Tarot and fortune-telling often go hand-and-hand in popular cultural but many Tarot experts like Benebell Wen, author of Holistic Tarot, argue powerfully that Tarot is not in the business of fortune-telling. This post is an analysis of Benebell Wen’s criticism of fortune-telling.
First, I want to say I have major respect for Benebell Wen. I think she is utterly brilliant when it comes to the occult as well as the Tarot and I would not be where I am in my own Tarot practice if not for her.
With that said, I do have quibbles with her stance on fortune-telling as articulated in her comprehensive and authoritative guide to the Tarot, Holistic Tarot, as well as an amendment to the text on her website (which I discuss below).
Benebell Wen begins Holistic Tarot by stating “I do not support fortune-telling and I do not believe in future-telling. My approach to tarot is not predictive. It is analytic. The signs and symbols of the cards facilitate the retrieval of information from the unconscious and move it to the forefront of the conscious plane of the mind, which can then help us form creative solutions.” (p. 1)
This is what we might call the essential statement of the “Tarot as a mirror” view. But is not just any mirror. It is primarily a logical or analytic one. Throughout the book she goes out of her way to distance her practice of the Tarot from anything that might be considered occult or mysterious. She states plainly she thinks there is nothing spooky or weird with the Tarot — that its mechanism of operation is perfectly clear: it is simply retrieval of unconscious information processing.
Placing Limits on the Tarot
While I agree with Bell that the unconscious mind can be a source of incredible wisdom that feels Otherworldly in its awesomeness, personally I feel like this restriction on Tarot is too limiting when it comes to my own practice. Wen is explicitly saying “The Tarot should not be used for X purpose (according to Tarot analytics).” But in my own practice I don’t believe in putting absolute restrictions on what the Tarot can or cannot be used for.
Also, notice how she is not saying “I do not personally practice fortune-telling in my own life.” Rather, she is saying “I do not support fortune-telling,” which implies a more normative interpretation than just saying “It’s not for her.” Which means if she ran into another Tarot reader who was fortune-telling, her attitude would not be “You do you” but “I do not support you.” Maybe she would be polite and not say anything, but she has clearly stated in her book this is her mindset.
If materialism is true and there is no spiritual or immaterial plane of reality with no gods or deities, she is also making the assumption that retrocausation is not possible, and that it is in fact impossible for the future to affect the present. How does she know that is impossible? If there is at least some theoretical possibility of that (as quantum mechanics actually indicates), can we really rule that out altogether? People have precognitive dreams all the time i.e. dreams of things yet to happen that turn out true in a strangely detailed fashion. So if the mind can do that under the hypothetical model of retrocausation, why is it not at least hypothetical that the Tarot reading can also interact with the future in some unknown way?
What about spiritual folks?
My concern here is not Wen’s insight into the power of the unconscious. You can get perfectly adequate readings from the Tarot by assuming it’s all coming from your deep unconscious mind. But what if you do believe in the spiritual world, filled with its myriad forms of Divine Consciousness? Would it might not then be possible within the structure of your worldview that those Divine forms of consciousness might help us discern the patterns of the future through the use of the esoteric structure of the Tarot? We should remind ourselves that the Tarot itself depicts symbolism of gods and deities and other forms of Divinity, especially as understood through both Christianity and the Qabalah.
It seems to me possible that one could even tap into your unconscious powers better if you believe in the existence of gods and deities. So on Wen’s own theory of the unconscious, it could be even more beneficial for “mirror work” to use the Tarot for fortune-telling, especially of the type of fortune you are seeking is itself spiritual e.g. what is the future of my soul? How will I achieve salvation in this plane of reality?
Wen goes on to say, “When people lack understanding [of the unconscious]. They might become superstitious, and infuse tarot with mystical powers that it does not have, either viewing it as a tool of the gods or a tool of the demons. I assure you that it is neither.” (p. 2)
Let’s slow down a bit here. How does Wen expect to “assure” us that gods do not exist and do not use the randomness of the Tarot to insert their Wisdom? Can she prove a negative? Can she prove that god(s) don’t exist? Of course not. As Bertrand Russel once argued, one cannot prove that there is not a teacup floating around the sun a million miles away.
But of course, Russell went on to argue that this is not a good reason to believe in the teacup, for we have no evidence it exists.
Evidence for Tarot’s occult properties
But we do have evidence the Tarot works. Tens of thousands of people across the centuries have direct experiential knowledge of this uncanny effectiveness. While this efficacy can be explained by unconscious wisdom, it can also be explained as being a tool of the gods. And for this reason, we cannot therefore discount that as a distinct logical possibility.
Therefore, the question of how Tarot works, either psychologically or through divine or magickal methods, comes down to a matter of presupposition. It is a matter of your worldview and not a matter of facts. For if magick could be explained with a mere appeal to facts, then it would by definition cease to be magick. And yet we still experience this uncanny phenomenon when we seriously bring intentionality to a Tarot reading. Therefore, there seems to be a lot of mystery and magick left in something that is supposedly explainable.
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question concerning the nature of Truth when it comes to the nature of fortune-telling. What does it mean to “not believe in fortune-telling.” Does that just mean it is not true that fortune-telling exists? True in what way? If we follow the American tradition of pragmatism as a theory of truth developed by William James, truth is more or less what works for us. And it seems to be a well-established experiential fact that Tarot works. Furthermore, according to many serious students of Tarot, it seems to work especially well when we allow ourselves the possibility that the Tarot could, if it chose to, tell you your fortune, so long as you asked the right question.
Moreover, that itself does not mean that we should always be using Tarot for “fortune-telling,” in the mundane sense of asking whether we will fall in love within the next 30 days. The Tarot thrives on open-ended ambiguity. It welcomes deep and meaningful conversations and, my experience, seems less happy to regurgitate yes-or-no answers concerning absolute statements of fact. But I believe it is perfectly reasonable to make space for the possibility that the Tarot, could, in principle, be imbued with powers beyond what might be possible through mere access to the unconscious mind, as wise as it is.
I want to emphasize my own belief that the Tarot works because it appeals to the guides within our minds and also the guides outside of it. Even if your “Higher Power” is the Awesome Prime Mover that is the Big Bang or the sheer, Dionysian power of quantum randomness, I believe that acknowledging the role of that Higher Power in how the shuffle of your cards turns out is an important ingredient in the art of taking full advantage of Tarot for personal growth and metaphysical knowledge.
Wen’s amendment to the book
In an amendment to her book on her website, Wen defends her disparagement of fortune-telling by citing Paul Foster Case as evidence that “fortune-telling” is dependent on the false notion that human life is governed by luck. Instead, she says in the book she makes a distinction between fortune-telling and divination and that she supports divination. She then quotes a few people who evidently agree with her. At first, this sounds like it brings the occult back into the practice of Tarot reading. But upon closer inspection, what she means by “divination” is not really contacting the Divine spiritual world, but rather, once again, just getting in touch with our unconscious.
She is pretty explicit in her select choice of quotes that, even in this correction on her blog, that the source of wisdom of divination is internal. This is evident when the quote from Paul Foster Case is “True divination rests upon the occult truth that the causes of all events in human life are really internal.” But this is what she says in the book too, the source of wisdom is the unconscious mind — an internal source. Thus, the amendment never contradicts anything she says in her book, just clarifies it.
For example, take this quote in the book:
“You should not predict the future with tarot, because fortune-telling is a distraction that keeps us from focusing on what does need to be done to ensure the best possible future outcome. Using tarot as an analytical tool is likened to casting milestone projections in a business plan or using present sales data to project future earnings.” (p. 416)
Is Tarot just a matter of business analysis?
Personally, I find this a rather boring approach to the Tarot. It makes the Tarot out to be akin to an Excel spreadsheet, where you plugin data points and just compute projected scenarios. For me, that takes out all the mystery and magick of the Tarot. To me it removes its spiritual aspect and makes it purely analytical, just another tool in the arsenal of the spiritual business analyst.
But I don’t think Tarot is at all like business analysis. It is more akin to a spiritual quest, a religious vision, a sacred ritual, an exercise is hermeneutics, a divine process. There is nothing business like about it for me. But to her credit Wen does make a point to say this is how she sees the Tarot. But often her writing style is very prescriptive when it need not be.
In contrast, The Order of the Holy Tarot very explicitly makes room for all ways of using the Tarot that respect its essential sacred nature. I do not think it is impossible to approach fortune-telling from the perspective of spiritual respect. One can glimpse the future in a spiritual vision and that is perfectly valid. It is not necessarily a distraction from what “needs to be done,” from a spiritual perspective. For some people, in some contexts, what needs to be done in their spiritual path is to use the Tarot to connect with the spiritual world in order to divine the future. Who am I to rule that out as a legitimate spiritual need?
Which is not to say all fortune-telling is free from charlatanism. Far from it. But the Order of the Holy Tarot is inclusive of all practices so long as they are done with respect for the Tarot. It is not my or anyone’s prerogative to say what one should or should not be doing with the Tarot with such a blanket statement.