Tarot School Correspondence Course Review

IMG_3634I signed up for the Tarot School Correspondence Course in May of 2012. I’d been flirting with the idea for several months. I picked up my first pack of tarot cards back when I was thirteen (I’m in my thirties now) and had taught myself to use them by reading books and practicing on friends. I was well-read, but not particularly experienced, and definitely not confident.

My professional life is in academia and teaching, so I’m a big fan of organized learning. I need a lot of structure, whether I’m creating it for myself or working though someone else’s. I was interested in applying some of the same formalities to my own studies of tarot: set reading materials, homework, practice activities, and feedback from an expert I respected and trusted.

There are a lot of tarot courses available online and through correspondence (nevermind the countless books that provide all kinds of curriculae, to the point of being overwhelming). I don’t remember exactly how I found Tarot School; I think it was while researching tarot certification programs. The Amberstones have a couple of published books, a number of shorter audio courses available online, in-person workshops in New York City, and, of course, they’re responsible for the Readers Studio. Their reputation precedes them, so I felt pretty comfortable committing to this course (and chose it over others because of the promised one-on-one attention).

Just to be sure, I purchased one of the audio courses (as a bonus, it was on sale already in recognition of World Tarot Day, and I even had a coupon from signing up for the Tarot Tips newsletter). Over the course of a couple of weeks, I listened to these recordings, taking detailed notes and repeatedly having my mind blown just by listening to the ensuing discussions (the audio courses are recordings of live classes, so you get the added benefit of other students’ questions and commentary, with the Amberstones’ unfiltered responses). I was hooked. I knew that the full Correspondence Course would be worthwhile.

The Cost

The Correspondence Course isn’t cheap; there’s no two-ways about it. You have the option of paying for just the materials and working without outside guidance, which is only a fraction of the price of the full course (and significantly less appealing, in my mind, for reasons I’ll get to). You can also pay a little bit more than the full cost and submit your work via e-mail, which can save time, paper, and the hassle of dealing with the postal system.

I reasoned that it wasn’t any more expensive than one of my university classes (I was in graduate school at the time), and would likely be a good investment if I could turn my work into a professional tarot business. I was also allowed to pay in monthly installments, so the overall cost was bearable. There are courses offered for half the cost elsewhere (even some that offer “certification”), but I haven’t seen one that offers nearly the information, experience, or feedback offered at Tarot School.

But the real benefit of this course is the one-on-one time with Wald Amberstone, and that’s what I feel like I’m paying for. In my household, we joke that it’s a little like calling Yoda and talking about the Force (“EVERYBODY SHUT AND STOP BOTHERING ME UP IT’S TIME TO CALL WALD AND ABSORB WISDOM”). Wald’s experience in tarot is practically unparalleled, and his work has led him to be informed in a number of related subjects. My thinking tends to be abstract and often wanders into other occult subjects, and he has never failed to challenge me. Not once has he spouted self-help platitudes at me, for which I couldn’t be more grateful. He’s totally unpretentious, and always willing to say “I don’t know” if that’s what the question calls for. Our conversations last anywhere from forty minutes to a bit over an hour, and I look forward to them immensely. He doesn’t critique my work, per se, but rather draws connections and observes patterns that escape me on my own. If I had questions in my writing, he answers them. Mostly, he energizes my work, not just in tarot, but also as an occultist in the Western tradition. My conversations with Wald have even impacted my thinking as a Gardnerian witch, which I think is saying something.

The Time

On Tarot School’s website, we’re told to allow about three years to finish the whole course and earn the degree. I’ve never had conversations with other Correspondence Course students, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of this figure, but I’m moving at a much slower rate than that. Between my assorted jobs, writing professionally, running a Wiccan coven, and periodically entertaining the fantasy of a social life, it takes me about five months to finish a correspondence course lesson.

To be fair, I’m also a bit of a freak when it comes to these assignments. The minimum number of pages for each activity (and there might be 20-40 activities that require a writing component in each lesson) is one, with a max of five. The completed lessons I turn in are generally about 50 to 75 pages of original writing. Even if you stick to the minimum, you will have written the equivalent of a ginormous book by the time you’ve finished this course. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of time, and I don’t doubt that many people simply aren’t inclined to put in that much effort. Even if you only do the bare minimum, you’re still producing something enormous and profound. You have to be self-motivated.

You can do it all at your own pace, though. If you’re disciplined and patient with yourself, it’s doable. Wald is a phone call away (and always enthused and encouraging…I even butt-dialed him once), and there are outside resources listed throughout the course that can be helpful. If you’re a correspondence course junkie, I’d recommend toning it down and just focusing on this one, just for the sake of time. There’s a lot to be had here, particularly if you give it your full attention.

The Result

Since beginning work on the Tarot School Correspondence Course, I’ve become a professional reader. I have a website, a blog, and a practice out of a local storefront. I don’t make my living at tarot, but I have made enough money to cover the cost of the course several times over.

I have a handle on some of the most commonly avoided tarot-related subjects: Qabalah, astrology, and alchemy. You can choose to ignore those things down the road if they’re not your thing, but they’re no longer intimidating or irrelevant to my tarot practice. I’m excited about them now.

I have my own gigantic body of original writing (whether it’s journaling or more formal essays about particular cards or concepts) upon which to draw when I get stuck or just need to be inspired. I also have a strong enough foundation in a variety of tarot-related subjects, so it’s easier to recognize good sources when I’m looking to expand into some other tarot realm.

I’ve got a mentor I trust.

I’ve developed the confidence to reach out to other tarot communities (through Tarot School, locally, and through other online sources), making new friends, learning tons of things it had never even occurred to me to know.

And I’m barely halfway through the course, three years later. So ask me again in another three years!

I am totally not dead.

IMG_6524In fact, I’m alive and doing better than I have in agessssssss. For seriously.

Thank you all for sticking around, for subscribing to my (now quarterly) newsletter, and otherwise being patient while I navigate a brand new, jam-packed schedule and lots of new, exciting obligations.

First off, I’m now writing a witchcraft blog over at Patheos Pagan, which is my most exciting piece of news. I started in April and I’m very pleased to be able to say that I’m having fun and kicking ass, blogging alongside of folks like Jason Mankey, Ian Corrigan, Lupa Greenwolf, and John Beckett. The focus of my blog, Oathbound, is traditional witchcraft and Wicca, but there are plenty of awesome writers representing a number of traditions. So if you have any interest in contemporary Paganism, Heathen traditions, magic, and witchcraft, you’d be doing yourself a big favor to head on over.

I’m also excited to announce that the second issue of my coven’s zine, The Burning Times, is out! It’s a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the nineties, full of legit magical whatnot as well as plenty of satire specifically tailored for those with a keen interest in traditional Wicca and the heyday of the American occult scene. If you collect old issues of Earth Religion News and wish that you’d been around to hang out at Magickal Childe (or maybe you did), we’re right up your alley. We’re also sure to please former nineties teen witches, secretly hoarding copies of Silver RavenWolf’s Witches’ Chillers series and watching The Craft once a week while wishing for midnight margaritas. You can order your copies of the first two issues here, with free shipping in the US!

On a more personal note, I’m now working at an elementary school and pursuing teacher licensure. As you can probably imagine, that keeps me super busy (as well as tired, exasperated, a little under-the-weather, and weirdly sticky practically all the time). I don’t have as much time for walk-in client readings at the shop, but I’m still available by appointment and online!

I’m also keeping up with my studies with Wald Amberstone through Tarot School. In fact, I just received my first correspondence course certificate in the mail and I’m totally pumped about it because I’ve been working my ass off over here. One of these days I’ll write a thorough review of this course, but suffice it to say that it’s the most comprehensive, intense program I’ve ever seen on tarot (or even in most of my schooling career, on any subject) and it’s been well worth the price tag (cheaper and so far with a much higher return value than anything I did in grad school). I’m currently working through an interim lesson on tarot and Qabalah, which is really pushing me beyond anything I’ve done before.

Back in April, I also took the Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot video course over at Tarot Association, with Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin (and holy crap I’m looking at this listing for the first time in months and the cost has, like, quadrupled). I still haven’t gotten to the book, but it is sitting on my shelf (which is sort of like reading, right?).

I’m working on reviving things over here at Tarot Skeptic, so hang on. I’m just finding my footing again before summer really gets to be in full swing. Look for a bunch of new deck showcases (because the collecting madness never stops), new blogs about stuff (also things!), and new readings available in the shop.

As always, check me out on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and (now! new! mixed feelings!) Facebook.

On Reading Runes

photo 2Those of you who follow me on YouTube or elsewhere on the Interwebs probably know that I also read runes. This site has focused on tarot exclusively, and lately I’ve been thinking I should take the time to introduce this part of my magical repertoire to Tarot Skeptic readers who may be curious.

My approach to runes is quite a bit different from my approach to tarot. The lines aren’t always clear, but I have some very distinct tendencies that are worth noting.

Tarot to me is very much an intellectual exercise rather than a religious one. I don’t practice any sort of purification ritual, before or after readings. I don’t think gods or spirits are speaking to me through the cards. Tarot is not directly connected to my practice of witchcraft. I even tend to avoid religious language, insofar as that’s ever really possible. My tarot study is rooted very strongly in a particular understanding of history (and a belief in the relevance of that history) and within the context of particular esoteric traditions (e.g. the Golden Dawn, BOTA, etc). There’s a level of objectivity (again, if that’s ever a thing at all) present in my understanding of tarot that I find is often missing in other approaches to the cards. When I want to understand the meaning of a particular card, I turn to a scholarly text on either the card itself or the tradition from which it arises, as opposed to meditating on it, consulting some kind of spirit guide, or engaging in a flow-of-consciousness type intuitive exploration. That’s all fine for other people, but it’s just not how I like to roll when I can help it. It feels too nebulous to me, and I’ve never been the sort of person who likes to openly emote.

With runes, all that goes out the window. Reading runes is absolutely a religious activity for me. The runes belong to the gods (a particular group of gods, and, still further, specific gods within that framework) and I’m turning to Them (at least in part) when I use them, whether it’s to perform a reading or if I’m using runes in magical work. I get emotional, I get woo-woo, and I’m quicker to discount all of my usual empiricism. Dana Scully checks out and my Mulder-brain—wantonly, gleefully—takes over.

I’m constantly wrestling with the question of whether or not a commitment to the gods is required in order to work effectively with the runes. For me, this is a constant back and forth, and increasingly I lean toward yes (at least, for myself). When I first was learning about the runes, it was casual and from the place of a non-practitioner. I was simply a witch curiously exploring systems outside of my own. But since I began using them seriously, I’ve built unanticipated religious and social connections within Heathen spaces. I talk to gods that I previously didn’t have relationships with. My attitudes about divination are different now. Runes exist in a completely different headspace from tarot. They’re magical and sacred in and of themselves, unlike tarot, whose power is consciously constructed.

I realize that’s magical thinking all on its own, but there it is.

It’s challenging moving between the two over the course of a day’s work, like stepping back and forth into different social roles. I love both, but differently.  Tarot stimulates my intellect and fuels my love for history.  Runes are about my connection to the gods.

For those of you who practice other forms of divination, do you find that your approaches are markedly different?

Collecting Tarot Decks

photo-4I really couldn’t tell you at what point I crossed the line from “practical tarot-loving person with reasonably-sized stack of different decks on a shelf” and stumbled into the craziness that is tarot collecting. Probably about the same time that I discovered my old Röhrig Tarot (one of my first decks) was going for stupid amounts of money on Ebay (think upwards of $300), or else when I decided I simply HAD TO HAVE the then out-of-print Chinese Tarot and was infuriated to find that it couldn’t be obtained (used, even) for less than $80 (BLARG).

I’ve always been a little bit of a packrat (well, maybe more like a food-aggressive dog that isn’t convinced there’s a next meal coming). I have several collections of various and sundry magical items: periodicals, wands, skulls, My Little Pony™ blind bag figures. A tarot deck collection was part of a natural progression, especially after I started reading professionally and writing a lot about tarot.

Aside from just loving tarot and wanting lots of it around all the time, I wanted to have lots of examples to show off as needed in the tarot classes that I teach. I wanted to be able to quickly take original photos for articles. I wanted to be able to produce decks that demonstrate a progression in tarot history, much in the same way that any scholar can reference published works over a span of time. Having immediate access to these materials facilitates writing, research, the synthesis of original ideas, and teaching.

Collectors usually have the specific m.o. of choosing and hoarding decks according to projections about future value. The point is preservation, resale, or some further strategy that doesn’t include regular use (which devalues the cards in the same way that writing margin notes devalues a book). Making projections about future value is part of what’s fun about collecting (it’s basically gambling, except you can’t lose out entirely). There’s also the thrill of hunting down and then acquiring something scarce.

Because there are so many available decks at any one time and limited funding for building a collection, it helps to have parameters. These will vary from collector to collector according to taste. Some of mine are as follows:

1) I prefer self-published or otherwise unique decks. First of all, after years of reading cards, mass-produced decks start to look the same (especially from companies like Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo). Self-produced decks are just more interesting. Second, they almost always appear in limited runs, which means that they’re more likely to accrue monetary value over time. As examples, consider the Collective Tarot and the Light Visions Tarot (PS, if any of my readers has either and would care to part with it, shoot me a message). Small batch decks have a tendency to appear and disappear before earning massive online interesting, so it helps to continually monitor sites like Kickstarter and Etsy for upcoming projects. Where possible, preorder.

2) I prefer decks that are just fucking weird. These may never be valuable (though sometimes are), but they often elicit cult-type followings and always make personal collections more interesting. Weirdness might include odd structures that deviate from usual tarot models, unusual themes (consider the Insane Clown Posse-themed Dark Carnival deck, which, hilariously, includes “juggalos” in its list of production materials), or particularly terrible (sometime great, but usually terrible) art. The weirder, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

3) I love historical reproductions. I’m a major nerd for tarot history, so any time I can get my hands on a quality reproduction (or the real deal) of a historically significant deck, I’m there. For me, these are perfect teaching tools, and just uniquely gratifying to own. Consider this limited release in the Marseille tradition.

Your own collection could be based on any individual standard or interest. Some people really love animal-themed decks, or collect decks from specific publishing houses.

Additional tips for building or maintaining a collection include the following:

1) Buy two copies. One to open and play with, the other to keep sealed and then sell when the value appreciates. If you wait until the deck has doubled in value, you essentially break even and, if you’re smart and careful, you can collect for profit. As a rule, when a deck reaches twice its original sale value, it’s time to sell.

2) Avoid handling, humidity, and basically anything that can damage paper. Decks are most valuable the closer they are to mint condition. Just letting paper products sit around unattended can cause them to devalue (ever smelled a musty book?). It’s important to control climate and handling wherever possible. Shuffling cards, oils from fingers and hands, and surface scratches from sliding a card on a hard surface can all cause depreciation and make a deck harder to sell.

3) Keep abreast of upcoming reprints. When a deck is rereleased (which just happened with that Chinese Tarot I mentioned earlier, and is typical of companies like Lo Scarabeo and U.S. Games), its value usually drops significantly. Deck values fluctuate, often in relation to how prominent a deck is in popular conversation.

4) Keep the box in good shape. If it’s a deck you’re going to use regularly, it can still pay to keep the box separately and in clean condition. The packaging is part of the deck, as far as a collector is concerned.

5) Maintain a network of fellow readers and collectors. Sometimes you’ll have good trading opportunities or else people who can keep an eye out for decks you’re looking for.

These Oracle Cards are Ruining My Snobbery

photo-4So oracle decks fuck with me on a couple of levels.

I’d never had any interest in them. In the realm of cartomancy, tarot is my reigning mistress, with a bit of Lenormand on the side just for variety. The history, the blending together of fascinating magical systems, the provocative artwork…

Oracle cards seem to be mostly devoid of all of the things that make me love tarot. Aside from all of the pastel airbrushing and sparkly foil borders, oracle decks seem to necessarily rely on intuition, impulse, and feelings. “I feel that this card is saying…” as opposed to “this card traditionally means…” With oracle cards, there’s usually not a lot outside of the deck itself to turn to for information. We’re left with our guts (and not in a fun, haruspicy sort of way).

This works for plenty of readers, and it’s certainly an effective way to divine. But it’s never been my preferred style. If I want to practice divination that relies primarily on my woo (a term I use with reverence and which encompasses my witchcraft, my relationships with my gods, and anything we might call “psychic” abilities), I have other preferred methods. Oracle cards have always struck me as super New-Agey, with their cutesy artwork (or Sports-Illustrated-swimsuit-issue portrayals of goddesses), feel-good messages, and plethora of writers with fake PhDs.

But! But! I’m having to throw out my previously established negativity when confronted with Stacey Demarco’s Halloween Oracle. Which I can’t stop handling. The artwork is gorgeous, the book is full of fun Halloween factoids, and even the print job is solid. So what the hell do I do with myself now?

I don’t really know yet. I’m screwing around with a totally different way of reading cards, trying to come up with spreads that make sense to me, and challenging my tendency to rely on external sources for information. It’s fucking with me. But in a good way.

I’ll write more about all this as things progress, and maybe persuade some of my regular clients to allow me to experiment on them.

I will say that, in my cursory reappraisal of oracle decks as a thing, I’ve continued to be disappointed (so many decks are just…gross), but the Halloween Oracle gives me some hope.

Coming back to the Rider-Waite

Working as a reader in a Pagan store that sells tarot cards and hanging out on the tarot Interwebs, I hear a lot of commentary about the various decks on the market. How to choose a good deck, whether or not you should even be buying your own deck, and all kinds of stuff about “connecting” to decks. But recently what’s interested me most is the language that surrounds the Rider-Waite deck and its closest variants (like my own cherished Universal Waite). It sounds like this:

“Oh, yeah, that’s a great beginners’ deck.”

“That’s fine until you connect with something more personal.”

“You’re still using the Rider-Waite?”

“I’ve got the Rider-Waite, but now I’m looking for something more advanced.”

I hear comments lIMG_6142ike the above almost every day, and there are a few assumptions at work here that I want to address.

First, there is the assumption that the Rider-Waite is a deck exclusively for beginners. I want to be clear here: there’s a difference between stating that a deck is ideal for new tarot users (and therefore a “great beginners’ deck”) and stating that the deck is somehow remedial (“…until you find something more personal/better/more detailed/whatever”). The Rider-Waite represents a keystone in tarot history to which the majority of tarot decks available today owe their structure and symbolism. Replacing Pamela Coleman Smith’s figure in The Magician with a cat holding a wand does not make this any less true. And because the Rider-Waite is a keystone deck, it absolutely is an ideal choice for beginners. What better way to learn than to go back to the source?

The mistake happens when we then assume that, because the Rider-Waite is both a good and popular choice for beginners, it is only a beginners’ deck and, eventually, we will all find something we “connect” with on a more intimate level.

When tarot readers talk about “connecting” to decks, they often mean locating those that incorporate figures or images that are more personally reflective. The images evoke particular emotions in them or make more sense to them in conveying traditional interpretations (or coming up with new ones altogether). Perhaps the art style is more appealing, or the images include figures that are more relatable (for example, a deck designed for gay men, or cat lovers, or Lord of the Rings fans, or Wiccans). Overwhelmingly, the basics of the Rider-Waite tradition will be preserved, however (illustrated minor arcana, the same set and order of trump cards, four suits with consistent elemental/magical associations, and comparable basic images, i.e. a Fool hovering above a cliff, a 3 of Swords that incorporates heart imagery, mounted Knights, etc.).

I get it. I too have decks that have greater personal appeal than my Universal Waite. As a Pagan, for example, I love the Robin Wood Tarot. Its Rider-Waite-meets-Wicca flavor satisfies my impulse to incorporate my witchcraft into my tarot practice and, frankly, it’s just better art than what I see in my Waite deck.

I could list others. There are plenty of decks that have more visual appeal for me than the Rider-Waite, and I can and do read with these. But underneath it all is the Waite deck, to which I always return. Not because I’m a beginner or because I haven’t properly connected to something more visceral, but because my love for history and tradition pulls me back around.

The second assumption underlying much of the above is that the Rider-Waite is simple, not advanced, or otherwise basic. People who use it are somehow unchallenged, inexperienced, or just haven’t progressed to something with real meat to it.

I’ve met a lot of people who’ve been reading cards for a few years and have described themselves as “masters” or “experts” of the Waite deck, and all I can do is gently smile and try to keep my mouth shut. What they really mean is that they’re comfortable doing readings with this deck. This does not mean that they appreciate (let alone understand) the intricate occult histories and esoteric systems present (alchemy and Qabalah anyone?).

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through studying the Rider-Waite, it’s that I’m never going to master it. There’s too much here, and I’ve only got so much time to devote to any one or two magical systems.

So in studying tarot—of any sort—it’s worthwhile to consider that maybe it isn’t so much progressing from the Rider-Waite but progressing toward it. For me, my use of the Universal Waite has been all about coming back around. With a growing background in the Golden Dawn and other influential magical systems, my appreciation for the tarot is a great deal deeper. Now, many Rider-Waite copies—while more beautiful—feel superficial to me. They often seem to be missing out on a big picture because the artist or writer was unversed in esoIMG_6143teric tradition. I think this is the reason why my favorite decks (aside from my Waite deck) are outside of the Waite system. The traditionalist in me demands that I study primary sources and not reproductions.

It’s different for everyone. There are plenty of great reasons to not use the Rider-Waite (offhand I think about Eurocentrism, heteronormativity, the glaring absence of POC figures, and just not giving a shit about the Golden Dawn), but because it is a “beginner” deck isn’t one of them.

Introductions

IMG_1525HI!  I’m Thorn.  Some of you might know me from YouTube, Tumblr, or my Wiccan blog, Thorn the Witch.

I’ve been meaning to start a blog specifically about tarot for ages.  I’ve screwed around with various ideas, sketched things out in notebooks, flirted with creating a professional tarot business, and despaired into my wine after deciding that there were already a gazillion tarot people doing the same thing all over the Internet and in my local community.  God who needs another reader.

It was my friends who pointed out that I was actually up to something a little different.

“I like getting readings from you because you’re direct.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a reading with so much swearing.”

“You don’t talk about self-actualization.  I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“I feel like I can actually go home and do something about my problem.  You’ve never told me to meditate or consult my inner child.  What even is that.”

I wasn’t sure how to take the comment about swearing.  Should I not swear?  Am I totally off-putting?  So why do people keep asking me to do readings for them?

The short answer, I think, is that I come off like a pretty regular person.  I don’t do Yoga, meditate for an hour every morning, brew organic herbal tea, or talk to spirit guides.  I drink Jack Daniels and eat hamburgers and say “fuck” a lot.  I have stupid, boring problems, just like everyone else, and I don’t chock them up to karma or consider them messages-in-disguise from the universe (mostly).

Don’t get me wrong; my life is super magical.  I’ve been practicing witchcraft for almost twenty years and have had an ongoing obsession with the occult since childhood.  But my approach is practical and critical.  To me, magic is about experimentation and adventure, not the abandonment of my intellect or common sense.  And my approach to tarot is the same.

I’ve been busting my ass for the past several years studying the tradition of esoteric tarot and contemporary tarot practices.  Intuition is important—as is personal experience—but it’s only one small part of what tarot has to offer.  Why only talk about hunches and feelings when we can also draw on the wealth of established tradition and history surrounding the cards?  The tarot community is full of bright people doing lots of worthwhile things, and we’ve all got our own styles.  You can rely only on your intuition and be an amazing reader; that’s just not my personal flavor of tarot.  I like the concreteness of hundreds of years worth of conversation, contemplation, and practical application.  I like being able to tell you where these images come from and why they look the way they do, down to the tiniest detail possible.  I like exploring the parallels across Western occultism, contemporary Paganism, Christian and Jewish traditions, and the New Age.  I love the contexts surrounding tarot and the magic that happens when we can apply it to our unique situations, which sometimes seem so removed.

Tarot is fucking magical.  It’s a spiritual system all on its own, but it can also complement whatever other path you follow (even if you don’t follow anything at all).

So this blog is about my own obsession with tarot.  I’ll write about my studies, provide practical advice, ask for input, tackle problems, and post information about local events of interest.  I’ll also write the periodic book, deck, or class review.

Stay tuned.