AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay first appeared in The Cartomancer quarterly journal a couple of years ago. Now that the 12-month republishing ban has expired, I’m free to offer it here. This subject is central to an understanding of the art of tarot reading, and I touch on it frequently in my writing.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of intuition as the sole arrow in my interpretive quiver. The risk of chasing my own subconscious phantoms rather than reading the plain evidence in the cards is simply too great. When I do rely on it, I always seek my client’s validation to ensure I’m not barking up the wrong tree. In his book The Tarot, French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell offered the most level-headed advice I’ve seen so far on the role of intuition in reading the cards:
“Harnessing the restless steeds of the intuition and making them do their work properly is the seer’s primary difficulty. To do this, it is necessary to form a picture of how the sitter’s thoughts and feelings affect him, or her, in order of importance or intensity.
The sitter usually needs help to do this, and the best method is to inspect the spread of cards, and then, in the way taught by experience and inspiration, give a general outline of the probabilities. Specific orientation occurs when observation of the sitter shows some matter of importance has been touched. This is an essential procedure because the variety and complexity of ideas stemming from each arcanum are immense. Moreover, the general sense of the reading, or part of a reading, will have an overall connotation that gives it relevance; without knowing what this connotation is, the cartomant, however gifted, may be in the dark. Material concerns, family matters or career each demand their own perspective and the reading must be aligned to it.
Intuition is a good guide, but in the interest of making a full and helpful divination, it is necessary to verify with the enquirer at each step if the intuition is taking the right path.”
The introduction of scenic minor arcana (or “pip”) cards by A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith (a number of which — notably the 3 of Swords — were inspired by the much earlier Sola Busca Tarot) started the ball rolling, Each card has a largely undocumented vignette, or “mini-story,” embedded in it, that may or may not be closely related to the meanings Waite intended in his companion book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. (My own completely unsubstantiated opinion is that in many cases Smith had her own ideas about the images, and — unlike Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris with the Thoth deck — Waite either deferred to her or wasn’t paying close enough attention to steer her; attempts to match the text to the cards suggest that they weren’t always on the same page.) Through repetition and custom, these anecdotal snippets — many of which have acquired folkloric status — have come to take center stage as the first choice in crafting a coherent story-line. On the surface, the prefabricated narratives are a boon to the novice because they offer a thread that can be pulled to obtain useful insights. Taken in another sense, though, they can “hijack” the deeper meaning in the cards and become impediments to a more inclusive understanding.
Before the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck, the pip cards were usually unadorned except for the appropriate number of suit emblems and a bit of floral ornamentation. The sparse symbolism inevitably pushed the reader back onto his or her own innate inventiveness, a dilemma that continues to this day with the Tarot de Marseille and similar decks. Intuition was charged with dipping into a fairly shallow visual stream, hence the reliance on number and suit correspondences for the bulk of the interpretation, along with a few less convincing attempts to coax sense from the ornamental details. Some people apply astrological and elemental associations as well, but those owe more to learned knowledge than intuitive vision. The relative paucity of books in English on the so-called “pip” decks attests to this difficulty.
Those who learn to read with decks like the Thoth and their “glorified pip” cards have both an advantage and a handicap. The advantage is that the pips — despite being little more than artistically embellished arrays of suit emblems — are extremely evocative in color and mood, stimulating an emotional response that in turn sparks the creative impulse. The handicap is that they’re still “pips,”with little on-board visual narrative.
Every tarot card is like an onion: it has layers that can be peeled back to expose different aspects of its meaning, whether mundane, psychological or spiritual. The more you know about a card and the more developed your story-telling skills, the broader the range of impressions you can draw from contemplation of the images. Sometimes completely random associations arise from this effort that have little to do with the artwork or the descriptive text, and it is in these instances that Maxwell’s advice becomes most crucial. It can mean the difference between a blank stare and a look of dawning comprehension on your client’s face.
As a committed story-teller, I find that total reliance on intuitive flashes of insight can be misleading. Although I might prefer to veer off on an eloquent tangent fueled by vivid but unlikely intimations of truth, I get more narrative mileage out of the other three “I-words:” inspiration, imagination and ingenuity. The chief difference is that pure intuition is self-referencing and isn’t necessarily rooted in the fertile soil of established wisdom and practice; the other three build on a structure that is already standing. While it is certainly capable of remarkable epiphanies, intuition can just as often produce an interpretive dead-end. If I’m going out on a slender limb that may not withstand the interpretive weight, I want the “safety net” provided by a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of the card I’m addressing.
Although there is general agreement that Spirit works through its own channels and speaks its own language, assuming that it will unfailingly deliver the “right” answer is an invitation to self-delusion, if not outright hubris on the reader’s part. (A direct line to Deity is likely to be indistinguishable from one to the Lower Astral, making it dicey as an omniscient “inside source.”) I lump divine intercession together with psychism and subconscious navel-gazing as questionable cartomantic practices, all of which afflict on-line readers with no direct access to their clients more than those who operate face-to-face. The cards in such cases are incidental to the process, more convenient prop than vital link to the querent’s personal reality (as ideally occurs when the querent personally shuffles and cuts the deck). The habit of making assumptions about a querent’s life without regard for anything more substantive than one’s own private vision strikes me as myopic. At least offer your client the courtesy of letting them weigh in on the relevance of any pronouncements made at the behest of your own intuition.
I’ve never thought too much about “how” intuitive reading happens; it just does. Ultimately it’s a form of non-verbal free association. The human mind first learns and then functions throughout our lives by making presumptive associations: things like “Mother is kind,” “Father is wise” (but then we grow up!); water is wet; fire is hot; etc. It’s a kind of primal shorthand that we don’t have to explain to ourselves or contemplate; the connections are spontaneous and incontrovertible (at least until we learn to manipulate them in our favor). The non-verbal insights that arise from evocative images are of this type. Obviously, narrative story-telling (unlike the best mystical poetry, which can cut across tautological excesses in an entirely non-rational way) is a rational affair, putting one word after another in a meaningful way, but the imaginative vision that underlies it — the flash of inspiration — is largely emotional. Perhaps we need to approach tarot with the expansive soul of a poet rather than the deductive literalism of a logical thinker. Rather than “practice” to attain this proficiency, the best advice may be to “relax” and “go with the flow.”
I’ve been thinking about what John Michael Greer said in The Druidry Handbook: the Western form of meditation is “discursive,” in that we choose an idea and mentally focus on it to the exclusion of all other thoughts, whereas the Eastern way is to empty the mind of all thought. Approaching a tarot card in the second way and letting its “feel” wash over you before trying to associate it with your store of previous experience in order to personalize its message would be one way to go. This happened to me with the Chrysalis Tarot. It’s called a tarot deck but it really isn’t; its pictorial vignettes don’t always follow the conventional (RWS) wisdom despite the 78-card structure, and it speaks from some other realm of visionary inspiration. This is the “alternate universe” we visit when we go in search of unique, undocumented impressions from our cards.
A tarot deck that bypasses one’s rational filters and drills deeply into the unconscious is a treasure to be savored. Unfortunately, in my experience it is also a relatively rare occurrence, and the best examples are justly celebrated far and wide. There is always the infrequent quirky deck that leaves many people cold but strikes a resonant chord with a subset of uniquely attuned individuals (the Deviant Moon — a riveting piece of “Hieronymus-Bosch-meets-Tim-Burton” artwork in its own right — is one that comes to mind, as does the Tarot of the Magical Forest, a worthy pairing for two-deck readings if ever there was one). If the ubiquitous RWS deck serves as the “superhighway” for intuitive interpretation offering a “fast lane” to mastery, and the Thoth deck provides an alternate route — a challenging uphill one — to the same place, many modern decks (as well as earlier classical “pip” decks) present intriguing byways that, given the time and care to penetrate their depths, can furnish utterly fresh and entirely unexpected vistas of inspired insight. “Instant gratification” decks of the RWS ilk may be the “fast food” of tarot, but the true meat of the matter lies at the heart of those decks that engage the wits in their successful unraveling. At the moment, the semi-quirky Sola Busca derivative and nominal RWS clone, the Mystical Tarot, has my full attention. Give your own less-traveled byways a shot; with a little patience and mental effort, you may be pleasantly surprised.