The Stories we Know Bring Our Tarot Readings to Life
Wrangler Jay Cassels of Jay’s Mystic Blog invited us to explore the interesting topic of “unseen traditions.” I wasn’t sure where to take the topic, but a three-card spread gave me the answer I needed! The cards I pulled came straight to the point. I was able to see how strongly not only my education in tarot played into my reading style, but, much more importantly, how the repertoire of stories that make up my worldview dominated how I read the cards.
What I see in the cards is inextricably enmeshed with the myths, legends, contes de fées, and folk tales I grew up with and continue to read. These unseen traditions flavor my readings in a way that is impossible to separate from work I do or studies I’ve pursued. In this post I’ll share the spread I did as an example to illustrate how stories tie into readings. Then I’ll brainstorm some ways you can add more stories to your day.
The Stories in My Three Card Draw
Wondering where to start with this topic, I grabbed my newest deck, The Numinous Tarot by Cedar McCloud (as seen in the last hop on Quiet Bonnie’s blog). Asking how to approach the idea of unseen traditions, I pulled three cards: The Mystic of Vials (King of Cups), Nine of Tomes (Pentacles), and Dreamer of Bells (Page of Swords).
I was almost immediately placed into conflict. Although I clearly saw references to both Odin and Prospero in the Mystic of Vials, I doubted these particular allusions were what the deck creator was conjuring. I loved the Nine of Tomes, which reminded me of my own youth spent in libraries. And then the Dreamer of Bells was too uncomfortable for me: It reminded me of The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Did the author intend me to have these associations. Certainly not! So are they wrong? How can they be? It’s the expansive cloud of context that I bring to my readings. It’s what makes me me and my readings mine.
I’ll grant you that personal associations can steer a reading off course. But there’s a difference difference between what I call instinct and intuition. One the one hand, an instinctive, knee-jerk response might be a personal trigger that reduces a reading to a vent-fest. This feels limiting and uninspired. Dwelling on instinctive reactions can make tarot reading frustrating. On the other hand, our intuition, our deep inner knowing, opens up with relevant personal symbols. This feels expansive, unfurling the sails of imagination as the cards become voluble and exploratory. The reading becomes as refreshing and invigorating as travel to exciting new destinations.
The best way to launch this journey through tarot is to build your own repertoire of stories!
Card 1: Mystic of Vials
The Mystic of Vials is roughly equivalent to the King of Cups. As I gazed at the image, the blank eye interrupted by a slash of scar held my focus. He reminded me of Odin, but no eye patch or ravens. Then I noticed he held a corked bottle with raining clouds in it. He was standing on a beach with lapping waves. Now I was transported to the island where Prospero was stranded. He used magic to call up a storm to wash his treacherous brother ashore, the opening scene of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But he didn’t have the usual Prospero accoutrements of staff or books. I floundered, wanting to honor the clarity of the image as drawn rather than indulging my natural tendency to sort illustrations into literary pigeon holes.
And yet the very fact that images turn into stories is key to my reading style. From literary allusions to mythology to fairy tales to pop culture, I see references in the cards to the stories we share. Certainly this was my unseen tradition.
How do we develop our repertoire of stories? Start with the ocean shore mystic, the old man who’s been around the world and holds in his hands stories of storms. Learn stories by listening to others, preferable those with more or different experiences than you. Once Odin gained knowledge, he traded an eye for wisdom. Knowledge takes us part of the way, but experience grants perspective unrelated to sight.
Card 2: Nine of Tomes
This one is meta, not reminding me so much of a particular story as reminding me of my youth spent in the public library. An extraordinary wealth of books! I remember my growing up process as over the years I progressed from picture books to the children’s section to the young adult section and eventually to the giant tomes of the adult section. There was something trepidatious about advancing into each new section. Was I ready? Would it be too hard for me? How different would it be from what I had grown used to?
The woman in this image adjusts her glasses against the blinding light of the unknown before her, while she steadies herself with a hand on a heavy pile of books. Will she stay with the ones she loves or step into the brilliance of the next level?
The Suit of Tomes and the Elements
The second way to develop our repertoire, following the symbolism of this second card, is to take a trip to the library. Or is it? Although the library seems to be her home base, this woman seems ready to step into the light. I think it’s fascinating — and highly relevant — that the artist and author of the deck used books for the earth element suit. You might think of books as air — they are composed of words; they teach us, get us to think, help us communicate. But if you’ve ever moved a library of books, you know how heavy they are! Certainly books are grounding, tangible, solid, reliable, and stable, all earth words.
It is an interesting commentary to contrast these two opposite elements. At first there is the exciting potential of a library of ideas for our edification, but eventually we recognize that the ideas have been codified, solidified, and fossilized. Perhaps they are too old, too worn out, too set in their ways for us to care anymore. And yet, the bespectacled woman reminds us that it is by shining our own light on these stalwart words that we evolve. Their immovability is the starting block that braces our own launch into innovation. Learning and responding to tradition is the second way we build our repertoire of stories.
Card 3: Dreamer of Bells
If you’ve ever read The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers you know why I don’t like the Dreamer of Bells! If you haven’t read it, I won’t give away any spoilers. Irregardless, it looks uncomfortable to me to have my head inside a large bell!
Of course, I’m confident this is not the allusion the deck creator had in mind when drawing the card. Certainly there is a sense of empowerment, in that the bell pulls are in the hands of the Dreamer, so they control when the bell sounds. The halos around the figure’s hands remind me of an electric current — as if they are plugged into a circuit with the bell. Meanwhile, the halo around their head could be the clapper of the bell itself. There is an integration of person and bell. This Page of Swords rings with ideas, tolls announcements to everyone within earshot, and strikes the hours of the “Time that flies.” There is both a sense of being stuck, captured by the bell’s predictable routine, yet also of achieving authority over those cycles.
The third recommendation for how to build our repertoire of stories is sound off! Join a carillon of voices to open discussions and challenge ideas. Argue up one side and down the other until you’ve swung like the clapper from one extreme to another and perhaps back again. Be shrill, clash, resound. Stress the hour and hurry the stragglers along.
How To Build Your Repertoire of Stories
We’ve already covered the three primary methods for building your repertoire of stories. Listen to those with more or different experiences, read the classics and then shine your own light on them, and have conversations and debates to learn how your stories fit into a broader picture.
On a more practical level, I wanted to share how I built my repertoire of stories. First, my parents gave us plenty of books. My sister had a big book of Greek mythology while I was given two volumes of fairy tales: those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. (I secretly read my sister’s book as well!) My dad edited the fairy tales to make them G rated. I couldn’t wait to learn to read so I could figure out what they really said!
Later, as an adult, when I would buy picture books for people’s kids, I would always buy two copies — one for the kid, one for myself. I was able to build a collection of gorgeously illustrated folk tales this way.
When I browse used book stores, I jump at the chance for anything related to mythology, fairy tales, or folk tales. Collections are great resources. But also, short stories of this nature make great bedtime reading. Just long enough to read before you fall asleep.
I am a big fan of Joseph Campbell, and he tells many stories in his work to illustrate his ideas.
Use Tarot to Learn Stories
But one of the most fun ways to learn stories is through your tarot cards! Many decks pull from a specific tradition and as a result become a great teaching tool.
The folktales of the British Isles enliven a variety of decks. The DruidCraft Tarot is informed by the story of Taliesin. Artist Anna-Marie Ferguson painted images from Welsh mythology for the Major Arcana of The Llewellyn Tarot. A gorgeous fairy tale art deck built around the romances of King Arthur is the Tuatha de Danaan Tarot. Another Arthurian deck is The Arthurian Tarot by Caitlin and John Matthews.
Lo Scarabeo has a wonderful collection of decks with images curated from artists of the Golden Age of Illustration. The artwork was originally created to illustrate gift books of fairy tales, folklore, and Shakespearean plays. Try the Rackham Tarot, the Edmund Dulac Tarot, and the John Bauer Tarot.
What tarot decks do you have that pull from mythology, folklore, fairy tales, or literature? Let’s continue this list in the comments!
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