Divination as a meditative art

Tarot Diary
My tarot philosophy

Each deck tends to have its own personality that arises through repeated use. A deck doesn't inherently have a personality, and some decks are just dead and empty for the purposes of their specific readers. It's kind of like how each person who uses Siri has a slightly different impression of her personality (I basically only use Siri in the maps app, and I'm completely horrible at navigation, so we have an antagonistic relationship.)

You can't get anything out of a deck or a reading that you don't put into it, and vice versa. To use another technology analogy: AIs and neural networks replicate human biases because humans programmed them. (I wrote this metaphor last year, before AI blew up as the new hot tech controversy. Ha Ha Ha.) The cards can help you see past your subconscious biases, but they can't give you information you couldn't otherwise comprehend.

Similarly: play stupid games, win stupid prizes. If you ask the cards if you're pregnant, they will say yes. If you ask the cards "Damn, you shit with that fart?" they will say yes. (Real examples.)

My decks

Right now I have three tarot decks, the 5 Cent Tarot, the Transient Light Tarot, and the Seventh Sphere Tarot; a bespoke tarot deck, the Normal Tarot; and one Major Arcana-only Muppets-inspired deck. I also have a three-card set I bought as a mystery pack at an art fair, but after I got home I realized the package didn't have the artist's name on it :( they're really cool tho.

The imagery in the 5 Cent deck is mostly animal-based, and it tends toward images over coherent scenes, unlike a RWS deck. I like the use of animals especially when doing readings for other people, since it makes it easier for non-tarot experts to read into the symbolic meaning of the cards. It's very helpful to be able to build a connection to specific cards in a reading based on your connection with the animals! It also includes four nonstandard major arcana: The Unknown, The Beyond, The Universe, and The Messenger. The Transient Light hews closer to the traditional RWS deck, but with some changes that make it less strictly gendered.

The Seventh Sphere deck has become my go-to, especially when I'm doing readings for myself. It pretty closely adheres to the RWS designs, which makes it easy to look up interpretations of the cards and apply them to my readings. The cards themselves are gorgeous and come with holographic edges, which makes them fun to play with.

I'm still working out how I feel about the Normal Tarot, which uses its own suits and symbols, and how best to use it. The Muppet deck, however, is my newest one but already an absolute fave. It was a Christmas 2022 gift from my mother, and I've had huge success giving people single-card readings for their upcoming year. The Muppet imagery is super easy to understand and get invested in, like the animal imagery is in the 5 Cent deck.

The only drawbacks of the 5 Cent and Transient Light decks - as well as many other decks, I'm not singling these two out, they're just the ones I own and use - is that some of the changes they make to the standard format found on the RWS cards contradict the underlying logic/philosophy of the tarot. Not to get into the whole complicated, contradictory, controversial history of tarot, but the meanings of the cards are at the very least inspired by esoteric, occult traditions, and adding cards or changing their names changes the implication of the cards. I would go so far as to say it narrows the possible meanings. You could think of tarot as both a book you can read and a language you can use to construct meaning at the same time, so it's not that I dislike those choices - different people read and write with tarot cards in different ways - but it doesn't work as well for the kinds of interpretations I do.

Also, if I'm out and about and I don't have my deck with me, I also use the Golden Tarot mobile app, an app that hasn't been updated since 2017 and that I haven't updated in much longer. It's completely busted but I like it that way. I have given up on my dedication busted old technology and started using the newer Labyrinthos app by the same company.

Some favorite spreads

I didn't invent any of these, but I can't find the source for most of them anymore. Just btw. I also talk a bit about the meaning of reversed cards in the examples, but I tend not to interpret reversals that literally anymore. There are a few cards, like the Queen of Swords, where I think a reversal comes with interesting implications, but otherwise it feels like dwelling too much on whether a card is reversed limits your interpretation.

The yes or no spread

Not only is this the best way I've found to ask yes or no questions in tarot form, it injects a lot of drama to the experience. For obvious reasons, tarot decks lend themselves to open-ended questions, but this can give you degrees of yes or no answers (strong yes, probably, maybe, probably not, and fuck no) as well as giving context for the answer.

Shuffle, then divide the deck into four stacks. Take the first stack and begin flipping cards over either until you find an ace or reach 13 cards. Then do the same for the other three stacks (keeping them separate!)

If you have four aces, that's a yes! Three is probably, two is maybe, one is probably not, and zero means there is zero chance. Your four visible cards will also give you some insight into the nature of the situation you're asking about.

Here’s an example: Should I take it easy this week, instead of trying to fill my time with activities? This spread only ended up giving me one Ace, which would indicate a no. It’s also the Ace of Vessels (or Cups), which stands for abundance and nourishment. We’ve also got the 6 of Vessels, for happy nostalgia; the 8 of Swords, which is usually a sucky card that represents bad news and conflict; and the reversed Keeper (or Queen) of Wands, which could mean jealousy or selfishness.

I would take this to mean that going out and spending as much time with other people as possible would be healing and gratifying (especially since the people I’ll be seeing this week are old high school friends), and that staying in my room and getting in my head will lead to, in short, FOMO.

Dream interpretation spread

I've done this spread for other people several times, and I've found it's incredibly helpful for interpreting anxiety-inducing dreams. I tend not to approach it from a "the cards can tell me exactly what your dream is about" perspective, but rather as a conversation using the cards to indicate alternative meanings that the dreamer might not have considered. I've never used this spread for a person who isn't a chronic oversharer, though, so your mileage may vary on how effective it is.

Before you start, write down everything you remember about the dream. If you're interpreting your own dream you would ideally do this right when you wake up. Then, make a list of the most important bullet points. These can be events, images, or strong emotions. For example: I cast was in a play based on an imaginary Italian film but felt ambivalent about it, I felt a strong sense of dread, I left to go to a party at my old high school, I couldn't find my car in the parking lot. These can be as many or as few as you want, but a list of more than six is probably too unfocused to make for a useful reading.

Now shuffle your cards and draw one to represent the dream as a whole, the gestalt or overarching message. Then draw one card to represent each of your bullet points. Finally, you'll draw two more cards and stack the first on top of the second. The first card represents what the dream means for you right now, and the second represents what hasn't yet been revealed to you or what you don't yet understand.

So the above example is not an actual dream I had, but the pieces are pulled from a couple different dreams. (I don't want to reveal my subconscious THAT publicly online, lol.) Here’s our results:

  • Crown of Wands: The card usually known as the King of Wands is full of dark yet friendly energy. It’s visionary and purposeful, representing a person or situation that’s inspiring and reveals truth. For the card that represents the dream as a whole, that’s a pretty cool one to get.
  • 9 of Wands: Wow lots of Wands in this one, the suit of fire and passion. This card represents a judicious opposition. A lot of Wands cards are action-oriented, but this one is about taking a firm stance.
  • Apprentice of Vessels: Maybe I’m just bad at shuffling, but I keep getting this one. The Page or Apprentice of Vessels stands for creativity, reflection, and meditation, and this deck describes the Apprentice as “both the potter and the clay.”
  • Ace of Swords (reversed): Aces are the spark or starting point of the suit, and the Ace of Swords is the beginning of a journey towards knowledge and conquest. Reversed, it might indicate a doomed journey.
  • 8 of Wands: Now this is a card about swift action, promising success. Pretty straightforward here.
  • 7 of Wands: I am bad at shuffling. No, actually, it represents negotiation or competition; you might seem backed into a corner, but you have the high ground. It also indicates success.
  • The World: Our first Major Arcana in this spread, and it’s the culmination of the major league. Since we’re looking at a very personal spread, you could call it the achievement of personal enlightenment, harmony between the inner and outer worlds. It also signals the happy end of an era.

Taking the first and last two cards together, I’d say this spread indicates that this dream is trying to tell me that there’s a situation in which I feel stuck or powerless, but I’m actually in a good position to find truth and enlightenment in it. For the other four cards, the ones that represent specific moments of the dream, we have two cards that represent a form of stasis and two that represent movement or exploration. You could interpret this a lot of different ways based on the person you’re reading for, but for me I’d say that careful choices and taking time for reflection has served me well, but taking firm actions will help me move on from experiences in my past. That ties in nicely with the final card being The World, as the representation of that which I don't yet have the tools to understand.

A new deck interview spread

There are lots and lots of ways to interview a new deck, but I got this one from Little Red Tarot. It’s pretty easy: Shuffle your cards as normal, and then draw six, one for each of the following questions.

  • What is your most important characteristic?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your limits?
  • What are you here to teach me?
  • How can we best collaborate?
  • What is the potential outcome of our working relationship?

Here’s an example, from the interview spread I did for the Transient Light Tarot Deck.

  • The Lovers: A.E. Waite ties The Lovers very closely to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. It’s a pretty straightforward card, so I like to bring in a little bit of that interpretation to give it some specificity — it’s not just “love,” but it represents a covenant and something like the honeymoon period. It’s love in an uncorrupted state. In this deck, the two halves of the locket represent two people (or a person and a tarot deck, lol) as connected but open, a balance of freedom and vulnerability.
  • 6 of Vessels: Cups (or Vessels) is the suit that’s most closely tied to emotions and the element of water. The 6 of Cups typically signifies nostalgia or happy memories. In this deck, it’s represented by a memory box, connecting objects to important parts of yourself. It can also mean taking joy in a new environment, or introducing the new to the old.
  • The Keeper of Swords: Traditionally the Queen of Swords, the maternal authority on matters of intellect and the mind, this deck interprets it as a representation of the wisdom to turn knowledge into compassion. The Queen of Swords has been interpreted as a symbol of wit and perception or as the ultimate hot girl bummer by different sources, and if we’re using this card to represent the deck’s limits, I think using it to show mourning and separation is appropriate in this case.
  • The Magician: An amazing card to get in a deck interview. It represents harmony between the elements (as represented by the four suits of cards) as well as skill, resourcefulness, and manifestation. This is someone who connects mind, body, and soul and knows how to use them.
  • Apprentice of Vessels (reversed): Another Cups card. Reversed, our sweet baby angel of Cups becomes immature, representing escapism and stymied feelings.
  • 5 of Vessels: Another Cups card! I love the imagery of this one. Instead of the usual three cups spilled/two cups upright, this deck uses three broken eggs and two whole eggs. The message is the same: That which remains after loss, a silver lining. It can indicate an inheritance that isn’t exactly what you expected.

Overall, this is a really fun result to get from an interview spread. I’d say that this deck wants to interpret personal situations both new and old, but it’s probably not appropriate for big, depressing questions or working through grief. Its answers might not be what I want to hear, but it’s a deck that can help with personal growth.

Celtic Cross writing prompt

This is from Alexander Chee's newsletter, The Querent. He describes it as a way to use tarot cards to better understand a scene that's giving you trouble. The Celtic Cross is a spread that asks comprehensive questions about a given scenario, so it translates really well to a writing exercise.

For funsies, I tried using it recently to get a better grasp on how to start a short story I'd outlined, and it worked really well. (I did it using the tarot app on my phone, so no picture.)

The questions, and the cards I drew:

  1. Who is in this scene? The Wheel of Fortune
  2. What is in their way currently? 8 of Swords
  3. What is the more immediate past—the influence that is leaving? Knight of Pentacles
  4. What is headed toward them, the immediate future? 8 of Cups
  5. What is the reason this character believes they are in this situation for—the goal they have, even some higher life goal above the others that aligns, perhaps, with this? Judgement
  6. What is the unconscious drive, what might they not be aware of that makes decisions for them, even disguised as what they believe is their higher life goal? 2 of Pentacles
  7. How do other people around them see them? Or, how do they self-sabotage in the pursuit of their goals? The Fool
  8. Who or what are the external forces in the situation that will affect the outcome, out of their control and perhaps unknown to them? 5 of Swords
  9. What do they hope is possible, and what do they fear is possible? 5 of Wands
  10. Where does all of this take them? Which is to say, how can this become a plot? Ace of Swords

I won't go through the whole thing because that would be insufferably long, but the scene I was working on takes place between a student activist and a college administator, which is going to spiral into censure and cyber-conspiracy.

The first thing that popped out to me were the three major arcana cards, each of which really helped me flesh out my main character. I was already planning to make her a climate activist, and the Wheel of Fortune made me think about that in an interesting new way. The Wheel of Fortune references the ancient practice of sacrificing a king in winter to bring back the spring - which both shows reverence for the power of nature and creates a human intervention into that power. Which is a really interesting place to situate a modern character's perspective on the environment and climate change! Having Judgement represent that character's personal beliefs also adds a lot of texture - on the positive side, it represents rebirth and a sense of meaning that endures beyond death, but it can also indicate obsession and paranoia. Very fun for a character whose life I'm going to steal and replace with a digital clone. Finally, The Fool is great because it's, like, The Protagonist Card. It represents a challenge to the status quo and also naivety, but this position in the spread specifically represents other people's perception of the character.

The other thing I love about this spread is how many swords there are. From the second card, the situation that must be challenged, being the 8 of Swords (unquestioned beliefs and knee-jerk reactions as protection against discomfort) to the 5 of Swords representing the external forces driving the conflict (disagreement or destruction driven by self-interest and feelings of inadequacy). I also love that the card immediately following the 5 of Swords is the 5 of Wands - that Swords, the suit that represents logic and intellect, is the stand-in for the antagonist and Wands, the suit representing passion, inspiration, and willpower, represents what the protagonist hopes for. When I'm interpreting wand cards, I always like to keep in mind the idea that the saving gift Prometheus gave humanity in Greek mythology was fire, the element associated with Wands.

Favorite cards
  • The Magician
  • Temperance
  • Queen of Wands
  • Five of Cups
  • Six of Cups
  • Eight of Swords
  • Ten of Swords
  • Ten of Pentacles
  • See more
Pick a card

Which tarot card are you?