Using Tarots for storytelling and personal reflection

Hello, dear readers! A few days ago I asked the community group for “To say nothing of the cat” what could be an interesting topic for a new post. This is what happened, and it kinda surprised me:

 

That was a change from my usual topics. But I thought, OK, well, that’s interesting… let’s do it.

Now, you may be thinking “Uh? Tarots, really?” Give me a second to explain. I don’t mean “reading cards to predict future”. I am still the same old, skeptical, bitter sarcastic grumpy guy.

Still, I really appreciate Tarot cards. Besides the often beautiful artwork, I see them as a concentrate of human history and culture, full of symbols and references to archetypes, and they can be really useful as storytelling tools and for personal reflection. This is how I use them, and this is what I will write about. My general recommendation is to approach the tool with respect, since it holds a lot of power and different meaning for different people and cultures. True, there is a big commercial aspect to it, but what can you do. I will not focus on that part of the story.

Also, I am just an amateur, and I am learning. I don’t pretend to be a master. I will just share my initial thoughts and some ways in which I use the cards, and I find them inspiring.

How did I start?

I honestly can’t remember a particular moment in which my interest in the Tarots started. They are close relatives to the Italian playing cards we were using in my family, in Naples, so that could be a connection. We would always pack a deck of Neapolitan playing cards (or more than one) when we went on a trip or to holidays. Plus, I always had an interest in stories and cultures, and the Tarots seem made of just that. The decks were originally developed for playing games and fortune-telling. Not clear what came first. People would bring them along when they traveled, and while the card concepts were probably originated somewhere in Egypt or Israel, they moved with each human migration, and probably thanks to the great expansion of Islam, somehow they arrived in Europe. Early traces (XV century) are found in Northern Italy, and from there, in Marseilles in France where they were manufactured on a larger scale. The name Tarot comes from the Italian word Tarocchi, which in turn probably derives from Arabic and meant “to trade, exchange, or put aside”.

I then took a workshop in Prague that really opened the doors for me of the many layers of meaning that are behind each of the Arcana. That was the beginning of a deeper study of Tarots as an introspection and self development tool.

There are so many different decks!

True, but you don’t need to know them all.

The Tarots of Marseilles are one of the best-known, older variants, together with the Flemish ones. They are very simple in their design, and yet each card is very evocative. One can clearly see so many Late Middle Ages and Renaissance references. Their symbols are raw and powerful. People who use them want an experience that is closer to the roots.

The Raider-Waite tarots were developed later (in the early XX century) in England, by a group of scholars and occultists referring to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The cards have simple designs, primary colors, but are incredibly rich with symbolism in the details and backgrounds. Some of the Christian imagery has been replaced with references to older cultures (example, the “Pope” becomes the “Hierophant”).  The famous (and controversial) occultist Aleister Crowley left the group to develop his own deck (known as the Thoth Tarots).

These are probably two of the most popular decks. The majority of the other decks commercially available (featuring anything, from Fairies to Zombies to The Simpsons) are in a way or another related or derived to them. I have more decks, but the Marseilles and the R-W are the two I use. Feel free to choose the one that calls you. I honestly prefer the designs closer to the most traditional ones, because I feel some of the modern ones have fewer symbols and hidden meanings. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever deck you choose, familiarize with each card and learn to respect their details.

The meaning of the cards. 

Initially, the cards were (probably) used for playing games. From the original Tarocchi derive so many traditional playing cards, including the various Italian regional varieties, and others I have found while traveling in Spain, France, Hungary, Czech Republic. The famous “poker” cards with their 4 suits also derive from the original tarots, with the “Cups – Sticks – Coins – Swords” becoming “Hearts – Clubs – Diamonds – Spades”.

Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades. The suits of the Tarots correspond directly to the suits of the popular poker cards. When you are playing a hand of Hold’em, you are in fact playing with a very modern version of Tarots.

As the cards affirmed also as a tool for storytelling and divination, however, they became more and more laden with symbolism, some manifest and some more hidden. So much so, it can be intimidating at first. How to start cracking the secrets of the cards? Step by step. For me, a very good introduction has been a book, “Tarot and the Journey of the Hero” (of course there had to be the Hero’s Journey in it, for me to be interested). Read more about the book at the end of this post. There are 5 complete journeys in a tarot deck: one in each of the four suits (those are called the Minor Arcana),

Take as an example the Staff suit. You can see the different stages of the journey: Call to Adventure, Departure…

 

… reaching a new Community, a Battle, a Celebration. And this is just one to six. The Staff (or Wands) is traditionally associated to spirituality, inspiration, determination, creativity, sexual energy. So that’s how you can start telling a story. Five of Wands? “I see a struggle related to a creative problem…”.

plus one complete Hero’s Journey made by the twenty-two Major Arcana – from the numberless (sometimes marked with “0”) The Fool

representing the beginning of each journey, with very little baggage and prejudice, full of optimism, to the number twenty-one “The World“, which represents everything, the final destination, the completion of the journey.

The Major Arcana are much richer and powerful with meaning, so sometimes it’s worth making a reading using only these 22 cards. The result will be a very powerful story, full of suggestions. Maybe not how the cards were supposed to be used, but if that’s what you need, then… go for it!

How do I read them?

There are many methods around, some flashier and more esoteric-looking (the 7 cards, the Celtic Cross) but really, I don’t think special effects are necessary and I stick to the simplest forms. They are easy to learn, and their simplicity allows more space for the interpretation of the cards themselves. And again, before I move on: I don’t believe in “divination” methods and I don’t think Tarots can be used to predict anybody’s future. I use them as mirrors and with their wealth of symbols and suggestions, I find they can be a powerful source of self-reflection. As Alejandro Jodorowsky put it, “I can’t tell you if you will find the love of your life. But together we can find out why you haven’t found it already”.

People use coaching cards or even the boardgame Dixit in a similar way. My only specific recommendation with Tarots is to approach the tool with respect and study it carefully, because for some people and in some cultures it has a very special meaning.

It is important that the person (can also be the reader him/herself) focuses on a topic or a question. The more focused, the clearer the insights. A generic topic like “work” can bring a lot of different outcomes and will leave too much space for interpretation. Still good as a storytelling practice. A more detailed question, such as “should I consider applying for that new position?” can bring more interesting results.

The three cards spread is very simple. Credit: here. Again, it’s one of Jodorowsky‘s favorites. He uses it also for therapeutic purposes. The main advantage is: it’s fast, and still it allows a good level of introspection. Three cards are placed face down, left to right (in this part of the world, this is how we read). The first (leftmost) card represents the past / or a pre-existing condition on which we can focus attention. The second (central) represents the present / an actual situation. The third on the right, revealed at the end, can tell us something about future developments, or a synthesis of the problem-solution duality we are working on.

Another easy to learn (but harder to master) model is the 9 cards spread. It consists of a 3 x 3 matrix. The cards are placed face down one by one, starting from the top-left and moving from top to down, left to right. Then they are revealed (I let the person whose story is being told do it) one by one. There are, once again, different methods to read the spread. In my reading, the top line represents the past: events, people or conditions that are somehow the pre-conditions for the situation we are investigating. The middle part represents the situation at hand, with the central card having a special significance as the present time or “the protagonist” of the story. Of course, this is in a metaphorical sense: a quality or an attitude that somehow characterizes the person. The lower line represents possible future scenarios or consequences.

This site does a very good job exploring many possible uses of the 3 x 3 spread. They are different from mine, but the essence is similar. I don’t think this matters too much. I don’t approach this in a dogmatic way. What I think is important, choose a method, master it, and stay consistent with its use and applications.

These are two other possible interpretations of the 9 cards spread (from the same website).

In my readings (for myself or others), I use my intuition to notice patterns, symmetries and coincidences that can appear. What I find important is that I always suggest possible meanings or interpretations, never “force” them on the person. I let the storyteller tell their story, pick the meanings that resonate with them.

Another important aspect to consider is that some readers place great importance in the “orientation” of the card: is it upright or upside down? In the second case, they would reverse the meaning of the card.  I don’t think it’s so important, to me it feels too much like a game of chance. Each card has multiple possible meanings, including direct opposites. “The Empress” represents strong feminine energy, motherhood, abundance AND at the same time the potentially destructive energy of a natural disaster. I present all possible meanings, in particular insisting on the fact that every card embodies two opposite qualities at the same time. Medicine and poison. Relief and addiction. Creation and destruction. And so on.

This is an example of a 9 card spread. Ironically, it starts with the perfect beginning, “The Fool”. In the center, I see the “Emperor”. This seems to be the story of a powerful man, in a position of responsibility. Or it’s the story of a position of responsibility in a more general sense. There is a very interesting narrative arc, with “Death” (radical change), “Devil” and “The Lovers” (two very similar cards, both related to choice, the first dominated by a darker theme and the second by light and freedom), and “Strenght” at the end, as the potential outcome or the desired result.

Sometimes, I place one extra card next to the 9 cards spread, to be revealed at the very end, which will represent the person whose story is being told. In that case, the card number 5 in the center will represent the present scenario but not qualities associated with the person.

Further readings. 

A couple of books I recommend if you want to know more.

 

Tarot and the Journey of the Hero“, by Hajo Banzhaf.

This was my introduction to the topic. I found it amazing, really insightful. It focuses on the major arcana, and draws from Jungian psychology and the author’s considerable knowledge of esoterica, history and art, to show the incredible symbolism behind the Waite tarot deck, and its multiple connections with the story of the hero’s journey.

 

The Way of Tarot, The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards“, by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

A ponderous book (and I am still at the beginning), in which filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa share their life-long insights into the Tarot as a spiritual path. The book focuses on the original Marseille Tarot as a concentrate of Western wisdom, a powerful tool for self-realization and healing.

Thank you for reading! 

If this is interesting, I can write a follow-up article with my interpretations of the cards, some examples, and more work applying the Tarots to the Hero’s Journey model. In the meantime, find your deck and start playing with it!

You can follow the fanpage on Facebook, join the community to discuss our favorite topics, and if you want to directly support my work now you can do it, with a small donation on my Patreon page.  Every little bit helps, your support means the world to me and it will give me more enthusiasm and motivation to keep doing what I am doing. Thank you!

 

 

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