The thought of Tarot card conjures up visions of a mystical woman in a shawl, with a crystal ball, telling you that you are about to encounter a tall dark stranger. She’s a bit intense, as she stares into your dilated pupils, spitting clichés into the air between the two of you. The room you are sitting in smells like incense, old book dust and perfume. There is silence, and then she shouts into the ether to ask whether there are any spirits who would like to relay a message to you. Silence falls again, and then…KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK: and you shit your pants.
The archetype has been use in films, books and urban legends. The image of the mystical lady, the clairvoyant and the witch are firmly tied to the cards. But this idea of them is actually a fairly recent occurrence as they were originally used for card games across Europe, in a similar way to a standard pack of playing cards. The deck that I use is one of the most popular around, and was designed in 1910 by Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Waite. They were a birthday gift from my sister, and I have drawn one card a day for most days since, noting down each one and it’s meaning, in my tarot journal. If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen me sharing a card some days in my stories. I photograph it and explain some of it’s meanings using words and funny GIFs (to give it a modern twist). It has become a bit of a ritual. The Death card doesn’t mean that you are going to die and the Hanged Man doesn’t mean that someone is going to hang you upside-down by your foot as a lol (unless you are booked on an upcoming stag-do weekend). I find the images ominous and endlessly fascinating. There’s something beautiful but also slightly scary about those cards, that demands your respect.
But it’s all a load of nonsense, right?
I’m reminded of a gifted Ghost Experience at Durham Castle I went on many years ago. The experience was a bit like an episode of Most Haunted, where we stayed up all night and everyone would sit around in the pitch black and scare themselves silly at the slightest noise from a creaky door or floorboard. I mostly remember being very cold, tired and hungry (I’m not selling it, am I?). At the end of the tour I had my tarot cards read by one of the mediums and the outcome was theatrical with a distinct lack of emotion or connection towards me. Just wild claims and guesswork about people that I might meet soon based on my then scruffy student attire. The stories that you hear of disappointing experiences like this go on and on: you hear of people’s Aunts (it’s usually an Aunt; sorry Aunts) spending their life’s fortune on getting a reading every day, all for that tiny glimpse of hope: something small to look forward to or to hear what they want to hear. But amongst the charlatans and shysters there is value, insight, connections and many other things that are worth examining and exploring, if you are open to it.
How often do you really take a close look at your life (apart from with your therapist)?
And that’s not the most fun is it? It’s definitely lacking some weird-ass pictures of devils, queens and death. And each of the images means something, there’s a wealth of symbolism there. You pick a card, read about its meaning and then figure out how it connects with the stuff that you are going through, because it pretty much always does, somehow. You could totally argue that the meanings are vague enough to fit any scenario, and while that may be true, it’s still forces you to really look at your life and consider the ways in which you can make things better for yourself and others. That can’t be so bad can it; if it makes you more aware and empathetic towards people around you? The point of the cards that they are open to interpretation, they have been purposely created that way. The reader has to put all of the bits together and read the spread as a whole. They have to step back and examine, really look, think and consider everything. The most important thing is that you are open to it, that you trust in what has been drawn and don’t just try to make it fit with what you want to hear.
There have been occasions where I’ve been ignoring someone because they have annoyed me and the cards have made me examine the reasons why, and confront the situation, annoying as it may be. There have been times that a card has motivated me to keep going, when I’ve felt down about my work, or disheartened because a project hadn’t worked out the way that I wanted it to. And there have been times when they had told me that news was coming, and indeed it has. Of course they don’t always fit neatly into my world, sometimes I’m like “what the fuck does that mean?” (these ones usually become clear at a later date), but oftentimes they do. One of the greatest things (and probably one of the greatest misconceptions) is that you don’t have to do readings for others if you do learn tarot, it can be a completely private experience. A way of examining your life and how you feel each day, checking in with yourself to see how you are doing and how you want to move forward.
The danger of one system for everything
There can be a lot of safety in systems, like tarot, magick, religion, political parties or being part of a company or any other group with rules and manifestos. Feeling like you’ve got the whole world figured out (along with everyone around you in that group) and are part of something bigger than yourself is important to us, because humans crave feeling connected, above all else. However, it can be a dangerous. If you truly believe in one thing above all other things it can cause your mind to close up and shut out other people, thoughts, ideas and experiences. I’m reminded of a very popular TED talk about the danger of a single story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that has 22 million views. Chimamanda speaks about the danger of using a single story to define a place, specifically Africa. How the misconceptions about Africa come from the Western stories that are told. Structures, systems and groups use stories to define themselves and others who are outside of the group, and these are what we must be weary of. We must be open to all of the stories about all of the things, and make the effort to seek them out.
And keeping an open mind to all the things is fun, exciting and allows you to have as many different experiences as imaginable. I try to imagine the top of my head has a trap door on it, and it’s always open, with a friendly glow. If I ever feel it closing up I notice and push it back open. Trying things out and not investing them completely to the point that you shut out all others is an invaluable skill for getting the most out of the short time we are here. Treating them with respect, too, is paramount. Not believing in them completely does not equate to taking the piss out of them.
The Queen of Cups
I’ve chosen to illustrate one card from the deck that I feel a connection to: The Queen of Cups. She’s here, she’s queer, she’s not in her underwire. The queen of cups is super cool (a little nosey, but cool), she’s the nurturing mother of the tarot deck who always knows when something is up with you and gives great hugs. The cups are a symbol for your emotions: when your cup is filled, you have lots to give out to the world and are able to help others, however when your cups are empty you have nothing to give and need time to retreat and refill (metaphorically that is, not with prosecco). They are also connected to water signs, which is why she’s hanging out on the sea shore. She’s available as a print from my shop here, as a reminder to keep those cups filled.
One can’t speak about tarot without mentioning “The Beast”, Alistair Crowley, a hero of the occult world who was around din the early part of the 20th century. He said of Tarot: “The origin of this pack of cards is very obscure. Some authorities seek to put it back as far as the ancient Egyptian Mysteries; others try to bring it forward as late as the fifteenth or even the sixteenth century … [but] The only theory of ultimate interest about the Tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe”. And a symbolic picture of the universe is how I think of it. There are many other pictures, many other ways of exploring the universe, but this is the one I’m using at the moment, and I’m enjoying it.