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How Do The Tarot Cards Work?

June 4, 2009

Many Tarot Card readers dread this question, because there is no cut-and-dried explanation as there is for ‘how does a wrench work?’ One way out of it is to simply say, ‘I don’t know, it just does,’ but this can hardly be said to be satisfactory. In the age of science, we can at least try to hypothesize about how the Tarot Cards work, even if our theory turns out to be incorrect.

The simplest explanation being the idea that there is some Divine Force, be it God, the Goddess, angels, The Divine, Fate or spirits moving the cards or your hands to produce the cards which will answer the question best. It is a very nice theory, but it does involve personal belief and trying to explain it to a skeptic or somebody who doesn’t hold a similar viewpoint, is very tricky, especially considering such a theory will not hold with a skeptical scientist or complete atheist! After all, they may say, how can The Divine be bothered to move around these cards, when he/she can’t even be bothered to save starving people in the Developing World? This theory is also a difficult one to believe, since there are plenty of Tarot Card readers around who are complete atheists.

The second theory is where is it believed that the deck ‘tunes in’ with the reader and querent’s unique, personal energy, and this somehow causes the most helpful cards to come up. People using this theory believe it is important to create a close bond with their deck, through practices such as sleeping with them under their pillow or ritually consecrating them. Again, it is a very nice theory to hold, and fits in with quite a few superstitions and myths surrounding the Tarot Cards , but it is significantly weakened by the fact that I can give you a perfectly good and accurate reading with a deck of cards I have only just purchased.

A third theory is a Higher Self  Theory, which is very similar to the divine intervention theory (The first one); in that instead of a divine being influencing the cards or the shuffler’s hands, it is the reader and querent’s higher self doing the influencing. Either the higher self influences the actual order of the cards, or the thoughts and interpretations of the cards’ images by the reader. This theory is slightly stronger against the skeptic than the previous two, but some people feel a bit wary of the idea that there is something ‘out there’ influencing our hands and thoughts!

Fourth, we have the Collective Unconscious Theory, which is based on the psychologist Carl Jung’s view of the human mind. In his view, the mind was split into four sections: The conscious, subconscious, unconscious, and collective unconscious. This collective unconscious refers to the minds of all the people who have ever lived and will ever live, in a collection, which the Tarot Card reader ‘taps into’ to get answers when they interpret the cards. The idea is that the collective unconscious, because of the number of minds it encompasses, has the answer to everything, and the Tarot Cards merely act as a tool to find the right answer. It would be wonderful if we could verify such a great theory, but unfortunately, due to its nature, we cannot. While Jung has given us a very good way of explaining a number of spiritual phenomena, we cannot prove that he was right. But then again, we cannot prove that he wasn’t either!

A fifth theory is based around the view of Tarot Cards not as the answer in itself, but as the Tool, or Key, to the answers, which are hidden deep within our unconscious mind, which knows everything. This theory says that our unconscious knows the answers to any questions we may ask, and the Tarot Cards simply acts as a mirror and reflects the answers to our conscious mind so that we are aware of them. With this theory, it is not the Tarot Cards that has the answers, but our own minds, which is a theory many people in today’s society favor simply due to the fact that it gives them more perceived control over their lives. My article “Jung and Tarot” goes into more details.

The final theory, continues this train of thought about the Tarot Cards merely being a tool, but takes it one step further: Instead of our unconscious having all the answers, it is our Conscious and Subconscious Minds together that have the answers, and the Tarot Cards are a platform from which we leap into finding out these answers and confronting the answers we cannot accept. This theory says that it doesn’t matter which cards come up, because what matters most is what our minds make us see in those cards.
Each Tarot Card doesn’t just have one single meaning: It has hundreds of others, and they all depend on factors such as the querent, the question, the situation surrounding the question and the other Tarot Cards displayed in the reading… It is the reader’s job to look at the images in the cards and simply say what they see. The reader doesn’t have to know any thing about the traditional meanings of the cards for this to happen, as they are simply saying what the images and symbols in the cards mean at that time. In this way, because the mind knows the question, it will apply the apparent meanings of the images and symbols to that question, and often it will see what it wants to see in the Tarot Cards. With this theory, the Cards are used more as a way to explore situations and questions than give any definite answers. It acts more as a counseling session would, and often brings out feelings and understanding of situations which the querent would not otherwise have been able to accept.

Whichever Theory we choose to believe, and the theory’s are not limited to the ones I have stated here, it is important to remember that they all hold that the same premise is true: That in a Tarot Card reading, a meaningful link is made between the images and symbols in the cards, and the events or situations occurring in the querent’s life, be they internal or external. Some see Tarot Cards as a tool or key to the answers that are found elsewhere. Some see the Tarot Cards as the answer in itself, and others see the Tarot Cards as the on-switch for the tool that is the mind, so that the mind can then find the answers. There is no right or wrong way of viewing Tarot Cards, and there is no right or wrong theories.

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