Tarot cards essay
Tarot cards essay

Two years ago, I was at my old job in Toronto, where we were having a small party in honour of my co-worker Emily’s last day. Our peers were listening to a playlist of ‘the best songs of 2018 so far’ (it was a music job, I’m sorry), drinking cheap lagers and eating pizza. Fifteen feet away, at a small table, Emily and I were having something of a heart-to-heart about life’s next steps. For her: buying a house, finding somebody with whom to settle down. For me: eating one more slice, probably. And then??

Truth be told, I was feeling stuck. I’d been at my job for almost the entirety of my twenties, and despite feeling ready for something new, didn’t know quite where to turn in a job market where salaried jobs were increasingly hard to find and freelance writing was increasingly difficult to sustain. I’d also just been through the most significant breakup of my life, and was finding dating on ‘the apps’ unfulfilling. I needed guidance.

“Well,” Emily said, pulling a deck of tarot cards from her bag onto the table, “how about a reading?”

My coming-of-age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, on a cultural diet of The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and the snarky, not yet Condé Nast-owned music blog pitchforkmedia.com, had taught your young author to conflate good taste and cleverness with cynicism and a kind of combative scepticism, respectively. Anything resembling spirituality, to me, seemed dubious – astrology and horoscopes, palm readers, and tarot cards, with their seemingly attendant mysticism, included. I was, I thought, no rube. This wasn’t for me.

Before I was quite able to verbalise my scepticism, Emily had offered me the deck, and I’d pulled a card each for my past, present, and future. By the end of the reading, I’d be a convert.

1. “The High Priestess–Secrets, mystery, the future as unrevealed.”

The history of tarot cards isn’t nearly as exciting or as shrouded in mystery as one might think: they started as playing cards, which after a long history in Egypt began to materialise in Europe roughly around the mid-15th Century. In Italy, the playing decks originally featured four suits – batons or clubs, coins, swords and cups – but soon came to include additional cards that featured allegorical paintings known as trionfi: trump cards. By the end of the century, the game Tarocchini was widespread in Bologna, and decks of cards known across Italy as taroccostarocks in central Europe, and in France, tarot – were everywhere.

It wasn’t until the 1780s that the cards were picked up, then popularised, by occultists. Around 1785, Parisian occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette published the book Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots (‘How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot’) under the utterly untraceable pseudonym Etteilla, then produced a deck of his own based on his interpretation of The Book of Thoth, a series of ancient texts purported to have been written by the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge.

By the late 19th Century, tarot cards had reached the English-speaking world, and after writing England’s first published discussion of the occult tarot, Arthur Edward Waite designed a deck of his own for mass consumption. Drawn by illustrator Pamela Colman Smith on instructions from Waite himself, the Rider-Waite tarot deck was published by William Rider & Son in 1909; a year later, it would be re-released with a small guide, titled The Key to the Tarot.

It was the first complete cartomantic deck (i.e. one designed for the reading of one’s cards, as opposed to gaming), and its included guide, which provided an overview of the history and tradition of the cards, and how to interpret them, provided a perfect entry-point for aspiring tarotologists. The accessibility of the deck, provided by its Key, led to the Rider-Waite deck’s eventual ubiquity. It’s now one of the most popular and recognisable decks in use in the English-speaking world, and easily the most influential; countless decks since have based their designs and reading descriptions on the Rider-Waite’s illustrations and text.

It was from this deck that Emily would have me pull cards over a century later, but the mindset I had going in was borrowed from the era between, in which tarot cards, despite a popularity boom in the late 1960s with the rise of the counter-culture, was still considered either the realm of occultists like Alliette and Aleister Crowley (who produced his own deck as part of his The Book of Thoth in the 1940s), or part of the rise of New Age thought. The books of tarot-obsessed former actress Eden Gray were central to tarot reading’s rise; Carl Jung’s writing on the tarot, published in the 1930s, also played a part in its rising counter-cultural popularity, commensurate with the late 1960s and 70s interest in psychology and the human mind.

By 2018, tarot was developing a new, younger and more mainstream audience. Tarot cards, once seen as “the preserve of fairground fortune-tellers spouting platitudes from a booth”, were coming back en vogue. And my scepticism – not to mention the self-defeating factors that had brought about my professional malaise, my breakup – were about to be revealed by the first card I pulled, to represent my ‘past’: The High Priestess.

Cards pulled from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Image: Penguin

Cards pulled from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Image: Penguin

2. “Three of Wands–He symbolises enterprise, effort, discovery.”

The summer of 2018 was practically the summer of tarot cards.

“Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads,” asserted The Guardian that August, “while tarot-card readers are the heroines of crime novels such as Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs Westaway and EV Harte’s Dolly Greene series.” An article in which The Evening Standard effused about “how tarot cards are going mainstream” also reported that sales of tarot cards in the UK that year were at their highest level in 50 years. One Bloomsbury shop noted that they had “seen a 50 per cent increase in just the past two years and around half of the store’s customers are under 30 — compared with just 25 per cent in 2010”.

There are plenty of reasons that young people seek out the tarot, but prime among them are, according to the New Statesman, a lack of control. As the economy continues to sag, young people are increasingly feeling professional strain, and with the continued rise of secularity, young people are increasingly looking for somewhere to turn for guidance. Governments – whether you’d like to point to Donald Trump’s election in the US or Brexit in the UK – aren’t providing young people with much stability or faith.

“Millennials’ economic, professional, domestic and romantic lives are so far removed from those experienced by baby boomers that we can no longer look to older generations for advice,” wrote the New Statesman’s Amelia Tait. “Where else do we go?”

So, I gave Emily my attention, even if I wasn’t entirely ready to suspend my disbelief. And the High Priestess was right, in her way: personally speaking, I had been something of a secret to myself for the past few years; professionally speaking, my future felt extremely “as yet unrevealed”. I’d known for years that I was approaching the right time to leave my job, but hadn’t given it true consideration.

I found myself wanting to argue with the Priestess that this wasn’t the case anymore. Feeling like there were things to learn about myself in the wake of my breakup, I was now seeing a psychotherapist, working on my relationship to myself and others. I was making new friendships, strengthening old ones; taking ballet classes just to test myself (maybe the most “just went through a breakup” move possible). Career-wise, I was beginning to think about my next move in earnest, and discussing it with a new woman I’d just started seeing. My hard work was beginning to pay off. (Ballet really tones your core.)

So I was vindicated when Emily pointed to my ‘present’ card, the Three of Wands, and read from The Key to the Tarot: “A calm, stately figure, with his back turned, looks from a cliff’s edge at ships passing over the sea. He symbolises established strength, enterprise, effort, trade, commerce, discovery; those are his ships, bearing his merchandise, which are sailing over the sea.”

The Key to the Tarot. Image: Penguin

The Key to the Tarot. Image: Penguin

“This could mean,” Emily began analysing, “that you’ve been working hard, maybe on yourself or your prospects. Your ships are coming in.”

Oh, god. This was helping! Tarot cards were actually helping me see things! My cynicism was melting away. On to card three.

3. The Lovers–“Love, beauty, trials overcome.”

I live in London now. Here’s what happened: therapy went really well. The woman I was seeing became my partner, and after over a year together in Toronto, she asked me to move to the UK with her. I decided I would go, and study psychotherapy as a career option for the future. It was a big move, a big chance to take. Part of me was sceptical. Of course.

Scepticism is good; unlike its more sinister sibling cynicism, it encourages seeking the truth. And to my mind, there is no truth in tarot cards.

Hear me out.

In my experience of tarot cards – not just Emily’s reading of mine, but any and all I’ve had since – they are not ‘fortune-tellers’. I don’t believe that they held or can hold the key to anyone’s future, nor do I believe they possess mystic, paranormal or divinatory powers. They are mass-printed paper cards. 

But nor are they powerless.

Think of them a bit like mirrors, maybe. Mirrors can be used for vanity, and they can warp the truth; only the viewer can decide, after sending light towards it, how to use the information it returns.

A good tarot reader isn’t cold-reading you; they are providing information about the card that you happened to pick in that moment. The High Priestess didn’t accurately read my past any more than the Three of Wands correctly guessed my present moment; they offered a mirror and, with an open mind, I bounced myself off of them. I brought my existence to bear on them, rather than the other way around. (Paper cards, remember.)

Still, when Emily pointed to my third and ‘future’ card, and read that The Lovers signify “Truth, Honour and Love” and “other and higher aspects”, I couldn’t help but feel the pull of belief.

Wouldn’t you?

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

  • The Key To The Tarot

  • The official companion to the world famous Original Rider Waite Tarot - the most popular deck in the world.

    The Key to the Tarot is the essential guide to unlocking the secrets of tarot from renowned scholar of the occult, A. E. Waite. This enlightening book, which can be used in conjunction with any set of tarot cards, explains the history and symbolism of the tarot deck as well as providing a step-by-step guide to using the cards for divination practices. This is your key to harnessing the power of the tarot.

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