Tarot for Dancers, a new series by Madame Onça O’Leary
Welcome to the first of a series of articles for Zaghareet on the long-lived tradition of self-knowledge through tarot. In the months to come, I invite you to join me in exploring everything from how-to to history, interpreting specific cards and using creative spreads, trends and traditions.
What IS the Tarot?
The tarot is a group of images, presented in card form, passed down and transmuted for generations across the western world since at least 1440 C.E. Variously used over the centuries as a parlor game and as an oracle, they have endured and evolved because they provide an enjoyable and informative tool for self-discovery. Every culture seems to have a native form of divination, from the I Ching in China (correlating the patterns of thrown stalks or coins with ancient proverbs) to haruspicy in Rome (reading patterns in the entrails of animals), and cartomancy, or card-reading, thrives world-wide in the modern era in part because it is compact, convenient… and clean. Through a seemingly random selection of cards, seekers find wisdom, warning and wonder.
The source of their wisdom is ascribed to everything imaginable, from the powers of the subconscious mind to the far-fetched temples of sunken Atlantis. Though the cards are both celebrated as angelic and reviled as diabolical, I can speak from experience as a tarot author and artist when I say that neither angels nor devils were involved in the creation of my cards. Rather, every deck of tarot is the result of long hours of research, artistic craft, and intuition, coupled with a serious work ethic, as most decks in this century are comprised of 78 cards. My own ‘World Spirit Tarot’ book and deck took seven years of steady reading, comparative studies, and time knuckled down over an artist’s chisel, block-printing press, and pigment.
Even with all the work involved in such an ambitious undertaking, more variations of the deck have been created in the past 50 years than in all the previous centuries combined. This reflects several powerful modern forces. The technological advance of the printing press and the world wide web have made the tarot widely available. Forward-thinking society now encourages wellness and wholeness as essential to a good work/life balance, and tarot can support self-knowledge. Lastly, contemporary tarot practitioners tend to view it as a useful therapeutic tool rather than as an occult mystery. Used this way, tarot is freed from the stigma of being nefarious hokum. In the words of Jung, honored for his pivotal role in the development of the science of psychology, “They are psychological images… the unconscious seems to play with its contents. They combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to the playful development of events.”
Most of the tarot sets of this century spring from the inspiration of a few seminal works, the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) and the Thoth (or Crowley) deck, and those in turn flow out of older historic packs. As bellydance and flamenco are cousins with shared roots, tarot scholars tell us that modern playing cards and tarot share a much older parent form, tarocchi. That game developed over time into two distinct packs. One deck of 52 cards with four suits thrives as the playing cards we know so well. The other is the tarot, and is now typically comprised of 78 cards in four suits, with the additional cards known as the Major Arcana. According to brilliant tarot writers Mary K. Greer and Tom Little, the history of the cards may stretch even further back along the Silk Road we dancers love. In addition to the decks made in the traditional model, we now have many other divergent forms of cartomancy, including round decks and sets with many more, and many fewer, cards.
The Tarot and I
As part of a spiritual initiation undertaken in the early 1990’s, I was charged with becoming familiar with a form of divination. Being a visual person, I opted for the inviting imagery of the tarot. I struggled to learn how to use the cards from the accompanying little white booklet, but as a lifelong learner, I needed a deeper path. I started a hands-on fabrication of my own deck paired with a study of the imagery, meaning, and history. It resulted in the publication in 2001 of my tarot deck of linoleum block-printed cards, in conjunction with a book of the same name. Translated into Spanish, it is still in print as the ‘Tarot Mystico Universal’. The original English edition is now a collector’s item. I have since had the pleasure of teaching many workshops on tarot and reading for clients in a healing capacity.
As an aside for the dancers, I began studying bellydance seriously mid-project, and as the turbans and global couture crept into the work, the publisher asked me if there was a secret bellydance theme here!
The Pieces and Parts of a Deck
Within the traditional deck, there are essentially three families of cards, four suits and four ranks. The families include the Minors, Majors and Court, or People, Cards. The Minor Trumps, or Minor Arcana, progress in pictures from Ace to Ten, describing the day to day challenges that unfold in the human experience. The Major Trumps, or Major Arcana, are those dramatic images that pop up in film, such as the Lighting-Struck Tower, Death, and the Lovers. They illustrate those large events and forces that move our lives in unexpected ways. And the People Cards, or Court Cards, portray the diverse personalities that make up both our outer lives and our inner qualities; the 16 personality types described in the Meyers-Briggs test provide an excellent analogy for understanding them. Their ranks are typically depict aspects of mastery and development: King or Sage, Queen or Sibyl, Knight or Seeker, and Page or Seer.
The suits are similar to what we know from Poker, and each have a poetic association with one of the classical Four Elements, as well as with an arena of life.
Wands = Clubs = Fire = Creativity and Will-power
Cups = Hearts = Water = Emotions and Love
Swords = Spades = Air = Intellect and Boundaries
Pentacles = Diamonds = Earth = Health and Wealth
The Cards Get Read How?
There are many ways to select and lay the cards out. A typical reading begins with the deck being shuffled, the querent posing a question, a limited number of cards being laid out for viewing, and the images being interpreted according to a blend of intuition and acquired knowledge of the symbolism of the cards. The story told in the cards offers a mirror displaying habits, challenges and choices from an outside perspective. From there, we can take action to effect positive change. Repeated readings over time reveal patterns, unfolding in ways unique to each person. Tarot aficionados also use the cards in journalling and in guided meditations, which we will explore more in further installment of this series.
Tarot, You, and the ‘Gypsy Mystique’
Here’s a special tarot-related caveat just for the bellydancer. In the popular imagination, the images of the ‘Gypsy’ tarot reader and the ‘Gypsy’ dancer are nearly inseparable. The multi-skilled artist can certainly package their dance and divination skills together in a fantasy persona, but please be aware that the term ‘Gypsy’ is a loaded one and widely considered racist. As a result, our dance community struggles with branding when working in theatrical venues such as renaissance festivals and corporate gigs where the ‘G word’ is thrown around. Make marketing choices you can live with, and if necessary, be prepared to explain your position from a view of cultural sensitivity.
There are many dedicated scholars and artists exploring and expanding the tarot genre, which has a subculture and workshop circuit of its own. The interested reader is encouraged to especially study the works of, and bow down to, my idols Mary K. Greer and the venerable Rachel Pollack (who I was honored to get my picture taken with). I can also recommend as a favorite supplementary text in doing readings the book for the Mythic Tarot by Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene. Visual artists meriting special attention for either their place in the history of tarot (or just because I like their work) include Pamela Coleman Smith (Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot), Lady Frieda Harris (Book of Thoth Tarot)), Stevee Postman (Cosmic Tribe Tarot) and Brian Williams (Light & Shadow Tarot).