Materially and superficially, the Tarot appear as a set of images printed with ink onto slightly stiffened paper or card; to all sense and purposes, they appear as simple pieces of art. However, the Tarot is significantly more than just pretty pictures; they are a treasure house of images that express a profound connection to a mystery school that was centuries in the making. Elements hid within the Tarot reflect a truth that was old when the world was new. The school of Tarot emerged from an Occulture that was intent on creating a tool that would transform the lives and spiritual wellbeing of its users. They succeeded.
As a fledgling Tarot reader, I often felt out of my depth, isolated from my teachers or those who inspired me. Cut off from the guide books and the information therein that, my fallible memory failed to recall clearly and succinctly. With the eyes of the Querent upon me, I cannot begin to tell you how often my breath would catch in my chest, as pearls of sweat broke out on my forehead to glisten and betray my lack of confidence. Thankfully, most querents were patient and willing to allow a young person to simply have a go, and I am grateful to them for their tenacity and encouragement during my studies. And yet, I often felt so alone in my quest to understand and move into deep relationship with the cards.
That is, until one fateful day when I was to meet the most influential person in my magical life. Her name was Myfanwy Davies, and she hailed from the green valleys of South Wales. For decades she had resided in the North Wales coastal town of Rhyl. She was profoundly crippled by consequence of a road traffic accident; she wore glasses as thick as milk bottle bottles, and I would jest that she could still see Haley's Comet through them things. Short in stature yet huge in heart and magic, she told of me something inherent within the Tarot that I had yet to consider or contemplate—the Spirit within the Tarot.
Aleister Crowley explored this spiritual principle hid within the Tarot in his seminal work The Book of Thoth. In it he discusses the animistic principle held within the cards and stated that the cards themselves are living beings. They appear on the surface of to the untrained eye as inert and stationary and yet they crackle with a life-force and a vitality that is accessible to any student or adept of the Tarot. It was of this that my teacher Myfanwy referred to and then encouraged me to expand on that thought and explore the nature of the Tarot as a landscape of living, spiritual entities. My relationship with the cards were never to be the same again.
It is easy for us to consider that the nature of consciousness only applies to that which we consider as kin or near-kin, fellow humans, our pets, other animals, trees and rocks. We can identify the consciousness in others because we may share a similarity of awareness. We may not immediately consider this when we look at a deck of cards, and yet we would be foolhardy—as students of the occult sciences—to dismiss that the cards themselves reflect a consciousness. As I learnt that day, all of those years ago, as the western winds brought hailstones to beat at Myfanwy's windows: the Tarot are pictorial representations of the natural forces of the universe, and they contain within them the very principle of existence and all of its glorious expressions.
Tarot functions through the occult hypothesis that consciousness is not local, and it is not confined to specific points in space, or places like our brains. But in turn, our brains coalesce that consciousness, like a receiver, into a moment in time, and like the opening of a book and the turning of its pages, consciousness reveals itself in the here and now. This is precisely what the Tarot does: it opens the book of consciousness and coalesces material and information relevant to a precise moment in time (the reading), and reveals it.
It is able to do this because of the immense psychic energy that went into its creation.
In truth, each time you take to your decks, you are accessing a storehouse of wisdom that is more than the sum totality of its creators. For instance, if your deck is one inspired by the Rider-Waite-Smith system, a plethora of energies and influences went into the making of that tradition. From the Kabbala to the complexities and magical endeavours of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, to the profoundly powerful images of Pamela Colman-Smith, to every student and reader of that particular system. All have fed and nurtured a mystery school that is complete in 78 branches of wisdom. This magical heritage gave breath and life to the thought-forms that would eventually rise as living beings in their own right, as the spirit within the Tarot.
If your deck is inspired by the Rider-Waite-Smith system but has another overlay, take for instance my own Celtic Tarot. I have retained the primary symbology and system of the Rider-Waite-Smith but overlaid it with the magic of Celtic mythology. This adds another spiritual dimension to the cards; it does not detract from what is already present in the symbols themselves. By proxy of this, using a modern deck connects you to its creator and artist and the spiritual work that was necessary for them to perform to bring their decks into being.
Tarot is revealed to both reader and querent simultaneously, as each card is turned the spirit within that card sings of its heritage and the connection it has to all that has gone before it. The reader interprets the meaning of the card based on its position or value within a spread, and reveals this vocally to the querent. The most effective of readers are those who can sense and work with the spirits that inhabit their decks.
With this in mind, when one takes to a deck, one is in actuality never alone, for the spiritual beings that inhabit the Tarot are your constant guides to their revelation and inspiration. I sit here now, on a night not dissimilar to that which I enjoyed decades ago, the winds blow and hailstones stammer at my window demanding attention. But in my office, I am not alone, I have a number of decks, too many to admit to, and I sense their companionship. For within these decks are the wonders of the universe and of all life and living, of things seen and unseen and things betwixt and between sense and sensibility. In them are the efforts of occultists and artists and magicians long since dead, the mighty ones of the Tarot. It is the company of Tarot that I share this space with, and the comfort and stability that they offer my adventures into the magical world of Tarot.
Next time I will share some of my techniques for accessing the spirit within the Tarot.
Until then, fare thee well, and keep reading.
Kristoffer Hughes (Wales) is Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order, a Mount Haemus Scholar, and a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. He is a teacher, writer, workshop leader, and guest speaker at Pagan conferences, ...