I Liked Tarot Cards Before They Were Cool

The popular playing cards are back.

Author by John Devore
Credit: Twisha Patni

I’m really not one of those annoying know-it-alls who can’t wait to explain how they liked this band or that fashion before it was cool. I once worked with a guy who stood behind me and said, apropos of nothing, “I liked Sriracha before it was cool” as I was squirting the hot sauce on my reheated leftovers in the kitchen. I’d like to mention he also used to wear a fedora around the office. So let me be clear: I am not this type of person.

That said, I liked tarot cards before they were cool.

I just feel like I have a right to say this about one thing I was truly into before it became popular. And tarot cards are popular. The BBC recently cited a report from US Games Systems, a publisher of tarot cards, that says sales of tarot cards were up by 30% last year. It’s a real trend. The fashion house Dior is using tarot card imagery in their designs. Lifestyle sites like Goop are selling tarot card decks for as much as $50.  A professional reading in New York City can cost as much as $250. And it’s not just tarot that is hot: The New York Post reported findings from industry analysis firm IBIS World that spiritual practices like astrology, palm reading, as well as tarot, is worth $2 billion annually.

I can even watch tarot card readings on the internet. Oh, what a time to be alive.

There are countless theories as to why so many people are seeking metaphysical answers to Earthly questions. Long story short: if you think the world is ending, why not? I am no expert on social trends but I have my own answers. When life is stressful, or I feel a little lost, I read my tarot cards. The ritual itself forces me to slow down and concentrate on my thoughts.

I am not superstitious. I do not believe in evil spirits (unless we’re talking tequila). I read my cards, and they read me.

In, fact, I read my cards this past weekend. I’ve been feeling pretty unmotivated so I drew three cards: The Prince of Swords, the Nine of Cups, and the Fool. Then I sighed because the cards were spot on. I will get back to that in a moment.

I have been reading my own tarot cards for over twenty years. This is not something I usually bring up in mixed company. “Hey, bro, how are you?” “Good, good. Just pulled a Five of Wands card so I’m having to think real hard about the conflicts in my life, and whether or not any are easily avoidable, bro.”

A therapist once asked me if I had a mindfulness practice—we had been talking about meditation and prayer. I joked that I read tarot cards because they didn’t require health insurance which caused him to inhale sharply and then ask “Do you believe in magic?” No, I responded, I don’t believe in magic. I’m not Dr. Strange. (I, mean, I’d make an excellent wizard because I love capes.) Then he told me my time was up and I cut him a check for one hundred and fifty dollars. But I do believe in taking twenty minutes out of my day, shuffling 78 colorful cards, dealing out three, or five, or twelve, and trying to make sense of each card’s pictures, symbols, and words.

The cards don’t tell the future. Anyone who says otherwise is a fraud. Fortune tellers are fun, but I wouldn’t make any important life choices based on what they say. Pick your own lottery numbers.

The future depends, largely, on two things: the decisions you make, and the decisions the universe makes for you. What Tarot cards help me do is meditate on the former. The world is stressful—and beautiful, and scary, and unknowable—and I have very little control over my fortunes. So I don’t think it hurts to steal a little time from my overstuffed day to check in on myself, even if it means playing a card game that helps me focus on who I am and could be.

I use the same deck that was given to me by the woman who taught me how to read them. Her name was Linda. I am fairly certain she was not a witch. Linda was an Englishwoman many decades my senior who I had befriended in college. She adopted strays. Her apartment was a cozy mess of books as if an ancient library had erupted through the hardwood floors and grew wild. We would talk about philosophy, and politics, her girlfriends, and mine. Then she’d light incense and we’d sit on pillows and read tarot. Maybe we’d listen to Tori Amos, because, you know, it was the ‘90s.

“The cards are just cards,” she’d say with a wink. “But let’s see what they say anyway.”

She taught me that I am a living story. A love story. Underdog story. Success story. A comedy, a tragedy, a melodrama. In my life, I will overcome monsters and be reborn, multiple times. My heart will break. My heart will bloom. My heart will glow like lava, and then cool. I will stumble in the dark and fall to my knees before the light. I am a skeleton wearing a coat of many myths. That’s why humans watch movies, and read books, and listen to music. It’s why we try to spook each other around the campfire. We hunger for the stuff we’re made from.

Linda told me to think of these cards as both lanterns and mirrors: torches that illuminate dark passages and looking glasses that reflect back different versions of what they are shown. Each individual tarot card tells a story. For the duration of a reading, they are telling my story. The 22-major arcana, or trump, cards feature characters like The Lovers, or The Hermit, each one symbolizing a deeply human idea or emotion. Fear, lust, joy, hope. The remaining cards are divided into four suits, each with four court cards, much like our modern playing cards. The cards can shake loose old memories, or open up potential new directions, or show what can happen if we take mental sledgehammers to walls.

Modern life doesn’t allow much room for personal make-pretend. There’s too much to do. Too many screens to scroll. Too many anxieties to ignore. We rarely give ourselves the gift of wondering where we came from, where we are, and where we would like to go.

The origins of tarot are clouded by history but most experts tend to agree they first appeared in 15th century Italy. She had all kinds of decks from different eras. Each came with their own history lesson. Tarot cards and occultism had a revival in 19th century Victorian England—an era of incredible social upheaval—especially among the upper-class. Famous writers like Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Conan Arthur Doyle and poet W.B. Yeats were obsessed with the supernatural. In fact, the deck I use was designed by Aleister Crowley, a late 19th-century mystic famous for his knowledge of arcana… and wild hedonism. He was brilliant, and a total creep. His deck is full of icons and archetypes from throughout human civilization.

Explaining the history of tarot always made my therapist roll his eyes.

As I mentioned, I dealt three tarot cards the other day. As I have done, from time to time, during my entire adulthood. I chose a simple three card arrangement. The first card helps me rethink the past. The second, the present. The future is the third. There are other ways to deal your cards but this is a simple, and fast, one. I also put on some Tori Amos.

I like to think Linda would be pleased that I’ve continued to read my tarot cards. She was the first person to actually use my deck. Pulled off the shrink wrap. The cards are frayed at the edges, and slightly bent now, but twenty years ago they were fresh and new. Her fingerprints are part of my story. She passed on many years ago and I miss her lectures on art and history as the kettle whistled.

The first card: The Prince of Swords can represent a smart, if impulsive, man. He is often full of great ideas but doesn’t follow through on them. This could be a person I know, or, even me. I have, certainly, been dragging my feet on projects, including taking better care of myself. The Nine of Cups can signal well-deserved happiness and success. This card represents a potential future where my wishes come true—but only if I put in the work. The future is not set. So make wise choices.

The middle card that represents the here and now was The Fool. Linda adored this card. The Fool is, traditionally, a blindfolded man taking a step off a cliff. The Fool card is a card about wisdom and self-knowledge. The Fool trusts himself.  He is courageous and is not afraid of the future. He leaps before he looks. Which is a bad idea when you’re standing at an actual cliff but is pretty good advice when it comes to living the best life you can live. The Fool jumps and laughs all the way down because fools have faith in love. The cards are just cards. But that’s not bad advice.

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.