I’ve been reading/messing about with/collecting Tarot cards for some 30 odd years now, on and off. They live mostly wrapped in colourful silk scarves, in a stylishly minimal black wooden box at the side of my bed.
The fascination began when I was reading up on Yeats and the Golden Dawn in Sixth Form. Yeats, aside from being a poet, playwright, Senator of the Irish Free State and manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was a very serious occultist. No less than Alistair Crowley referred to him as “that dishevelled demonologist” (in return, Yeats loathed Crowley and later expelled him from the occult order they both belonged to, the Golden Dawn).
I picked up two or three decks over the next few years, learning to read in a relatively haphazard way. Every now and then I’d use them to make ends meet. When I met supermum, in fact, I was reading Tarot cards in an odd little indoor market somewhere in the East of England. Then I abandoned them altogether for ten years or so until the urgent need came up to make a living during a gap in employment. Supermum was pregnant, we had our first mortgage, job offers weren’t exactly knocking at the door and a badly managed period of freelancing had left me deeply in debt to the taxman. A friend hooked me up with a London members’ club and I did an evening’s work there. It was interesting and I felt the pull and the draw all over again. The following day, I was offered a ‘respectable’ job and put them down.
And that was that for eight years until two years ago, I began to read Dante in depth, followed by quantities of material on Northern Myth and paganism. It was probably influenced by the novel I’d begun to write, Shaper. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be drawn back to what is, for me, the motherlode of myth, mysticism and imagery in the West, the Tarot but this time with – I hope – a humbler attitude. It started again with an impulse purchase from Treadwell’s of the Tarot art deck, the Spill Tarot, and continued when I encountered Suzanne Treister’s extraordinary HEXEN 2.0 deck created for an installation at the Science Museum. HEXEN 2.0 is a genuine transposition of the Renaissance tradition of the tarot as a treasure house of obscurely interconnected symbols and archetypes into the 21st century. But for her, the archetypes are ARPANET, Timothy Leary, the CIA, wide area networks, the Situationalists, transhumanism and much else existing on the shadowy borders between technology and new age superstition. I found it to be a deck that directly related to my own work in managing, networking, websites, marketing and other dark arts. This led to trying a few readings as a substitute for conventional mind-mapping or brainstorming exercises when I was working on new product ideas or strategies. I also I have a very understanding boss who let me use them in my appraisal!
All this drew me back to the Frieda Harris and Crowley’s Thoth deck (Crowley was an appalling human being but he knew a thing or two about Tarot and Harris’ artwork is amazing). Using it, I’ve been working through Rachel Pollack’s excellent Tarot Wisdom and rethinking the way I approach them.
Which brings me, at last, to my position as a ‘shaky rationalist’. I’m an atheist, someone who believes in empirical evidence, scientific process and the strong possibility that we’re all descended from apes and amoebas (for some of us, more of one than the other). What on earth am I doing playing around with a pack of dodgy occult cards?
I suppose the answer is “I don’t really know.” I mix them up, think about the images and the interactions between them and how that relates to the meanings assigned to them over the centuries and I see what happens. In the process, I learn something about myself and about the people I occasionally read for. It’s a kind of weather forecasting in some ways.
The thing Tarot is doing for me is provide a lens for thinking about a kind of spirituality and way of relating to the “images of eternity” we’ve inherited from our ancestors that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m suspicious of the kind of instant shamanism peddled in so many contexts but one concept well-founded in anthropological research is the shaman’s capacity to accept both concrete material fact and the experience of the altered ‘shamanic’ state of mind as real – real in the post-modern sense if you like. Tarot is a formidable tool for experiencing this.
And besides, the cards are very beautiful. Isn’t that enough in its own right?
A few books:
A.E. Waite – The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (an old classic and the essential guide to the Rider-Waite Deck so many people start with)
Alistair Crowley – The Book of Thoth (not for beginners!)
Sallie Nichols – Jung And Tarot – An Archetypal Journey (I’m no Jungian but, as with so much else, his idea of the Archetype is a useful tool for thinking about oneself and ones relationship to a larger whole)