Occultist Éliphas Lévi (1810 – 1875) wrote that tarot is “the most perfect tool” to understand life.
He believed that “an imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge.”
But whose knowledge would we be acquiring?
Just as human history is ever-changing, so is tarot.
Even if its artwork was created in another century.
Tarot dates back to the 1400s, when it humbly began as a card game. It wasn’t until the early 1910 that the Rider-Waite-Smith deck made its debut.
This was the deck that popularized tarot into what we know it as today. Many of the decks that have been published since, along with the meanings that we associate with each card, have been inspired by the RWS.
But 1910 wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things.
And yet despite its youth in comparison to other systems like astrology, tarot’s potential never ceases to amaze me. The cards work. I still have moments where I find the experience to be uncanny.
I love that we live in the best time for tarot, astrology, or another related practice. It’s easier than ever for artists to publish their own decks.
We have thousands of books, blogs, and online courses at our fingertips. These practices that were once hidden, or even forbidden, are now more accessible than ever.
But, the work to keep tarot relevant is ongoing.
Just as communication, language, relationships, gender, and work continue to transform, tarot must, too.
And anyone who reads tarot has a responsibility for ensuring that tarot evolves with us.
Whenever I read for someone new, I always ask them if they have a tarot reading before. If they say no, I give them a quick rundown of how tarot works for me:
a) I read the cards, and nothing else. I don’t read auras, minds, or connect with the dead;
b) If you have a specific question, I want to know what it is. It will dictate the context of the reading;
c) If you don’t have a specific question, that’s okay. We can do an open reading, but if you are hoping to get a message about a certain area of your life, it’s best to tell me first so I can look for it in the cards.
Depending on the question, I might also explain that tarot is dramatic. We see images of death, devils, swords, pain, and sadness.
If someone wants to know how their vacation will go and they pull the Death card, I don’t want them to think that it means they will die on their trip.
I’m always careful about setting expectations because I don’t always know what kind of superstitions or misconceptions someone is bringing to a tarot reading.
And I believe that as a tarot reader, it’s my responsibility to help move tarot away from superstition.
If you are reading for others, even if it’s just for friends, it can be important to learn to assert your connection and understanding of tarot.
It’s also important not to get too hung up on any rituals or accessories around it. For example, if you like to keep a special crystal or tool nearby that you believe helps you “connect” with the cards better, and one day you forget it, does it mean your readings will be off?
I would say no. You know what you’re doing. You can read the cards no matter what if you understand their images and meanings.
Crystals don’t do the work for you. You are the one in charge.
Just as I don’t worry if a few cards fall out when they get shuffled, or if one ends up reversed. Sometimes clients look panicked when this happens: “Is that a bad omen?”
Of course not. Just as we know not to be afraid of black cats or Friday the 13th, we should know not to be afraid of doing tarot wrong, or jinxing a reading.
Plus, it’s important to remember that many of the superstitions that prevail have roots in violent, discriminatory, patriarchal beliefs against women and spirituality.
And so I always try to be mindful not to perpetuate myths that are rooted in dominance and fear.
It’s also important to think about the questions that are being asked, and the images that we are working with.
Going back to the Death card for a second, it’s important to remember that tarot originated during medieval times, where life expectancy ranged from 30 to 45 years. Death really did lurk around every corner.
In modern day, the Death card is often seen as completion, transformation, or even rebirth. Many of us are living in safer, healthier times, and that is reflected in our experiences when we read tarot.
When I explain tarot’s origins to nervous newbies, I find it really, really helps to set them at ease.
Context is everything in a reading.
Love and marriage have evolved over the centuries, too. Whenever someone asks me about whether they will ever find love, I try to steer the conversation away from thinking about in absolutes:
“Let’s not focus on The One, or words like ‘ever’,” I might advise. “Or even marriage. Let’s look at love for the year to come, or what you can do to shift the energy in your relationships now.”
Why? Because definitions of marriage, monogamy, and partnerships are always changing. And, life can be long. Yes, if you’ve been single for a while you might wonder if you will ever be in a relationship again.
My mother, a widow, unexpectedly found her second love at 81, a few years after my father died.
In love, anything can happen.
But we have to check our own ideas of what love looks like. Does it mean marriage? A soul mate? A til-death-do-you-part agreement on some level?
Marriage hasn’t always been about happy endings, or even based on love. Sometimes it has been about using women as property, selling a daughter off to another family.
So when we use an old tool like tarot to talk about unions, we must remember that the definitions of marriage have always changed, and will likely continue to do so.
And why we have to keep our views on partnerships in check, and look at where our views on love come from in the first place.
Ideas of fairytale romances are not always as deeply rooted in tradition as we might think.
A reading on marriage in the 1600s would have been a very different conversation than a reading today, where we have free will and choice in whom we choose to partner with, and how and where we might look for a partner.
Where there is more openness around how we can love, too. And where marriage doesn’t even have to come into the equation if a couple doesn’t want it to.
As divorce became more mainstream, and acceptable – also a very new development in human history – marriage evolved again.
And so when we read tarot, we must keep all of these things in mind, just as we do with questions about path and purpose.
What if we have multiple purposes in a lifetime? Can purpose be about being a good friend, a good parent, or a kind neighbour? Does purpose always have to be about work?
The idea that we can shape our futures, that we can focus our ambition on a career that meaning, is also quite modern.
If we were reading tarot for each other a hundred years ago, we might not be so concerned with questions like, “Should I go back to school, or pressure my boss for a promotion?”
Which is why it’s important to go back to the question I began with:
When we consult the cards, whose knowledge are we accessing?
Whose history and experiences do we need to take into account?
There are so many different ways to work with tarot, just like there are so many paths we can each choose in our lives.
There is no right or wrong to live your life. Your path is yours to walk, and so it is with reading tarot.
Staying open to those options, and staying open to fluidity, is how we can keep tarot relevant.
Look beyond the conventional storylines, whether they are in the cards, or in the people you meet.
Until next time,
Want to learn more? My book THE POWER OF TAROT is your guide to today’s tarot. Get it here.