Can you say too much during a reading?

“Should I ask you my question or just keep it to myself?”

First-time clients often wonder whether they should be direct and say exactly what’s on their mind or wait and see if it comes up on its own. It’s not uncommon for folks to think that speaking too much will “taint” the reading by swaying the reader. Sometimes we worry about “bias” in readings, brought on by knowing too much.*

IMG_6154The issue, once again, is how you think tarot works and what you think it can do:

If tarot is a magical device that communicates messages from an external source (like a god, a spirit, an angel, or a guide of some kind), then it can make sense to hold your question and commentary and expect relevant insight to come forth. If the response comes from an outside, mystical force, then the tarot reader becomes a vehicle for communication rather than the source itself. Theoretically she wouldn’t need much (if any) information in order to tell you exactly what you needed to hear, depending on how powerful those external forces were.

If tarot is a spooky, mysterious device with powers inherent in the cards themselves (or unspecified powers controlling the cards), then you also wouldn’t want to give information away, because the results (if they were accurate) would simply be less titillating, much in the way that a Ouija board is less scary if you know your asshole friend Rachel is always moving the damn planchette. It stops being impressive if you can chock things up to a wily reader asking leading questions or sourcing information beforehand.

If tarot is a therapeutic tool rooted in contemporary understandings of psychology (whether well-informed or not), then one of two things might be feasible: (1) Keep silent or vague and attribute accurate, meaningful responses to a collective unconscious, the universality of a human experience, or empathy or (2) be forthright with information under the pretense that a reading functions like a counseling session and the more direct we both are, the better.

The thing is, tarot is all of these things (and more) depending on who you’re talking to. The cards have been used for gambling games, New Age counseling, party tricks, talking to spirits, and scaring the shit out of kids at sleepovers since there have been tarot cards readily available to the public (and some things, quite a bit longer).

It’s hubris (and just historically inaccurate) to insist that the cards are one thing to the exclusion of others.

So when you’re going for a reading (or performing them), what is it that you want to achieve? Do you want to be spooked? Do you want a pragmatic answer to an ongoing question? Do you want evidence that the spirit world is real?

What you want will determine what sort of reader you need to seek out and how (or if) you should ask your question.

I don’t give much credence to angel guides or any inherent power in the cards themselves, for example. My cards are special (because I love them) and imbued with whatever witchiness I might choose to put I them (which I don’t, so none), but ultimately they’re just cardboard. I don’t believe that they store energy beyond the psychological associations I ascribe to them (“I hate that guy who touched my cards, and now I think of him every time I shuffle them.”) and I don’t use them to talk to any mystical beings. So I may not be the best choice for someone who wants to receive a message from their spirit guides. It’s cool if that’s what you want, but I don’t have the fluency to support you in the way that you probably need. Fortunately, there are a million other readers who would be excellent choices (and I’m always happy to point you to a more appropriate reader!).

I know enough about people, reading body language, and making assumptions based on visual cues that I’m pretty confident that I could mystify someone at a carnival. I also know a couple of basic card tricks, so pulling off the spooky sleepover or Halloween party would be relatively easy. Some other readers find this sort of thing offensive. Again, it’s a matter of desired outcome and choosing the right person for the job (again, there are choices better than me). This is almost never the sort of reading you should expect if you visit a shop that offers tarot readings or if you book something with a reader online. Most of the folks who describe themselves as “professional” readers (“professional” as a descriptor of decorum, not only in the sense that they earn money reading) won’t give you the magic-trick-spooky-scare-yourself type of experience.

My own approach to tarot is varied, and it tends toward something of a combination of the things above, more or less depending on the setting. I don’t consider my cards to be a magical tool, though I am both a witch and a magician. That’s a personal choice. I believe in gods and spirit communication, but I have other preferred devices for that sort of thing. If something has ever come through the cards, it’s never been in a client setting. I don’t subscribe to a collective unconscious or a universal human experience, so I tend to avoid that sort of language. I do, however, experience patterns in human demographics and am comfortable asserting that people tend to have similar problems, similar ways to deal with them, and similar sources for comfort. Put simple, people aren’t snowflakes. There’s definitely psychology at work, though I don’t have any formal training as a counselor. When I have intuitive responses to cards, these are rooted in empathy (a basic human quality and not a magical power), subconscious impressions (which is still empathy), and educated guesswork (i.e. a keen sense of observation). It’s not particularly mystical, but it is very effective. Ultimately, my goal is pragmatism. I look for concrete tasks in a reading and work to end sessions with tangible advice based on the spread and the cards.

And at any given point, some of the above may be in conflict, more or less true, and always in flux (because I’m human).

My experience has been that tarot is accurate and useful regardless of how much the client speaks or how direct the question because people have a knack for bringing up the things they want to think and talk about. It’s just what we do naturally. If you are mentally set on your love life and that’s all you care about in the moment, then it doesn’t matter if I draw a bunch of pentacles and The Hierophant next to The Hermit (or whatever). We’ll end up talking about your love life, or you’ll make the connections in your head on your own. If we end up talking about something else entirely, it’s likely because your love life isn’t as central as you think it is (I’ve been in enough therapy to know that when we’re worried and focused on one thing, that thing can often be a mask for something else more pressing). In this setting (which is mostly where I operate), a good reading depends on a reader being able to engage conversationally and communicate clearly. The client has to be comfortable and there needs to be some trust in place. Having some life experience helps, too.

The thing to remember is that it’s not a dichotomy between spilling your whole life story and sitting masked in stony silence. Either is fine, but there’s plenty of middle ground. I’ve had some clients who will ask very general, vague questions (“There’s some stuff going on with my kids and I’m not sure how I feel,” or “Where do I go next?”). I’ve had others give me topical information (“I want to talk about career stuff,” or “It’s about my love life.”). Sometimes, clients sit back and see what comes up in the first card or two and then interject with information that narrows things down and guides the conversation.

Whatever you choose is okay, but it pays to seek out the most appropriate reader for the job.

*This is related to the dilemma of whether or not you can read for yourself or read for close friends. I’ve already addressed the former, and will write about the latter another time, as it deserves its own post.

Deck Showcase: The Linestrider Tarot

I didn’t go for the Linestrider Tarot when it was on Indiegogo, but I almost did. You can only support so many things, you know?

I realized the error of my ways when the decks actually got shipped, though, and my tarot friends started posting images of the cards on Instagram.

This deck is pretty rad.

Just check out The Fool:

linestrider fool

I love the lack of a face in particular, but all of the cards occupy that intriguing space that’s both very sparse and highly provocative. The images are a clear nod to the Waite-Smith, but with some really interesting twists. Several of the figures are animals, for example, and others are more clearly invoking Western esoteric motifs that aren’t quite so explicit in other Waite-Smith-inspired decks.

The Linestrider Tarot is the work of Siolo Thompson, based in Seattle. I’m not super artsy, so I can’t really comment intelligently on what’s actually going on here, but it registers like a pleasantly muted watercolor under stark black lines. Lots of white space. It’s gorgeous, and I think it’ll appeal to minimalists (which is not to say that there isn’t a ton to consider in each image).

The original decks are sold out, but Llewellyn Worldwide has already picked up the project and mass copies will be available in May 2016. In the meantime, sexiness:

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Tarot and Qabalah: What even is that.

e8b04a6b-c151-4305-b411-1843a680b9d3Until only a few years ago, pretty much everything I knew about Qabalah (QKC?ab(b)alah?) came through what I saw Madonna and Britney Spears do in Us Weekly.  I remember watching The Craft in the mid-nineties and seeing Nancy reading a book about Qabalah and thinking, “Why the hell would a witch want to read about that?”  I was both mystified and smug.

It wasn’t until I began seriously studying tarot that I started being able to orient myself.  For those of you who may be just as lost, I’m posting the following, which appeared in the February Tarot Skeptic Newsletter (which you should subscribe to if you enjoy this sort of thing!):

In the simplest terms possible, Qabalah is a Jewish mystical system that describes the creation of the world, our relationship to God, and the means by which we may achieve a kind of union with God.  The Tree of Life—the symbol that we usually see used in reference to Qabalah—is essentially a map of creation.  The word itself means receiving or received and there is an ecstatic element to the tradition (which is at least part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand through simply reading a book or two).  The roots of Qabalah are thousands of years old, but increased interest developed in Middle Ages.

So what about tarot?

Part of the problem with learning Qabalah in the context of tarot is that there are so many myths floating around (my personal favorite being that tarot comes out of Qabalah and was used to preserve Jewish tradition in the face of oppression).  Where to even begin?

First, understand that the connection between tarot and Qabalah was created within a particular timeframe (rather than over the course of a sweeping, expansive history).  Interest in Jewish mystical tradition had been growing since the 12thcentury, but it really wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century European occult movements that Qabalah became intimately linked with the tarot, and specifically through the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

It was Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) who was largely responsible for the association of tarot with esotericism and especially Qabalah.  Lévi was invested in combining a variety of occult traditions into one coherent system, believing that each conveyed some piece of a universal wisdom.  Later, the magicians of the Golden Dawn would build upon (and at times conflict with) Lévi’s work, building new associations between the tarot trumps and the Hebrew letters.  S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) assigned divinatory meanings to the cards according to their locations (also assigned) on the Tree of Life, and a variety of interpretations arose with the further development and spread of Golden Dawn materials.

All of this may have nothing to do with you and your practice of tarot, and that’s perfectly fair.  I see Hermetic Qabalah (because it’s important to distinguish between the modern, esoteric traditions of Western Europe and ancient Jewish tradition) as one more source of information and insight in understanding and interpreting the cards.  And I want as many tools as possible in my tarot arsenal.

For additional reading, it’s worth checking out Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy.  I also enjoyed Rachel Pollock’s The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth.  Both books are specifically about the Qabalah’s connection to tarot and are among the more accessible books I’ve found.  I’d also recommend the Qabalah audio course available from Tarot School, which was enormously helpful as I began to tackle such a heady subject. (Yeah, it’s expensive, but you don’t have to pay full price.  Sign up for the Tarot Tips newsletter.  Discount codes and sales are regularly announced over the course of the year.)

Sidenote: Confused about spelling?  Because Hebrew doesn’t transliterate precisely into English, multiple spellings of “Qabalah” exist.  A convention has developed in which the choice of spelling reflects context, with “Kabbalah” referring to the original Jewish tradition, “Cabalah” for the various Christian interpretations that exist, and “Qabalah” for those of us coming from a Hermetic background (i.e. us tarot folk).  Obviously, with some variation.

Spring-o-ween

I know we just hit the spring equinox. There’s rabbits and eggs and budding flowers everywhere and everyone’s all anxious to go outside and roll in the grass or whatever. I know.

But I really just want it to be Halloween.

Spring is nice, and I like warm weather well enough, but I’m a fall/winter person. Here in North Carolina, we don’t get many crisp mornings and gentle snowfalls. The weather is erratic enough that we can’t count on beautiful color-changing leaves or toasty sweaters by October. Halloween is more likely to entail mosquitoes and sticky rain. Spring is sticky and buggy, too, but with less witchcraft and awesome spooky shit.

I always want it to be Halloween, and I’m absolutely okay with living up to some witch stereotypes here. For those of you who feel the same, here are a couple of decks for your consideration:

photo 2The Halloween Tarot by Kipling West has been around for several years now, but we just got a miniature version in at Laughingbrook and I’m obsessed with it all over again. It comes in a little tin (there are several other versions, in various boxes and sizes), and it’s the perfect size for casual shuffling. The Halloween Tarot is an uncomplicated copy of the Rider-Waite, but with Imps, Pumpkins, Bats, and Ghosts in place of Wands, Pentacles, Swords, and Cups. Many of the cards are directly transposed from the familiar images and will translate right away for those of you who work from a Colman-Smith platform. This deck is just straight-up charming. A must-have for Halloween-loving tarot people. This makes me want to give Halloween-themed readings in the Etsy shop just for the hell of it.  Don’t be surprised if that becomes a thing.

photo 3The All Hallows Tarot, by Robin Tisch Hollister, came out first as a majors-only set.
Now you can buy a full 78-card deck plus a Happy Squirrel. The drawings are quirky and with the sort of imprecise line-work that I really dig. Like my Halloween Tarot, the cards are miniature (2.65 in. x 3.65 in), which makes shuffling a breeze. At $40, this isn’t a cheap deck, but it is nice to have something so unique. My deck came with a more-ornate-than-usual nylon pouch, wrapped in a plastic Halloween goodie bag of the sort distributed at parties.  A good choice for a Halloween lover who wants something more unique.  Buy it here.

Contemplating the High Priestess

Sorry for being MIA these past few weeks.  March has proven to be a big month, with a new job, new projects, and some super big blog-related news that I’ll be blowing up the Internet with in just the next week or so (EEEEEEEE!!!!1!).  I’m still a bit swamped, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following essay from www.thornthewitch.com, circa September 27, 2013.  It’s written for Wald Amberstone and not a general readership, but I think the points still stand.  Fair warning: I’d been spending a lot of time reading Judith Butler (whom I don’t even pretend to understand most of the time).  Also, for those of you who don’t know, I’m working exclusively with the Rider-Waite tarot illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Most other decks are simply reinterpretations of her work, so it stands to reason that, in a thorough study of tarot, we should cut out some of the middlemen.  At least for now.

So onward:

Before our last conversation, I would likely have delved into my contemplation of The High Priestess saddled with associations developed through my role as a high priestess.  You pointed out that when I’m functioning as such in a coven setting, what I’m really doing is more akin to the work of The Hierophant, and this was a profound realization for me.  This card, more than any so far, has posed a great challenge, because I have so much invested in what I think it means even before I really begin to study it.  I have to consciously let a lot go in order to engage in contemplation.

When I do, the central meaning comes to be about boundaries.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, not just between the twin pillars or between the world and the abyss, but at all boundaries.  And just as the melting point of ice is simultaneously the freezing point, boundaries are simultaneously a point of uniting and a point of division.  Boundaries sometimes feel harsh to us—they keep us out or keep us in—but without them we lose the ability to engage the world in meaningful ways.  We lose language, and, as a result, we lose identity and selfness.  As you said to me over the phone, there is no distinction without contrast.  Duality may be arbitrary, but it is necessary.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, beyond which lies the Holy of Holies, the Mystery, the Abyss.  To gaze upon these is to be destroyed.  Without boundaries, there is no self.  I is no longer an I.

Still in contemplation, having had the above realization, I initially thought of the figure of the witch.  The witch is sometimes described as a “hedgerider”—a boundary-crosser.  She passes out of the town and into the wild places, produces unguents that separate soul from body so that it might travel to unseen places, and uses otherworldly magic to alter reality.  But that’s too easy, I think.  Boundaries like that allow her to retain her self-ness.  By engage in these activities, she actually reinforces her identity as a witch.  Paradoxically, by crossing boundaries, she reinforces them.  The Mystery guarded by The High Priestess is beyond that.

In the Archetypal Description, you state that, “She answers the questions that cannot be asked in words.”  Further, the Transcendent Interpretation reiterates this theme of silence.  The High Priestess is beyond words because there literally are no words.  Beyond the boundary, there can be no language.  Not only does the category of “witch” cease to exist, but so too do all categories: woman, human, self.  The question was, “Who is The High Priestess when The High Priestess is you?”  The answer is that The High Priestess is at the root of everything that makes me a self.  Every identity category that I occupy (student, woman, American, witch, daughter, coffee drinker, cat lover, on and on) only exists because it stands in contrast to something else.  I become The High Priestess every time I make distinctions, think of myself as an individual, use language, or otherwise exist in a world defined by duality.  Paradoxically, I am also The High Priestess when I don’t do those things (at which point I cease to be). photo-4

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?

Deck Showcase: Prisma Visions Tarot

photo 4It’s here! It’s here! The Prisma Visions Tarot, by James R. Eads, popped up on Kickstarter this past fall after plenty of online buzz. I found out about it on Tumblr right before the campaign went live and was able to snag a nice rewards package (many of them sold out right away). Eads’ earlier deck, The Light Visions Tarot, sold out promptly and is now, sadly, practically impossible to obtain (got one to sell? Hit me up). My decks and extras arrived early this week and there was plenty of jumping up and down and squealing.

Prisma Visions is a 79-card deck (the extra card is “Strawberries”—a bonus trump and Eads’ original creation). It comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a flip top (not the usual tuck box) and an attractive 96-page instruction booklet. The cards themselves are thick and glossy and—best of all—the edges are silver-gilt. These cards fucking sparkle. They’re so pleasing to handle that they’d be worth buying even if you never read with them. But they’re sturdy, easy to shuffle, and full of provocative imagery, so reading is a pleasurable task. The trumps are bordered, but the minors are borderless and fit together in beautiful panoramic sequences. The symbolism is relatively traditional Waite-Smith and will translate nicely for those comfortable in this system.

There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation surrounding this deck, and it’s absolutely justified. Prisma Visions is a worthwhile addition to any collection and the $45 price tag is worth it.  Buy it here.

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