Cartomancy is fundamentally a story-telling art, in which each card in a spread forms a scene in a narrative that logically advances the story from the preceding card and segues neatly into the next. The true test of the raconteur’s skill occurs when facing what at first appears to be a hopeless jumble of mismatched meanings. There is a powerful urge to simply pull more cards to guide us through this seemingly impenetrable jungle, but it can quickly become a case of far too many “trees” obscuring the “forest.” The situation is made worse, not better, by cramming even more baffling detail into the vista, and the reading can deteriorate into a nightmare of confusion on both sides of the table as we try to marshal our thoughts and regroup, or worse, we keep right on talking through the widening credibility gap without making much sense. I’ve been there, but not in a long time because I vowed never to fall into that trap again. We owe our paying clients better.

This happens less frequently to experienced readers, who have developed the knack of figuratively taking two steps back, drawing a deep breath, and thinking a little longer and more deeply about what the cards are trying to tell them. Those raised in a world that demands instant gratification of any perceived need can have a hard time mustering the requisite patience and persistence to do this, but it is an absolutely crucial ability to cultivate if one is to avoid frustration (or worse, client distrust of our abilities). For their part, sitters who have been weaned on the same sense of urgent entitlement don’t really know what to make of a contemplative pause in the narrative. They sit there waiting impatiently for enlightenment when what really should be done is to draw them into the conversation; at this point a reading should become a dialogue and not remain a one-way conversation. At the very least, we should discuss the validity of our more tenuous observations with the person who knows best (even if only subconsciously) whether any them are even remotely plausible. French tarot author Joseph Maxwell, in his Tarot de Marseille book The Tarot, had some of the most trenchant advice I’ve seen for this:

“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.”

I have several techniques that have served me well over the years whenever I encounter a murky outlook in the cards. “Intuition” alone isn’t the answer; it’s a fuzzy, overused catch-all term for bridging the gaps in a reading with “shot-in-the-dark” guesswork when greater interpretive precision is needed, not less. I much prefer the other three “I-words” in the storyteller’s toolbox: inspiration, imagination and ingenuity. Bringing those creative insights together with a little deep thought can penetrate the haze with remarkable swiftness and clarity, conferring awareness where at first there was only befuddlement. Of the three, imagination is the one that comes most naturally to the skilled narrator, and also the one that can most easily “connect the dots” between the sitter’s personal universe and the wealth of external examples that can be tapped to give a broader context to the individual’s point-of-view. It’s a matter of finding the right anecdotes to illustrate the thoughts you’re trying to express. The other two go hand-in-hand: when your creative inspiration is effectively feeding your imagination, you needn’t resort to ingenious excesses of invention to get you through; when it isn’t, improvisation can be your best friend, even if it can feel a bit like you’re “tap-dancing” around the truth. Its value will be judged by how well your sitter responds to it.

A second useful method is to apply the story-telling “tropes” of metaphor, analogy and allegory. Most people who share common ancestral roots possess a background of social, cultural and/or historical cross-pollination that can be invoked by weaving into the story-line a few well-chosen associations from both contemporary and archival sources. This inventive embellishment is usually as much fun for the reader as it is for the sitter, although its effectiveness can be diluted by the international reach of on-line reading venues, in which reader and client may have little in common other than the universal language of the tarot. Unless the diviner is an utter literalist who favors the “letter” over the “spirit” of the cards, much of this inspiration has its roots in visually free-associating from the images, at least with decks that are fully “scenic” in their presentation. Decks that are not usually require falling back on memory and experience to forge these evocative links.

A favorite of mine for opening up unexpected avenues in a stalled reading is the use of reversals. Although they aren’t universally embraced by the tarot community, they can provide a unique perspective by subtly altering the angle of entry and mode of delivery for the message, making it either more oblique or more internal. In these cases, exploring ways in which the querent can receive and process the information is more illuminating than predicting its outward expression in his or her life. There is a common misconception, still in use by some modern tarot writers, that reversal invariably denotes having to turn the “normal” meaning of a card on its head, creating an entirely opposite interpretation. This is obviously the easiest way for a beginner to grasp the concept, but it can lead to unfortunate habits when a reversed card is only trying to convey a more nuanced inference or minor variation on the card’s original theme. (Think of it as “throwing the baby out with the bath-water.”) Another meaningful way to handle reversal that doesn’t automatically involve a contrary implication is to simply explain them as showing something in the card’s encroachment that the querent may not see coming; this can be a happy or unhappy occurrence depending on how well one accommodates surprises. I often tell colleagues who don’t use reversals that they’re missing half the fun!

This leads to the final frontier: rethinking the entire thrust of the reading. For example, my preferred approach at the start of a session is to pursue the practical rather than psychological aspects of the narrative, since I don’t think tarot is especially useful for revealing what someone is thinking or feeling. (I often say “I read the cards, not minds.”) But there are situations where the querent draws a total blank on every mundane observation I make, failing to see any relevance in the overt testimony of the cards. I backpedal on the original line of inquiry and probe whether he or she has underlying issues of a mental/emotional nature that have been projected into the spread. Another productive approach, especially when numerous court cards are present, is to suggest that the attitudes and behaviors of other people who have a stake in the matter could be the most telling focus for the reading. (I’m convinced that sitters jump on this suggestion because they love to have someone else to blame for their troubles: “It most definitely can’t be me, it must be Fred.”) This can produce the “Aha!” look of dawning comprehension that every reader strives to coax from the sitter’s blank stare. It can spell the difference between profound success and outright failure. Although it is much less common, a third option is to explore more impersonal or universal aspects of the situation that could conceivably cut a wider swath through the querent’s private reality, much the same way natural phenomena can alter the physical landscape.

All of this begs the question “What are we, really?” Are we shamanistic soothsayers? Are we entertainers? Are we spiritual healers? I’m not a licensed therapist or counselor with the government-given right to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do about their problems, and I would imagine that very few professional diviners are. We are more like self-appointed tour guides holding the tickets to an unknown destination, illuminating the road ahead with our insights but not trying to remap it for the traveler in the same way a trained psychoanalyst might. As I suspect many of my readers are, I’m really only an imaginative storyteller with a love for the “theater of the tarot”and a strong belief that people can benefit from having their own subconscious awareness of life’s circumstances mirrored back at them through the cards they induce to appear in the reading via the customary “shuffle-and-cut.” Perhaps they can channel that newfound awareness into the wisdom required to turn things around when they’ve gone (or seem about to go) astray. But maybe all they’re after is an entertaining half-hour of chatter about their “personality profile” and don’t care a fig about the future. It’s all the same to the reader; the cards will say whatever they’re going to say regardless of the client’s motives. Sitters will hear what they want to hear and push the conversation down whatever improbable rabbit-hole they see fit. The diviner will be the steward of their journey but not the captain, and we shouldn’t accept that burden if they try to saddle us with it. If we as individuals truly “make our own destiny,” the purview of a tarot reading is as good a place for our clients to start as any.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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