Where the Magic Is

I spoke briefly in my comments on Justice about it being the center of the tarot, and I’ve mentioned before about a card’s placement within the first, second or third line of the tarot and I thought that I’d address that for a moment, since I’ve never explicitly explained the meaning behind that train of thought or why I keep using it.

Rachel Pollack, a worthy guide to the tarot if ever there was one, tells us in the second chapter of 78 Degrees of Wisdom, her seminal study of the tarot, that there are two schools of thought on the interpretation of the tarot deck, one that views the cards alone as important and another that views the cards as a specific sequence. Pollack aligns herself with the second group, not only that, but that while the tarot can be neatly divided into two groups of 11, she prefers to discard the Fool, so she’s left with 21 cards easily broken down into three groups of seven. These seven levels of the tarot then form three distinct phases within the journey of the querent. The first line concerns the mundane concerns of society, the second the journey inward to deal with issues of identity and personality, and the third line “with the great forces of life itself,” as Pollack puts it. A less intimidating way of phasing it might external spiritual forces, right up to creation itself in the World card. That’s a big deal, but it’s not an impossible deal.

So that’s the quick and dirty on the seven lines, but not necessarily my take on them. While I find the narrative of the three levels of the tarot intriguing and somewhat useful, the truth is that I don’t believe that each card in the system absolutely needs to be in the place it is, nor that it takes its meaning directly (or even tangentially) from its position. That doesn’t gel for me around the highly idiosyncratic nature of the tarot, nor of the nature of divination or the usefulness of other oracles, such as the Lenormand cards, The Faerie Oracle or even the incredibly odd Cards of U’ut. The tarot is a malleable system of articulation, a necessarily malleable system. Without its inherent flexibility the tarot would be far less popular and even less accessible than it already is.

Most importantly, the idea that each card must come in a certain order contradicts the very way that most folks use the tarot. It may well be that most diviners are mis-using the tarot, breaking it down from its enlightened purpose as a guide to enlightenment, but I strongly disagree with that. The way that the tarot is most often used is to shake up the cards and lay them out of order for more insight into a particular dilemma. The Emperor is suddenly shoulder to shoulder with the two of cups and the seven of swords, but he doesn’t lose any of his meaning from this positioning, in fact he gains greater meaning from it, more useful meaning than he had in his traditional position.

Sure, you might say, that’s true, using the tarot for divination is one thing, but the order IS important and we shouldn’t mess with that; it’s been specifically developed over centuries in order to accurately reflect the human condition. Well…no, not really. Historically there have been a number of versions of the tarot streaming out of Italy and then France. The version that we’ve received has had a very specific path, from Italy, to Marseilles, France to London and into the hands of AE Waite and the Golden Dawn. From those 18th century western occultists we received our tarot canon. But beside historical precedence for alternate tarots and alternate versions of this tarot, there is also the question of where the magic happens, and that, to me, is the greatest argument against the importance of traditional card position. For me, the magic is not in the cards. In fact, it’s my belief that no artifact can contain magic, only channel it. The magic is in the reader, the human holding the cards, and the cards help us focus and clearly reflect that energy back at ourselves in a coherent way.

A deep part of the magic of the tarot is learning how to tell the stories it has the potential to create, stories about ourselves and the people around us. The story that Pollack tells around the 3 levels of tarot is just one more story, just one more alignment of the cards. Learning to tell those stories is the important thing, and having a tool to construct the stories is important, but it’s not necessary: the story is going on all around us, but it’s a lot harder to simplify, condense and make sense of when we’re trying to draw it straight from life than it is when we draw it from the cards. I believe that no matter what the original, “authentic” position of the cards humans would find a way to make a story out of them, and that story would make sense. And we do, every time we divine with the cards we find a new way of telling that essential human story over and over again: what’s happening in my life? This is what Enrique Enriquez talks about in Tarology, how to let go of everything you might think you’re supposed to know about tarot and simply look at the pictures and then tell the story you see. And that, in and of itself, is the power of the tarot: learning to trust ourselves.

Learning to get out of our own way and really trust the deep intuition that we’re born with. Learning to listen to and hone that intuition that has, for most of us, been derided, demeaned and ignored for a long damn time. Connecting to and nurturing that voice is difficult, scary and challenging on every level of my life. It often makes me look crazy: moving to Wales and starting my own business so my wife could pursue a PhD in theology didn’t really look as though it had “solid life decision” written all over it, but it’s worked out a lot better than I suspect most folks thought it would, and more importantly it’s led me down a path that I would NEVER have been able to replicate if I’d just done what other folks thought made logical sense, and it’s taught me over and over again to trust myself first, no matter what the logical decision might be.

The conclusion that I’m about to draw flies in the face of everything I’ve just said, but perhaps there’s a reason why, despite being a wild card and a floating trump, the Fool has settled at the beginning of the tarot. Its lesson is by far the most important lesson that I know in reading, studying or creating the tarot: Trust yourself first and everything else will fall into place. Finding that voice is difficult, and there are consequences we cannot foresee, wounds we have ignored that will need tending, and powers we didn’t know we had that will need tempering. But there is no more satisfying feeling than knowing that voice, trusting it and seeing it through, whether its something as simple as a tarot reading or as powerful as taking control of your own life.

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