If everyone had to wait to be gifted a tarot deck in order to start reading effectively, most of us would be screwed. I would have been screwed, for sure.
I purchased my first tarot deck—Liz Hilton’s The Unicorn Tarot—for about $20 at a New Age bookstore back when I was fourteen or so. I had never heard that one shouldn’t buy one’s own tarot, and I would have disregarded such advice anyway. Who on earth would have bought one for me? I certainly wasn’t going to tell my parents I wanted a deck and none of my teenaged friends had any more cash than I did. I would have been waiting an awfully long time.
The old tale that a tarot deck won’t “work” unless it’s received as a gift is but one more in a long history of superstitions surrounded gifts and gift giving in magical communities. I’ve met Wiccans who insist that athames must be gifted and never purchased. I’ve met crystal healers who claim that the most powerful stones are those received from friends. And there are always neophyte tarot readers asking if it’s okay for them to buy their own decks.
I’m not a folklorist or historian, so I can’t tell you exactly where these kinds of beliefs originated, but I can provide some insight based on patterns I’ve observed and studied in other kinds of religious/spiritual/magical* communities:
The relationship between magic, religion, and money is pretty complicated. In the United States especially we tend to be very suspicious of religion as it intersects with the marketplace. Even though there’s plenty of money tied up in spirituality, it tends to collectively make us at least a little uncomfortable (though often we don’t talk about it). We don’t like it when preachers have mansions. We don’t like “mass-produced” religion. We don’t think we should have to pay for “real” spiritual and religious goods. We don’t like it when people charge for religious teaching. We don’t like it when we think churches, temples, or covens are interested in money (more times than I can count I’ve listened to ex-Christians bemoan the practice of tithing). Real spiritual people—whether we mean Christian ministers, Wiccan high priestesses, Buddhist meditation teachers, or tarot readers—aren’t supposed to be concerned with earthly matters like money and physical goods. Every professional tarot reader at some point will hear someone complain about how if we were really compassionate, spiritual people, we wouldn’t charge for readings.
These kinds of assumptions are obviously problematic because, in fact, there is a huge industry surrounding spirituality (and while tarot is not inseparable from spirituality, I’m including it here because for many of us it is spiritual). We spend money on classes, services, products, memberships, tithes, and clergy salaries, depending on whatever our particular tradition happens to be. And we like it. But most of us would be horrified to be accused of “buying religion” and more than a little pissed to be called shallow. And that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting. I think strong arguments can (and have) been made that this phobia surrounding money and religion is partially rooted—at least in the United States—in our early Protestant heritage.
Money is a kind of contagion. It taints religion, taints relationships, taints the way we interact in the world. At least, that’s the underlying assumption at work in the assertion that a tarot deck won’t “work” if it’s purchased. I want to resist these impulses because I reject that idea that industry, the marketplace, and the payment for services of any kind is inherently evil or destructive. Individually, I think it’s at least worth checking ourselves given the potential for hypocrisy here.
Aside from money, there are also assumptions about the mechanics of tarot reading operating here. If a deck won’t “work” under certain circumstances, the implication is that the power lies in the object alone rather than in the efforts of the reader. I also reject this idea, though that’s an entry for next time. For now, suffice it to say that, while I certainly believe an object can hold power all on its own, it is the reader who has the most impact over a deck’s effectiveness.
So go buy that tarot deck you want. It’s not going to break it.
*Please note that I use the terms “religious” and “spiritual” and “magical” more or less interchangeably. I tend to not make a distinction, except at the preference of whomever I may be describing.