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DIVINATION PRACTICES:

AN EMPIRICAL PSYCHOLOGICAL INVESTIGATION

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BY
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Charles Mason Olbert
B.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2005
M.A., Fordham University, 2014
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DISSERTATION
SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY IN THE DEPARTMENT
OF PSYCHOLOGY AT FORDHAM UNIVERSITY

NEW YORK
6/12/18




ProQuest Number: 10838562




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Dedicated with love to the memory of Bean River Haskell
October 15, 1986 – April 12, 2018

Riches and Wonders


Love Forever

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— Your Sea

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only ideas won by walking
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always in forests and mountains and streams,
I would search for magic—a crystal, some ancient
relic, a wispy snail’s shell, mystic coins glinting
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in golden light—somehow I found you, and so,


my quest for the earth’s secret beauty renewed,
I combed the lapidary breast of the dirt with eyes
and fingers, seeking hidden amulets to put into
your hands so I could feel your eyes light up as you
saw how my wish for you animates my being when
we are apart—how I search, now, for you, always
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Table of Contents

List of Tables vi

List of Figures vii

Acknowledgements viii

CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTION 1

Thesis 1

Literature Review 28

Tarot, Divination, and Magic in the Psychological Literature 29

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Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Divination, Magic, and Healing 82

Emic Perspectives on Tarot Divination 118


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Literature Review Summary 125

Critique and Conclusions 132


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Purpose and Rationale 137

Research Goals 138


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Overview of the Study 139

Phenomenological Psychology 140

Ethnography 142

Phenomenological Ethnography 146

CHAPTER II: METHOD 150

Participants 150

Procedures 152

Data Analysis 160

Perspective Management 165


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Positionality Statement 167

CHAPTER III: RESULTS 175

General Overview of Tarot Divination as a Relational Event 176

Stuart’s Experience of Tarot as a Scholarly Quest to Grasp a Sacred Tradition 179

The Psychological Experience of Reading Tarot for Another 240

Maggie’s Experience of Tarot: “Doctor Magic” vs. “Tarot Magic” 325

The Psychological Experience of Receiving a Tarot Reading 348

CHAPTER IV: DISCUSSION 390

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Summary of Findings 391

Comparisons to Prior Literature on Tarot, Divination, and Magical Thinking 394


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Tarot and the Psychological Literature on Magical Thinking and 395

Parapsychology
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Tarot as a Cultural Phenomenon 405

Psychology Revisited: Theories with Greater Fidelity to Tarot as 420


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Actually Practiced

Limitations 424

Implications and Directions for Future Research 429

References 433

Appendix A: Recruitment scripts 467

Appendix B: Letter of recommendation for Tarot reading 468

Appendix C: Interview information sheet 469

Appendix D: Script for retroactively obtaining consent 471

Appendix E: Individual psychological structure: Mina 472


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Abstract

Vita

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vi

List of Tables

1. Definitions of magical thinking in the psychological literature 40

2. Interviewee pseudonyms and demographics 151

3. Semi-structured narrative interview prompts 153

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vii

List of Figures

1. Representations of ‘The Fool’ in the 15th century Visconti-Sforza deck, 11

Jean Dodal’s 1712 Marsailles-style deck, the 1780 Flamand Tarot, and

the 20th century Waite-Smith Tarot

2. Transmutation diagram showing the four elements, their alchemical 121

symbols, and their humoral and temperamental attributions.

3. The Magician (card I of the Major Arcana) from the Waite-Smith Tarot 124

4. Schematic diagram of the general structure of addressing the Tarot query; 280

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arrows signify acts undertaken by the reader, and dotted circles signify

meaning structures grasped by the reader.


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viii

Acknowledgements

Finishing this dissertation and closing this chapter of my life is bittersweet—

perhaps more bitter than sweet, as in doing so I became twice bereft by smaller and one

unfathomable loss. The smaller loss: on June 1st, 2018, the Tarot Society Gallery—

located serendipitously and somewhat mysteriously at 4 Charles Place—closed its doors.

Although Tarot Society continues, an era has ended; I am grateful to have been there

while it lasted. I am indebted to my study participants and all the members of the

Brooklyn Tarot and occult communities, and in particular those at Tarot Society, for their

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friendship and tolerance of my research project, as well as their enthusiasm for engaging

in the great work. Kevin Pelrine of Tarot Society and Fred Jennings of Catland deserve
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special recognition , as does Stuart Südekum, my Tarot mentor; without them, this project

would not exist in anything resembling its current state. My former partner and dearly
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loved friend Gali Beeri merits recognition as well for walking alongside me for much of

this journey and helping me take first steps into a more open, fearless, and authentic way
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of living.

The unfathomable loss: on April 12, 2018, mere days before the first draft of my

dissertation was due to my committee in advance of the progress report meeting, the love

of my life, Bean River Haskell, died after suffering for many years with myalgic

encephalomyelitis, cervical cancer, and myriad other woes. They (Bean used gender

neutral pronouns) taught me much about how to love and how to see my own value,

deepened my compassion and openness to humanity, and gave me the gift of poetry. No

words are sufficient to express my gratitude and wonder at having been held in the light

of Bean’s love; like a lilac, our love burst forth its color only briefly, then quickly yielded
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to time. Bean was terrified that their death would traumatize me and derail my

dissertation and my career; I expect that years from now, I will look back on this time in

my life and marvel at how I possibly made it through, let alone successfully completed

my internship and dissertation. In the devastating wake of Bean’s death, many others

who loved them offered me support. I am particularly indebted and offer special

recognition and love to Anna Fridlis, Daniel Valdes, and Joseph King, as well as to Laura

Cronk, Danni Green, Sue-Yee Leung, David Newman, Kellen Olzewski, Ben Williams,

Rina Wolok, and Carolyn Zaikowski. I am deeply grateful for Nikolai Antonie, Gali

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Beeri, Tom Blunt, Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, Kristyn Brown, Phillip English, Alex Fine,

Vincent Gonzales, Cameron Hartofelis, Courtney Kotsionis, Jacob Olbert, Sana Sheikh,
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and Eileen Slade, among many others. My internship training director Dr. Matt

Zimmerman and supervisors Lenny Carter, Dr. Jeff Jennings, and Dr. Belinda Overstreet
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merit recognition for their compassionate support.

I also appreciate the guides I have had along the way in my academic journey,
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foremost among them my dissertation mentor Dr. Frederick Wertz, who has taught me

how to be a better researcher, thinker, and writer, and who unwaveringly supported this

unorthodox project. I thank Dr. Andrew Rasmussen, who in addition to serving on my

dissertation committee also mentored my master’s thesis. I am grateful to my other

committee members Dr. David Marcotte and Dr. Dean McKay, as well as my examiner

Dr. Rachel Annunziato, for their generosity and patience in reading what has plainly

become an almost intolerably long manuscript. Lastly, my former mentors and

colleagues Dr. David Penn, Dr. Gary Gala, and Dr. Larry Tupler deserve mention for

helping propel me along the initial stages of my clinical training and research.
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I owe much to those without whom I could not have accomplished this: my

parents, Scott and Deborah Olbert and Laura and Scott Walters.

I also thank Karl, Jane, Michael, Roy, and David.

Thanks to all. This achievement was won at great cost. I only hope that my

prices paid and love accrued become somehow incarnate through this work, imparted to

some unknown reader such that they, too, discover that “turn in the open road with a wide

prospect beyond.”

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CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTION

That is basically the only case of courage required of us: to be courageous

in the face of the strangest, the most whimsical and unexplainable thing

that we could encounter. The fact that people have been cowards in that

regard has caused infinite harm to life. The experience that one calls

‘ghosts,’ the entire spirit world, death, all these related things have been

forced out of life. (Rilke, 1904/2010, p. 78)

Thesis

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I seem to find myself surrounded by Tarot cards. When I moved to Brooklyn in

the summer of 2012 I lived nearby to a neighborhood dive bar with walls decorated with
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Tarot cards—the bar was called Minor Arcana, a reference to the 56 suit cards of the

Tarot 1 deck. Minor Arcana closed in 2013, but I later moved to Ridgewood, New York
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only to find myself two blocks away from The Keep, a bar advertising Tarot readings

every Thursday night and whose logo looks similar to imagery from the 3 of Swords
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Tarot card (a heart pierced by three swords against a background of grey clouds).

Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood bordering Ridgewood, hosts a number of occult 2

storefronts, including Catland (an occult bookstore that advertises Tarot and astrology

readings) and Tarot Society (an art gallery, music venue, and Tarot community space).

In Manhattan and the Bronx, neon signs dot the streets beckoning pedestrians in for

psychic consultations and Tarot readings. In good weather you’re likely to see women in

1
The word ‘Tarot’ is routinely, though not always, capitalized by contemporary and historical authors on
the subject (see, e.g., Crowley, 1977; Waite, 1971), and we follow this convention here.
2
Occult here implies associations to esoteric spiritual topics and interests, paradigmatic examples of which
would include astrology, alchemy, paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and spirit communication, and
the more general category of magic, which we will later take pains to define and account for more
carefully.

1
2

folding chairs hawking Tarot readings in the shadow of Trump Tower at the edge of

Central Park. These aren’t isolated facts: news outlets such as The Guardian, The New

York Times, and The Huffington Post have written of an ‘occult revival’ in New York

(Baker, 2013; Blumberg, 2014; Doyle, 2015; Laycock, 2014; Schonfeld, 2013; Syme,

2014).

Tarot’s appeal extends far beyond Brooklyn dive bars and art galleries. This past

spring I bought a book at The Strand (one of New York City’s largest bookstores) and

noticed that the store prominently displayed the Waite-Smith Tarot deck 3 for sale at the

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checkout counter. At the Urban Outfitters retail chain you can buy boxed sets of Tarot

cards with instruction book included and also decorate your room with their ‘Magical
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Thinking Moon Tapestry’ featuring imagery reminiscent of The Moon, one of the major

arcana (trump cards) of the Tarot deck ("Urban Outfitters DIY: Tarot card reading,"
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2016). In November, 2016, The Economist featured a series of 8 parody Tarot cards

depicting current events. TV shows and movies feature Tarot cards with some regularity,
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including not only cult hits such as Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer,

and the X-Files, but also mainstream programming such as The Simpsons, Mad Men,

Live and Let Die, and even The Andy Griffith Show (Greer, 2008). You can buy decks

of Tarot cards—over 1600 different decks exist, according to the website

aeclectictarot.com—themed after TV shows like Penny Dreadful (Blunt, 2015). Google

search results 4 further highlight Tarot’s cultural prevalence: the search engine indexes 75

million results for the term ‘Tarot’; by contrast, ‘psychotherapy’ yields 36 million.

3
One of the most popular Tarot decks, also known as the Rider-Waite Tarot or Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot,
designed by the occultist Arthur Edward Waite (1971).
4
Conducted on December 12, 2016.
3

Tarot appears to be capturing the imagination of many Americans, but cultural

attitudes toward the Tarot are ambivalent, even contradictory. Americans tend to

associate Tarot with mystery and the occult; and yet you can buy Tarot decks at Urban

Outfitters and Barnes & Noble—hardly obscure and esoteric institutions. Tarot gets

dismissed as mere low-culture entertainment—fare for dive bar imagery and the butt of

jokes on The Simpsons—and yet treated with the utmost seriousness: the governments of

Kansas City and the states of Pennsylvania and New York, among others, consider

fortune-telling with Tarot cards a serious enough matter to criminalize the practice

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(Oprea, 2007), and conservative Christians associate Tarot with devil-worship and soul-

loss ("Danger of the Tarot cards—testimony of Tina an ex-tarot card reader


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[capitalization and punctuation sic]," 2016). Psychology, too, shows ambivalence. On

the one hand, some psychologists consider Tarot readings as a “‘crazy’ therapy” (M. T.
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Singer & Lalich, 1997) and sometimes regard interest in the occult as evidence of anti-

sociality (Egan et al., 2005) or “psychoticlike” thinking (Eckblad & Chapman, 1983). On
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the other hand, experimental researchers such as Subbotsky (2010b, 2014) and Rozin and

Nemeroff (Nemeroff & Rozin, 1994, 2000; Rozin, Markwith, & Ross, 1990; Rozin,

Millman, & Nemeroff, 1986) have documented positive effects of magical thinking, and

psychoanalysts such as Jung (1949/1950, 1952/2010), von Franz (1980), and Davidson

(2001) have used clinical observations and theory construction to explore positive

meanings of fortune-telling generally and (in Davidson’s case) Tarot specifically.

Tarot practitioners, on the other hand, do not share this ambivalence. Authors

write about Tarot as a potent psychological and self-help tool, writing popular works with

titles such as Tarot and psychology: Spectrums of possibility (Rosengarten, 2000),


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Holistic Tarot: An integrative approach to using tarot for personal growth (Wen, 2015),

and Discovering your self (sic) through the Tarot: A Jungian guide to archetypes &

personality (Gwain, 1994). 5 It doesn’t stop there, however: some writers within occult

traditions make high proclamations about Tarot’s spiritual power. Chic Cicero and

Tabitha Cicero (2010), two contemporary writers in the tradition of the Hermetic Order

of the Golden Dawn, describe Tarot as “a blueprint for unlocking the various parts of the

human psyche” (p. xi). Aleister Crowley (1977), a famous occultist who broke with the

Golden Dawn, described Tarot as a path to “the highest, the purest form of the part of

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oneself that one wishes to put into action” (Crowley, 1977, p. 44).

What is going on here? Can we understand, or perhaps even reconcile, the


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various competing attitudes that scholars, practitioners, and laypeople hold toward the

Tarot? Why does Tarot resonate with people and evoke such strong feelings from fear
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and condemnation through fun and fascination all the way to spiritual ecstasy? How and

why do Tarot enthusiasts use the cards? What are the intentions, interests, values, goals,
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motivations, commitments, and significances involved in Tarot practices? What does it

all mean, and what role does Tarot play in people’s lived experience?

Psychological Orientation of this Research

Tarot evokes strong reactions. The cards possess a certain aura of mystery and

fascination, and with incredibly regularity, upon discovering my psychological interest in

researching Tarot divination, people ask me some variant of the question: “do you believe

in it?” I find the question curious, not least because the most ready-to-hand

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Of note: Arthur Rosengarten holds a Ph. D. in clinical psychology and maintains a private practice. Not
all popular press authors writing on the Tarot hold degrees in psychology or related clinical fields, of
course, but the fact that some do provides an initial indication that we perhaps cannot demarcate a bright
line between lay Tarot practitioners and psychology or mental health professionals.
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grammatically analogous question is: “do you believe in God?” Divination and the

divine plainly share at least an etymological link, and further dialogue typically indicates

that people’s interest lies in whether Tarot cards really possess some kind of power to tell

them something about the future or about themselves.

The question “do you believe in Tarot” pulls for me to position myself with

respect to questions about the ultimate nature of things—perhaps about the existence of

magic, the ability to know about the future, and so forth. These questions, however, lie

beyond my interest in this work. I approach Tarot here as a psychological researcher and

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with a purely psychological orientation like that of William James’s (1904) study of

religious experience. James distinguished two orders of inquiry: for first-order questions
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about the nature and origin of religion we turn to theology and history for answers, and

for second-order questions about the importance, meaning, or significance of religion, we


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turn to psychology for answers. These orders of inquiry can be and have been

differentiated, and answering one kind of question does not require answering the other.
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Indeed, religion and spirituality concern subject matter whose ultimate nature and

existence is far from established (let alone beyond doubt), and yet religion and spirituality

represent an important aspect of human diversity and legitimate topics of psychological

research and theorizing (McMinn, Hathaway, Woods, & Snow, 2009; Slife & Nelson,

2006; Slife & Reber, 2012).

Just as religious phenomena may be studied rigorously by atheists and believers

alike, one can study Tarot without taking any specific position on first-order questions

about the metaphysical status of Tarot, let alone other forms of divination and magic.

This is not to say that psychologists have not been interested in or attempted to address
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such first-order questions; as documented below, researchers have applied experimental

methods to Tarot cards and other forms of divination to attempt to discern whether they

possess or generate anomalous or supernatural effects. My scientific interest in this

work, however, like James’s interest in his landmark work, remains confined to questions

of the second order. This study is oriented toward the pure psychology of Tarot.

Whether or not divination yields true knowledge (whether objective or subjective),

whether or not it involves an occult reality, whether or not Tarot cards possess magical

properties that defy naturalistic probability, and whether or not magical practices defy the

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laws of physics, the historical and contemporary persistence of magical practices,

divination, and Tarot in particular clearly attest to psychological phenomena—feelings,


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thoughts, experiences, motivations, impulses, desires, values, meanings—worthy of study

in their own right for the same reason that all psychological phenomena deserve study:
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knowing what people do and why they do it helps us understand, however incrementally,

what it means to be to know and experience the world and oneself as a human being.
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Perhaps, as Rilke wrote, some greater measure of courage is required to face phenomena

such as Tarot that appear more whimsical and unexplainable, but this should not dissuade

us altogether from venturing forth.

Tarot as a Way of Knowing

I am aware of no people, however refined and learned or however savage

and ignorant, which does not think that signs are given of future events,

and that certain persons can recognize those signs and foretell events

before they occur. (Cicero, 1923, para. 1.2)


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Divination as a human phenomenon. The future shapes and defines daily life,

from basic survival needs—where will my next meal come from?—to concerns about

love and work—does he or she love me, will I get that job?—all the way up to ultimate

existential concerns—when and how will I die, and what ultimate significance does my

life possess? Human beings’ fundamental and abiding concern with time’s forward

horizon leads us to seek regularities that tighten our grip on the future. Nature does not

guarantee mechanical regularity, however. From quantum wave function collapses to

complex physical phenomena such as whether tomorrow brings rain or shine to human

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moods and artifices such as gambling, nature and experience rest upon fluctuation,

uncertain foundations. Moreover, as the philosopher David Hume (1739-40/2012)


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trenchantly argued, even the most obstinate regularities of the past fail to guarantee future

certainty: simply because the sun always rose each day in the past does nothing to
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guarantee with logical certainty that it will rise tomorrow. Human beings have always

sought and will always seek to characterize, understand, and mitigate the uncertainties
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that loosen our tenuous grip on the future.

Some modern individuals might dismiss fortune-telling using Tarot cards as a

marginal curiosity with little relevance to serious human concern about the future, but

such dismissal would be mistaken. As Cicero notes in the quotation above, humans

throughout history have attempted to foretell the future by interpreting all manner of

apparently chance or random patterns, whether naturally occurring (such as the flight of

birds or unfurling of smoke or clouds) or human-produced (such as rolling dice or casting

lots). Such practices collectively belong to the category of divination, and fall more

precisely under the heading of technical or inductive divination, which involves human
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skill or knowledge; technical divination stands in contrast to natural or inspired

divination such as dreams and oracles, which the ancient Greeks characterized as direct

communication from the Gods unmediated by human skill or knowledge (Johnston, 2008;

Struck, 2016). I examine below a variety of definitions and accounts of divination, but

for now I shall simply define divination broadly speaking as the use of unorthodox, non-

scientific means to know about life and the future in particular. 6

Virtually every human society across time and space once practiced or currently

practices divination. Diviners read the I Ching in Zhou dynasty China and read bone

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oracles during the Shang dynasty (Smith Jr., Bol, Adler, & Wyatt, 2014)7KH3ƗOL&DQRQ

scriptures of Theravåda Buddhism document ornithomancy (bird augury), oneiromancy


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(dream divination), cataptromancy (mirror divination), and a host of other practices

among North Indian Brahmans (Fiordalis, 2014). The diverse and heterogeneous peoples
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of the African continent developed many divinatory methods including the Ifá system

among the Yoruba, bone-throwing among the Bantu and Zulu, and chicken-poisoning
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among the Azande (Evans-Pritchard, 1937; Peek, 1991). Ancient Greeks relied upon

ecstatic prophecy and oracles as well as technical divination systems involving dice,

flame, entrails, and dreams, to name but a few (Johnston, 2008). The peoples of ancient

Israel and Egypt as well as the Hittite kingdom used prophetic, oracular, dream, and

juridical divination (Cryer, 1994), and the Bible makes numerous references to

divination, including specific forms including cleromancy (the casting of lots; Acts 1:23-

26), astrology (Isaiah 47:13), and hepatomancy (reading of omens using the liver; Ezekiel

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Questions posed to a diviner might concern the present (e.g., ‘does X love me [now]?’) or the past (e.g.,
‘did Y steal from me [in the past]?’), but all such questions carry implications for and involve intentions
and motivations regarding the future. Finding out that someone loves me or stole from me ultimately
serves to shape my attitudes and feelings about the person, with implications for my intentions and future
actions toward them.
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21:21). In Mesoamerica, the Aztec and possibly the Olmec peoples divined via mirror-

scrying (Kauffmann, 2014). Some divination methods, such as astrology, occur across

many cultures. 7

Divination occurs so consistently among diverse peoples that some scholars

consider divination a universal feature of human culture (Flad, 2008; Tedlock, 2001).

Hence, divination as a human phenomenon deserves psychological study. Any broad

category containing numerous instances necessarily calls for more particularized study.

Just as we could not rightly claim to study perception if we did not also study vision and

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touch in their specificity, and just as we could not claim to study emotions if we never

once investigated sadness and happiness individually, the study of divination requires
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elucidating specific instances thereof. The present study takes as its subject the

phenomenon of Tarot as a modern, concrete instance of the more general category of


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cartomancy: divination or prophecy with cards (whether standard playing cards or Tarot).

We therefore have cause to provide some description of Tarot cards, their use in
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divination, and their broader cultural context, most notably their association with the

occult and magic.

Tarot cards, games, and divination. Tarot cards first appeared in Italy in the

1400s and were originally used for playing trick-taking card games (not unlike Hearts or

Spades) such as by the Italians and French (Farley, 2009; Place, 2005). At first glance,

the Tarot deck looks much like a standard playing 52-card deck, with four suits,

numbered cards Ace through 10 (the pips or denaries) and face cards, although Tarot

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Astrology occurs in too many cultures and too many historical periods to list exhaustively; some
examples include ancient Israel (Jeffers, 2007a) and other near-Eastern societies (Cryer, 1994; Rochberg,
2004), ancient Greece (Johnston, 2008), ancient China (Pankenier, 2013), medieval Europe (Kieckhefer,
2000), ancient and contemporary India (Fiordalis, 2014; Pugh, 1983), and, of course, the United States
(Bok, Jerome, & Kurtz, 1975; National Science Board, 2014).
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decks include an additional face card for a total of 56 suit cards. In total, however, Tarot

decks contain 78 cards: in addition to the suits, Tarot decks include 22 trumps that were

worth more points than suit cards in traditional games.

One can readily distinguish Tarot cards from standard playing cards with the

naked eye by means of the fantastical imagery bedecking the unique and impressive sets

of Tarot cards that have historically emerged. Allegorical and philosophical imagery

adorns even early cards such as the Visconti Tarot and the Marseilles Tarot, which

appeared in 15th and 16th century Italy and France, respectively (Farley, 2009). Artists

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design trumps pattered on these early illustrations to this day (Figure 1). Contemporary

decks usually number the trumps with Roman numerals from I (The Magician) to XXI
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(The World) and include an unnumbered or zero-numbered card (The Fool). The four

Tarot suits are usually labeled as Wands, cups, Swords, and Pentacles (or variations
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thereof, e.g., Chalices instead of Cups), and the face or court cards are conventionally

designated as the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. 8 Suit cards sometimes bear simple
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designs patterned off of the number and suit (e.g., the 3 of Cups might simply feature

three stylized cups), but sometimes (as in the Waite-Smith deck) feature symbolic

imagery not unlike that of the trump cards.

The symbolic imagery adorning Tarot cards suggests a greater registry of

meanings and creativity than belong to standard playing cards. Indeed, in a careful

cultural history of the deck, Farley (2009) builds a case that the imagery on the earliest

Tarot cards reflected emblematic imagery common to medieval Italy, allegorically

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Court cards show substantial variations across decks. Early European decks had face cards equivalent to
modern playing cards—Jack, Queen, and King—plus a fourth, the Knight. Modern decks vary the
traditional formula in many ways: Father, Mother, Son, and Daughter in the Haindl deck; Knight, Queen,
Prince, and Princess in the Thoth deck; and so forth. As with face cards in a standard playing card deck,
court cards typically bear illustrations of people.
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illustrated themes and forces in the life of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, and symbolically

represents the fact that life, like the games played with Tarot cards, involves a

combination of skill and luck. Farley documents how practitioners later adapted and

embellished these allegorical and symbolic images with more esoteric and broad-reaching

meanings and symbolism: Tarot decks available today include the Bible Tarot, the

Kashmir Tarot and the Buddhist Fantasy Tarot, the Native American Tarot Deck, and the

Australian Contemporary Dreamtime Tarot (which incorporates Aboriginal Australian

mythological imagery). Some decks show syncretic blends of imagery and symbols from

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many traditions; the Haindl Tarot, for example, incorporates symbols from astrology,

Norse runes, the I Ching, and the Hebrew alphabet and depicts figures from Indian,
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Native American, Norse, and Egyptian mythology.
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Figure 1. Representations of ‘The Fool’ in (left to right) the 15th century Visconti-Sforza

deck, Jean Dodal’s 1712 Marsailles-style deck, the 1780 Flamand Tarot, and the 20th

century Waite-Smith Tarot.


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One might ask how a playing card game became used for divination, but in fact,

gambling and games—especially games of chance involving chance elements like dice

and cards, but also board games—have been used for and conceptually intertwined with

divination in many cultures throughout history (Corr, 2008; David, 1962; Reith, 1999).

This is in part because all stem from the common root of chance and its significant

consequences for human beings, which was historically seen in many cultures to involve

the hand of God (David, 1962). 9 Moreover, it bears note that the standard playing card

deck is also used for divination (Dee, 2004). The first documented use of Tarot for

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divination consists of a single page of card meanings from Italy dated to about 1750,

although a separate and apparently independent tradition of divinatory Tarot arose in the
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late 1700s in France (Farley, 2009). Renaissance attitudes toward divination may help

explain why 300 years passed between Tarot’s use as a game and evidence of Tarot’s use
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in divination. Historians of Tarot (Decker, Depaulis, & Dummett, 1996; Farley, 2009)

document that Catholic doctrine led Renaissance Italians to view divination by means of
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human artifacts or symbols as necessarily requiring the participation of demonic powers,

and hence the use of Tarot for divination would have fallen afoul of Papal inquisitorial

decrees.

Since the 1700s, each individual Tarot card has come to imply some specific

meaning or set of meanings. These meanings derive from some combination of the

symbolism illustrated on the card, traditional and conventional associations, and

assertions by particular artists or authors in a literature and oral tradition that has

9
The Stoics, for example, viewed divination as involving the prediction of things thought to be due to
chance, with the implication being that God (or the anima mundi, the world-soul) was ultimate cause of
everything that happened and our understanding of a phenomenon of chance merely represented our limited
understanding of causes (Struck, 2016). Jung (1948/1974) would later make a similar point in his rejection
of explanations of dreams as due to random physiological phenomena.
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developed historically around the use and production of the Tarot. For example, the 3 of

Swords is usually associated with sorrow and loss, and the 3 of Cups with abundance and

plenty, although the meanings associated with a particular card can be complex and even

contradictory. 10 Tarot readers rely on the meanings of and interrelations between Tarot

cards to attempt to gain insight into questions posed to the deck or to the reader. A Tarot

reading involves a querent (i.e., one who queries) who poses a question to the reader,

who then shuffles the deck, draws a specified number of cards, places them in a particular

arrangement or spread, 11 and then provides an interpretation based on the cards and their

W
order of appearance.

Tarot practices and Tarot magic. Although Tarot cards are most readily
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associated with fortune-telling and divination, their uses extend well beyond divination.

Indeed, Reference books for two popular Tarot decks relegate descriptions of hands-on
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divinatory procedures to brief appendices (Crowley, 1977; Waite, 1971), and a recent

popular-press book on Tarot noted that “if you can imagine doing something with the
PR

cards, it has probably been done” (Berti et al., 2015, p. 14) before going on to list

entertainment, decision-making and advice, knowing the past and the future, creative

inspiration, self-reflection, focus, meditation, intuition-building, and magic as among the

10
Waite (1971), for example, lists the divinatory meanings of the 3 of Cups as “the conclusion of any
matter of plenty, perfection and merriment; happy issue, victory, fulfillment, solace, healing” with reversed
meanings (for when the card occurs upside-down during a reading) of “expedition, dispatch, achievement,
end” and notes that the card “signifies also the side of excess in physical enjoyment, and the pleasures of
the senses” (p. 220). For some cards, such as the 2 of Wands, Waite provides numerous meanings along
with a note such as “between the alternative readings there is no marriage possible” (p. 194).
11
Readings commonly use something like the Celtic cross spread, which involves arranging 10 cards and
interpreting each card’s meaning depending on its position (see Waite, 1971, pp. 299-305). For example,
the second card is interpreted as what challenges or opposes the querents, and the ninth card represents her
hopes and fears. Interestingly, given the future-orientation of divination generally, only 3 of the 10 cards in
the Celtic cross spread concern the future per se: the 3rd card represents “the best that can be achieved under
the circumstances, but that which has not yet been made actual” (Waite, 1971, p. 301) the 6th card “shews
the influence that is coming into action and will operate in the near future” (p. 302), and the 10th card
represents “what will come, the final result, the culmination which is brought about by the influences
shewn by the other cards that have been turned up in the divination (p. 303).

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