I stole a sub-title from the “Theory of the Tarot” section of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth for this essay because I’m going to revisit the subject of “how tarot works” based on recent forum discussions (which frankly didn’t change my thinking on anything, just clarified it).
Premise #1: The tarot cards communicate knowledge of hidden things through subliminal means, whether via a psychic, subconscious, spiritual or other subtle channel.
The Evidence: There is no consensus on this premise, but “intuitive vision” sparked by free-association from the cards’ images seems to be the catch-all explanation for many people. (It just “feels” right, so it must be so.) In my opinion, intuition is too vague a term to describe what’s going on because it basically means “hunch” or “inspired guess.” There is really nothing magical about it; anyone can look at a picture and, after some thought, chain together impressions about its meaning, but that won’t make them a competent tarot reader. Such observations in the hands of a seasoned and sensitive diviner are singularly illuminating or at least uncannily insightful, but for the rest of us they can amount to a “shot in the dark,” especially with an expectant client sitting across the table: the old “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” gambit. Intuitive openness to suggestion can certainly enliven and enrich a more analytical reading style, but its subjective bias isn’t entirely trustworthy as the sole interpretive mode. (The question has recently come up “Whose subconscious are the cards talking to anyway?”) My own belief is that, at its best, there is a more discernible morphology to cartomantic divination, a type of mental physics or mentation that we have yet to understand, much less quantify. I’m convinced there will be a legitimate “psychology of tarot” someday, if not an actual branch of hard science.
Premise #2: The tarot always tells the truth.
The Evidence: There is plenty of anecdotal evidence attesting to the validity of this premise, but precious little empirical data. My own (anecdotal) experience is that the cards always have something pertinent to say about a situation (and, as Crowley once said in a different context, this can be “not a little of something but a great deal of something”), but the reader isn’t always up to the task of deciphering it correctly without help. Joseph Maxwell pressed this point home in his book The Tarot: “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.” This is where dialogue with the sitter comes into play, but those who only read on-line are inherently at a disadvantage.
Premise #3: The tarot cards have “personalities:” sometimes they’re talkative and informative, other times they’re sulky and won’t open up.
The Evidence: This is more a function (I didn’t say “figment”) of the reader’s imagination; the artist may have imbued the images with an emotional presence that conveys the impression of character, but ultimately the cards are only tools even when we relate to them as companions. It’s us, not them, making the distinction.
However, balancing that utilitarian perspective is Crowley’s wise but rather colorful observation that “Each card is, in a sense, a living being; and its relations with its neighbours are what one might call diplomatic. It is for the student to build these living stones into his living Temple; but he cannot reach any true appreciation of them without observing their behaviour over a long period; he can only come to an understanding of the Tarot through experience. It will not be sufficient for him to intensify his studies of the cards as objective things; he must use them; he must live with them. They, too, must live with him. A card is not isolated from its fellows. The reactions of the cards, their interplay with each other, must be built into the very life of the student.
Then how is he to use them? How is he to blend their life with his? The ideal way is that of contemplation. But this involves initiation of such high degree that it is impossible to describe the method in this place. Nor is it either attractive or suitable to most people. The practical every-day commonplace way is divination.”
Premise #4: An appreciation for the history and tradition of tarot reading is essential to using it effectively.
The Evidence: It depends on one’s definition of effective. If we’re trying to wow party-goers with our prowess, the farthest thing from our mind is probably what we read in some book. If, on the other hand, we want to provide a thorough and well-reasoned narrative, being widely-read on the subject will definitely enhance both the reader’s knowledge of the art and his or her credibility as a purveyor of that wisdom. At the very least, it provides a reliable fallback for interpretation when intuition falters in the middle of a reading and we must either keep talking or just sit there gaping.
Premise #5: There is good reason for ceremony or ritual when performing tarot readings.
The Evidence: Some readers like to create a mystical oracular atmosphere, either for themselves or for their sitters, by using prayers, incantations, incense, crystals, candles, soft music, psychoactive drugs, special shuffling techniques, etc. prior to and/or during a reading. But there is little or no proof that this improves the veracity of the experience for anyone but the reader. I like to think of them as stage props in the “theater of tarot” that may have entertainment value for the sitter but don’t greatly influence the outcome beyond potentially increasing the reader’s suggestibility to subtle clues.
Premise #6: Doing (or not doing) any of the above will make me a more accomplished tarot reader.
The Evidence: Not by themselves they won’t. But they might make you a more well-rounded and thoughtful one.
I’m sure there are other imaginative assumptions that are cherished as gospel by at least some in the tarot community, but that’s what I came up with this time around.