How Does Tarot Work?

Have you ever been asked, how does Tarot work?

I have.

Last weekend one of my best friends, Tamar, drove to my house for a socially distanced dinner. Whilst we were munching on homemade falafel the conversation turned to my work as a Tarot reader. When Tamar enquired into the “science” of Tarot I did my best to explain just exactly how Tarot worked but this proved trickier than I thought… 

After dessert, (mini Calippo ice lollies, mmm…) Tamar had to make a move. I sat in the kitchen with my thoughts – I felt embarrassed. As a Tarot reader who has experienced first hand the transformative and healing power of Tarot I felt like I had failed the Tarot community by balking at Tamar’s questions.

Forever the bookworm, the next day I found refuge in the wise words of four of my favourite witchy writers, Rachel Pollack, Mya Spalter, Lisa Lister and Bakara Wintner. And Voila! A new article for The Brit Witch is born – How does Tarot work? 

If like me, you’ve found yourself clumsily tripping over words in a cringey attempt to explain the mechanics of Tarot then this article, dear reader, is for you.

I hope that this post fills you with knowledge, clarity and empowerment. 

All hail Pamela Colman Smith, the illustrator of the celebrated Rider-Waite Tarot (a.k.a. the Smith-Waite Tarot).

To put it simply, Tarot is a form of divination. Tarot cards are used to provide information and insight into someone’s past, present and future. A deck of Tarot cards consists of seventy-eight cards and is divided into two parts: the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana and the fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana represents the major events and changes in a person’s life whereas the Minor Arcana represents more minor events and day-to-day situations. 

Glad we’ve got that clear. 

For sceptics, one of the main arguments to invalidate Tarot is how can a random selection of cards predict what’s going to happen?

In her book Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack raises a very important point in regards to randomness. 

“The very idea of randomness is really very modern. It developed out of the dogma that cause and effect is the only valid connection between two events. Events without this logical joining are random, that is meaningless. Previously however, people thought in terms of ‘correspondences’. Events or Patterns in one area of existence corresponded to patterns in other areas. The pattern of the zodiac corresponds to the pattern of a person’s life. The pattern of the tea leaves in the bottom of a cup corresponds to the outcome of a battle. Everything is connected. The idea has always acclaimed it’s adherents, and recently even some scientists, impressed by the way events will occur in series (like a ‘run off bad luck’), have begun to look seriously at it.”

Rachel suggests that it’s okay to acknowledge both the validity of the scientific school of thought of “cause and effect” as well as the pattern based school of thought of “correspondence”. The two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, there’s very little in this world that is. For example, I love listening to Cardi B rap about her vagina and I’m a feminist. 

I read Tarot for a range of people including doctors, nurses, business people and lawyers. I have no doubt that these people would consider themselves rational. I do too. I’m spiritual and scientific. I believe in the Big Bang and I practice witchcraft. 

By trying to prescribe to binary beliefs (you can either believe in science or spiritualism, Goddess forbid you choose both!) one reduces their understanding of complex issues. Lots of people like to think in absolute ways and I get why that can be attractive as singularity feels safe. But absolute thinking removes nuance and dilutes truth. Rachel’s theory on Tarot calls for people to open their arms to the complicated and often contradictory nature of human existence.  

New York based witch, Mya Spalter, has slightly different ideas on the matter. 

Widely considered the bible of Tarot, “Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom” by Rachel Pollack. 

After horribly paraphrasing Rachel Pollack’s Tarot theory, I then went on to talk to Tamar about what psychoanalyst Carl Jung deems the “collective unconscious”. I first came across this theory in Mya Spalter’s book Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession. Mya writes: 

Jung famously deemed the Major Arcana of the Tarot archetypes, means of accessing the wisdom of the collective unconscious, not intended so much to tell the future in a prognosticating way as to elucidate the present in light of the past. […] He’s talking about the basic operating system of the human being, the non-cognitive function of the brain that tells us to seek shelter when exposed, fear predators, hunt prey and seek sex and companionship. […] Whatever you call it, the complement of urges and ways of being is hardwired into all of us, and the tarot just happens to have developed into a complete system we can subconsciously direct to tell us a story about our lives. […] In the case of the tarot, it’s deep knowledge of the past of all humankind […] apparently only needs seventy-eight cards as variables in order to tell the story of everyone’s life. It would seem improbable until you remember that it only takes twenty-three pairs of chromosomes to program the full biodiversity of the human race, twenty-six letters that make up the English language. So maybe it’s not so strange that a deck of seventy-eight evocative images makes up a language that we can use to communicate with our own inner knowing.”

I used to share Mya’s view that the strength of Tarot is its ability to draw upon the collective unconscious and hold a mirror up to one’s own inner knowing. I tended to discourage clients from asking yes or no answer questions or from looking too far into the future. One, because I thought that there were far more urgent questions to ask about the here and now, two, I was doubtful of the accuracy of looking specifically into the future or in posing limited questions, and three, (I think this is the main reason) I felt ethically shaky on framing myself as an Oracle. 

Although I do still share Mya’s perspective that Tarot is at its most powerful when looking at present circumstances, I now use Tarot with the utmost confidence looking to the future and will answer very specific yes or no answer questions. I do both of these things now quite simply because Tarot has proved to me time and time again that it has the power to do so.

Tarot may very well work through correspondence and/or accessing the collective unconsciousness but when I was trying to express my beliefs to Tamar, I found my mind reaching for something more…

I lurveeeee Mya Spalter’s playful and accessible book “Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession.”

In her book, Witch. Unleashed. Untamed. Unapologetic., Lisa Lister quotes witch superstar Starhawk, “To practice magic is to bear the responsibility for having a vision.” 

And the truth is, if you decide to read Tarot for other people there will always be a degree of responsibility – you kinda can’t escape that. And that, dear reader, is a good thing. Because it encourages us to step into our natural power as Oracles. 

When talking to Tamar, the idea of framing myself as an Oracle made me feel uncomfortable. There’s something that feels incredibly arrogant about saying, “I have a divine connection with the Universe and that’s how I’m able to read Tarot cards”. 

But just as women have been conditioned by society (fuck you patriachy) to deflect complements (“Your hair looks gorgeous” – “Really? It needs a wash and my split ends are terrible”), women have also been conditioned to denounce our inner power. Which is madness because every single one of us is connected to the almighty Universe. Regardless of our private parts. 

Perhaps what I should have done is let Tamar into a secret – anyone can become an accomplished Tarot reader. Tamar too. All she need do is step into her power as Oracle, bond with her cards over time, research the history of Tarot and the meaning of each card, cultivate a practice of total love and trust in herself, connect with Nature and her cycles, listen to her body, mediate, take a deep breath and deal the cards. 

We must not shy away from our relationship to The Divine.

But I digress, back to the question at hand – how does Tarot work? Lisa writes:

“The root of the word divination is, of course, ‘divine’. […] Any time we fully trust ourselves – our body, our wisdom, our gut instinct, our knowing – we become an Oracle. […] Any experienced tarot reader will agree that reading cards is an intuitive process. Like any other form of divination, the cards become simply a cosmic nudge that helps you to access your own intuition. […] Basically, I use the oracular methods to hear the guidance of SHE. The Goddess. The Divine. […] Divining is like spending time chatting over tea with your BFF and wisest mentor.”

For Lisa, it really is as simple as that – Tarot works by intuition. 

Similarly to how Lisa has managed to answer the question how does Tarot work with a one word answer, Bakara Wintner, author of WTF is Tarot?…& How Do I Do It? is able to distill the workings of Tarot to a single word too.

I found Lisa’s book “Witch. Unleashed. Untamed. Unapologetic.” compelling and emotionally riveting. A must read for any witch.

And that word is magic. Bakara writes:

“The experience of magic most detectable to us are signs and synchronicities served up by the universe. […] Replace the word magic with whatever you want – spirit, universal intelligence, miracles, coincidence, luck, god. Replace it with the feeling you get when you’re thinking about someone and your song comes on the radio. […] When you make it to the top of a mountain and look out into the distance and are reminded of how small and big you are at the same time. […] When you meet a perfect stranger and you can’t shake the feeling you know them. […] Most people have come into contact with magic in their lives in some capacity, so to wrap our heads around it we need only identify moments it’s been present.”

I have been fortunate enough to experience many magic moments.

One of the first memories I have of magic was back when I was a teenager living in Southampton. I borrowed The Secret from my local library and I vividly remember being invited to visualise and manifest a feather. I was already experimenting with witchcraft at this stage but nonetheless was doubtful of my own power to will a feather into my life. With trepidation, I thought that I’d give it a go. I took a deep breath and I focused. That night a feather appeared in my room. I shit you not. 

Bakara goes on to expand upon her theory on magic and its relationship to Tarot.

“In a more literal sense, magic is the manipulation of energies. […] It is common belief in magic that energy follows intention. […] It is magic that makes it possible to sit down with a complete stranger and pull cards that accurately and powerfully mirror their reality. There is a collective purpose created between the tarot, client and reader that is energetically absorbed and expressed through the cards. One of the most commonly asked questions I get asked about tarot is this: So how does it work? After much thought, I now simply answer by saying: magic.”

If I had to recommend one book purely from a Tarot perspective it would be Bakara Wintner’s “WTF Is Tarot? … & How Do I Do It?”  – It’s a treasure chest. 

When reconnecting with these witchy writers I noticed that all of them acknowledged Tarot’s inherent mystery and the inevitable challenge Tarot poses when trying to explain how it works. Lisa, Rachel and Maya write:

“You may find, like I did writing this book, that when you try to share your knowledge, you have trouble putting it into words. It’s not because you can’t write or speak, but because the relizations you experience when you try to share are so profound that they sound too simple and unimpressive when you try to express them.” – Lisa Lister 

“From this inability to know exactly what the cards mean we can actually learn a very valuable lesson. We become aware of Ignorance. I have capitalised this term because of its essential quality. While most of the knowledge we build up in life is really quite superficial and external, Ignorance lies at the very base of our existence. First of all, we are ignorant of the true nature of things. What we know of the world is bounded by our sense organs. For us to see the words on this page, light must bounce off them to be collected by our eyes. Then the optic nerve carries impulses to the brain, which converts the impulses into others, arranging them into meaningful patterns our consciousness understands as language. But we cannot directly know, in the sense of merging with something out there. We can only convert the universe into impulses, patterns, symbols.” – Rachel Pollack 

“In divination, the source of the information is, if possible, even hazier and harder to prove than aliens, and I tend to zone out when people try to explain exactly where the information gleaned comes from. I don’t care very much, because once you’re convinced that a method or practitioner works, the results are so uncanny and the experience so rewarding that the “why” questions tend to go out the window. Maybe it’s spirits, or angels, or fairies invisibly stacking the deck of cards in just the right order. None of it makes much difference in the face of the refreshing perspective that a skilled diviner can offer.”  – Maya Spalter

A selection of Tarot cards from my favourite, the classic Rider-Waite/Smith-waite deck. (Never forget the legendary illustrator Pamela Colman-Smith. This deck would be NOTHING without her.)

Which leads me to surmise – does it even matter how Tarot works?

The fact is it does work. Tarot resonants with people from a range of cultures across the world and has stayed relevant for at least six and a half centuries. I have personally experienced the power of Tarot countless times and I know a sea of others who have too.

Perhaps I would have felt less embarrassed when speaking with Tamar if I had admitted that I didn’t know on a definitive, intellectual level how Tarot works. Because the truth is no one does. 

As Tarot readers and enthusiasts we do not understand how the Tarot works, we experience it.

That’s not to discourage curiousity or healthy debate around the workings of Tarot. I for one love a deep, meaningful chat. I will probably ponder upon the workings of Tarot and the plethora of life’s other mysteries until my last breath – Why do we love who we love? What is the nature of charisma? Where did that feather in my bedroom come from those many moons ago? 

To conclude, dear reader, let’s reflect on some final words from Bakara:

“Magic cannot be understood unless it is experienced – it is trying to explain the hues of autumn to the colour blind. […] Science knows that we have a beating heart, but what makes it beat? Why is it beating? Magic is leaning into the gorgeous mystery of it all.”

4 Comments

  1. Jordan Hoggard

    Excellent post. I simply fond that Tarot works because our perspective works, be it a Miri or actually perceiving the wonders in front of us. Every card can apply to every situation, so it’s not stretch that the RIGHT cards come up. They come up not as random, lottery-winning magic, they come up because they did. I sit with Rachel Pollack in that randomness is relatively faddish and new, like somehow this not-knowing thing we somehow forgot came back and we had to give it a clever name… like… randomness, Sometimes eve them mention of randomness with push people drunk on too much Reason right over the edge.

    I find from experience that reasons are more often than not unreasonable, and that most often Reasons are simply people mirror-talking to their parents/mentors/tormentors and explaining themselves to achieve permission. Like, if they don’t think this through… gotta prove that they did. Seems to be self-fulfilling soliloquy, our worse, crisis-monger in good.

    Though, when you drive Tarot, i.e. read it, you shift focus and re-direct scales up and down above and below And opened and closed and side to side and dial into your client’s mode of being so they and you connect… back to Rachel Pollack’s expression… of correspondences… to which I will fold in… connectedness.

    And, what does your scene tell you when you look out to the horizon, or into the inner horizon of focusing on a flower? What does the scenE of the card, in the same way, express to you? Perspective. I find it’s all about perspective. I almost died on a mountain, and it stands as possibly one of the best days of my life. It may be titled “Blood and Sand,” and full of agony and heartbreak getting to know death, and more blood and sand and a blown knee and and and… still stands as one of my best days on record. Why? Perspective. And, I didn’t waste trouble. I utilized it… like cards. Ok, they’re dealt. What are you going to do about them or with them?

    My fave stolen phrase, though, comes from Shawn Nacol at Readers Studio 2009. Someone said, “Well Shawn, how do you deal with the person who says they don’t believe in Tarot?” It was priceless. He laughed with so much joy. As he settled back in to respond, “I don’t believe in Tarot, either. I don’t believe in Tarot any more than I believe in my range or fridge, though I tend to use them daily to nourish myself.”

    Like

    1. thebritwitch

      Hello Jordan,

      Thank you sincerely for taking the time to respond to my post so eloquently. Your words have touched me. I adore the anecdote that you mention at the end too. Blessed be Jordan, I hope our paths cross again very soon. Gem 💜

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jordan Hoggard

        Hi Gem,

        You’re most welcome. I’m glad I discovered your blog on my serendipity field trip. You have wonderfully intense and valuable content, and a wicked cool clarity of voice.

        If you’re good with it, I would like to include you on next week’s Serendipity Itineraries post. It’s a weekly past of people and places and things I’ve found, enjoyed, and/or resonated with across the week. It provides people serendipity trails, Serendipity Itineraries, to explore so that they may find something they resonate with as well. And, when they do, it builds more value through community.

        You game to be included?

        Like

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