“I feel like doing Tarot readings,” says Jeff.
It’s about 8:45 and on most nights we would be packing up to leave the Freebirds Burritos restaurant by now, but tonight Jeff decides he wants to run out to his car and grab his deck. There are only three of us – Jeff, Sielach, and me – at this week’s meeting of Hearthfires, a local Columbia Pagan Forum that I have been attending for a few months. I’m thinking about how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and how spending an hour here doing divination is an hour I can’t spend writing my seminar paper on Giambattista Vico and the completely arbitrary relationship I am drawing between his philology and the Icelandic Sagas.
But Jeff wants to do a reading, so we do a reading.
He sorts out the deck onto the wooden table. His deck is called The Wildwood Tarot; I have not seen it before. The artwork is full of nature imagery and fairy-tale settings; in the world of these cards, there is little evidence of human civilization at all, outside of a few human characters and the tools they carry. I search through Jeff’s deck and look at the major arcana. I don’t recognize the names of most of the cards. I only own three Tarot decks, and they all tend towards the traditional – Rider-Waite-Smith, Thoth, Tree of Life. (Tree of Life is my favorite, even though it has no illustrations except for diagrams of the relationship between the cards and the sephira. I am a sucker for diagrams.) I’m accustomed to the seventh card being the Chariot, for example; in this deck, it is the Archer. I don’t know its meaning.
I mention all this to Jeff, and he shrugs. He has looked at the Rider deck before, he says. “But I never got anything from those cards. There’s something in the rigidity of the artwork.”
Jeff begins to draw cards from the deck for me. I don’t mention any specific question for him to look into, in part because I’m interested to see what he pulls together and in part because I don’t have any questions that I want to voice aloud. I have two main concerns in my life right now – in a few weeks, I will be going to Iceland, and in a few months, I will be getting married. Sielach had given me a reading the week before about Iceland, so that seemed covered, and frankly, the wedding seems too distant and overwhelming to worry about now.
Jeff places nine cards down in a pattern – center, cross, left, below, right, above, and then four cards along the side. He describes this pattern to me: the card in the center represents me as I am now. The cross card can be thought of as either my obstacle or my guide. To the left is the recent past; to the right is the near future. The card above is the Sky, or an ideal outcome. The card below is the Root, or the source of my question. The cards along the side give a rough timeline of events, beginning at the bottom and proceeding into the future as we move to the top.
I watch Jeff with curiosity as he lays the cards out on the table. I have never taken to divination of any kind, despite being raised in a Pagan household where I had plenty of opportunity to study it. I’ve never done a Tarot reading for anyone, though I have, in the past few months, begun to do rune readings. I’ve always been more interested in looking at these tools in terms of systems than in terms of oracular use. After I read Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s Promethea, I spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between Tarot and Kabballah, but it never occurred to me to actually shuffle up the cards; I couldn’t get my mind past the inherent randomness of the process.
“I see a lot of Air in the center of the table,” he says as he looks over the tableau. The center card is a Knight of Arrows, or the Hawk. The cross is the Nine of Arrows, which is glossed as Dedication. In the traditional decks that I am familiar with, Air would be associated with the suit of Swords, but the Wildwood Tarot changed the suits. Here, Swords are Arrows, Cups are Vessels, Wands are Bows, and Pentacles are Stones.
Jeff goes through the rest of the cards: the Mother Bear is my Sky, my near future is Healing. (What would I need to heal?, I wonder.) He details a timeline that seems like it might correspond to my time in Iceland – The Pole Star, The Ancestor, The Wheel, The Great Bear – but I am barely paying attention. I am too busy being struck – terrified, actually – by the card in the Root position.
The card is marked number 9. Normally, I would know it as the Hermit; here, it is the Hooded Man. He says that here it has an association with death, which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing; death can simply mean change. Jeff reads this card as being about living through the winter. But that is not the association I carry.
“I wish I had brought my book with me,” he says, referring to a handbook that provides a list of interpretations and correspondences for each card. “I feel like some of my interpretations are off tonight.”
I nod. “I know I feel differently about the Hooded Man,” I say. “I don’t think that’s about death at all. Especially not at the Root. I think that’s a different Hooded Man altogether.”
Sielach nods as she comes to understand what I mean. Jeff doesn’t, though. “Oh. So you’re dealing with some other hooded person?”
“Maybe not a person,” says Sielach. “A hooded personage.”
I have trouble expressing just how spooked this Tarot reading made me. I had a moment of strong cognitive dissonance. My rational mind pushed strongly against any kind of deep meaning to a particular reading; it’s a random deal of the deck, after all. Which card ends up in which place is just a matter of chance.
And yet I read everything about the tableau in relation to Iceland, and it fit. Including the Root. Especially the Root. The Hooded Man. Card number nine. (Nine. Another spooky coincidence.) Of course he would be at the heart of the question.
I remembered pacing back and forth in my advisor’s office two months ago. I had just found out that I had been accepted into a summer Icelandic program through the University of Minnesota, but I hadn’t been offered any money; it would have cost me thousands of dollars that I just didn’t have. We called every university we were in contact with, every Scandinavian educational association, even the Icelandic embassy, looking for grants. Nothing. Too late to apply. We accepted that I probably couldn’t afford to go this year; our best hope was to defer the admission until next summer, when perhaps I could get a better jump on the grants.
The next day I started a fundraising drive, just to see. Within 24 hours, people – mostly my friends and family, but some people I barely knew, and even some people who I can only assume just knew me through my work – had pledged two thousand dollars. The total climbed to over three thousand by the end of the two month drive. I was dumbfounded. I really had not expected it to work. But it did.
As Florence says, “This is a gift. It comes with a price.”
I leave for Minneapolis, and from there Reykjavik, in a little over two weeks. As that day approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the bargains I have struck. I made a bargain with myself to quit my job and return to academia; now I have made a bargain with everyone who donated to make sure this endeavor is worthwhile.
And of course, I wrote here not that long ago about the bargain I struck with the Hooded Man himself. And there he is, card number nine, staring at me from the root of the world, exactly where I knew he would be when I began this journey last year.
I have been thinking a lot about divination since last night; what to make of it, how to approach it. How any of this applies to changes I have made in my life, and the changes yet to come. What I might believe about what goes into a Tarot reading.
I believe that the cards in any given tableau are random, arbitrary. I believe they have only the meanings we attach to them.
I believe the cards are fated, fixed. I believe each reading tells us exactly what we need to know at that moment in time.
I believe in all and none of these things.
Eric’s note: This post has been updated to feature the actual Hooded Man card from the Wildwood Tarot. Many thanks to the creators for letting us use the image.