Tag Archives: beginning tarot

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.

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The Celtic Cross is Kind of Terrible

photoWhen I got my first tarot deck, The Unicorn Tarot, it came with a little white book (LWB) that listed vague keywords for each card, the usual bullshit history about the totally ancient art of divination with tarot, and instructions on performing a reading with the ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread.

I tell you what, I poured over that tiny fucking book, pulling it out every two seconds and trying to make sense of lines like, “The spiritual unicorn reminds us of our spiritual selves!” and “He has awakened to his higher self, as we all must learn to do, given time.” (Hint: I couldn’t make sense of these sentences as a teenager because they don’t actually mean anything in real life.) I diligently (not to mention ultra-spiritually) laid out cards in that ten-card pattern, only to be immediately overwhelmed by New Age buzzwords and really terrible unicorn pictures.

Being a no0b, I did what most people who buy tarot decks do: I assumed the problem was with me and I put my cards away, because, clearly, I just wasn’t cut out to work with tarot.

The problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t even really my heinous teenaged taste in art. The problem was that the Celtic Cross is a poor place to start for anyone, and doesn’t even make much sense further down the road.

Near as anyone can tell, the Celtic Cross comes out of the assorted Golden Dawn materials and was propagated (if not totally invented) by A.E. Waite in the early 20th century. Waite was super into the Holy Grail/Celtic religion thing and was, like many of his colleagues, invested in demonstrating how there was a great deal of commonality in the various schools of occult thought, intersecting with ancient religions, etc., etc. Nobody at the time was really above making weak claims as to the antiquity of assorted pieces of occult wisdom, and the Celtic Cross just sort of gently leached into the magical water supply as the tarot’s popularity grew.

Whatever the Celtic Cross is, it is most surely neither ancient nor Celtic.

But even if it were, it would still be a crappy spread for beginners (and maybe anyone). I say this because it’s just a hell of a lot of information. Ten positions, plus ten individual card interpretations, plus whatever connections you make as a reader is just a lot of opportunity for overload. Especially when any one card provides so much detail that it could, essentially, answer any question. Whether you’re an intuitive reader or you rely on an esoteric system, there’s a ton to say about any single card. A beginner, especially one relying on a LWB, does not need ten of them. In fact, most of the professionals I know don’t need ten of them.

I very rarely use spreads that involve more than five or six cards. My favorite spreads involve three or less. I think it’s a mistake to assume that “more complicated question” automatically equates to “more cards.” Just consider how much has been written about any one card (including the minors). Consider the level of detail in each image (at least, the ones that come out of the Golden Dawn tradition, which is most of them). Consider the possible permutations for interpretation available in the combination of any two or three cards.

Less is more. Less often ensures a greater level of clarity. Less is fewer opportunities for confusion or conflict. Less is further safeguard against just reading whatever you want into a spread.

Don’t believe me? Try answering a complicated question with a single card. Pull out every detail and every bit of tradition attached to that card. I think most people would be surprised.

Coming back to the Rider-Waite

Working as a reader in a Pagan store that sells tarot cards and hanging out on the tarot Interwebs, I hear a lot of commentary about the various decks on the market. How to choose a good deck, whether or not you should even be buying your own deck, and all kinds of stuff about “connecting” to decks. But recently what’s interested me most is the language that surrounds the Rider-Waite deck and its closest variants (like my own cherished Universal Waite). It sounds like this:

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great beginners’ deck.”

“That’s fine until you connect with something more personal.”

“You’re still using the Rider-Waite?”

“I’ve got the Rider-Waite, but now I’m looking for something more advanced.”

I hear comments lIMG_6142ike the above almost every day, and there are a few assumptions at work here that I want to address.

First, there is the assumption that the Rider-Waite is a deck exclusively for beginners. I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between stating that a deck is ideal for new tarot users (and therefore a “great beginners’ deck”) and stating that the deck is somehow remedial (“…until you find something more personal/better/more detailed/whatever”). The Rider-Waite represents a keystone in tarot history to which the majority of tarot decks available today owe their structure and symbolism. Replacing Pamela Coleman Smith’s figure in The Magician with a cat holding a wand does not make this any less true. And because the Rider-Waite is a keystone deck, it absolutely is an ideal choice for beginners. What better way to learn than to go back to the source?

The mistake happens when we then assume that, because the Rider-Waite is both a good and popular choice for beginners, it is only a beginners’ deck and, eventually, we will all find something we “connect” with on a more intimate level.

When tarot readers talk about “connecting” to decks, they often mean locating those that incorporate figures or images that are more personally reflective. The images evoke particular emotions in them or make more sense to them in conveying traditional interpretations (or coming up with new ones altogether). Perhaps the art style is more appealing, or the images include figures that are more relatable (for example, a deck designed for gay men, or cat lovers, or Lord of the Rings fans, or Wiccans). Overwhelmingly, the basics of the Rider-Waite tradition will be preserved, however (illustrated minor arcana, the same set and order of trump cards, four suits with consistent elemental/magical associations, and comparable basic images, i.e. a Fool hovering above a cliff, a 3 of Swords that incorporates heart imagery, mounted Knights, etc.).

I get it. I too have decks that have greater personal appeal than my Universal Waite. As a Pagan, for example, I love the Robin Wood Tarot. Its Rider-Waite-meets-Wicca flavor satisfies my impulse to incorporate my witchcraft into my tarot practice and, frankly, it’s just better art than what I see in my Waite deck.

I could list others. There are plenty of decks that have more visual appeal for me than the Rider-Waite, and I can and do read with these. But underneath it all is the Waite deck, to which I always return. Not because I’m a beginner or because I haven’t properly connected to something more visceral, but because my love for history and tradition pulls me back around.

The second assumption underlying much of the above is that the Rider-Waite is simple, not advanced, or otherwise basic. People who use it are somehow unchallenged, inexperienced, or just haven’t progressed to something with real meat to it.

I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been reading cards for a few years and have described themselves as “masters” or “experts” of the Waite deck, and all I can do is gently smile and try to keep my mouth shut. What they really mean is that they’re comfortable doing readings with this deck. This does not mean that they appreciate (let alone understand) the intricate occult histories and esoteric systems present (alchemy and Qabalah anyone?).

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through studying the Rider-Waite, it’s that I’m never going to master it. There’s too much here, and I’ve only got so much time to devote to any one or two magical systems.

So in studying tarot—of any sort—it’s worthwhile to consider that maybe it isn’t so much progressing from the Rider-Waite but progressing toward it. For me, my use of the Universal Waite has been all about coming back around. With a growing background in the Golden Dawn and other influential magical systems, my appreciation for the tarot is a great deal deeper. Now, many Rider-Waite copies—while more beautiful—feel superficial to me. They often seem to be missing out on a big picture because the artist or writer was unversed in esoIMG_6143teric tradition. I think this is the reason why my favorite decks (aside from my Waite deck) are outside of the Waite system. The traditionalist in me demands that I study primary sources and not reproductions.

It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of great reasons to not use the Rider-Waite (offhand I think about Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, the glaring absence of POC figures, and just not giving a shit about the Golden Dawn), but because it is a “beginner” deck isn’t one of them.