How Tarot Really Works – and it’s not what you think

As some of you know, I’m currently writing a book on Tarot. Here is an excerpt from the introduction, where I slay a few sacred cows in the name of Rationality, rant about how credulous some people can be, and explain why Tarot really works…

Back in the spring of 2012, I was at a party with some of my friends, celebrating the Spring Equinox. People had been babbling on all afternoon about “the sacred energies of renewal,” and dropping such sparkling jewels as “the reason that you can balance an egg only at the equinox is because the Earth shifts her gravitational center to the Tropic of Cancer” and, “my psychic told me I need to stay away from gluten; it’s clogging my aura.”

I held my tongue – that night – even though:

  1. a) if you’re steady of hand, you can balance an egg on its end at any time of the year,
  2. b) the gravitational center of Planet Earth is located firmly at her center, and does not shift,
  3. c) are you freaking kidding me?!?

The topper came, later that evening, when I confided in a friend that I had just treated myself to a set of “teach yourself Russian” CDs, wanting to learn the language.

“Oh, you don’t need to learn Russian,” she said, beaming widely, going on to explain that now that the New Age, as we all knew, was coming that very year on the Winter Solstice, we, the entire human race, would be able to communicate telepathically by this time next year.

The sad thing is, that’s not the nuttiest prediction about 2012 I heard coming out of the mouths of otherwise sane people that year. Granted, I hang with an odd crowd, but they usually have more sense than the “facts” they circulated:

Aliens would make contact with Earth; it was written in all the crop circles.

The Secret Masters would interfere with the Summer Olympics in London, defeating the Illuminati at the opening ceremony; Nostradamus had predicted it.

Atlantis would rise, the Kraken would eat all of the offshore gas-pumping stations, and demons of Hell would swoop down upon the executives of Mobil, RJR/Nabisco, Martin Marietta and Monsanto, and whisk them away to a fiery pit of eternal damnation (this was the liberals’ Armageddon, remember). Politics, money, separation, strife, and all the problems of the world would simply melt away, all because the Mayan Calendar Cycle was coming to a close and the New Age was beginning.

Well, either someone miscalculated the beginning of the New Age, or I’ve been really out of touch for the past two years.

The fact is, that there is no New Age, there is no magic date when suddenly we all get our act together and become enlightened beings. Evolution is a continuous and arduously slow process; December 21st, 2012 was just as cold, as wet, as nasty, and ultimately as unremarkable as any day in late December can be here in New England: no great world enlightenment occurred, just as Y2K had failed to happen, or any of the half-dozen dates chosen as the end of the world by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It’s time we stopped looking for overnight solutions; there’s no discrete line separating us from the future. The ongoing technological revolution is moving our lives along at an alarmingly fast enough pace as it is; the future, as they say, is happening today. It’s time for humanity to grow up and accept reality. Any belief that can be debunked by thorough research or disproven by clinical experimentation should be discarded; if you claim to be looking for truth, stop believing in fairytales.

stop believing in fairytales

Or, more correctly, stop believing in fairytales as reality – and start believing in the deeper reality the tale teaches.

What do I mean by that? Another bit of illustrative autobiography:

I was about seven years old when I asked my parents whether or not Santa Claus was real. My mother, knowing she had given birth to a geek who would want the proper, historical answer, patiently told me about Saint Nicklaus of Asia Minor, an early Orthodox bishop whose kindness to children had inspired the figure that American children knew as Santa Claus. So yes, she concluded, there was no fat man riding a sled pulled by eight tiny reindeer, but in a way, yes, he still was real, because he was a metaphor* for kindness and generosity, and that when we gave gifts to each other, Santa Claus was real, inside us, and that was what mattered.

Yes, very warm, very fuzzy, even bordering on the “Yes, Virginia”-esque, but it worked. I was satisfied, and learned the truth, my disappointment mollified by my newfound insight into the generosity of humanity. Santa Claus wasn’t real, but, as a metaphor, he worked.

And yet, even though the human soul cannot be scientifically proven, cannot be replicated in a laboratory – there is that certain essence that lives within each of us, that spark of something just as indefinable, and just as impossible to replicate.

The very fact that there is a person, a sense of “here I am,” in an infinite universe of howling emptiness punctuated by mostly lifeless rock, is magic in of itself. What is that spark, that sense of individuation? Where does it come from? We try to dress it up with words like “soul” and “spirit,” and affix rules to it, like “karma” and “sin” and “learning,” all workable metaphors, more or less. But the real, simple truth of the matter is that none of us honestly can fully and completely explain the mystery of existence in individuation, that indefinable spark of “here I am; this is me.”

Now, some clergy may claim to some “special knowledge” above the rest of us, but the highest yogi, at the end of the day, knows no more about Ultimate Reality than the man who cleans the toilets at the ashram. We are all just as mortal, just as fallible – and yes, just as holy. All of us can claim that sense of individuality, and even more importantly, each one of us can lay claim to that energy we share with each other and every other living being. We may call this “god,” or “love,” or even “the Force.” Heck, call it the “Rainbow Energy of Life” – it’s just as good a metaphor as any. None of them can fully describe what we mean, but, as metaphors, they work, most of the time.

Metaphor is a wonderful mental tool; it can help you understand complex but ultimately explicable processes, such as how an electrical circuit works, or how our body’s immune systems operate. In addition, it can help us put into language ideas and concepts that are clearly beyond us at our level of evolution and technological ability: the true nature of dreams, the secrets of time travel, the ultimate mystery of death. We’re still working out the facts, but in the meantime, we have a glut of metaphor to help us think about what the right answer might be.

The problem is that when a metaphor becomes too big and too specific, it indeed starts keeping cows, and, if used in place of actual thought for long enough, the metaphor will breed its own sacred cows of belief, and that’s when we begin to mistake it for the truth.

For instance: it would be idiotic of me to assume that my computer’s circuits are indeed tiny water-filled pipes with microscopic faucets at every resistor and even smaller bathtubs at the capacitors, just because this is the metaphor my professor used when he taught us to grasp the concept of how a circuit-board works. Why, then, is it not considered idiotic to believe that there was an actual historical garden of Eden, complete with talking serpent and a God who is omniscient but still needs to ask the couple whether or not they’ve eaten from the tree, and all because a book that claims to be the work of god says it happened?

As a collection of metaphors, no doubt, the Bible has much to teach us, but if we examine it as an actual historical record, the only “proof” we have of its veracity is the say-so of the document itself, which, in any other case, would be considered laughable (imagine if you met someone who actually believed that Black Beauty had been written by a horse, because “the book* says it was”). What’s more, protestations of the Bible’s authenticity from the clergy be should be taken only after one stops to consider that this is a group of people whose sole authority in society comes from the belief in the Bible. This can hardly be consideered an unbiased viewpoint!

And while I doubt the above will shock any of the Tarot-card buying public, I might then turn upon my own religious tradition here and remind neo-pagans, witches, and New-Agers alike: we’ve got our own metaphors that we’ve started believing in too seriously. At the risk of pissing off a few dear friends, I’m going to throw a few sacred New-Age cows into the meat grinder of logic:

  • Dolphins are no more – or less – holy than cockroaches. Intelligence does not imbue sainthood; think of Leopold and Loeb. They were intelligent, weren’t they?
  • The human genome has been completely codified and identified. Our genetic makeup contains no elven genes, no alien genes, no fairy genes. Just human. I actually had a friend tell me once that she chose not to believe the actual genetics of humanity because it didn’t line up with what she “knew” was the truth – and yet would in the same breath condemn the Republican party for ignoring the evidence of global warming.
  • Crystals are merely organized mineral forms. There is nothing, save tradition unhindered by actual clinical research, which tells us that it’s conducive to clear thought to wear a quartz crystal around your neck. It might look pretty, but believe me, it’s not making you think better.
  • Although we – and all living things – possess our own electromagnetic field, and that field might – just might – shift and fluctuate with our emotional and physical well-being, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that this field can be seen by the naked eye, or be “read” by someone else, or even be fucked up by gluten.
  • There is nothing that a group of stars, which may or may not be actually anywhere near each other in actual space, can tell you about your relationship with a friend that you don’t already know yourself.
  • We do not choose our parents. If you honestly believe this one, try telling it to the person who will never be able to have a normal, functional life because he or she “chose” to be born to a crack addict. This reprehensible idea, repugnant to good morals and reason alike, was first put forward by certain authors of self-help books I shall not name; some people, without really examining it properly, decided it sounded good, and soon the notion, an insidious version of “original sin,” crept its noxious way into “mainstream” paganism. Not only does this idea lack scientific proof, it also lacks compassion for any human born into adverse circumstances.
  • Another repugnant idea to slither its way over from the pop-pseudo-psychology shelves is the so-called “Law of Attraction.” Yes, your mood affects your perceptions and thus your reactions to – and your interactions with – the universe. However, it does not logically follow that your mood alters the universe itself. If that were so, the Titanic would have missed the iceberg; the majority of people on board were having one hell of a party.
  • The origin of the Tarot is not “lost in the mists of time, possibly as far back as ancient Egypt – or even Atlantis!” Although at least one of the less-accurate books on Tarot I’ve seen blithely claims that “no one can know” when humanity started using Tarot, better, real reference books on the subject are clear that it developed between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a trick-taking card game – similar to bridge – in medieval Europe, the characters and symbolism on the cards borrowed from a popular form of entertainment called the “Triumph.” This was a parade version of the old “Passion” plays that the church used to educate the public on Christian morals and mythology: in these events, a string of allegorical characters would process before the public, each act more grand (or “trumping”) the character before it. For the best description of this history, see Robert Place’s excellent book, “The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination.” The whole “Tarot coming from Atlantis via Egypt” story, on the other hand, seems to be have been made up by one mildly influential blowhard in the 18th century who was trying to impress a countess he wanted to bed.
  • And touching on the whole “Tarot comes from Atlantis,” thing, it’s hard to have something coming from somewhere that never existed. Oh, yeah, I said it. Grow up and read your geology, people. Yes, I know; you have whole shelves of books telling you that Atlantis existed. Just because a book says something does not make it true; that’s why books that are supposed to be factual have bibliographies so you can look up for yourself to see if what the author says is true.
  • Oh, and, finally: no, the Tarot cannot tell the future. They are pieces of cardboard covered in ink, nothing more.

“Oh, but I went to this woman and – ” no. Let me stop you right there. There is the reason that Tarot seems to work “like magic,” and then there is the real, psychological reason why Tarot can work, the resulting emotions and insight so powerful that you feel you have, indeed, had a conversation with Divinity.

Let me start with the reason it seems to work; this applies now not only to Tarot but to all forms of divination. Most of us are familiar with the silly party trick of putting “Wizard of Oz” on the DVD player, putting the volume to mute, and then queuing it up to play simultaneously with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Yes, I’ve done it, too, and stared at the screen in amazement as Dorothy’s lips begin to move in time to the lead guitar solo while she talks to the three hired men.

People who don’t know what they’re talking about will blather on about Jung and “synchronicity” at this point, but the psychological phenomenon really at work here is a little thing called apophenia, or simply put, the human brain’s tendency to group random patterns and align them so they coincide to produce some deep meaning. Faced with a random juxtaposition of visual and auditory input, our brains will organize chaos into order and find patterns and alignments between what the ears hear and the eyes see, even where none exist. Even more amazing, our brains will even delay our perception of one or the other of the senses involved, to fool us into thinking that an action on the screen and a feature of the soundtrack align exactly, when in many cases they were misaligned by as much as a half a second. Our brains simply fool ourselves into seeing Dorothy’s lips move along with the music.

So, when faced with a mysterious system of symbols filled with emotionally charged meaning, we will assign deep significance to every card drawn, regardless of the fact that the rational brain knows that it is witnessing a randomly selected group of cards. The patterns leap to mind, and ultimately tell the story you want to hear.

It’s actually quite understandable: we’re designed for pattern recognition. Our brain has whole sections devoted to this process of grasping the timing of reoccurring events, which allowed our ancient ancestors to predict when to plant crops or move the herds. These neurons provide a useful service even today, helping us remember work routines and predicting our friends’ reactions to our snarky monologues, but modern psychologists have shown how easily our brains can be fooled, and how our perceptions can be altered by our own biases.

Despite all logic, reason, and even lack of proof, we still swear that Dorothy’s lips moving in synch with Roger Waters’ guitar is way too close to be a coincidence.

That is why we believe Tarot works.

But how does Tarot really work? Well, it’s in fact quite simple, and due to a similar part of the brain, the dedicated neural structure responsible for putting events into sequence, creating coherent narratives and creating histories.

Did you ever take a basic psychology course in college or high school? And, when studying the standard personality indicators, did you come across the one where the subject is given a picture and told to make up a short paragraph or three about what’s going on in the picture? Kind of like inkblots (Rorschach), but with photographs? The test itself is called the ‘thematic apperception indicator,’ if you like to know that sort of thing. The basic idea is that we, as humans, create stories for ourselves, based on our own beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. More to the point, we can get a pretty good ‘snapshot’ of a person’s psychological makeup, at least for that point in time, from the themes and tone of the story told in response to any given picture.

Now, consider: the characters, events and icons of the Tarot have been around for at least a couple few centuries, and were already recognized clichés and stereotypes even before the cards became standard. Moreover, the pictures on them are pretty basic, generic slices of human existence: interference, love, betrayal, sex, death, futility, struggle, joy – we all know and understand these concepts. The cards themselves, though sometimes cryptic in design, will still evoke the general mood of their title, enough that the ten of wands – oppression – is nearly always someone under a huge burden. Similarly, the two of cups (love) will usually show a couple in amorous embrace, the nine of pentacles (wealth) will show fabulous riches, and a really good nine of swords (cruelty) is almost painful to look at. It’s like a picture storybook, but one where you can shuffle the pages into random order to change the story and create new ones.

And when you create stories using these cards, you can, by mindfully observing what themes and meanings you attach to those symbols, gain a deeper understanding of your own mindset and your own internal mental filters which effect how you interact with the world around you. It doesn’t matter which card comes up when; it’s how you interpret them.

The symbols of the Tarot deck, used in this narrative fashion, become points on a grid upon which the subject weaves the story; the more complex the grid and more varied the symbols, the greater the ability of the subject to express the story of their own mind. The tradition of Tarot offers a rich tapestry of symbols and a wealth of spreads that can, with the active participation of the subject, be used to create astonishingly accurate pictures of that person’s attitudes, feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams – small wonder that people attribute such powers to these cards, never realizing that the magic, per se, is actually occurring within their own skulls!

And, just as the best indicator of where you’re going is which direction you’re pointed, yes, to some extent, the cards can provide you with a good idea about the decisions you’re facing and how you feel about what future might arise from those decisions. Given that, it’s not hard for a mature and aware individual to take the stories from the cards as timely parables, useful as a tool for navigating your mental landscape and thus your life.

Tell the future? Bullshit.

Give you helpful information to face that future? Most definitely. That’s what good divination – real divination – is about.

Just remember it’s all a metaphor. And get rid of those sacred cows every once in a while!


* yes, in fact, I did know what a metaphor was, even at seven. That was because my patient mother had to explain it to me after my father taught me: “what’s a metaphor?” “to keep cows in!”

* Or, touching on taking only one book and believing in it in the face of all other evidence, what kind of rational person would I be, if I decided to believe that just one particular study was true, even in the face of hundreds of other, much more accurate scientific experiments done since then, debunking the study I’d chosen to believe, even refusing to look at the new evidence, because the old study was what I wanted to hear? Well, friends, if you consider yourself “anti-vax,” that is, in fact, exactly what you are doing; the only scientific study that backs up this dangerous opinion has been roundly debunked – even by some of the scientists who originally backed it. Please read the more modern, accurate research before you close your mind and decide to endanger your kids – and everyone else’s.

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5 Responses to How Tarot Really Works – and it’s not what you think

  1. Interesting. Tarot, dreams, and astrology are what I call “symbolic languages.” Of the three, I’m most familiar with astrology. I don’t believe in predictions, either, because they interfere with free will.

    An astrological chart is a symbolic map of a moment in space and time, but it suggests the potentialities of that moment and the patterns associated with it.

    You are mistaken about the New Age. In astrology, it refers to “precession,” meaning the counterclockwise movement of the north pole through the zodiac as the earth wobbles on its axis. This takes about 25,000 years, so each astrological age lasts about 2000 years. Jesus ushered in the Piscean Age, which is why early Christians used the sign of the fish to identify themselves.

    The Aquarian age is not an overnight thing but refers to gradual changes, as humanity opens up to new discoveries in areas such as electronics, and–yes–mental telepathy. It also refers to the brotherhood of man, egalitarianism, and other keywords associated with the sign Aquarius.

    • phoenyxrose says:

      Thank you for your comment, and for the most part you are using your reason.

      However, you are still taking metaphors for reality. With respect, it is, in fact, *you* who are “mistaken” about the New Age.

      Consider the constellations you use as your markers of your astrological ages. You are aware, of course that these groupings of stars are not connected in any “real” way save in our imaginations. These stars that our ancestors grouped into shapes like “Pisces” and “Aquarius,” are, in fact completely unrelated to each other, billions of miles away from each other, sometimes even in distant galaxies, and *only* appear next to each other here on our planet.The values that we give to what it means to be “Piscean” and “Aquarian” are concepts we have come up with quite recently, and are useful metaphors – but in reality, there is no scientific basis for the constellation “Pisces” to herald one type of “age” and “Aquarius,” another.

      In addition, to give any significance other than geologic and astronomical (NOT astrological) to the “wobble” of our Earth’s axis is tradition and belief, not fact. Yes, it does affect which stars we see in the sky and a fair amount of geological effects can happen, but there’s no rationality to the concept that we can attribute 2,000 year cycles to our own spiritual evolution.

      For instance: are you aware that this Jesus, who you say “ushered in” the age of Pisces – is only mentioned in passing in ONE contemporary text of the time, and that all the other beliefs we have about what the man said, what he did, how he lived and how he died, is all in just ONE book – and that’s the same book that says it’s written by god, it’s bad to eat pork, and that we should stone adulterers.

      It’s time to admit that there is no actual historical proof that a carpenter’s son named Jesus ushered in anything. Yes, there is a deep value in the metaphor of Jesus, the Christian symbol of the fish, and the lessons of what we might call the Piscean age, but to mistake this as reality and use metaphor from a book of stories as “proof” is exactly the type of wooly thinking that I’m ranting on about.

      Please don’t think I’m condemning you. Up until a year ago, I, too, used my metaphors as reality.I would have told you quite cheerfully about past lives, dowsed to find your lost earrings, and listened without smirking when someone claimed to be an alien from outer space. But after the farce of 2012, I started re-studying my critical thinking skills and found that I was blithely believing all sorts of things without actually giving them a dispassionate eye. Gone went hundreds of past lives, names of planets I lived on, and I learned to focus on the here and now, and on actual reality rather than story.

      Evolution happens, and, yes, it’s gradual. But it doesn’t move according to structures that we made up. If anything, it made *us* up, and the only “Bible” we should use is the actual, physical, observable universe around us. And of course, I believe that we might – might – someday have some form of telepathy, and I’m all for egalitarianism and the brotherhood of man, and what the myth of the Aquarian age represents.

      But I refuse to quote fallacy as fact any more. Please, you sound like you are capable of listening. Open up your eyes and read a few books about critical thinking, talk to an astrophysicist, check your “reference” books for their bibliographies, and question, question, question EVERYTHING!!!!

      Regards, S.

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