Identity politics in tarot: the tarot practitioner be mindful

A guest post shared by Benebell Wen.

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Identity politics in tarot: the tarot practitioner be mindful

2015.01.25 LRT Guest Post - 01  Patriarchal Courts (Credit CBD TDM)

Image Credit: CBD Tarot de Marseille by Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov, www.cbdtarot.com

Traditional tarot interpretation attributes a commanding, domineering energy to the Kings of the court and a nurturing, supportive energy to the Queens. Pages, which in a traditional court are ranked below Knights, are often assigned to female individuals while the Knights are assigned to males. Why? These constructs in tarot have persisted through the last century or so, even though society (well, most of us at least) has evolved beyond such patriarchal constructs.

And when I say “most of us,” I actually mean most of us tarot practitioners.

See, interestingly enough, feminists (of all genders) tend to be more open-minded to tarot and are some of tarot’s greatest supporters. Likewise, the LGBT community has been some of tarot’s most loyal practitioners. Diasporic Africans, South Americans, the Chinese, and Indians have contributed profoundly to the globalization and expansion of tarot as a practice.

Tarot owes a lot to these communities of color for spreading the concept of tarot far and wide.

So has the tarot community returned that favor in kind to feminists, LGBT, and people of color?

I want to confess a story I am not proud of. While writing court card entries in the Cyclopedia section of Holistic Tarot, I initially wrote that the appearance of a Queen in a man’s reading about love can indicate his romantic prospect and the appearance of a King in a woman’s reading about love can indicate her romantic prospect, or something to that effect.

Fortunately, my amazing editor at North Atlantic Books had a question for me. What would the appearance of a Queen in a woman’s reading about love indicate? What if a woman was seeking a woman and not a man or a man was seeking a man, not a woman? I was aghast at my own oversight and of course, corrected the error and revised my manuscript immediately so that I wouldn’t look like a complete asshole.

Here’s the thing. What if I didn’t have an amazing editor at North Atlantic Books?

In working with various free tarot reading networks and mentoring aspiring tarot readers at these networks, sometimes I come across inadvertent assumptions of heterosexuality. We assume that a seeker who identifies as female putting in a reading request about love and romantic prospects must be seeking a male partner, and sometimes, inexperienced tarot readers accidentally respond with references to “he.”

2015.01.25 LRT Guest Post - 02 Queen of Cups

Traditional tarot interpretation often assigns blond hair and blue eyes and generally light complexions to the Wands and Cups, and brown hair, dark colored eyes, and olive complexions to Swords and Pentacles. In a society that is mostly Caucasian with a mix of blonds, brunettes, redheads, green-eyed, blue-eyed, and hazel-eyed folk, such an interpretive framework can work quite well.

However, expanded globally, such a framework falls apart (unless we’re going to assign three-fourths of the world population to Swords and Pentacles?)

If a woman in Al-H?ar?q, Saudi Arabia asks about romantic prospects and sees the King of Cups in her spread, does that mean she will meet a dirty blond fellow with green eyes? Maybe, even if the reality of that is statistically improbable. Or does a tarot reader conveniently skip the physical attributions and move on to the personality traits of Mr. King of Cups? This is why in my own practice, I prefer to go with astrological or elemental attributions for the courts instead of physical attributions.

2015.01.25 LRT Guest Post - 03 Love Readings

What if that woman isn’t even seeking a Mr., but is looking romantically for a Ms.?

Who, then, is the King of Cups in her reading? Typically, for a cisgender heterosexual female asking about love in a tarot reading, the appearance of a King of Cups will often be read literally, as symbolizing a man in her life, a romantic prospect. If a female seeks a female and the King of Cups appears in the reading, how will that King of Cups be interpreted? Does a tarot practitioner change interpretive methodology based on the sexual identity of a seeker? Or do we practitioners trust that all these issues will be squared away by the magic of tarot, in advance, before the reading even begins? And how are transgender individuals represented in tarot? If the appearance of someone designated ‘male’ at birth and identifying as female is relevant to a particular seeker’s situation, which tarot card will appear in that reading to represent the transgender person?

2015.01.25 LRT Guest Post - 04 King of Pentacles

While reading for an Asian female once, I noted a man in her life, a King of Pentacles, a real “Earthy” man, stable, capable of providing her with financial security, someone involved in business, finance, or real estate, someone great with investments and money, a financier or tycoon type, and she was pleased to hear all that.

“Wait, but is he Asian or white?” she asked.

The question stumped me. “I have no idea” was my reply. My intuition isn’t strong enough to make out race and ethnicity, I regret to say. Perhaps other tarot practitioners have better intuitions when it comes to such concerns. The incident raises a good question. Can the tarot discern race? Or is that up to an individual tarot reader’s intuition?

I am not here to answer these questions, only ask them. In the last decade we have seen amazing specialty decks such as the Gay Tarot by Antonella Platano and Lee Bursten, Son Tarot by Christopher Butler, the African American Tarot by Jamal R., the Chinese Tarot by Jui Guoliang, the Motherpeace Tarot by Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble, or the Daughters of the Moon Tarot by Ffiona Morgan meant specifically to address marginalized communities.

[Aside: Why are the two self-proclaimed feminist decks both circular in shape? Do we feminists not like quadrilaterals? I didn’t get that memo.]

The availability of such decks is great, but it doesn’t address the persistence of these issues when we’re reading with a standardized deck.

The Tarot Illuminati is one of the few Rider-Waite-Smith based decks that I feel is truly multicultural. The Goddess Tarot, which is mostly Rider-Waite-Smith influenced with some strong hints of Thoth, ranks the Princesses over the Princes and Queens over the Kings, per the accompanying little white booklet. Admittedly, the Thoth Tarot with its androgynous, abstractly-colored figures is better at identity inclusion and also less white-washed than the Rider-Waite-Smith.

Tarot practitioners must be mindful of how they read tarot

No matter which deck we use, we must be sensitive to the inherent patriarchal, white-washed, and heteronormative assumptions of the tarot deck we’re using and, as the practitioner, make sure our method of interpretation can override those assumptions.


2015.01.25 LRT Guest Post - Guest Blogger Profile PhotoAbout the author

BENEBELL WEN is the author of Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth (North Atlantic Books, January 2015).

Visit her website at www.benebellwen.com.

19 comments

  1. Nova says:

    Love this post! When I first started learning tarot, the old fashioned, heteronormative interpretations I came across drove me crazy. It’s great there’s more of a push for inclusivity.

  2. 3Jane says:

    The Motherpeace and DotM decks are circular in order to remove the concept of dualism, that is only being able to read a card as normal or inverted. Circular cards are meant to enable the reader to view each card as a whole spectrum of possibilities between the “normal” and “inverted” position. A tilt to the right means, roughly, “trying extremely (possibly overly) hard” and a tilt to the left means “trying too little, being withdrawn”.

    This is because at the time the decks were created (if I understand the thinking correctly as I wasn’t a part of the process – I just read the books) dualism and dividing things into good/evil (and consequently white/black, male/female, culture/nature, day/night, up/down, heaven/hell etc) was considered a thing of oppression. The Goddess (all-encompassing) was symbolised by circles, cycles and spirals. A circle/cycle is holistic and you cannot exalt or exclude any part of it because they’re all equidistant from the centre.

    I can look up the exact quotes if you’re interested, as I have both decks plus relevant books.

    • benebell says:

      You know, I really would be interested in learning, if you don’t mind, 3Jane! I still don’t own either deck and want both. Would be great to read about the deck creators’ rationale behind making the circular decks.

      • 3Jane says:

        Hey benebell, I’d say both decks are worth getting.

        Although I find Motherpeace to be unattractive, it’s very good for reading because it was created with a system in mind (all aces are about gifts, all twos are about balance, etc) and has a smaller version that is easier to handle if you have small hands. Also the books are very good (Noble’s “Motherpeace” with the emphasis on symbolism and explaining the cards, and Vogel’s “Motherpeace Tarot Guidebook” with the emphasis on actual reading.)

        Daughters of the Moon I find beautiful and inspiring, great for meditating and Goddess symbolism (I’m a Goddess worshipper), less good that Motherpeace at divination because the cards aren’t systemised. The book is thin, fairly good at explaining symbolism. There is a black-and-white colour it yourself deck version which strikes me as ideal for learning the cards. It wasn’t available when I first got the deck, so I got by, but I will get it at some point.

        As for the rationale behind circular decks, I reviewed a couple of books.

        Shekhinah Mountainwater, in “Ariadne’s Thread”, didn’t give a reason for making Shekhinah’s Tarot round, and neither did she on her page http://shekhinah.net/AboutShekhinahsTarotDeck.htm

        Vicki Noble, in “Motherpeace: a Way to the Goddess through Myth, Art and Tarot” writes that initially she bought her daughter a Tarot deck, two cards were missing and she drew a replacement card (six of wands). That was when she realised she would draw a deck. Since the card was circular, she realised the whole deck would be circular as well.

        Ffiona Morgan, in “Daughters of the Moon Tarot” (the book that came with the deck) gives the fullest explanation. Here’s the quote:

        “THE SHAPE

        Previous tarot cards, except for Motherpeace (which coincidentally, was conceived at approximately the same time as Daughters of the Moon) were rectangular and had positive meanings when upright and negative when reversed. When this mode of reading is examined carefully, one can see that the method requires thinking in dualities or oppositions, a concept developed by the patriarchal either/or mind. Another opposition such as “day and night” is created by separating day from night and placing them in opposition. The feminist or wholistic approach envisions day and night as peaks in a connected whole, or cycle. If we apply this approach to other familiar dualities such as self/other, old/young, spirit/matter, life/death, we can see how differently reality appears.

        A more relative approach is possible with round cards. Each image can be seen as a cycle of energy with varying gradations of positive and negative blending in and out of one another. For example, The Five of Cups, The Storm, is concerned with intensely troubled water or difficulty on the emotional plane. It can be a crisis or an opportunity for growth, or a combination, in any variation of degrees.

        We hope to help bring the new consciousness of circles and cycles by the creation of round cards, as we believe that it is important to begin to think circularly, as did our foremothers who performed rituals in the stone circles.

        HIERARCHY AND THE FIVE SUITS

        Hierarchy thrives in an atmosphere of dualisms and oppositions. If we are part of a cycle or circle, we are connected to each other, but if one of us is “higher” than the other, we are separated.”

  3. I tend to interpret the court cards in terms of level of mastery; as a person who is a beginner or an innocent (page), competent but not fully in control (knight); wholly in charge (queen) or a mentor and teacher (king). Gender then is up to the person I’m reading for, as is race and other personal characteristics. I like to use decks that are person-neutral where I can (should get a set of the Wild Unknown tarot :) ), and at least not heteronormative, like the Silicon Dawn tarot.

    • Claire says:

      I use this “mastery” approach to the court cards too – sometimes it just makes the most sense in a reading (e.g. Page of Swords dominated my years in law school). But that method still uses a built-in hierarchy with king as the pinnacle that must be reached.

      I like to break down the hierarchy further by focusing on the elemental associations: Page as Earth, Knight as Fire, Queen as Water, King as Air.* This avoids the idea of linear “improvement” from page to king. No element is better than any other, they just have different qualities, and I think the same is true of the court cards.

      *I have seen different elements associated with the cards by different people. This one makes sense to me, but choose your own adventure!

  4. mindy says:

    This is a great perspective on tarot and assumtions that we make as readers. The desriptions for the cards (blond hair, blue eyes etc..) stem from European backrounds and are linked with the european tarot reading systems. I fully agree That is all fine and dandy for europe but it sure does not work for the rest of the world.

    My perspective on the images, masculine and feminine absolutly do not mean male and female. I am a leo which is a fire sign, ruled by the sun so my personality is very masculine. I can be aggressive and seek power at times.

    After reading your post instead of saying he or she I am tempted to say Sun ruled personality or Moon ruled personality.

    Thank you for your insight. this is a great topic!

    • benebell says:

      Same here, I do tend to shy from “male” and “female” when talking about the courts and will often go to “yin” and “yang,” which doesn’t correspond with gender, but rather talks more generally about the metaphysical binary that’s also expressed by Sun and Moon.

  5. Omer says:

    A word about trans-related terminology: One is not born male or female but *assigned* this category, and one sometimes identify as female or male but sometimes rather identify with gender (man, woman, agender, genderqueer, genderfluid, etc. etc.), also the relationship between sex assignment and gender identity is complicated and not always contradicting (as hinted by the word “but”).

    • Dana says:

      No one is assigned male or female. They are usually described male or female, though sometimes they have to be assumed male or female because the genitalia are ambiguous and the doctor can’t tell. But sex is real. It’s not arbitrarily assigned by anyone. Either you have potential to make egg cells or you have potential to make sperm cells and that’s true even if your genitalia did not develop typically.

      Gender has nothing to do with sex–it’s the rules a society formulates as to how a person with a given sex is supposed to look and think and behave.

      Transgender people are people who think sex and gender are the same thing except when they’re arguing with feminists, and that if your thoughts and actions don’t match the bits between your legs then it must mean you’re really the other sex.

      It’s not true, but that doesn’t stop promulgation of that silly sexist idea.

      Wear what you want, act how you want. It’s got no bearing on your reproductive potential. And no, I am not reducing you to your reproductive potential. I am reducing your reproductive potential to your reproductive potential. Liking dresses doesn’t mean you should have been born with the ability to make eggs. Enjoying working on cars doesn’t mean you should have been able to make sperm. See how this works?

      • Beth
        Beth says:

        Hi Dana.
        This:

        Transgender people are people who think sex and gender are the same thing except when they’re arguing with feminists, and that if your thoughts and actions don’t match the bits between your legs then it must mean you’re really the other sex.

        is not acceptable. This blog is an actively trans-friendly space and comments that make sweeping generalisations about what trans people ‘are’ or think are not welcome.

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