I had always thought my profession would be a good one for me as an older woman, because fortune-tellers are more often than not portrayed as old wizened witches. Age then becomes part of the mystique of Reading and is good for business. Furthermore as long as I can see and talk, I can do my work. In fact being a tarot reader is one of the few jobs when being older becomes a badge of respect and not a reason for redundancy.
And now I am an elder I find it liberating to observe myself as a grumpy old woman living on the edges of the global village, dispensing wisdom gleaned from experience and of course like any witch worth her salt, raging against the of the light.
Yet what is it that I as a fortune-teller actually do? The quick answer is telling peoples’ fortunes from a pack of picture cards and a horoscope. But If I invoke The High Priestess – one of Tarot’s Arcana – here is her response.
The High Priestess as Tarot Reader
As a tarot reader and astrologer I give readings for people. Yet that word reading is ambiguous and one of those slippery words that the English language is full of. It has multiple meanings that depend on context for definition.
St Augustine when musing on the nature of time said ”I know what it is, but when you ask me I don’t know anymore.”
What does it mean to read? What happens when we read? The experience is qualitatively different when we read a newspaper, a scientific treatise, a novel, or poem. It’s different when we read out loud than when we read silently “in our heads”. When we give a tarot or astrological reading we are sharing the reading aloud with someone else – telling the story. But a tarot reader can read the cards for her/himself silently too as a meditation.
Lately I have been calling myself a symbologist because symbols are my stock and trade. So a tarot reader is someone who interprets a symbolic language. Working with pictures is still ‘reading’ in much the same way as we read a dream. What is the nature of this interpretive experience?
Reading in an interpretative way for self or other is different to the kind of reading we do in our daily lives, which is usually primarily directed towards information gathering. Normally the words on the page are meant to be taken literally – they are tools to get the job done and accomplish the business of the marketplace etc.
Then there’s the kind of reading I do heaps of – reading novels, biographies, poetry. It is then we come across the transformative power of words which have a much more spacious meaning.
Stepping into a poem or a novel is a bit like the pagan Priestess entering into a temple to conduct her divinations. The poem once entered becomes a kind of sacred space where extraordinary things are bound to happen.
As soon as the frontier of the poem– its literal meaning - is crossed, the reader gains entry to a place that is no place – vast in extent and signals are registered directly on the heart.
There’s a non-verbal aspect of reading which just can’t be expressed in words even though words take you there. When we read, the mind and heart join together with the imagination taking us into an ineffable zone.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke observes “most events are inexpressible taking place in a realm where no word has entered”.
To add to the paradox the words a poem utilizes are no different from the words in a newspaper. The same ones appear in both places and the same dictionary definitions apply. How then can we account for the difference between a poem and what is not a poem?
Confusion reigns around this paradox especially in religious texts like the Bible or the Koran which are taken as “god’s word” .These books are by nature poetic and enigmatic, nevertheless many readers insist on taking them literally as if reading a newspaper.
I think astrology and tarot are like a form of poetry – astrology employs glyphs, correspondences to the natural world and mythology, while tarot uses the visual codes of art. But both use words to work the patterns. If practiced successfully, these symbolic languages represent a way of knowing that is totally “other” than that of the scientific method which is itself steeped in literalism.
Astrology/tarot work with consciousness operating under a different set of rules than the literalist and technologist culture we live in.
Most importantly, astrology and tarot like all oracles are oral languages.
Tarot readers are part of an aural and oral tradition, and belong to a long lineage of oracular workers. Fortune-tellers are certainly one of the oldest professions in the world – and are aligned with the harlot who has taken that phrase as her own. Indeed, the act of prostitution in many ways imitates a tarot reading in its intimacy between strangers.
A reader, like a Priestess is an Oracle - a word that means 'to speak' (oraca). An oracle was considered the voice of god - the gods - and through the oracle we heard the divine word. Temples in the ancient world were always a place of oracles and divination. Dream interpretations and trance mediums were normal ways to receive the word of the divine = divination. For thousands of years, oracles were consulted on all important affairs of state in the ancient world.
Oracles are ambiguous and can be interpreted in more than one way.
Interestingly foresight and hindsight are inter-related and we often only understand an oracle’s power in hindsight.
The tarot card of the High Priestess embraces meanings related to both seeing into the future as well as holding memory and wisdom from the past. She sits in a space between time.
The Delphic Oracle’s adage “Know Thyself” is vital for a Priestess and tarot reader. An oracle must come through a clear channel which requires self-understanding. A seeker attempts to watch and listen, aligning her/himself with the cosmos in which everything is alive and has meaning (is sacred). The belief behind tarot reading is that the universe and self are one; tarot reading is a practical expression of this belief. We have to “read” or divine the meaning of the cosmos, rather like a sacred weather forecaster.
My job as an astrologer and tarot reader allows me the privilege of considering other people’s private and subjective lives. (consider is a word whose root source meant ‘at one with the stars’). Inner and outer space are aligned and the cards or the horoscope are a mirror that reflects both.
My role is similar to that of a confessor and server of absolution just like the local priest - or witch dispensing folk therapy.
Other roles I play are:-
- Lost Property Officer – finding lost objects lost pets, lost property, lost souls.
- Complaints Dept.
- Professional Friend
- Counsellor, Therapist.
- Guide to appropriate social services such as Citizens Advice Bureau or Sexual Abuse Survivors Support.
- Coach, motivator, mentor.
A tarot Reader is a facilitator of creative processes in oneself and in others, for we are adept at uncovering creative potential and facilitating consciousness- raising.
The beauty of using the symbolic language of astrology or tarot is that it acts as a meditative tool for support on a spiritual path or in developing one’s own intuitive faculties. Yet it is practical too and encourages decision-making and problem solving.
One of its side-effects of course, and maybe what the greater public thinks of its main raison d’etre, is prediction. I think a reader is doing the same kind of job as an economic or weather forecaster – predicting the emotional financial or political weather for an individual or event.
Astrology and tarot are navigational tools for time travel through the past, present and future.
I proudly practice one of the Oldest Professions, despite being still seen as the harlot by the social arbitrators and gatekeepers of the mainstream of modernity, such as the media, the scientists and rationalists/sceptics.
Like a whore, readers are now practicing in a marginally safer climate than we have occupied previously for hundreds of years. However that safety is still tentative.
Presently in NZ as workers we do have our own classification under the Entertainment Industry and we are protected by Statute for legal and tax purposes. Yet it still feels as if we kind of live under the radar, on the edges.
When looking at the role I play in my professional life as a tarot reader and the lifestyle it engenders - especially vis a vis the mainstream culture – I do feel very much within the tradition of the oldest profession.
I feel like an old witch on the outskirts of the village, peering into my crystal ball of prediction at fairgrounds or at the corporate parties or within the homes of private citizens having a party (I’m the Entertainment and often costumed to reflect that role). I am as cloistered as any nun whether I’m working from home or from the local Community Centre.
The media rings me up and wants statements they won’t pay for about the state of the nation, and if they do report me it’s garbled or distorted or badly edited. I’m treated like a heretic and excommunicated from society’s institutions such as University, locked out financially as well as from discoursing intellectually on a level playing ground.
As a tarot reader I am working with the picture stories of my European culture’s heritage and its treasury of symbols in encoded form. I work in an oral and aural tradition which belongs to the story-teller, the old wife telling her tales, the keeper of old stories.
I use tarot like a story that is a medicine which strengthens and supports the individual and the community.
Us High Priestesses/tarot readers are modern storytellers and are the descendants of an immense and ancient community of holy people, troubadours, bards, cantors travelling poets, bums, hags and crazy people.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes who wrote Women Who Run with the Wolves writes she once dreamt she was telling stories and felt someone patting her foot in encouragement. She looked down and saw she was standing on the shoulders of an old woman who was steadying her ankles and smiling up at her.
She said to the old woman “no, no come and stand on my shoulders for you are old and I am young”.
“No, no” she insisted, “this is the way it is supposed to be.”
Clarissa saw then that the old lady stood on the shoulders of a woman far older than she, who stood on the shoulders of a woman even older, who stood on the shoulders of a woman in robes, who stood on the shoulders of another soul, who stood on the shoulders…..
Clarissa believed the old dream-woman about the way it was supposed to be.
The nurture for telling or hearing stories comes from those who have gone before. We draw our power from a towering column of humanity joined to one another across time and space, elaborately dressed in rags or robes or nakedness of their time and filled to bursting with life still being lived.
John P. O’Grady in The Mountain Astrologer p49 Issue Aug/Sept 08
Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women Who Run with the Wolves