To the public at large, tarot has an aura of mystery, with an attraction varying in degree from curiosity through to fear and loathing – with concomitant reactions to those of us involved in such a ‘dubious’ field, generously sprinkled with charlatans.
So if we, the public, have had our interest in tarot sparked and wish to penetrate its mysteries, what do we discover? Most beginners’ books that we might pick up from a high street book shop tell us there are rules about tarot; we pick up several different beginners’ books, and find that the ‘rules’ tend to differ quite widely from author to author – how do we decide who’s right? We are novices, we have no way to judge.
Let’s start by trying to summarize the most common “rules” that will be encountered: you must not buy your deck for yourself (advice ranges from getting a tarot reader to gift one to you, a friend to buy it for you, or even that you must steal it!). Having been the (not ungrateful) recipient of decks as gifts, I find the most interesting aspect is what it reveals about people’s opinions of my tastes, and theoretically these are people who know me well! I don’t use any of the decks I have been gifted but am glad to have received them, since it is the thought that counts.
The learning experience of this is to always specify exactly which deck it is that you desire. Quite frankly however, if I had waited for a deck to be gifted me before starting to learn about the tarot I probably still wouldn’t have a deck at all – or have learned anything about tarot.
Secondly, we learn we must wrap our deck in black silk and keep it in a wooden box, to avert negative vibrations; some authors go as far as to say you must make both items yourself – and so I could have done, had I wished my decks to be kept in bloodstained silk in a crooked box that fell apart every time I opened it. Negative influences can affect a deck, but this is far more likely to be a result of someone else handling it than stray emanations homing in on it; black silk and a wooden box will not prevent that. Being discriminating about who handles your deck, and thorough cleansing will.
Which brings us to rule 3: handling our decks. Many authors don’t even discuss this, but simply tell us how the cards should be presented to the querent, and how the querent should shuffle them. In real life, the approaches to this are as individual as the tarot readers themselves – I know of some who never let anyone else handle their working decks (never call them control freaks); at the other extreme, there are some who let their toddler’s sticky hands and mouths add a certain unique feel to their decks.
Fourth is how to actually go about learning to use the cards. More traditional authors give short (or long) meanings of the individual cards, and say that these must be memorized – the problem with this approach is that they rarely describe how to combine these individual meanings in conjunction with others, what the effect of the position in the spread might be, and how to interpret these meanings in a cohesive manner that makes sense to the querent. More recent authors adopt a more proactive method, to encourage development of intuitive abilitie , often including meditative and visualization techniques and practice. The theory behind this method is that the new reader, having got a thorough “feel” for each card, will then find it easier to relate them to each other, and to the querent, in a coherent way.
The fifth rule seems to largely depend on the age of the book: picking a significator to represent the querent. This is recommended in the older books, but is now considered to be old-fashioned; most suggest using court cards but there are a few who suggest using a card from the Major Arcana. How you choose a court card to represent your querent may involve simply physical characteristics, astrological assignments, temperament or a combination of any or all of these. The more modern view is to decide what card represents your querent but not to separate it, which gives it special significance in the position in which it occurs in a spread.
The penultimate rule decreed by many tarot authors is “Thou shalt not read for thyself”. The logic behind this rule is that you can never be truly objective in interpreting a reading for yourself – particularly if you are in any kind of personal crisis; depending on your personality, you are likely to skim over or disregard the things you don’t want to hear, or take the most negative aspects and focus on them exclusively.
All of these ‘rules’ recur as the subject of passionate debate amongst the tarot community, but perhaps the one that inspires the most heat is that of the purpose for which tarot should be used – divination vs. spiritual growth. Those in the divinatory school say that this is the reason for which tarot decks were originally designed; those in the spiritual growth camp say that this denigrates tarot, and reduces it to mere prediction.
So, having had the stamina, time and money to plough through say, twenty or thirty beginners’ books on tarot, what conclusion do we the novice eventually come to about the rules?
Most likely, we have absorbed both consciously and subconsciously much of the information presented about the ‘rules’ – and evolved our own peculiar approach, abstracting the things we like and feel comfortable with piecemeal from here and there; together with endless practice, we develop the unique styles and quirks that makes each tarot reader individual. And in turn, sometimes become as didactic as those same authors, who usually say that there is no right or wrong way in tarot; that it is totally subjective – just before they present us with their rules.