Five Tarot Experts Explain How Tarot Works

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Today I am pleased and humbled to share with you thoughts from five of my favorite tarot friends – some of the smartest, most insightful and interesting people I know currently working with the cards.

I often toy with answers to the question “How does tarot work?”

I have a response to that question on my FAQ page, but it’s a thought process that continues to evolve for me as I grow and work with the cards.

I extended the question, with a bit more detail, to the following five, and they were kind enough to share their thoughts with us here.

Since this is a long post, I’ve created a link to each reader (in alphabetical order) and their response, with bios that the readers provide from their various online homes.

Enjoy!

Camelia Elias

I was born in Arad, Romania, in 1968. I came to Denmark in 1990, and since then I have embarked on a reading career.

So I consider myself a reader. I read for a living. I am a professor of literature at Roskilde University, and a cartomancer. Here’s a short version in poetic form: I’m Available.

In the academic world my credentials are two doctorates and a tenured professorship for my works in poetics.

In the cartomantic world my credentials are exclamation marks: ‘No shit! You’re always right!’

Speaking cartomancy, in my own view, I’m not the one who is right, as I hardly ever know the people who come to me for a consultation, but the cards are, because they address the people’s contexts and questions directly and head on, which they themselves identify with and relate to via visual analogy. The best kind.

Enrique Enriquez

wor(dp)lay is what you do before words fuck you

Miguel Marques

A former musician, a practising chemist. Ever since a child Miguel Marques was attracted by tarot and magick. As he grew up, he found comics and with it, the language of images. Miguel Marques started his tarot studies in 2002, because, well… what else would you do with a library of images that had the potential to tell every story in the whole world and you had the time to start reading them? Mostly self-taught, he ended up developing his own personal relationship with the cards and has a practice in his home city of Oporto, Portugal.

Paul Nagy

Rev. Paul Nagy brings a lifetime of study and experience to his tarot readings and spiritual friendship ministry. See his bio for background

Rebecca Schoenecker

I am a musician, artist, and tarot reader who believes in magic. Magic is transformation. Magic connects us with other worlds. Magic gives us a way to see in a way we haven’t before.

Since the beginning of time, we have been seeking to understand the mysterious world around us. We drew on cave walls to honor and summon animal spirits for the hunt. We told stories and created mythologies to help preserve traditions, and to commune with the gods and goddesses on the other side. We believed the moon rose from the underworld and descended back there at night, having no other way to explain it.

I live in this world of ancient mysteries, seeking to keep the old ways alive. I am a storyteller, tarot reader, and creator steeped in a world of mysticism, traveling between realms both old and new. I summon angels, banshees, spirits, and guides when I work. I traverse the spheres to share what is normally hidden from view. The visions I have offer up new sight.


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Camelia Elias
Roskilde, Denmark

Camelia Elias: The Art of Reading
Taroflexions

What source, if any, do you attribute as the force behind the specific cards that are turned over in a reading/the answers that emerge from the cards? Ie, what or who “causes” those particular cards to emerge, and how do you explain the cards’ unique ability to answer each question accurately?

I’ll answer this question by making reference to two perceptions and positions we adopt when we approach the cards, either as readers or as seekers ourselves.

The first is related to dual perception and the second to nondual perception.

From the perspective of duality there’s the idea – physical and metaphysical – that there’s polarity in the world: The Sun and the Moon, Man and Woman, the above and the below. Much of what we call cartomancy comes from our concerns with planetary movements and the desire to read our fate in the stars: ‘Will she love me tonight?’ Fair enough.

In this perspective, if the cards ‘work’ precisely, that is to say they answer whatever question we might pose to them accurately, then they do so because we approach the cards from the position of ‘all things being equal’. If I get a divorce, when she stops loving me, then I want to know how I can equalize my losses, both emotional and financial. I want to know how I get inspiration from the stars, as it were, so that I may overcome the mess.

When the cards answer my question precisely, they do it because they address both the form of our concern and content. Most people, however, don’t make that distinction, and a lot leave the tarot parlor thinking that the cards have managed to address their particular concern at content level only. ‘This is really me the cards have spoken to’ many would swear, while thanking the reader profusely for her psychic insights. But I don’t get excited.

On my part as a reader, I can see just how the cards address a frame of unity not a fantasy of separation: me against my ex, me against the world, or me against my boss. If the cards give a clear answer related to any of our concerns, it’s because they go beyond such mechanisms of identification with identity and whatever clinging to identity brings along. The cards speak accurately not because they are identity-centered but because they are event-centered.

This brings me to my second point, the nondual perception, the perception that holds the idea that ‘all things being equal’ is not about fixing polarity and conflict as part of our efforts, but rather it’s about seeing what we call causality as part of unity and presence: I’m getting a divorce not because this other thing happened, but because divorce itself happens.

Most querents will have a hard time admitting to the reality that things happen simply because they happen and not because something else causes them to happen, and they will cling to making all sorts of identifications that have nothing to do with things happening.

In order to get this, you need to completely suspend your idea of the cards being about you and your situation, and see them more as being about events.

Incidentally, however, without these identifications with our conditions and situations – I’m in love, I got dumped, my boss hates me – the fortuneteller would be out of a job, but when we talk about the cards addressing our issues precisely, we must allow ourselves a second to contemplate the possibility that the reason why the cards are accurate is not because they have anything to do with us, but because they have a lot to do with us in context, with us framed by a series of ever changing events.

In this sense we never get to predict the future, as there are no temporal divisions beyond our own constructions and cultural labeling: past, present, and future. What we do when we predict, and what the cards respond to, is operate with an enlarged field of vision ruled by unity not separation.

The cards in this sense speak the truth accurately because they point to this enlarged field of vision. They are part of it already. The fortuneteller doesn’t look into the future; she looks into the expanded field of vision that encompasses the querent’s own blind spots, her question, and the reader’s interpretation, all happening at the same time.

‘But you predicted three months ago that this would happen, and it did happen,’ I have clients say to me in awe – which is nice – but I always insist that what I operate with is not belief that this or that will happen, but discovery of how I see this or that happen; we conveniently call this ‘the future’.

I find the force behind the cards precisely in this distinction between belief and discovery. Many people come to the fortuneteller and think that either they want to or must believe in the cards in order for the cards to ‘work’. All the while the cards work because people discover them. People get a glimpse into their own truths, awareness, and expanded fields of vision when they discover the cards in situ, and that is why the cards work.

The cards work because they are not separate from the questions asked to them. Nor are they separate from the reader interpreting them. The cards work simply because they happen to us. They happen to us exactly at the same time things happen to us.

When we go nodding in approval of what we see, the consistency of what we see as it aligns with our situations, what we nod at is this recognition that things happen to us. When we sit with the cards, we’re beyond language and mental constructs. We’re in eternity.


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Tintype photo credit: Geoffrey Berliner at the Penumbra Foundation

Enrique Enriquez
New York, New York

Facebook page
Tarology documentary
Amazon author page

What source, if any, do you attribute as the force behind the specific cards that are turned over in a reading/the answers that emerge from the cards? Ie, what or who “causes” those particular cards to emerge, and how do you explain the cards’ unique ability to answer each question accurately?

This morning I saw a French girl. We had been talking for a while about Le ChariotForce and Le Bateleur when the rest of the deck slipped off my hand and went to the floor. “Please! read to me the cards that fell facing up!”, she pleaded. La MorteLemperatriseLe Monde. Behind La MorteLestoille was hiding. “Did you do that on purpose? These cards tell my life!

The tarot doesn’t ‘work’. We make it work.


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Miguel Marques
Porto, Portugal

Tarot Maelstrom

What source, if any, do you attribute as the force behind the specific cards that are turned over in a reading/the answers that emerge from the cards? Ie, what or who “causes” those particular cards to emerge, and how do you explain the cards’ unique ability to answer each question accurately?

My first answer would be “we do”. Although there are various methods to arrange cards in a deck, cards are usually shuffled or spread out in a table for the querent to choose. So we decide when to stop shuffling; where to break the deck and in how many parts will we break it into; or which cards get picked from the table first.

In a sense, I like this answer. It is a simple, down to earth answer that doesn’t empower fate or the gods or whatever is out there. In a sense, we’re responsible for the direction our lives took up until the present moment and we will continue to build our lives, decision after decision; event after event. By recognizing our own hand in the way our lives have been build, we’re also acknowledging that we can change directions at any time and aim at a better way of living, whatever that means for each individual.

Extra-human forces aren’t really called for here. We have our lives, they have their existence and sometimes (or most times) they cross over one another. And inter-act. We might ask them for assistance in reaching a certain goal, but in the end, it is we that have to do the work if something is to be achieved.

So, for example, if your car breaks down on the highway, you might pray to all the gods of motion there are for assistance and they will probably bless you, but you still need to find a mechanic to help you fix your problem, because otherwise, you will continue with a broken car. When shuffling the deck or when picking cards from the table, it is we who decide when to stop shuffling. We decide which cards stay on top of the pile and which ones go below. And we do it with the cards face down, so as not to be influenced by what we see. Would we need to proceed like that if there was any external force influencing the order? Probably not, as it would make no difference, since we weren’t in control of the whole process of ordering the cards.

And this brings us to the second part of the question: if the ordering is random, how come the cards that emerge in the reading appear to answer each question accurately? Well, reading is about interpretation. What you see before you is a set of images which might be accompanied by some text. Those images usually describe a particular situation, but they don’t necessarily have to do that. Between these images is a space, a blank space that separates each card from the preceding and the next.

As a first approach, we look at the images and start to compare them to their neighbours. Seeing what is different and what isn’t. And filling in the gaps. And this will give us a story. A sequence of events as portrayed by the cards.

As Iain Sinclair once said, “put any two pictures together and you will have a story.” Now, when using cards for divination, any story will simply not do. It has to have meaning for the person asking the question. It has to relate to it.

The first thing we need in order to achieve this is to have a question. A starting point, if you like, that will lead us through the maze of all possible stories that particular combination of cards can tell us. To anchor us.

The second thing we need in order to achieve this is a point of entry. The image that we can most easily relate with the question or the context in which the question is inserted. This might be the first card, or it might be the last. It will most probably differ from reader to reader, even if they are looking at the same set of images.

From here, it is a matter of being aware. Aware of shapes and colours, of symbols and sequences. It is a matter of continuously asking yourself: “why is this image important to my reading?” “What does it show me that no other image could have shown?” Or just simply “why is it here?”

Some readers will probably tell you that living and life experience play an important role in understanding what it is that you see. While I wouldn’t argue with that, I think in the end, it is the querent who has to recognize the meaning of what is in the cards, not the reader.

The reader is there to solve the puzzle that the question arose and to translate, if you like, what is shown. To put it in a form that the querent can understand and use to address hir issues.

So, in answer to your second question, I would say that the cards’ ability to accurately answer each question depends not on the cards themselves, but on the capacity of the reader to extract meaning from what he sees and only from what he sees. Which might be why if you ask the same thing twice the cards that fall on the table might not be the same, but the answer has to be practically the same.


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Paul Nagy
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Tarot Hermeneutics: Exploring How We Create Meaning With Tarot

How does tarot work?

In my general practice I usually suggest that a person focus on an issue they have in mind but not to tell me what it is. I usually do not want to initially know what the client’s question is, as it may bias my interpretation of the cards. Even if they do not have a concern or question for the consultation, I suggest to them that their part in the reading is to listen to me about what I say about the cards, as it may seem relevant their own experience. Then when the random cards are chosen and revealed, I explain to them how the symbols work in the cards with one another. Usually with these explanations, the client is able put together how what is being said about the cards may relate to their issue.

I often do readings and never have any idea how the client makes sense of what I am saying to their issue. My job is just to explain what the cards show. If a client is unable to put the pieces together for themselves, I may then ask what their issue is. It may be they have conflicting issues and need some sorting out about their intentions, so they can relate to the cards displayed.

When a client asks me how the tarot works, I tell them I have two explanations: one explanation is mystical, and the other is scientific. Though I say I have two explanations, they are both the same.

The way tarot is played is as a cooperative story between the querent and the interpreter.

The mind is constructed to seek coherence in whatever it experiences. Human beings have an innate capacity to want to communicate to one another through and by symbols.

Language is the most universal and particular example of this species-specific will toward communication. People are born with an innate capacity to learn to speak, but the language we learn is particular to our community and can vary widely. English is not Chinese. So innately, language is a universal aspect of human nature, but practicallylanguage is limited by experience and cultural location that can substantively impede the shared magic of communication.

This innate capacity to communicate, self to others and others to self, is evident in many aspects of human experience. It is the capacity to make meaning with whatever the bricolage of experience happens to be. Dreams, artifacts, people, body parts, just about anything becomes a possibility for making meaning by symbols.

Symbols are always complex and ambivalent. The sign is an attempt to bring order to symbols by way of simplicity and minimizing inconsistency. To understand tarot as signs is like showing your collection of pinned and preserved butterflies in boxes. Symbols are butterflies flying around in the garden. Natural symbols, meaning the living images derived from our experience, are reproduced through our dreams to become the raw material, the natural backdrop of consciousness, that emerges within a sensate field. This saturated sensate field is where science, knowledge and divination evolve as stimulated by our desire.

Tarot is a technology of dream interpreting. Besides the necessary materials to create paper cards, the limited images on the tarot cards act like a kind of alphabet, in which all possible images are capable of becoming evident in their interpretation.

Likewise, the seventy-eight cards, when read with an eye toward inner dynamics of the images themselves, provide an unlimited story of human possibility, very much like any dream may broach any theme.

Reading tarot is not reading a language, it is reading in dream. It is reading with the direct experience of images-as-symbols in the supersaturated field significances: A veritable summer shower of possibilities. The natural setting for a tarot reading is within the garden arbor of communicating minds. What is being invoked is the capacity to dream and desire. It is the inchoate anticipation of marvelous possibility rather than the accounting for probabilities.

It is like the parlor game twenty questions. In the usual variant of the game, a person leaves the room and the remaining people decide on a thing or object that the person is to guess. When the person returns she can ask up to a maximum of twenty questions, receiving only “yes” or “no” answers to each question. Each question may narrow the scope of possibilities because it excludes alternatives. For instance, if the first question is, “Is it living?”, a yes answer excludes all things not living.

In another version, when the person leaves the room, the others, without telling her, agree not to agree on any given object or thing, but to pretend that they do. They must give consistent answers, however. Consequently, when the innocent interlocutor returns and asks, “Is it alive?” and the answer is given as yes, then all subsequent answers must be consistent with that the thing being guessed is a plant, and animal, or perhaps a microorganism.

A skilled player can narrow down the scope of possibilities easily within the twenty-questions limit; for instance, guessing that it is the rosebush outside the front door. Of course, that was not the goal when the game was begun. There was no goal, except that the game generated an answer itself, based on a consistent elimination of possibilities.

Divinatory tarot is an alternative version of this game in either of these two described variants, where the images on the cards suggest analogical or neutral responses in the querent as the interpreter discusses the levels of significance of the images and what they may refer to.

Each card then presents symbolic possibilities. The querent is checking off a variant of yes or no in her mind as the cards are turned and described.

It is not important for the interpreter to sense what aspects of the interpretation are assented to by the querent’s concern with her question. The cards point to the unknown object and their significance is constructed by discussion of the functions of how the images work. By analogy, the querent selects aspects that resemble the issue in her mind, discarding or ignoring elements that do not seem relevant. The mind cooperates by seeking relevance and congruity.

As any good tarot reader will tell you, even when the same cards appear on different occasions, no reading will ever be closely alike, because the field of the world we live in is one seamless whole.

The cards are mixed up and randomly arranged and selected. There are only 78 of them. We select a small set of possible combinations. Given the complexity of even this small set of variables, the possible combinations are astronomical when calculated. And even though we do not consciously know what cards we are about to take, this random selection is happening within the seamless, whole framework that includes itself, ourselves, and the motives for why we are consulting the tarot.

Our minds are selective to what we will pay attention to. So, what seemingly has no discernable connection is also included in our field of experience. Now it is merely time to discover the alternative story, if the tarot has one to tell. Who wishes to leave the room first?



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Rebecca Schoenecker
Chicago, Illinois

Rebecca Schoenecker
Laughing Eye, Weeping Eye Divination

What source, if any, do you attribute as the force behind the specific cards that are turned over in a reading/the answers that emerge from the cards? Ie, what or who “causes” those particular cards to emerge, and how do you explain the cards’ unique ability to answer each question accurately?

I believe in the force! One exists and we can tap into it at anytime when we read the cards or need general guidance. I bring a spiritual component to the tarot (and to my life), but not everyone does; you don’t need to be spiritual to read the cards. But you do have to believe in yourself, because you are what makes the cards come alive beyond rote memorization.

What makes a reading hit home beyond the card meanings, in my opinion, are two things: your energy, and your knowledge of the patterns within the cards. In terms of energy, I am going to explore this in a spiritual dimension, but let’s first talk about the patterns.

The world is made of cycles and patterns. Straight and simple. In our lives, we live in patterns. Patterns of behaviors, cycles of highs and lows, and moments that seem to repeat. How convenient is it then, that the tarot employs complex systems of pattern? Within the deck, there are typically four suits with fourteen cards each, and a fifth suit with twenty-two cards. So, there are sets of cards and numbers that form a basic pattern. Additionally, there are visual symbols such as figures, colors, and symbols that repeat throughout the deck.

Because I pay special attention to patterns, I normally like to read the tarot in groupings of two to five cards. This helps me identify sequences, numbers, or repeated images. Patterns in the cards may be simple or complex. I also think that my background as an artist helps me to read images and patterns. For example, I may notice a blue sky repeated in all of the cards, but anxious figures or scenes within the landscapes. This contrast is telling me that “blue skies abound,” but that the Querent is more worried than they need to be. I may also notice that many of the cards are from one suit in particular. So, an abundance of pentacle cards may suggest that even though the Querent is asking about love, they may be struggling at work. And because they are struggling at work, this will also be impacting their happiness, confidence, and therefore their ability to meet someone. Or, if I see the number nine repeated (numerically, nine can indicate an ending) but reversed, and followed by an Ace (beginnings), this suggests the Querent is avoiding ending something and starting down a much needed new path. As you can see (hopefully!), there are an endless amount of patterns in the cards and each time I do a reading I try to clear my brain so that I am truly open to seeing the patterns. I think that anyone can learn this skill through time and practice, and it definitely helps make a reading accurate.

For me, there is also something more than just knowing the cards and seeing the patterns. Earlier, I mentioned this as “my energy” and that I would explore this in a spiritual context. When I read intuitively, I call this connecting to “Spirit.” For me, Spirit is an all-knowing energy, outside and inside of us. I also think of this as a collective energy where information and ideas are accessible to all. It is this energy that helps me know something that I would not otherwise know. This clairvoyant information may come to me as a phrase or word I hear, or an image in my mind’s eye. When I read tarot for someone, I connect to Spirit. Connecting to Spirit helps me bring an added component to the readings so that I am open to information from the universe at large.

In terms of what “causes” certain cards to emerge, I personally believe it’s the force (again I call it Spirit). But we can break this down even further if we think of the fact that everything has energy. The people I read for have different energies and life experiences and they bring these to the reading. The Querent is involved in the reading and they are bringing their energy to the cards. They do this physically. I have them shuffle the cards, cut the deck, or pull cards from a pile. So, the Querents are the ones arranging the cards into the correct order and creating the pattern that I then read.

If the person is not present I ask for Spirit to guide the reading and select the cards that align with the energy and needs of the person I am reading for. Sometimes it also helps to have the Querent visualize the cards being shuffled as if I am arranging them like puzzle pieces that describe their life’s picture. So even if they are not touching the cards physically, energetically they are still involved. Visualization and concentration (channeling energy into the deck) helps assure that the cards align in the best, and most accurate way.

While I don’t think you need a spiritual component to read the cards, for me I have found it to be helpful. The fact that most people believe something unexplainable happens only shows that there is something magical. I am often astounded and amazed by this work. It is this sense of awe that keeps me addicted to the tarot!

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4 comments

  1. […] Recently I have participated in a collective project where 5 Tarot readers have been asked to answer one question about how the tarot works. Shelly Ruelle of Sparrow Tarot has curated it. I offer here my own contribution, but I recommend that, for interesting variation, you read the whole report: 5 Tarot Experts Explain how the Tarot Works. […]

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