The Tuesday Newsletter (8.3)
Following up on topics mentioned . . .
This week’s newsletter picks up some threads left dangling in last week’s “Daily Notes.” But there’s one bit of news to start with:
I’ve finished revising “Makers of Modern Tarot,” the third chapter of History, Mystery, and Lore. And I have to say—I’m seeing the material a bit differently now. More on that sometime soon.
In the meantime, I’ll be posting the revision in three installments:
“Complicated Beginnings” traces formation of the Golden Dawn.
“Splinters and Seeds” recounts the schism and its creative aftermath.
“Turning Points” examines two decks that reset Tarot for a century.
The colorful makers who shaped this period include MacGregor Mathers, William Butler Yeats, Alister Crowley, Arthur Edward Waite, P. D. Ouspensky, and Jesse Weston. Part 1 posts tomorrow!
Thread One: Jane Stern
In the years surrounding 2012, I was thinking about a lot of things—but not about Tarot. At least not in a focused way.
So I missed until now a Tarot book that captures my imagination in an unusual way. Confessions of a Tarot Reader (2012), is so remindful of my own experiences as a full-time reader that it feels as if I might have ghost-written it, and then forgotten.
That’s only an intermittent impression, of course. In skimming the book I often saw points of difference. But its 200+ pages offer an unusual glimpse into one pretty savvy person’s experiences in the odd profession of Tarot reading.
I stumbled over this book in the usual way—looking for something completely different. I always keep an eye out for incongruities, so when I saw a Tarot story in Town & Country magazine, it seemed worth a browse.
And of course the opening paragraph caught my attention, since I’m interested in how people first connected with Tarot. (Don’t forget to visit Survey #1!)
The author explains that Tarot-reading was a tradition in her family, going back through five generations of women, all the way to a great-grandmother who practiced hands-on healing in Russia. More than a century later, her own mother was a Juilliard-trained concert pianist—and in their upper-class Manhattan home, “reading cards was folded into the everyday routine of life, and seemed not at all strange.”
I immediately recognized writer Jane Stern’s name from her food-and-travel books, but was flummoxed about the Tarot part. So I did some research, discovered a lot about her life that’s interesting but not relevant right now, and found her Tarot book.
First I scanned the Table of Contents, which is made up of blurbs for each card. They capture in a very few words (between 7 and 12) characterizations that seem either true at once, or at least worth thinking about. I especially liked:
The High Priestess: Tapping into the mystery of your potential
Justice: Committing yourself to honesty and doing what is right
Death: Endings, beginnings, and the difficulty of waiting in-between
The Devil: Fighting ignorance, bondage, and hopelessness
The Sun: Finding sense behind the chaos of your life
Judgement: Preparing for your day of reckoning
Stern’s approach is more focused on personal experience than mine is, but I think these characterizations can also be looked at from (for example) communal or philosophical perspectives.
And in her very short Town & Country piece, she says these magic words:
The cards are mystical entities that come alive in the hands of a gifted reader.
Stern’s writing style is so entertaining that I’d love to include more quotes—especially the story about reading for a coterie of country-club ladies who “at first glance might have been clones.” But “when their cards hit the table, you could not have found six more different personalities grappling with six more disparate situations.”
If you’ve ever read Tarot professionally, or even just a lot, I think you’ll find Stern’s book engaging. (And I’m hoping you’ll want to participate in Survey #2, which will be active this week.)
Thread Two: Georgelle Hirliman
My other recent book discovery is Tarot—A Crone’s View. Like Stern, Hirliman was raised in New York, and was introduced to divination at an early age (her adopted mother was an actress and astrologer). But she only discovered Tarot after joining the Manhattan beat scene in the 1950s. She eventually moved to Santa Fe, where she became an investigative journalist and wrote a definitive account of the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot.
Then in 1984 she came down with a bad case of writer’s block. Her unique solution was to seat herself in a department store window with a sign inviting passersby to ask her a question. She would then type out an answer and tape it to the window.
Hirliman continued doing this for several years in different cities, and the result was a best-selling 1992 book, The Writer In the Window: Wit and Wisdom of a Sidewalk Sage. But all the while she was also reading Tarot.
Unlike Stern, Hirliman brought into her Tarot practice not only astrology, but also Kaballah and other esoteric aspects, utilizing the Thoth deck. However the two women have a common attitude toward the reading process. Hirliman puts it this way:
It took a lot of courage and trust, that first day of reading for the public, to put away the book, throw my blanket down on the Venice Beach boardwalk and read for strangers. I need not have worried. I learned when the day was over that the cards are stories that tell themselves.
Tarot—A Crone’s View goes through all 78 cards, one at a time, combining stories and insights. I’ve only sampled a few, as they are not really along my own lines of interest. But I love her description of reading as a process of “weaving,” in which the cards are the weft, your mind is the warp, and the layout (spread) is the loom.
Knotting the Threads
Hirliman and Stern came together in my mind partly because they appeared serendipitously on the same day, and partly because they talked about their Tarot beginnings. But beyond those connections, I was intrigued by the fact that both women lived lives in which Tarot practice was a foundational element.
Always there, yet almost invisible.
And both waited until late in life to produce their Tarot books, after accumulating a great deal of experience with life, writing, and Tarot. So they had a different, and in some ways deeper, perspective than many of the writers who have produced a lot (really, a lot) of Tarot books this century.
One other thing these women had in common was the willingness to climb out on a limb—Hirliman set herself up in a store window, and Stern resolved her own midlife writer’s crisis by training as an Emergency Medicine Technician. A reminder, perhaps, that Tarot practice can cultivate courage, if you take it seriously.
What about “Everything”?
I probably should have titled this issue “More about Some Things,” since I really haven’t covered very much territory. But I’m going to leave it as is, except for sharing a small puzzle . . . .
While going through the Tarot books I wanted to mention in Transforming Tarot: A “New Revolution,” I opened up Fred Gettings’ The Book of Tarot. It was published in 1973, and I don’t know when I got my copy—but I certainly owned it around 1990.
And I certainly opened it many times. But it was not until 2021 that a slip of yellow paper fell out of the book and landed in my lap. It contained handwritten notes left behind by a previous owner/reader.
I was fascinated by this peek into the mind of some long-ago stranger, and of course did my best to transcribe the notes. Here’s what I think they say:
1. The Hermit
2. The Magician
3. The World
4. The Fool
5. The Tower
6. The Emperor
7. The Sun
8. The High Priestess
10. The Wheel of Fortune
I. Juggler (Magician)
A Gemini card
Change required, especially change of attitude. Need to pull things together, to organize self or situation and to assess his position in a new way. Or—commencement of a new activity—perhaps impulse toward spirit—acting or writing—the ability to take risks, ? intelligence and persuasive eloquence. In reverse indicates cowardice and deceit.
On a deeper level development of self as a spiritual being (blindness to his own spiritual condition), turns his face away from the source of his spiritual being.
II. The Lady Pope (High Priestess)
Symbol of religion and light—Keynote—disengagement—or relation to the ideal or dream woman—female soul mate—lunar or feminine side of duality.
[ink color changes]
It indicates silence, the need for silence. A stranger and “religious feeling.” In reverse it indicates laziness, bigotry, excessive imagination and hostile intentions.
Hebrew letter Beth—contains idea of mouth or “tongue” and may represent the inquirer (if female).
There’s nothing startling here, and I imagine these notes were made by someone in the early stages of Tarot exploration. It looks as if they were using a conventional 10-card Celtic Cross spread, in which case the Magician would have been crossing the Hermit, and the High Priestess would have been in the place typically designated “Your environment.”
And for whatever reason, those cards must have seemed key to the reader—perhaps because he or she wanted to focus on spiritual aspects of the male/female dynamic.
We’ll never know if they went on to investigate the other cards, or tried to create a complete reading. No hint of who the querent was (if there was one), or what they hoped to learn from the cards.
All that’s left is the remnants of someone’s Tarot thoughts.
As to why they surfaced now . . . let me know if you figure that out.
Thanks for reading—and thanks for opening the Daily Notes so far! I’ve enjoyed writing them, and look forward to finding some new surprises this week.
Warmest regards, Cynthia