The Tarot: How does it work?

T de Marseilles

Image: Public Domain; The Tarot de Marseilles

Have you ever had a Tarot reading, or pulled cards for yourself, and been surprised, mystified or even spooked because the cards were so relevant it was uncanny?  How does that happen?

The Basics

Tarot is only one of many systems of divination. Others are far older, including astrology, cartomancy (divination with playing cards) the I-Ching and runes. The Tarot, or Tarocchi, began as a game of chance in the courts of northern Italy during the early renaissance.

Physically speaking, a Tarot deck is little more than 78 pieces of illustrated, numbered card-stock.

The meanings in the cards need a reader to interpret them and make them come alive. No faith required, no religion, no need to commune with spirits. I have read for Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese and Jewish clients, as well as for atheists, agnostics and downright skeptics. The imagery in the Tarot crosses cultural boundaries.

But in communing with some ancient part of ourselves, perhaps we are also communing with the divine, however one wishes to define it.

I see it as a transcendence or suspension of the everyday self. When I am doing a reading for another person, I need to free myself, try and take myself out of the equation, me and my worry about getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; me and my ego.

In a  Tarot reading the reader and enquirer sit down together, and in essence, use these symbols as a meeting ground upon which to converse via empathy, which can sometimes be so acute that it amounts to telepathy, with the cards helping the reader to decode the telepathic signals coming from the other person. Social instinct comes into it too. Of course it does when the reading is face to face. Who wants a nitwit reading for them?

Most readers, me included,also do distance readings, working without that direct interface to help them, and it’s harder, but the Tarot still delivers, though who is to say if it could have worked better face to face when the reader can ‘scent’ the nascent clouds round the other person?

I sometimes joke as I shuffle the cards, ‘OK, now my ancient inner animal is going to have a little talk with your ancient inner animal.’

We are going to converse on at (at least) two levels, consciously, and via telepathy, enabled by the imagery of the cards.

psychic pig

Marcus the psychic pig, accurately predicted the result of the EU Referendum, and The US Elections

Suspension of self and ego notwithstanding, delivery of a professional level of service means I need to do at least as well or better than the pig. The reader draws cards blindly and at random, and lays them out in a pattern or spread, using the placement of the cards, the imagery and associated meanings of that card. Why choose this card and not that one? Well, there is the mystery. The central nervous system has a mind of its own, and dictates my movement, in determining the instant at which I stop shuffling. I can think of no better explanation. The choice to stop shuffling is not remotely deliberate.

The reader then interprets the cards, sharing what they sense about a given person, situation or question, past, present and possible future.

This stuff is not omniscience. I don’t KNOW anything. I just say what I see and feel. The thing that amazes, and can even startle the person being read for, and the readers too at times, is the total, immediate and undeniable relevance of cards drawn blindly and at random, and then organised into a pattern or spread for interpretation.

The cards were drawn at random,  but the results do not seem random at all.

They fit.

OK, but shaddap! How exactly does this stuff WORK?

There is no one single, neat and tidy answer.

The reader  has ‘uploaded’ a ‘programme’ by learning the meanings and associations of the cards. With much repetition and practice, just as with learning to play an instrument or indeed any kind of rote learning, this programming becomes almost second nature, and the cards may act now, not only as technical support but as a springboard for insights prompted by lateral or associative thinking, backed up by instinct.

This provides them with their starting point, and then their own ideas, empathy or intuition supplies further comment. The cards provide a spring board for the reader’s intuition, but the associations of the cards supply the details enabling greater precision of interpretation. Associative thinking, or lateral thinking helps me a lot in arriving at ‘psychic’ insights or ‘hits.’

I look at the card and there is a kind of a ‘ping’ moment.

For instance: I drew the Six of Wands, and this card generally means progress, promotion, a trip but on this occasion, something about the artwork made me say something I had never said on previous occasions, drawing the self same card, and I asked the client, ‘are you thinking of going to Siena?’

And she was, or rather, a place just outside Siena, but how did I arrive at that guess? Firstly, I had already established that we were looking at a travel destination. Secondly, something about it suddenly made me think of the Palio.

6 wands legacy divine tarot
palio

The Six Wands from The Legacy of The Divine Tarot, Ciro Marchetti

At other times the six of Wands has told me about motorbikes. Once it ‘showed’ me an upcoming sporting event, a big one and I asked the client, was this correct, and learned he was going to the Paralympics as a reserve member of the wheelchair rugby team

Same card, three very concrete yet differing interpretations in the real, modern world.

Synchronicity

The psychologist Carl Jung never learned to read the Tarot himself, but was fascinated by its ability to reflect what was going on. Jung theorised that Tarot works by means of a phenomenon he called “synchronicity”, or meaningful coincidence.

Jung was also fascinated by what Tarot could tell us about real people we know as pictured through story archetypes, e.g.; The King, The High Priestess, the Hermit, and for its insights into the conscious mind working real time in tandem with the unconscious mind.

quote-synchronicity-a-meaningful-coincidence-of-two-or-more-events-where-something-other-than-carl-jung-52-5-0551

The enquirer feels that they have been seen and heard by some invisible presence. This is where the ‘spookiness’, and the apparent miracle of synchronicity manifests.

The reader  has ‘uploaded’ a ‘programme’ by learning the meanings and associations of the cards. With much repetition and practice, just as with learning to play an instrument or indeed any kind of rote learning, this programming becomes almost second nature, and the cards may act now, not only as technical support but as a springboard for insights prompted by lateral or associative thinking, backed up by instinct.

The clues in the cards

Each card has many keywords attached. These are the basic building bricks of the reading.

The Chariot card, for instance, has these meanings attached; a vehicle, a driving test, a garage, a road trip, travel, ambition, project, a partnership, teamwork, discipline, and also the zodiac sign of Cancer and the dates associated with this sign (June 21-July 22)

So, let’s imagine I draw this card. Which meaning do I choose here and now?

John William Waterhouse - Sketch of Circe, 1911-1914
Circe by Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse – Sketch of Circe, 1911-1914 (public domain)

How does the reader

1:  choose cards which so appropriately describe things you have not yet told the reader?

2:  choose which of the many possible card interpretations to go with?

The context of the card is a clue. What are the surrounding cards? The reader studies these with care. Beyond this, the short answer is, the reader doesn’t know. They make a judgement call and go with their first impressions, trusting the unconscious process, then making it conscious again, putting it back into words.

This is presumably working on empathy.

Intuition is one’s inner tuition – one’s instinctive understanding. It’s necessary for survival, and we all possess it to some degree.

Using a learned system such as Tarot helps us give it words.

Sometimes these words are so specific, many call it ‘psychic’ and psychic ability and intuition are often seen as “supernatural.”

But anyone can learn to read Tarot cards, while the degree of proficiency attained depends on a certain natural talent, but also depends to a very great extent on study and practise. Lots of people start learning, but give it up again without ever finding out all they might be able to do with it.

In Summary

Tarot is an art not a science. It is a form of language; a system but it does not function like a machine. You clearly see there’s a process at work, but you can’t dismantle the mechanisms. It is based on the physical actions of shuffling, drawing and arranging the cards, and then upon card knowledge, feeling and sensing and finally, word choice.

Becoming proficient at reading the Tarot, such that one can read to a service level feels like a big responsibility. Well, it is, and it demands a heck of a lot of practice, and the more you work with the Tarot or whatever system of divination you might want to work with, the more confidently you will be able to tap into your intuition, but you do not need to think of yourself as psychic in order to learn to read the Tarot, or to become fluent and proficient.

There is a native understanding beyond your conscious awareness and control. Whether you think that proceeds from your subconscious, the collective unconscious, God, your guides, or your higher self doesn’t matter.

The Tarot works according to the reader’s way of using it, commensurate with their skill, experience, and innate intuitive talents. No faith or belief system is required.

The results must be the proof.

We can, and do know more than we know, any of us, all of us, without necessarily knowing HOW we know it. Perhaps there are biological algorithms at work here, and why should this be surprising?

We don’t even know how old we are as a specie. Until 2015 we were told, based on the available evidence, that humanity had been practising organised agriculture for 12000 years, and discoveries by the sea of Galilee indicate that humanity has been experimenting with crop eugenics for at least 23000 years.

We’re getting more ancient as a species with every new discovery, and so is our technology, it seems; ever more ancient, with continuing discovery.