I Do Not Believe in the Tarot, But—




“Have you ever done tarot cards?” I ask, tentative as a secret member of the Communist party in 1952. I brace for the blast; my friend trusts science, not woowoo.

“I am not sure I believe in that,” she says carefully.

“Oh, I don’t believe in it either,” I assure her. “I just love reading them because they tell you what you’re already feeling and thinking.”

She raises one eyebrow.

“It’s like scripture—there are all these various interpretations, and what you end up trusting is your own response. The secret isn’t which cards you draw. The secret is how you react to the story they weave.

“Besides,” I add, seeing her blank expression, “I like the pictures.”

A tarot deck contains the Major Arcana, which are powerful archetypes, and the Minor Arcana, divided into suits almost as complicated as bridge. Whether you are looking at the seventeenth-century Tarot de Marseille deck or the classic 1909 Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the Major Arcana cards are thrilling. The Sun. The Devil. Justice. The Wheel of Fortune. The Lovers…. They blend ancient symbols with religion, anthropology, and psychology, tying your petty questions and complaints into those of millions of people across millennia.

The first tarot cards were probably fourteenth-century game cards illustrated in Turkey. They were brought to Italy, and those with money and leisure started playing tarocchi appropriate, a game that asked you to write poetic verses using a random card as a prompt. The cards were called sortes—meaning destinies.

Fate had entered the game.

Today we say, “it’s in the cards,” meaning something is destined to happen. But why would we hand a card game that much power?

Hell, we give a Magic 8 ball that much power. Humans despise uncertainty. We like control, which requires advance knowledge, which sometimes requires a tip-off from the occult. Science refuses to go beyond facts, but the mind plays with possibility. What better portal than a deck of cards that gathers the best and worst of our nature? You can find it all in the tarot: magic, sin, chaos, folly, desire, fear, exuberance….

Interpretations of the cards’ imagery change with the times, and decks are redrawn to suit various aesthetics or philosophies. In ten seconds at Etsy, you can find reproductions of the original Mamluk deck from Tukey; the alchemical Sola Busca deck; decks that are Gothic, Art Nouveau, or Impressionist; Aleister Crowley’s sexy, mystical Thoth deck; Botanica Oculta cards that look like vintage seed packets; the gorgeous black and gold Azazoth deck inspired by H.P. Lovecraft; the Abusua Pa The Tazama African Tarot; the Punjabi-influenced Marigold Tarot; a Luna Somnia deck that layers in astrology; and a deck that uses haunted cats.

My own time-softened cards come from the gentle, goddessy Motherpeace deck popular in the 1980s—and if you laugh, I will kill you. I am in good company here: Italo Calvino was inspired by the tarot, and he explored how meaning is created by writing a novel in which the characters could only speak through the cards. Salvador Dali designed his own Surrealist deck, posing for the Magician card. Novelist and theologian Charles Williams, a friend of Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis at Oxford, wrote a book in which tarot cards unleash elemental forces, allowing people to see across space and time. Yeats hid tarot imagery in his poems, turning them into a clever Seek & Find for fellow enthusiasts.

This is how human need and culture dance together, first one leading, then the other. Even a single deck, across a life, will shapeshift. When I was single and desperate, I went to the cards for consolation, open to anything that would turn the anxious bits of my new adult life into a story that made sense. Later, Andrew and I had a ritual card reading every New Year’s Day with another young couple, and from those readings learned one another’s hopes and ambitions and dreams. When I was not sure what to do next with my life, I laid out the cards. When Andrew wound up with a boss who was rigid, authoritarian, and impossible to please, we laid out the cards again. Three times, in fact. Because every single time, he drew, from seventy-eight cards, the Emperor. He would swirl the cards around face-down for long minutes, cut and re-cut the deck, and try again, and there was the Emperor. A card that warns of some confrontation with authority, often in a rigid, angry patriarchal form.

I repeat this now to my eminently rational friend. Because, no, I do not believe in the cards, but that did not stop me from finding the coincidence significant. We paid attention to that card because it matched his situation. Drawing it again and again opened his mind to other insights. The reading set him on the right path.

Or, he set himself on the right path. That is how life works, it seems to me. We think we are in charge and in control, but we are constantly ceding control to people and objects around us, then waiting to see what comes back to tell us what we cannot tell ourselves. With tarot, the pictures and symbols sneak us past our defenses: we can tiptoe past reason into a deeper, more subjective realm.

I do not believe in the cards. But last night, upset by Andrew’s struggles with myasthenia gravis, I returned to them. Worried that he will overdo it or miss a pill or let his blood sugar sail high with the Prednisone, I have become bossy, constantly researching and nagging him. “How bad was it today on a scale of one to ten?” “You have to stop reading the news—stress is bad for the immune system!” “You have to take your blood sugar at the same time every day!” “What do you mean you’re giving a tour outside? Heat is bad for you!”

I am worried because I am scared. This fatigue collapses him into silence and leaves our partnership lopsided, with me trying to control everything. It is lonely, and I am no doubt overdoing it, running our household like an expedition to the Arctic circle. Our friends are concerned but cannot fix it. I do not know if this is forever.

The first position in a tarot reading is the significator: who you are or where you are at that moment. The figure in the card I draw rejects help, knowing that she must do this alone and “has entered a time of uncertainty.” The next position is the current atmosphere. I draw the Four of Swords, which “represents the creation of a protected mental space” where “one may gain the sense of nonattachment necessary if the personality is not to feel lonely or abandoned.” The card for what I need to learn? Major Arcana, The Hanged One. A card about “allowing things to happen without your control, without being sure what will take place.” Finally, the outcome, my least favorite card: The Hierophant. What does a source of imposed morality and institutional rules have to do with any of this? Yes, okay, I am “acting in a conventional or programmed way,” mothering my husband the way my mother would expect me to. Yes, “probably there is some fear operating.” But then I read on: “The card can also help you ask whether you are acting like a priest or law-giver yourself…. Watch yourself for signs of being a know-it-all.”

Once again, the cards strike home. Luck of the draw? Reword that: is fate random? No deck of cards can answer. The tarot only tell you what you already know you need to hear.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.