OK, to be more accurate the title of this article should be: The Idiosyncrasies of This Tarot Reader.
The idiosyncrasies of a tarot reader are as personal as the way one interprets the cards. Even if the idiosyncrasies of one reader would make my skin crawl, if it is right for her or him, then it is right.
I feel I have had a great advantage in the way I learned tarot, which was being self-taught. There were no online tarot resources with 'authorities' imposing thought on me, very few tarot books in suburban Philadelphia mall bookstores, (and not too many in the local library either), no sage auntie in my family though my paternal great grandmother was known to be a reader of tea leaves (but she died decades before my birth). So I have had the great advantage of being from a generation of readers able to learn and establish our own routines and well, idiosyncrasies of tarot.
It will be interesting to hear from you, the reader, to know if we share any common habits, or if there are any that you adhere to that I have failed to mention.
Here goes my list!
**I wash my hands before touching the cards. I wash my hands because I respect my tools. Washing my hands signals to me that I'm about to handle something very special. When I used to work in the corporate world, the first thing I'd do after walking through the threshold of my home after a day at work was to take a shower. It symbollically washed away that outer world and all the 'stuff' that clung to me. I have always felt that my home was my sanctuary, and that 'stuff' had to go down the drain. So that is part of my tarot routine; a cleansing ritual that ensures my hands are cleared of other stuff not related to the reading I am about to do. (It also means I will not soil my cards with residual food or grease etc.) I admit to being a bit of a fanatic about clean hands.
**If I am reading for a client in person, I request she/he to wash their hands as well. No one has ever refused this which fascinates me. I ask this of them to signal to them that something special is about to happen. Naturally, this only happens when I am reading from my own home, or go to theirs. It is far more difficult to request hand washing at an event or public location but I don't do those much anymore so it's a non issue for me. (Back when I did do them, I always had baby wipes on hand and I only used an inexpensive deck designated for event readings.)
**I used to allow my querents to handle my cards. I used to invite them to shuffle and mix them. Then it went to only having them cut the deck or choosing the cards from a fan. For the last decade or so, I do not invite anyone to handle my cards and I will explain my reasons if asked:
My cards are my instrument, just as my paint brushes are to me as an artist. An artist can create a portrait of an individual so personal and meaningful to the individual without the person ever handling the brushes or mixing the paint. The subject trusts the artist to capture their essence without ever expecting to handle the tools of the artist's trade. There is no interference between the artist and her tools. A musician can create music so personally meaningful that it can bring one to tears, and yet no one would request tuning the musician's instrument for him. Both the artist and the musician has an audience, as does the tarot reader. When I read the cards for an individual, I am trusted to use my tools to interpret the cards for their personal benefit. I am very clear on this point.
(In the event that someone gets all excited about a particular card and reaches for it during a reading, I have already had them wash their hands before the reading so there is no risk of soiling the cards or getting potato chip grease on them, etc.) Along these same lines there is no eating or drinking in my tarot area. I keep this area clean and sacred and there is no place for cookie crumbs and spilled coffee.
**Before the reading I ask my client to articulate their question, in fact, I ask them to write it down exactly as they want to ask it. It is irrelevant to me if they share their question with me or not. I do this because it is more important for them to know exactly what it is that they want to know! I make them commit to paper what they want to know. Some will tell me their question and others will not. At this point I tell them to apply everything I say to an aspect of their question. Naturally, it is easier for me to know the question so that I may apply the cards as it relates to their question, but sometimes without knowing the question, influences and hindrances appear that might not be part of the initial question. Sometimes a reading is more insightful if I do not know their specific question. I only need them to know it.
**If I am doing a remote reading, and I do a lot of those, it is important for there to be a palpable connection between the client and myself. I request that they prepare themselves for a reading by taking deep breathes, shaking out tension and isolating what it is that they want to know. Within my tarot space (and I have an entire room dedicated to only tarot so there are no distractions), I take a meditative posture, literally shake out all distractions, and read and speak the client's question while handling the cards. I breath in and out until I fully grasp and connect with the client's question and need.
**The following idiosyncrasy goes back to my roots. Back when I started reading, the primary spread available was the Celtic Cross, which is awesome, and maybe a three card past, present and future spread which I always though was kind of lame. So, I created my own spreads for just about every category. When a client told me their question I had multiple spreads for it. If a client doesn't tell me the specifics of their question but they do tell me the general category, I have spreads for that too. I keep these spreads in my Little Gold Book that has been with me since the beginning. When a person requests an online reading I choose which three, four, or five card spread I will use from this book. The more detailed eight, ten or more card spreads like the Celtic Cross, are also in my Little Gold Book, some are mine and others I have modified from other sources.
**I invite my querent to sit anywhere around the table that they prefer. Most sit to my side.
**Before the reading I focus on the nature of the question, repeat it over and over in my mind if I am told the specifics, and take my mind to a place where all I think of is the individual and what they need me to understand in order to give them the best possible interpretation of the cards. This is done internally, the querent may or not be aware that I am doing it, but they probably suspect I'm up to something because my eyes are usually closed.
**When I feel that I got it right in my mind, and when the cards feel rightly mixed, for some unknown reason, I tap the back of the deck twice, and lay the cards.
**As for my spatial idiosyncrasies (as illustrated by my photo) my reading cloth or mat is always a solid color unless I'm traveling and have no other options. My table always has representations of the four realms upon it: air, fire, water, and earth. I no longer read in the living area of my home, I have my own remote reading space in my studio where I am surrounded by things of beauty that make me happy. I sit in a grid defined by objects, stones, and words to promote clarity, wisdom, and love.
**I'm not sure if this qualifies as a tarot idiosyncrasie, but I'm a deck addict. I don't read from one deck. I read from all of them based on which one feels right for the occasion. I kinda have a lot of decks. This is an asset becasue I can instinctively choose a deck most alligned with a client's question if they do not prefer to choose the deck themselves.
I think that covers my tarot eccentricities. :) What are yours?
Before deciding which number to use as my guinea pig for today's article, I let the tarot do the talking. I pulled a single card from one of my Marseille decks. It was the Five of Cups.
I have to be honest and admit that at first I was disappointed that a five appeared, only because the number five is such an easy number to tackle. I've already written about the sevens in a previous blog, and it is inevitable that five would come up sooner or later as I discuss each number, so I guess there's no time like the present to discuss fives.
For the purpose of illustrating the fives I chose all the five cards from the Albano Waite Smith deck. I was undecided if I should use a Marseille style deck or a RWS clone. Ultimately, I chose the Albano Waite because it is my favorite of the RWS decks and most illustrated pips (non decorative) of most contemporary decks follow this tradition.
For a person working strictly from Marseille styled pips, I know the process that I am about to describe will also work because it's how I learned. I began learning tarot with a Marseille styled deck. The two Major Arcana card points of reference in the photo are The Pope and The Temperance cards from a deck very similar to the first deck I ever owned.
I have mentioned it before that when I began teaching myself tarot, I did not have access to any of the RWS varieties and only had a Marseille style deck. So I had to learn the numbered cards in a way that made sense to me. Even though I read all I could find on tarot (and remember, this was the 1970s, before New Age hit suburban Philadelphia bookstores full blast) and mostly all that was available were occasional books on the Marseille Major Arcana. I had determined that since the major arcana placed such importance on the numbers, it followed suit to well, let the numbers follow the suits.
I determined what each of the four suits meant in a way that made sense to me, based on the material that was available to me, and sat myself down and had a serious few months with the cards, journal writing and begining my tarot journey.
It's funny that the number '5' should have shown up for this discussion, because in retrospect, the number five was the first pip number I tackled after learning the number one, which was kind of a no brainer. I chose to begin with five because as I saw it, five was the middle of the pips. It had four cards below it and four above it. I saw it as a kind of pivotal number that could sway either way.
In a general way I came to terms with the fives of each suit. Generally the fives signaled challenges and instability and a need for gaining composure before things got out of hand. According to my notes, here are the brief meanings that I came up with before even referencing the Pope and Temeperance cards.
Five of Swords - Conflict, or challenges regarding a strategic situation like justice, or communication that didn't go well
Five of Wands - Creative bursts of energy that need direction, challenges with concepts or creative execution
Five of Cups - Emotional situations that shake things up a bit for good or bad
Five of Coins - Money challenges, challenges with practical situations or matters
Having the advantage of the Pope and Temperance meanings, I saw that they each shared at least one common keyword, 'balance,' and I took that commonality and ran with it. There were other cues from the Pope/Hierophant like maybe being too inflexible which helped to gel my understanding of five, as did the cues for restoring order from Temperance.
These were my own kind of 'common sense' meanings based on my own thinking processes. Later, I began researching numbers and their meaning and began applying what I learned from numerology. Numbers make sense to me. I didn't grab onto the Kabbalah or Astrology as my primary point of reference in those days because they didn't interest me at that time. But in the years since (by virtue of owning so many decks) I've picked up on those visual clues as they appear in cards as well, and they have been an asset in furthering my understanding. So in learning tarot, it has been my experience that it has been an evolution of understanding and applying what makes sense to me in the time frame that I learn it.
When I eventually bought my first RWS deck, (which was actually the Albano White deck) my own little meanings did not always work perfectly well with what the picture implied, and it didn't make sense to say one thing when the picture told a different story. And that is when I began going with the flow. Having more than one possible meaning for a card in my arsenal of understanding just gave me a richer tarot vocabulary.
Until recent years, there weren't too many Marseille style decks available, and in those early years I only had one or two generic Marseille woodblock style decks, my 1JJ Swiss, and I think I also had the non illustrated, but decorative pip style Fergus Hall deck by then which was from the James Bond film, Live and Let Die. In those early days of my learning the only RWS deck that I owned was the Albano Waite (Smith) deck.
In the 80s and 90s our US market began to explode with RWS clones which didn't bother me too much because of my art background, I gravitated toward the beautiful decks and adjusted my readings accordingly.
Since the 2000s especially, a plethera of gorgeous varieties of the somewhat ancient Marseille decks have been reproduced and or restored and introduced to the US market.
Readers from my era and demographics of learning tarot have come full circle now. The variety of tarot cards available now is awesome, but I think it might be overwhelming for a new reader to try to learn tarot organicially because there are literally thousands of different decks all aspiring to bring something new and often contradictory to the table. That, and dare I say it, I also think that there are more than a few bullsh*t decks out there, created by individuals who have jumped on the tarot deck bandwagon without genuine understanding of it. But even those have something to contribute by daring to shake things up a bit. (A genuine five experience.)
Still, my advice, is to learn the meanings of each card at your own pace and space, using one or two decks that you really like and using your own logic and instincts to allow the visual or numeric clues to enhance your learning experience.
I'm the first person to suggest learning the historic context in which tarot was born in an effort to bring greater insight and clarity to a card's meaning. But at times I wonder, are we overthinking tarot's history?
When I read various tarot threads on forum pages and one mentions RWS vs Marseille, or even just which Marseille deck is 'the most pure,' the thread turns into a pissing contest.
Is there one pure mother deck, or a Holy Grail of tarot decks? It's a futile pursuit even if there is one.
Naturally, my opinion may also be taken with a grain of salt. Although I've probably read at least a hundred books and hundreds of articles on tarot, I am not an authority. I can only comment on my own comprehension of what I've read and what I remember. I have probably forgotten more than some people have learned on the subject, but that still does not make me an authority because after all, what I've read was other peoples' opinions and not necessarily fact. One thing is for certain, the more I read, the more questions I have.
Tarot deck makers apply their preferred references and sensibilities onto their cards based on their best understanding of them. Throughout history, most deck creators have made changes to suit their own agenda or understanding. Sure, they've all had a prototype in mind; a particulalry structured deck with seventy-eight cards. By now we have solidified its standard structure and have multiple esoteric options that may be applied to the cards: Qabalah, Alchemy, Astrology, Numerology, and even Cats. How many decks are available now? Countless. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has created a tarot deck or recreated a historic one. Can only one of them have tapped into the original, one pure intent for the tarot? Of course not. Variety is the spice of our modern tarot lives, and though we can't expect that ordinary medieval society had as many options, is it not possible that they had aesthetic or even political options in choosing a deck of playing cards from a particular regional publisher whose style or agenda appealed to them? Is it not possible that wherever they traveled they would be able to purchase a deck native to the region as a souvenir? After all, the city of Marseille alone had a minimum of forty card manufacturers between the1500 and 1900s.
Look at the few ancient decks we have as reference. Obviously, the allegorical and somewhat hermetic images that appeared in the cards that complete the Visconti-Sforza trumps were commonly understood and recognized by at least the upper classes of Italian medieval society. (It is worth noting that the V-S deck is itself a compilation of a few V-S decks of tarocchi and therefore does not even represent the first single known intact deck of tarot.) Admittedly, the content of the trump cards came from somewhere, and probably not from one exact source, but from across the human playing field. The 15th century was an age of discovery and enlightenment, a time when foreign travel and exchange made the world go 'round. New ideas were the rage! We know from the evidence that fortune telling methods were in place in eastern countries and predated the deck of tarocchi by about one thousand years. How do we know for sure that the concept of fortune telling, at least for fun, didn't cross the minds of some at a medieval Italian parlor gathering?
Even the rules for play of 15th century tarocchi vary. Obviously the allegorical cards communicated stories, virties, and moralities. Were the trumps merely counted in play as identifying high ranking points, or like the modern game of Mansion, did the young and fashionable play a variety of card games with a single deck of cards? Surely using cards for fortune telling is only a stones throw away from a fashionable medieval card game of 'Mansion.'
When the highly decorative playing (gaming) cards became the fad of the upper classes in 15th century Italy, arisocrats commissioned artists to hand paint their own decks and probably to depict their particular family's specifications. Case in point, the depiction of the 'Popess' of the Visconti-Sforza deck is a distant relative of that family. Despite whatever the aristocrat had in mind, we have to also consider that the artist may have added some stylistic flourishes of his own. How would we know the difference?
This lesson was demonstrated in relatively recent years by Arthur Waite when he specified his intent and by what Pamela Coleman Smith actually delivered in 1909. Crowley and Harris had similar conflicts of vision between 1938 and 1943 while creating the Thoth deck. Harris devoted many more years of her life to Crowley's project than did Smith for Waite, and some of Harris' contributions were redone multiple times before the creator and designer could agree, if in fact they ever did. (Neither Crowley or Harris lived to see the deck released to the public.) Based on their writings, we know that both men (Waite and Crowley) merged several disparate esoteric traditions into their respective decks.
Since it is speculated that there was no occult interest in the cards at the point of their inception in 15th century Italy, would subtle variations in cards really have mattered? I mean, the Visconti-Sforza clan and every aristocratic family who commissioned their own decks would have had their own aesthetic or poetic agendas wouldn't they have? Could this explain the existence of the Mantegna and Sola Busca decks being so different from what we see as the norm of their times? The general consensus is that the Mantegna tarot was not a deck for gaming, but that it was rather a collection of cards intended to educate children on the virtues and other moral and historic lessons. But there is no evidence for this consensus, so how can we know for sure? The Sola Busca had scenic pips, unlike any other tarocchi decks surviving from that time. Was that also a request of the family who originaly commissioned them?
Why is the Waite-Smith collaboration that illustrated each pip almost vilified by some camps as a corruption when the Sola Busca deck, which Coleman referenced in her work, predates the Marseille decks by hundreds of years with illustrated pips of its own? And so about Waite's reassignments of the meanings of each card. Hadn't Etteilla, Oswald Wirth and S. L. MacGregor Mathers already done the same thing? And didn't Etteilla basically make it up as he went along to suit his own agenda?
In five hundred years from now will historians try to determine whether or not the RWS was the first of its kind? Will it be determined to be the prototype by which all subsequent styled decks of the next several hundred years were based? Will they even know about the Sola Busca? And even if they know about the SB, how do WE even know that IT wasn't inspired by an earlier deck of fully illustrated pips? How will the Marseille styled decks be further watered down? Although clearly there are Hermetic references to the trumps, the Marseille pips don't suggest esoteric meaning and seem to merely suggest a regular deck of gaming cards with a 5th suit of trumps. Will all tarot styles eventually merge into a somewhat homogenous deck that includes fragments from the multiple varieties and disciplines now in practice? Will the sensibilities of old Tarocchi, Marseille, Etteilla, and the decks represented by the various branches of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn be merged so that no one particular influence dominates? Isn't that already happening now? And is that really a bad thing? A language that doesn't evolve becomes obsolete. A language that incorporates foreign expressions into its own parlance is a language that endures. And for this very reason, isn't that why tarot endures? As it gets passed down every generation adds its two cents.
By the time we get to the TdM, whose original source is undeniably the Italian trumps, did the artists or card makers take liberties in order to spread a political agenda as some have suggested? Was it a roadmap for surviving gnostic ascendants to find sympathetic territory hidden in an ordinary deck of gaming cards? It reminds me of the clever quilt making designs of American slaves of African descent. A house design was a house design, but that little anomaly in its execution, could it reference a clue on the road to freedom via the underground railroad? If that's the case then some of the imagery in the Marseille could have been landmarks on the road to freedom in sympathetic religious regions. No one knows for sure, but it does seem to suggest something along those lines.
Could the Noblet's exposed genitals of The Fool, and the sticking out tongue of the Hanged Man be more the work of a cheeky artist working for a publisher catering to a particular market? Was the Noblet a deck that would have been used by polite society meeting every Thursday night for a weekly game of cards, or did it have a specific audience? Has every Marseille deck since been a copy of the Noblet, or were there earlier cards that no longer survive? If copied, how did the artisans decide what to copy and what to leave out? Is an untrained eye the primary reason details got lost in the shuffle, or were there other reasons less noble, like cranking out a cheap deck of gaming cards for profit?
Are these the ramblings of a mad woman? My husband thinks so.
There has been a long space of time between my last entry and today's, and that is because we were traveling during the month of July. Aside from my daily Instagram card readings and keeping up with an Instagram tarot challenge, my hand did not relay into print what my brain was thinking.
I couldn't wait to get home to write about the things that I was thinking about the entire month, which was looking at the symbolism of the cards from their historic perspective.
Rote memorization is rarely helpful in the long run, and is usually only helpful as a short-term strategy to pass a difficult test. What makes a test difficult, is because one doesn't grasp the concept. If you get the concept, you get IT.
And so, understanding even some of the history and evolution of tarot is to understand the many nuances and subtleties that a card might offer. While it is true that history is only as reliable as the person who recorded it, sometimes the myths and even the misunderstandings by artists and the historians themselves are fascinating, and can lead to that lightbulb moment of 'Aha!'
Let's take a look at the Hanged Man.
Most LWB definitions describe the Hanged Man card as a card of sacrifice and enlightenment. While it can be argued that a person who is unselfish is probably an enlightened individual, the two conditions are not synonymous with one another.
The earliest representation we have of the Hanged man is his appearance in the Visconti tarots of the 15th Century. This is as close to an original tarot catalogue of imagery as we have. A well dressed man is seen in pittura infamante, a position intended to disgrace criminals, particularly those of the upper classes. The suspended position communicated the crime of the accused either as a traitor or as a perpetrator of a financial crime such as that of a thief or that of public fraud. But either way the punishment was intended to bring social shame and discrace. The guilty party was hung by one foot, leaving the other leg to flop in a triangular formation, with his hands tied behind his back.
When I was teaching myself tarot a million years ago, one of the visual cues I used in remembering 'enlightenment' for this card was that in the first tarot decks I owned, the individual had very light or blond hair (and in the Visconti tarot he is decidedly blond) that hung down and framed his face like a halo. A person depicted in art with a halo is usually a person who is enlightened, and so that visual connection worked for me. The fact that the man is awake and not dead, suggests that he is fully aware and enlightened because he understands the consequences for his own behavior. It suggests that he sees the world from a new, enlightened perspective, one he hadn't considered or understood before.
But the stock definition of 'sacrifice' never really gelled for me with this card. While I understood it to be one of the keyword meanings for this card, looking at the visual clues, I never picked up on sacrifice. Of course, some tarot historians connect the death of the Hanged man to the death of Christ which translates to sacrifice for the greater good, and if that connection helps you remember, then great. But it never felt genuine to me because although Christ was punished, his supposed crime was blasphemy, not treason or theft, and he wasn't hung by one foot. If it doesn't make visual sense why force a meaning? Towards the end of this article I will identify a visual clue that does make sense in establishing sacrifice as one of its meanings.
Although the Visconti tarots are the oldest cards we have has reference, it does not necessarily mean it was the first, just the oldest one to survive. There were other decks produced around the same time frame of within one hundred years of the Visconti decks that had significant differences in visual content. The Hanged Man made no appearance at all in those decks. Among those pictured are the Sola Busca and Mantegna tarots. Neither of these 15th and 16th century decks depict a Hanged Man and appears to have in its place, a virtue card representing 'Prudence.' Prudence in both cards is depicted as a person walking, one with a type of lantern with a snake-like ribbon on his staff, and the other with a snake wrapped up the handle of a mirror. Although some historians claim Prudence replaced the Hanged Man, both of these cards with their symbolic objects (a lantern for light and a mirror for self reflection a 'Know Thyself' motif) seem more connected to the Hermit than to the Hanged Man, but that's just me.
The Marseille or TdM tarots of the 17th century clearly have the Hanged Man represented by a chap with light hair, suspended by one foot, other leg bent in the form of a triangle, and in the case of the example in my photograph has hands tied behind the body. During the inception of the TdM tarots the possibility that the Hanged man was instrumental in furthering its political agenda cannot be ignored.
If we skip one hundred years to the French guys of the 18th century, de Gebelin and Etteilla, they began to take note of the tarots as having potential for purposes of cartomancy and one or the other of them, or maybe both, I don't exactly recall, propositioned that some of the early tarot artists mistakenly inverted the image of a man walking with one leg bent (so as to avoid steopping on a snake which appeared in the Prudence cards) as a man hanging from a rope. His face is alive and alert because if he were walking he could not be dead, but in the artist's confusion de Gebelin and Etteilla proposed that the artists interpreted a Hanged Man who was alert and aware and thereby, enlightened. Are you still with me on this?
If you look at the next two cards in the photo, the top right and bottom left, you can see that the school of Etteilla abandoned the Hanged Man in favor of the Prudence card which he and his followers felt was the rightful historic card. (Or at least it fit in better with Etteilla's agenda whatever that was.) Both of these cards feature a female, not a male, walking with a snake prominantly featured in the card. One of them has a mirror.
(For those interested, the card on the top right is a reproduction from Etteilla's own deck and the first deck created for divination purposes, designed by him a year or two before his death. This card is known as the Grand Etteilla Egyptian Gypsies Tarot Deck published by Grimaud in 1969 and is currently out of print. The card on the bottom left was created by one of Etteilla's followers after his death and is known as the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot, or sometimes referred to as Etteilla III and is still available for purchase.)
In the Hermetic Tarot from which both the RWS and Crowley decks were born, (the black and white card in my photo) you will see the appearance of a snake and a reflective pool of water, which is a concept similar to a mirror. Remember, both a snake and a mirror appeared in the Prudence cards. Interesting, no?
Heck, even Miss Cleo's deck (whose company in an ironic twist of fate was found guilty of financial fraud and deception) has a snake prominantly featured in the hanged Man card of her deck.
Who knows if de gebelin and Etteilla were onto something, but the consensus is that they were in error or mislead for their own agendas. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that even newer decks of the past few years revisiting alchemic symbolism (not featured in my photograph) have a snake prominantly featured in their renditions of the Hanged Man. Not for the reasons that de Gebelin and Etteilla surmised, but as representative of Mercury as the 'Crucified Serpent' which connects the meaning of the Hanged Man card to the sacrifice of Hermes in a visual way that makes sense to me.
Modern tarot decks post-dating Etteilla no longer include Prudence in the cast of characters, unless you consider that it was the Hermit all along, who remains a man walking...