How to Read Cards

A Divination Primer.

Before the new print run of the Marshmallow Marseille Tarot went into production (release date May 15) I pondered whether I should include a Little White Book with it or not. If you’re new in the Tarot and oracle deck world, those are the instruction booklets that come with most mass market decks.

Little white blur

In general I don’t support the LWB culture, as I’m not a follower of the Esoteric Tarot lore which is reproduced in most of these tiny texts (and most Tarot books for that matter). In fact I think it’s a trap. You start with a Celtic cross and some “meanings” then move on to the Kabbalah, Golden Dawn, Alchemy, Theosophy, etc. to try to make sense of it. While your cards sit in the drawer and my grandmother reads coffee muck.

When you get to the larger Tarot books -new or old- surprise, same spiel. Same sources Etteilla, Gebelin, Papus, Lévi, a handful of Grand French Magicians serving you Ancient (add culture of choice) fan-fiction. I love these guys -especially Etteilla- it’s all very entertaining, but when it comes to divination they under-deliver. Which is why I suggest people file these texts under for entertainment purposes only.

The French LADS

My first encounter with the LWB was actually not so little. At fifteen I chose the “Original Rider Waite” from the Mass Market Bookshop in Glasgow as my first Tarot, in part because it came with an ‘authoritative’ text included, British occultist A.E. Waite’s own Key to the Tarot. Here’s an excerpt of Waite’s “meaning” for the High Priestess from the Key:

A.E. Waite

“She has been called occult Science on the threshold of the Sanctuary of Isis, but she is really the Secret Church, the House which is of God and man. She represents also the Second Marriage of the Prince who is no longer of this world; she is the spiritual Bride and Mother, the daughter of the stars and the Higher Garden of Eden. She is, in fine, the Queen of the borrowed light, but this is the light of all. She is the Moon nourished by the milk of the Supernal Mother. In a manner, she is also the Supernal Mother herself–that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah–the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below. In the superior world it is called Binah, the Supernal Understanding which reflects to the emanations that are beneath. In the lower world it is MaIkuth–that world being, for this purpose, understood as a blessed Kingdom that with which it is made blessed being the Indwelling Glory. Mystically speaking, the Shekinah is the Spiritual Bride of the just man, and when he reads the Law she gives the Divine meaning. There are some respects in which this card is the highest and holiest of the Greater Arcana.”

Alright-y. I tried. Until I realized it was a waste of my precious Speculative Fiction reading time. It’s fun to read Tarot books, especially the history ones, where you’ll learn that for obvious printing press reasons, the Tarot is not an ancient mystical tool.

Parade rain: it’s just a deck of playing cards, Italian, and commonly used to play games which require a set of Trump cards, such as Tarocchi. Just like the French one you use to play Shithead. We read fortunes with them too. I wont delve into History right now but if you’re interested here’s a quick fix.

The lovely but frankly confusing content of the Esoteric and Occult traditions gives way to a particular phenomenon. You find these similar bits of information repeated all over these keys and it’s all so detached from common sense that you think you must be on to something, a clue. There must be one in that other tome, the bestselling book, the essential one, an exclusive group which promises you more secrets to decode this Holy Ancient Text. No wonder the esoteric Tarot is so popular, it’s like a Scavenger Hunt. A mythical Quest. In the words of the great Captain Malcolm Reynolds: Trap!

I have a lot I would have included in a LWB, none of it would ever be a re-hash of the French lads, or the occultists (I didn’t even get to Crowley here). Because in my experience when it comes to actually reading cards

The Best Little White Book of All – is the deck of cards itself

I stand by this. So I apologize if you open your Marshmallow and find no instruction booklet. But I offer you an alternative shorter Quest, come along with me and perhaps you too will find this out for yourself. I assume you want to read cards. Don’t worry, the secret keys, snakes, golden eggs and brides of heaven are not going anywhere.

What about the divination method? Surely that’s not to be found in the deck. Well the Victorians and the New Age pseudo-analysts will also confuse you with that. Instruct you to cut the deck only from left to right, to invoke this or that power, cleanse the cards with the moon first. Be wary. Actually Waite is at his very best when he lays out his Art of Tarot Divination.

“The modes of operation are rather numerous, and some of them are exceedingly involved. I set aside those last mentioned, because persons who are versed in such questions believe that the way of simplicity is the way of truth

After this he gives the instructions for the Celtic Cross spread and moves on to a second less-than-simple (Etteilla-esque) one which he attributes to Julia Orsini. A french card reader who dissed Etteilla, and Mlle. Lenormand but then proceeded to (sigh) repeat the same old stuff in her writings with lines such as: “Egyptians gave much importance on this hieroglyphic, because they regard the marriage as the absolute will of the Creator.” Julia, is a Scavenger hunt letdown.

Waite’s short Divination Notes near the end of the Key are quite direct and refreshing though:

1. Before beginning the operation, formulate your question definitely, and repeat it aloud.
2. Make your mind as blank as possible while shuffling the cards.
3. Put out of the mind personal bias and preconceived ideas as far as possible, or your judgment will be tinctured thereby.
4. On this account it is more easy to divine correctly for a stranger than for yourself or a friend.

Put out of the mind personal bias and preconceived ideas as far as possible, or your judgment will be tinctured thereby.

Preconceived ideas, you mean like the Supernal Mother? We’ll keep that one for sure and the one about the Question too (which some LWBs tend to skip altogether).

In the end, all these guys (and Julia) do agree on one thing, the Tarot can be used as a magical tool. Specifically to perform divination which in Latin means become inspired by the Gods.

Coming up next. I want to be inspired by the Gods! Continues here.

Jorge Cuaik

Jorge Cuaik

Mexican sorcerer, likes to travel.
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10 months ago

I’ve been enjoying your blog immensely, and look forward to more posts. You mentioned an archived blog. Is that accessible? Thanks!

9 months ago
Reply to  Jorge Cuaik

Awesome! Thanks! 🙂

2 years ago

THIS! OMG, this! So true, and funny with it. I started out 40 years ago with a RWS and whatever books I could find in the library. Uff, “Esoteric Tarot” nearly killed the whole thing for me. It wasn’t until I learned cartomancy that I realised I’d been brainwashed. Now me and Tarot get on just fine, thank you, and books are, as you say, for entertainment purposes only.

Brian Bailey
2 years ago

So accurate and so funny! I like reading and learning about tarot history, but you’re right, much of it is so silly! The cards contain everything you need to know. Thank you for your art and sense of humor. I love your Marshmallow Tarot!

2 years ago

Oh Jorge, I love this. Had me crying with laughter – largely because I agree with everything you’ve said (plus, ‘keep things simple…here’s the Celtic Cross spread’ ). I bought my first deck of tarot cards a decade after opening to spirit mediumistically – definitely the right way round for me – and because I love looking at various styles of artwork, now own loads of decks. Consequently I’ve got a lot of tarot books – haven’t read a single one cover to cover, dipped into a few, but mostly I interpret my readings intuitively, using however many cards feel… Read more »

2 years ago

I love this post and can’t wait to see the follow up!!! … and the new “mer”deck!!!

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