I’ve always had a vague interest in the Tarot. Over the past year or two it has blossomed into a definite interest. I’ve been buying Tarot decks and Tarot books.
I’m not sure where the interest comes from. As a card-carrying atheist, I’m certainly not keen to wallow in the ideas of mystical transcendence that are prevalent in the ruminations of people who write about Tarot. On the other hand, as I get older, it’s entirely possible that I’m harboring some sort of wish for the comforts of religion.
For someone who cordially detests conventional religion, the Tarot has some definite advantages. Primarily, it’s a do-it-yourself approach to spirituality. There’s no creed, no doctrine, no authority figures. Or rather, there have been quite a number of creeds, doctrines, and authority figures over the course of the past 200 years, and they all disagree with one another in various ways. This leaves the individual seeker entirely free to choose whatever ideas he or she finds most appealing.
The older ideas and images in the Tarot date back to Plato and the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pantheons. This is comforting first because it’s all plainly symbolic, not real; and second because it makes free use of sources that are quite outside the ambit of today’s dominant religions.
As to whether there is actually any occult force at work when a Tarot spread is laid out — on that question, I’m agnostic. Of course the scientific view is quite clear. There are no such things as occult forces. That’s all a silly fantasy. On the other hand, when I ask the Tarot for guidance about a serious life question, shuffle the cards, and lay out a spread that amounts to a perfect diagram of my situation, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that the cards are no more intrinsically meaningful than a Rorschach inkblot, a meaningless jumble into which I’m projecting my own perceptions. So who knows?
But that’s not what I wanted to write about.
The problem I encounter, in reading about the Tarot, is that many of the writers, and many of the people who design Tarot decks, lean so heavily on Christian ideas. The man who commissioned the most famous Tarot deck, Arthur Edward Waite, was a lifelong Catholic, but he wasn’t the first to weld Christian ideas into the images on the cards. Those ideas have been there from the 15th century onward.
And I absolutely loathe Christianity. I despise it. The odor of sanctity is putrid and disgusting. Yet it’s all but inescapable when you delve into the Tarot. And not just Christianity. What stopped me dead last night was reading a description of the Wheel of Fortune card that refers to “the four letters of the Hebrew name of God.” Who the fuck cares about the Hebrew name of God?
If you want to learn the meanings of the Tarot cards, there’s no escaping this stuff. The meanings of the ten numbered cards in each suit depend heavily on the Qabalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. Without the Qabalah, the numbered cards just have pretty pictures on them.
I like the idea that someday the Tarot might become the foundation of a new, secular religion — a religion that is acknowledged to be based entirely on symbolism, not on any sort of objective fact, a religion in which everyone is free to have their own understandings of the symbols. I think people probably need religion. They would certainly be better off without the crop of religions that are currently prevalent, and the Tarot offers a nice possibility for something new.
If only we could get rid of the putrid Christian goop with which it’s infected.