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.
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 Folk fortune-telling practices are a fascinating study in their own right, and are not so outdated, either.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.
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.