A Simple Oracle: Yes/No/Maybe

It’s common for those who consider themselves wise in the ways of tarot to say loudly (and, in my opinion a bit smugly) “There are no bad cards!” (This attitude strikes me as just a convenient excuse for dodging profound contemplation of the possibility). The more thoughtful among them will allow that “Their fortunate or unfortunate nature depends upon the cards they appear with in a reading, as well as the context of the question.” This is nowhere more evident than when working with “pip” decks like the Tarot de Marseille in which there are no potentially misleading anecdotal scenes to steer the narrative in a more positive or negative direction. Beyond the obvious suit and number correspondences that form the interpretive core of the minor cards in such decks, the meanings of the cards are those we choose to assign to them. However, most English-speaking readers use the Waite-Smith system of interpretation as the basis for all of their readings regardless of deck, and the risk of being unduly enamored of the story-telling vignettes summarized in the RWS pictures is all too real. In my opinion, many of Smith’s images – while charming –  obfuscate the simple truth due to their creative roots in stagecraft and folklore, by which their “yes-or-no” import is buried in the incidental scenery and “thematic baggage.” But like all things in divination, it comes down to intention. If I’m trying to give my clients what they ask for (even if the tarot is telling them they don’t really know what they want), I will attempt to do that as honestly as I can. The challenge is to find a credible (and ideally simple) way to say “yes” or “no” with conviction, and only retreat to a “definite maybe” when completely stymied.

Because they are virtually devoid of any pre-existing narrative conventions (except those we import from other systems or invent from “whole cloth”), the TdM “pip” cards are ideal for acquiring simple “yes-or-no” answers (in my own practice, I insert “maybe” into the decision for completeness since some cards are equivocal in this regard). A good deal of mileage can be gained from the cards’ number-and-suit combinations using the assumptions of “metaphysical number theory” (originating with Pythagoras and later amplified by Iamblichus, Agrippa, Taylor and others), and the traditional qualities assigned to the suits: the “red” suits (Hearts/Cups and  Diamonds/Coins, representing love and money, respectively) are historically more fortunate as a group than the “black” suits (Spades/Swords and Clubs/Batons, both weapons of war in many cultures). This creates a workable “yes” or “no” predictive division. Obviously, you will have to break out the 40 “pip” cards from the deck to use this approach.

Regarding the implications of the numbers One through Ten, according to French tarot writer Joseph Maxwell (if you’re feeling brave or masochistic, read his book, The Tarot) the even (static “binary”) numbers are balanced and passive in nature,  a harmonious posture that seeks to maintain its equilibrium (therefore offering a nominal “yes” for reaching a “safe harbor” without undue turmoil in any predictive scenario), while the odd (evolving “unitary”) numbers are unbalanced and active, a restless condition that strives to return to the state of rest enjoyed by their “even” counterparts (thus yielding a nominal “no” regarding imminent achievement of satisfaction without further struggle ). While the RWS images tend to blur the lines and the further addition of the “Qabalistic number theory” of Crowley and the Golden Dawn brings in other philosophical complications, Maxwell’s ideas are a good place to start. Combining “positive” suit qualities with “negative” number characteristics (and vice versa) can create “shades of gray” that require careful weighing within the purview of the question (hey, it may be “simple” but I didn’t say it was going to be “easy”).

This method is ideal for the “one-card pull” that many people perform on a daily basis to judge the “tone” of the upcoming 24 hours, but it would seem to be most useful for a three-card draw (or any other layout with an odd number of cards) that can have just a little more “legs” (effective duration) to it. Also, strictly from a number perspective, there is no chance of a “split decision” or stalemate: you can get three even-numbered “yes” cards (yay!); two even cards and an odd one (a likely “yes” outcome); one even card and two odd ones (a probable “no” answer) or three odd cards ( a definite “no” result). Larger spreads will of course involve a more elaborate distribution, but there should still be no “gridlock.” The symbolic “descriptive snapshot” of the numbers (see Pythagoras, Maxwell, et al.) can then be factored into the equation to arrive at a more nuanced interpretation: “Is it a convincing ‘bald-faced yes’ or a more ‘fuzzy’ one with a few ‘stray hairs’ of doubt?” The suit scheme is a bit more complex, with more “mix-and-match” opportunities; you might use the traditional assumption that the malleable Cups are more “soft and agreeable” than the inflexible Coins (an unconditional “yes” rather than a “probable” one), while the acute Swords are more “sharp and aggressive” than the blunt Batons ( most certainly a “no” instead of a “likely no”). A judicious blending of these disparate values, while more often than not requiring some interpretive hair-splitting, will give you the answer. Have fun!

3 thoughts on “A Simple Oracle: Yes/No/Maybe

  1. “It’s common for those who consider themselves wise in the ways of tarot to say loudly (and, in my opinion a bit smugly) “There are no bad cards!”

    Omg. I should have known. It was just a matter of time: you’ve hit on my pet peeve.


    • One of mine too, although not at the top of the list. I realize everything is relative, but there are times when the best you can do with a given card in a reading is to make “constructive” comments and not especially hopeful or positive ones. If done right it produces a better kind of “empowerment” (another one of my pet peeves, but at least I agree with the premise). Those who are unfailingly positive aren’t doing their clients any favors and suffer from what I call the “Pangloss Syndrome.”


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