When my good friend and Milk contributor, Ashley Thomson , came to visit me, I picked her brain about her tarot practice. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
How did you get interested in tarot?
The very first tarot deck I ever bought was an impulse buy. I’d always been curious about them. I grew up in the 90s, you had The Craft, you had all that. I was interested and drawn to it, just out of...it seemed fun. I was at a Barnes & Noble, they have that little rack with the little gift books that are like little box sets. There was a tarot deck, I was with a friend, and I grabbed it. We went home. It was a very simple deck with just little drawings, we didn’t know anything about it. I think there were three-card spread instructions in there, and we just stayed up that night, like a girls night and played with the cards. At that point, I got hooked.
I bought different decks trying to find artwork that I liked, that I was drawn to. I wanted to be able to easily know what the cards meant and not always look at a book. It was a lot of fun, so anytime I got around with a group of girlfriends, we would always read tarot cards, and we would read them for each other. It was nice, because when you think of things like tarot cards, you think of it being very occult, or that someone has to have psychic powers, and it was more like it opened up conversations in a group, or we got to learn more things about each other as we played with the cards.
When I was small, I had this little box of Bible verses. I think a lot of people may have had it. It was this plastic-hinged box with roses carved on it, and it had little rectangular cardboards with Bible verses on them. You could just reach in there and pick one, and I remember as a kid randomly picking one and reading one and that being a way to go “this is my message for today.”
So tarot is kind of equivalent to that?
Talk a little bit about how tarot fits into your spiritual practice as a person.
I like to make it a ritual in the morning—it may not even be a tarot deck, there’s also oracle decks, which are similar but don’t follow a strict pattern. I would compare it to someone who may like to read a daily devotional and read a passage from their Bible or their spiritual book. It sets the tone for the day.
For example, I could shuffle and say “what should I focus on for today?” And regardless of whether or not you believe that the message from the cards was meant for you that day or it’s just a random card that you pulled, it will pull on your intuition to whatever resonates with you. You’ll carry it with you, and I think that helps ground me and gives me focus. It can also give you encouragement. A gentle nudge. So that if there’s something maybe you were afraid to do that day or wanted to get done or maybe you’re trying to be creative and you’re judging yourself for worrying about it, it can give you a positive message that helps you go “yeah, I can do this.”
I think a lot of people when they think of tarot, they think of magic, but it sounds like the way you approach it has more to do with intuition. Something that isn’t mystical necessarily, it may be something that we don’t understand, but it’s not magic.
Yeah I would say that I probably avoided tarot because of that. When I did buy that first deck, I was with a friend who happened to not judge me for buying it. I remember not wanting to tell people that I like to use tarot cards. You think of fortune tellers, you think of psychics, and I have gone to readers who—that is their approach, and I didn’t feel connected to that at all.
I guess I think of magic in a different way now. Cause I think that it is pretty magical that you can have control and learn more about your brain and your intuition and connect with yourself. I’m very much a ‘know thyself’ advice type person to tune in and listen to what you think is right for you. I just think tarot is another tool to connect with that. I look at tarot as art, that can speak to you and say something to you.
We as humans have used symbols to communicate forever. And there may even be things that you don’t realize affect you and make you think of other things. Like color theory. The way certain colors can make you have certain reactions. Certain symbols when you see them mean a certain thing to you. It may be different depending on who you are, your culture, or where you were raised. Symbols speak to you. I think tarot is a nice way to connect with your subconscious and kind of see what comes up for you.
What are some of the symbols in tarot decks that resonate with you?
I think if I was telling someone how to find a deck I would recommend finding artwork that you’re attracted to. That’s what matters. Or if you’re trying to study it, you can get a basic Rider-Waite deck or a deck that has the same system. But really it’s all about archetypes, so if I had to say I was drawn to certain symbolism I would be drawn to all the cards with good messages.
I’m curious about different cultures, different mythologies, different religions, and different belief systems. As a yoga teacher, I love learning about anything—I don’t think esoteric is the right word, but I like collecting symbolism from different cultures and religions and learning about them. That’s just something I’m very curious about. You could look at it as a hobby.
That’s cool that you said tarot is something that’s allowed you to learn about yourself, but it’s also something that’s allowed you to learn about other cultures and universal archetypes. Can you talk a little more about those archetypes?
What sticks out in my mind the most is the triple goddess: the crone, the maiden, and the mother. You have a father figure in there, you have a pope-like figure in the deck, you have the death card, we all have times in our lives where things can feel like a death, like you’re letting go of something and moving forward. That can feel positive, but it can also feel upsetting.
There’s a part of the deck that’s called the fool’s journey. It’s really the hero’s journey. The original decks are based on playing cards, someone must have added in the 22 cards of the hero’s journey. It was a game that was played. No one really knows when people started to use it for divination.
Do you think that’s something people don’t realize? That the death card doesn’t have to signify an actual death?
Yeah. A lot of people are creating decks that are a lot more friendly, they’ve even changed the word death to rebirth. More light-hearted art. I like the decks that get a little bit more deep and make you dig into your shadows. If you look at a deck, especially if you’re coming from a Judeo-Christian background, you may look at it and think “this is evil,” if it’s the devil card.
I remember sharing tarot with a family member and I think she quoted something from the Bible about how we’re not supposed to know the future, and I was trying to explain to her that I don’t go “am I about to win the lottery?” Some people may use the tarot in that way, but that’s not something that I do. In the tarot community, it’s not very common for people to use tarot as a way to predict the future.
It sounds like it’s something you can really customize. Like you can use the tarot cards in different ways, it can be a tool for lots of different types of exploration.
Yeah. So if you find a card and it does scare you. Why? Where did you learn that? Why does that make you feel the way it does? If you aren’t afraid to explore that part of yourself, then that’s really helpful. If you think of the death card, I think the tarot was used in like the 1500s, people didn’t live for that long, so there’s facing that kind of death. And people may have wanted to predict that. At the same time, you don’t have to have psychic powers, magic. I like letting go of that fear that I’m bringing some kinds of evil spirits into my life when that’s really just folklore. You’re not going to invite evil into your life unless you’re seeking that.
So it’s more about facing something internal. When you deal a destruction card or a death card, then it’s more about facing the fear of death and accepting that as something natural and even restorative, because it’s followed by rebirth, and destruction is followed by rebuilding. So for you tarot doesn’t have to do with spiritual forces, but internal ones.
Yes. And therapists are even using tarot in their practice. There’s a book that specifically deals with that called Tarot at the Crossroads. There’s a basic deck that you can even find at Barnes & Noble called the Mythic Tarot that changed all it’s imagery to Greek mythology because we tend to know more about Greek mythology. It was a learning tool to learn the archetypes. It reminds you that we—as humans—create these myths and stories based on things that happen in life. Things that everybody relates to. It’s why we all can like the same movies or shows. These characters are dealing with things that maybe you didn’t deal with, but somebody you know did. It’s just the human experience. The human experience is laid out in these 78 cards of the tarot, and it’s fun to look at that information and reflect.
Learning to treat the tarot that way, as a tool for internal exploration, how has that helped you deal with other superstitions in your life?
That has been extremely helpful. We give these certain things power over us. If you give the tarot the power to make you fearful—if you’re afraid of it, and you think that it’s evil and will bring evil into your life—and you conquer that fear, then what other things are you afraid of just because it’s something you were told when you were small? Maybe because it’s a common story in our culture that something is evil. You try to learn more about it, and you start not to give those things power. What else in your life can you take power away from? It doesn’t even have to do with evil spirits or magic or anything like that. Let’s say you’ve learned that someone’s sexuality is bad, evil, or wrong. If you think about how you were able to unlearn that association about something as simple as a tarot deck, how can you face the things you’ve been taught by society or family and let that go also? It’s a fun way to grow and to change your thoughts and beliefs about things.
Why do you think tarot is something that’s started to appeal to more people? There was even an article in Bust magazine recently about it. There’s lots of tarot Instagram accounts and things like that. Why do you think it seems to appeal to women in particular?
We were talking about how it helps you develop your intuition. Getting into those archetypes again, when you think of feminine energy, we think of how we’re related to the moon, we’re related to the night, mystery, and intuition. That may be why we’re drawn to it.
When you think about the word witch, that’s definitely being reclaimed. Now that tarot is getting a little more popular because of things like Instagram and YouTube, people are able to speak out about it and not feel like they’re going to be shamed for it.
I don’t why men wouldn’t want to get in touch with their intuition. I’ve had trouble with getting a male to do it. For example, if I was with someone doing a reading, and their husband was around, I feel uncomfortable, because I feel like I’m going to be judged and deemed silly.
Like they’re not going to take it seriously.
Yeah. And then I also want them to understand how I take it seriously. I don’t take it seriously like a religious right, but then at the same time I do like ritual. I do like to set everything up. Just like if you were going to meditate, you would want to clear your space or have something calming to look at or be in a calm space.
With women I feel like, if you show up with a tarot deck, they’re game. They may be from all different types of backgrounds and beliefs. One of my friends truly identifies as a Christian woman, but she loves tarot cards. She was the same person that was with me when I bought that first deck.
So you think as women were more open to dealing with peeking into our own intuition?