Love at First Insight

A comment I encountered on Facebook recently caused me to revisit and reaffirm my reasons for working with the tarot. The woman was arguing against its use for divination, and said “We all know that the original purpose of the tarot was self-improvement.” Well, no, actually we don’t. Clearly this person doesn’t have a clue about its long history. My historical sources indicate that the minor-card suits of the tarot were originally intended for game-playing and that, when the trump cards were joined to them in early-15th-century Italy, the deck was used for the “trick-taking” game of tarocchi or trionfi. There is also an indication that the “old-style” trump cards were used to teach moral lessons in French schools at a later date. According to Wikipedia, “Tarot decks did not precede decks having four suits of the same length, and they were invented not for occult purposes but purely for gaming.” The “pip-style” minor cards (sometimes used as a form of money) have been traced back to 11th-century China, whence they were brought to Persia. The serious use of the cards for spiritual advancement can be traced to the late 19th-century “occult revival” in Europe, and their use for psychological self-awareness apparently goes back no further than the work of Carl Gustave Jung and the mid-20th-century advent of the New Age.

There is still a widely-held opinion that the only legitimate use for the tarot is self-improvement through psychological revelation, which is somehow more “noble” than attempting to predict the future. This is no doubt due to the perceived need to dignify the occult arts and defend them against the rational materialists of the world, as if we require their blessing. My response is usually to quote Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In my own psycho-spiritual way, I’m pursuing the first half of Aleister Crowley’s famous motto, “The Method of Science, the Aim of Religion,” although as a critic of religion I stop just a bit short of the second part (even though I’m aware he was simply trying to reconcile what in his time were deemed incompatible opposites). I perform divination with the cards (which I don’t consider “fortune-telling” but rather situational investigation through subtle channels) because I don’t think they’re especially good for psychological profiling.

At this point, esoteric predictive techniques lack a solid foundation in empirical evidence (not that we couldn’t build one, we just haven’t and – outside of astrology – don’t seem particularly inclined to try), so their practice can be rightly judged a “pseudo-science.” Not that this fazes the true faith-based mystic, who relies wholly on intuitive insight for confirmation of the effectiveness of such methods and is less concerned with positive proof. I dub their anecdotal approximation of truth the “feel-good” approach: “Did the reading feel right to you? Then it must be accurate.” Feedback, where it occurs at all, is typically untimely and unreliable, so any kind of meaningful validation of their statements is the exception rather than the rule. This seems to be what passes for excellence in modern professional circles: you made the client happy (or at least aware) at that moment in time so you were successful regardless of the eventual outcome.

But in my own world all of this is really moot. I work with the cards because I love them, plain and simple. They appeal strongly to my artist’s eye, my philosopher’s mind and my storyteller’s ear. They are eye candy, metaphysical food for thought, and performance art rolled into one. Like almost any worthwhile human pastime, they fall into the “easy to learn but hard to master” category, and scrupulous probing of their labyrinthine depths is a lifetime pursuit. When I first took up with the Thoth tarot in 1972, it was “love at first insight” and I’ve never looked back.

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