If you type “Are Tarot cards evil?” into Google, one of the top results is the Christian website GotQuestions and they warn that Tarot cards are demonic:
God warned His people, the Israelites, against divination when they were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. He lists divination among such evils as child sacrifice and casting spells in Deuteronomy 18:9–12. Leviticus 19:26 puts is succinctly: “Do not practice divination or seek omens.” Tarot card reading definitely falls within the scope of this prohibition. In some cases, tarot card reading can be guided by demons. In Acts 16, Paul meets a fortune teller, a slave, who earned her masters a lot of money by fortune-telling (verse 16). The Bible attributes her ability to having a demonic spirit, which Paul was able to cast out of her by the name of Jesus Christ (verse 18).
GotQuestions goes on to say that Satan is walking among us, and engaging in fortune-telling risks opening yourself up to Satan and his demonic allies. They say if you want peace about the future, turn to Jesus, not Tarot cards.
The goal of this post is to systematically debunk this Christian propaganda and provide a psychological theory of the Tarot.
I grant Christians the right to believe whatever they want, so long as their beliefs don’t harm other people. But I also have the right to my beliefs, and I believe that this literal demonizing of Tarot cards is dangerous and potentially harmful to Christians (or anyone else) who are interested in the wonderful, beautiful, psychologically healing tool that is Tarot.
Let me be clear: Saying that Tarot card reading is demonic is saying that self-reflection itself is demonic.
What these Christians are doing is essentially demonizing the noble pursuit developing self-awareness. They are demonizing your own Self.
This dangerous brand of Christianity sees self-reflection as an existential threat.
Because if they start turning inwards towards their Self, they are by definition not focused outwards on the authority of external religious leaders and holy books.
When I was growing up, I was taught in church that Eastern practices such as yoga and meditation risk opening your mind to the demonic.
Think about that. Without the constant supplication of Jesus, our minds cannot simply exist by themselves quiet and open without risking “opening a portal” to literal darkness and evil.
But that portal is actually a portal to our own unconscious.
So when they say Tarot is evil and a portal to the demonic, they are saying their own minds are dark and evil.
The Christians might just bite the bullet and agree: saying that original sin has corrupted the carnal human mind, and that yes, the human mind is in its essence evil.
If you are like me this view is repulsive. It is not because I think humans are all saintly and pure. That would be naive. In reality humans are messy and complex, with conflicting motivations, some good, some bad, but ultimately, we are just humans trying our best to survive together.
What these Christians end up doing is in effect demonizing their own unconscious, their own intuition, the collective conscious of humanity iself.
But it is from this well-spring that the wisdom of the Tarot comes forth, overflowing into our minds as hieroglyphic archetypes and enigmatic glimpses of knowledge.
When you read the Tarot each card functions as a window into the unconscious, a strange land filled with strange creatures and inhuman knowledge. This is the world of daimons.
Notice I said daimons, not demons. In Greek mythology, the daimons were the “lower entities” assigned to personally protect us. Socrates famously had a daimon who gave him words of advice, always accurate in warning him what not to do.
For the Greeks, these daimons were allies and friends. They protected us. Watched out for us. Many cultures developed similar concepts of “personal guardians.” Christianity itself syncretized the Greek daimon into the concept of a guardian angel.
11 “For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.”
10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
Saint Jerome famously said “Great is the dignity of the human soul, since each one of them has from the very outset of his life an Angel deputed to safeguard him.”
On the Origin of Guardian Spirits
But where did this concept come from? Why does the concept of “personal guardians” seem so universal in ancient cultures? To explain this I will appeal to the theory first developed by Julian Jaynes in his brilliant, revolutionary book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). He writes,
“A large proportion of the inventory type of cuneiform tablets have impressions on the reverse side rolled from such seals; commonly, they show a seated god and another minor divinity, usually a goddess, conducting the owner of the tablet by the right hand into the divine presence.
Such intermediaries were the personal gods. Each individual, king or serf, had his own personal god whose voice he heard and obeyed.” (Jaynes, p. 184)
But from where does the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “spirit guide”, or “helper”, comes from?
Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them?
John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”.
It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story in his famous poem The Waste Land:
Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?
The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:
“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”
“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”
“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”
“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”
“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.’”
“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”
“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”
“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”
“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”
“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”
Clearly, this is a very real psychological phenomenon.
I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them.
Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar.
I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor.
Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena.
They argue religious explanations of these phenomena is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations.
However, to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras.
I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomenon.
Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:
“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”
How can you argue against that? You can’t really.
Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism.
For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel.
For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon).
From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.
Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism.
Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind
On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Julian Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection.
Such “hallucinatory control” is a cognitive decision-making strategy that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands.
Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Daniel Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect).
Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns.
By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. As Jaynes says,
Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratizethe situation and so hold his analog “ I ” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘ internal ’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)
This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself.
Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.
We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science.
But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language.
Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its nature as a historical hypothesis), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas.
On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.
For Jaynes, this way of experiencing the world used to be way more prevalent in the ancient past. Everyone was basically hallucinating gods and ancestors and spiritual authorities all the time – it was an effective mode of behavioral control based on the powers of language learning.
The gods are born of language – this is why prophets in the book of Amos are said to hear booming, thundering voices, the Gods once spoke to us in clear, auditory channels. But later, bicameralism became more of a vestige as civilization grew more complex and was replaced by modern, reflective consciousness.
It is this reflective consciousness that lost the ability to hear the voices of their guardian angel – the prophets of old have to engage in sortilege and prayer and supplication – crying out to the gods because they cannot hear the voices of the gods anymore – so we now access the gods through the written word, through theorization, calculation, introspection.
It is the difference between the booming voices heard by the prophets of Amos and the lyrical reflectiveness of Song of Solomon, who cries out in chapter 8, verse 13 “O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.”
But the bicameral mind, for Jaynes, is still a vestige, we can see this in those who hear voices. People automatically assume hearing voices is pathological. But much of the negativity associated with hearing voices is from the social stigma and pathologization, rather than anything intrinsic to the experience of voice hearing.
But according to Jaynes hearing voices is actually more akin to a vestigial adaptive trait that was used to give people like Socrates their daimonic wisdom, guarding them and cautioning them. But now these Guardians can only be experienced under extreme duress, or by the small group of hereditary schizophrenics with positive hallucinations.
But could a ritual such as the rigorous 18-month Abramelin procedure trigger the stress threshold necessary to unveil the vestigial trait? Perhaps this is the function of ritual magic: to simulate the conditions that trigger bicamerality.
So is Tarot evil?
Suppose that Jaynes is right and that the Third Man factor is in fact a vestigial evolutionary adaption.
Suppose further that to the extent Tarot might possibly bring you into fact with “demonic beings,” what it’s really doing is bringing you into contact with your own bicameral brain, that is to say, your unconsciousness.
But, everything we know about the unconscious tells us that it is bigger, larger, more powerful than the small sliver of the mind that is wakeful, reflective consciousness.
To deny the wisdom of the Tarot is to deny the wisdom of the unconscious itself.
It is to cut us off from 99% of our own wisdom. This is the wisdom built up inside the collective unconsciousness of humanity for millions of years.
It is to deny the wisdom of the archetypes. The lessons we can learn from the fundamental psychological structures of the mind which shape humanity.
I am not saying that all Christianity is bad. I actually like Christianity. I think the Bible is a rich source of beautiful mythology and mysticism. I am a big fan of Christ as a mythological figure. I just usually don’t like Christians, particularly of the sort still holding onto imperial, colonizer mindsets that want to use Christianity to dominate the world and impose their dogma on anyway who dares see the world differently.
I also take issue with Christians taking things out of context and scaring people away from the Tarot by saying it is evil and will give you a demonic experience.
But using the Tarot is no more likely to summon a demon than writing in your diary or looking in the mirror. Because that’s what the Tarot is (in my opinion, at least): an elaborate way to look in a mirror using esoteric, archetypal images filled with symbolism, mythology, history, mystery, metaphor, and wisdom.
Cutting ourselves off from this wisdom is folly.
Think for yourself. Don’t let religious leaders tell you what is right or wrong. Don’t even let me tell you. Test it yourself. The Christian church has a long history of disagreeing with itself so how can you trust that this or that Christian leader has a grip on the whole Truth?
There are many ways to be a Christian, many of which don’t keep you from exploring the esoteric wisdom of the Tarot, which is really the wisdom of the mind itself.
So are Tarot cards evil? If you think your unconscious mind is evil, then sure. But if you’re like me, and you think your unconscious is Beyond Good and Evil, then no; it is not evil. It operates on an older, deeper concept of good and evil that doesn’t map onto the modern, Christian concept of “sin.”
To truly escape the Christian worldview requires a rejection of the Christian concept of “sin” and with it the way it carves the world into good and “evil.”
Ultimately, I ask you to think for yourself. Use your own inner moral compass. Verify the truth yourself. The wisdom of Tarot is worth it.