Sunday, 28 July 2013

Tarot | An introduction

Although Thoughts on Beautiful Things consists mostly of beauty related posts, tarot is a vocation I hold very close to my heart and after sharing some tarot information with interested beauty and lifestyle bloggers I thought I'd publish a post explaining a little bit about what tarot is and what it involves. Every tarot reader has a different style and approach. I approach tarot as a tool for personal development, insight and growth; reflecting on the past, centering on the present, and providing insight into potential futures. I hope you find the following interesting, please feel free to comment!

Exploring the cards with one of my friends at a recent Tarot evening I hosted

The Tarot might be something unfamiliar to readers of my blog and so I thought I'd try my best to answer some common questions in order to explain what the tarot is and, perhaps more importantly, what it isn't (!) I started reading the cards casually about two years ago and attended an excellent tarot course at Treadwell's in London at the start of 2013 in order to further my knowledge and enhance my reading skills. One of my long term aims for 2013/2014 is to set up my tarot reading business as I truly believe the cards can be used as a powerful and empowering tool for healing, growth and understanding. Below are some common questions people often ask about tarot, and my personal responses. 

What is the tarot?

Simply put, the tarot is a deck of seventy eight cards featuring illustrations (in more modern and popular decks), numbers and symbols. Tarot consists of the Major Arcana, Minor Arcana and Court cards. The Major Arcana is a set of twenty two cards depicting 'the fool's journey', or the journey of the human spirit from birth to enlightenment. It begins with The Fool, who is 0 and therefore numberless, and ends with The Sun, number 21, symbolising understanding and enlightenment . Each card represents an archetypal experience or state of being which we can encounter at different stages in our lives and in different situations. These cards tend to relate to big life events involving change, loss and/or joy. I often use the Major Arcana cards in meditation as they can act as pathways into exploring and understanding where you are at certain points in your life. There are figures such as The Hierophant, who represents spiritual study and learning; The Empress who represents abundance in nature and sensuality; and Death, who represents necessary change and an acceptance of loss. 

The Minor Arcana consists of four suits of ten cards, each suit associated with different elemental properties. Wands represent fire and therefore action and the spark of inspiration; Cups represent water and therefore emotions and relationships; Swords represent air and therefore thought and the intellect; and Pentacles represent earth and therefore material goods, wealth and 'earthly' things such as work, study and health. Each suit runs from an Ace, symbolising the pure gift of the suit, to ten which represents the full fulfillment of the suit. The Minor Arcana cards tend to symbolise everyday situations, emotions and occurances. The illustrations range from positive to negative, although really there are no inherently 'positive' or 'negative' cards in the tarot. It depends on the interpretation and the situation at hand as to whether we see things positively; and even the 'negative' cards can have positive meanings when considered carefully. 

In addition, there are four Court cards per suit: a Page, Knight, Queen and King. These figures tend to represent either a person the querent knows and who is somehow influential on the situation at hand, or an element of the querent themselves. Of course, we are fluid and ever-changing and developing, and so you can be a mixture of Court figures simultaneously. 

The cards are used in conjunction with each other during readings in order to shed light on whatever question or issue is being explored.

Where does the tarot come from?

Good question. This is something hotly debated within the tarot community, although it seems to be generally agreed that the cards probably originated in Italy during the Fifteenth century. There are those who believe the cards come from Ancient Egypt, and various other theories. From what I have read on the topic it seems likely that the cards are not as old as people once believed. It has been suggested that they began as an Italian card game before being used for divination purposes. Some might argue that if they began life as a game, how can they be used for divination or personal development? The archetypal imagery used on many decks somehow gives them universal appeal and universal reach; I tend to see the cards as a tool enabling access to the inner self and subconscious. Whether they started as a game doesn't really bother me, as they seem to do the job of divination and self understanding very well regardless!

The tarot became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century due to the workings of Arthur Edward Waite, a member of The Golden Dawn, a magical order interested in the tarot amongst other things. He commissioned an artist named Pamela Colman Smith to design a deck of tarot cards and most modern decks are based on these cards today. Smith included images on all of the Minor Arcana cards; previously readers relied on the basic suit symbol and number to interpret the meanings of the Minor cards in readings. Smith's images are rich in symbolism and her inclusion of androgynous figures and ambiguous facial expressions lends the cards to multiple possible interpretations, depending of course on the specific reading. I tend to use the Robin Wood tarot for my readings, which is a deck based on the original Rider-Waite imagery but with the inclusion of Pagan elements and bolder colours. 

There are now thousands of tarot decks available, featuring a wide range of styles and imagery. From cat illustrations to photo imagery to black and white decks, there are so many options available, which makes reading tarot even more exciting! Who doesn't love a bit of shopping?! 

What does the tarot do? Doesn't it involve all sorts of spooky and dangerous things like communicating with spirits and even the Devil?

In a word, no. The tarot is not religiously affiliated, although the Catholic Church did (still does?) ban it due to not understanding what it was/is. It's due to a lack of understanding that people assume there is something sinister about the cards. They're just cards! When you think of it that way, what harm could they possibly do? Any power or meaning attributed to them comes from the querent, not the cards themselves. They reflect the inner thoughts and patterns of the querent; they do not carry any separate power or meaning when not in use. While there may be readers who design card spreads to connect with past lives or to connect with the deceased, most readers use the cards for purposes of the here-and-now variety, seeking guidance and understanding on current issues and future potential. When the cards reveal something to us, I believe it's really ourselves revealing what we most need to know, through the cards as a tool. 

Tarot has absolutely nothing to do with the Devil, a Christian concept separate from the cards. It is true that many decks incorporate religious imagery; for example in the Rider-Waite pack there is indeed a card called The Devil, and the Druid Craft Tarot deck contains a lot of Pagan and Wiccan imagery. But the cards don't necessarily literally mean what the picture shows; the pictures are symbolic and there to be interpreted. So, The Devil can represent feeling chained to unhealthy patterns of behaviour or materialistic pursuits. It doesn't literally mean the presence of the Devil in the Christian sense. 

Can tarot predict the future?

While the tarot is used for divination it doesn't and cannot show set-in-stone predictions of your future. Time is fluid, we are fluid. We change our minds, adjust our thoughts, change our patterns of behaviour, make millions of decisions every day. The cards show possible outcomes based on your current behaviour and current ways of thinking, but these are always subject to change. I'm very hesitant to make 'concrete' predictions because in my experience this isn't the most empowering way of reading the cards for someone. While an outcome might be strongly indicated by the cards, and while I wouldn't shy away from explaining it, I always aim to set such potential outcomes in the present and give the querent an opportunity to explore and examine their current behaviour and thoughts, rather than simply stating 'this is going to happen'. This allows you space to examine and reflect upon whether or not you would like to aim towards a different outcome, or whether you'd like to change your approach in dealing with something likely to happen. That, for me, is an empowering reading; one that emphasises choice. Sometimes predictions aren't so clear, which often suggests that spending some time looking within is necessary. For example if you'd like to know when you're going to meet 'the one', it might be more empowering to ask 'what do I need to know about myself and relationships' before diving straight into possible futures. 

You'll often find that tarot readers may have certain subjects they don't feel comfortable reading about because the nature of prediction can be a tricky one. I don't do health, legal or third party readings for this reason, and because I'm not a doctor/lawyer! I wouldn't feel comfortable reading about these subjects and so I make this clear to anyone requesting a reading from me. Responsible readers will have codes of ethics which they abide by in order to give you a genuine, respectful and safe tarot reading. 

Tarot isn't just used for divination. It can also be a powerful tool for healing, for reflection and for meditation. It can help unlock repetitive patterns that no longer serve you, as well as providing focus for reflection on your needs and desires. It can be used in manifesting goals and in planning for the year ahead, amongst other things. I'm currently using tarot alongside Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques in order to manage and change anxious thoughts. Tarot is not limited to fortune telling, although it is able to do that too. 

What about the scary cards? I wouldn't want one of those to pop up in my reading!

It's true that some of the cards look, at first glance, quite frightening. The Tower shows a lightning bolt striking a tower, sending two people hurtling to the ground at breakneck speed, fire raining down from above. Death shows the skeletal figure of Death riding on a majestic white horse, while people of various ages respond to him with sadness, fear and hope, depending on their perspective, as he rides on. These cards very rarely indicate a literal explosion or death; they symbolise emotional processes that we experience throughout our life, often encompassing a message of hope and strength among the devastation. The Tower can symbolise the need for sudden change, for something to shake us out of our inattention or inertia in order for a fresh start and new beginning. Death can symbolise the need to acknowledge and accept a situation, to leave it behind and move forwards confidently in order to truly grow and move on emotionally from a situation. In my mind these are actually very positive, life affirming cards; they represent opportunity and second chances, a fresh start and a chance to take a different direction. They represent rebirth. 

How does the tarot actually work?

Another good question, and one that I'm not entirely sure I can answer! Psychic readers seem to use the cards as a way of accessing channels of information about the querent and the querent's future. I'm not a psychic reader, I'm an intuitive reader, which is different. I pick up on energy from the querent, in person if they're in front of me, or through 'tuning in' when doing a distance reading. I'm not quite sure how to explain it. I visualise the person, focus on their question or concern and tune into their energy as I shuffle the deck. I continue to focus as I cut and deal the cards (or they shuffle if they're with me). Often I sort of sense what type of cards will appear in the reading; for example I might feel that the question is 'pentacle based' or 'cups based' and so it isn't a surprise when certain suits dominate the spread. I then take my time in joining the cards together in the order suggested by the spread, 'plaiting' the cards together and forming a story of some sort. It's a bit like planning, drafting and writing an essay; the ideas start off loose but gradually tighten and form distinct 'paragraphs' and 'themes' as I go along. 

There are often numerous interpretations available, so it's a case of figuring out instinctively which one is the 'right' one for the reading. This depends a lot on how the cards interact with each other. When doing a distance reading I often talk aloud and ask the cards questions, before saying whatever ideas occur to me. If I feel stumped or can't quite make a connection I describe what I can see in the card until something jumps out as significant. You just sort of know when a meaning is the right fit. I've always been quite sensitive to peoples' energy and emotions, and find it quite easy to guess accurately as to how someone is feeling, even if they're trying to hide it. I associate people with different colours a lot of the time and I've started being able to guess accurately as to which card I'm holding in my hand when it's faced down. I'm also able to focus on a card when shuffling for myself and then draw that card immediately from the full seventy eight card deck, without looking. 

Other than the above, though, I don't really know how the cards work! They just do. They have an uncanny ability to describe accurately whatever it is that's being discussed. 

In theory, couldn't any card relate to any issue?

This is something I've thought about a lot. I've tested various combinations to see if this is the case, but it really doesn't seem to be. It's as if your inner self really does draw out the necessary cards at the right time. For example, let's say someone wanted a reading about career change and it had been an extremely traumatic time for them recently. You might expect The Tower or Death or some other sort of card signifying change and upheaval. Another person might be going through a really positive time emotionally, and so their reading is full of cards indicating romance, a solid relationship and cards relating to family and emotional stability. Some cards just wouldn't make sense! The story lines wouldn't make sense. I did a reading recently in which I expected to find Swords, and I did. I did another reading based on financial concerns in which I expected to find Pentacles, and I did. I don't believe it's down to coincidence, I really do think it's to do with energy and drawing towards us what we need at the time. But I'm not sure how it actually works! 

In a reading, how do you know which card goes where?

There are thousands of tarot spreads available to use during readings, ranging from simple three card spreads depicting past-present-future or body-mind-spirit, to longer spreads taking into account past, present and future influences as well as conscious and unconscious feelings and the feelings of other people involved. One of the most popular tarot spreads is the ten card Celtic Cross spread which covers inner/outer feelings, past, present and future potential actions, the environment and opinions of others and much more. Tarot guides print lots of different spreads and during a reading the tarot reader will talk you through what each card position means and relates to, before giving a detailed explanation of how the cards and positions relate to each other. 

What am I meant to do with a reading? 

I'm a firm believer in actively reading the cards rather than passively reading them. This means a willingness to listen to and consider the content of a reading, taking a collaborative approach to the reading and thinking of how the messages illuminated by the cards might be acted upon after the reading. Tarot readers are not there to be 'tested'; their aim isn't to wow you with heaps of information they couldn't possibly know without getting to know you first. Most readers want you to get involved and add to the reading where possible. If you think of an alternative explanation of a card, if something about an illustration strikes you as significant that the reader hasn't picked up, go ahead and mention it! Reading tarot actively means searching for and developing responses to the cards in order for you to begin understanding your thought patterns, actions and feelings towards the situation being examined. Trying to 'test' the reader will only mean stunting your ability to engage with the cards and therefore with yourself. Good tarot readers will help you apply the reading to your life, perhaps by helping you devise steps that can be taken to move yourself forwards in whatever situation it is you find yourself in at the time of the reading.

Robin Wood tarot deck (my favourite!)

Deviant Moon Tarot 

Robin Wood tarot deck again 

I hope you've enjoyed finding out a little more about tarot, and if you have any questions or comments please do let me know in the comments section below or by finding me on Twitter @Imogen_Massey. I love chit chatting about tarot so I'm sure to respond! 


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  2. This is so fascinating! I love the idea of tarot readings, and using them as a tool for delving into your thoughts and feelings. This is a really lovely post, as I'd never really thought of tarot in that much detail before, but it's all so interesting! xx

    Squares - Bookworm and Beauty Enthusiast

    1. Thanks so much hun, I'm glad you enjoyed reading! I love that there are so many angles to tarot and that it can be used for self development in a sort of therapeutic way, as well for looking into the future. I hope you'll enjoy reading future posts!

  3. An insightful article Imogen. I like the idea of using Tarot to indicate a future outcome. It is also empowering to know that the 'nasty' looking cards may indicate a positive outcome.


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