How does the Tarot work?

The basic idea behind the Tarot is very simple – a deck of Tarot cards is made up of 78 cards, each of which has a specific meaning relating to a particular concept of life, or experience. In a Tarot reading, the cards are shuffled, and then laid out in a ‘spread’ – that is a pattern on a table, where each position represents a particular aspect of life, for instance ‘the recent past’, or ‘current emotions’. The reader then looks at how the meaning of a card corresponds to the position it is in, and tells the client what the spread appears to be saying about their current state of life.

This is a simple thing to describe, but it does suggest one very major question – how does it work? How do the cards arrange themselves into a ‘meaningful pattern’? Why should some pieces of cardboard with some pretty pictures on them be able to mysteriously rearrange themselves into an order which tells us about our life and experiences in a detail that often exceeds what we are consciously able to observe?

The first, and most important thing to realize is – no one knows for sure. People may claim to know, they may insist they have the secret knowledge, that they got their answer first hand off an Egyptian Priestess honest, or that they have proof that all the other theories you’ve ever heard are the ravings of deluded fools. But take it from me – no one knows for sure.

If someone persists in insisting that they do know the whole true and complete answer, they are probably trying to sell you something. Ironically, I probably am trying to sell you something, but I’m still going to insist that no one knows for sure. Including me.

But what, you may ask, is the point of this essay if no one has the answer? Simply that when you don’t understand for certain how something works, the best you can do is come up with some theories to evaluate and compare. Many people have produced many different theories over the years. I’ve done my best to produce a summary of the most commonly found ideas below. By looking at each in turn we may not be able to discern the final Truth, but we can understand more about the way different people think about the Tarot, and judge how our own experiences of the Tarot, and of the world generally, tally with the different theories.

Game theory – this explanation says that there is nothing in the least supernatural or mysterious about performing a Tarot reading, but it is, none the less, valuable. The basic idea is that the cards are randomly dealt and appear in a totally random order. However, the action of interpreting them is still useful. Most people tend to analyse situations in a very logical fashion, based on a set of unconscious assumptions and on a very limited set of expectations – and therefore tend to only come to a very standard set of conclusions, which may limit their understanding of the situations they find themselves in. However, the effort required to fit the ‘random’ cards into a ‘meaningful’ pattern forces a reader to think outside of their normal limited mindset, and can lead to fresh ideas, insights, and may force their intuition to begin solving problems in new and interesting ways. Thus although there is nothing ‘meaningful’ about the layout of the Tarot cards, the effort of trying to find meaning helps us gain better and more original insight into our problems. (Using randomly chosen cards with key words written on them to solve problems has, in fact, become a standard management training exercise) Of course, this game theory interpretation does little to suggest why another person would be able to read for you successfully.

Synchronicity – this was an idea that Karl Jung was terribly keen on. He suggested that as well as causality (the idea that every event occurs as the result of a specific cause) there is another reason why events occur – synchronicity. In some ways synchronicity is a posh way of saying ‘by coincidence’, but the implication is that as well as events being shaped by random chance there are occasionally ‘meaningful coincidences’, that is events that appear to happen purely by chance but carry some meaning for the person to whom they occur. So by using an elaborate system like laying out a Tarot spread (Jung himself used to work extensively with the I-Ching), we are invoking synchronicity into our lives, and the cards will ‘just happen’ to have arranged themselves into an order which tells us something useful about ourselves, or the question we have asked.

Subconscious influence – this is the suggestion that our subconscious minds are more powerful than we usually give them credit for being. Different areas of psychic study credit the subconscious mind with a whole array of powers and abilities of which we are generally unaware. As an explanation for the Tarot, it is usually supposed that in some way the subconscious mind ‘knows’ the order of the Tarot cards, and, through the shuffle, re-orders them so that they will lay out in an order which conveys a useful meaning to the person performing the spread, based on insights that the subconscious mind has presumably already had.

Magic(k) – Generally magic means ‘to make events occur in conformity to your will’. In this case, the will of the reader is that the cards will arrange themselves in a meaningful way, in order to reveal something useful. The magical explanation is simply that this focussed intent is enough to make the cards arrange themselves in a useful way. This is, of course, not a mechanistic explanation, just a description of a particular way of viewing the Tarot. It involves accepting as an explanation that magic is real – the Universe really does respond and change according to the will of an individual. It also suggests there is some skill required in ‘making the Tarot work’ as well as simply interpreting the cards. A deck of Tarot cards is believed to be particularly susceptible to this form of magical influence, because of the way the cards are read. The uncertainty caused by the randomness of the shuffle makes it easier for the order of the cards to be influenced, as they aren’t fixed and could just turn up in the right order ‘by chance’. A great deal of magic is concerned with the simple manipulation of chance – which is one of the problems concerned with testing it.

Pixies – Invisible pixies take hold of the cards as you shuffle them and arrange them in the right order, then whisper the true meaning of them into the ear of the reader. Okay, I’ve not yet read an explanation that says exactly this (although some come alarmingly close, and internet is getting bigger every day). But let’s take this to represent that class of explanations for how the Tarot works that add some whole new unexpected factor to the explanation, and that immediately make you go “What the bloody hell are they on about?” There are lots of these, in many different flavours, and they are almost all based on the idiosyncratic world view of the person coming up with them.

To a large extent, you can take your pick from the above explanations. Currently we have no firm evidence, or clear idea of how to get evidence, to help us choose between the various explanations. It often comes down to which way we are more comfortable about viewing our world – Weird Shit, sadly, often has an approach closer to philosophy than to science.

In my own experience, I find that game theory is an inadequate explanation – I’ve seen many, many spreads, over the years, and the precision with which cards fall into meaningful patterns is far too great for it all to be merely ‘in the eye of the beholder’. I also find the idea of subconscious influence to be stretching the idea of what a normal human mind is capable of too far. So my own explanations sit very much in the area of ‘magic’ – which is another way of saying ‘I don’t know, but I think it’s spooky’.

It’s tempting to use the term synchronicity to describe the phenomena we’re seeing, but that’s just because it sounds a bit scientific and technical. It actually tells us very little, because it’s more a description than an explanation. It merely says ‘meaningful coincidences happen’, but in no way suggests how or why. But perhaps we could equally legitimately ask ‘why does causality happen? Why does event follow cause?’ As far as most of us are concerned ‘it just does’. And perhaps that is the best attitude towards the Tarot – why does the Tarot work? It just does. We don’t have sufficient understanding to propose a theory that breaks down the overall effect into smaller explanations of forces, and movements, that we can give labels to. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and I do believe there will be progress in this area as the years go by, but for the time being there seems little chance of definite success.

The problem is that Tarot appears to work by a different set of rules to the ones we are dealing with in every day ‘mundane’ reality – we generally don’t expect random events to arrange themselves in such a way that they reveal truth and insight about what is happening in our life. It is for that reason that we find the idea that the Tarot can work at all so incredible – there’s nothing else we can really point at in our every day life and say ‘well, it’s very similar to that’.

But then, if you really want to blow your mind, go and read a book about Quantum Mechanics. Nothing about Quantum Mechanics works in the same way that the mundane world does, and it is enormously counter-intuitive. And yet it is accepted as part of the Scientific mainstream. Which is certainly convenient, because all modern electronics are based on it. Few Physicists will claim they know how or why Quantum Mechanics works, but they do know it does, and can tell you that in a particular set of circumstances a particular phenomenon will occur.

I see Tarot in much the same way – so far I have nothing more than a description of what occurs, and no good explanation of why. But it does work, and that, for my purposes, is what really matters. One day I’d like to be able to present a point-by-point break-down of the mechanism behind it, explain exactly how the cards in a spread can order themselves in such useful ways. But for the time being I merely know that with the right approach, effort and concentration they will behave in a particular manner, and that can be harnessed to useful effects for myself, and for my clients.

Want to know more about the Tarot?  Well, probably the best way is to have a reading.  Or if you'd like to learn how to read the Tarot yourself I do offer some lovely courses.  Alternatively, if you enjoyed what you just read you can read more like it over on my blog.