortune-telling questions. Is he the one? Will I get the job? Why is my brother-in-law not talking to me? And for these people, all the complex psycho-spiritual allegories of Tarot (such as the lovely Liber XCV) are much less interesting. Sure, they might be kind of fun in an abstract way, but they do very little to help us answer practical questions, so they’re not–as far as this camp is concerned–all that relevant to the reading of Tarot.

For myself, on the other hand, Tarot is made more useful with each added layer of allegory, symbolism, correspondence, or systematicity. I’m a big fan of the idea that the Tarot deck is a microcosm of the universe and of the human psyche, and each new set of abstract correspondences gives me another set of tools with which to examine that microcosm. In the case of something like astrology, I find it incredibly useful in my Tarot practice, because it allows me to say, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of Mars energy going on here. It almost feels like you’re angrier about this issue than you’re letting on, and you’ve been repressing that anger.”

But if a querent comes to me and wants a reading about an unfaithful partner, that querent probably doesn’t want to hear about her own repressed anger. (Because no shit, Sherlock, of course I’m angry.) That querent wants answers. Solutions. And those are the sorts of things that astrological correspondences (or Kabbalistic, numerological, or elemental ones) are much less likely to offer.

The practical and esoteric aspects of Tarot are both essential. A good Tarot reader should be able to do both, just as a good reader should be both intuitive and analytic. But I forget that sometimes. I am so comfortable with esoteric Tarot, with using the deck for personal exploration and growth, that I forget to be practical. I forget that sometimes, Tarot is actually good for something.

It is now a yearly tradition that my blogging lapses during the month of October. I hope to be back next week with a deck review, because I’ve just ordered two new decks in the mail and am tremendously excited about both of them. If I’m not posting weekly, though, I promise I haven’t died. Things should settle back to normal after Halloween. They always do.

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