BY MICHAEL STERLING
As a tarot reader, I get questions about the accuracy and authenticity behind my readings. Which is understandable, I suppose; people don't want to pay for something they're unsure of being benefited by. I explain to potential clients that accuracy isn't the point, but many persist in wanting to know if tarot can give them definitive answers.
The short answer to this question is: no. Tarot will not hand you "yes" or "no" on a silver platter. No oracle or source of divine inspiration will give you answers so concrete.
Would you really want that anyway?
Tarot pulls from the deepest stretches of our subconscious to pluck on the strings of what witches and occultists variously label intuition, "the Knowing", Spirit, etc. A reading isn't predicting our future, tarot helps us remember what we already know. Each card provides a portal to a set of memories and feelings that exist in both our conscious and unconscious minds. Laying the cards out is a tangible way for us to organize, manage, and explore ourselves. One could argue that tarot isn't all that "magical" after all (though tarot is absolutely magical, and I'll get to that later).
The average person probably doesn't research tarot enough to know that, though, which is understandable. The art of reading cards has been a part of occult practices since at least the 18th century, though many occult leaders and writers argue that cartomancy (the art of divination through cards) dates as far back as the ancient Fertile Crescent. In all of that time, tarot has remained in the cultures of the most marginalized and oppressed, as much of witchcraft and occult practice has.
People tend to be scared or believe that the cards are "bullshit", as a stranger attempted to explain to me; the dominant group has been the latter in more recent history. To the majority of society, tarot is a game of smoke and mirrors, and those who put stock in it are thought to be delusional. This delusion is a form of what the American Psychological Association refers to as "magical thinking."
According to psychologists, magical thinking is a form of non-scientific belief that attempts an explanation of the world around us. Superstition, ritual, and spellcrafting are just a few examples of belief practices that are labeled as delusional. This is seen as something that occurs normally in young children, however, due to their lack of logical development. But when present in the minds of human beings older than the age of 7, magical thinking is viewed as a form of mental deficit or illness meant to be corrected.
Some critics of this therapeutic standpoint argue that children had it right from the beginning. According to Alison Gopnik, writer of an essay for Slate titled "The Real Reason Children Love Fantasy", this method of viewing the world isn't a delusion of early childhood, it's evidence of the development of a scientific mind. Gopnik argues that children are "intuitive scientists" who freely theorize and explore their universe in a way that brings them joy and motivation. The theories are the most crucial part. She writes, "A theory not only explains the world we see, it lets us imagine other worlds, and, even more significantly, lets us act to create those worlds." Children aren't escaping or denying reality; they imagine, and so create, a better world.
Now imagine what we would be like if we encouraged this way of thinking as a form of healthy development. What if we collectively saw the lens of magical thinking as an evolutionary trait that has been present in us since birth, and have simply dismissed as society said it was "time to grow up?" This ability to shape our reality based on our intentions shouldn't be a stretch; when we focus on something and dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of it, we make it happen. Magical thinking isn't delusion; it is tangible hope for a brighter future.
That's what tarot and magic are: tangible ways for us to grasp onto hope. Hettie Judah writes about how witchcraft & the occult has, and continues to shape creative culture in her article for Frieze titled "How Witchcraft Continues to Cast Its Spell on Artists' Magical Thinking." She argues that magical thinking is not something specific to a point in human history, but is something that evolves as society grows and changes.
We create new rituals and collective spaces to bring our hope to be manifested; experiences such as placing padlocks for lovers on bridges, and the old rhyme that goes, "Something old / something new /something borrowed / something blue..." are a few that come to mind. Ritual and superstition exist in our lives, regardless of our subscription to witchcraft & the occult. We search for ways to understand our relationship to the Earth and the surrounding universe; that underlying truth has never changed.
Regardless of how "true" our magical thinking is, the more we search for a better world, the closer we are to finding it. Pulling tarot cards, praying, and performing ritual are ways in which we grasp at the world we want to live in. So next time, instead of asking a witch or a tarot reader if their work is accurate, lean into the mystery that led you to question the cards in the first place.