I’m still playing around with the tarot decks I inherited from my brother, which seems an appropriate way of counting down the days to the second anniversary of his death. I haven’t been learning anything about him from the cards, though it still interests me that he collected them — not just one deck (which would indicative of curiosity), but so many of them. There are about four dozen different decks, another dozen or so duplicates, plus the triplicates I sent to a sister who also found the fact of the collection fascinating.
I have learned some things about the tarot itself, though. The most obvious lesson is that there’s no consensus on what the individual cards mean since the creators of each deck put their own slant on the cards to match their vision and their artwork. The instructions on how to learn the tarot invariably say to study the picture on the card, to figure out what the card means to you, but if every “sun” card, for example, is different from every other sun card, if the artists have added their own embellishments, then the images become simply pretty pictures to illustrate the simple idea of “sun.”
There’s no consensus on what the various suits of the minor arcana are, either. Normally, they are wands, swords, cups and coins or pentacles, but in the Robot Tarot, the suits are laser, light, void, and scarab; and in the Servants of the Light Tarot, the suits are weapons, spheres, crescents, staves. Even more confusing, there’s no consensus on what constitutes a tarot. Most decks are composed of 78 cards, but some tarot decks comprise only the 22 cards of the major arcana. Or less. Or more. The Deva Tarot has five suits instead of the normal four (the fifth is a suit called Triax and is supposed to represent the ether or the spirit). If the Deva Tarot is a deck that’s beyond the realm of a tarot, does it become a tarot if you remove the additional cards?
In other words, the tarot seems a rather arbitrary tool depending on what deck you use, what system of meaning you apply, what you read into the cards, and your own inclinations.
(This kind of reminds me of when I decided to learn the names of birds. After a while it began to seem laborious and arbitrary, especially when it dawned on me these were simply names humans gave the birds, not what the birds called themselves, and in no way imparted a sense of “birdness.” To this day, I only know a few common names, though I do have a bird book if I want to know more.)
However, there is one underlying, non-arbitrary aspect of the tarot: as story-telling cards. I was reading about the Major Arcana (the twenty-two trump cards) and discovered that they tell a story — the fool’s journey, from naivete to wisdom. And suddenly I understood — the fool’s journey is nothing more than the hero’s journey. See? Story!!
More than that, how the cards are laid out tell a story — the story of a person’s future; the story of their past, perhaps; maybe even a deeper story of their self. And since there are infinite possible layouts (and infinity squared when you take into consideration all the various types of cards and decks and meanings), there are an infinite number of stories.
So my idea of using the cards to write a story is not at all farfetched. I used the hero’s journey to tell the story of Daughter Am I, and I could use the fool’s journey to write a completely different sort of story. Each character could be assigned a role based on the Major Arcana, or I could do a reading for each character to see what their particular needs are. Or both.
Meantime, I’m on my own fool’s journey when it comes to the tarot. I’ve been doing a one-card reading for myself every day to get familiar with the cards. My question is always, “What do I need to know today?”
So far, the cards aren’t letting me in on any secrets, but the cards do seem to reflect my reflections. For example, today’s card was the sun card, which, according to the particular deck I used, means enlightenment, especially artistic enlightenment. Although card didn’t answer my question, simply reflected it, the card did answer my unasked question: Why should I blog about today?
So, arbitrary or not, the tarot, even in the simplest practice, has meaning.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator.