The Thursday Newsletter (9.30)
The question of cultural appropriation + some notes on "lifestyle Tarot"
From time to time, I light the Hermit’s lantern and set out in search of meaningful Tarot content online.
Good news—I find some!
Bad news . . . it isn’t easy.
In fact, I owe a hat tip to fellow Substacker Frederick Woodruffe for pointing out Nancy Maby’s thoughtful discussion of “Tarot and Cultural Appropriation. Although the original story is no longer available, this link should take you to a copy that was saved by the indispensable Wayback Machine. (If not, let me know.)
More about that article in a moment, but first: full disclosure.
I hadn’t given this topic any thought since sometime in the 1990s, when Stuart Kaplan asked me to write a book for The Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg. The dilemma in that case is obvious, since there’s no particular tradition of Tarot in Russia (i.e., nothing that could be properly described as “Russian Tarot”). Much less is there any organic connection between Tarot and St. Petersburg.
However. What Kaplan had in mind in titling the deck was its artistic provenance. He had commissioned Yuri Kapov, a highly respected Russian miniaturist, to create the deck—which is a rendition of the Waite-Smith deck in a kind of hybrid Russian style. Kapov’s beautiful art blends Russian folk motifs with the tradition of illuminated religious icons.
So was that an appropriation? And/or . . . was it deceptive marketing?
My resolution of the dilemma at the time was to write a lot about relationships between Tarot and “culture,” in various senses of that term. And now that I’m revisiting the topic, I’ll plan to post some relevant excerpts from the book.
But for now, I’ll borrow some tech jargon and say briefly that we need to separate the “presentation layer” of Tarot from the “program” that underlies it. The program has an inherent logic—and if you take the logic away, the product is no longer “a Tarot.” It just doesn’t work anymore, at least in the intended sense.
There can be other card-based oracle systems, and divination can be practiced with just about anything, from stars in the sky to cracks in the sidewalk. So it’s important to keep in mind a point of demarcation between Tarot as a construct of images and Tarot as a conceptual or divinatory system.
I’m just thinking this up for the present purpose, but here are some questions that could be asked:
Are we doing some sort of harm to ethnically defined groups (say, Native American, Celtic, Egyptian, Japanese, African, and so on) by casting the presentation layer of a Tarot deck in an identifiably ethnic style? If so, how should we understand the nature and extent of that harm?
Related to those questions—is it acceptable for people who are definably part of a tradition (for example, enrolled Native American tribe members, persons of majority Japanese descent, indigenous Maori, etc.) to create Tarot designs that reflect their own cultural heritage?
And—is there a point at which culture-based imagery and distinctively cultural artistic styles have become so widely used and recognized that they should be considered part of the broader human heritage?
I’ll leave those as open questions!
But as something to ponder for now, let’s consider the article I mentioned above. The author spends some time discussing the historical origins of Tarot, and while I wouldn’t agree with the presentation entirely, it’s a substantive effort. There’s also a clarification of the term “cultural appropriation” (generally speaking, dominant groups adopting or exploiting the customs of a marginalized group without permission or acknowledgement) as distinguished from the concept of “closed practice” (generally speaking, rituals whose performance should be limited to those born or initiated into a specific group). From the author’s point of view, the Tarot itself is a tool, not a practice in itself, so its use is not limited in the “closed” way.
The appropriation problem, according to this article, is complicated, as it is manifested in several different ways. For one thing, linking non-mainstream practices like “fortune-telling” with socially or politically vulnerable groups like Romani (Gypsies) and Jews can promote the marginalization or even mistreatment of those groups.
For another thing, taking concepts and symbols out of their original context and placing them in a completely different frame of reference may be an affront to those for whom they have a specific spiritual meaning. The author discusses, for example, ways in which popular Tarot decks have adapted Kabbalistic and Native American material inappropriately.
The article includes comments from several people who combine Tarot practice with their own cultural heritage, and offer advice on how others can be more sensitive to certain issues. Although past appropriations cannot be undone or erased, responsible practitioners can be knowledgeable about those aspects of Tarot history, and going forward, can support deck creators who explore new imaginative paths rather than recycling material from bygone or exoticized cultures.
I think that’s a functional summary—but I hope you’ll read the article for yourself.
I’m not sure whether the next item is lighter or darker than the first! But either way, I wanted to say a little more about “lifestyle Tarot”—a designation I used in this week’s Tuesday newsletter. (That post also has some links to items newly added on the EP site, so if you didn’t get a chance to read it yet, now would be a great time.)
When I started trying to write about this topic, I remembered discussing Tarot and the media in a very early newsletter. I’d also created a longer version for Medium, but never posted it here. Fixed that now, though, so have a read.
If you think that headline leads to something more substantive—wrong. The story is indeed an hour-by-hour account of this person’s day: making espresso, meditating, stretching, writing in his journal, exercising on his cross-trainer, shopping for flowers, going to the park, tending his typewriter collection, walking his dog (several times) in a very pleasant neighborhood, doing some afternoon Tarot readings, cooking dinner, and falling asleep with a period mystery novel.
This person may be an excellent Tarot reader (he sounds knowledgeable), and I honestly am not judging his lifestyle. The above is meant as a summary, not as a commentary—and in any case, it was the writer who chose the story’s focus.
But here’s the problem I see: Some of the many (many) people who pay for Tarot courses and/or advertise on social media as Tarot readers may have been persuaded by stories like these that a successful Tarot practice can be the doorway to a very nice life. In this particular article, many readers will miss the fact that the subject of the profile is “a corporate marketer during the week.”
The fact is, most Tarot practitioners make their living some other way. And my problem with the NYT story has nothing to do with what the subject does during the week. It just seems as if that economic fact is tossed into the first paragraph, and the rest of the story goes on to create a linkage between his Tarot practice and his lifestyle.
I think I’m probably sounding cranky about this newspaper story, which is typical of the way contemporary Tarot is presented to educated, upper-income readers. But in the real world, there are also a lot of less fortunate people who see online claims like this one, which can be found on a very attractive website:
And find online courses like this one on Udemy:
Udemy lists many similar courses, and that’s just one platform.
I should end that part by saying I don’t know anything about the quality of these courses—but I do know that no form of instruction can make complete beginners into readers who should be charging people money.
I’ve realized belatedly that because I was so caught up in the “lifestyle” aspect of the NYT story, I failed to notice a connection to the first topic of this newsletter: cultural appropriation.
The subject of the NYT story is also the author of a book on Kabbalistic approaches to Tarot, and writes a blog that connects Tarot with Jewish religious practices. This isn’t an area where I have deep knowledge, but his writing seems to me quite thoughtful—and he is a serious student of Kabbalah as a Jewish mystical tradition, not simply as an aspect of esoteric Tarot.
So I came away from my quick browse of his work wishing that the NYT story had been a little more substantive, at least saying something about the relationship between Kabbalah and Tarot. But I’ll suggest now that you skip the story, visit his website, and consider what it suggests about the relationship between Tarot and cultural/spiritual traditions.
I plan to pick up a different “lifestyle” aspect next week. In the meantime—and as always—thanks for reading!
Warmest regards, Cynthia