The Crane and The Snake: “Hard” and “Soft” Tarot Reading
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “Reading style” is a consideration that is always at the forefront of my thinking on the most effective ways to wield the tarot when divining for other people. I was just nudged a little further along the path by my study of traditional Chinese philosophy.
I recently finished a thought-provoking book, The Tao of Thoth by Ethan Indigo Smith, in which he relates the story of Chang San-Feng, the acknowledged founder of Taiji martial arts who once observed a snake and a crane in mortal combat. The crane’s attack was direct and linear; it swooped down from above and struck with beak and claws while flailing at the snake with its wings to drive it back and keep it off-balance — an example of “hard, forceful strength.” The snake countered with a sinuous, coiling, sideways gyration and lashing of its tail, sliding away from the crane’s stabbing attack while at the same time probing for an opportunity to drive home its fangs — a reliance on “soft, stealthy yielding” as an offensive posture. The reciprocal and offsetting dynamics of their movement — the crane’s staged from the air and the snake’s grounded in its contact with the earth — resulted in neither adversary being able to gain a decisive victory so they both departed the scene in frustration. The master found this chance encounter to be highly illuminating and instructive for the development of his nuanced hand-to-hand combat strategies.
This impressed me as a useful analogy for the two complementary reading styles that I incorporate into my tarot practice, one “hard” — forthright and literal — and the other “soft,” or fluid and imaginative. The former is firmly rooted in a profound appreciation for the cards’ traditional meanings and the seminal thinking of past adepts, while the latter thrives on inspired free-association from the images and a robust catalogue of storytelling tropes involving metaphors and analogies; this flexible mode of working takes its cues from the subject of the current reading and may not be identical from one session to the next. In practice, I begin with a pragmatic approach to the question that I then punctuate with more vivid observations informed by what is going on in the visual presentation of each image (often but not always a “scene”).
As a storyteller, I strive to first lay out the bare facts alluded to in the spread and then enhance the testimony with less obvious impressions that are intended to stimulate a spontaneous surge in comprehension ( the so-called “Aha!” moment). My remarks are usually structured like a complex sentence, with a “noun” as the main point or subject of each statement, augmented by expressive “qualifiers” that add definition to the general outline; the “object” is the gist of what each card adds to the reading and the “verb” is imputed to any actions suggested by that card that might be taken to manage the situation. Success lies in stringing these discrete, card-by-card sentences together into a compelling paragraph and then into a comprehensive story that the querent recognizes as at least reasonably accurate; this seamless synthesis is the “Holy Grail” of the tarot-reader’s art.
I’m a contemplative Cancer/Scorpio type with a deep-delving appetite for hidden meaning and none of the “surface-feeding” superficiality so evident in modern “app-based” (and other social-media-driven) tarot practice; thus I treasure this level of specificity as validation of my faith in the cards as a legitimate means of metaphysical inquiry, a convincing way to get under the skin of objective reality. But circling back to the title of this essay, I would describe my predominant reading style as “firm” rather than “hard” in a purely analytical or clinical sense. No storyteller worthy of the title can resist mentioning the juicy bits that bring a tale to life, and I’m no exception. But “juicy” doesn’t mean “squishy,” and I shy away from vague intuitive assumptions that can’t be tied directly or indirectly to impressions I can glean from the cards. If the images aren’t speaking to me plainly, I don’t think falling back on these ephemeral assertions is fair to my sitters since it throws the burden of finding the value in such “soft” presentments entirely on them. While I believe that a tarot reading should always be a dialogue, trying to connect with them through the artifice of such mystical innuendo — however charming it may be — strikes me as a dereliction of my professional duty. If they want that kind of unstructured perspective they can visit a psychic who will be happy to accommodate them.
As a system of divination, the cards of the tarot exhibit an implicit intelligence and conceptual coherence that should be acknowledged (if not always greeted with slavish devotion). Assuming that it has actually been learned (not a foregone conclusion in these times of instant gratification), this foundation should not be impulsively thrown to the winds on a whim even when intuition seems to speak louder than words. I believe tarot readers, both novice and veteran, can never go wrong by considering it a reliable touchstone to firm up their more tenuous notions when purely intuitive insights backed up by inspiration, imagination and ingenuity fall short of awing the sitter with their veracity. As always, the querent is the final authority on whether any wisdom we find in the cards agrees with their personal view of the situation (which, I might add, is always superior to our own once its subconscious link is pointed out them); I like to give them something more “meaty” to chew on than supposition.