I’m a poker player — five-card stud, Texas hold ’em, and my personal favorite, Indian stud poker. Poker takes a certain amount of skill as far as bluffing and strategy go — you need to understand a little about probability, and, of course, the rules of the game — but as any poker player will tell you, a lot of it is the luck of the draw. So how can the turn of Tarot cards tell me about my past, present, and future?
This past week I picked up Rachel Pollack’s book, The Shining Tribe Tarot, and the accompanying Tarot deck, which she personally designed. Pollack has been reading Tarot cards for more than 30 years and has written more than a dozen books on the subject. Her first book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, is considered by many to be the Bible of Tarot. I spoke with her about her use of the cards for divination and inspiration, and she walked me through my first reading.
Tarot cards were first invented sometime between 1420 and 1440 C.E. in Northern Italy, purely as a card game for noblemen. Originally called carte da trionfi (cards of the triumphs), the decks were elaborately painted with Medieval and Renaissance artwork, and the game played with them was similar to our modern game of bridge. After about a century, the name of the deck and game evolved to tarocchi to distinguish it from a newer game called "triumphs," which was being played on the standard 52-card deck that arrived from Europe prior to the carte da trionfi. The background of the word "tarocchi" remains a mystery, but the German form of the word is tarock, and the French is tarot.
In 1781, we find the first documentation of Tarot being used for divination in Antoine Court de Gébelin’s essay entitled "Concerning the Game of Tarots" and in Louis-Raphaël-Lucrèce de Mellet’s essay called "Studies in Tarots." These two documents would make the world forever equate Tarot with the occult. Prior to 1781, there are some vague references to Tarot being used for witchcraft, but in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church deemed the 52-card deck to be evil because it could be used for gambling. Years after the original ban, Tarot was unfairly lumped in, because these cards could be used for divination — which the Church viewed as witchcraft.
"The ban was on ordinary playing cards, and the Tarot was actually exempt," Pollack said. "The ban was on gambling — the masses were becoming addicted gamblers and losing their money — and the Church was trying to protect them."
It is possible that ordinary playing cards were used for fortune telling earlier than 1781, because the 52-card deck was more prominent to the masses. Even today, some people still use standard playing cards for divination. "The Tarot cards are more acceptable for readings because there’s more symbolic pictures," Pollack said.
Reading the 78 cards in the Tarot deck is all about interpretation of the number and suits of the cards, in addition to the designs. There are many deck designs in the world: the Rider deck is the most famous, the Thoth deck was designed by Aleister Crowley, and even surrealist artist Salvador Dali designed his own deck. While there is certainly some agreement on general meanings to each card, the particulars may be up to the Tarot reader and the specific situation/question being answered by the cards. Rachel Pollack said, "The modern way of doing Tarot cards is to play with different kinds of interpretations. It used to be that people would just have formulas. They’d say, ‘The Six of Swords means you’re going to take a trip.’ Today we’re more likely to look at the picture and say ‘Who are these people in this boat? What’s this about? What are they doing? Where are they going?’ and then apply that to the person’s life."
According to Pollack, many people receiving a Tarot reading have questions on relationships, their careers, family life, and health. Tarot is not about specific answers or even predicting the certain future. Pollack said, "Most readers are going to get possibilities rather than specific hard facts. They’re going to say, ‘This next period you may have some trouble at work — maybe with a coworker.’ Those are the kind of levels of prediction you’ll find, rather than saying, ‘A tall, sandy-haired man named Sam is going to go behind your back to the boss.’
"What’s good about Tarot reading is that it will often give you the tools you need to deal with that. So it might say you’ll have some trouble at work with a coworker, and it may say that staying strong in your position will work, or that paying no attention to it will work — there’s various cards that mean different kinds of things."
So what is influencing these cards? Is something supernatural playing out before you? Pollack said, "This is a really big question. In my book, The Forest of Souls, there’s a chapter in which I ask the Tarot, ‘How does the Tarot work?’ It gets kind of complicated. At the moment, my belief is that nobody can really answer this question. It has to do with a principle of pattern-making. Some kind of principle allows the pattern of the cards to mirror a larger pattern of events for people who can understand them."
You can read your own Tarot cards, but many find it difficult to be objective with themselves. Pollack said, "If you read for yourself, you have to have a sense of separation. You have to be willing to allow whatever comes up to be there. If someone else reads for you, they have that objectivity to begin with."
Pollack walked me through my first reading — a simple three-card reading where the first card represents the past, the second the present, and the third is the future. I told her that I felt like I was coming to a crossroad in my career — my choice is to take a chance and do what I love, or stay on a specific path. I shuffled the cards while thinking of my question and then cut the deck into three different piles. I restacked the piles so the bottom pile was now on top.
I drew my first card for the past, the Six of Trees. Pollack explained that this card represented confidence, a strong-willed approach to work, and not getting caught up in details — confidence producing a self-fulfilling prophecy to create success. My second card, representing the present, was the Three of Rivers. This is the card of cooperation, according to Pollack — partnerships, working in harmony, and a connection to people. My final card for the future was the Two of Rivers. Pollack said this card suggested an even stronger partnership in the future — the card’s design has two fish in the center that are forming almost a yin and yang — and she suggested that I should let things happen in the future.
I thought about my reading a lot the rest of the day. I discovered that the cards force you to apply a seemingly random and different perspective to your specific question — for example, where am I going with my career? The future card may come up and suggest alliances may bring success. I may not have been thinking of any partnerships or alliances at work before the reading, but now I’m forced to, and maybe an idea worth exploring will pop into my head. It’s also possible I was thinking of a possible alliance, and the fact that a card came up alluding to alliances may confirm what I was already considering.
Playing poker can be fun — you win some, you lose some. With Tarot, the stakes are certainly higher, because we’re delving into our spiritual selves and exploring the answers to questions that affect our lives.