Tarot is a tool used by many people. There is no one single commonality amongst all the people who use the cards, except of course the cards themselves. One of the things that shapes how a person would use the cards is their beliefs. Tarot’s structure makes it well suited as a map for many belief systems, including my own current explorations using shamanic practices and applying shamanic beliefs. As is the case with so many different belief systems and practices, there are several obvious parallels between shamanism and tarot. These parallels are not unique to shamanism and tarot. You can, and many have, drawn parallels between tarot and other systems for understanding the world.
1. Structure (or, in a sense, cosmology)
Tarot has a structure: Major Arcana, Minor Arcana, four suits, numbered cards, and court cards. Shamanism also has a basic cosmology (or shared structure of the world) that includes the Upper World, Middle World, and Lower World. It also distinguishes between Ordinary Reality and Non-Ordinary Reality. I would not go so far as to say that these distinctions relate directly. The similarity is that they bring a specific structure to the human experience and structure is what helps us understand, describe, and talk about our experiences.
2. A Way to Find (Divine) Answers
One of the most popular uses of tarot cards is in readings. Readings are ways that people seek answers, inspiration, and guidance. Journeys are a shamanistic technique that allows the journeyer to find answers, inspiration, and guidance. Another subcategory parallel is that you can do a tarot reading for yourself as well as for someone else, and you can also journey for yourself or on behalf of someone else.
Both tarot and shamanistic journeys depend on the intent of the diviner and the clarity of question as well as the practitioner’s skill with symbol recognition and interpretation. One difference between the two is that some tarot readers can answer multiple questions using only one spread of the cards while most people journey on only one question at a time.
4. Influence of the Practitioner
Some readers agree that there are basic meanings to each card (although not all readers agree on this), but even within the range of basic meanings, a reader brings his or her own personal interpretations to the reading. Similarly, there can be shared symbolism amongst journeyers (for example, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies has a program devoted to the Mapping of Non-Ordinary Reality, most people who journey interpret their experiences, whether for themselves or for another, based on their personal relationships with the entities that they encounter and the experiences that they have.
Most readers translate the cards into “plain English” so that the interpretation makes sense to the person receiving the reading. Shamanistic practitioners, when they journey for someone else, often give the interpreted message without explaining what they experienced during their journey. This has been my experience in classes and group work as well as when I’ve been on the receiving end of shamanic services.
Both readers and shamanic practitioners, in general, seek to do good, to provide healing and encouragement and comfort where they can. The intention is to help and most work hard to provide the information discovered, whether in a reading or during a journey, with love and respect.
Or perhaps it is enough to illuminate a specific corner of someone’s world.
Many tarot readers believe that the question asked before the cards are shuffled and spread is very important. There are many facets of discussion about this, though, and no universal agreement. There are probably just as many readers who do not have their clients ask a question. However, for those who find questions useful, it’s always interesting to think about how to phrase a good question.
Years ago I read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry (published by Penguin Books) and one passage (pp 60 – 61, paperback edition, 2005) struck me as so interesting I copied it out in a journal. I’ll reproduce it here.
“The greatest challenge of science, its art, lies in asking an important question and framing it in a way that allows it to be broken into manageable pieces, into experiments that can be conducted that ultimately lead to answers. To do this requires a certain kind of genius, one that probes vertically and sees horizontally.
Horizontal vision allows someone to assimilate and weave together seemingly unconnected bits of information. It allows an investigator to see what others do not see, and to make leaps of connectivity and creativity. Probing vertically, going deeper and deeper into something, creates new information. Sometimes what one finds will shine brilliantly enough to illuminate the whole world.
….To see questions in these ways requires a wonder, a deep wonder focused by discipline, like a lens focusing the sun’s rays on a spot on paper until it bursts into flame. It requires a kind of conjury.”
From this observation, I took four main points:
1. Ask an important question
This does beg the question “how does one know what is an important question.” Perhaps we know intuitively or perhaps we ask the question and wring out all the answers we can and determine the importance of the question based on the significance of the answers.
A common example of what many consider a “bad” or “less useful” or in the words used here “not important question” would be something like: Is my ex going to come back to me?
The answer could be yes or no or maybe. But how significant is that answer to the asker’s life? How is it going to change or illuminate them?
Some readers would encourage digging deeper. For example, asking why the person is having trouble letting go of the relationship, how this information would shape his or her present actions, or how can the wound caused by the ending of the relationship be healed?
2. Frame the question in a way that creates manageable pieces
This is where spread selection is influenced. After assessing the question and determining the facets of it that may yield the most useful information, use (or design) a spread that can best reflect these aspects.
3. Probe horizontally
After the cards are laid out for the reading, scan them looking for patterns and connectivity. Use that information to pinpoint insights. This aspect of reading, especially the initial scan, can answer the whats and the hows of a situation.
4. Probe vertically
I found it fascinating that by delving deeper, we actually create new information. “Create” rather than “discover.” Part of going deeper is asking “why.” So, in a relativistic way (in which the observer influences the outcome), probing vertically “creates” new information that can influence the outcome, either of a situation or of the insight and/or guidance gleaned from the reading. When we “create” new information, we can then cycle back to the probing horizontally, seeing how the new information affects the previously established patterns or creates new ones. Again, this aspect can answer the whys of a situation.
If used, these steps can create an interactive, dynamic reading that will provide more insight than a simple, static one. Answering what one might call a “non-important” question may give someone comfort (or the opposite, depending on the answer). But spending time with any question and teasing out its complex layers can lead to the “important” question nestled within the surface concern. Once you find that question, you open the door to greater illumination.