This weekend I’ve been back in Cambridge reading fortunes at May Balls. The pay is good (though not as much as it would be for individual readings) although it’s pretty exhausting, reading tarot for three hours solid. It’s occasionally a little dispiriting too, especially if you’re working the queues outside the ball. When you ask people in the queue if they’d like a reading, one of your hyper-intellectual student clientele, usually a man, will regard you with scorn and say “No(!)” in a very get-away-from-me-now-you-superstitious-dickwad sort of a way. Then there’s the always-hilarious moment when a skeptical student haughtily questions your intelligence (“Q: Did you go to university?” – how is this relevant to my entertaining you, I wonder) and looks utterly dumbfounded when I reveal that I’m just as educated as them (“A: Yes, I went to this one actually”). The assumption is that if you read Tarot, you must be some kind of credulous fool, or a charlatan, or both.
The thing is that most people’s assumptions about Tarot, and divination more generally, are basically flawed. They think it amounts to a supernatural ability to access transcendentally valid foreknowledge of future events. This popular image, promoted by Hollywood (it makes for great cinema), paints a picture of those with oracular abilities as chesty, dulcet beauties, who gaze soulfully into the eyes of the hero whilst prognosticating in loose vowels and doubtful archaisms. As I have neither the bust nor the feminine grace of Jane Seymour, I’m sure most of the gentlemen I met in the queue were disappointed that they couldn’t manfully deny the influence of fate in their lives, before promptly ravishing the gift of foresight from me in demonstration of their powers of self-determination, a la Roger Moore in Live and Let Die.
Unfortunately for them, movie Tarot is about as reflective of the real practice as movie science is of the scientific method. Just as Hollywood’s ludicrous attempts to incorporate plate tectonics or viral epidemiology into ripping yarns make the average geologist or pathologist wince, so it is with genuine occultists watching magic on the silver screen.
The first thing that is worth clearing up is that Tarot doesn’t say what Will [Definitely] Happen. The main work of any Tarot spread is not to say what the future holds; it is to analyse the present situation of the quierent. Only three card positions out of the ten in the Celtic Cross spread, for example, are directly concerned with the future. And there’s a reason for this: Tarot assumes the future is what we make of it in the present. Our daily choices alter our future. Try it. Get up and go pour yourself a glass of water. Done it? There. You weren’t going to do that when you started reading this article. You’ve changed your future. Congrats.
This principle is also illustrated by the types of cards that comprise any Rider-Waite Tarot set (the one I use). This traditional iteration of Tarot consists of the Minor Arcana – four suits, each of which corresponds to a classical element and an aspect of life (emotions, creativity, intellect and practical concerns) – and the Major Arcana – a set of cards that together compose a sort of Bildungsroman; beginning in ignorance (The Fool) and progressing through choice, refinement and change to ultimate completion (The World). The basic meanings of the cards are obviously not geared towards predicting specific events, but towards personal development. Like a work of great literature, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck deals with universal human themes in such a way that you can use it to reflect upon your own life’s course. The aim isn’t prediction in any scientific sense, but rather a sort of self-gnosis, that supports better living in the world.
The rationalist might ask: if this psychological blueprint is so good, why dress it up in pretty pictures and symbols? The answer, in my view, is that the symbolism is what makes it so good. It makes it fun. It encourages the imaginative, creative aspects to the human psyche to engage with a process that would otherwise be rather dry. Denuded of this playful aspect – perhaps into some HR event-compatible “Rider-Waite Lifemapping System” – Tarot would not engage quierents (or readers) to the same degree, and therefore would not be as affecting. Play is the major way in which humans learn, and let’s not forget that Tarot is first and foremost a game of cards.
This is as much I am sure of. There are other things I have observed in my time as a reader, though, that lead me to think there might be more to it than the use of play to empower introspection. The awkward truth is, that Tarot works. Despite being based on the random process of shuffling some cards, Tarot seems capable of answering questions, and scoping out the current situation of a person (not to mention probably consequences of this) with unnerving accuracy. Even my dad, who is an arch-rationalist, was disconcerted when my reading for him turned out to be super accurate.
Now, I am well aware of the positivist argument for why Tarot appears to work. A mixture of cold reading, combined with interpretive drift, positive bias (a tendency to remember positive results and ignore negative ones), and a suitably general and mutable regime of meaning. Personally, I have no problems with this explanation. When skeptics like Derren Brown attempt to explain away divinatory techniques’ effectiveness by claiming their insights are broad enough to apply to anybody and draw on human interaction to seem real, they miss the point – it is the fact that they are universally applicable and resolutely social that gives them their power. Even if the mechanism is pure psychology; Tarot still works. Like performance art, the bundle of symbolic cards and psychological tricks can be used for good, or for ill – to manipulate or to help. But it’s still an effective way of altering perception and assisting self-reflection. Then of course, there is what the Tarot books themselves say about the power of intuition and the spiritual forces at work behind the cards. These claims are non-scientific, and therefore they are difficult to address scientifically. Personally, I view them as simply another way of talking about the same processes I have mentioned above, although I can understand if they might be off-putting to a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist.
Still, I wonder if there might be more to it than that. I wonder if the numerical structures within Tarot (14 cards in each of four suits, 4 of which in each suit correspond to personalities + the major arcana) are uniquely effective at throwing up meaningful patterns when attributed significance in terms of a life’s course. I wonder if human shuffling is a truly randomizing act (friends often bring up the same cards but in a different order; suggesting to me that there may be some unconscious process by which individuals may imitate how their friends shuffle the pack). I wonder if the imagination, so crucial to Tarot’s effectiveness, might have some deeper order that Tarot as a practice reveals and harnesses. I wonder if all of this comes together to produce something that is more effective than is often assumed.