A “trope” is a story-telling device, a figure of speech used to illustrate an associated idea in a few well-chosen words. Common examples of tropes are metaphor and allegory. In the world of tarot, the garden-variety trope is often an historical or cultural analogy that stands in for a labored explanation of the insights derived from a specific card or cards. They can spell salvation when the meaning is clear but the right descriptive wording remains elusive. The Waite-Smith minor arcana alone offer a target-rich environment for applying this story-teller’s tool: the man in the 9 of Wands looks “bloodied but unbowed;” the 10 of Swords suggests a “scorched earth” scenario; the 3 of Sword — with the understanding that the number Three implies growth and progress — practically screams “no pain, no gain;” the combatant in the 7 of Wands is “holding the high ground” (morally or strategically); the woman in the 8 of Swords needs to “follow her heart,” since her head is plainly of no use. One of my personal favorites comes from the Thoth deck, where the Ace of Cups resembles a water balloon bursting on a pavement.
Mastering metaphor and allegory as a creative springboard for ascending beyond bland “book learning” and fruitless intuitive dithering is part of the showmanship of reading the cards for other people. Along with props like candles, incense, crystals and gems, and our often intricate and arcane methods of selecting the cards for a spread, inventive “yarn-spinning” forms much of the backbone of what I call “the theater of tarot.” I frequently use this expression when explaining that tarot reading is as much a performance art as it is a form of counseling. Although the objective is usually dead-serious, there is no reason why the delivery can’t be compelling — and yes, even entertaining!
At their best, tarot tropes are vivid and trenchant, at their worst, hackneyed and groan-worthy. Those we select to embellish our narration reveal a great deal about how we approach reading, which itself stems from how we answer, to our own satisfaction, the grand old question “How does tarot work?” Is it entirely mystical and intuitive, wholly psychological and analytical, or a potent blend of the two? In this era of New Age syncretism, there is a compulsion to refer every form of unconventional self-examination back to Carl Jung, as if doing so automatically legitimizes it, and to dismiss practical divination as a kind of “poor relation.” I certainly appreciate Jung, but I admire Aleister Crowley and Joseph Maxwell just as much within their own spheres, and they were no strangers to divination. While Maxwell (at least in translation from the French) is as dry as dust, Crowley is always good for a bon mot or two.
Although there is mounting scientific evidence that the distinction is a myth, it could be argued that the right-brain-dominant tarot enthusiast is more attuned to the creative use of language in the service of intuition, and will find fertile ground in the realm of story-telling techniques. The more left-brained reader is apt to rely on correspondences — astrological, elemental, numerological and such — to craft a well-rounded narrative. One will ply the client with colorful anecdotes, while the other will struggle to avoid getting too technical with the esoteric jargon. They would seem to inhabit parallel universes, one mystical and the other analytical. The challenge is to fuse them and enjoy the best of both worlds.
An autobiographical detour is probably in order at this point. As a lifetime student of the work of Crowley and a user of the Thoth deck for the last 45 years, my sympathies lie largely — although certainly not exclusively — with the analytical school of thought. While my reading style partakes of psychological rigor as much as visionary free-association, I seldom use tarot for character analysis, either for myself or for others, finding it better served by natal astrology. Instead, I focus on event-based situational awareness and developmental insights, both fair game for inspiration, imagination and ingenuity in story-telling. So I have a foot in both camps; I may be well-versed in the esoteric underpinnings of the modern tarot, but they seldom intrude on the tale I’m telling my client. Shared historical and cultural references are usually a better way to elucidate a point than dragging in abstract symbolism from astrology, numerology and classical philosophy.
To return to syncretism (the union [or attempted fusion] of different systems of thought or belief): the slow decline of the New Age movement has fostered an environment of soft-hearted affirmation, to the detriment of hard-headed pragmatism. “It’s all good” is its mantra, often applied to the interpretation of historically unpleasant tarot cards like the Hanged Man, Death, the Devil and the Tower. The idea that psychology holds the answer to any human dilemma penetrates to the core of all manner of esoteric practice, resulting in the neutering of several perfectly legitimate paradigms of negative reality. The last time I looked, “bad things” do still happen to “good people,” and wishful thinking masquerading as positive reinforcement isn’t likely to change that any time soon. Attempting to put a positive spin on cards that are intended to deliver an eye-opening lesson is doing a disservice to the querent, the diviner’s credibility and integrity and the story-teller’s artistic precision. The message can certainly be delivered with sensitivity, but it shouldn’t be soft-peddled to the point that it becomes innocuous and easily disregarded.
Another form of syncretism is the jamming together of tarot and other occult disciplines, notably astrology. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn developed a well-thought-out amalgam of the two, but modern tarot practice tends toward a more “seat-of-the pants” holistic miscellany. The tropes associated with the Moon card are enlightening: the affirmative interpretation arising from astrology is that the Moon is nurturing and emotionally effusive, usually in a gently supportive if somewhat transitory way. Its ministrations are tender and psychically astute, just what one would expect from a maternal archetype. A less charming view of the Moon, rooted in the tarot world-view, is that its emotional wavelength can be distorted, low-down and dirty, the kind that can’t stand the light of day. Those intent on seeing only the “good Mother” have a great deal of trouble coping with the idea of a nasty one. Crowley’s unflinching study of the Moon in The Book of Thoth is an ideal antidote for the saccharine haze that has descended on the card, but the apologists for wholesome tarot pabulum typically assume a “get thee behind me” attitude when the subject is broached.
Crowley, in one of his earlier forays into publishing (The Equinox), created the enduring slogan “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion.” This creed has long been my guiding light — assuming, of course that “religion” is taken to mean esoteric spiritual pursuits and not traditional orthodoxy. It strikes just the right note of logical organization and intuitive improvisation (as well as inspiring my self-proclaimed designation of “half mad-scientist, half mystic”). For the purpose of my excursions into metaphor, the most productive marriage of analytical and inspirational reading styles I’ve found approximates a 60% — 40% split, with the knowledge-based foundation providing an ideal launch-pad for more open-ended flights of imagination. The language I clothe them in usually follows the fanciful trajectory rather than the utilitarian one.
One parting thought: you could do worse than get yourself a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s visionary poem Kubla Khan, or even Aleister Crowley’s mystical poem One Star in Sight and spend some quality time with them. They will repay your effort many times over in igniting your imagination and stimulating your appetite for the language of literary tropes, which in turn could very well inspire your tarot reading.