Sensing Through…


a pitch-black space. Nothing but darkness all around you. At some point you can’t quite fathom there’s a light. A small light that seems to grow little by little as you walk in its direction. As you get closer, you realize that its shaped like an arrow. The arrow, a keyhole on a door, pointing up. You want to know what’s on the other side, and so you peep through the door, getting a glimpse on what’s on the other side. There’s not much to see – it is a keyhole you’re peeping through after all – just a bright open space. You open the door and enter this new world, the darkness becoming a distant memory as the door closes behind you.

Sequence from Sens, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

As with all worlds, this too embodies the spirit of the Labyrinth, even if it isn’t your regular. There’s no walls here, just empty space punctuated with the ocasional structure. As with all labyrinths, this one also have rules. And they are simple. He is to follow the arrows until he gets to the end of it. That’s it. Just follow the arrows until he gets to the other side. But there’s a catch: not all arrows are visible. Some are buried in the sand. Others, hidden on the top of strange walls, or imprinted in an ice cap. It is his task to find the arrow that will lead him to the next stage of his journey.

That this labyrinth has no walls is of no consequence. You see, all labyrinths are the same: they’re a gathering of paths that meet and combine only to later diverge again. It is rumored that all labyrinths share the same path. A place outside our perception of time and space where they all meet. A place where every traveler can meet with each other or, maybe, change courses and decide for a new path for himself. A place where the traveler can become one with the labyrinth and begin to transcend it. If there is ever a place to know oneself it is there. At the crossroads of every possibility.

We, however, don’t know anything about this man whose journey we’re witnessing: we don’t know his name or his story, we don’t know where he is going. We don’t know what he’s searching or if indeed he is searching for anything. All that we are allowed to do is watch. Watch as this man silently (progresses) through the maze, taking his directions from arrows that appear every now and then, pointing the way forward, hinting at the possibility of a trajectory. Of a path. But when he realizes where he is, all that we get to know is this:

“Vous êtes ici”. You are here. A page form Sens, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

Our hero continues on his solitary walk until a moment where he finds the arrow that leads to the exit. He is now an old man and has lost almost everything he carried with him. He tried to avoid this one last arrow, but to no avail. The arrow follows him. It becomes his shadow. He has no choice but to accept what comes next. But then, why would he want to avoid this? Hasn’t he been following all the other directions? Hasn’t his life been a walk from arrow to arrow across strange / deserted landscapes? What is he afraid of? He stops for a moment, looking at the arrow. Trying to figure out where it will lead him. And resolutely, he steps down and exists the labyrinth.

What you’ve just read is a brief summary of Sens (which you can also get it here), one of the latest works by french cartoonist Marc-Antoine Mathieu. If you’re not familiar with the French, don’t worry. The book is mostly a mute graphical account of this man’s journey. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. Inside its pages is one of the most interesting explorations about the meaning of life and the journey each and every one of us takes from the moment of birth to that final moment where we leave the maze of life.

As tarot readers, and even as humans, that is something that every once in a while concerns us. Where did we come from? Where are we headed? What is the meaning of all this? You know… the BIG questions. Sometimes, it’s easy to find a path and follow it. Other times, not really. It is at those moments when we pick up our cards and start asking questions. What should I do? What is the meaning of? Why did this happen? How can I proceed?… And, like the man in this story we take our cues from visual hints. We look for directions, because, well… things do get easy when someone or something points out the way forward. For some, it’s about removing the burden of choice. For others, it’s about strategy: to know possible outcomes in order to decide the approach that best serves their purpose. Others still, just want to know what the heck is this all about.

For all, it is about seeing. Is this why we need images to tell us stuff? We do tend to believe what we see, after all. What is fashioned before our very eyes. With the tarot, events are presented to us as images. In a way, we are there in those images and it is those images that we take with us when the reading ends. This is, I’ve always thought, one of the greatest allures of the tarot and other image-based divination systems. The ability to perform an autopsy. To see with our own eyes.

With this in mind I’ve asked the cards “Why are images so special that we turn to them in to figure stuff out?


La Maison de Dieu. La Force. La Mort.

They are needed to bring down our defenses. By doing this, they make us confront all the nastiness that’s inside of us, just waiting to creep out. All the things that we’d like to keep in check and in fact, we probably fight to keep them under a leash. They are important because they make us see all the stuff that we don’t really want to face. But face them we must, if we want to deal with what’s at the root of our problems and sort things out. They are special because they show us things and make us act upon it. That’s their power and our weakness.

Like St. Thomas, we’ve developed a soft spot for information that comes through the sense of sight. Whether they are visions, dreams, or whatever’s hanging in front of our doorstep. “A man profits more by the sight of an idiot than by the orations of the learned“, an arabian proverb goes. “Foresight could make wise men of Durraman’s donkeys“, as another proverb goes. Or the classic “out of sight, out of mind“. Even in the Bible we get things like “preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight“. Sight has a special place in the way we perceive the world. Our world. It is only fair that it should be sight that pinpoints what we need to work upon and calls us to action.

Placing our need / desire / wish to become aware on a set of random images that pop up from a deck of cards might be just absurd. But, as Marc-Antoine Mathieu points out in this very same book, “the absurd only makes sense if it is accepted“.



Say What You See


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.


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.