After asking a big question in the last newsletter, I felt honor-bound to look around for big ideas about Tarot and its relationship to the wider world. I’m just getting started, and will share whatever I find.
But first, I tried to organize/describe the field of inquiry. I’m thinking right now that there are five places to look:
Art (decks that try to make larger connections)
Conservation (collectors/curators preserving Tarot history)
Ideas (new/different approaches)
Writing (books and blogs that offer expanded visions of Tarot)
Community (groups that discuss Tarot in depth)
I’ve already found some interesting material in the first four categories, and look forward to sharing soon. Preview/teaser: a deck that documents the counterculture movement; the latest on a legendary collector; a view of Tarot based on networking algorithms; and bloggers who connect Tarot with the experience of physical disability.
For now, though—I want to share insights from two readers who responded to my recent newsletters.
I included this short reflection (written in 2005) in a previous Exploration Project newsletter, but for those who didn’t read it then, here it is again:
The Trouble with Tarot
The trouble is . . . Tarot morphs into whatever someone wants it to be. It’s a unique repository of archetypal imagery, a remarkable tool for intuitive awareness, a coded book of secret knowledge, a cheap trick used by the unscrupulous to exploit the unsophisticated — and more!
The Tarot can’t be captured. There’s no explanation except what we make up, and since everyone makes up their own, it’s a wonder we can carry on a discussion at all. Even the “traditions” that people align with today are simply ideas that were invented by people in previous eras, based on nothing at all but imagination.
The Tarot, like the Bible, is peculiarly powerful and entirely ambiguous. In fact, in both cases the power derives to a large extent from the ambiguity. Very little can be proved about the origins or meaning of either the Tarot or the Bible, but you also can’t disprove very much. And since both are essentially collections of universal human experiences — expressed in the Bible through stories and in the Tarot through visual images — any individual can relate to their contents.
What mirrors us fascinates us. And it’s easy to think that because something seems to fit our personal needs so perfectly, it must be an expression of truth. Or that because we can identify with something, we therefore understand it.
The trouble is . . . Tarot, like the Bible, can inspire fundamentalism among those who are uncomfortable with ambiguity. And it can be used to manipulate other people by those who enjoy power and/or seek profit.
That said — I wish I knew how to end this post, but it appears I don’t. Any suggestions?
One person sent me a very thoughtful response. Among other things, she commented on the statement “invented by people in previous eras, based on nothing at all but imagination,” pointing out that through imagination we can connect with an important tradition of collective wisdom—and I think that’s a very valid point.
Her note ended this way:
But you do make me question whether we are responsible to try and educate people to avoid charlatans in our own Tarot backyard.
Here’s what I wrote back to her:
I've been thinking a lot about the commercialization of Tarot--and not just by people I would call charlatans. As long as there is a demand for easy answers, there will be a supply of charlatans, using all sorts of methods and media. I don't think it's really possible to reduce the demand side, and we're not likely to shame the charlatans.
But for me, the problem is not just about the exploitation of gullible "fortune"-consumers. It's also about the way "certifications" and "courses" and "associations" are marketed to Tarot practitioners and students. Candidly, I'm not sure whether my attitude about that is really justified, so I haven't decided how/whether to write about it. But your comments brought the topic to mind.
I’m still unsure about the validity and relevance of my own attitude—and the issue is obviously complicated, since a whole spectrum of motives should be considered.
At one end are those who just want to share what they know, and advance the Tarot community. Let’s call them “generous.” Those motivated by generosity feel they have compelling gifts or ideas, and believe these should be shared.
At the other end of the ethical continuum are those who see Tarot as just another tool for making money off the gullible. Let’s call them “scammers.”
And along the way, there is a gradation from simple monetization (value for value, which is perfectly reasonable) to outright commercialization (primarily if not exclusively profit-oriented). And there’s also a segment of aggressive territoriality, focused on driving a particular view of Tarot.
Most complicated: those who could be described as “needy”—perhaps believing they can use Tarot to connect with people who will affirm their gifts. They gain status on social media by establishing themselves as “readers,” “psychics,” or influencers.
I hadn’t really thought about this last possibility until a different respondent left the following comment:
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 . . . .
The comment came from someone who has a serious, lifelong interest in Tarot and divination. He continues:
I know this sort of talk comes over as too “judgmental,” “cynical,” or “negative” in most New Age circles, but the flip side of that is: If more “alternative” people had their critical questioning faculty more functional, would Qanon/conspirituality have so much influence on them?
At least two important questions have emerged from the discussion so far:
Should responsible Tarot practitioners try to educate people to avoid charlatans?
Do people who embrace alternative beliefs tend to lack critical thinking skills?
And here’s a third:
Are we “users” of Tarot—or is it the other way around?
Personally, I believe that Tarot either adopts you or not. Once adopted, you have a responsibility to listen to the cards, explain them to others as best you can, and never use them in any way that is manipulative or exploitative.
That kind of relationship is cooperative, personal, creative. By contrast . . . those who treat the Tarot as an ordinary object, or think they can control it, are likely to have an empty experience—at best.
As always, thanks for reading. Warm regards, Cynthia
Quick note: I live in Texas, and plead snow emergency (preparation and coping!) for at least part of the reason it’s been so long since the last newsletter. Another reason—I’ve been working on steps to combine this newsletter with my Medium publication. More on that next time.