Reader: The person who interprets the cards
Querent: The person who asks a question for the reader to consult the deck about
[A] Reading: The entire process of interpreting one or more cards for the querent, from the shuffling of the deck to explaining the meanings of the cards
Spread: A specific combination of positions in which the cards are laid out during a reading. These positions generally identify which parts of the querent’s life the cards refer to.
The major debate in Tarot concerns whether the cards should be consulted in divination, or strictly for the purposes of self-reflection. This distinction between cartomancy and meditation seems fairly straightforward. In practise, however, readings inevitably include elements of both categories. This is due both to the popularity of the Celtic Cross spread — two of its positions indicate the future — and to the underlying grammar of Tarot decks and guidebooks.
One useful way of approaching the Tarot is as a form of computation that facilitates interactive storytelling. This method is outlined in Stamford’s Tarot Guidebooks as a Literary Genre, and can be glimpsed in most Tarot guidebooks, which generally emphasize the importance of internet communities, and the machine-like use of Tarot and associated tools. Users develop and share spreads, which are added to a reader’s repertoire in a manner analogous to downloading new applications; tertiary ‘hardware’ such as incense or crystals are attached to readings in specific configurations. The multiplicity of its components and the people involved in developing them makes the Tarot machine endlessly malleable. By consulting Tarot guidebooks and literature on psychology, I hope to identify some of the grammatical structures that are used in a reading.
Another recurrent theme in Tarot literature is its popularity in marginalized groups, especially amongst women and queer communities. Oliver Pickle, author of She is Sitting in the Night, suggests that this is related to the difficulty of finding communal stories and adequate mental health care within these communities. By combining literature on divinatory practises with literature concerning marginalized communities and therapeutic practises, I hope to strengthen this claim. I think that the usefulness of tarot in marginalized communities can be traced to its underlying grammar, and to the necessity of community in the construction of a Tarot machine.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. London: Penguin. 1986. Print.
Drawing Down the Moon discusses modern magical and pagan practises, assuming an audience of European background which is skeptical but open to the idea of magic. It situates itself as a feminist text, asserting a link between magic and female power; this edition is also notable for being reprinted around the same time as the publication of Thea’s Tarot, and can therefore provide background on the context in which the deck was created.
Auger, Emily E., ed. Tarot in Culture: Volume One. Valleyhome Books, 2014. Print.
Auger’s book collects a wide range of essays which represent an overview of current academic studies of tarot cards, including their historical background, the creation of modern novelty decks, and their use in identity politics. Her introduction tackles several common misconception about tarot, and describes the current state of research.
Curry, Patrick., ed. Divination. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010. Print.
Curry’s collection of essays makes a strong case for the value of studying divination as a scientific art rather than as a curiosity, asserting that doing otherwise dismisses a wealth of scholarship which not package itself within a very specific framework of Western modernity. In Memoir as Method, Laura Grillo discusses the struggle she experienced when she realized that the predictions she had seen while studying divination were impossible to frame in satisfactorily academic language; it is an excellent example of the linguistic challenges we face in studying liminal practises.
Dow, Caroline. Tea Leaf Reading for Beginners. Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2011. Print.
This book is a rare example of a divinatory guidebook written by a person of colour. Dow discusses incorporating her culture into her divination, often exchanging and adjusting certain symbols so that they resonate with her frame of reference — it is also a good example of what divinatory guidebooks look like when they aren’t centred around tarot, and will be useful as a counterexample for supporting Mountfort’s claims about the structures of tarot guidebooks and their hypertextuality.
Kenner, Corrine. Simple Fortunetelling With Tarot Cards. Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2007. Print.
Kenner’s book is a relatively straightforward guide to tarot card reading, which assumes that the reader is using tarot cards for divinatory purposes, but welcomes a wide range of perspectives on how divination works, from the mystical (communication with nature) to the mundane (suggesting that the cards help readers to notice clues in their environment).
Molesworth, Jesse. Chance and the Eighteenth-Centuty Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
This book provides a general overview of the connection between chance-games and eighteenth century novels, which is relevant because of tarot’s origins as a type of deck used in gambling card games — artifacts from this early usage still exist today. In particular, the chapter “The Gothic novel and the rise of tarot cartomancy” asserts a connection between the conversion of tarrochi cards from a gambling game to a divinatory tool, and the industrial revolution.
Mountfort, Paul. (201). Tarot Guidebooks as a Literary Genre. In Emily Auger, Tarot in Culture: Volume One.
Paul Mountfort argues that tarot reading is a form of computation, and that the guidebooks they come paired with are examples of hypertexts. To support these claims, he examines a number of different standard decks, which has the secondary benefit of providing a detailed history of the literary roots of tarot decks.
Murphy-Hiscook. The Way of the Hedge-Witch: Rituals and Spells for Hearth and Home. Avon: Provenance Press, 2009. Print.
Murphy-Hiscook’s book, which assumes an audience that shares similar beliefs about the existence of magic, discusses the ways in which she incorporates magic into her daily life; many Tarot practitioners engage in divinatory practises other than Tarot, so it’s useful to have some background information in this area. Hedge-Witchery refers to magic that centres around the home, particularly in regards to the kitchen, and is one example of the close ties between magic and feminized work.
Pickle, Oliver. She Is Sitting in the Night: Re-visioning Thea’s Tarot. Montreal: Metonymy Press, 2015. Print.
She Is Sitting in the Night is a guidebook which seeks to further queer a lesbian feminist deck produces in the eighties by connecting it to modern queer movements, and by allowing the figures on the card to be read as non-binary genders, something that the deck was previously stacked against. Pickle discusses the challenges of reinterpreting this deck, the process through which they began to practise tarot, and the importance of tarot cards for creating communal storytelling in marginalized communities.
Rieti, Barbara. Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells. Quebec: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Rieti’s book deals with the normalization of witchcraft in Newfoundland, and the twilight zone between belief and non-belief that pervades literature about divinatory and other magical practises.
Steifvater, Maggie. Illuminating the Prophecy. Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2015. Print.
Steifvater’s guide to her deck, The Raven’s Prophecy, provides interpretations of her cards for practical use, as well as philosophical reflections on why she chose the imagery she did. Steifvater’s book is notable for her reflections on how tarot operates as storytelling, and for her frank explanations of the difficulties she faced while creating the deck.
Eads, James. The Prisma Visions Tarot. Self-published. 2015. Print.
Ead’s deck borrows imagery from European art and fairytales. It is notable for its unusual decision to present the Major Arcana as separated and temporally disconnected archetypes of human nature, and the Minor Arcana as four continuous narratives; although this is a fairly standard interpretation of the cards, it’s more usual for decks to foreground the temporal continuity of the Major Arcana.
Hill, Kate. (1996-2015). Aeclectic Tarot. Retrieved from: http://www.aeclectic.net/tarot/.
The Aeclectic Tarot is a database of tarot decks which contains selected images, brief reviews, and purchasing information for over 1600 decks. It is frequently referenced in tarot communities, and also contains information on oracle decks, which are used in a separate form of cartomancy which is practised by a large minority of Tarot users.
Smith, Pamela Colman. The Rider Tarot Deck. Stamford: U.S. Game Systems Inc, 1971. Print.
The Rider Tarot deck is arguably the standard around which the majority of modern decks are built, and is referenced most general-purpose guidebooks. Its images are symbolically dense, and dependant on Christian imagery.
Steifvater, Maggie. The Raven’s Prophecy. Minnesota: Llewellyn Books, 2015. Print.
The Raven’s Prophecy derives its symbolism from Welsh mythology. It is notable for its strong emphasis on dramatic change as a positive force (an argument which contradicts many popular interpretations of various cards), its minimal use of humans in its imagery, its rejection of reversed card meanings, and for Steifvater’s decision to describe most traditionally male-coded cards as female without changing their names.
West, Ruth. Thea’s Tarot. Self-published. 1984. Print.
Ruth West’s lesbian feminist tarot deck was designed at the bequest of the informal lesbian community in which she was living at the time. It draws heavily on themes from the contemporary feminist movement, and alters the conventional naming schema in attempt to escape European patriarchal and colonial dominance (sometimes failing, as in the case of the switch from Kings to Amazons, which unfortunately serves only to replicate a different aspect of the same colonial worldview.)
Kavada, Anastasia. “Internet cultures and protest movements: the cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication.” Mediation and Protest Movements. Ed. Bart Cammaerts and Patrick McCurdy. Chicago: Intellect, 2013. 77-93. Print.
Kavada provides models for understanding and categorizing different structures within activist groups, distinguishing between groups which are oriented around the concept of a single event that will create wide-scale change, and groups that work to create communities intended to empower the individuals within them. Tarot groups, which sometimes describe themselves as activist communities, are almost exclusively community-oriented.
Krishna, R. (2015). Meet the Teen Girls Using Instagram To Recover From Anorexia. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from http://www.buzzfeed.com/krishrach/the-girls-using-instagram-to-recover-from-anorexia#.bajLz6jjEO
Krishna’s article describes of an online community created with the goal of communal storytelling and the support of its members, and grapples with the ethical concerns surrounding the space’s potential to discourage its participants from accessing psychiatric help. It’s also a great example of a non-voyeuristic exploration into an emotionally laden, intimate public space.
Pullen, Christopher., ed. Queer Youth and Media Cultures. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Pullen collects a number of essays which centre around the media representation of queer youth. In particular, A Safe and Supportive Environment, and Media Responses to Queer Youth Suicide centre discuss the importance of youth confessional culture, and the concerns surrounding corporate appropriation of suicide narratives; divination almost always involves some element of confession, and the stigmatized nature of divinatory practises inoculates the subcultures surrounding them from mainstream corporate interference.
Reisberg, Daniel. (2010). Cognition: Exploring the Science of the Mind. (4th ed.) London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Reisberg’s presents a computational model for understanding the human brain. They describe various linguistic universals that suggest the ‘hard limits’ for linguistic cognition, and the manner in which language can alter thought processes; it also describes the encoding and retrieval of memory, a process that is repeatedly brought up in divinatory theory, because many diviners assert that divination works by bringing subconsciously stored material into the conscious mind.