It’s probably cheating to say the tarot would be one of my desert island books.
But, if you choose a deck with an inbuilt mythology of sufficient sophistication, then you’re effectively bringing an entire magical corpus with you.
It pleases me to think of the tarot’s probable origins among the games and petty pastimes of the north Italian bourgeoisie. A little fable of medieval courtly life, everything in its correct place.
(On the flip side, it does however slightly concern me that its medieval symbol set is once again becoming more relevant, rather than less, as the west slides back into an economic serfdom from which there does not seem to be any escape.)
I like tarot’s deceptive smallness. The action of shuffling and laying out a few cards is humble. You are not on a mountaintop, shouting at the storm to answer you.
Just walking over to where I keep my (always-too-small) collection of decks, selecting the most appropriate one and making a space for a reading is enough to drop my blood pressure. It is calming, like silently drinking tea. Even as I am clearing and setting up the cards, my mind is already looking at the situation under review from different perspectives.
This is learned behaviour. It’s one of the reasons I would, and do, recommend the tarot to anyone of any spiritual persuasion, right up to materialism. They force a time-out. You can’t continue thinking along the same track that has stumped you because you are taking a few moments to do something different.
Even if you think there is nothing to it beyond a slightly more camp version of Oblique Strategies, there’s enough value just in that to recommend them. It’s like brainstorming for one. (Except when it isn’t.)
For those of us who think/know that there probably is something more to it, a solitary tarot reading provides a canvas for experimentation. The little piece of tech I came away from my ritual psychedelic experience with, the vine portal, appears to work extremely well in ‘opening up’ to ‘higher realms’ prior to shuffling the cards. (Lots of personally problematic words in that last sentence, but you know what I mean.)
Because I am me, I’ve been looking through great chunks of the declassified documents from the Stargate Project. There was (is?) an experience that remote viewers would have at the very beginning of a session, once they had been given the target coordinates. It was called the gestalt.
Essentially, this is an instantaneous ‘download’ of around 80% of the information they received to do with the target. And actually, this created some challenges. Our propensity to ‘fill in’ the remaining part of the picture -what Ingo Swann called the ‘analytical overlay’- decreased the overall accuracy of the session.
We may reasonably hypothesise that the ‘gestalt’ is the arrival of a future scenario into your present consciousness, as per Peter J Carroll:
A General Metadynamic including magic would have to offer an explanation of only divination and enchantment, for these lie at the root of all magical phenomena.
Divination presents the simplest case. If at some point in the future the diviner can know the answer to a question, then that answer can feed back from the future to the present. However because the universe behaves with a degree of randomness and chaos, several different futures can feed back to the diviner’s present to give mixed results. In some cases the diviner’s choice of one particular item of feedback could even act to increase the likelihood of that future becoming more probable. Thus divination can work as enchantment by self-fulfilling prophecy.
Something similar to the remote viewers’ gestalt seems to happen to me as I turn over the cards. Usually about one or two in, the overall ‘message’, the reading’s gestalt, just lands. Where tarot certainly has an advantage over solo remote viewing (which isn’t a thing) is it contains an in-built mechanism to assist you in avoiding any potential analytical overlay… you are forced into a sequence by turning over and examining the cards one by one. (Analytical overlay is far less relevant when divining about your own life, anyway. Unless you are in the habit of losing some of your collection of vintage Soviet spy planes in the Congo. I don’t know your life. )
These similar gestalt experiences lead me to the operating hypothesis that both activities represent manifestations of an aspect of normally functioning human consciousness. I struggle to fit the tarot into an exclusively ‘spiritual’ structure like the Tree of Life or spirit-based explanatory model; contact with spirit guides, etc.
Note, that this does not preclude the independent existence of the forms or beings depicted on the cards themselves.
Indeed, it is precisely this possibility that leads to the tarot being more than the sum of its parts. The procession of symbols from the beginning of the Major Arcana to the final suit, particularly when it is aligned with a ‘big’ enough mythology like the Grail legend or Middle Earth or whatever your flavour, offers the possibility of a sustained, deep engagement with the world.
Continued use of an appropriate mythological motif builds both an intuitive and symbolic way of engaging with the world… you find yourself in the position of being able to ‘snatch’ fragments of the narrative from your waking life. That guy you see from the bus looks like the guy on the Three of Swords, the Hierophant looks like your landlord.
Not only does this coincide with a pleasing increase in synchronicity, it also seems to unpack backwards into the symbols themselves, each card becoming an infinity of mirrors.
This final aspect is why you shouldn’t be overly concerned about returning to the book after you have diligently calibrated your oracle. My two most-used decks have excellent, exhaustive, proper books with them, providing much detail on each card and what it means. It’s astonishing how many times you can read over a description of the symbol until it becomes relevant and suddenly boom. Prophecy.
If the companion book is good, there is more to be gained than lost. Resorting to it when necessary also has the pleasing side effect of improving your ability to recognise what is genuinely your intuition and what is just bluster. Which is an essential step on the accidental road to Adepthood.
Be this thy task, to see how each card springs necessarily from each other card, even in due order from The Fool unto the Ten of Coins.
Then, when thou know’st the Wheel of Destiny complete, may’st thou perceive THAT Will which moved it first. [There is no first or last.]
And lo! Thou art past through the Abyss.
– The Book of Lies
Tarot. Love it.