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Is Tarot Necessarily Spiritual?

Photo on 8-3-16 at 1.35 PMOkay. First, I need to put on my religious studies scholar hat.

There.

“Spirituality” is not objectively a thing that we can locate and measure.

It’s constructed, both culturally and by individuals. Over time, we ascribe meaning to objects and practices, and eventually those things take on greater symbolism. They become spiritual. For some people.

As a community, we tend to talk about certain things as though they’re inherently spiritual. Meditation, crystals, drinking tea, tarot cards…you can probably make your own list based on the various “spiritual” hashtags from Instagram or Tumblr.

Like the more we meditate, the more spiritual we inherently are. Or the more tea we drink, the more enlightened we become.

But here’s the thing: those things are tools. They’re not in and of themselves spiritual. Thanks to some selective history and, frankly, marketing, we associate them with “spiritual” people. We forget that “religion” and “spirituality” (again, even the perceived difference between those terms says more about our cultural locations than it does about objective things called “religion” or “spirituality”) have looked different across millennia—continue to look different wherever we are in the world. Just doing and having particular things doesn’t automatically make us more anything.

I have at least a dozen Bibles in my house right now. In my hands, they’re just books. For Christians, they may be symbols of something else, but my owning and handling them has zero impact on anything in my life. The power isn’t literally in the book, or I’d surely be glowing by now.

Drinking tea might relax you and make you feel super witchy and receptive to the voices of the gods, and that’s fantastic and valid. But it’s not inherently in the tea. The thousands of other people drinking that tea from the same manufacturer aren’t having the same experiences you are. Your experience has more to do with you.

Someone else (hint: it’s me) is a lot happier with coffee or vodka.

And that’s cool.

Something becomes spiritual when you assign spiritual value to it. If it’s meaningless to you, it will continue to be meaningless no matter how much of it you drink, buy, or practice.

Tarot cards are not inherently spiritual. They became spiritual in time, thanks to the efforts of particular people. They used to just be a weird card game for rich Italians.  If they are spiritual to you, then that says more about you than the cards themselves. And you’re probably awesome, so that’s great news.

Cool.

Okay, taking my religious studies hat off.

Tarot is a part of my spiritual practice, but not really because it’s a divination tool. I see my tarot reading as an acquired skill, developed with long hours of practice over the course of years. Part history, part religious studies, part literary studies, part storytelling, tarot makes sense to me the way interpreting any kind of text makes sense to me. We take a set of symbols and we build meaning, based on our cultural backgrounds, our personal experiences, and our impulses (which are often just sublimated pieces of our experiences, not external messages from nowhere). If the gods are involved, it’s because, on some level, I’ve involved them.

Instead, tarot is spiritual for me because it’s given me this huge body of symbols—a language, if you will—to make sense of other things. Tarot is a map to my world. I think of people and events in terms of cards. I understand abstractions like “spiritual growth” or “initiation” or “shadow work” in terms of tarot symbols. It’s a way of creating meaning for me. It gives me context. I can say, “Oh, this was totally a Seven of Swords moment,” or “Holy shit I need to stop dating Knights what the fuck is wrong with me.” Instead of feeling like I’m alone in the world, feeling something no one has ever felt before, I can find reassurance in the cards. Yes, other people have been here, too. This is the next step on the Fool’s Journey.

It may not make sense to anyone else, but it works for me. It becomes spiritual.

So is tarot necessarily spiritual? That depends on what world you’re occupying, I suppose. For me, the Bible is just a book and a tarot deck is just a stack of printed cardboard. But I can see the power that they hold for people, in different circumstances, and I can respect that. It’s the thing the symbol represents that matters, which depends on context. The American flag itself isn’t holy, but perhaps liberty and justice are. When people get upset at the misuse of flags, it’s not because they believe that the flag is literally the country. The Book of Shadows I keep isn’t my practice of witchcraft. You could set it on fire and I’d just make another one.  I wouldn’t stop being a witch just because you took it from me. My tarot deck isn’t the source of my divinatory powers. If I lost it, I’d just buy another one.   The tea you’re drinking isn’t what’s making you magical. You’re magical all on your own. Your tarot practice is spiritual because you are spiritual.

Ah, fall.

photo-4Well, autumn is almost over and you haven’t heard much from me these past few months. I knew this season would be rough, and I’m grateful to see it come to a close. I’ve been teaching at the university, teaching at the elementary school, taking my own classes (finishing up the teaching license), teaching the periodic class at Laughingbrook, preparing for the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting, conducting tarot readings, writing for Patheos, running a coven, writing and performing a wedding (in another state!), serving on the board of my archery club, and trying to remember to feed Oliver periodically. Many, many things have sadly fallen by the wayside, and I’m afraid the tarot blogging was one of them.

But not to fear! I’m still carrying on with the meat of the thing. The shop is still open for readings, I still teach tarot locally, and I’m still plodding through my own tarot studies, if at a much slower pace than I’d prefer (seriously, I’ve been on this Qabalah project for almost a year). I’ve also got about a half dozen amazing decks that I want to showcase here (The Ghetto Tarot! COSMOS Tarot and Oracle! Plus some upcoming Kickstarters that I’m ridiculously excited about). I wish I had more time, but lately I just don’t (though I promise I’ll get to those showcase posts, even if it’s just pictures).

It’s discouraging having to pick and choose what to practice (I use that word consciously and broadly…everything we seek to improve upon requires “practice”). I love doing a lot of things, and it’s oftentimes frustrating to feel like I don’t have one niche the way other people seem to. In order to really excel at anything, you have to practice consistently, whether that means playing your instrument every day, regular target practice, consistently writing, or devoting your focused energies to building a business. But if I played guitar, shot my bow, threw my axe, ran, wrote, and studied tarot every day, I wouldn’t have time left to go to work, see my friends, or run my coven. Oliver would never have anyone to play with him. Chaos would ensue.

I’ve met people who are geniuses. I went to music school with one kid whose ear was downright scary. I know people with IQs that make me look like I’ve suffered a recent head injury. I’ve got a covenmate who makes every piece of art I’ve ever created look like drunken fingerpainting at one of those wine-and-paint chains. I know incredible athletes whose every movement makes me feel like I’m back in middle school gym, losing at dodgeball.

I’m not a genius, not a master.

I’m a Jack-of-all-trades, and I think that’s okay.

Originally—so I’ve read and choose to believe—the term wasn’t derogatory. In some instances, the full phrase is actually, “Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one,” and that’s my favorite version.

What looks like fickleness or lacking commitment is actually versatility, so long as I’m still improving and still being mindful when I do practice. I’ll never be a rock star, a champion archer, or someone who can make her entire living working with tarot, but I can be constantly improving and achieving satisfaction through doing what I can do and doing it well.

Tarot is one of those things that’s been with me for years and years, and I know it always will be. I can build slowly, improve on things one by one, and I’ll still see results down the road. There’s no need to beat myself up for not having time to read every book, or not having the cash or energy to take every class.

I think it also makes performing readings more special for me. Burn out is a real thing, it turns out, and when I cut myself some slack I find that my output is of a higher quality.

So I’m still around and you’ll still hear from me here! I’ve got lots in the works and plenty of big plans for the future. But I’m not going to stress over it. In the meantime, you can still visit me on Facebook (and like my page!), read my thoughts on witchcraft over at Patheos, and follow me on Twitter.

Tarot and Qabalah: What even is that.

e8b04a6b-c151-4305-b411-1843a680b9d3Until only a few years ago, pretty much everything I knew about Qabalah (QKC?ab(b)alah?) came through what I saw Madonna and Britney Spears do in Us Weekly.  I remember watching The Craft in the mid-nineties and seeing Nancy reading a book about Qabalah and thinking, “Why the hell would a witch want to read about that?”  I was both mystified and smug.

It wasn’t until I began seriously studying tarot that I started being able to orient myself.  For those of you who may be just as lost, I’m posting the following, which appeared in the February Tarot Skeptic Newsletter (which you should subscribe to if you enjoy this sort of thing!):

In the simplest terms possible, Qabalah is a Jewish mystical system that describes the creation of the world, our relationship to God, and the means by which we may achieve a kind of union with God.  The Tree of Life—the symbol that we usually see used in reference to Qabalah—is essentially a map of creation.  The word itself means receiving or received and there is an ecstatic element to the tradition (which is at least part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand through simply reading a book or two).  The roots of Qabalah are thousands of years old, but increased interest developed in Middle Ages.

So what about tarot?

Part of the problem with learning Qabalah in the context of tarot is that there are so many myths floating around (my personal favorite being that tarot comes out of Qabalah and was used to preserve Jewish tradition in the face of oppression).  Where to even begin?

First, understand that the connection between tarot and Qabalah was created within a particular timeframe (rather than over the course of a sweeping, expansive history).  Interest in Jewish mystical tradition had been growing since the 12thcentury, but it really wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century European occult movements that Qabalah became intimately linked with the tarot, and specifically through the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

It was Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) who was largely responsible for the association of tarot with esotericism and especially Qabalah.  Lévi was invested in combining a variety of occult traditions into one coherent system, believing that each conveyed some piece of a universal wisdom.  Later, the magicians of the Golden Dawn would build upon (and at times conflict with) Lévi’s work, building new associations between the tarot trumps and the Hebrew letters.  S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) assigned divinatory meanings to the cards according to their locations (also assigned) on the Tree of Life, and a variety of interpretations arose with the further development and spread of Golden Dawn materials.

All of this may have nothing to do with you and your practice of tarot, and that’s perfectly fair.  I see Hermetic Qabalah (because it’s important to distinguish between the modern, esoteric traditions of Western Europe and ancient Jewish tradition) as one more source of information and insight in understanding and interpreting the cards.  And I want as many tools as possible in my tarot arsenal.

For additional reading, it’s worth checking out Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy.  I also enjoyed Rachel Pollock’s The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth.  Both books are specifically about the Qabalah’s connection to tarot and are among the more accessible books I’ve found.  I’d also recommend the Qabalah audio course available from Tarot School, which was enormously helpful as I began to tackle such a heady subject. (Yeah, it’s expensive, but you don’t have to pay full price.  Sign up for the Tarot Tips newsletter.  Discount codes and sales are regularly announced over the course of the year.)

Sidenote: Confused about spelling?  Because Hebrew doesn’t transliterate precisely into English, multiple spellings of “Qabalah” exist.  A convention has developed in which the choice of spelling reflects context, with “Kabbalah” referring to the original Jewish tradition, “Cabalah” for the various Christian interpretations that exist, and “Qabalah” for those of us coming from a Hermetic background (i.e. us tarot folk).  Obviously, with some variation.