A subject that is usually approached piecemeal in the tarot forums is “What is your favorite card?” More pragmatic readers (and maybe those who don’t want to think too hard) almost invariably reply “all of them,” since every card makes a unique contribution to any reading it appears in and, depending on the context and the cards surrounding it, not always the same contribution every time. I’ve attempted to answer the question when it came up over the years based on my outlook at the time, but I think it merits a more comprehensive examination.
Generally speaking, I side with the pragmatists: my favorite cards at any given moment are the ones that show up in the spread in front of me, since they’re the correct ones for that particular reading. But I do have a few that inspire me to greater depths of analysis and interpretation. For the most part they are trump cards of the higher order, Ten through Twenty-two; the “simple-numbered” trumps, Zero through Nine, submit readily to esoteric number theory in addition to offering their signature symbolism, and are thus potentially less convoluted to decipher.
Among this population, the cards I favor most as an analytical reader are not the most conventionally positive ones. The Hanged Man is especially fascinating, and even more so when it comes up reversed. I don’t really buy the standard definitions of suffering and sacrifice; the knowing smile on the man’s face suggests more of a willing – even welcome – surrender to unconscious forces at work beneath the surface of the matter. In the Thoth version, he is suspended over a vast ocean of concealed knowledge, but instead of dipping his toes into it timidly like more cautious adventurers, he is about to submit his whole head to a dunking. It implies a purposeful quest into the unseen in search of a deeper and more subtle kind of meaning. Without getting too arcane about it (it might in fact mean an “occult initiation,” but certainly not for the average sitter), I consider it a card of contemplation and temporary cessation of effort as the querent becomes immersed in meditative “navel-gazing” or even idle “wool-gathering.” There is a pause in the querent’s affairs that allows them to be reassessed from an entirely different perspective. With reversal, I see the Hanged Man returning from the depths bearing the hidden wisdom he acquired on his sojourn, prepared to reveal it to the world. He is re-emerging into the light of day after a passage through night.
The Moon is another card that offers far more than might be assumed from its common symbolism. This is not the sympathetic, nurturing Mother of the Romantic poets, nor does it represent the emotional architecture of the psyche shown in its astrological expression; like the Devil, it suggests that something is not what it seems to be, the difference being that, instead of malicious deception, a dreamy, illusive misapprehension is implied that hints at more than it reveals. Those furtive things that move under the cover of night are within its purview, as are situations that refuse to come into focus. This is not typically a happy card to receive in a reading.
With Judgement, I dispense with all religious connotations and simply view it as an opportunity to reinvent oneself following a “wake-up call” that can invalidate all previous assumptions about one’s proper path in life. This is a more permanent course correction than that implied by the Tower, which assumes a chance to rebuild on the ruins of the old structure, maybe even salvaging a brick or two. Judgement can be a beneficial card for those individuals seeking some kind of redemption, but a traumatic one for those comfortably entrenched in outworn ways of thinking and acting. As Aleister Crowley said, it “always represents the taking of a definite step,” for good or ill.
Temperance (the Thoth “Art”) always moves me to consider what kind of “finesse is required to deal successfully with the subject of the reading. That finesse typically comes in the form of some kind of judicious action (what I like to call the “Fine Art of Right Action”) when there is a risk of either overreacting or under-reacting to the situation. I never see this as a card of maintaining equilibrium through inertia; it’s more emblematic of the kind of balancing act involved in riding a bicycle, since the apparently straight path achieved by an experienced cyclist is really a sequence of almost imperceptible minor adjustments. I don’t think of Temperance as a card of “healing,” which some people seem to “back-door” their way into by equating its esoteric correspondence of Sagittarius to the notion of the centaur, and thence to a grandly presumptive leap into the domain of the mythological Chiron, the “wounded healer.” All I can say to that is “Arrgh!”