When I was a kid and decided I wanted to be a witch ’cause the world would suck if magic wasn’t real, I went to Walden Books in the mall in Dubuque and picked up a Rider-Waite tarot deck, which I took home, glanced at, and put on a shelf. Holy cow, was that thing confusing. Seventy-eight cards! That was worse than algebra. And then reversals (to this day I don’t use reversals, ’cause, seriously — really? seriously). And there it sat on the shelf in the kitchen near the cupboard for years. Although I did doodle a few of the memorable images in my notes at school. I remember drawing the ten of cups over and over, and the four of wands.
Then I picked up a book on the tarot, not a very good one but a pretty famous one, and started playing with the cards.
And I was hooked.
At first it was reading rote meanings out of the book like a new cook slavishly following a recipe. Then I realized that I didn’t really need the book and half the time it was full of irrelevant nonsense anyway (six of swords — journey by water . . . yeah, that’ll come up in the middle of the midwest).
For years, the Rider-Waite was my go-to, and I didn’t even realize other tarot decks existed until I got a job at a metaphysical bookstore as a teenager and found that not only did other decks exist, but they were awesome! I fell in love with the Cosmic Tarot — it had people who looked like people! Then I discovered the Crowley Thoth deck. At the time I was studying Cabala and ceremonial magic heavily.
That’s about the time I started giving readings for money, just to a few people by word of mouth. I had two rules: I didn’t advertise, so it had to be word of mouth. And it was fifty bucks an hour but I would give them their money’s worth, by doing the Golden Dawn spread laid out in Regardie’s book. I had mastered the spread (it’s a heck of a spread) and could do it in an hour. At the end of it, the querents would look like they’d just run a marathon. If they weren’t satisfied, they could get their money back, no questions asked. No one ever wanted their money back, and I had return business.
I don’t remember how many clients I had, but it wasn’t many and it certainly wasn’t a career. I retired early because I discovered I kind of hated reading for money. The only clients I kept were some close friends who would call me up and ask questions, and they didn’t expect much but a few cards on the table. I’d often just throw one card and read a long string of questions from it. Good practice, so that I didn’t begrudge.
I did, however, wear out the Crowley Thoth deck, and nearly wore out its replacement.
And then, a few years ago, I discovered the Tarot de Marseille. I’ve totally fallen for it. Ever since my Thoth days, I’ve loved unillustrated pips, because they’re so much more flexible. And the TdM is traditional, charming, and composed only as late renaissance printers could do. And all the good books on it are in French, which gives me a good excuse not to read them all.
Just kidding. Some are in Spanish, too.
But seriously, while there are really elaborate and interesting books on the philosophy and structure and numerology of the TdM, for me it’s a hands-dirty kind of deck. And that’s what I like about systems of divination like the TdM (and, for that matter, the Lenormand, the other object of my cartomancy-fancy). One can build beautiful and erudite systems of intellectual spirituality out of them, and that’s awesome. I love that sort of thing. But ultimately, it’s about where the wheels hit the road. It’s about use, and there’s something practical, rough, and DIY about the cards that appeals to me. Even the Lenormand, perhaps surprisingly considering its history, feels less in the head and more in the hand. You learn the cartomancy not by flipping through books, but by developing shuffling callouses.
For someone like me, who lives in his head most of the time, that’s a pretty useful lesson to learn from the cards.