I remember the first time I held a tarot deck. I was participating in my first “women’s spirituality” workshop, which I thought would consist of interesting talks and lectures on the topic. I was horrified to discover that it was totally experiential. As a severe introvert, I was deeply challenged and terrified at the thought of revealing any personal aspects of myself to a group of strangers. The other women were not as inhibited and happily ran around the room gathering tools to express themselves. Some women danced, others drew pictures and others played with clay. I quickly, and quietly, retreated to a corner. I looked desperately around for something, anything to take attention away from me. That is when I saw them. Hidden in the corner of the room was a pack of tarot cards. I reached gingerly towards them, afraid to touch them. You see for me they were not tarot cards but the “Devil’s Playing Cards”. My former Pentecostal Christian upbringing chose to rear its fearful head at this moment. Do I dare touch the Devil’s cards, or do I join the other women?
I looked to the centre of the room and saw a woman proudly displaying a clay vagina she had just made. Water dripped from it into a bowl. She freely shared her thoughts and feelings about being a woman. I nearly fainted. Did I have to discuss such intimate feelings with strangers? I stared at the clay vagina and then at the tarot cards. In that instant I knew that I would rather face the Devil than talk publicly about my vagina. With only the briefest of hesitations, I grabbed the deck and looked at the cards. My hands shook as I viewed each card in turn. They shook more when I came to the Devil card. There he was staring at me in all his Satanic glory. Do I throw away the cards and publicly embrace my vagina? Or do I continue perusing the cards? I really had no choice. And so slowly I viewed each of the seventy-eight tarot cards on offer.
The workshop facilitator noticed my discomfort and came to talk to me. I explained my introversion and she sympathised, saying that I did not have to do anything uncomfortable. But she also noticed my strange reaction to the tarot deck and asked why I was frightened. I told her that although I was no longer Christian, I found it hard to let go of the fear of being punished for doing something wrong. She asked if I thought that a father God was a punishing figure. I laughed and said “of course!” Had she not read the Old Testament? She smiled, asking would I be more comfortable and less fearful if God were a female – a mother. A female God! I had never even thought of the possibility. She simply said, “think about it” and left me, alone with my thoughts and a tarot deck. I thought about it, but did not realise then that from the moment I first touched the tarot deck a door had opened, a veil had slipped and a journey had begun.
Learning the Art
Two years after that fateful workshop I enrolled in my first tarot class. But choosing an appropriate class was not the most difficult aspect of my tarot journey. Choosing a deck was. A traditional tarot deck consists of seventy-eight cards. There are twenty-two Major Arcana, (arcana meaning mysteries) and fifty-six Minor Arcana cards. The Minor Arcana are separated into four suits and each suit contains numbered cards from Ace to Ten and four Court Cards – the Page or Princess, the Knight, the Queen and the King. Each tarot deck is unique as the way these cards are depicted is different depending on the deck’s theme, style and iconography. There are decks based on ancient religions and cultures and others on popular myths and legends. I was unaware just how many different decks were on the market and found it difficult to choose a tarot set that suited me.
I was told that the Rider-Waite was the best deck for beginners as it was the most popular, the one referred to in the majority of tarot books and the one deck most tarot teachers used in their classes. But when I saw this deck I did not immediately engage with it. I found the yellows too loud and the imagery did not resonate with me. So, like a true non-conformist, I scoured esoteric bookshops for an interesting and appealing deck. Fortunately I was spared the ordeal of choosing, as my first deck was a gift from a friend. Their choice was the Mythic Tarot by Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene. They thought it was a good choice for me as I was studying Jung and archetypal theory. Like most Jungians, I was familiar with myths and legends, in particular the Greek and Roman pantheons. The Mythic Tarot, based on Greeks myths, was therefore an obvious choice. I related instantly to the images, recognising key characters and narrative themes. So, armed with my archetypal Mythic Tarot, I attended my first tarot class.
My choice of tarot class was based on convenience. I had no idea who were good tarot teachers and so enrolled in a class that was being offered as a leisure course at the uni I was attending. This weekly two-hour class was fantastic. The teacher was knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I will call my teacher Ana, as I have lost contact with her over the years and therefore do not have permission to use her real name. Ana taught us both the meanings of the cards and how to use them in tarot spreads. Most tarot consultations involve reading tarot spreads, which is the placement of cards in a particular order. Spreads can vary from simple to complicated and can utilise as little as one card or all seventy-eight. A quick and popular spread is the three-card spread, where the first card represents the present, the next the past and the final card the future. The Celtic Cross is also a popular and highly used spread that gives a more in depth look into past, present and future influences. Many tarot books offer a variety of spreads to choose from or you can devise your own. Tarot books also offer advice on another important aspect of casting a spread and that is shuffling and cutting the cards. Some tarot readers do not allow others to touch their cards and so shuffle and cut them themselves. Other readers will ask you to shuffle and then cut them in a particular order before spreading them for a reading. For personal use, be guided by your own instincts. I have a variety of different ways of shuffling and cutting, depending on the reading, the deck and my mood.
Ana not only taught us basic spreads and basic meanings of the cards but she also encouraged us to gain an intuitive understanding of tarot by challenging us to interpret cards based on our own intuitive musings. She would cast a spread then ask us to interpret it without resorting to books. We had to discuss what the symbols were in the cards, the colours, the numbers and then suggest what we thought the card was signifying. I found these exercises stimulating but confronting. My introversion made me self conscious and I was always worried I would make a fool of myself if my intuitive feel of the card was way off. But both Ana and all my fellow students were really supportive and we ended up having heaps of fun during our intuitive tarot spread interpretations. Not surprisingly, when we relaxed and became less self conscious, our intuition rarely let us down. That is one of the many beauties of tarot. The cards themselves contain all the information you need. Just trust your instincts.
Ana also brought along many different decks and encouraged us to explore the symbologies and pick decks that appealed to us. I was overwhelmed at all the different decks and wanted many of them for myself. One of the exercises that we did included going through tarot decks and finding which cards we liked and which ones we disliked. We were asked to explore what these cards were saying to us. Why did we like some cards and why did we dislike others? I have often found this exercise to be both fun and useful. Over the years, I have connected with many different cards but some cards, such as Death, remain firm favourites. In fact I will often go straight to the Death card when I am looking at buying a new deck. There are so many decks on the market and new ones keep appearing. It can be difficult to decide which ones to buy. If I like the Death card I will probably buy the deck. Many of the skills that Ana taught us in her tarot classes may not be traditional, but they were certainly fun, entertaining, informative and inspiring. I think if I had a more traditional, conservative teacher I may not have continued with tarot with such a passion. And so, like my first women’s spirituality workshop, my first tarot class led me on a strange and liberating journey.
After completing the tarot course I was surprised to receive a call from Ana. Unbeknownst to me, Ana was a Wiccan High Priestess who was starting her own coven. She thought that I might be interested in attending meetings. At first I was uncomfortable with the notion of joining a Witch’s coven. Although my Jungian studies had introduced me to the concept of female Goddesses and women centred religions, I was unsure what Wicca/Witchcraft was all about. I could feel my Christian upbringing rearing its fearful head again. But, after attending a meeting, I was reassured that Witches are not the Devil worshipping murderers popular culture leads us to believe they are. With my fears conquered, I attended my first Sabbat ritual, which most appropriately was Halloween.
Surprisingly, participating in Pagan rituals was less confronting than embracing tarot. Although I had been brought up Christian I was always in touch with one aspect of Pagan culture – death and the Underworld. No amount of religious indoctrination could ever tear me away from my uncanny obsession with the deities of night. As a child, I secretly watched and studied horror films. I loved the dark and deadly vampires, the haunted werewolves, the ancient mummies and tragic Frankenstein monsters that populated the horror genre. As an adult, I channeled this obsession into my university course where I was specialising in archetypal film analysis. My special area of study was naturally horror film. While uni fed my intellectual fire, it was Witchcraft that truly allowed me to embrace and experience the archetypes and deities that haunted my life. By the eerie glow of a Sabbat fire in the darkest night, I could fantasise about a world of myths and legends, of deities and monsters. My journey into Witchcraft is an interesting tale, but it is a story for another time. While my paths took me away from covens and onto a more solitary Wiccan path, tarot remained a dominating force within my life. But, as with Witchcraft, I found my experience of tarot leading me away from people and further into my own inner worlds.
As a student of tarot, I naturally thought that I would eventually become a tarot reader, so I practiced on willing family and friends. I do not have any conscious clairvoyant skills and so my readings were more psychological than predictive. Although tarot has traditionally been used as a divinatory tool, that is for “seeing” into or predicting the future, it can also be consulted from a psychological perspective. Psychological tarot readings view the cards as archetypal figures that point to key influences and disturbances within the psyche. Although predictions can still be made, the focus of the reading is more on the personal realm. Having a Jungian background helped steer me more towards psychological readings and I was able to analyse spreads combining tarot and archetypal knowledge. I had some skill and my family and friends often complemented me on my accuracy. But, although I enjoyed the sessions, it was not my forte. I was comfortable with people I knew but the thought of reading for strangers, and for money, was not something I desired. My love of tarot was more in the area of personal development. It was a tool to help me understand my life and plan for the future. And so I reduced the number of readings I did for others and concentrated on broadening my tarot knowledge and tarot skills.
I was happy to discover that tarot offered many paths to explore and experience. A particular favourite of mine was tarot pathworkings. Guided pathworkings are structured meditations that incorporate the images themes and symbols inherent within a chosen tarot card into a narrative journey. You can either devise your own structures or consult one of the many tarot books that offer guided meditations. For example, a High Priestess guided pathworking would involve a journey to a wise woman. The pathworking would begin with a journey to the Priestess’ domain, focus on a meeting with the Priestess where you will hopefully be offered some wise guidance, and end with a safe return. The type of woman and the surrounds would depend on the card you are using. A pathworking based on the High Priestess in the Mythic Tarot could involve a descent into the Underworld as the Priestess in this deck is Persephone. But, whichever deck you choose, the basic theme of a meeting with a wise and powerful woman would dominate a High Priestess pathworking.
When I first started pathworkings I would record myself reading the meditation from my chosen book onto a tape, which I then played when I was ready. As I became more comfortable with tarot I gained great pleasure by writing and recording my very own pathworkings. To enhance my pathworkings, I also began experimenting with music, colour, candles and incense. At first I consulted the many books that give multiple correspondences for each tarot card. As I became more knowledgeable, I trusted my intuition and made my own correspondences and connections for the cards. Before starting a pathworking, I would set up my room in ways appropriate for my chosen card. Thus armed, I would journey into the world of tarot for fun, pleasure and insight. For me, pathworkings are one of the most enjoyable ways of learning tarot from an esoteric perspective.
Tarot also became a useful tool in constructing Wiccan rituals and spellcasting. My love of the darker rituals such as Halloween and the dark of the moon complemented my connection to the tarot Death card. Not surprisingly I have written many Death pathworkings, which I sometimes use during these rituals. One of my favourite Halloween pathworkings is to use the Death card, the High Priestess card and the Empress card from the Mythic Tarot deck as they are represented by the deities Hades, Persephone and Demeter. I can then construct a ritual based on Persephone’s descent into the Underworld. For such a ritual I will decorate my room with things I associate with death and rebirth. I am fortunate that I have a vast collection of Halloween paraphernalia to draw on. I also choose music and my favourite for Halloween pathworkings is a cd of wolves howling. But pathworkings are not the only ways I incorporate tarot into Witchcraft rituals.
Tarot cards can also be used in spellcasting and there a number of books that deal specifically with spellcasting using tarot. Again, as with pathworkings, I consulted books before writing my own spells using tarot cards. To construct a spell I choose the appropriate card, drawing on its energy to empower my spell. For financial spells I will use a pentacles card and for inspiration or energizing I will use a wands card or the Magician card. I devise my own invocation and conduct the spell in the traditional way. To celebrate seasonal and lunar festivals I again choose relevant cards and incorporate them into the ritual. Doing specific tarot readings is also another way of drawing on the energy of solar and lunar festivals. I either use a traditional spread or, as with everything else, create my own. The yearly spread, traditionally consulted on New Year’s Eve is one of my favourites for Halloween as it symbolises the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new. I have also created my own Past, Present and Future lives spread, which I also do on Halloween, a perfect night for exploring past and future lives. By incorporating tarot pathworkings, spells and spreads into my rituals I can combine Witchcraft with tarot and celebrate the seasons and the phases of the moon in many delightful and powerful ways.
I have incorporated tarot not only in my personal life but also in my professional/creative life. As a writer I am no stranger to “writers block” and when I am in one of my non creative moods, I often turn to tarot. Sometimes I will do a quick spread to see if I can identify my blockage, but other times I use the images of tarot to help me write stories and thus get my creative juices flowing. Tarot is teeming with images of people and scenarios that can be used to write quick stories. I sometimes shuffle the deck, draw a card at random and write a brief synopsis of what I see. What is the character saying to me? What is the character’s situation? For more involved stories I draw a number of cards and write a narrative that links all the cards together. Tarot has also opened up an undiscovered aspect of my creative writing – prose. I was delighted to discover that I could write poetry and prose based on certain tarot cards, particularly the Death card. Using tarot images for creative writing is productive, extremely fun and can also be profitable as there are a number of books on the market that use tarot cards as their inspiration.
Creative writing is also a useful way of understanding tarot readings as a tarot reading is very similar to writing a story. The cards are set out in a spread and the reader interprets them into a narrative. If you have ever had a professional tarot reading you may, like me, sometimes come away from the reading a little confused. Everyone has their own interpretations of the cards and sometimes I disagree with others’ interpretations, particularly with cards such as Death, the Devil and the Moon. These cards have been tainted with many negative connotations due to religious and gender bias. Although I would never get into a philosophical argument with someone doing a reading for me, I do like to go over the cards and the reading when I am alone. I have found that a great way of expanding on the reading is to write a story about it. I recreate the spread and place the cards in their appropriate places. I then write about each card, what it means and what it means in relation to the position it occupies in the spread. I have found this to be a deeply moving and very personal way of understanding a spread. The last time I did this I was in tears, and I still get emotional when I reread what I wrote. This exercise is a powerful way of incorporating your own emotions into a professional tarot reading.
Having been a tarot enthusiast for over a decade, I feel as though I have come full circle. Although I own an enormous number of tarot decks, none of them truly reflect my passions nor my myths. It is with great pleasure that I have created my own deck – well, I have written it. As I cannot draw, I have joined forces with Anna, an incredible artist who has interpreted my written vision into her stunning drawings. I have finally finished the accompanying book that explains the gothic myth I am working within and the meanings of all seventy-eight cards. Synchronistically, Anna has also finished the drawings right on cue. I have almost learned more about tarot during the writing of my book than all the preceding years. I have certainly gained a richer knowledge of tarot and the myth I am using. It has been a fantastic journey but it is not over yet. We now face the greater challenge of trying to get the tarot deck published, but that will be another saga. But if it is not published I will use it for personal work. It is naturally a deck that I can engage with on many levels. It may even inspire me to return to doing tarot readings for others; but I do not think so. I enjoy my solitary pursuits too much.
It seems like a lifetime has passed since I attended the women’s spirituality workshop. I did not realise then that Goddess religions, Witchcraft and tarot would become such a fundamental part of my life. Many things have changed since that first fateful workshop and many things have stayed the same. I do not fear punishment from omnipotent deities, the Death card remains my favourite in the deck and I would still rather face the Devil than talk about my vagina in public.
A personal journey exploring the power of tarot.
Published in Practising the Witch’s Craft (Allen & Unwin) Feb 2003