Can tarot cards be a mechanism for social change?

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It’s no secret that stories help us make sense of life and the world around us. As humans, we are storytellers who across cultures rely on storytelling through religious texts, parables, songs, novels, films and poems to understand our experiences, our emotions and our environments. As a tarot reader, I have always viewed tarot as a conscious, spiritual practice rooted in storytelling. The colors, figures and symbols in the images, while open to interpretation, are like narrative building blocks – each card in a series functioning like a chapter in a novel.

Photo by Kendrick Daye.

The origins of tarot are unclear (some historians refer to the oldest card game, the Visconti-Sforza deck, and its origins in late 14th or early 15th century Milan, while others have speculated about connections to ancient Egypt), but the cards seem to be more popular than ever today. In recent years, artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri has incorporated tarot motifs and archetypes into her designs for luxury fashion house Dior, the high fashion The Spring Summer 2021 Le Château du Tarot collection includes billowing robes, tailored trousers and capes, as well as luxurious Renaissance shapes inspired by the major arcana of the Visconti-Sforza deck such as The High Priestess, The Fool and Justice. . Last year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a vast retrospective on the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose sculptures and paintings are inspired in particular by the tarot. Podcasts like your magic with Michelle Tea, which often features celebrity guests, plus an exquisite new book from Taschen’s Esoteric Library the series further demonstrates the rise of tarot. Lynn Araujo, director of editorial and communications at leading tarot deck publisher US Games Systems, said FT last year that “the rise was even more dramatic during the pandemic. We’ve had to double many of our prints because they sell out so fast. Our time of unprecedented uncertainty seems to have sparked a rapid collective interest in tarot mythology.

For tarot reader, licensed social worker and author of Tarot for change, Jessica Dore, whose poetic musings and scholarly musings on tarot have become widely shared on social media, tarot is a practice rooted in the creation of meaning. Dore has no interest in using it as a tool to answer questions but sees tarot reading as an opportunity to complicate something rather than summarize it. The more Dore engaged in this approach, the more she realized that people didn’t necessarily want answers either – that there was perhaps something uniquely healing about the willingness to be questioned with the others.

woman sitting cross-legged on rocks
Jessica Dore. Photograph by Tara Bodin.

His way of reading is often greeted enthusiastically by patrons, but can make tarot purists uncomfortable, who interpret the cards in a more traditional way. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that it’s our right to take the symbols around us and give them meaning and tell that truth,” Dore says. “Otherwise, someone else is saying what the reality is. It’s really powerful to feel that you can participate in this process.

The Justice card in a deck called The Black Queer Tarot – a collaboration between artist and designer Kendrick Daye and artist, author and healer Justin Henry released in 2021 – illustrates the importance of the tarot’s ability to heal through this kind of world building. In keeping with Western heteronormative tradition, the Justice card in many card games is represented by a robed royal figure who sits confidently on a throne, holding a sword in one hand and balanced scales in the other. The map and its traditional symbols evoke the themes of fairness, responsibility, legal issues, responsibility and truth; or when the card comes out upside down, injustice, imbalance or dishonesty. In The Black Queer Tarot, the Justice card and its message are illustrated through an entirely different, intentionally designed image featuring a Black Trans Lives Matter protest. “The inversion of the Justice card in the guide speaks to something that I’ve noticed happening a lot in the queer community and in the black community when it comes to protest and activism,” Henry says of activism that centers black lives but excludes black trans lives. “I think it’s a story that a lot of queer people can relate to, and if people use these tarot guides to dictate how they interpret the readings and use the readings to make choices in their lives, they should read stories that relate to them.”

tarot card with images of protests
The Justice card in The Black Queer tarot deck.

On the subject of access control and representation in tarot culture, tarot reader Halicue Hanna points out that despite its Western and Eurocentric history, tarot reading is not a closed practice and should remain accessible to all , especially as it gains popularity in times of isolation. His advice: “If this appeals to you because of the enormity and beauty of what you might discover inside yourself, go for it.” As an advocate and anti-violence counselor, Hanna’s approach to tarot is grounded in an emphasis on personal work. While more historically accepted avenues of healing such as therapy, which can be expensive, or religious practices, which can be dogmatic and exclusive, tarot is something we can engage in on our own. “It’s an opportunity to shut up, to create a ritual, to go within to find answers, to create sacred space, and to open a portal to our own deeper universe,” says Hanna.

While the rise of tarot as a popular form of self-care has provided many with a framework to feel grounded in during precarious times, there remain concerns about the unregulated nature of tarot culture, specifically regarding exploitation, commodification or fraud in space. . “It’s a big Pandora’s box. Anyone can take a bunch of scraps of paper and turn them into tarot cards,” says Dore. “But the more people who want to do this, for me, the better, because it just gets more people into the process of making sense of themselves and naming the world in a way that gives them power.”

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