Welcome to the World of Tarot-based Therapy
What comes to your mind when you hear the word Tarot Cards? Is it a late-night seance? Fortune-telling and carnivals? Horror movies and ominous omens? Or are you confused, not really sure what they even are?
A quick search of "Tarot cards definition" on Google will return with all the key words that often are associated with Tarot Cards: divination, fortunetelling, pack of cards, symbolism, card readers, artwork.
The History of Tarot
Tarot cards have taken a bad rap throughout the last couple of centuries, which is ironic, as it was in the latter half of the 20th century that they began being adapted to therapy and mental health practices. The history of tarot is fairly confusing at times, with legend merging with myth and myths merging with facts. That being said, Benebell Wen, an attorney and tarot expert in the San Francisco area, thoroughly outlines the history of tarot in her book, Holistic Tarot.
According to Wen's discussion of the history of the cards, tarot was initially a playing card game originating in Asia around 618AD to 907AD. While there are legends that suggest the use of it as a fortune-telling tool at this time, there apparently are no definitive facts to support this. With trade, tarot made its way to Egypt and eventually Europe during the 14th and 15th century, where the suits were modified to reflect the culture in which is was played. As tarot, which was similar to a bridge-style card game at this point, changed and adapted with the various cultures, it also picked up its modern structure and 78-card count, resulting in 22 "Major Arcana" cards (or major cards) and 56 "Minor Arcana" cards (which are suspected to be the origin of our 52 playing cards today).
Wen points out an interesting fact: during this time churches began banning playing cards for various reasons; however, tarot was allowed due to its popularity with the wealthy, ruling class. It was during this time that it is suspected that tarot became associated with divination and fortune-telling; however, again, no facts definitively point to this. The 18th century brought with it the first verifiable accounts of tarot being used for mysticism by French and English occultists and Freemasons. The 19th century saw the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn popularizing tarot and definitively tying it to the occult movements. In the early 20th century, tarot got a make-over by A. E. Waite, who worked with the artist Pamela Colman Smith, to establish what would become the most popular interpretation of the tarot: the modern Rider-Waite-Smith deck. In the latter half of the 20th century, tarot began being used by psychologists.
Despite this value within the mental health field, it still often gets lumped in with demon possession and other fearful/worrisome topics. And Hollywood hasn't helped with its constant depictions of horror and doom/gloom. Wen states that now we find tarot strongly associated with pagan culture and alternative faith practices, but it's also a tool used by therapists, psychologists, and life coaches. She goes on to sum up the history of tarot in a beautiful way: "Tarot has evolved through the centuries from a card game to a divination tool and is now gaining recognition for its value in psychological science. I liken tarot to yoga: it is a nondenominational practice that may be concomitant with the traditions found in certain faiths, but in modern applications can be used independently. Yoga helps with personal fitness, irrespective of one's faith, and tarot helps with decision-making, irrespective of one's faith."
The Structure of Tarot
Tarot card decks usually follow similar structures. They typically are made up of 22 "Major Arcana" cards and 56 "Minor Arcana" cards. The 22 "Major Arcana" cards, sometimes called "The Majors" represent major life events/archetypes. These include such things as the Hermit card, the Death card, the Tower card, the Fool card, the Sun card, and the Moon card. Each card has its own feel brought alive by various images, and the images have various suggested interpretations. The cards are numbered 0 to 21, and they are often interpreted as a progression through life.
The 56 "Minor Arcana" cards, sometimes called "The Pips," are further broken down into 4 suits: wands (clubs/sticks), cups (hearts/chalices), swords (spades/knives), pentacles (diamonds/coins). The cards within each suit go from 1 to 10, then page, knight, queen, and king. It's basically the same structure as a pack of playing cards, with the addition of an extra face card. Each suit is associated with an element, which in turn, is associated with an area of life. Wands are associated with the element of Fire and the area of passion/energy within life. Cups are associated with the element of Water and the area of emotion/intuition within life. Swords are associated with the element of Air and the area of knowledge/logic/communication within life. Pentacles are associated with the element of Earth and the area of possessions/work/physical life.
Like the major cards, the minor cards also each depict various images of life, and each card carries its own individual feel and energy.
The Uses of Tarot Cards from a Therapy Perspective
So, we've covered the history and the structure of tarot; but what exactly are the uses of tarot cards within the framework of therapy, coaching, enlightenment, and self-growth?
One of the most common ways they are used within a session is to use them for pictorial representations. During this process, the client is asked to look through the cards and pick out a card that best represents the problem they are facing, the people involved in a situation, the way they view themselves, goals they want to achieve, pieces of the Medicine Wheel, etc. Once a card is chosen, then it can be used as a focal point of discussion to further explore the topic that it represents. For instance, a man suffering from insomnia might pick out the Nine of Swords (a card that shows a person crying in bed in the dark, with swords hanging above) to symbolize his struggle. Once the card is chosen, time might be spent exploring what the swords would represent in the card, what the general feeling of the card is, what was the process for choosing this card, or what led up to the person crying in bed, etc. By exploring the metaphor of the card, oftentimes people can gain insight into their original problems.
Even though cards are not used for fortune-telling within a therapy session, "reading them" as traditional tarot cards still has therapeutic value. During this process, a tarot card might be blindly picked from the deck to symbolize the problem a client is facing, the people involved, goals, or underlying issues. Again, the card is explored: what's the feel of this card, how does the traditional meaning of the card add value or insight, how does this card accurately symbolize what it was chosen for, how does this card not work for what it is supposed to symbolize, what does intuition tell you about this card, etc. This process is similar to inkblot activities, where the subconscious is used to pick out "what it sees" within an image. It never ceases to amaze me how the subconscious can make sense out of a random picture, the energy of a person can translate into a physical representation in a card, and how intuition can allow a narrative to flow from a simple symbol. For example, a woman might be struggling with her choices within a relationship, so she blindly picks a card to symbolize her relationship. She chooses The Sun, a card that symbolizes opportunity/optimism and pictures a glowing child riding a horse amidst a shining sun. When asked what this card means to her, she states that the card seems really happy---which is exactly how she feels on the surface within the relationship. Yet she and her partner have differing views on whether or not to have children, and that the child on the horse represents that conflict. For her, exploring the card and the symbols might in turn provide deeper insight into how to proceed with her relationship. It's not magic, demon possession, or calling up spirits--- it's simply giving the subconscious a voice by providing an object for it to project its energy onto/into.
Home Practice with Tarot Cards
You don't have to be a tarot expert to explore your subconscious with a pack of cards. Try getting your own deck and try some of these activities:
Try adapting the above activities to your every-day-life. Look through a deck and pick out a card(s) to symbolize yourself, people within a situation, a problem you are facing, two choices of a decision you are making, etc.
Or if you are facing a situation where you are unsure how to even feel, try pulling a card at random without looking. Look at the card and figure out what the feel of the card is, what do the symbols and artwork stand for. Try reading up on the card at https://www.biddytarot.com/tarot-card-meanings and see if that provides any additional insight.
After choosing your card (either by flipping through them or by blindly picking one), try pairing it with a journaling activity. Write about each card and how the card symbolizes what you chose it to stand for. Read back over what you wrote--- you may be surprised at the insight you uncover or the emotion you release!
Or if you are up for some Archetype-style work, look through the deck and try to find a card whose energy seems to be more what you need right now. For instance, if you are feeling over-socialized, you might pick The Hermit (a card whose image depicts a person walking alone with a lantern). Or if you are feeling unmotivated, maybe you find yourself digging the energy around the Knight of Swords (a card whose image depicts a knight dashing forward at full speed and energy). Once you pick the card, try pretending to be that card throughout your day. Try to capture that image in your actions.
Tarot has had quite the journey from a game of entertainment value to a tool of self-enlightenment with therapeutic benefit. But despite the diverse journey it has had and the negative associations it has picked up, at the end of the day, tarot reminds us to trust our gut instincts and to tap into our intuition.
And don't we all need a little reminder of that? To remember that we can trust our inner self. To remember that we are capable of exploring our issues. To remember that we have power and place in the moment we live.