There is no way around it, keyword memorization is one of the cornerstones of the tarot student’s curriculum. It is a convenient and familiar way to acquire at least a modest vocabulary without having to think too hard about it. Keywords are “training wheels” for the wobbly novice. Most tarot writers are able to fill pages with “canned” meanings; the best of them take the trouble to point out that rote learning is a temptation that yields only a shallow understanding of the cards, and should be viewed not as a destination but as a stepping-stone to a more uniquely personal style. But for many neophytes it is one of the biggest hurdles on the road to achieving originality and fluidity in reading the cards. Once entrenched, keyword addiction can be as hard to shake off as an embedded tick or a bad hangover, producing colorless, two-dimensional cardboard readings with the cookie-cutter monotony of a Lego-block castle. A chiropractor once told me that regularly wearing a back brace was a surefire way to weaken my back muscles because the body becomes dependent on the support. Similarly, relying on a “keyword crutch” for too long can cripple the imagination and stifle the intuitive faculty. At best, taking keywords at face value promotes lazy thinking; at worst, it’s guilty of making that laziness habitual.
Not everyone is nimble enough to easily make the leap from “fill-in-the-blanks” interpretation to effortless navigation of the many layers of meaning inherent in the cards. I liken the latter to peeling an onion; wielding a butter knife instead of a paring knife will give you only eye-watering mush instead of onion rings. Fortunately, there are ways to sharpen your implements; as you can probably tell from this essay, one of my favorites is the use of metaphor and analogy in characterizing the cards. Used with precision, these storytelling “tropes” can produce a resonance that cuts across cultural, societal and generational boundaries to find common ground for a more colorful and vibrant appreciation of the cards. Over the years I’ve accumulated a store of trenchant variations that I often plug in to enliven my readings. These work best with the scenic “pip” cards of the Waite-Smith (RWS) deck because they take off – sometimes obliquely – from Smith’s narrative vignettes.
Take the RWS 10 of Cups. Would you rather hear a reader say “This card shows contentment, repose of the heart, human love and friendship” or “This is the ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’ card, showing the Beatles’ Desmond and Molly Jones in their “home-sweet-home, with a couple of kids running in the yard”? The intent is the same but the delivery is more vivid and engagingly casual. For me, the 3 of Swords becomes the “no pain, no gain” card; the 8 of Cups the “poisoned well” card; the 3 of Pentacles the “plan the work and work the plan” card; the 8 of Swords the “follow your heart, not your head” card; the 5 of Cups (as advice) the “take the best and leave the rest” card; the 7 of Wands the “hold the moral high ground” card; the 2 of Wands the “foot in two worlds” card; the 9 of Cups the “fat, dumb and happy” card; the 10 of Swords the “scorched earth” card; the 2 of Cups the “puppy love” card; the 7 of Pentacles the “snooze, you lose” card; the 8 of Pentacles the “nose to the grindstone” or “all work and no play” card; and on into those I haven’t quite nailed down yet. Sometimes I even see mini-tableaux in a series of cards: to me, the RWS 7, 8, 9 and 10 of Wands suggest a military scout who has run into more of a fight than he can handle (7), so he beats a hasty retreat back to the fortress, just ahead of a pursuing flight of spears (8), where he takes up a defensive position (9). If his side loses, he will either be bound to a life of servitude (“Tote that barge. Lift that bale.”) or expatriated, with all of his possessions on his back (10).
These detours into metaphorical fancy can provide some surprising insights, but it’s also loads of fun for the story-teller when a random association snaps into focus completely out of the blue. It’s what I live for as a reader. Such unlikely but apt connections are the main reason I devalue mystical intuition in my own reading and instead pursue the knowledge-based fruits of creative imagination, inspiration and ingenuity, all qualities that thrive when propelled by a lively curiosity and a quirky predilection for the folksier side of human experience.