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I’m at the stage in my practice where I’ve learned enough to start reading cards for other people, and so far it’s been wonderful. Except! I admit to being really nervous about turning over cards like The Tower and the Ten of Swords… lots of the Swords actually. Like the thought makes me so anxious that I’m worried about offering a reading at all.
It’s only happened once, and I stammered through it and my friend was fine about it… but *I* was a wreck, because I just don’t want to scare anyone, or give a bummer reading. Maybe I don’t really know what I’m doing AGHHH.
Cards Against Humanity
This is the main reason I don’t bring my deck to birthday parties anymore. As a special (and very affordable!) gift I used to love pulling the celebrant aside and inviting them to draw a card for the year ahead. Let’s just say that I’ve learned firsthand how fragile the spirit of a momentous occasion can be, and that nothing constructive you can think to say in the moment is gonna diminish the impact of certain images that someone isn’t prepared to see!
This is one reason why readings work best when they come to you. If the message is a difficult one, at least then it’s a product of the querent’s own agency, and not an ordeal you thrust upon them.
There are a few layers to the question you’ve raised, CAH, and I’ll try to touch on each of them. Firstly, on the nature of divination itself: we come to the cards not just to be reassured that everything will be fine, but to figure out where trouble is likely to occur, so that we’ll stand a chance of avoiding it.
It’s really that simple! Every card in the deck is oriented toward illumination, course-correction, and the pendulum swing between balanced and unbalanced states. And even the latter serves a special purpose, since our momentum through life — even down to the way humans walk — depends on the way we throw our weight around, lending and withdrawing support.
Keep that in mind when you turn over a spiky card for someone: it’s a helpful, useful thing you’ve done. If you sincerely believe that, your own chill response will go a long way toward helping your querent see it that way too.
But what if they don’t?? Well. First let’s start with a reminder about tending healthy boundaries: you simply can’t control another person’s emotional response, rational or otherwise. Symbols affect different folks in different ways. As a diviner, the best you can do is manage the situation considerately, ethically, kindly. Remember: In this moment, it’s not about you.
This is harder than it sounds though, because in most cases our divination practice is wrapped up in beliefs that are quite important to us, or which we’re still testing out. As ambitious amateurs our confidence can be quite fragile, so a querent’s dismay about their reading feels like it reflects on us personally, challenging our claim to this practice, raising questions we may not yet have the answers to.
But that’s fine. It’s FINE! And this is a completely appropriate thing to say as you’re getting your legs under you as a diviner.
“I’m honestly not sure what this means, and I’d like a chance to research it further before commenting on whether it means anything at all.”
“This reading is showing me where the blind spots are in my practice, and I’m really grateful for this chance to explore them.”
“I’m new at this, and that means occasionally getting my ass kicked in front of people I’d hoped to impress. Enjoy the show!”
Don’t worry CAH, I’m not going to leave you here without some tools for interpreting these cards of doom.
While no one will ever be thrilled to see The Tower, they should be able to stand hearing warnings against being led down a path of self-deception, one which could correct itself quite vigorously and unexpectedly if left unquestioned. This is a call to action: self-examination, a re-ordering of one’s priorities, a reconsideration of who you trust and what you consider essential to your identity.
The Tower represents fixtures that loom so large in our awareness, it would never occur to us that dismantling them is an option, let alone that they were built by human hands. While the card’s lessons can be painful, they steer us toward a reunion with the person we really are, independent of all these frameworks — or the person we could become, if we’re brave and wise enough to challenge these dependencies.
As for the suit of Swords… that’s a whole essay on its own! While the Ten appears dire, I always remind querents about the power of surrender. Even after a situation is deemed unrecoverable, our mind still relentlessly drives us toward certain outcomes, or away from others, in abject denial of reality. We experience a special form of anguish recognizing just how much lies beyond our control. The Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten all reflect various stages of this awareness, with the Ten being point where one can truly go no further. However, this is the long-awaited crack that finally allows relief to trickle in. We are prostrate before the divine.
The suit of Swords as a whole comments on the frailty of even the strongest mind in the face of life’s mounting complexities: we assume we think our way out of the box, but our thinking itself is part of the box. We run right up against certain confinements assuming we can charge through them, only to find that we’re only human after all.
As a reader, these cards are an opportunity for you to redirect your approach with a querent, to gently address their denial (if they aren’t already nodding vigorously as the cards are turned over) and help prepare them to think beyond their own thinking. Each of the Swords cards can be framed very constructively, as states you’re hoping to help them avoid, as nudges toward the unimaginable.
Some people are just so superstitious that they’ll react poorly no matter what you say. This is part of the gig as a reader. The best you can do is assure them there’s no special cosmological significance at work here, just bits of paper painted with advice. We hapless mortals risk pain in every single thing we do, from climbing a staircase to making friends with a new person to… well, reading their tarot cards.
But if you seem freaked, they’re going to get freaked. So this perspective begins and ends with you, CAH!
I say this not just a wise advice-column-haver, but as someone who once drew the The Tower for a friend at her birthday party… the week before her boyfriend (now husband!) was hit by a taxi while riding his bike, and a month before they moved out of their high-rise apartment into more humble digs across town. These events would have occurred even if I had not turned over the card! But I spent the next 12 months reassuring her that she wasn’t experiencing effects from my reading itself, and helping to keep her grounded in reality instead of dreading more swats from the cruel, unseen hand of fate.
I had to laugh at myself a bit, for getting us into this situation with my thoughtful “gift.” But looking back, perhaps the ultimate purpose of the reading was to make sure I was there for her during a difficult time, for this very purpose. Who can say?
A R C A N A L O G U E
Dear Arcanalogue: The deck I use has a lot of stuff about Qabalah in the booklet, and the cards are marked with Hebrew letters etc. and I don’t really understand any of it. Do I need to? If so what should I study?
I’m not Jewish and I would feel uncomfortable pretending that I have more than just a superficial understanding. To me that would seem like appropriation, especially since a lot of the sources I’ve looked at aren’t Jewish in origin either, though I looked at other decks and all this seems fairly common. Please advise?
Dearest Anonymous! I will gladly spare you the headache and lay this matter out as plainly as I can. Learn from my scholastic wanderings!
Yes, so much of Western occultism, including modern tarot, is built upon symbolic associations from Qabalah (a term meant to distinguish from the Jewish Kabbalah, though this is purely an English-language distinction and you’ll find the labels can be used interchangeably).
Just like today’s magicians, earlier ones were determined to tether their practice to the most “authentic” sources possible, and to demonstrate continuity between their own techniques and those practiced by ancients. If this required a little fudging, no one seemed to lose any sleep over it! If anything, a new “discovery” was a great way for an occultist to put their stamp on an existing tradition.
As a body of learning, tarot is syncretic, at best. Scholars will only find more and more inconsistencies the deeper they dig. And every author you read will have their own justifications for why everyone else is wrong, and why their tradition is the truest one.
Should I have to point out that there’s a serious patriarchal skew to this kind of Western scholastic inquiry? As well as an infernal amount of colonialism in the race to ground one’s lineage in the most “authentic” origins, even if it means absorbing traditions we aren’t part of, and barely understand?
There are certain realms of ceremonial magick where these differences really do matter. If one scholar insists a card is associated with Aquarius and another says it’s Scorpio, you’ll probably want to sort this out before figuring out which Enochian elemental you’re being instructed to summon, or whatever.
But this applies to… very few people, I’m pretty sure? Granted, their true numbers are cloaked in secrecy. (I probably know most of them on Facebook.)
I think being a faithful student of tarot requires you to adapt your practice, as best you can, to your personal framework of beliefs. It’s what literally every reader who’s come before you has done. If you’re still discovering your beliefs, the tarot can be a useful tool for that too… but it shouldn’t prescribe a specific set of beliefs.
I’m not Jewish, but I did spend a lot of time studying Hebrew so I could explore this school of thought. Was it a waste of time? No! Do I use it in my divination? Not particularly! Would I ever use what I learned to explain why someone else’s interpretation is wrong? Hell no!
The tangle of misinformation out there is why I recommend Robert M. Place’s book The Tarot: History, Divination, and Symbolism to so many students. Place’s book begins with the history of games of chance, such as dice, dominoes, and eventually (once paper was invented), cards, showing how these evolved side-by-side with divination practices in various cultures.
The tarot we use today is a compilation of ideas from Neoplatonic, Pythagorean, early Christian, Egyptian, and Judaic origins, with a dash of Victorian occult madness to give the brew flavor. Considering the flow and exchange of ideas between places like Italy, Greece and Egypt throughout certain periods of history, with little regard for religious and geopolitical boundaries, you’re never going to find an ideologically “pure” tradition to tether your practice to. Nor is there universal overlap with astrology or other forms of divination, though you’ll find multitudes of tables and charts insisting otherwise, each drawing slightly different conclusions.
This is because the 20th century was dominated by a kind of cheerful (and very white) universalism. We are all one! Our gods can be placed side by side and understood as reflections of the same human desires and impulses! But through that lens, it’s almost preferable to misunderstand, skim over, read selectively, just so we can rush to the part where all human experiences are 1:1.
Anonymous, this is convenient to the wrong people.
So far the 21st century is very keen on amending the record. Despite being interconnected, everything has its own history. There is no “Key to Everything.” Similarities are not equivalencies. Being inspired by a tradition does not entitle you to lay claim to it. People are still chasing whatever’s deemed “authentic,” but at least now colonialism is part of the conversation, and we’re reserving positions of prominence for those who truly represent the culture and traditions we’re curious about.
While the writings of Western occultists inspired me to see each card as a tool for exploring the nature of reality itself, Place’s book helped me to ground my practice in what’s actually knowable and attainable. Instead of worrying about what I “ought” to study in order to give the most accurate readings possible, I began letting the deck and the process guide me.
This has been very freeing! Now when I’m researching symbols, or language elements, or Pythagorean numerology, it no longer feels like a Sisyphean task performed in isolation. It’s a dialogue, a dance with an unseen partner.
It’s my practice, and it’s become a great comfort to me.
And different brains latch onto different things. For some aspiring readers, it will be the artwork that unlocks the cards’ meanings. For others it will be the written descriptions (painstakingly memorized), or the numerology, the astrology, the Jungian archetypes — or yes, the Hebrew letters, which themselves represent numbers as well as words. And there are decks that accommodate all of these priorities and so many more.
But no one of these things is the linchpin that makes the tarot “work.” When you read for people, you’re more than just a brain that’s memorized the right facts. You’re an inspired being, sensitive to all kinds of information, and a seeker yourself. Show them that. Show yourself that.
(And if you do want to dig into the Qabalistic Lon Milo Duquette’s The Chicken Qabalah, which is entertainingly written and packed with the kind of honest disclaimers I find so refreshing in occult literature.)
Thank you for coming to my Teth Talk.
A R C A N A L O G U E