A Ship, a Romance and Twenty-Two Tarot Cards

by Cherry Gilchrist

Sometimes in life our wishes and dreams do work out, but in a way quite different to what we expected. In 2006, I was guest lecturer on a ship cruising the Baltic, giving talks on mythology. Also on the ship was Robert Lee-Wade, artist-in-residence. Our early chats at the lecturers’ dinner table gradually blossomed into something warmer, and finally into romance. We had both been married before, and had both come through difficult times to a more mellow stage of life. Were we ready to try again? A few years earlier, I had had a reading from a lady who pronounced that I would soon meet someone who lived over the water. Hmm, I thought at the time – I don’t really want to start again in another culture, or have to handle an overseas relationship. She was right; he did live over the water but only in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which is another part of the UK. As my chief Tarot teacher used to say, ‘Funny how it works!’

We decided that a shipboard romance was wonderful, but that we really ought to test our relationship on dry land, to see if it had long-term potential. Water, in psychic terms, is powerful. I always have deliciously vivid dreams when at sea. Would this just prove to be another, waking version of the magical effects of water? We also had another kind of dream, that we would make a book together – I would write it, and Robert would supply the artwork.

A Ship, a Romance and Twenty-Two Tarot CardsTwo months later, we were able to meet again, and by the end of that year we were a united couple sharing a home. In 2009 we married, and are now living in Devon – it seems we can’t quite keep away from water though as our new, long-term home is close to the wide estuary of the River Exe!

Just as our romance seems to have had the helping hand of Providence, so has our book come about now too, but not exactly as we envisaged. Tarot Triumphs is a joint effort, with Robert creating the images of the Tarot cards to illustrate the expositions that I’ve written for them. Originally, I guess we had in mind some lavish travel-type tome, where Robert could provide his highly-skilled and sought-after oil paintings of places we have visited, and I would write up the myths and legends of those places. Again, ‘funny how it works’!

Tarot has long been dear to me, and when I decided to distill a lifetime’s experience of working with Tarot, into a book which would also to preserve the heritage of my own Tarot Master’s teachings, I wondered what I could do about illustrations. Obtaining permissions for reproducing existing packs, even historic ones, was very expensive, and it wasn’t going to be possible to use color plates either.  I was concerned.

‘Shall I draw them for you?’ Robert asked.

RLW Tarot 18
Well of course! Sometimes, the obvious solution is staring us in the face. So together we pondered series of marvelous images, mostly of historic Marseilles-style Tarot packs downloaded from the British Museum’s digital library. I brought out my own collection too, of course, lovingly assembled since my student days. Robert was new to Tarot, so it was an excellent opportunity for me to work out what was really essential to the image, and convey it to him with clarity. This in turn helped me to focus on the key components of the cards as I wrote about them.

Robert produced exquisite pen-and-ink line drawings of the cards, and as each one was completed, we scrutinized them to see if they conveyed the essence of the card. We were looking for the direct, vivid and vigorous form of Tarot imagery that is implicit in the old woodblock prints, for the cards that were printed for popular use in the 17th to 19th centuries. And we didn’t have the use of color to help us here, so each image had to  speak for itself, but still be a part of a coherent set. Gradually, the pack attained completion. It now graces the pages of the book, illustrating the individual cards as I explain their symbolism, history and significance. And so Tarot Triumphs contains another kind of ‘triumph’ too, the achievement of a dream that we hatched over the waters of the Baltic ten years ago.

RLW Tarot 01

Cherry Gilchrist is a long-term practitioner of the tarot. She has researched its provenance and related it to the systems such as the Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology, of which she has special knowledge. She holds MA degrees in English literature and archaeology/anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Visit Cherry at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.

Cherry Gilchrist Titles

Tarot Triumphs | Alchemy: The Great Work

Honoring the Fortune-Teller

by Cherry Gilchrist

Is it acceptable to use the term fortune telling in conjunction with a Tarot reading? It might sound too simplistic, especially in such a skeptical age, when we are keen to prove that what we are doing is not superstitious nonsense. Tarot readings today are seen by serious practitioners as a sensitive interpretation of the archetypal messages relayed by the symbols on the cards. In my book Tarot Triumphs, I certainly encourage this approach, suggesting how we can contemplate the Tarot images in depth, and perhaps transcend individual limitations to align ourselves with a greater consciousness.

However, fortune-telling is firmly embedded in human culture. From time immemorial, we as human beings have longed to catch a glimpse of what is to come. You can see it in children – for me, in childhood, fortune-telling was a key to an enchanted kingdom. I loved counting petals on a flower or plum stones on a plate, and wiggling my fingers in those folding paper oracles which delivered a prediction when you unfolded the final paper corner. Was this just a foolish child’s game? I would say not; I didn’t really expect to get any definitive answers about who I would marry or what I would be when I grew up, but I did sense a magical world just around the corner, just out of reach, and I felt that these fortune-telling games opened the window into that world just a chink.Honoring the Fortune Teller

Perhaps we could describe fortune-telling as a kind of mechanical process that will never deliver a fully-attuned, wise reading of what the gods hold in store for us. So, by this definition, the kind of Tarot practice we aspire to should avoid such an approach. Again, I am not so sure. Such full, meaningful readings seem to be to be the apex of a pyramid that does include fundamental, ancient traditions of fortune-telling – after all, children’s games are often the last repository of ancient customs. And there is certainly a wealth of folk fortune-telling customs in human cultures – predicting the weather through omens, reading the progress of love through the flickering of candle flames, or the fall of tea leaves in a cup. Folk fortune-telling practices are a fascinating study in their own right, and are not so outdated, either. I visited Russia many times, where people are very much attuned to signs, portents and spirits of place. Here’s what I wrote in my book ‘Russian Magic’:

One of my guests dropped a knife on the floor as we were eating supper:

‘Oh – a man is coming,’ he told the assembled company.

‘And what if it was a spoon?’ I asked.

‘Then it would be a woman.’

He was absolutely right; a male visitor knocked at the door before the meal was over. Although he had only come to deliver a message, we invited him to sit down with us, and coaxed him into accepting a small plateful of food and a glass of vodka, as custom demands.

In Tarot, we have an exceptionally rich set of symbols, which can provide all the subtlety and complexity we need to penetrate the meaning of a situation. But Tarot itself has survived through adoption into folk culture. It has been preserved over the centuries by wandering fortune-tellers, perhaps too by gypsies and strolling players, and by thousands of ordinary people who played gambling games with Tarot packs and may have practiced fortune-telling with them from time to time as a kind of domestic game. In Tarot Triumphs, I write about an encounter with one such fortune-teller that I had many years ago in northern Italy, an old lady, reading Tarot in the market place for a young couple, and who was perhaps the last of a long line of traditional Tarot card readers. It showed me how a magical heritage can be found in humble places.

'Cherry reading the cards' - oil painting by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA
‘Cherry reading the cards’ – oil painting by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Tarot can therefore be simple and earthy, as well as a more sophisticated tool for divination. Most Tarot users in past centuries were probably illiterate, so the pictures were therefore their guides, with perhaps just a few simple rules handed down orally. But plainly, the crudely-printed, brightly colored Tarot packs produced for popular use in the 17th to 19th centuries, were meaningful to people, despite the lack of written explanation, or artistic finesse. Otherwise, Tarot itself would not have survived.

So I for one honor the place of fortune-telling in the Tarot tradition. It reminds us
that simplicity and playfulness can have their place in the spectrum of our Tarot practice. In my book, I suggest ways we can approach this, for instance by setting up a basic three-card reading before progressing to more complicated spreads. Keeping as part of our Tarot practice helps us to remain authentic, and in touch with the lineage that has carried Tarot through the centuries. You will see, in my book, that I also recommend the traditional Marseilles pack which is itself a part of this heritage, and has gathered a powerful resonance during its lifetime of several hundred years.

Cherry Gilchrist is a long-term practitioner of the tarot. She has researched its provenance and related it to the systems such as the Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology, of which she has special knowledge. She holds MA degrees in English literature and archaeology/anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Visit Cherry at www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk.

Cherry Gilchrist Titles

Tarot Triumphs | Alchemy: The Great Work