When I started blogging five years ago, I hit the skeptic basics: Ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens, Ouija boards, astrology, dowsing, Nostradamus, Reiki, moon landing deniers, and so on. Yet I realized this week that, incredibly, I have written well over 500 posts without ever addressing Tarot cards. Today, we rectify that deficiency.
The deck is among the few targets of skepticism that I’ve ever owned. The Medieval imagery and artwork is appealing, shuffling cards carries aesthetic value, and seeing which ones are laid down is fun if not taken seriously. The cards are neither a predictor of the future, an analysis of one’s current state, nor a portal to Lucifer’s lair. They are inanimate objects whose only meaning is whatever the reader and the customer project onto them.
The deck has gone through many iterations and cultural variations, but we in the modern West know the version that has 22 major arcana cards and 56 minor ones. Those in the major category feature personified characters like the Fool, Devil, Hermit, Strength, Death, and Lovers. The minor arcana, with their numbers and suits, resemble playing cards. The primary difference between Tarot and playing cards is the addition of a fourth-tier figure, the Page, who rests one spot below the Knight, which is the Tarot equivalent of a Jack.
Readings are usually given by a self-described fortune-teller, though dark smoky rooms have largely given way to strip malls and market festival crowds. For all the direction, mystic insight, and clairvoyance Tarot readers claim to have exhibited, there has yet to be one explanation for why anyone’s fate would be outlined in the cards. Nor is it explained how the cards always manage to be shuffled and dealt in the precise way that gives accurate portrayal of the subject.
In truth, most Tarot card readers are of the cold variety, and they feel out their subject and base their direction on what the customer tells them. In other words, the reading is going to be about the same regardless of what cards the fortune teller turns over.
Also, they make sure to keep the predictions, reassurances, and analyses vague enough that they will apply to most persons. This technique is especially effectively on those who want to believe, which describes most persons seeking a Tarot reader. Subjects are likely already determined to square his or her current existence with whatever is divined.
This happens even if the reader throws out contradictory notions such as, “These two cards side-by-side mean that you have some job satisfaction and usually appreciate your bosses, but sometimes wonder if you are being fully appreciated and think maybe your untapped potential could be used elsewhere.”
The customer can then take which part of that makes the most sense or has the most appeal when deciding on their employment future. This is a manifestation of the Forer Effect, where someone puts stock in broad ideas if they have a personal impact.
Furthermore, the 78 cards each contain a variety of distinctions and personality types, which the reader plenty of leeway for broad interpretation. Selective memory also plays a role. A professional fortune teller will speak in broad enough terms and be a skilled enough cold reader that they will seemingly score a hit 75 percent of the time. Owing to confirmation bias, those wanting to believe will remember that the fortune teller was right about the client’s feud with his siblings and forget that she was wrong about the client having worked in construction.
The one genuine value Tarot cards may have is therapeutic. If the subject starts to draw forth from themselves, talks about what’s going on in their life, and tries to find a way forward, working through all that can be beneficial. But a person can take control of where their life is going without relying on cards. Just like one can play Blackjack without ruminating on how it impacts the future.