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.


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.