Say What You See

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For many years as a self-taught tarotist, reading only for myself, I practiced the art of card reading based on what I had learned from books written on the topic. Most books I’d come across, truly if not all of them, proposed long lists of key words and phrases to describe each of the 78 cards (I was using the Rider Waite Smith deck exclusively). Because the cards continued to accurately describe the situations I presented them with, and continued to address my concerns with objective information that helped me to gain perspective, I continued to rely on the key words and ideas that I had gathered up over the years from all of the various authors I’d read.

Until recently, I had an idea of card reading as a practice that had a very nebulous, unidentifable component known as “intuition.” Intuition is a difficult term to precisely define, because one person using the term might intend something completely different from the next.

Is it “hearing that little voice in your head” that adds that “extra message” to your reading? And if so, what qualifies a person to “receive” these messages and what makes them valid? Is this why some people claim to have a “gift” for reading while others don’t?

Questions like these made it uncomfortable and difficult for me to describe to others what it was that I was actually doing when I read the cards. I knew I was drawing on key concepts I’d learned, but there were times when I’d throw in phrases that just happened to pop into my head during a particular reading, while examining a pair or more of cards in a spread, and weaving their story together.

Over time, and through study with other cartomancers, I’ve formed a clearer picture of what I believe it is that I do when I read cards. Clearly I draw on the knowledge of the books I’ve read over the years, and the many readings I’ve done both for myself, and for others in the year that I’ve been reading professionally. But most recently I’m coming to a conclusion that’s so blessedly simple that it seems almost ridiculous to say: read what you see.

This is what we do when we’re learning a new language, or learning to read for the first time. My son, who is almost 6 years old and just starting elementary school, is in fact learning to read.

In his classroom the teacher taught the five vowel letters and sounds. Then, each day they work on adding a consonant in front of each of the five vowel letters, to build a sound formed by two letters. After they master those snippets of letter/sound combinations, they move forward to compose words, by adding another couple of letters. I live in Italy and although I’m American, my children are bilingual and go to Italian public school, hence the reading first in Italian.

Example? M. M + a, M + e, M + i, M + o, M + u. Ma + re = Mare (sea). Me + le = Mele (apple). Mi + ele = Miele.

Here no one would deny that we “sound it out,” or rather, we simply read what’s written, we read what we see, we say what it says.

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Why then, does this simple concept become so convoluted and contorted when we turn to the visual and imagery-based language of the tarot?

Each deck has its own set of concepts and depictions, all of which will shape the way that we read the cards themselves. And a cursory study of tarot decks will reveal that basic themes do emerge from the various figures in the trumps and the pips. Regardless, the final reading comes down to the reader’s ability to say what he or she sees, in a way that is understandable for the sitter.

Who assigns meaning? The reader implies meaning by the way he or she chooses to “say” what he or she sees, and by the word choice and manner of reading. But in the end, only the sitter can assign the final meaning to the cards themselves, because the sitter or querent is the one who knows how those individual “sounds” — here represented by the individual cards in a spread — apply back to their own particular question, situation, and circumstances.

There’s no doubt that a card reading is a work of performance art, and a craft that is a one-of-a-kind experience. Even if the same deck is used, each reading is always a first, because no two querents are the same, no two readers are the same, and no two moments in time are the same.

The only factor that doesn’t change is that the images, like any other sign or symbol that we use to make sense of the world, don’t change. What changes is our way of putting them together (Ma + re = mare/sea and not mele/apple) and then what we think of what they say.

When reading tarot as a language, we can detach from mystical and nebulous notions of unseen forces and engage directly with the clear tools we have in front of us. There’s no need to embellish or add extra: everything we have and everything we need is on the table.

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