Dealing with Our Decks: Different Ideas in a New Era of Tarot
There’s a general belief amongst tarotists and trend-spotters alike that tarot is enjoying a boost in popularity. Whenever I see headlines like “Tarot is Back!” I always cringe because, in my world, tarot has never been gone.
I think we can thank the internet and social media for the proliferation of tarot interest, tarot information and tarot decks. There is a concern among many tarotists that so many tarot decks are being created, so many tarot books are being written, that the quality works, and the traditional works, will be diluted by a flood of mediocrity and misunderstanding.
One need only to look at the wide variances in card depictions, teaching methods and card interpretations to know that the more minds in the mix, the more difficult it will be to hold on to traditional foundational tarot understanding.
We can see how much tarot understanding has expanded since A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith produced the deck that practically defined tarot for a century prior to social media. Might A.E. Waite, if he were here today, see our common tarot practices as a gross misunderstanding of his work?
In the early 1970s Eden Gray suggested that tarot was exoteric; a tool we could all use at our kitchen tables, rather than an esoteric device reserved only for the very gifted and studied few. With this open-minded approach and social media, we can only imagine how much tarot wisdom we might develop in the next decade, and how much we might add to the body of knowledge that is tarot going forward. As long as the foundation doesn’t get lost along the way, I have to think this is a good thing.
I believe there will always be those among us who keep the traditions sacred, even as tarot may at times become trendy and pop, and perhaps at other times swing back into the shadows, as trends often do.
Social media allows us to discuss in large groups our thoughts and feelings about the cards, and to share our techniques. As we discuss and share, it becomes clear that we all have different feelings and beliefs about the way the cards work, how the cards speak, who speaks through the cards and what our connection to the cards might be.
One new tarot technique that piqued my curiosity recently is the idea of a “tarot deck interview”. That is, asking a new tarot deck questions to ascertain how you might best use the deck, and what your relationship with the deck might be.
My first reaction to this concept teetered between ridicule and simple lack of resonance. I don’t tend to personify the cards overly much, and, unlike many readers, I don’t notice a palpable difference in the voice and personality of specific decks. For me, tarot is tarot.
This was true until a student shared her deck interview in an online thread about the topic. There was something that felt so poignant and true about the reading that I immediately questioned my initial reaction to doubt the process.
When I first learned tarot, there were some distinct tarot traditions; Waite, Crowley, Feminist/Pagan, De Marseille. These traditions still exist, and still inform the vast majority of tarot knowledge and practice. Now, though, there are tarot decks, and tarot-like decks, that are remarkably different from any of these traditions.
Modern decks like Chrysalis, Mary-el and Wild Unknown are very popular, and stray significantly from any tarot traditions of yesteryear, although one can see influences from those traditions in certain cards and decks here and there.
The vast number of available decks has led to some serious collecting (in some cases, hoarding). While there are still folks who read with, and own, only one deck, many of us choose not to be deck-monogamous.
Right after my online conversation about interviewing tarot decks, another online friend reached out looking for advice on what to do with, or how to use, their huge tarot collection. The truth is, while most of us have tarot shelves filled with decks, most of us confine our tarot use to only a few trusted decks. The majority of the decks in our collections sit and collect dust.
We all experience decks that “read well” or “speak clearly” for us, and decks that don’t. Often, this has nothing to do with how much we like the artwork. And this is another substantive question for each reader to ponder. What is it that causes a deck to feel readable?
One of my problems with the idea of a tarot deck interview is that I know in my own experience the majority of decks I have will sit on the shelf and not get much use. If I interview such a deck at the beginning of our relationship, will the cards really make this prediction, and will I have the wherewithal to interpret the cards in such a way after having just bought them and hotly anticipated their arrival?
On the other hand, my friend who wonders what to do with her shelf of inactive decks might have a field day breaking out each one and asking, “How can you serve me?” or “How should I use you?”
When I was learning tarot thirty years ago there were not so many decks from which to choose. Then, perhaps the majority of available decks had similar symbolism. The greater variety now available makes the idea of conducting deck interviews seem more reasonable and helpful than in might have seemed a quarter century ago.
The idea that each deck has a specific personality and might be most useful for some specific tasks more than others seems very different from the concept of “Comparative Tarot” as developed by Valerie Sim and practiced by many readers of my generation.
While Comparative Tarot does acknowledge the common wisdom that different decks can have different voices, Comparative Tarot asks us to look at different depictions of the same card and let that process of compare-and-contrast inform our understanding of the card any time we see it, no matter the particular deck.
I had developed this concept even before I heard of Valerie Sim’s work. I’ve always called it “The Deck in My Head”. Whatever deck I happen to be working with, I will often call to mind other depictions of the cards that appear on the table. This helps me give a clear and comprehensive reading with any deck; I joke I could do it with seventy-eight pieces of notebook paper.
Coming from this perspective, from the idea that all images of the card inform of our understanding of what the card can mean, seems almost diametrically opposed to the idea that each deck operates in its own way, has its own agenda and its own best practices. I will have to let some of these ideas gel to see if there is a way these two ideas can work together for me.
I do occasionally discover a deck that I will use for a specific purpose, although I have never determined this by asking the deck itself. Most notable is my Tarot of Transformation, which is way too hairy-fairy for me to give a strong comprehensive reading. I call it “The Big Guns” and will bring it out when I get stumped in a professional reading. I will never use more than three cards from this deck in a sitting because each is so intense in its message. Never has this deck failed to settle a problem or solve a mystery when I use it this way.
The question is, would interviewing decks lead me to finding other sorts of big guns for my arsenal? Might it stimulate my creativity and help me find new uses for my beloved-but-unused decks?
One problem I see associated with the mindset around interviewing decks is the idea that there should be decks that we use for specific type of readings. I’ve played with this idea too, using The Lover’s Path Tarot for romance readings and Ghosts and Spirit Tarot for mediumship readings, for example.
Overall, I really resist this concept, and think it could lead to really limited readings, for this reason. No question exists in a vacuum, and no part of life is independent from the rest of life. For example, my question may be about love, but the impediment to my love life may be my career.
I think, for professional readings and general divination, I personally need my primary tarot deck to be a full-service one-stop-shop kind of a deck. I want all the information, and all the factors.
After some consideration, I think the process of interviewing tarot decks can help us expand the way we use tarot, but could also limit us in our readings, depending on the way we choose to use the process.
Maybe most importantly, I think one of the reasons it’s great that there are so many tarot decks available is that they can teach us about each other, not only about themselves. I don’t want to see the Comparative Tarot process get lost in a sea of decks that are so dissimilar one from another as to not withstand any comparison.
The other quandary the concept of interviewing tarot deck presents for me is the personification of tarot. Can seventy-eight pieces of cardboard think and feel? I think each of us does anthropomorphize tarot to some extent. For me, though, the power of the cards in not in the cards, but in where the cards lead my thoughts, feelings and intuition, and what the cards teach me. I feel I work with the power of the symbols themselves, not the paper on which they are printed.
I will be pondering and musing about this for a long time. Tarot culture is always growing and changing, as are we. This is one of the reasons I love tarot, and love being part of the community of tarotists who ponder with me.
If you want to read the deck interview that got me thinking, I am sharing it here, with the permission of the author, Maureen, from the Tarot Nerds Facebook Group.
Green Witch Tarot Deck Interview:
1. What can you teach me? - The Holly King (Hermit)
I will be your mentor and guide to seek your truth and journey with you on your chosen path. I am experience and knowledge.
2. Describe yourself to me- 10 Chalices (Cups)
I am happiness abundance and joy, everything you strive to achieve. I am a good deck.
Describe me-7 Athames (Swords)
You are a strategic thinker with determination and fortitude. You are diplomatic and very perceptive. You overcome challenges, are self-reliant, confident and brave.
4. How can we work together- Ace Pentacles
I will teach you the magic art of manifestation. We will do well together, I am grounded and earthbound and bring you good fortune.
5. What are your strengths: Queen of Swords-I am shrewd, orderly independent and self-reliant. Honest and sharp of tongue when necessary much like you.
6. What are your weaknesses? Page Cups
I need to be more creative and trust my inner child. I must be less pragmatic and analytical and more watery. I am a good friend but my loyalty is not honored by everyone.
7. What is our potential together-Knight Swords.
Our relationship will adventurous, but we must be thorough and avoid impatience. We must not rush this process and miss any steps.
8. Do you want to work together? -The Star
The opportunity is presented to you but you must decide. The energies are in favor of our union. I bring you the tools to manifest all you desire. Trust your intuition.