A guest post shared by Benebell Wen.
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Identity politics in tarot: the tarot practitioner be mindful
Image Credit: CBD Tarot de Marseille by Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov, www.cbdtarot.com
Traditional tarot interpretation attributes a commanding, domineering energy to the Kings of the court and a nurturing, supportive energy to the Queens. Pages, which in a traditional court are ranked below Knights, are often assigned to female individuals while the Knights are assigned to males. Why? These constructs in tarot have persisted through the last century or so, even though society (well, most of us at least) has evolved beyond such patriarchal constructs.
And when I say “most of us,” I actually mean most of us tarot practitioners.
See, interestingly enough, feminists (of all genders) tend to be more open-minded to tarot and are some of tarot’s greatest supporters. Likewise, the LGBT community has been some of tarot’s most loyal practitioners. Diasporic Africans, South Americans, the Chinese, and Indians have contributed profoundly to the globalization and expansion of tarot as a practice.
Tarot owes a lot to these communities of color for spreading the concept of tarot far and wide.
So has the tarot community returned that favor in kind to feminists, LGBT, and people of color?
I want to confess a story I am not proud of. While writing court card entries in the Cyclopedia section of Holistic Tarot, I initially wrote that the appearance of a Queen in a man’s reading about love can indicate his romantic prospect and the appearance of a King in a woman’s reading about love can indicate her romantic prospect, or something to that effect.
Fortunately, my amazing editor at North Atlantic Books had a question for me. What would the appearance of a Queen in a woman’s reading about love indicate? What if a woman was seeking a woman and not a man or a man was seeking a man, not a woman? I was aghast at my own oversight and of course, corrected the error and revised my manuscript immediately so that I wouldn’t look like a complete asshole.
Here’s the thing. What if I didn’t have an amazing editor at North Atlantic Books?
In working with various free tarot reading networks and mentoring aspiring tarot readers at these networks, sometimes I come across inadvertent assumptions of heterosexuality. We assume that a seeker who identifies as female putting in a reading request about love and romantic prospects must be seeking a male partner, and sometimes, inexperienced tarot readers accidentally respond with references to “he.”
Traditional tarot interpretation often assigns blond hair and blue eyes and generally light complexions to the Wands and Cups, and brown hair, dark colored eyes, and olive complexions to Swords and Pentacles. In a society that is mostly Caucasian with a mix of blonds, brunettes, redheads, green-eyed, blue-eyed, and hazel-eyed folk, such an interpretive framework can work quite well.
However, expanded globally, such a framework falls apart (unless we’re going to assign three-fourths of the world population to Swords and Pentacles?)
If a woman in Al-H?ar?q, Saudi Arabia asks about romantic prospects and sees the King of Cups in her spread, does that mean she will meet a dirty blond fellow with green eyes? Maybe, even if the reality of that is statistically improbable. Or does a tarot reader conveniently skip the physical attributions and move on to the personality traits of Mr. King of Cups? This is why in my own practice, I prefer to go with astrological or elemental attributions for the courts instead of physical attributions.
What if that woman isn’t even seeking a Mr., but is looking romantically for a Ms.?
Who, then, is the King of Cups in her reading? Typically, for a cisgender heterosexual female asking about love in a tarot reading, the appearance of a King of Cups will often be read literally, as symbolizing a man in her life, a romantic prospect. If a female seeks a female and the King of Cups appears in the reading, how will that King of Cups be interpreted? Does a tarot practitioner change interpretive methodology based on the sexual identity of a seeker? Or do we practitioners trust that all these issues will be squared away by the magic of tarot, in advance, before the reading even begins? And how are transgender individuals represented in tarot? If the appearance of someone designated ‘male’ at birth and identifying as female is relevant to a particular seeker’s situation, which tarot card will appear in that reading to represent the transgender person?
While reading for an Asian female once, I noted a man in her life, a King of Pentacles, a real “Earthy” man, stable, capable of providing her with financial security, someone involved in business, finance, or real estate, someone great with investments and money, a financier or tycoon type, and she was pleased to hear all that.
“Wait, but is he Asian or white?” she asked.
The question stumped me. “I have no idea” was my reply. My intuition isn’t strong enough to make out race and ethnicity, I regret to say. Perhaps other tarot practitioners have better intuitions when it comes to such concerns. The incident raises a good question. Can the tarot discern race? Or is that up to an individual tarot reader’s intuition?
I am not here to answer these questions, only ask them. In the last decade we have seen amazing specialty decks such as the Gay Tarot by Antonella Platano and Lee Bursten, Son Tarot by Christopher Butler, the African American Tarot by Jamal R., the Chinese Tarot by Jui Guoliang, the Motherpeace Tarot by Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble, or the Daughters of the Moon Tarot by Ffiona Morgan meant specifically to address marginalized communities.
[Aside: Why are the two self-proclaimed feminist decks both circular in shape? Do we feminists not like quadrilaterals? I didn’t get that memo.]
The availability of such decks is great, but it doesn’t address the persistence of these issues when we’re reading with a standardized deck.
The Tarot Illuminati is one of the few Rider-Waite-Smith based decks that I feel is truly multicultural. The Goddess Tarot, which is mostly Rider-Waite-Smith influenced with some strong hints of Thoth, ranks the Princesses over the Princes and Queens over the Kings, per the accompanying little white booklet. Admittedly, the Thoth Tarot with its androgynous, abstractly-colored figures is better at identity inclusion and also less white-washed than the Rider-Waite-Smith.
Tarot practitioners must be mindful of how they read tarot
No matter which deck we use, we must be sensitive to the inherent patriarchal, white-washed, and heteronormative assumptions of the tarot deck we’re using and, as the practitioner, make sure our method of interpretation can override those assumptions.
About the author
BENEBELL WEN is the author of Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth (North Atlantic Books, January 2015).
Visit her website at www.benebellwen.com.