The Myths of Tarot: Sacred Cows and Tin Gods

I haven’t had a good rant in a while and this topic has come ‘round again with a vengeance. As I cruise the Facebook tarot pages I keep encountering the same old tired myths related to the tarot, usually brought up by neophytes who haven’t been told any different. Not all of these folkloric superstitions are new, but there are still self-styled “masters” out there who should know better filling students’ heads with dumb mystical notions.

For example, “You must be gifted or steal your first tarot deck, you can’t buy it.” Excuse me, but that’s utter nonsense. Buy what you like and live happily ever after (or at least until you get the inevitable yen for a new deck.)

Next up, “You need to cleanse your decks of the negative energies that accumulate when other people handle them.” So, decks have tiny little receptors that glom onto gobs of nasty psychic garbage and cling tenaciously to that residual debris, tainting their testimony until scrubbed? More BS, although perhaps understandable and forgivable among the crystal-and-incense crowd. Cards are only cardboard and ink, not metaphysical sponges that soak up bad vibes.

In the same vein, “You must ‘ground’ or spiritually protect yourself through prayer or invocation” (ostensibly to keep the malicious “elemental spirits,” “demons” and “psychic vampires” at bay). This one seems to be rooted in latent religious assumptions of dubious veracity rather than any evidence of a tangible threat. But, yes, the Astral Plane does hold hazards for those unfamiliar with its ways. Anyone that psychologically fragile should probably be doing crossword puzzles instead of mucking about in the Unknown.

How about “You should never read for yourself.” Huh? How else is one supposed to learn. When using a tarot deck we are really invoking our own subconscious as if in a mirror. In that light, reading for oneself is unavoidable and desirable from a self-awareness perspective.

Another favorite is “My deck stopped talking to me/doesn’t like me/gives me the wrong answers.” This is known as “projection” and has its origin in animism: the attribution of sentience to inanimate objects. Tarot decks don’t have personalities of their own (they simply reflect ours) and can’t hold grudges, no matter how much we anthropomorphize them.

There is also a persistent belief that we should sleep with a new deck under our pillow so our intuitive faculties will somehow bond with it. Aleister Crowley said we must live with our cards and they with us, but he advocated using them for divination as the most practical way to accomplish this, not relying on psychic osmosis. Bathing them in moonlight is a related tactic that is endearing but ultimately unnecessary.

But lately the one that gets my proverbial goat the most is that it is preferable — even essential — to shuffle the deck in a way that causes (not just carelessly allows) random cards to pop out and fall on the table or floor (a phenomenon called “jumpers”). The belief is that these heretofore coincidental deficiencies in handling are somehow magically freighted with special significance, and the operative assumption is usually that “spirit” intervenes and jostles these wayward cards out of our fingers in order to bring them to our attention. Personally, I don’t think astral spirits are actively interested in what we’re doing with the cards unless we summon and implore or compel them to give us their insights, in which case they might well be pissed. (As you can probably guess, I find the assumed benign partiality of “spirit guides” to be highly suspect.) Some people select cards for a reading in no other way. I happen to shuffle with the intention that no cards fall out of the deck since I believe any cards that are vital for the narrative will appear in the deal, and I have no plans to become (even more) sloppy in order to invite fortuitous jumpers.

A tarot card is nothing more than a symbolic device — a signal or prompt — to excite our memory and imagination in a particularly cogent manner. It doesn’t have opinions or attitudes and it doesn’t willfully wiggle out of our grip with some premeditated mission in mind. The magic is in us, not in the cards, and the latter absorb our subconscious imprint through the shuffle and cut in ways that arrange them into an intelligible pattern of meaning. A reading is a form of creative expression (“storytelling”) as surely as are writing a poem and painting a picture; the medium may be less refined but the objectives are comparable. If we are lax in our concentration, we can expect an imperfect “capture” of our imaging capability, such that we might find ourselves gazing into the divinatory equivalent of a “funhouse mirror” (or maybe into a metaphorical Jackson Pollock canvas with its befuddling mishmash of colors). There is nothing mythical in that possibility, it is an all-too-real likelihood, especially if we believe that the cards are potentially perverse agents of something outside ourselves that demand unreasoning adherence to their curiously irrational whims.

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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