In his posts he begins by sharing his own theory and that of Robin Wood. He also shares the beliefs of Rachel Pollack,Â Mary K. Greer,Â Thalassa,Â Julie Cuccia-Watts,Â Lon Milo DuQuette,Â Pamela Steele,Â Mike Hernandez,Â Joseph Ernest Martin,Â Robert M. Place,Â James Wells,Â BonnieÂ Cehovet,Â Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman,Â Lisa Hunt,Â Ferol Humphrey,Â Katrina Wynne, and myself (James even included a nice little drawing to make my theory clear).
So here are 18 theories as to how the Tarot works, some being similar and some being quite different. I’m sure I could bring in many other people who could provide a wide variety of theories explaining how the Tarot works. The question that needs asking, however, is which of the theories is right, and how can the other people give great readings using the Tarot when their theories are wrong? In fact, what if they’re all wrong?
The Map is Not the Territory
On the internet it is common to have someone explain something followed by the letters “YMMV.” This means “Your Mileage May Vary,” signifying that your experience may be different. A presupposition of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is that “the map is not the territory.” This means that your impression or my impression of something is just that, an impression. It is not the actual thing, just something picked up by our senses and filtered through our minds via distortion, deletion and generalization. Maps are representations of reality. Likewise, theories are representations of reality. It is with this understanding that Ricklef wisely began his two-part post with this paragraph:
Have you ever wondered how the Tarot works?Â Iâ€™ve heard many theories about this, and they vary a lot.Â Perhaps there is a definitive answer, but Iâ€™ve yet to hear it.Â However, does there have to be one true, definitive answer?Â And is that even possible?Â I suspect that there are many partially true answers, but we finite humans canâ€™t really grasp the totality of the answer, much likeÂ the proverbial blind men examining and explaining what an elephant is.
I agree with Ricklef, although I would say that what he describes as “partially true answers” are actually “answers that are completely true to the person stating them based on their knowledge and experience.” That is, to each person who has a theory as to how the Tarot works, the answer is complete. However, each answer is only a map, and not the territory. The more complete the map, the closer it is to being an accurate representation of the territoryâ€”in this case how the Tarot actually worksâ€”but it is still just a representation.
Drugs and Placebos
A placebo is something that shouldn’t work but does. The most common use of placebos is in the testing of new drugs. A person with an ailment is given either a new drug being tested for effectiveness or a placebo, a harmless pill that should do nothing for the ailment. The amazing result is that in many ailments, people who merely think a drug they’re receiving will be effective receives positive benefits. For a drug to be seen as effective, it has to achieve a better improvement rate than that achieved by the test subjects receiving the placebo. This has two very important implications:
- First, the mind is incredibly powerful, and even for very challenging and chronic ailments, the human mind, on its own, may be able to create a cure.
- Second, if a placebo creates positive change in 25% of subjects, and the actual drug being tested creates positive change in 35% of the subjects, drug companies and our government considers the drug to be successful in 35% of cases (instead of 10%) and the drug may be approved for sale. That means many drugs available today are helpful to a very small percentage of people.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t take your medicines! Nor am I saying they’re all ineffective. I’m simply pointing out that even the most effective drugs don’t help everyone. People are not identical robots where parts can simply be replaced with other, universal parts. We’re each individuals, and something that works for one individual may not work for another. And that brings me (finally!) to magick.
Not Better, Different
When I first become involved in the practice of magick there was a virtual war going on between practitioners of natural and sympathetic magick, primarily used then by Wiccans, and the techniques of ceremonial magick. Each side argued as to which was better, faster, more powerful. My Modern MagickÂ was one of the first booksÂ to say that both systems were good and powerful. Each person can use what’s best for the situation and what the person is most comfortable using. Arguing philosophy and theory can be fun, but it’s ultimately a waste of time. I think Crowley stated the ultimate secret of the powers of magick best in The Book of the Law (Chapter III, Verse 42):
Success is thy proof: argue not; convert not; talk not over much!
This agrees with something that I’ve been saying for a long time: if it works, use it. If it doesn’t work, discard it and do something else.
What About Tradition?
There are a variety of magickal paths out there. Some of them are justifiably called a “tradition.” Following a tradition, especially when you are learning magick, can be very beneficial:
- It has a proven success record over time.
- There are people who are familiar with it who can help you.
- There are generally lots of books and resources that can provide guidance.
- It’s normal to try to modify the tradition to increase your success. If success falters, you can always return to the tradition.
Some people find themselves at home in one tradition and follow it. It works for them. Some people need to modify a tradition to have success with it. Others don’t achieve magickal success with one tradition and have to try another.
Traditions are similar to effective drugs in that they will help many people and are more effective than starting on your own. But no single drug and no single magickal system will work for everyone. That’s why it’s wonderful there are so many magickal traditions available to us.
The Dark Side
Yes, there is a “dark side” to this. Some people make the error of jumping from a specific (“This works for me”) to the general (“This must work for everyone”) without evidence to support such a leap. I have absolutely no doubt that some form of magick a person has discovered works for him or her, or at least they believe it does (excluding those who are simply lying to make money off of the gullible). I encourage them to spread their information, their map of magickal practice. I hope they do! After all, merely because something doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for others. Spread the information. Share your map. And yeah, if you want to, sell your map at whatever price you can get for it. In my opinion that’s all good.
Sometimes, however, people discover that something is right for them and insist that it must be right for you. They’re wrong. That personal, subjective magick they’ve discovered is not universal, or at least there’s no evidence to support such universality. The purveyors of such new systems might, unfortunately, let their egos take over. “I have they only true system. Others are evil or doing things wrong. I am the only one with the truth. They are our enemies.” They work hard to create an us vs. them mentality. You can see this in politics and some religious sects as well as with some magickal groups.
And the funny thing is, 50 years later, nobody remembers them. Today, their magickal systems that were going to revolutionize all of magick have been forgotten. The messages they created or received from imagined secret masters are left to ignored volumes found in musty used book stores that are high priced not because of the value of their content, but because of their rarity to collectors. One such book I own isÂ The Do-It-Yourself Witchcraft Guide, a small paperback by Luba Sevarg. Another I have isÂ The Island Dialogues: Liber ALAL byÂ Llee (777) Heflin. One set of books I looked at many years ago but didn’t obtain was the multi-volumeÂ Znus is Znees byÂ C.F. Russell.
I’m not saying the information in these books didn’t have intense value to their authors, only that they have little or no importance to magickal people today. I have them for reference, especially for questions I receive.Â I don’t worry about the writers of such books who are often self-styled leaders of small occult groups. They have a path that works for them which is a good thingâ€¦for them. However, I do worry about the people who are caught up in their charisma and self-delusion. On the other hand, if it’s true that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” then it’s also true that when the student is ready to be misled, the deceiver will appear. I’m reminded again of the advice from Crowley’s book, “argue not; convert not; talk not over much!”
I’ll share my map of openness and effectiveness. If it works for you, great! If it doesn’t work for you, try something else. Others may be so sure what they’re teaching is right they start doing things that are wrong. The bottom line in this consists of the following understanding and practices:
There is no universal way that is right for everyone.
- Study a path and learn it.
- Modify the path to improve it.
- If you begin to falter, return to the tradition.
- Share what you learn with others, but understand that your path is a way that works for you, not the only path that must work for all.
- Do the work.