For Good or Ill

Anyone who delves into the Golden Dawn’s “Liber T” tarot study material will soon encounter a phrase that places the focus of a question squarely on its context. MacGregor Mathers, its principle author, frequently stated that the influence of a card would be experienced “for good or ill” by the querent in a reading. The idea is that the forces at work are “blind,” and how they play out in a subjective sense is entirely dependent upon the querent’s handling of them. Aleister Crowley said it well in his commentary on the Fool (although he wasn’t intentionally applying the modern mantra “It’s all good”):

“All such impulses are right, if rightly received; and the good or ill interpretation of the card depends entirely on the right attitude of the Querent.”

Someone who is willfully avoiding acknowledgement of a troubling situation would not be well-served (at least in a personal way) by a “positive” card that shows it being brought to the forefront in no uncertain terms. The Sun shines its light mercilessly in every shadowy corner regardless of the wishes of the luckless victim caught in its glare, and having one’s “nose rubbed in” a buried matter that really can’t stand the light of day would be a likely result. A good example is the “yes-or-no” question. The phrasing of the inquiry is critical to obtaining a useful answer; there are situations where a “yes” would be the worst possible scenario and a “no” would be much more palatable. (For example, “Will my infidelity be discovered?” Or how about “Is George still cheating on me?” Either answer would be an indictment of George’s faithfulness.) Tip-toeing around the dilemma by rephrasing the question in non-binary language is often a better way to approach it; with a little imagination, a “yes” or “no” outcome can still be inferred from the anecdotal testimony in the answer. This typically requires many more words of explanation than would otherwise be the case but, if carefully and sensitively explored, the outcome is usually defensible.

There are many cards in which it is almost impossible to detect a silver lining. And yet, taking a deep breath and backing off two steps from “ground zero” often enables a more reasoned perspective on their seemingly dire outlook. I’m not a believer in the platitude that there are no “good” or “bad” cards in the tarot, but I do subscribe to Paul Fenton-Smith’s observation that all of them are “necessary” according to the querent’s position at the time. The Rolling Stones summed it up neatly: “You can’t always get what you want/But you might find, sometime/You get what you need.”

A common debate on the tarot forums is whether the cards are “always right,” even when the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. The conventional wisdom is that, at some level of interpretation, the cards are never wrong but the reader’s skill in correctly appraising their significance in the matter at hand may be lacking. I have seen this happen when practical assumptions about a card’s meaning are way off the mark, but the psychological import is perfectly aligned with the querent’s present state of awareness. It can take some creative rethinking by the reader, but shifting the angle of attack can often produce the “Aha!” moment that would otherwise remain elusive.

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