Feature photos by Liz Hew for Bobblehaus
Demystifying the Art of Tarot Reading
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I realised that I wanted to learn the art of tarot reading. The fascination could have been several years in the making; I didn’t grow up in a religious household, but my childhood had been inundated with spiritual and holistic practices, and plenty of symbolism. From the crystals I used to collect as a child; to armfuls of lotus flowers, pixiu (protective Chinese mythical creatures), and other Feng Shui artefacts around the house; to the daily rituals of lighting incense sticks and offering fresh fruit and dried herbs to Quan Yin — a Bodhisattva of compassion and mercy — I hold intense memories of a rather pagan upbringing. Now and again, my mother would turn my palms upwards to carefully inspect the grooves of my lines, and each time we visited relatives in Malaysia, she would take us to the local fortune teller in the temple caves; who used the study of dates and the stars to track our fates. As I matured and began to demarcate my own spiritual path in an overwhelmingly material world, I became fascinated by the history of runic scripture during my Medieval Literature studies, the intersection of witchcraft, feminism, and capitalism during my theory classes, and eventually, the systems of astrology and horoscopes.
But where did tarot fall into all of this?
I first learned of the term through a tale by distinguished writer Angela Carter, published in her acclaimed body of work, The Bloody Chamber. My adolescent imagination was particularly drawn to the fictitious worlds of magical realism and the gothic — and Carter’s short story ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ was a perfect blend of shadowy castles and perilous love. Confined to her chateau, a hauntingly beautiful vampiric countess who longs to be human spends her waking hours shuffling tarot cards, while her mute servant leads wandering, ill-fated young men to their deaths. Her tarot readings yield the same cards each time: ‘La Papesse’ (the ‘High Priestess’ for wisdom), ‘La Mort’ (‘Death’), and ‘La Tour Abolie’ (the ‘Tower’ for absolution) — until one day she fatefully draws ‘Les Amoureux’ (the ‘Lovers’), foreshadowing her own doom. This sublimely written tale marked my first appreciation of tarot cards, but it wouldn’t be until several years later that I would purchase my first deck at Treadwell’s, my local esoteric bookshop. I recall feeling the hum of the Rider-Waite deck in my hands; just the faintest of vibrations coursing through the smooth, cool stack of cards. There was something oddly soothing about possessing my own tarot deck, in the practical sense of dispelling much of the mystery and enigma surrounding them. Wanting to absorb as much knowledge surrounding this centuries-old practice as I could, I eagerly signed up for my first tarot reading classes. Under the crack wise guidance of our warm and inspiring instructor, we were led through the fundamentals of the deck: how it was split into the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, and the fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana; the suits of the latter, consisting of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles; how each card was layered with rich symbolism and individualised meanings; how interpretations could change with different combinations and card reversals; and most significantly, how to yield to the art of introspection, to let intuition guide your hand. We took turns with our learning partners to read each other’s cards using different spread placements each time, as the room became more animated and convivial as the course drew on. Having never been surrounded by so many individuals with the same esoteric interests as myself, I observed the room,noting how the majority of the other students were young women, varying in backgrounds, ethnicities, and creeds. Somehow within our discrete and nuanced lives, we had all taken separate routes to arrive at the practice of tarot reading; and that realisation felt galvanising, unifying even. The classes felt like a safe space for adventurous, enquiring minds to explore a rather poorly understood — and to a degree — stigmatised vocation, and I left the classes feeling light and giddy with the gregarious buzz of making new friends.
In the following months, I felt energised with a greater comprehension of my tarot deck, using my pages of written notes and my journal reserved exclusively for readings. Our mentor had covered the imperative function of harnessing intuition, going hand-in-hand with the subconscious. it was even suggested that we place our tarot cards under our pillows as we slept and dreamed — so I did. Each practised reading felt like a grounding experience, where away from the constant noise of the world, I could isolate myself, surrounded by the flickering of small candles, the ambiance of calming music, the gentle drifting vapour of palo santo alight in a bowl, and the wafting aroma of soothing tea. This cocoon provided a space where negative elements in the form of information overload, rumination, and anxiety could all be gently waved away. Shuffling my tarot deck, spreading it across my velvet cloth, and selecting individual cards using the itch of instinct was a mindful exercise — enough to root me in that moment, to become brutally honest with myself. What was I trying to avoid or escape from in my life? What was hindering me? What fruitious opportunities had presented themselves, that I may have ignored before? What would I be capable of achieving? What steps could I take to achieve my full potential? What aspects of my life should I feel more grateful for? With each different placement and spread (there are dozens that are recommended online), the practice of tarot reading was akin to staring at myself in the mirror, without distraction or pretense. At the same time, my readings were not daunting experiences at all; but flowed in the same vein as the purgative processes of therapy or meditation, and the way they effectively create a ‘reset’ button for your mindspace. The more honest and reflective I became with myself, the kinder and more forgiving I could be. Tarot was a self-care ritual I would partake in every few weeks to check in with my inner-self; the subconscious figment of the mind that is constantly overridden and suppressed by the external façade of quotidian life. I often wondered about those I had met in the class, and whether tarot readings were a self-care practice for them too.
THE MORE HONEST AND REFLECTIVE I BECAME WITH MYSELF, THE KINDER AND MORE FORGIVING I COULD BE.
As the world continues to move through turbulent times, the youthful cohorts of society have often sought out unconventional ways of coping with societal anxieties and the volatility of the ever-morphing future. Younger Millennials and Gen Z-ers have turned to inward, spiritual, and holistic practices such as the aforementioned tarot, crystal healing, astrology, sound baths, numerology, herbology, and candle magic amongst others. Cultural reinterest in certain facets of witchcraft have been piqued, as reflected in the popularity of shows such as Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and recent or upcoming reboots of Charmed and The Craft.
Wanting to see if the mobilisation towards tarot and related practices was more extensive than I had imagined, I took to social media to seek out other young tarot practitioners. The number of instant responses that I received were overwhelmingly promising. For 20-year-old Aleksandra from New York City, her interest in tarot reading started during her freshman year of college. “A lot of the books I read as a kid dealt with magic like tarot, so some part of it always interested me,” she says. “After following Jessica Dore — a social worker who uses tarot to talk about mental health — on Twitter and Instagram, I decided to try my hand at it. Dore's application to mental health has also created a really positive association with tarot. Her interpretations and drawings are very wise and applicable to so many situations, and her account helped me through some rough patches. I thought reading tarot could help me work through some things on my own.”
By practising readings at least once a month, many practitioners like Aleksandra have turned to tarot as a way of addressing uncertainty. “When things look grim or I'm just confused about something that's going on in my life, I like that I can turn to my deck. I also like that the cards are interpreted so it's not one size fits all. Because the exact meanings of the cards can be interpreted differently by people, they resonate with people in a way that makes the most sense to them. It's intuitive rather than hard facts — it's based on you and your experience. Sometimes they just make me feel like I'm not alone. Because I wasn't raised with a certain belief system, and don't really love the idea of organized religion, it's nice to believe there's something out there guiding things or looking out for me — even if it's just energy from the stars and the universe,” she puts eloquently. Others may feel inclined to create ritualistic conditions for their tarot reading, as in the case of 25-year-old Leah, who lives in Los Angeles. Raised by deeply spiritual parents, she took up tarot reading 4 years ago, and like many others I spoke to, was drawn to tarot through her upbringing and interest in astrology. “I always pull on Full and/or New Moons,” she explains. “I feel that a Full Moon helps to express what we need to let go of, and a New one can help illuminate what may be coming into play for us; or what we should start to bring in. Currently, I’ve been asking questions about once a week. I find if I do any more, the answers can become muddled or confusing.” Leah shares the same viewpoint as many practitioners, in that the readings certainly operate as self-care, but offer an alternative approach to the individualisation of tarot. “For me, it’s a method of self care, with a little bit of spirit,” she warmly responds, and continues: “It’s a practice that I — currently — keep to myself. Tarot is a tool to help me shift into different perspectives and gear towards something that I may have not seen alone. Tarot is not a “tell-all,” but it can help us to recognize the chatter around us and start to quiet down; to feel and understand more about what is happening — and start to buy into what I’m capable of and where I should move towards. It’s a confidence booster...and it’s really fun.” Delving further into her individual style of tarot reading, she details further, “I’ve recently been pulling the same few cards and it’s so enticing to see how and what they are trying to tell me. It’s a different iteration each time and I’ve gained new insights from each reading. Because this is a personal practice for me, I do not read cards for friends or strangers. I think there can be an energy tied to our decks and, as someone more sensitive to others’ energies, I prefer not to dive in.”
Similarly, I have also faced the repetitive sight of certain cards — namely the Nine of Swords and The Tower, which converge in some interpretation of self-doubt, anxiety, personal transformation and upheaval. The notion of ‘external’ energy being transferred over by the hands of others is a pertinent one — an issue that was even raised in my class all those years back; that the action of shuffling cards somehow imbued the deck with your own personal energy, and that it was best to reserve at least one tarot deck for yourself. However, with the unfurling of tarot usage amongst young adults and teenagers, the social aspect of reading the cards for close friends has its own alluring, unifying appeal. “I think tarot is big with younger people and practitioners,” Aleksandra comments. “Whenever I tell people I read tarot they always ask, “Can you do a reading for me?", because it is a little witchy and there's magic and the stars and the universe involved with each draw. It's the same with astrology. Mostly young people into it, because it's mystical and fun — and I feel like a lot of adults in my life pass it off as some weird practice. I think because tarot comes from a non-Eurocentric culture and wasn't in the mainstream, a majority of people, especially older adults, traditionally find it harder to accept.”
IT’S A RECLAIMING OF FEMININE POWER. INTUITION. THE DESIRE TO GUIDE.
For 16-year-old Adrianna from Ipswich, Suffolk, and 26-year-old Katarina from Vancouver, the presence of tarot reading throughout family generations built the foundations for their interest in the practice. “I started reading tarot cards when I was 15 — so almost 2 years ago,” Adrianna begins, “I was always interested in Wicca and family history, which is how I found out that my great-great grandmother [had] also read tarot cards — and was really good at it!” Her personal link to tarot remains a centralising element to her own practice, and she explains, “I like the fact that you can be in control of fate in a way, because if you don’t like what the cards tell you, you can do something about it. And I love that there’s a connection to my great-great-grandmother.” For Katarina, her tarot reading arose from an appreciation of the artistry behind the design of each deck, and the rituals around caring for the cards. “I was first drawn to the idea of interpretation — once I started practicing tarot, my mom revealed that my late grandfather had a deck of cards he would “read” for people back in Serbia. He was known in the neighbourhood for it.” She provides a comparable answer to the issue of stigmas surrounding the culture of tarot reading: “I think whatever stigma people have now is largely from a misunderstanding of the purpose of tarot. It's a tool. It's used to interpret intuition and emphasize the things we should be focusing on in our lives. It doesn't predict the future, or how many kids you'll have. Based on the current trajectory a person is on, it can outline the significant points along that trajectory, and perhaps how it ends, if the person chooses to continue. You can do something the next day that alters that trajectory.” Again, there is this recurring, prevailing notion of being able to control your actions, and by extension, the outcome of a reading — the very factors that offset an increasingly anxiety-inducing society. That tarot offers a specific type of comfort to younger practitioners does not amount to much surprise, but reflecting on the gendered aspect of the art reveals a subversive challenge to patriarchal systems of power and organized religion, especially in the past. “It’s cool to see young women especially reconnect with this practice,” Katarina observes, “— With what in general would be considered ‘witchy’, that could have gotten you killed in the Middle Ages. It’s a reclaiming of feminine power. Intuition. The desire to guide.”
For those that are interested in taking up this most personalised form of esoteric practice, the classic tarot set to start with would be the Rider-Waite deck (also simply known as the Rider deck), with iconic illustrations by Pamela Coleman Smith. Other decks that have been recommended include the Ethereal Visions deck (inspired by the art-nouveau moment), The Wild Unknown deck, the Dust II Onyx: A Melanated Tarot deck (featuring women of colour), and the Tattoo Tarot: Ink and Intuition deck.