Artist unknown. (Scanned from Michael Dummett’s The Game of Tarot.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Let’s just get this out of the way: You shouldn’t need a book to read the tarot. All the information that we need to read the tarot is already inside of us. All the stories, lessons and wisdom we’ll ever need are already at our fingertips. The key to learning to read the tarot is not mastering the arcane and mystical symbols that are so often embedded in the strange illustrations that populate the cards, but in learning to trust ourselves and our own understanding of what we see there and what that evokes in us. But that’s not what most people are going to tell you about the tarot, and it’s not what most decks want you to believe.
The tarot has a reputation as a difficult and complicated symbol system, a well earned reputation for confusing characters and secret symbols. In reality it is a simple system about asking questions and telling stories about the answers we receive. But since the 19th century the deck has been subverted to serve the ends of a particular group of people. Granted, that group of people, the Victorian occultists, brought a level of sophistication to an otherwise simple deck of cards and for that I’m grateful. But the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of secrecy and mysticism, culminating perhaps in the Thoth Tarot, so laden with symbols and mystical apocrypha that its images, though intensely powerful, are all but indecipherable to anyone but the hardiest of students (despite the best attempts of Lon Milo DuQuette), and Crowley’s book of the same name is an exercise in self-aggrandizing incomprehensibility.
The tarot is a product of medieval pop culture, featuring the stars of the day. Kings, queens, popes, and mythic heroes and heroines that were immediately recognizable to everyone who played the game. It was not an arcane system of cryptic symbols but a series of illustrations that immediately spoke to the players on a number of levels. Nor was the tarot a finalized set of glyphs that everyone agreed upon, but a fluctuating series of illustrations that captured different ways of playing the game as well as different versions and stories behind the cards themselves.
The illustrations in the major arcana were designed to be transparent, not opaque, to communicate clearly and efficiently their values and meanings. That polarity has been completely reversed in the 700 years since the tarot’s inception, both because of the unnecessary layer mystical mumbo jumbo that it’s acquired along the way, and because of the way that the glyphs have petrified, becoming ancient symbols of a bygone era requiring a level of translation that makes immediate reactions nearly impossible. The tarot’s developed into a highly arcane art, to be attempted only by the most learned of sages, who have spent years working with the cards to unravel their most ancient and sacred mysteries, and I think that’s a bunch of baloney.
The cards should be immediately recognizable. Whether you subscribe the theory of Jungian archetypes or not, the cards should be accessible and readable to almost anyone in the culture creating the deck, and that’s not the case today. Needing a book in order to sort through the various symbols and signs reneges on the promise of art: that we can immediately enjoy it and take something away from it. Traditional decks have become so laden with a stiff layers of alchemical significance that reading the cards is no longer a joy; the juice has been sucked out by the Serious Work that the artists and writers have embedded into their images. There is a need for fun and the Chibi Tarot is a direct response to that need for fun and joy that the tarot, it seems, has lacked for so long.
I don’t want the tarot to become a kind of esperanto, a broken language so simple that no one would ever want to use it, but I don’t want it to be Klingon either: Incomprehensible and threatening. The tarot should be approachable and infused with the spirit of the culture, a reflection of the people reading the cards. If the deck is an antique whose desiccated symbols require a history lesson to understand and absorb them then the power of the tool has waned. I’m not saying that mystical study isn’t valuable for the initiate who is looking to unlock those secrets and deepen their metaphysical understanding, but to insist on creating purposely opaque veil to obscure the mighty secrets of the tarot from the people in order to protect them from the harm they may do themselves, to play the wizard of Oz and shout in a mighty voice that “We Know Best!” is silly. The tarot is for everyone, it should be approachable and immediately accessible to almost anyone who picks up a deck, the way it was when it began.
I’m certainly not the first to say this. I think Mary Greer has been working tirelessly to encourage and support readers wherever they’re at, to give them the tools to recognize that they already have the information they need, they just need to look long at the cards and trust what they see there, whatever it is. Enrique Enriquez is basically saying the same thing. His naive approach to the cards, to simply lay them down and tell the story he sees there implies that no learning is necessary. Throughout ‘Tarology’ the documentary that follows Enriquez throught New York city as he expounds on the simplicty of the tarot, he consistently implies that we in the tarot world are all making much ado about nothing, that the cards have a simple message for those of us who want to take the time to hear it, and reading a bunch of books on the esoteric history of the tarot might teach you a lot of things, but it won’t help you read the cards better. Only reading the cards will do that.
The truth is that all of us are storytellers; it is our birthright as human beings. Our life is the narrative that we are always weaving together, for good and for ill, for truth and for illusion. Beyond the tale of our own life, we create stories without even thinking, offhandedly deciding things about people we don’t even know based only on the way they look, act and move through the world. Our desire for narrative, for backstory and conclusion is both what makes us great as a people and what can make us petty as people. Harnessing the power of story in conjunction with a series of images loosely tied to mythological archetypes can be a powerful tool for insight into the nature of ourselves and the world around us, one that more people could use in their day to day existence, and one that has been largely obstructed due to the incidental secrecy that wedded itself to the tarot 150 or so years ago.
The tarot is a flexible and multifaceted oracle that was originally built on a premise of instantaneous understanding of symbols involved, and it no longer seems to speak to that. Returning to a simplicity of image and symbol, and bringing the tarot out of the shadows in which it has been comfortable encased is why the Chibi Tarot is here; to return the tarot to the people, the way it started, the way it was meant to be.