I'm asking hard questions . . .
Ten days ago, on Wednesday, January 6, I was sitting down to write a new Exploration Project newsletter. And I was pondering whether to resume my original plan or to recalibrate—based on what I’d learned so far about the time required to create a meaningful product.
I’d been wondering if there are enough people with an in-depth interest in Tarot to make the effort worthwhile. And whether it made sense to do the various marketing activities it would take to find out.
I could write a lot more about that thought process, and may. But looking back to January 6 opens a different line of questioning.
Between a global pandemic and a domestic insurrection—we live in historically difficult and consequential times. What connection, if any, does Tarot have with the wide world?
So I’m going to focus on that for a while.
From the Darker Imagination
If you haven’t read the “New Revolution” timeline I posted a while back, this would be a great time. And if you have—consider a quick refresher.
I mention that piece because there are a couple of milestones I left off. They weren’t a fit for the theme of positive growth in Tarot discourse, and they didn’t seem all that consequential. But looking back, I now see them as significant influences on the development of Tarot in the 21st century.
So here’s a look at one of those milestones. Some will remember (though most won’t) that at one time there was a very unattractive online “discussion” concerning approaches and interpretations of Tarot. Because it happened in an early stage of what became social media, it’s hard to pin down the date it began, or the stages it went through. But it’s fairly easy to describe the major cause, and I’ll do so below.
In the great scheme of things, people insulting each other about their attitudes toward Tarot seems like a really tiny concern. And I hesitate even to draw a comparison between those exchanges and the kind of things that have been transpiring on 4chan and 8chan or in QAnon Facebook groups. It’s gnats to elephants.
But I’m thinking about this in part because I just read a story from Cosmopolitan (go figure!) about the use of “wellness” sites and influencers to find and groom potential QAnon supporters.
Tarot is not mentioned in the article, but there’s much about crystals, yoga, astrology, and “intuitive” counseling. Those are words frequently found right next to the word Tarot in Twitter bios and ads.
I know more about Twitter than I do about other social media platforms, so I’ll only talk about my experience there. The Tarot-focused folks I follow range in their tweets from interesting and sometimes substantive to mildly annoying to overly commercial. A few make progressive/liberal political comments occasionally, but most do not.
On a simple hashtag scan, it would be easy to assume that Tarot is not used (or useful) as QAnon bait.
But I think that may not be true. When I first started to interact with Twitter more often (sometime last year), I followed one person who seemed to have a pretty typical Tarot-focused bio—and a comparatively large number of followers for a Tarot account. Then, within a few days, I began to see posts from this person praising the Trump agenda, promoting anti-vaccination sites, and retweeting conspiracy theories.
This seemed really off-kilter to me. Who is attracted both to Trumpism and Tarot? What thinking goes into that?
Unfortunately, I just unfollowed that person, and didn’t look into it any further. After all—at that point, QAnon was still considered a very small, fringy pocket of fanaticism.
But not so today.
When I can make the time, I plan to see what can be figured out about whether and where Tarot is being used in this sort of way. For now, though, I want to go back to the 1990s, and that minor but cautionary episode of Tarot terrorism.
The Saga of Jess Karlin
“Jess Karlin” (aka r3winter) was the online identity of a man who roamed the Tarot forums and discussion groups, attacking people, fomenting dissent, and generally causing trouble during the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, forums and groups were the way people connected online—and JK was what we would call now a “troll.”
JK was a really vicious troll, but he was also clever and funny, with an extensive knowledge of Tarot history and theory. Most of the people he attacked were not very good at rebuffing or outsmarting him, and he gathered a small coterie of supporters.
Part of JK’s agenda was plainly misogynistic. I won’t go further into his ideas and opinions, but there are parallels not only with anti-feminism (think Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” diatribes) but also with what I suppose we could call anti-establishment rhetoric (think second amendment fanatics).
I’ve hesitated about whether to show JK’s then-infamous “Tarotmania” map—but I think you have to see it (or recall it) to really understand how simultaneously clever and cruel he could be. So I’ve included it below.
First, though, I have to share one more thing about “Jess Karlin.” I actually met him, without realizing it at the time, in his proper persona. He was in fact a scholar of sorts, with a responsible professional position, and he invited me to speak at an event he had organized around Tarot art and history.
It was all quite serious and interesting, and he seemed like a very pleasant person. I only later realized that he was also JK—and that most people who interacted with him online did not seem to know that “Jess Karlin” was an alter ego.
Over time, JK alienated the majority of those who had paid attention to him, and was banned by most groups. I wasn’t directly involved with any of this, and lost track of the whole thing. But a quick spot of research reveals that JK maintained a provocative Tarot website from 2004 to 2008, then announced his own disappearance and took the site down. Eventually his real identity was outed, but no one seems to know what became of him after about 2010.
JK’s “Tarotmania” map is quite large, so you can’t easily read the text in this image. But perhaps you can get the gist of it . . .
The original “Tarotmania” PDF vanished from online access along with JK’s website. But if you want to see the graphic at full size, go to the Wayback Machine, enter http://jktarot.com/tarotmap.html, and choose July 21, 2006. (As of today, the download link on that page is still active.)
Why does any of this matter? In my thinking, because it’s a reminder that the Tarot community is not above (or beyond) the darker manifestations of human nature. JK was very intelligent, but he was also an ideologue—and a skillful, relentless bully.
The fact that his manner appealed to some raises the same question many of us now ask about Donald Trump. How (and why) do some people not only accept but actually admire such behavior?
Which brings me back to January 6, 2021.
I fully support using the Tarot for divination—and I think it can be a splendid tool for self-discovery. But I also see it as more than that.
At the beginning of the Major Arcana story, we are all Fools. The human journey depicted in the cards takes us through a long series of challenges and triumphs, deceptions and revelations, puzzles and possibilities. The journey is meant to culminate with a greater understanding of The World. Not just a personal realm of experience, but the wide world. The planet Earth. The global human enterprise.
If we can’t speak about Tarot at that level—expansive, meaningful, profound—at least some of the time, no amount of interpretive insight, artistic re-imagining, or historical research will make it truly relevant.
I hope that kind of grand dialogue is taking place somewhere, and I plan to go in search of it! In the meantime, though, I’ve made a short list of questions to ponder in the next newsletters. Stay tuned . . .
I always want to offer something extra, and in this instance, something happier. Here’s a post I wrote in 2012:
Charlie Brown meets A. E. Waite
When you find the same idea unfolding in two such wildly different documents as these, it's worth paying attention!
First, from folklorist Juliette Wood's relentlessly serious article "The Celtic tarot and the secret traditions: a study in modern legend making" (Folklore Annual, 1998) we have this observation:
Whether the tarot is viewed as essentially a fortunetelling game or as a code to a secret tradition, the element of creative inventiveness is very strong. In terms of this model one could characterise the tarot as ritualised inventive play which fragments logical rules and structures only to create its own internal order and meaning.
Then we turn to this wonderful reflection from "Why a Peanuts Tarot?" . . .
Charles Schulz let a whole life of emotion and conflict play into and out of his school-age characters...and through that brave act, we are able to recognize in his drawings a whole world of natural meanings and associations. Tarot cards can work in a similar way; they're wordless cartoons, designed to inspire thoughts and visions. Reading the Tarot, therefore, is a kind of improv game; the cards are merely props, tools.
The delightful and insightful Peanuts Tarot was removed from the creator's website years ago, for the usual reasons. But fortunately a copy showing most of the cards remains at The Wayback Machine. Search on http://templeofdominoes.com, then select the earliest date shown.)
Meanwhile, here are two of my favorites:
As always, thanks for reading—and please let me know your thoughts and corrections/suggestions. Warmest regards, Cynthia
Thanks for your newsletters. You are writing some interesting stuff here.
What you are writing about on this page strikes me as being in similar territory to your other recent engaging and candid post titled "The Problem with Tarot".
I think the `problem` is that it is very easy to claim authority around Tarot and other `psychic` `spiritual` pursuits (as it is with all of the all of the other "wellness" things that you mention here). People are desperate for identity, so the process flows easy to and from supplier and consumer.
Bluntly speaking, an uncomfortably large proportion of people who present themselves as Tarot readers/psychics and so on are simply looking for ways to create a spiritual ID, feel important, get some kind of power and of course make a buck.
I say this as someone with a lifelong interest in Tarot and divination who has been doing regular readings here in Glastonbury (Newage HQ UK)for over a decade and has felt to put the resultant ideas into a book.
I know that this sort of talk comes over as too `judgmental` ,`cynical` or `negative` in most Newage circles, but the flip side of that is: If more `alternative` people had their critical questioning faculty more functional, would Qanon/conspirituality have had so much influence on them?
To me, the whole conspirituality story has simply served to hammer home the truth of Lily Tomlin`s great quote: "It doesn`t matter how cynical you get, it`s impossible to keep up"!
Two possible solutions to the "problem with Tarot" might to be:
1. Accepting the discomfort that comes with the ambiguity surrounding the whole Tarot project.
It has been there from the beginning and is likely to be sticking around.
2. Keep a sense of humour at all times!
Keep up the good work
and very best wishes
Philippe St Genoux