The Theory of Tarot: Why Tarot Works in Real Life

Tarot's not that hard to understand on the surface: you've got a deck of cards with pictures on them. The pictures represent different things. You shuffle the deck, pull some cards, and see what comes up. Simple, right? But if you look at tarot on a deeper or more serious level, you inevitably encounter the big questions: Does tarot "work"? Can it tell you things about yourself that are accurate in more than a coincidental way? If so, how does it work? Are we talking real magic here? 

Question 1: Does tarot work?

I've seen tarot readings that are spot-on in a way that's amazing and almost creepy, but I've seen a lot more that are just really cool and thought-provoking without necessarily feeling like the specific cards were divinely inspired. Either way, something is working. There's a potent wisdom in tarot that I haven't found anywhere else. These cards connect to all aspects of human experience, and when you put them together, linking card after card in almost endless combinations, you end up with something really powerful. I don't know how to explain it. I just know that it works. The cards aren't perfect, but they say incredible things way more often than they statistically should.

The Ten of Pentacles and The Tower from The Linestrider Tarot

The Ten of Pentacles and The Tower from The Linestrider Tarot

Question 2: Is tarot magic?

Most people who work with tarot consistently will tell you that it's magical -- not in a figurative or metaphorical way, but literally magical. I believe the same thing, but I'll level with you: I don't know what "magic" really is, and when I say that tarot is magic, I'm not sure what that means. Does it mean that there are supernatural forces and lingering spirits guiding your fingers to shuffle the cards in a certain way and cut the deck in a specific place, all so you'll see the exact right cards?

... hey, maybe. (I don't know how the universe works. I'm not ruling anything out.)

My guess, though, is that the magic of tarot is less mysterious than that. The magic comes from our interaction with these cards, and ultimately, the magic isn't found in the cards themselves; the magic is located within us.

Tarot is magic because we are magic.

Maybe an example will help: Have you ever had a song come on the radio at the exact moment when you needed to hear it? Have you thought, "Whoa, that is some bizarre timing"? It can feel kind of magical, kind of meant-to-be. Does it mean that the radio station itself is mystically led, or that the guitars and pianos and drums that made the song years before were charmed with spells and potions? Probably not. A more likely explanation is that we live in a magical world where strange, unlikely, beautiful things happen all the time, and we are magical people who take part in those strange, unlikely, beautiful things and have the ability to notice them when they occur. That's the kind of magic tarot taps into. The magic of existence.

I think tarot harnesses magic in a really special way, for reasons I don't understand, but ultimately, harnessing is all it's doing. It doesn't create magic; it doesn't possess magic. It's just a handy way to access magic.

So here's my  bottom line answer to this question: Yes, tarot is magic. It's magic because of the magic we bring to the table.

The Emperor from The Linestrider Tarot

The Emperor from The Linestrider Tarot

Question 3: Seriously though, what makes tarot work? How and why does a deck of cards consistently say things that are unique and applicable to the individual?

My theory is summed up really well in this quote from the book At the Root of This Longing by Carol Lee Flinders:

"... the knowledge and the truth and clarity we are seeking isn't 'out there' at all, but deep inside. Certain insights want to break out into daylight, but we hold them down, fearing the kind of change that might take place if we knew them experientially and all at once. Down through time, we've evolved different methods, by which they can emerge in small, manageable doses. We throw the I Ching, we deal out tarot cards, we analyze our dreams, and through these fissures in ordinary logic we can in effect nudge ourselves along -- self talking to self in a heavily coded language."

This idea -- the fissures in ordinary logic  theory -- is how I explain tarot's effectiveness. I think there are ways of knowing things that aren't about logic and reason and mathematical formulas. Using a tool that sidesteps ordinary logic opens our eyes to subtle clues, gut feelings, symbols, and when we're tapped into that kind of information, our intuition tells us everything we need to know.

We've all got intuition, and it is so wise. When your intuition wants to say something to your conscious mind, it can be kind of tricky to hear; we're living in a loud, busy world where information has to be backed up with data and pro/con lists in order to be credible. Intuition will speak whatever language it can to make itself heard. Tarot is just one of those languages. In a reading, your conscious mind sees the cards and detects the message your intuition is trying to send. An insightful reader is essentially the translator; the conversation is all yours. 

In other words, here's the gist: Tarot works because it's weird. The weirdness is an essential part of the formula. The method isn't sensible, so the guesses at answers don't have to make obvious sense either. On some level, you recognize that you're already a weirdo who uses tarot, so you may as well dig in to that weirdness and just let your heart's inexplicable truth bubble up. This is how tarot reveals hidden, unexpected insights that nevertheless feel so. freaking. right.

The Queen of Cups from the Smith Centennial Tarot

The Queen of Cups from the Smith Centennial Tarot

Wishing you the most luminous fissures in ordinary logic,

Sara

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