When Things Go South

When browsing through the tarot-sphere one stumbles upon quite a diverse range of subjects. Whether it be tarot decks, explanatory tips on how to read cards, spreads, the history of the cards, philosophy, pataphysics, there is practically nothing you can’t find on the web. But when you want to learn about why a reading fails, well… things get a little more complicated. For sure, there are a few posts out there, always reachable within a click or two, but that’s it. I guess that people don’t really want to talk about it online (outside of forums and courses, where there’s always someone asking about this or maybe some advice about how a certain reading can go wrong).

Why people won’t openly talk about that would be an excellent question. Indeed, a question for the cards. But the reasons for that might be so varied that we would probably get lost. It’s usual to see readings presented as successful readings, for obvious matters. As tarot readers, we want to engage people, to bring them in. To show them that cards do work. This is why talking about the failures that we, as a person, might commit isn’t exactly the best of strategies. On the other side, boosting a high percentage of confirmed / successful / on point readings might do exactly that. Statistics are reassuring. A high percentage of good readings will lead people to believe that the reading they’re going to have will also be a good one. Which is one of the best publicities that a tarot reader might have.

It really isn’t about the statistics

And yet, no matter who good our statistics are, every single reading we do still places us face-to-face to someone. Do it wrong and you will still loose face before your client, and what good will those statistics be then? If that reading really goes south, it might make you second-guess yourself, which is something most people aren’t used to do. But something that is truly humbling.

I’m writing all of this because a few days ago I had one of those experiences. I was doing an online reading with no background whatsoever. Just three questions that were put on the table for answer. I drew some cards for them and started describing what I saw and, somehow it all went down the hill without me noticing it. By the end of the reading, the whole thing looked like one of those second-rate drama soaps. The kind you don’t really want to watch, because it’s just “oh! so bad!!”. But again, the reading made sense with the cards, and that was all that mattered. When the feedback came, I was faced with this spectacular shit-hits-the-fan-blow-in-your-face failure, and all of a sudden, a nice deep hole in the ground seemed like a very good idea.

Well, maybe it wasn’t really that bad. But it sure looked like it, probably all the more as I’m not used to these types of situations (ah… the power of statistics… how feeble its assurance really is…). And yet, here it was, as it was want to happen sooner of later.

The cards were wrong!

Because they are the ones that are telling us things, right? After all, our job here is just to interpret them and talk about them. So, if they are wrong, how can we say anything right? But if they are right, the merit is entirely ours, for we were the ones that actually decoded them successfully.

Yes, exactly! Blame it on the cards!

Admitting that the cards can be wrong only opens another shitload of problems, because then not only do we need to make sense of what they are trying to show us, we actually have to figure out when they are right and when they are not. And how do you propose to do that? Ask them in a parallel drawing? Invoking whatever help you deem necessary to assure that they are right? And why are you reading cards anyway, if you can’t even figure out that the cards are wrong in the first place? Better stick to some infallible divination system. God knows how many are out there!

On the other hand, if we admit that the cards are always right, then the problem lies entirely with how the reader choose to interpret what s/he saw. This means that not only you are not dependent on the whims of a few pieces of paper, it also allows you to identify and correct your mistakes, thereby becoming a better reader. Even if, in the process, you do have to admit to being wrong. And really, what is that going to hurt except our own sense of worth? The ego might be a useful thing, but we really shouldn’t have it keeping us from seeing what is right in front of us. That is, after all, what we proposed to do by becoming tarot readers.

So what went wrong?

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Moon card, from the Tarot of Xul Solar

Maybe the querent was in denial or just out for some bad ride. Maybe I was in a bad day. Or there was one of those combinations of little things that made this happen. When stuff like this happens, we’re in Lunar territory, so the first thing to do is really to calm down and try to find our way in the middle of all of this

Which was what I did, just as soon as I dug myself out of that imaginary hole. I picked up the same deck that had so “miserably” failed me and asked it that very question

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THE PAGE OF COINS / 10 OF CUPS / THE CHARIOT

The reading was simple:

“Because you were too eager to get to the pot, you got yourself involved in your own theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had.”

Ouch! Talk about being sharp! The good thing, though, is that “a-ha! I could still read that damned cards!” Well, it might not be much, but it sure is a positive thing. I mean, nothing like some self-validation to raise the morals, right? But there’s a whole lot to unpack from this snappy sentence. So let’s see where this leads.

“You got yourself involved in your theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had”

This is basically what the Page of Coins is saying. There he is, coin in hand showing what he got from his work, while also pointing at another coin that just isn’t there!”

So what happened here? There I was looking at the cards searching for a point of entry to the story before me. As usually happens, the images trigger some ideas, and you go with these ideas trying to figure out how they fit the cards. In a way, I was spinning theories and then looking for evidence in the cards to prove it. There’s nothing wrong with this. But again, one needs to be aware that theories are dangerous things to have, as they can lead us down in the wrong direction and thus, distracting us from what is really going on.

The best thing, then, is to avoid the whole thing altogether. To just stick to the spread lying there on the table and take it all in. To not just look for an answer, but rather to let it come to us. This takes time, obviously. In a good day, it might be as little as 30 seconds. Or it might be significantly more in a bad day. Obviously, when we have a face-to-face reading every second counts, as there’s someone right there in front of us waiting for an answer. But that was not the case with this reading, as it was to be delivered in written form.

This leads nicely into the second part of the the reading,

“You were too eager to get to the pot”

Again, we all want to deliver that snappy sentence that will answer the one in front of us. That is, after all, what we all work for. And, with enough time to think about what is right there in front of us, most of us get there. The problem arises when we convince ourselves that we need to do this fast, for that is when shortcuts are usually taken. Shortcuts like not giving the answer enough time to get to us, as said above. Or shortcuts like not checking our facts, which is one of the most essential things we can do in a card reading.

There are many ways to check the facts. The simplest one was already given: “step back and look at things from a distance”. If, however, one is not able to do this for whatever reason, one can always draw some more cards to see how things got to the point where they are now.

This means looking at past events and trying to figure out what happened. To get the narrative behind the question. Which is all the more important when we don’t have any background or context besides what is given by the question itself. The easiest way to do this is with a past / present / future spread, but there are other ways / spreads that can bring something to the table. And no matter which spread you end up using, the more data you have, the better your conclusions are. Something I was just talking about a few days before, but actually forgot to do it this time around.

Building up the narrative has other advantages, like making the querent realize how things played out; something that s/he might not even be aware of (most of the times, they aren’t). And it has the added advantage of empowering us before the querent: if the querent can check what we say against what he already knows of the situation, well… we just made our work easier. On the downside, if we fail to do that, well… there goes our face again.

It really isn’t about saving face either.

Because, at the end of the day, even with all precautions taken, shit just happens. And we will get a reading wrong now and them. We are, after all, humans, succeeding as humans and failing as humans. And a bad reading is actually the best thing that can happen to us, since it makes us stop and really look at what we are doing. Because, let’s face it: we all have a system to read the cards. A system that was built according to what we learned about card reading from books, talks, blogs, actual readings and tips from extraneous sources. If it’s a bad system, it will regularly fail; if it’s a good system, it will fail less. A really excellent system, is worth its knowledge in gold and you can start marketing it with great success!

But the only way to test this system is to read the cards. So what a bad reading really does is to point us exactly which things need to be addressed and corrected.

In a way, a bad reading is the best thing that could happen to us as a card reader, because it allows us to grow. To grow in understanding and in depth. To address what we got wrong and find a better way to deal with the cards. The cost we have to pay is a lesson in humility. Our ego will get stabbed, for sure. But the ego… ah!!! there’s so many things to say about the ego, and we really don’t have the time. There’s work to be done on accurately reading those pesky cards!

Finding Cards in the Wild

Pretty much every card reader I know finds cards on the ground. Now, this could be a “chicken and egg” sort of thing: which comes first – the reader looking for cards or the cards finding the reader? Personally, I don’t ever actively “look” for cards. But, at the same time, I always pick them up when I see them on the ground. Does this happen to other, non-cartomantic people? Perhaps. But no one else in their right mind would pick up a card off the ground. That’s why people like us exist.

I like the phenomenon of finding cards “in the wild”, so to speak, because it reminds me of a larger concept—that of paying attention. Miguel and I (and both of my tarot mentors) always advocate for simply LOOKING at the cards as the main foundation for reading them. Enrique used to always say to me, “What do you see?” and then if I got too caught up in a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, he’d say “Shelley, just LOOK at the card, don’t read it.”

The photo above is a series of four cards that crossed my path, in the sequence in which I found them. The Five of Cups came one day all on its own, then the 2 of Diamonds, 10 of Spades and – UNO card! – came one after the other on one particular walk.

Can we read anything? Can we apply meaning to things that apparently have no inherent meaning?

Reading cards is like this. We are presented in a completely spontaneous—but conscious and aware—manner with images on paper. We are then charged with telling the story they convey. Although there are certain baseline “meanings” that come from long lines of cartomantic tradition, as far as I know, no one reads UNO cards. And yet, it begs the question: why not?

Exercises like this are useful because they free up our mental space to stretch and expand, allowing us to PLAY with cards and LOOK at them.

We can read this line as a time-sequence of events. Five of Cups to Two of Diamonds to Ten of Spades to UNO – what shall we call it? – going both ways? Reversing course? Twisted in two different directions? You can see how symbolism depends on the interpretation you give to it, based on the context around the question and the surrounding cards.

Here, no question was asked, other than my simple presence on the face of the Earth and being in my environment. Can we remain open to receive messages even when we don’t ask for them?

While developing a tarot teaching course, I created a related exercise. I’ll reprint it here, so you can try it if you want. Let us know how it goes by writing a comment after you complete it.

And by all means, share your interpretations of my cards in the wild! No wrong answers.

When I wrote the following exercise, I hadn’t seen a playing card on the ground for a long time, probably a year or more. What do you think happened after?

Give it a try.

The art of paying attention: can you make something appear?
Some card readers love to find playing cards on the ground. Do they find the cards because they’re actively looking for them, or do the cards find them? Are there cards everywhere that people just don’t notice? Do you create the event by “willing” it to happen? Over the next week—seven days from the time you’re now reading this and bringing the idea into your conscious awareness—are there cards that might cross your path?
Journal exercise:
After seven days, note in your journal whether or not you found any playing cards cross your path this week. If not, do you think it was because you weren’t actively looking or searching them out, or because you simply weren’t paying enough attention? If yes, do you think it’s because you were specifically looking for them, or because you were paying more attention to details in your surroundings in general? Or even because you simply forgot about the exercise and weren’t attached to the outcome? Can we “will” an event to happen, like noticing a playing card, just by bringing it to our conscious minds and focusing on it? Or is it just the opposite: bringing something to our conscious awareness and then letting go of it? How much of our noticing things is random, and how much is intentional?

An Additional Degree of Freedom

Musical street art...

In music, you have someone, a composer, who writes a certain combination of sounds on paper. In this paper, he will also include information about tempo (the speed at which this combination has to be reproduced), rhythm (used to differentiate the strong and weak elements), how sounds and silence combine and an assorted number of information regarding how each sound should be played and its connection with the previous sound (or silence) and the next. When it is finished, he obtains something which can be seen as an instruction manual (for lack of a better expression) on how to reproduce this particular composition; this particular piece of work. He has written a music and he has left us the means to reproduce it, should we so desire.

But there is something interesting about music. No matter how detailed this instruction book is, everyone who addresses it and plays what is written, will play it in a different way. It is still recognizable, but there are subtle nuances that makes each iteration, each version different from all the others. This is particularly true with classical music, where there are hundreds of different versions from the favorite works of the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Debussy, Schummann, Haydn, Händel, Tchaikovsky, Mahler,  and countless others. More to the point, not only there exist countless recordings of the same work (a brief search on Amazon on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons gives back more than 10 000 results!!!!), but there are still people interested in recording their own version. To bring forth a new point of view, no matter how similar it might be to the already existing ones.

And if you’re wondering how can this be, the answer is quite simple. The composer, in his strict guidebook, which every musician knows should be followed very very closely, didn’t account for one thing and one thing only: how the reading and the consequent reproduction of the musical score is made. In other words, how the specific reality-tunnel of the musician (his likes and dislikes; his particular sensitivity, its physical proneness to execute what its written; his own feelings, …) shape the music into something familiar, but slightly different.

In Jazz, the musician has an additional degree of freedom when addressing a musical score: after the theme is played, which is to say, after the written score is played, the musician can then improvise upon the theme. He can play whatever he wants, as long as he follows a set of specific harmonic rules and he connects his improvisation with what was written. In the end, as if to reinforce the importance of the theme, the musician will reprise the same score he initially played.

But what does any of this to do with tarot?

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that even though we see different representations of the same card from deck to deck that most people would insist in applying a general set of meanings that they’ve learned and disregard everything else. Here’s the thing: just like there are uncountable versions of the same music, there probably exists the same number of tarot decks. And even though most decks bear quite proudly its influences to the Holy Trinity of Decks, each deck presents a personal view of what that particular image should show.

As an example, here’s the images for the Devil Card from a few decks. In the first image, we have the cards from Marseille, Rider Waite Smith and the Toth Decks. In the second, the Hanson-Roberts, Tarot of the Crone, Peanuts Tarot, Tarot de St. Croix, William Blake Tarot and the Swiss 1JJ Decks.

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In these nine cards, and it could be any other card depicted there, you can find some similar images (Marseille, RWS, St. Croix, Hanson-Roberts and… let’s include the Peanuts card) and some images which portray different aspects of the card. Even in the images with the same elements, you can see differences in colors, in shapes, in the positions of the characters, in the secondary elements that compose the card. All in all, even though we have some images with similar views, it is probably safe to admit that these nine examples transmit different feelings and different sensations.

As a test, I took the three devil representations from Marseille, RWS and Toth to the streets and asked people their opinion of the images. Was there an image that was particularly frightening? Or appealing? Or did they respond equally to the same images?

Most people responded in a more negative way to the RWS card, and one can see why: there’s a black background, the devil has some very “ugly” features, like the prominent bat wings, the long beard, the huge horns; the chains are very visible, the fire of the torch is pointing down, as if the devil wanted to burn something, etc, etc. There probably isn’t a positive element in this card. But the most interesting results came after: The Marseille card had a neutral to positive reaction even though it is basically the same representation. Factors pointed out include a greater variety of colors (some people even considered it a psychedelic version of the RWS card), a white background and a lighter expression of all the characters when compared with the RWS. And, not surprising, the Crowley card came as the most appealing card, with its pink background, its non-aggressive elements and the dancing figures all equally contributing to the overall effect.

When I asked the same type of questions over at Tarot Professionals (a Facebook group of… you guessed it!!) most all the answers I got were in the sense of acknowledging the differences between the cards, but not taking that as an important influence in the reading. There might be some tendency towards a specific response to one or the other, but people would respond that that didn’t consciously influence their reading. The thread then evolved into a left hand/right hand discussion, which didn’t say much beyond personal opinions are personal and should be left at that.

Aesthetics aside, working with a particular tarot deck should mean working with that particular point of view and the way that point of view interacts with our own reality-tunnel. This means that even though different decks might have the same images, the same keywords, there are different nuances, different shades to each card that should make a difference. In returning to the three Devil Cards of the questionnaire, I would read the RWS in a more gloomy/negative way than the others. Or the Toth Devil more as an expression of  a primal energy than the RWS or the Marseille. I would then adapt this impression into the keywords, if appropriate, to devise the meaning in a reading. On a similar note, even though the 1JJ and the St. Croix decks portray the same feeling of hopelessness, the simple fact that in the 1JJ Deck the Demon is standing and seems to be walking around tantalizing the hopeless woman makes, for me, a more negative impression than the St. Croix card, which portrays the demon as sitting on a pillar/bench.

In fact, one could argue that one of the most interesting things about all the different decks  is the fact that they provide different points of view; different perspectives on the same matter. Why then don’t we take then into account when reading the cards? Routine obviously plays a part in this. As do our own thought processes, already wired into a particular mind set. Obviously, working with different decks would imply to alter our own mind-set, to not have it crystallized and used regardless of what we see. One could also argue that each and every reading is personal and, as such, already dependent of the reality-tunnel the reader is at the moment. So, why not allow an extra degree of freedom and actually let the image influence the reading? Why not allow these little differences to actually make the difference between a standardized reading and a personal one? Even if we get back to the standard, like a good jazz musician would do, we already did something different. Something unique. Something personal. And our reading came much the better for it.

The Great and Marvelous Tarot Game of the Goose

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Have guests over and don’t know how to entertain them?

Tired of the same old games, which don’t bring anything new?

Want to know every dirty little secret your friends and acquaintances have, without too much trouble??

Want to astonish and mesmerize everyone with the depths of your arcane knowledge?

Say no more!!! Check out our new game, The Great and Marvelous Tarot Game of the Goose, designed by our own Myristic Miguel Marques to give you hours and hours of entertainment!

What do you need? Why, just a pack of wonderful tarot cards (like the utterly fabulous Tarot of the Crone, by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince depicted above), from one of your astonishing collection, two dices, and a marker for each of the players.

Give the cards a shuffle and spread them out across the table, in the form of a goose game. Three different levels available: Major Arcana, Minor Arcana or our amazing Full Deck!!!

For extra craziness, you can also add a few white cards in-between, in order to make the game more challenging!!!

Ideal for:

  • inspiration
  • exquisite corpses
  • poetry
  • divination
  • storytelling
  • and anything your imagination can fancy!!!

Don’t wait any longer!!! Gather everyone around and start playing today!!!

NOTE: variant editions with normal playing cards, Lenormand cards, Rorschach cards, ESP cards or any kind of oracular deck also available. Please leave a note below with your  name and address for a complete catalog.