The “Wrapper” and the “Filling”

As a continuation of my last post, I want to talk about reading style. Interpreting a tarot spread can be a little like eating an enchilada. You have the “wrapper” (the visual presentation captured in the images) and the “filling” (the core meaning of the cards). It can be all too easy to become seduced by flashy graphics at the expense of ignoring the body of practical experience with the literal substance that has been built up over the last couple of centuries. Slather on enough intuitive “cheese and hot sauce” and you’ll never have to crack a tarot book again. (It reminds me of the old Miller Lite beer commercial: “Great taste, less filling.”) Although I read exclusively with the Thoth deck and its semi-scenic (or “glorified”) pip cards for several decades, I eventually found my way to the Waite-Smith tarot. I immediately came into rather sharp disagreement with many of the prosaic scenes Smith chose to illustrate Waite’s esoteric ideas, and decided to pretty much disregard the narrative vignettes embedded in the pictures.  I will occasionally take a flash of insight from the figures on the cards because, after all, it’s a pretty good reading deck, but I’m more inclined to import Aleister Crowley’s “core meanings” when using it. Frieda Harris and Crowley were indisputably on the same page while creating the artwork for the Thoth deck, but in many instances with the RWS deck Waite and Smith almost certainly weren’t. (You can read Robert Place’s The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination for a concurring opinion.)

It seems to be accepted doctrine today to say “There is no right or wrong way to read, so if it feels good it must be right for you.” The main problem I have with this is that the evidence that it’s “right” in more universal terms is almost entirely anecdotal. If it “feels good” to the reader and it “feels good” to the sitter at the moment of the reading, everybody is happy whether or not it has even a remote resemblance to the eventual future are presented in the cards. There is seldom any useful feedback from the far end of an internet connection. Tarot divination is notoriously bereft of the “scientific method” of experimental repeatability, mainly because nobody is really paying much attention, and besides, it’s too hard to keep track. “Accuracy” is primarily in the eye of the beholder, not in the verified testimony shown in a compilation of data. There is an ongoing effort in the tarot forum community to rectify this shortcoming with posts like “What has this card meant to you in practical terms?” but I’m not entirely sure I trust that the respondents’ memories aren’t selective rather than inclusive. As Aristotle once said  “One swallow does not a summer make.”

Those of us who are steeped in the historical and esoteric traditions of the tarot are troubled by the “fast-food mentality” that has crept into many forms of divination since the New Age phenomenon transformed the landscape.  Suddenly, anyone who can say “Jung” can be a self-styled “expert” without having to do the heavy lifting of getting inside the heads of the long line of metaphysical thinkers who created the map in the first place. It seems that scholarship is no longer fashionable, and erudition is viewed as stuffy and suspect. Impressionistic intuitive guesswork is the name of the game, and few are pausing long enough to check their coordinates against the original blueprints. Critical thinking is frowned upon in the rush to please those clients who don’t want to hear any bad news, and “affirmation” is esteemed above “information.” Pardon me while I light a candle in the dark.

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