The Battle of the Skeptic and the Empath

i-f56ba617a2391a5be0b47042f2d80022-hrepost.jpgLately, I've been pondering our use of models to predict the future conditions of our planet. However, it is also nearly Halloween. Together, it seems like a good time to pull out this old post of mine, which asks if a deck of Tarot cards can be a useful tool for modeling a person's life.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not about to attempt to defend some pseudoscience, nor am I going to expose a mass of woo. Instead, this is more an argument between two sides of personality: the battle between the skeptic and the empath.

If you've read some of my [older] fictional entries, such as A Hint of Rosemary or the poem, Visions of Bubbles and Delphi, you might have noticed that I have a strong curiosity about divination. Of course, this seems to conflict with my typically skeptical views: destinies are uncertain, strange things in nature can always be explained by science. Somehow, that doesn't seem to quell my fascination. When I picked up a pack of Tarot cards to use as a reference for "Rosemary", I found myself curiously drawn to them. These were the necessary ingredients for battle--not just between the girls in my story, but between conflicting sides of my mind. Here is a recap of that battle, and the aftermath:

The Empath Meets the Skeptic: Tarot in the 21st Century
by Karmen Lee Franklin

i-a6b99e5c947c14239e217da372f2add3-death.jpgFrom gossip over a water cooler, or venting to the wife at home, to memories, songs, and venues of entertainment, human life is rooted in storytelling. This is often taken for granted, despite the fact that history was born of, and relies on stories. So, why is a news article an accepted form of the story in society, while the stories told by Tarot cards are considered taboo? Is it a fear of associations with the occult... or is it simply a fear of the unexplained? Can the Tarot be explained, and overcome this taboo, becoming an accepted tool for insight in a technologically addicted culture?

Those who are able to read stories from pictures have an eye for patterns and the subsequent logical consequences. In a way, that is part of the talent of the clairvoyant. They sense emotions, translate them into patterns, and then interpret the direction of the patterns. They can infer the appearance of the pattern as a whole, and then, sometimes, continue the sequence... or offer an aesthetic improvement. Is this act psychic? Is empathy? Is the aesthetic sense psychic? Is it, only if the clairvoyant is right? Will any of this prove to be scientific?

Living in a society with increasingly complex patterns can be quite difficult. Many inventions have been tools to ease the necessary adaptations to such a pace. Humans need a way to sort out the puzzles. The broad, yet common patterns of human life all appear in the Tarot, reflected as repeating cycles and symbolic representations. Indeed, what better tool could there be for reading the patterns of events so complex no single science or discipline can cover their whole?

To examine the Tarot, it is necessary to apply the classical concepts of philosophy. Unfortunately, classical philosophy offers many questions, and few answers, much like a typical spread of cards. The direction of philosophical inquiry into the modern age can be inferred, however, and this inference can be applied to the basis of the cards. In essence, the world is constructed of a complex array of objective bits of matter. Our perceptions of this world, on the other hand, are subjective representations, complex in and of themselves.

We associate these representations with symbols, from ideas and concepts to written and spoken language. As Wittgenstein showed, language influences perception. He showed that most difficulties in philosophy or daily life are problems of semantics, or different reactions to a single symbol. In this way, our interpretations of the world around us, as well as our symbolic representations, are all relative. At the same time, humans share enough commonalities between these representations to have the ability to communicate and interact. The Tarot is simply a tool in which symbols are used to communicate representations of perception.

For tools of interpretation, which can be found anywhere, what could be more ancient, primal, and true to the soul as the story? Stories were Christ's prime tool for enlightenment; he just threw in some wine, as well. (Some witches have been known to do that, as well.) Context, language, and symbols can vary; the tool is not as important as the story itself.

A DJ, for instance, while selecting popular songs to play on the radio, in a sense, is drawing a spread for his listeners. The words and symbols embedded within the songs are objective notes, heard and perceived by a variety of people. Each person hears their own message in the songs, a subjective perception of a sound that strikingly fits the moment.

Storytelling, not occultist devil-worship, is the purpose of the Tarot. Like the veiled lessons in fairy tales or bedtime stories, the Tarot contains warnings and cautions. Unlike these children's tales, however, the listener is the character in the stories described by the cards. This is true storytelling. The Tarot and the stories it tells are offering pure reflections of our perceptions, which are simply reflections in themselves. Certainly, the message of the tarot is strange, obscure, and veiled, but so are all lessons in the best stories... or in the best moments and most cherished memories of real life. In either case, one simply interprets what they see by associating events with familiar symbols, and then forming those symbols into patterns.

Those patterns often show us a striking larger picture, or offer a unique insight into what might be next. It happens when a plane flies through the sky above; it is easy to identify the shape and sound and anticipate the path it will travel. It also happens when identifying the symbols drawn in a card and relating them to the surrounding evolving patterns.

The symbols portrayed in the Tarot are often very old, and quite meaningful. Some reflect the most fundamental pattern, the dimensions of reality itself: values or forces; information, knowledge, data; sensation or experience; time; chaos, or variability. All patterns themselves are variations on this basic structure... although, with a twist. Indeed, one of those dimensions, chaos, is a twist in itself. So, the Tarot represents twists (or cycles), patterns, and symbols which represent the dimensions, or fabric of reality itself. Talent lies in knowing the symbols and being familiar with the patterns.

The Major Arcana, as well as each suit of the Minor Arcana, represents a cycle. Life is full of cycles, and so is the Tarot. In the Major Arcana, the cycle is that of the Fool's life, and reveals the many cycles of man, while the separate cycles of the Minor Arcana focus on different aspects of the life of man. Each cycle begins with birth and discovery, followed by a series of lessons, hurdles, enlightenments, and changes. Each card represents a notch in that cycle, from a mild and unseen influence to a life-altering milestone. Just like an ocean shoreline, the notches on these cycles have a fractal depth, varying with many scale levels of influence, down to each grain of sand forming the shape of the beach. Each stroke of ink on a Tarot card is like a grain of sand. It is up to the reader to decide if he is looking at castles or levees.

The varying symbols necessary to represent a broad variety of stories are present in the cards. Some are reoccurring, such as the four suits, whose symbols appear throughout the Major Arcana. These, and others, are deeply rooted in ancient symbols and numbers, such as the four base ancient alchemic elements, the four cardinal directions, four visible planets in the night sky. Other numbers reoccur as well: threes, in the heavenly bodies of the earth, sun, and moon, or in the other directions, above, center, and below, or time, past, present, and future. Tens, like ten fingers on the human hand, seem to be numbers of completeness.

While the symbols seem esoteric upon first glance, they often refer to timeless concepts. How many wands can be found in a person's life? From walking sticks to fences, from our garden trowels to the trees of outside to our ancestral branches and roots, they are present. Swords can found in the form of words and bodily expression, in pens and dreams. Cups are all around, as homes and safe places, or as vessels of emotion, within people and those that they love, waiting to be filled with spiritual ambrosia. Pentacles come sometimes in the form of money, other times, more subtly, in material objects that either weigh one down or keep one grounded.

Reversed cards can seem difficult, but are merely a different expression of the same value. They can refer to a positive or a negative, but often this is misleading. They can also refer to a scale of intensity, just as an acid has a lower pH than a basic substance. One may be called "positive" and the other "negative", but they are simply at opposing ends on a single continuum. In this respect, the cards are fluid, changing in nuance and meaning with every turn. Seen through the lens of a unique storyteller, and applied to a unique situation, every drawing of the Tarot unlocks a new mystery, often revealing new enigmatic locks.

It is possible that, as the old crone in A Hint of Rosemary learned, understanding the influence of symbols in daily life can give a desired sense of control over fate. The Tarot rings true, not only because it fulfills the need for control in a time when free will is suspect, but because it is born of familiar patterns. Those patterns influence and cause humanity to evolve, as well as encouraging the patterns humanity has created, repeating throughout history, or even pre-history.

The tarot will continue to be a valuable tool for grasping patterns complex beyond ordinary measures, until more accurate tools become available. Whatever those tools will be, they will likely include a memory of the symbolism and storytelling developed eons ago and still cherished today. Perhaps, when they build those tools, they will even understand how a human can become an aesthetically-inspired, pattern-seeking empath.  Then, "psychic" will no longer be a naughty word, and divination will no longer be taboo. One can hope, and in the meantime, understand how much can be gleaned from symbolic and artistic insight.

The image of death (which didn't fit exactly, but was too cool to pass up) was found here.


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"Lately, I've been pondering our use of models to predict the future conditions of our planet. "

Honestly, I never thought most of them that smart.

Most Americans have a very limited view of Tarot. They think of Tarot only as something in relation to the occult. They know little of Tarot being an actual card game. Tarot cards were made for card games and in Europe, especially in France, they have Tarot tournaments. If I have a prediction for the 21st century, it is that Americans will finally recognize Tarot for the classic card game it is.

By Dave Schneider (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

Most Americans have a very limited view of anything. Maybe it isn't just Americans either... Even if we have an infinite capacity for understanding, we have a limited amount of time in which to absorb information. You can't blame people for learning how to use MS Windows instead of researching the history of the Tarot.

However, most sources I've read (being a fan of obscure and archaic knowledge) concerning the Tarot suggest that the cards were used for both games and fortunetelling, originally. Perhaps among the creators, there was no distinction. It's suggested in the early pages of the "Tarot of the Bohemians", written by Papus in 1889:

"The Gypsies possess a Bible [the Tarot] which has proved their means of gaining a livelihood, for it enables them to tell fortunes; at the same time it has been a perpetual source of amusement, for it enables them to gamble."

So it's a culture thing. Some play games with it, some use it for guidance, some use it to beg on street corners, some use it while performing satanic rituals, some use it for kindling while burning Harry Potter books. My point was that the symbols in the cards are universally subjective, purpose and interpretation left to the individual, not that we should declare some official designation for their use.

Thanks for commenting!