By Anna Merlan
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Although the 562-year-old practice of reading tarot is quickly approaching the popularity of Western astrology, the process is still very private and frequently misunderstood. It often exists in a vacuum, with many card enthusiasts keeping their interest secret from friends and familyespecially those in the Bible Belt. So the New York Tarot Festival, this weekend at the Marriott LaGuardia in East Elmhurst, Queens, should provide a nourishing environment for experienced readers and newcomers alike.
Wald Amberstone and Ruth Ann Brauser, founders of the Tarot School in New York City and the event's organizers, are tarot experts well aware of the growing international interest in their subject and the tendency for people to be "reading" under the radar. Known for their emphasis on innovative techniques, in-depth analysis, and integrating outside material (numerology, astrology, magic, psychology) into their practice, between them they have over 70 years' experience working with the tarot.
The middle-aged Amber-stone has been refining his understanding of symbology and esoterica since his introduction to the cards in 1959. Brauser, his younger partner, started reading in 1974, and like many of her students originally pursued her interest alone; for years she knew no one else interested in tarot. "The Tarot School was conceived," says Brauser, "in part as a solution to the problem of learning tarot in isolation." When they started the school in 1995, there were a limited number of classes and workshops available. Though they've had 1000 students in classes here, and hundreds participating in their phone courses, it wasn't until the late '90s, when the pair started attending symposia, that they became connected to a larger tarot community. They finally met many of the authors, deck creators, and teachers whose work they had come to respect.
True to most things occult (i.e., hidden), the history and intent of the cards (which allegedly originated in northern Italy around 1420) are very fragmented and mysterious. Origin theories range
from the plausible to the completely harebrained. Although many have theorized that the first decks were adapted from a royal court game called Triumphs (carte da trionfi), one common explanation is that the original decks were a template to preserve ancient knowledge, possibly passed down from the Egyptians via the Rom (popularly known as "Gypsies"), the Sufis, the gnostic Christians, or any number of cryptic sources.
A system so potent in symbology and archetypal knowledge had to have been using the old Sufi mind trick of hiding "secret" knowledge right out in the open. It's thought that even "normal" playing cards were originally created as a map of psychological and emotional functioning, hidden in a game; European playing cards were adapted from Islamic Mamluk cards.
Many believe the tarot is a cosmographa kind of map of the universe similar to the Kabbalah's Tree of Life and the Gurdjieff Enneagram, a tool said to be a living universal symbol containing all knowledge. Although speculation about how and why it works is endless (and probably futile), users think it accurately reflects a person's inner state (psychological and emotional) at the time of a reading. The tarot is a language of symbols that tells a story, your story, and if you're paying attention, it could be a powerful tool to help you live more consciously and control the way your story turns out.
The tarot deck is used primarily for divination and meditationit's been called the "meditative yoga of the West." A typical deck (there is no "definitive" version) is an assortment of 78 cards: 22 are the major arcana, or trump cards, such as the Chariot, the Hierophant, the Magician, the Moon, and the Devil, dealing with areas of life that are, for the most part, beyond our control. They "speak" of the influence of fate and the connection to the higher self; they're the big stars of Jung's collective unconscious. The other 56 cards are the minor arcana, or suits, such as Ten of Coins, Two of Wands, and Eight of Swords. These address issues under the questioner's (or "querent" 's) control.
The cards, even contemporary ones, are almost always beautifully decorated. Most decks are adaptations of the classic designs such as the Visconti-Sforza and Sola Busca (15th century) and the Rider-Waite (a classic, but still a relative newcomer, published in 1910). There are a variety of specialized decks for a myriad of interests and lifestyles: feminists, Lord of the Rings enthusiasts, cat and dog lovers, baseball fans, Buddhists, Christians, pagans, Crowleyans, feng shui-ers, Native Americans; designs can be Celtic, Taoist, Egyptian, or reference Disney, H.R. Giger, H.P. Lovecraft, rock and roll, and Star Wars, to name just a few.
The cards can be consulted alone or with a "reader." The querent contemplates a certain question for a few minutesthe best ones ask for wisdom or insight for a particular situation, dynamic, or relationship, or seek to know the pattern or trend of a certain matter. The cards should not be told to reveal winning lottery numbers or make exact predictions about the future, but they can be a very powerful mirroroften reflecting aspects of your psyche you're not aware of. After asking the question, the querent (or the reader, if one is present) shuffles the deck and draws a certain number of cards, laying them out in a particular order. Some popular "spreads" are the Celtic Cross and the Three Card (past, present, and future). A learned reader can decipher meaning based on the cards themselves, their accompanying symbols, and the arrangement or order in which the cards have been "laid."