I was recently listening to a podcast episode where the host was interviewing a woman who works regularly with the tarot. They both spoke about how there is such a shadow of fear around tarot cards and that so many experiences with tarot are frightening doom-and-gloom kind of predictive readings.
This was a shocking to me. I was actually pretty triggered listening to this episode—not toward the people having the discussion so much as in response to just how misunderstood this beautiful tool still is, and how oblivious I was to the fact that that misperception is still so prevalent.
So … I decided to respond with this post. My intention is to try to address some of the concerns raised during the podcast interview as well as to provide some of my background and experience of connecting with the tarot for over two decades. If, by the end of this post you still have questions or concerns about tarot (or divination, in general), please feel invited to reach out to me directly and I’ll happily share what I can to help you find more clarity.
Be warned … this is a long post. I didn’t intend to share so much, but as I put fingers to keyboard, it just came flooding out, so I went with it.
First, let’s begin with a little about me, my background and how I came to work so closely with the tarot.
I grew up in a small Southern American town in a conservative family. I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and was a very devout kid. (I learned that being ‘good’ equated to being loved, and I wanted more than anything to be loved … but that’s fodder for another post.) I was taught that anything relating to the occult or magick or paranormal subjects were evil and to be avoided at all costs. This was the unquestioned belief in my family and community for my entire childhood.
I was always intrigued by the arcane, the esoteric, the magickal. It felt mysterious, and while there was a lot of propaganda telling me it was wrong, I somehow never fully integrated this conditioning. I felt an undeniable curiosity about these things.
There were several instances in childhood that I look back on now with wonder and appreciation which make it glaringly clear that I was always an open channel for information outside the 3D range. I definitely had psychic leanings, but with no guidance, and an ever-present doctrine telling me psychism was unnatural and even dangerous, I tried to hide those parts of myself away.
But, at the time, of course, I didn’t understand any of this.
My first real in-person introduction to tarot cards [that I remember] was in the late 1980’s. I was at a party with some friends. My best friend’s family had taken in a young woman who was a ‘cult survivor’. They were giving her safe haven while the church worked to ‘deprogram’ her. I didn’t really know much about her experience, but everyone seemed to think she was dangerous and in need of some serious intervention. I thought she was nice and her stories were interesting. She had a deck of tarot cards at the party and offered to do some readings for us.
We all gathered round her as she shuffled her cards with the strange images on them. Everyone else was expressing nervousness and levels of anxiety that grew with each reading. I was fascinated. After a couple readings, there was outright fear and a demand that she stop and put the cards away as it was too dangerous. But I felt a growing sense of excitement. I wanted more. Still, I didn’t want to be contrary, so aside from asking the girl some basic questions, I packed my curiosity back down inside myself and left it there unattended for another decade.
Over the years I would feel the gentle twinges of that excited curiosity any time I would see references to the tarot or other divination/magick practices in pop culture. But because it was so far removed from my daily experience it remained hidden.
Then came the late 1990s. This was the era of Girl Power, Goddesses and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Witchcraft, magick and other forms of mysticism and spirituality were on trend, and information about this formerly secret world was becoming easily accessible. It was an awesome time to be me.
I stumbled upon a newly opened little magick shop. When I first found it, I had simply been looking for a place to by bulk herbs. My gateway path to magick was through my study of herbs which I used in foods as well as health, wellness and cleaning potions thanks to my growing interest in environmentalism at the time. The moment I walked into the shop the spell was cast. (Pun fully intended.) There were herbs, yes … shelves and shelves of the most exotic specimens. But there were also crystal balls, cauldrons, beautiful velvet capes, strange tools of varying shapes and sizes for who-knew-what purposes, books on all kinds of arcane subjects and, you guessed it, an entire section of tarot cards. An entire section!! The sleeping dragon of my curiosity was now wide awake and panting in excitement.
I began visiting the shop often, just to give myself the opportunity to be around all that enchantment. I would ask questions of the owners and they were so welcoming and generous with their knowledge. When they started hosting Full Moon Circles, they invited me to come and experience the reverence and mirth of a full pagan gathering. I was always a shy and timid person, and I was all alone as I entered this new world, but I had to go.
I quietly watched in wonderment as the circle was cast and spells were chanted and merriment was made. Everyone was made to feel welcome. Questions were received with warmth and grace, and answered patiently and openly. Free will was encouraged for those who were curious, but weren’t quite ready to participate in something we didn’t yet understand, with an invitation to sit outside the circle and observe the goings on before forming an opinion on it all.
After the first couple gatherings, I began to tentatively join in the Circles, as well. I was still very shy and quiet and kept to myself, but inside I was feeling dormant aspects of myself coming to life in the most vibrant and explosive ways. It was as if the world finally made sense and I wasn’t a lone outcast trying to fit into the role previously proscribed for me, but for which I clearly wasn’t designed.
Over time I began to make friends. I was invited to join a teaching circle some of them were forming. It was a Wiccan 101 kind of thing. I jumped at the chance.
It was during this teaching circle that I was reunited with the tarot. I got a brief introduction to the cards and how to use them, and that’s it. But several of my new friends had been reading tarot for years, so I was able to get readings and ask questions and see different decks up close and personal. I was still tentative with it all. (The transition from Southern Baptist to pagan was an unexpected and very gradual one.) But these things were no longer hidden from my view. They were up front and center.
After a year in Austin, I found myself back in my former home of NC. Not wanting to give up the magick of the awakening I’d just experienced, I immediately set about searching for ways to continue my education and expansion while in a much smaller and more conservative town.
I managed to find and join a pagan studies group at the local Unitarian Universalist church, which basically picked up right where I left off in Austin. I also discovered yoga at this time. I divided all my spare time between all things yoga, magickal and herbal/natural/sustainable. It was a truly expansive time for me.
I got my own first tarot deck in 1999, and began dabbling in trying to read it. I read what felt like millions of books on tarot (among other esoteric subjects) trying to understand the classic symbolism of the cards. I studied online, jumping down any and every cyber rabbit hole I could find that was related to these oracular cards. I filled notebooks with data I gathered along the way.
At this point I was really only doing readings for myself. I occasionally practiced reading for a friend or two here and there, but I had no real confidence in my ability to make sense of what the cards had to share. Still, I was so excited by the prospect of what these cards could do.
Everything shifted during one pivotal moment when I pulled out my cards at a party. (I always carried them with me.) I desperately wanted to practice my readings, but I was still lacking confidence in my skills. I offered a friend a reading, and she agreed. We went over to a small table in the corner of the room. There were people milling about everywhere, but they were mostly drinking, dancing, talking, and making out. They weren’t really paying attention to me, so I felt less nervous about reading in public. The reading went well. A couple other friends were intrigued and came over to ask for readings. I hesitantly obliged, and those readings seemed to go okay, too. It didn’t feel like anything earth-shattering or life-changing, but I didn’t make a complete fool of myself and no one called me an evil devil-worshipping demon-lady, so I considered it a success.
Several months later one friend told me the reading I gave him at that party had changed his life, helping him to make a decision he had been putting off for a while, but knew he needed to make. He was so grateful for that support. It was then that I began to have an inkling that I could do this tarot thing.
I continued to study my cards and practice reading, mostly for myself, but, more and more, for friends, too. Over time I began to develop a shorthand with my cards. It was like they were actually communicating with me in real time, not just offering static images with set interpretations. As I opened to this form of communion, my readings became richer and more meaningful. They were more resonant for the people sitting for the readings. My confidence grew more and more.
This is when I began to fully understand how the tarot works. It is simply a tool that allows us to escape the confines of our linear logic-based thinking and to connect with the streams of information available all around us, on numerous planes of existence: Internal experiential wisdom, external learned knowledge, collective intelligence from the Akashic Records, divine understanding from Source. It’s not evil. Neither is it inherently good. It simply is. And it’s available to any of us at any time. The tarot is simply a tool for accessing it.
Now I read tarot both personally and professionally. I can't imagine my life without these beautiful cards to help me push through my own boundaries and limitations. And I feel so fortunate to be able to help others find more bliss, ease and fulfillment in their own lives, too. Following are some of the things that I know to be true about the tarot, and that are often not fully understood by the masses:
Each card may have traditional symbology that conveys collective themes of experience, but they can also call forth personalized data that has nothing to do with the conventional meanings of those symbols. When this happens, the individual data is what is most relevant. (At least this is true in my experience and opinion.)
To illustrate this point: Say, you pull the Empress card. Traditional interpretations of this card have to do with abundance and fertility. However, if you pull this card and you immediately envision yourself putting in your notice at a job you’ve been unhappy working, then that’s the message for you here. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t seem to align with the imagery of the card. It’s triggered in you exactly what you need to know in this moment. (Of course, acting on this information is likely to lead you to an abundance of new opportunities for growth, wealth and satisfaction which does align more with the classic symbolism of the card. So, it all comes full circle eventually.)
Each card, too, has a light and a dark aspect (or, put another way, a high frequency and low frequency), just as does everything in this well-ordered Universe. Sometimes the reader will be able to divine which is most likely at play in a given reading, but both are always a possibility when it comes to the expression of the energy that any given card signifies.
For example, The Tower card, which is a much-maligned card in the Major Arcana, often represents the total destruction and devastation of all that feels safe and familiar. The shadow side of this energy is despair and fear and a feeling of wanting to give up and hide from life and play the victim. The light side of this energy is the clearing away of the old unresourceful structures that have been informing our choices for too long, in order to create a fresh new slate upon which to build a bright and beautiful new life that will more accurately and deliciously express who we are at this moment in time. Both of these expressions are possible EVERY time this card appears in a spread. It is up to the querent (the person sitting for the reading) to determine how they will choose to employ this energy in their own lives. Sometimes they will choose consciously, other times it will be an unconscious choice, but either way, it is a choice. The cards don’t determine how we manifest these energies; we do.
We can also look at The Devil card, another often-feared and misunderstood card in the Major Arcana. The shadow side of this energy is about feeling trapped by circumstances. It can feel like we are being manipulated by some unseen puppete