As I frequent larger Facebook tarot groups, I encounter advice for reading the cards that recommends to beginners “Just go with your gut, don’t think about it,” which seems to be book-ended by “There is no right or wrong way, so whatever feels right is “right for you.” As a thinking person, I have some fundamental problems with these rather breezy bromides. One of the seven Hermetic principles is “The Universe is Mental.” If that is true, everything in it is subject to a logical or rational explanation, with a main premise and substantiating corollaries, including the more tenuous or “spiritual” aspects even if we don’t yet grasp the arcane “mental physics” that I’m convinced lie beneath them. (The Hermetic Qabalah does a good job of clarifying this for those attuned to its subtleties.) It is the form of mentation that underlies the exhortations and exaltations of ceremonial magic, that which Aleister Crowley termed “The Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity to Will.” In tarot it is the creative “will” of the Magician and the transformative “art” of Temperance.” Cause-and-effect is the order of the day in a well-regulated Universe, and it is contrary to chaos theory*, which assumes that entropy compels everything to become more disorganized and less consistently predictable over time, thus opening the door for intuitive guesswork.
We could say that everything is relative and context-driven, and no two things (or tarot-card interpretations) can be congruent to exactly the same degree, just as natal astrology assumes that no two people can be identical because they cannot occupy the exact same spot on the Earth at the instant of birth. This invites all kinds of binary hair-splitting, in which the operative tenet is “it depends.” Is red more “right” than blue? It depends on what kind of picture you’re painting. Is Two more “right” than One? It depends on whether or not you’re seeking a relationship. Is the Devil a “good guy” or a “bad guy?” It usually depends on whether you’re the tempter or the target. But there is an underlying coherence holding it all together that yields to mental scrutiny: our only way of truly understanding and describing the Universe is through our cerebral faculties; emotion is not understanding, it is only a more-or-less automatic, non-verbal response to stimulus, and sensation is also merely a brute (and mute) reaction (except for the “Oww!” or “Ahh!” that sometimes accompanies it): if it feels good it must be right. These phenomena must be put into words before we can begin to integrate them intelligently into our persona; otherwise they remain only inarticulate urges and unexamined complexes. We can make assumptions and draw inferences from them (such as the likelihood of repeatability) but ultimately there is no reliable baseline unless we create an empirical database of our conclusions and their consequences (something that I don’t see happening with divination any time soon). The primarily irrational (or, more precisely, “supra-rational”) modes of interpretation seem to be behind the notion that whatever you feel about the cards in a reading is going to be accurate. To that I say “Good luck!”
I’m no stranger to intuition (although I think it’s an overused and slightly misunderstood word among tarot enthusiasts). Intuition is mystically-derived insight (aka “hunch” or “sixth sense”) that comes to us through occluded channels within the subconscious and thereto ostensibly from a higher order of consciousness. It’s not validation, nor is it infallible; only the real-time outcome of a reading can supply that and, at least in my experience, when reading for others we’re not going to get it most of the time. In my personal practice, I press my own intuition into the service of storytelling by using it to choose which of several story-arcs is likely to emerge as the most probable trajectory of a particular combination of cards. Beyond a small amount of free-association from the images to fuel my metaphorical reading style, I seldom apply it to the interpretation of single cards in isolation, whether alone or as part of a spread, instead relying on my extensive divining experience to find their rightful place in the overall puzzle; in short, my approach is more analytical than intuitive, although it partakes of both. Our intuition may seem robust but too often it can amount to self-deception as we seek the answer we “know” must be there.
*Chaos: “When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.” (Edward Lorenz)