Can the tarot survive the revolution?

Guest post shared by Danielle.

All of us who love the tarot are used to various slams against it, from the notion that it’s scientifically nonsense to the claim that it’s linked to the devil.

There are even critiques from the ‘inside’, primarily the acknowledgement that the standard 78-card RWS/Thoth/Visconti tarot has a troubling history of racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism (to name just a few nasty -isms) in terms of imagery. The Little Red Tarot community, for me, is wonderful precisely because of this awareness and the communal intention to critique this framework and explore alternatives.

What is of concern to me here is the structure of the tarot itself: how historically it came to be, and the ways in which that structure might be irrevocably tied to its historical origins (the values of which were patriarchy, hierarchy, racism, and Enlightenment ideals). Can the master’s tools ever be used to dismantle the master’s house? Can the tarot survive the revolution and, perhaps more to the point, why do we spend so much time and energy to ‘fix’ it in the first place?**

**To be clear, I follow the scholarship of Michael Dummett regarding the origin of the tarot, which means I don’t believe that numerology or archetypes (or even suits the way we ascribe the elements to them these days) were aspects the original creators of the cards had in mind, nor was the tarot designed to be anything more than a trump-taking playing card game. I understand and appreciate that many will disagree with this perspective – and a difference of opinion may render some of my points moot in their eyes. However, I believe the main idea of the essay can be food for thought regardless of one’s belief concerning history.

As Marshal MacLuhan declared, “The medium is the message.” That is, we should not merely be critiquing the kinds of messages we send to each other using this or that medium (e.g., “Television show X is sexist”), but rather we should be critiquing the medium itself first (e.g., “What are the values built into the tool of television itself that we necessarily take up when we engage with it?”).

Tools are never value-neutral. They don’t provide us with a blank slate to do whatever we wish, because tools actively shape the way we communicate and understand the world.

In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus, the Egyptian God of writing, Thoth (the same Thoth of Crowley’s tarot), is put to task for his creation.

Plato’s concern is that writing tricks us into believing that knowledge can be gained by reading, when in reality true wisdom is something that

(1) is deeply contextual, tied to history, place, culture, and time (whereas writing appears to be able to speak to everyone, for all time, as long as one is literate), and

(2) requires one to spend a great deal of time thinking through, internalizing, and living information in order for it to turn into true knowledge and, eventually, wisdom (whereas you open a book and think you’ve learned something immediately after reading the words).

Plato, following his teacher Socrates, also argues that all real knowledge is dialectic: without the back-and-forth of dialogue, conversation and debate, wisdom can never emerge. Books seem to be speaking, but there is never any conversation possible with them.

Contemporary philosopher David Abram goes even further, arguing in The Spell of the Sensuous that the invention of reading and writing led to the silencing of the natural world, as literate cultures grew to believe humans were the only ones who write – and thus think – and were therefore the only creatures that mattered morally in the world.

Thus, not only were the concepts of information and knowledge collapsed into one, but our actual perception of and engagement with the world changed with the invention of literacy. Might the tarot, as a tool, also negatively shape our understanding of the world?

Some believe that the tarot contains universal archetypes that transcend culture and time.

But what appears to be a universal archetype, such as an earth deity, is always actually relative to each specific culture in distinct ways – nearly untranslatable in its complexity, history, place, culture, time, and context. Even if there were something ‘universal’ about the figures in question, once the context that surrounds the archetype changes, the meaning changes and we get an entirely new concept.

Furthermore, the Jungian/Campbell archetype approach is worrisome as well, because some archetypes are themselves morally problematic (reinforcing gender, hierarchy, heteronormativity, etc). Even if we are to champion the concept of the archetype, why does the tarot have the particular archetypes/concepts it does and not others? What is missing? What if some archetypes-as-concepts conflict with other concepts we might wish to include?

For example, as an anarchist, I believe it is dangerous to think that the hierarchical structures we see in the standard tarot cards are essential or important. While our lives do of course concern power struggles, for me it is about understanding that this isn’t normal, natural, or inevitable – just like knowing that while we currently have gender concepts that structure our lives, they aren’t necessarily going to be around forever. But if we take the tarot to contain eternal truths, then representations of hierarchy will make hierarchy seem unavoidable in our lives. Re-naming a few cards will not erase this underlying structure.

Can the assumption of metaphysical universals (such as eternal archetypes) exist alongside an acknowledgment that our identities are specific and radically unique?

We might have to choose. There’s no shame in recognizing that the tarot has its limits, because limits are inevitable and can even be wonderful. Limits make things particular in the world, the way you are you and I am me. Perhaps we need to acknowledge the limits of archetypal concepts and figure out if the particular kinds of limits the tarot has built-in make it impossible for the medium to be a truly moral project in any context.

The tarot can never be divorced from its origins and history – one that is inherently white, male, upper-class, Catholic, heterosexual, and European.

I can change the image of the Emperor, but why am I interested in the concept of an emperor at all? I can alter the way the Fool is portrayed, but this ignores the fact that even the idea of ‘the Fool’s journey’ comes from a particular worldview with a particular agenda – in this case, one that reinforces Liberal ideas of an isolated individual self who must face the world alone. Why is the story of the tarot the story of the Fool and not, say, the journey of a community? Indeed, the neoliberalism built into the tarot shows itself in insidious ways.

The way most of us even approach ‘a tarot reading’ is with this mindset: one single person does the reading for one single ‘customer’ to talk about that one single person’s life. That life will involve moments of overlap with other people – as questions of love, work, health, etc always do. But this overlap is seen as radically individual people coming together for mutual interest with other radically individual people – like the social contract theory that grew out of the European Enlightenment and structures our current political life.

The question then is, even if we find these concepts interesting or helpful when we do readings, are they really the best available, the most important, the most relevant for the particular person for whom we’re reading?

One cannot really give an anarchic communitarian radical-feminist reading, for instance, with the tarot. And it’s not a matter of needing to ‘rehabilitate’ the images or stories. It’s a matter of the structure and history of the tarot itself.

As cultural critic Neil Postman was fond of saying, smoke signals as a communication medium are excellent for conveying certain sorts of ideas and messages, but they cannot be used to write sonnets. It’s not a matter of ‘rehabilitating’ the smoke signal so that it can better express poetry. It’s that the underlying tool itself simply cannot support that sort of discourse.

If it turns out that to be human is not to be a radically isolated individual but to be the point of overlap of all of my communally enmeshed roles and relationships – and if I come to accept this ontology of the self as true – there is no way for me to express this through the tarot. It would be like trying to form an iambic pentameter couplet with smoke.

Renaming cards only does so much if we’re still fundamentally adhering to the RWS/Crowley 78-card format..

..because those histories, specific images, and original names are what the tarot is, and so those images and words are in essence still there, just under the surface, still influencing one’s readings. As Jacques Derrida would say, an erasure necessarily leaves a trace of what has been erased. And this trace is often the part of the text that is most meaningful.

For example, some people today want to repurpose the concept of ‘beauty’ to encompass the dis- or differently-abled, all body shapes and sizes, the queer, etc, which seems at first glance to be a noble task. Perhaps it is.

But perhaps, more importantly, we need first to ask why we are bothering to ‘save’ the concept of beauty at all. Perhaps, since it’s been tied to a history of power used to abuse women and others, it is best simply to stop caring about beauty as a concept at all. While each of us will always find some people and things more attractive or pleasing than others, it is not clear that ‘beauty’ is necessary to describe or explain such experiences. What if we stop attempting to take control of the game of beauty and refuse to play the game altogether? What would we gain and what would we lose by such an act?

Why, when cartomancy can take literally infinite forms, do many of us stick so closely to the tarot? Is there really anything so special about this particular format (especially given that the tarot was originally just a playing card game)? Why have oracle cards never matched the popularity of the Visconti/RWS/Thoth tarot?

So far my line of argument directs us to having to abandon the tarot if we truly want to move forward into a revolutionary, inclusive future.

But let’s give tarot a final fair shake here and speak of the personal. As a (once-Wiccan, now-secular) tarot reader for more than twenty years, I’ve had literally nothing but positive experiences. I’ve seen time and again how helpful the tarot can be to others, how deeply meaningful and insightful a reading can be. It is a constant reminder to me not to judge others as shallow or uninteresting. Everyone has their own life, struggles, and dreams. Tarot reading is fun, too – and a wonderful way to get to know a stranger at a party.

So why haven’t I switched to another kind of card reading? Because I’ve never come across an oracle deck that equals the impact of the tarot – but I also admit I haven’t tried very hard. The arguments I’m making in this essay are more cerebral than deeply emotionally felt; and yet I can’t refute any of them, which strikes me as troubling.

All I can do in the face of such critiques is to clutch my cards hard and exclaim, “But…but.. I LIKE the tarot!!”

Especially for white folks such as myself, there is the issue of having apparently very little culture to hold on to. The tarot’s age and history are partly what draws so many of us to it – the idea that it connects us to a past and to all the other tarot readers that have gone before. Another reason for why we keep the tarot around is that it is, quite simply, there for us to use.

It is really, truly hard to come up with new tools. Culture is not something we can create out of thin air without precedent or influence from what surrounds us, and this is precisely why revolutionary thinking and being in general is so difficult. If we want card reading as part of our lives, how do we forget the only examples we’ve ever had access to and create a brand new approach without any ties to them?

The simple answer is: we can’t. We can’t easily turn our backs on the tarot – or anything in our culture that has seemed to provide insight, meaning, value, help, and connection to others despite the equally real faults that may come along with it. The key is not letting our tastes dictate our ethics.

One thing to consider is whether or not the positive effects of tarot are unique to tarot. Is it impossible to achieve the same or similar results with a different tool? Can there be other, equally satisfying forms of cartomancy (or whatever we use the tarot for) that don’t have the problems of the tarot? What is essential to the tarot to make it tarot – if we want to continue to care about tarot and not just oracles?  What are its moral virtues and can they overcome its historical vices?

I honestly don’t know if the tarot survives the revolution.

I think we find out by asking tough questions such as these together, considering – and testing out – the alternatives, and waiting to see how the tarot changes (or doesn’t) when we seek to integrate it into truly serviceable, moral communities. For radicals, there can be no tools or ideas that go unchallenged, even the ones that are closest to our hearts.

The tarot is a tool that might offer help to ourselves and others, but it is not the only tool available to us, and no doubt we can do good work without it. At the very least, being mindful of these issues will help us use the tarot within its limits and help prevent us from thinking it can do more than it really can.

About the author
Danielle is a tarot reader and collector living in Chicago, IL.

Decks featured: William Blake Tarot, Linweave Tarot, The Mythic Tarot, Thoth Tarot, Medieval Tarot, Hermetic Tarot, Rider-Waite-Smith, Earthbound Oracle, and Belline Oracle

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  1. Miranda says:

    A beautifully written piece. I’d love to discuss it with you over supper. I’d just like to point out that if we are not to be described as “. . . radically isolated individual(s)”, but as “the point of overlap of all of my communally enmeshed roles and relationships”, then it seems to question the whole notion of individual responsibility. Is individual actualization really a neo-liberal construct? I surely am a product of my culture, community, experiences – but I am not the less an individual. And, for me, the Tarot provides a way to understand that, as an individual, I am subject to all the same internal and external forces that affect every other individual – regardless of time and place. Loss, grief, jealousy, love and denial are universal. That’s why we can watch a Greek play, listen to Senegalese music, read a Shakespearean sonnet and see a Japanese kabuki play or a Hollywood movie – and laugh, cry and share our emotions with others we have never met. That’s how Tarot works for individuals and communities and that’s why is speaks for all of us.

    • gangewifre says:

      Just popping in to mention the work of Paula Gunn Allen, who has done some superb writing on Individualism vs Collectivism (or other modes of being & relating). She is an Indigenous womxn & has spoken to the lived philosophy of Individualism as a construct of colonialism & capitalism (which are intrinsically linked). Collectivism does not absolve a person of individual responsibility or self-autonomy; rather, it reframes these concepts, and what they mean within a collectivist approach vs and individualist one. Her book “Spider Women’s Granddaughters” is an anthology she edited I recommend that goes into some of this! 🙂

  2. Beth says:

    I’m really, really here for this kind of discussion Danielle, thank you so much for sharing this, you’ve given me loads to think about!

    Personally I do believe the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house…but I don’t feel that the tarot is one of the master’s tools. As you suggest, I’m one who who feels that the archetypes go way beyond their very limiting depictions in traditional decks like the RWS, they speak to a really ‘connected’ part of me. So for example you ask ‘why are we interested in an Emperor at all?’ – I’m not especially interested in actual Emperors, but this archetype sure as heck shows up in my life whether I like it or not (as my Dad, as the patriarchy, as me creating healthy boundaries, as all kinds of things) – so I do need it to be in the deck. The card holds the energy and characteristics of the archetype, and the archetype is universal, way beyond the ownership of any master. Similarly the Fool – this does not have to represent an individual and many times I’ve seen this card represent the start of a collective journey.

    What I feel like I’m doing in my own tarot practice is reclaiming those archetypes, getting the Hierophant out of that papal robe and working out what it really means to channel ancestral wisdom, getting the armour off the charioteer and talking about what it really takes to achieve your goals, etc. So for me it is possible to give a feminist or anarchist reading (even with a deck like the RWS – though it’s visually easier with a radical version!)

    But that’s just off the cuff reading this… basically you’ve totally messed with my head now and I have to go think about it a lot and consider all of my life choices and business! 😉

    • Michael says:

      Same! Beautifully written and presented, but definitely more thought needed on my end. I’m of the Jungian archetypal school of thought, for the most part, and believe that while some of the key ones (like many key Tarot representations) reflect the patriarchal influence of their times, the archetypes themselves are not created by individuals but by the collective unconscious based on what it either needs at the time, or what it can best use to convey “messages” to the conscious mind. Therefore, over vast amounts of time (I think) new archetypes will emerge spontaneously, and more traditional ones will be warped and worn smooth as the rivers of time and experience help the Unconscious better understand itself. How much these may reflect the times themselves, be they patriarchal, heteronormative, or otherwise, will be incidental to the possible interpretations available while still informing the media in which they’re delivered. All is in the lens.

      That’s just off the cuff, too, so may be a bit rambl-y. Thanks for all the mind-fodder, and for providing it so eloquently.

  3. Nyna says:

    This is really interesting! I agree with a lot of it, but I would like to suggest that one strength tarot has that oracle decks often don’t is that the tarot works narratively — what looks hierarchical is sometimes just story-telling. Oracle decks tend to isolate concepts, such as “grief” or “healing”, which does maybe help us connect to those ideas without the cultural baggage attached — but it also means we lose context. The fact that the tarot is cyclical, and tells a series of stories — from ace of cups to ten of cups, from the fool to the world — is the whole reason it resonates. Oracles are a very different tool.

    • Beth says:

      I agree I do like oracle decks but rarely use them for myself, preferring tarot for this narrative quality. I also find that in using the deck personally, I add to its stories, so mine get projected onto and then woven into (and even completely replacing) the stories presented by a traditional deck.

  4. Germ says:

    A fantastic piece, and something I struggled with while making my own deck. Ultimately, I defaulted to standard Smith-Waite names for the cards because it would destroy the purpose of my deck if what one learned from it was not translatable to other tarot decks… which in and of itself is troubling.

    I think there are perhaps two things that make the tarot hard to let go of, and give it a value unique from that of oracle (apart from issues of history and culture that you put so well). The first is structure. I feel that the stories tarot can tell are, in a way, more complex, because of its relatively stronger structure, and in most cases, more cards than oracle decks. The second is that as much as we need to foster more of a sense of interconnectedness and community in the way we live our lives, the reality is that each of us live “alone” inside our minds. So a more individualistically focused tool will always have a certain appeal to us. We will always seek to see ourselves and our unique lives reflected in some way.

    Will the traditional tarot survive the revolution? A part of me isn’t sure if I want it to or not. But an equally big part of me hopes that, if necessary, we can take the ashes of it and make a better tool with similar draws. Something structured, that tells us stories of our lives. And perhaps something entirely new that can also tell us stories of our community in a way tarot and tarot-esque decks never will.

  5. Hmm… Maybe as a medium cartomancy will advance past Tarot but retain some of Tarot’s storytelling possibilities. Imagine a deck of cards that show different archetypes – but still strong, recognizable images – that can be placed in any order, or are numbered to suggest a linear story. Like, if the Tarot as we know it tells a kind of fairy tale, maybe there could be a deck that tells a Coming Out story (“The Big City” as a place that’s an archetype, “The Queen” as a person that’s an archetype).

  6. Graham says:

    Great article, that’s a lot to think about!

    I suppose I consider, why should these particular tools survive the revolution? If they, as archetypes seen in a particular society, hold cultural use and relevance, then they are useful tools. Once they become obsolete and/or describe archetypes that don’t make a lot of sense anymore, then they need to be changed or done away with.

    I agree with one of Beth’s comments above about reclaiming the archetypes in the tarot. I know I, for one, have a personal relationship with card meanings that speak my own private symbolic language, as I ultimately imagine most readers do. This, I think, is the slow revolution that the tarot undergoes. And this is how tarot readings are most successful anyway, I believe.

    Still, context of course does matter. And there are times I do readings that the archetypes completely don’t make sense or are limiting. In those cases, I personally don’t feel the need to push the tarot to work, so I put it aside and throw out the proverbial tool. Sometimes I even pick up playing cards and read with them, or make an ad-hoc oracle deck with index cards. The specific tool, in this case the tarot deck, is only useful as long as it’s meanings work with you. There’s no particular magic beyond that.

    Seriously, great article. Thanks for sharing.

  7. “Can the assumption of metaphysical universals (such as eternal archetypes) exist alongside an acknowledgment that our identities are specific and radically unique?”

    What intially strikes me with this questions is that it’s a foundational piece of ‘logic’ in multiple Eastern religions and philosophies. The ‘all connected and also all unique’ paradox does not ring illogical globally, so maybe part of the reason it’s difficult to answer these tarot revolution questions is that they are coming from a framework of mostly Western thought. If we choose to experiment with the belief that these archetypes are universal, it makes sense to me to expand the frame for questions globally (since the globe is our little human universe).

    I also love that you bring up Plato’s idea that “all knowledge is dialectic”, because I totally think this applies to tarot.

    I see folks looking for the ~origins~ of tarot and the ~original~ meanings of the cards, and I kind of see what I’ll call a ‘cosmic joke’, a joke that ontologically funny. I think tarot holds the ‘knowledge’ is does because of the dialectic process it’s been through over the last few centuries. Historians have noted the different cultures and mystery schools and tarot bounced around and how different decks and deck styles influenced other, but the historians kind of miss the fact that ~the bouncing and influencing~ was the dialectic development the tarot.

    I also think the tarot meets Plato’s criteria for “true wisdom”.

    “(1) is deeply contextual, tied to history, place, culture, and time (whereas writing appears to be able to speak to everyone, for all time, as long as one is literate)”
    Well, we keep ‘changing’ the card meanings – and not willy-nilly. They’re contextually updated to resonate with current history, place, culture, etc. The card meanings evolve with us. When I pull the Emperor, I see an organizing principle or an initiating principle.

    “(2) requires one to spend a great deal of time thinking through, internalizing, and living information in order for it to turn into true knowledge and, eventually, wisdom (whereas you open a book and think you’ve learned something immediately after reading the words)”
    This is why we’re always encouraged to go live or act out something we learned in a tarot reading before getting another reading, especially for the same topic. This idea of reflection, which is rooted in wisdom, is also rooted in tarot. This is also why the most popular tarot cards are ones featuring full images of ~scenes~, of people having experiences. Pamela Coleman-Smith channeled the abstract energy of each card and then illustrated them as everyday human experiences – all the easier for us to go forth and live the information tarot provides us to the fullest.

    I also want to say that loooooove this post. I love how you took the challenge to take a step back and critique a practice you love and often embody, to place a critical eye on something you love while making darn sure you leave room for answers you might not want to hear. I see here a very round-about way to affirming some core belief (because this is basically how I go about it too), and by golly, I think it’s beautiful.

    Thank you!!!

  8. Jessica says:

    Nthing the praise for this as a thought-provoking and very good read.

    A couple scattered thoughts:

    1) One of the reasons why I, personally, have learned more about tarot cards than oracle cards is that “tarot cards” was an easier concept to start out with than “oracle cards.” As in, it was easier to look for and get information on tarot than on oracle cards (which I’m still not really familiar with — after I finish this comment I’m going to read Beth’s FAQ. And it seems to me that the vagueness (to me) of the concept of “oracle cards” has both advantages and disadvantages for your argument. The advantage is that the oracle deck might not have to have hierarchies, or individual stories, or emphasize the primacy of the human over the non-human, even; an oracle deck could be entirely re-fashioned. The disadvantage is that, having done so, the deck would be just that deck, alone — it would not have the known history and agreed-upon symbols of the tarot deck. Which is to say, whatever the tarot deck’s relationship to symbolism, the act of communicating about the tarot deck is communal and much more widespread. To step away from the tarot deck is to step away from that aspect of community, which would then have to be rebuilt.

    2) I’m mulling over what it means to say that the history of tarot is “inherently white, male, upper-class, Catholic, heterosexual, and European.” I haven’t read the work of Dummett et al., but if the tarot did originate in Renaissance Italy, then we’re talking about an era which would not have understood “white” or “European” at all (and “Catholic” would have meant something a bit different; and I’m out of my depth here, but if the card-players of 14th century Italy were the kind of people Boccaccio depicts in his Decameron, then “upper-class” fits but “heterosexual”… maybe not so firmly). There’s maybe a larger discussion to be had here about what it means for history to be “inherent”: is tarot potentially unredeemable because of its history? If tarot is used by some authors to propagate Orientalism and destructive Othering of the Romany (sic), and then by others to promote acceptance of queerness and social justice, which iteration is more important? (Or to put this in the context of the Lorde quote: are they “the master’s tools” because they belong to the master? If they leave the master’s hands, are they still the master’s tools? Or are they the master’s tools because they had once been the property of the master?)

  9. Allison says:

    So interesting! I’ve been slightly obsessing over the heroes journey and whether it isn’t just a product of an era but where the hell are all the other narratives, and this post has given me another angle on that investigation. So good – thanks.

  10. Danielle says:

    Thanks everyone for your responses! I’m being quiet since I was able to say my piece through the essay and don’t want to take up more space but I wanted to make it clear I’m reading the reactions. I’ll spend time thinking through what you all have had to say, I appreciate you all for taking it seriously. 🙂

      • Danielle says:

        Hi Gangewifre,
        I’m something of a luddite so I have no real online presence– this is my first essay published online and the only essay I’ve written on tarot. But thanks so much for your interest! Your own website looks great–I’m a former psychologist and really admire the mad pride movement, so glad that movement is taking off! 🙂

  11. Akiva says:

    This is an interesting perspective, but I don’t think it’s an exceptional situation—quite the opposite.

    I’m a white (European-descended) Jew, so I do have an ancestral ethnoreligious culture I am connected to, where many non-Jewish white people talk about a sense of cultural missingness. And leftist Jews have the exact same debates. Just because it’s ours and we are pressured to give it up to attain whiteness in the US does not mean that it is inherently revolutionary. I’m passionate about Jewish culture, and yet big parts of it are patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, racist, ableist, xenophobic, etc. etc. etc.

    Take any culture that’s been developed and passed between thousands of years and millions of people: every part of it is also tainted. Denying that risks wandering into “noble savage” territory.

    You can throw everything out and attempt to forge a shiny new “perfect” culture, but isn’t that what capitalism, whiteness, and assimilation want us to do? Or you can hold on to the “old ways,” at the risk of fetishizing nostalgia and clinging to the harmful parts of the tradition’s foundations….

    As usual, a binary is a false choice. Just because it’s imperfect doesn’t mean it should be trashed, but just because parts of it are valuable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be deeply criticized.

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