Is Tarot for Real?
Why the cards work (maybe)
Why should Tarot work at all?
As both a student of Tarot’s history and a reader of the cards this question matters to me on more than metaphysical terms. It is also ethically important. Whenever I read the cards for someone — my method is a three-card spread — I want to be sure that I’m doing more than shaking a Magic-8 Ball or flipping a coin.
But am I?
In terms of long experience, I believe that something more than chance or a Rorschach interpretation is occurring. One July 4th weekend I offered free readings to social media followers. The response was more than I expected. I ended up doing hundreds of readings over a 72-hour period.
Anecdotal though it is, the responses that came back were remarkable. A woman who asked about her career path got cards symbolizing justice; she had already enrolled in a police academy. Another who wanted to know where to move got cards with two rivers; she had been considering Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Lots of replies were less specific but no less psychologically penetrating — including a reading I did for myself that forecast multiple benefits from a project I was unsure of taking on, but which has since brought me a wide array of opportunities. If there were lots of unremarkable “bad” readings — a charge often leveled by woo critics — they did not come to my attention.
For a while, I started charging nominal fees for my readings ($20) and then let my prices inch up. But I found that sometimes when someone wrote me in need I just couldn’t charge that person. I now do monetized readings only on special occasions or at events for schools, like the Philosophical Research Society (PRS). But the question of why, how, or whether a reading is accurate remains centrally important.
A story is told in the Talmud of a student who encounters a skull floating in dank waters. “How did you get here?” the student asks the skull. “I drowned others with my words,” the skull replies, “until my words returned to drown me.” I do not want to be that skull.
In addition to personal conviction and experience, I have a theory of why Tarot readings glean mature insight and even foresight. It is based on an observation made by some of Carl Jung’s students. Jung and his immediate circle worked with the ancient Chinese oracle the I Ching. Like Tarot, the I Ching tells a parabolic story through pictograms. Some of the psychologist’s students theorized that it is possible that a pictorial representation, such as a pictograph or sketch, captures a moment in time — but more than just a linear moment. A pictogramatic image captures, for a fleeting interval, an impression of past, present, and future; an I Ching pattern or a Tarot spread can function as a kind of multi-dimensional photograph or cartoon strip conveying all that is happening at a given moment unbound by time. Such an image is not flawless or immune to change, but it is a reasonable iteration of what’s occurring beyond the linear boundaries in which we typically think. Why should that be?
One of the things I consider in my book The Miracle Club is that linearity is an illusion, albeit a necessary one for five-sensory beings to make our way through life. Most of the time, we gather information through limited instruments of sensory measurement — sight, smell, touch, taste, sound — and naturally conclude that we know what’s going on. Yet quantum theorists, using much finer instruments of measurement, reveal to us a particle world in which infinitesimally small objects occupy states of “superposition,” or limitless possibilities and potentialities, which become localized only when a sentient observer takes a measurement. Likewise, serious researchers of psychical abilities have produced vast statistical records of individuals acquiring information in anomalous ways — gleaning images, coordinates, or symbols from a near-infinitude of possibilities without limitation by time, order, or distance. Furthermore, theories of speed, light, distance, and gravity have demonstrated — and in some cases proven — that time itself is relative, and time necessarily bends based on speed or extreme gravity. Hence, it’s no casual statement to observe linearity isn’t a real thing. That’s where Tarot comes back in.
If a Tarot spread can be seen as a measurement — and what else is it? — then it follows that its pattern of images may “freeze” or time-stamp an event from among a near-infinite range of possibilities. The localization may be affected by the attitudes and emotions of the card reader, which is why a reader’s intuition matters (hence, some are said to possess a “gift” for reading the cards). These localized possibilities are unbounded by conventional concepts of time; they can also shift or change based on intervening intentions or forces. But they are a reasonable “weather report” of what’s going on beyond our liner thought system and, hence, what is likely to be experienced.
Tarot is psychologically penetrating because its imagery consists of archetypes that are recognizable and emotionally meaningful to people from nearly every culture. Death, the Magician, the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune, the Lovers, and so on, are a visual code that proves evocative to nearly every human psyche. When we use Tarot, we use a universal language. I should, of course, note that I am specifically referring to the images found in the major trumps of the Florentine and Marseilles decks of the early Renaissance, built upon earlier Hermetic influences and re-envisioned with occult brilliance by artist Pamela Coleman Smith in the early-twentieth century.
I believe that Tarot and I Ching share a common capacity to tell a story of human relations using a primeval code of archetypal images. The readings and images that these devices produce are not playthings or random hits. They are, I believe, psychological and quantum measurements of the human situation at a given moment.
(This article originally appeared in VEIL, the journal of the Los Angeles Metaphysical Library.)