In the introduction to this series, I mentioned a quote from Arthur Waite, he said “The true Tarot is symbolism; it speaks no other language and offers no other signs.” Despite my choice to move away from the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) system of reading I must admit I think that Waite is correct, at least in part. I agree with him that tarot speaks the language of symbols. In the passage following this quote Waite claims that the symbolic language of tarot was interpreted incorrectly in all works up to the point at which he writes. He claims this is because there is a secret tradition that holds the true knowledge of the tarot. This is where Waite and I part ways. With all due respect, I disagree. While I agree that to truly and deeply access this symbolic language a tarot student needs to make a serious commitment to their studies. I don’t feel that the only path to access the tarot is via the secret tradition to which Waite refers.
In my experience reading the tarot is always a form of “pathworking” (but since the term pathworking comes from the study of Kabbalah and we are not discussing esoteric tarot here, I prefer to call it journeying). We journey with the symbols on some level whenever we read the tarot. But it’s where we let the journey take us that is the critical factor in the outcome of our reading. Do we let it take us to the intellect? Where we remember what we learned from external authorities only? Do we journey to our subconscious and read on a more psychological level? Or do we go further to planes of the collective conscious, the Divine conscious to access the wisdom of the higher realms? I believe that we can pass through all these planes during our reading if we choose to.
I feel that if we chose to travel with these symbols to the planes of the collective or Divine that’s where we receive what is known as psychic information. Often the depth of this journey seems out of our control, but we can consciously regulate how deeply we read into the cards. When we embrace an oracular reading style, we use techniques that purposefully bring us to the collective and divine levels of consciousness.
Here is a brief description of each plane of conscious we can visit during a reading:
- Intellectual plane – We enter this space when we access the cards through rote memorizing of keywords and prescribed meanings, and when we adhere to taught techniques. In my experience, this results in a message that sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense or can feel limiting. When answers are accurate, they are often superficial in nature and don’t seem very helpful or enlightening. Rather, they seem to point to the obvious. They don’t empower the querent to make any kind of positive change in their situation. The messages derived from the intellectual plane tend to work best when you want a very straightforward answer to a mundane question.
- Subconscious plane – In this state meanings broaden based on the application of psychological theories, usually Jungian. Those who read from this plane use of concepts like archetypes and the hero’s journey to broaden their understanding of card meanings. Readings tend to focus on relationships with self and others. The reader still uses taught techniques. The messages that come through from this plan often are therapeutic and inspirational themed and are presented in the form of advice. I refer to readings that come from this plane as life-coaching readings.
- Collective plane – At this level of consciousness meanings become connected to correspondences that come from traditions or teachings of earlier generations. Systems like astrology are an example of correspondences that broaden the reader’s understanding of tarot symbols at this level. Reading tarot from this plan allows us to access big picture energies, societal and historical wisdom, and collective themes. At this level of consciousness, we can use tarot to examine our past lives, the future of the collective, community energies, and transpersonal psychology, etc. There is a heavier emphasis on the major arcana when we read from collective consciousness. Here is the collective plane intuitive interpretation plays a key role in how we receive messages.
- Divine plane – In the Divine plane meanings and correspondences give way to the purely intuitive and psychic messages. The reading becomes a channeling experience with the reader and cards joining in one voice to become an oracle. At this level tarot can be used as a vehicle for spiritual teachings, both in a mystical way and a dogmatic way. Here tarot can be used to tell the story of different spiritual traditions or religions and share their wisdom (examples of decks that focus on spiritual tradition are the Thoth and Druidcraft decks. While some decks focus on more mystical approaches to spirituality like the Mary-El.) Either way the messages that come through transcend all prescribed meanings; the symbols are jumping off points for deeper journeying that can seem shamanic or dream-like. The resulting messages can be confusing to the querent and may not “make sense” in the moment but later become clear and profound messages that often are described as prophetic.
Waite agrees that the Tarot can access many planes. Shortly following his above quote, he says, “Given the inward meaning of its emblems, they do become a kind of alphabet which is capable of indefinite combinations and makes true sense in all. On the highest plane it offers a key to the Mysteries, in a manner which is not arbitrary and had not been read in.”
A reader could experience one or more of these planes of consciousness during one reading. How deep they journey depends on their style of reading, training, personal abilities, and beliefs. Certain styles of readings lend themselves to receiving messages from certain planes.
What we do with the messages we get (regardless of what plane we access to get them) defines whether the reading is a fortune-telling, therapeutic, or psychic.
- Fortune-telling readings take the messages and apply them to our external lives. They are focused on the mundane world and are set within the framework of linear time. They are primarily predictive, focusing heavily on timelines and hard measurable results. They focus on the mundane world, actions in it and results that tangibly manifest. They are very much focus on everything outside of the querent, their inner state is not a big concern. They often attract people who want no agency or personal power in their situation. They want to know what is going to happen not how to make things happen. Fortune-telling can be done from the intellectual realm, and often take the form or yes or no answers and third-party readings.
- Therapeutic style readings usually focus on information and messages from the subconscious and, sometimes, the collective conscious realms. These reading are focused mostly on the internal state of the querent and their relationships (from a personal perspective). Messages received are filtered through psychological theory. There is a tendency to avoid predictions or overly spiritual messages. With the focus on inspiring the querent or supporting other mental health treatments.
- Psychic (Oracular) readings focus on both the external and internal realms. Psychic readings are not as deterministic as fortune-telling reading. We could say that they blend the therapeutic with the fortune-telling, but they elevate them to the level of the spiritual. Psychic readings bring the querent guidance on their question or situation from Divine sources. Messages are more profound, prophetic and life changing. These reading happen when the reader is accessing the Divine directly and the messages that come through are oracular in nature. These readings can highjack a mundane or psychological question when the message coming through transcends the regular mundane concerns of the querent. When we spontaneously travel to the Divine plane. These types of readings can happen unexpectedly, but they can also be sought out. The content of the messages usually relates to the querent’s spiritual evolution, bigger themes, or life lessons. But they can also contain omens and prophesies that feel close in nature to fortune-telling, yet they leave the querent feeling a deep sense of purpose and empowerment.
Fortune telling is often associated with psychic reading, but they are not the same thing. As I said previously the Golden Dawn (GD) appeared to look down their noses at fortune-telling while doing it. I would argue they were doing psychic reading not fortune-telling and the confusion between the two led to the seeming hypocrisy of their stance on fortune-telling. Yet, I feel that Waite’s style of reading lent itself more to the psycho-spiritual and not so much the practice of divination (accessing the Divine plane). While Crowley’s approach seemed to fall more in the realm of divination, as his Thoth book was channeled from an Egyptian deity. Crowley’s approach was very spiritual and psychic but also esoteric and connected to his own spiritual tradition.
In my experience any tarot system can be used to do any of these styles of reading and access messages from any of these realms. The style of the reading depends on what the client is looking for (you can tell based on their question, attitude, energy, etc.). While the messages accessed depend on how deep the reader is willing or able to go to receive their message.
The idea that you can read tarot at any level and in any style with all systems led me to realize that I could read tarot without the trappings of esoterism that came with the GD approach. And without the baggage of someone else’s spiritual belief system. The clean, simplicity of the pre-GD system and the more streamlined approach of cartomancy techniques meant freedom to go as deep as I wanted to with the cards. It meant I had a tool that seemed to lend itself to multiple styles of reading. For me it felt so much more flexible. Whereas with the GD tradition I felt boxed in, limited and pressured to head down an occult path that did not interest me.
Since breaking out of the GD mold, I’ve learned that I can apply the cartomancy techniques to any deck. Well, the imagery in the RWS decks is still more limiting than the elegant simplicity of the pre-GD decks, the use of cartomancy techniques with these illustrated decks opens them up to a greater range of interpretations.
Decks with more complex pictures can muddy the waters but also can offers multiple symbols that relate to each other (they correspond because they relate to the same meta-symbol or to the same over-arching energy). But their imagery can also cause limitations when the deck artist or creator chooses to offer a narrow interpretation of a bigger energy. While, in my opinion, big picture themes are more accessible from abstract and simpler imagery. This style of imagery allows the reader to broaden and deepen their own understanding of the card’s energy within the context of the reading. Decks with less symbols and simpler imagery offer a better jumping off point, as they act like a tip of an iceberg. Instead of working with someone else’s correspondences they give you a chance to come up with your own or recall ones from multiple sources.
The first step in breaking free of the GD system, and taking more control over where your readings take you and what style(s) you want to employ, lies within Waite’s quote about symbols.
Tarot speaks the language of symbols, but each symbol holds depth and width, they make up worlds of their own. Each symbol speaks volume of its own language and offers access to a myriad of signs and messages. Once I learned this, I realized that Waite was only half right. The next blog will look at symbols in the Tarot through the eyes of an oracular reader.
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