Learning Tarot

This wasn’t a direct question to the blog, but was sent to a mailing list I’m on. A member asked for tips on learning tarot.

Ideas (caveat: not every reader reads the same way, even when they use the same divination tools, and not all of these may be equally or at all useful for the way your own mind works, so ymmv):

1. If you know the basic meanings of the cards now, then put the books away for a while and start creating your own “book,” based on your own experience with your own readings. This will require that you do practice readings on yourself and on other people, so you can get feedback. Keep track of them; write them down. Leave space to go back later and make additional notes as things come to light down the road. This can be as simple as a record of the cards you lay for a given reading, or as complex as a place to brainstorm and/or meditate on individual cards, make associations with various symbols, keep track of what cards come up for certain querents or what elements come up for certain types of queries over time, etc.

2. Think of the cards as words/vocabulary, and the layout as your sentence structure. After a while, you may be able to read without a predetermined layout, just pulling cards as you go / as your querent talks, but when you’re just starting out, it can help to confine yourself to a predetermined sentence structure (ie, layout), and practicing extensively with one layout can help you get experience interpreting individual cards within that particular “sentence structure.” That can sometimes help you learn to extract the core meaning from a card that can then be transferred to/expanded upon within a particular context or setting. (Regular three-card readings, for instance, are, in my opinion, a lot more useful a lot more quickly for this than are single-card daily readings or extended layouts with 10 or 15 or more cards.)

3. If you already know some other system fairly well, there may be a way you can use it to help you make the leap you’re facing with Tarot (getting from learning the “little white book” meanings to actually getting fluent with getting at what a given card is saying in a given layout regarding a given situation). For instance, if you are passingly familiar with astrology, and you read with a deck that makes the cards’ astrological associations overt like the Thoth or the Quest, then you can think of the 3 of Swords as Saturn (blockage/restriction/limitation) in Libra (peace/harmony). Sometimes identifying these core elements can make it easier to figure out what the card is saying in a given “sentence” or “paragraph.” You can do the same kind of “breaking down” by focusing on the numerology of the cards, or on the qabalistic associations.

4. Alternately, depending on how your mind works, focusing on some small non-pictorial element may make it harder for you. Some people are a lot more visually-oriented or narratively-oriented than others. In that case, sometimes a change of deck can make a difference. Some decks may talk to us differently, or talk to different parts of us, or tell their stories in ways that are clearer to us, than others. I admire the concept behind the Quest deck, for instance, but I find the art so incredibly ugly as to be positively intuition-destroying, and I’d rather read with a set of bar coasters, or a handful of pine needles. I love that I own the Blake tarot, but I rarely read with it because it makes even a hangnail take on the weight of a big cosmic event. You may find some decks, like the Aquarian or Rider Waite, speak to you more clearly through the visual stories being told in the actual cards, where decks that focus more on illustrating or indicating symbols or principles or that are more abstract may not work as well for you.

5. It takes years to learn to read the Tarot truly “fluently.” The only way to do it is by doing it. So don’t be too hard on yourself if it’s taking time.

Questions you’ve asked on Things You’ve Read: ceromancy (& a bit more on scams + “one true way”ers)

One more while I’m on about it, which has been lingering in my file of “questions to eventually get around to answering on the blog.”

Q: I read that reading vigil candle glass is not true ceromancy and not true divination, that reading wax from candles is not traditional ceromancy, and that spirits have to be invoked for it to be true divination (like tarot and cowrie shells). But you describe reading vigil candles as a type of ceromancy meaning it’s divination.

A:  I don’t know where you read that, but assuming it’s not coming across differently than it was meant in its original context, and assuming that the writer claims to know anything about hoodoo and is not just applying their tradition’s particular definition to the entire world, what you have there is some revisionist hoodoo history, and some pretty ethnocentric and ignorant revisionist history at that.  These “one true way”ers are usually quite defensive about the one particular way they were taught because they were only taught one particular way. What I mean is that they did not absorb principles and patterns naturally, but they had a single teacher, usually fairly recently, who “one true way”ed them.  I would tread carefully with this person and take their “teachings” with a grain of salt, as they seem to be of the school of “everyone who does it differently from me is a fake and/or newbie.” The sad thing is that people who present their methods this way, with this level of protest and defensiveness, who feel the need to label others with the newbie or fraud brand, are usually giving themselves away as converts, trend-followers, or else victims of cult-of-personality teaching.

First of all, ceromancy means divination with wax.  Ceromancy is the reading of the wax, and by extension, of the process of the wax burning itself (the way I’m using it, that includes behavior and signs of wax, flame, herbs, smoke, and glass during and after the burning).  The word comes from the Greek keros (wax) + manteia (divination), and there is more than one way to do it. In Renaissance Europe it was probably done by dripping wax into water and reading the patterns. Probably others call what I’m calling ceromancy by other names, like pyromancy (divination with fire), or perhaps even scrying (“scry” comes from the now-slightly-archaic “descry” meaning “to discern,” and that sense of the word probably comes into English from Latin “describere” [to describe] probably via Old French [“descrier,” to publish]). So in fact, since reading the burning and remains of glass-encased vigil candles combines more than one type of substance and element, there probably isn’t one single “old word” for it. I just picked ceromancy since without the wax, none of the rest can happen anyway.

Divination is as old as human beings, probably. Divination with fire is probably as old as fire, and different cultures will have their own methods, depending in part on available resources and technology (if your light source is pitch-covered torches, your methods will differ from those of a person — or culture — whose light source is paraffin candles). Reading signs from candles as they burn is quite traditional in hoodoo. Reading signs from candle glass is as old as glass-encased candles, which admittedly are not as old as wax or fire, but it’s certainly a valid practice in conjure. To say otherwise is blazingly ignorant, or else troll-ish and they’re just trying to get a rise out of somebody.

Finally, in the bit about spirits being invoked, there is an interrelated knot of issues and assumptions in there that would take a while to untangle and are beyond the scope of this post. The person who told you that seems to not understand how we work with spirits in hoodoo and is instead importing some concepts from another tradition into their pronouncements about hoodoo practice.  Not all of the spirits involved in hoodoo will be anthropomorphic entities with names. In fact, if they articulate it at all, many workers will talk about the spirits of the roots and the spirit of a certain herb or type of water and such in conjure (there are plenty of very good workers out there who may not be very good at, or have time for or interest in, articulating the theory behind everything in plain English – not everybody is a writer, and not everybody is a teacher; that doesn’t mean they therefore aren’t a good worker — so my point is that not everybody articulates this stuff the same way, but you can definitely trace the concept behind the work in your studies).  The mention of cowrie shells is a clue in this direction, that they’ve been “one true way”ed from a non-hoodoo starting place that they think gives them authority in pronouncements on conjure. Cowrie shells are a big deal in some traditions, particularly some of the African diaspora, and are part of some venerable methods of divination. But that does not mean that all traditions that can be linked to the African diaspora have the same vocabulary, methods, spirits, deities, holy objects, taboos, etc.  *Culture and geography matter.* They matter a lot. Similarly, I’m not knocking tarot cards. I read with cards every single day. But your old time worker was probably more likely to read with a regular deck of playing cards back in the day – and without chanting the Golden Dawn invocation of IAO over them first, too, the irreverent scandal! But one of the main problems here is that it’s ridiculous to say there are no spirits involved in setting a glass-encased candle and then reading the signs from that candle – that statement betrays a complete lack of understanding about light setting in hoodoo.

But this is me being somewhat generous and assuming you haven’t just stumbled upon some site that is giving what appears to be “how to not get scammed” advice but which is really a vehicle for proclaiming that their website’s font, or their timeline for finishing readings, or their particular list of spell names, is legit and everything else is fake. If elsewhere your source talks about gypsies, the pyramids, the estate of a voodoo priestess or shaman, or tells you have they have a grimoire or book of shadows with “real” hoodoo teachings in it, then you can feel fairly confident that you have busted a fake, or at least a moron. Otherwise, assuming that this stuff isn’t reading differently out of context, you are just getting lessons from somebody who is applying standards from one culture or tradition to a different culture or tradition. This doesn’t make them a fake, necessarily, but it probably does make them a little ignorant and a lot arrogant.  Look, not everybody has a graduate degree in comparative religion. Most people don’t – that’s why I always tell people they should be highly suspicious of anyone who claims to be a Supreme Initiated Award-Winning Master of a lot of different traditions.  (Having been associated with more than one house or temple in voodoo is not a big deal, nor is having moved from Wicca to ceremonial magic. But being an expert in voodoo AND gypsy magic AND hoodoo AND Lukumi AND ceremonial magic AND wicca etc etc, however, is a warning sign, as is having won some non-existent “annual spellcaster’s award.”) But if they don’t actually have a genuine grasp of a wide variety of world folk magic practices throughout history, and they start making sweeping pronouncements about what is and isn’t legit, you should probably just ignore them.

readers’ questions – learning divination

A client asked how I "got so good" at Tarot (which is awfully nice of her to say):

Twenty years of practice, is probably the best answer 🙂  I’m a word-and-story person (I have an advanced literature degree) so Tarot works for me – not really even because of the symbols – different decks have different symbols, but I can pick up any deck and read with it (heck, I can read with a set of bar coasters, or a deck of Uno cards, actually) because I can "read" or "see"  the story that the cards are telling.  It’s like seeing a whole different level "underneath" the cards, maybe is one way to put it, even though that’s not quite accurate.  It’s less the symbols and more the interaction of the cards with each other and the story that comes out.  After a while, all that "seeing" and "putting together" happens so fast that it translates as a "feeling," or a "flash," or a "knowing," but I’m not sure it’s not the same process I used or had or went through twenty years ago. It’s just now I’m much better at "reading" it fluently and then conveying it fluently (on good days anyway!) and so the picture assembles itself more quickly for me now.  Or something like that. 

I mean, some people say folks are either gifted for this kind of work or not, but I’m not sure about that.  I think there are people who are more gifted than others, just as there are people who are more gifted musicians or artists than others, but everybody can learn some basics of divination, and improve, just as anybody can learn scales (even if only by rote, because they’re tone deaf) or improve their drawing abilities with practice.  Some days I’m not sure it’s a gift at all, and I think it’s just a skill, like learning another language – some people have a knack for it and can do it easier, but anybody can do it.  Not everybody will be a great writer or orator, but anybody can understand and make themselves understood. But I’m speaking of myself only – there are people out there who are clairaudient and the like, and I’m not sure if I could teach myself how to do that at all. That kind of thing might be a gift you either have or don’t, I don’t know.  But divining with a tool like a Tarot deck? I think anybody can learn the basics.

Some people aren’t word-and-story people, though, and they might approach Tarot differently, perhaps relying more heavily on symbols or images (if they’re visual people) or on numerology (if they’re number people).  So I think a lot of learning to do effective divination is learning what divination style suits you best and picking the right tool for the job.  The Tarot is particularly rich because it does have all the associations with numerology, cabala,astrology, etc – if you learn all that stuff, you will find your "vocabulary" greatly enriched.  It’s a hell of a lot of info to sort out at first – which of a bajillion various possible meanings could these two cards next to each other have when you take all the influencing traditions into account?! – but you eventually internalize that stuff, I guess, if you use it, and it’s just "available" to you.  But maybe some people don’t read this way at all.  I can only speak for myself.

In my opinion, practicing on oneself is also not a very effective way to learn how to read (though it’s a good way to get to know a deck).  A deck of cards or a set of runes is a system unto itself, with a vocabulary, and maybe even a typical syntax.  You learn the rules of the system and then you will get more and more fluent and putting them together, and being able to "Translate" the messages into English for your querents.  ‘Cause memorizing a book of meanings so you can say what each card means is like memorizing the alphabet – you need to know it, but it’s only the very beginning.  And getting feedback from other people that can help you see how the cards or runes bear on their issues will help you learn the "rules" of syntax for your chosen divination system.  I’m not sure if that makes sense, and I’m also pretty sure it’s not the way some people would put it, but it’s been a fairly decent analogy for me over the years.  Again, though, that’s probably because I’m a "words and stories" person.  I can read with runes, but I find them more laconic than I like and it’s harder for me to read at a distance with them, and I can do charts, but I find that the math and numbers and "two-dimensional" way of representing charts turns the reading part of my brain off – the other parts have to work too hard and the part of me that can see stories and make them into English for people gets drowned out, if that makes any sense at all!

Anyway, practice practice practice is my best advice – and get other people to let you practice on them, too.  After a while you find yoru comfort zone with a deck – and experience will teach you that even though the book says "blah blah whatever," those two cards next to each other usually mean "long distance relationship," or when a certain card comes up first when you read for someone you don’t know, it can be a warning to *you,* the reader! rather than a message for the client.  Stuff like that.  You just get there with practice and study.  Maybe some people can read without practice and study, but I suspect those people could read without any tools at all (and probably because they are at least somewhat empathic, and probably also because they know human nature pretty well, and the cards being there is rather immaterial.  For me, it pays to learn the ins and outs of any new divination tool and system, and the best way for me has been to practice on people and get feedback.  And oddly, I have found that over the last few years I really can sometimes read with no tools at all – or with tools that have no really formal system (like a pack of kids’ go-fish cards or a stack of bar coasters) but I"m not sure I could have gotten to the edge of that possibility had I not spent the previous twenty years just plain doing divination and understanding what that "place where it makes sense" feels like and comes from, if that came out in English at all.  

Good luck!

new formulas ~ esoteric and biblical

Finally posted some new formulas I"ve been working on for a while; they’re part of a new "line" of biblical/esoteric oils. These are generally made in a high-quality olive oil base and contain herbs and essences prized from Biblical times to the present.  The ingredients in many cases are expensive as hell and in some cases are extremely hard to find, so we’ll see how this goes.

I’ve put many, many hours of research, blending, and supplier tracking-down into these and I’m excited to finally have them available.

Continue reading “new formulas ~ esoteric and biblical”

hoodoo rosaries and consecrations/blessings

I have been experimenting with different forms and styles of prayer beads in a sort of space where Tau Michael Bertiaux’s chapter on praying the rosary and Louisiana-area hoodoo practice merge.  In that spirit, I created a hoodoo rosary of sorts designed to amplify the practitioner’s mediumistic abilities, using appropriate colors, numbers, and saints’ medals.

 While I’m not, if you’re a newcomer to this blog, an initiate in any traditional Haitian voodoo lineage, I do work within a Gnostic Voudon tradition with full authority and consecration (as a priestess and as a bishop in Tau Michael Bertiaux’s lineage).  I am not pulling this stuff out of my ass (if I seem defensive, it’s because there are some idiots out there who have tried to tell me my business before. These idiots accumulate on yahoo groups and livejournal communities, and for some funny reason, they haven’t usually been initiated in Haiti either.  Funny how that works.)  I can also say the beginning the points chauds empowerment workings with Tau Allen Greenfield, Tau Peristera, and Tau Heosphoros, and later other coWorkers, friends, fellow bishops, and associated initiates has been the single most important magickal event in my life thus far.  The power of the pwen cho is very, very real, and it doesn’t need you to believe in it to work, nay, to knock your socks off 🙂

Anyway, I say all that to say that yes, I know this isn’t a traditional voodoo or hoodoo rosary (assuming for the sake of argument that there is such a thing, and that the term “traditional” is of any great utility in the first place), and I don’t care.

My first attempt is, in my opinion, not very attractive, but I would like to continue the project.  So there’s the public service announcement.  If anybody is interested in the theory behind these things, I’d be happy to post about it, but I don’t want to take up the airwaves if nobody cares.

I also wanted to mention that I don’t “sell” consecrations or blessings.  I sell stuff sometimes that has been variously empowered, consecrated, blessed, and/or ritually treated, but there’s a line between that and the sacerdotal side of the Work, at least for me.  In fact, if you send me an item you would like me to consecrate or bless, I will do so with no cost to you except the postage to and from me.  (You will have to wait on my available time, of course, but as I live with and serve the loa every day, and engage in the Work every day, you will probably not have to wait too terribly long).