Tarot Unplugged

The ten of swords is a grim card to get in a Tarot reading.

Ten of coins or ten of cups, you’re golden—wealth and bounty abound. The meaning of the ten of wands is a little ambiguous. But there’s nothing vague about the ten of swords—represented on the best-known Tarot deck by a body pierced by 10 swords stretched out in a pool of blood.

I think it was decades ago in college. I don’t remember the venue exactly. It was one of the very few readings I’ve ever participated in: my girlfriend flipped that card over for me, and I kind of quietly flipped out. Nothing ugly, but it left a scar.

As she thumbed through the book of meanings, she found no clear way to soften the blow. Being far too cavalier, I’d asked a broad-strokes question—how would my life turn out?—with no understanding of how to read the response. Amidst a sea of other cards neither of us understood terribly well, I got stabbed 10 times in the back. That’s what I took away from our impromptu rank-amateur reading, and it kept me from doing another.

Still, the decks have always intrigued me. I’ve often wondered if there was a way to investigate them further that didn’t involve so much hocus pocus, dread or foreboding. When I got serious about trying to find someone, I didn’t have to look far.


Carolyn Cushing’s office at the One Cottage Street mill complex looks south, with a view of the lake at the heart of Easthampton. It’s a bright, relaxed and professional space.

The room contains no crystal balls or astrological charts. There are lots of card decks, but Cushing doesn’t wear a scarf over her head and never offers to look at the life-lines on my palms.

While she uses the cards for readings for clients, she’s not trying to predict their future; she calls what she does “collaborative consultations.” There’s nothing inherently mystical about them.

“It’s like you have your own councilor, coach or spiritual guide,” Cushing said. “Often people seem to think the cards are magical and that they’re telling them something or making something happen. But really: the cards are just pieces of paper. It may be that they have a message for you; something you can then work with.” Cushing helps her clients interpret the cards.

Her website (artofchangetarot.wordpress.com) elaborates her position: “I am not a doctor, lawyer, therapist, or financial expert. I encourage you to seek professional assistance in those areas if necessary. I do not work as a psychic. My role is to work with you to gain insight into your current situation and envision possible pathways of change and positive development.”

And finally, “As I do not believe the future is fixed, I will never use the Tarot to predict death, disease, or unavoidable disaster of any sort.”

Instead of divination, Cushing uses the cards as a kind of framework for discussing the issues that her clients bring to her. Beyond simple readings, she uses the cards to help clients make decisions, reduce stress and inspire intuition and creativity. Rather than assigning a specific meaning to each card, she uses the imagery and her knowledge of the symbols to promote creative thinking about an issue or question challenging someone. The card’s meaning is gleaned by the client, rather than Cushing.

“The cards help people pull up thoughts they might not have considered without them,” she said.

This more analytical approach is a far cry from the reputation the Tarot has had until only a few decades ago as a gimmick on par with a Magic 8 Ball or a Ouiji board. Cushing says there has been a renewed interest in the cards throughout New England and into Canada, with scholars and enthusiasts considering them from a wider set of perspectives—historical, scholarly and artistic.

“Tarot’s on the rise,” Cushing said.


A common Tarot card deck consists of 78 cards.

Most cards are divided into four suits of 14 cards apiece—ace through 10 and then four face cards, much like a deck of playing cards. These 56 cards are called the “minor arcana.” The deck also includes 22 other cards, a numbered suit with characters like the Hermit and the Hanged Man and places such as the Tower and the Moon. These cards make up the “major arcana.”

The earliest known deck comes from 15th century Italy, but scholars agree the deck’s origins are multiple, convoluted and ancient. Though the deck has been used in both Italy and France primarily for a set of card games, the English-speaking world has been more taken with the symbols on the cards and interpreting their significance. Instead of game rules, until recently, the books associated with the Tarot (pronounced “tar-oh”) in the Queen’s tongue have long instructed readers on how to use them to divine the future.

This is done by selecting a series of randomly shuffled cards and laying them out in a specified pattern before the person making the query. Different patterns are useful for answering different kinds of questions, depending on their scope and specificity. The reader reveals the cards and based on each card’s significance and position in the pattern, the interpreter (or reader) weaves together a response.

Each card, whether it’s from the major or minor arcana, is assigned a meaning—generally representing a moment of conflict or union in one’s life or a particular person or event. Instead of clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds from a deck of playing cards, a traditional tarot deck’s suits are usually some variation of wands, coins, swords and cups. Each suit has an ace, numbered cards up to 10, and a page, knight, queen and king.

It takes a while to get familiar with the meanings of the cards. Beginners working alone often use the cards with a thick book in hand, plodding through the meanings. The more practiced develop a relationship with the cards, imbuing them slowly with events from their own life. Turning over the cards, they interpret a narrative instantly, like a writer typing a sentence.


Carolyn Cushing has lots of different kinds of decks in her office. Some are historic reproductions, but many more have been published in the last couple of decades. All are variations on the above themes, sometimes straying slightly, and other times downright contradicting older approaches. Many involve animals. Some weave in symbols from different world religions. Some include fairies and angels. There’s at least one deck with a vampire theme and another that’s steam punk. Deck designers freely change names of the major arcana to fit their themes. They riff on the names of the suits of the minor cards.

“For a reading to be effective,” Cushing said, “you need to be comfortable with the cards you’re using. Though there’s two or three I work with myself, I like to give people options.”

Since the ’60s, the Rider-Waite Deck of cards has been the most widely known.

Published first in 1909, it was the work of illustrator Pamela Colman Smith, hired by scholar and mystic Arthur Edward Waite. (Rider was the publisher.) Waite was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult group active in the late 19th century. It included members such as the poet William Butler Yeats and the occultist Aleister Crowley. For the Golden Dawn, the Tarot was serious stuff. With the deck’s ties to the Kabala and Egyptian religions, they saw the cards as being a key to the three parts of the Wisdom of the Whole Universe: Alchemy, Astrology and Theurgy.

“They didn’t do readings for people,” Cushing said. “This was far too important for the common folk. They used the cards as a tool for meditating on their deep, mystical questions. One of the steps to understanding the Tarot better was members’ designing their own decks.”

Crowley’s deck, known as the Thoth deck, was done in collaboration with the painter Lady Frieda Harris and took them five years, with Crowley insisting they rework many of the elaborate paintings multiple times. Waite’s deck was made in about six months.

Both decks are masterworks, but Waite’s deck had two advantages in the print world.

First was his decision to illustrate the numbered cards in the minor arcana. The earliest decks aren’t numbered, and later ones don’t include illustrations for the numbered cards that denote any meaning. In Marseille deck—one used in France during the 16th and 17th centuries—the seven of swords card is illustrated with the sword icon repeated seven times. On the Waite deck, a man runs from an encampment, his arms full of swords he’s apparently stolen. The numbered cards in the Waite deck have a sense of narrative not seen before. While there’s a book Waite wrote to accompany the cards that explains their meaning, his illustrator did her job so well, it’s almost not necessary.

The other advantage the deck had was that Smith’s expressive pen and ink drawings were easy to print. The black and white drawings were full of detail and yet boldly rendered. They reproduced easily, even if cheaply printed, which they often were.

The Rider-Waite Tarot deck has pretty much cornered the market since the ’60s, and the deck and its interpretations have earned it an unintended position of authority. Even as new decks appear—sometimes with wildly divergent concepts—they often borrow heavily from the details, attitudes and characters from Smith’s illustrations.

“The Tarot community made the decision not to have one true Tarot,” Cushing says, quoting Walt Amberstone, a favorite teacher from the Tarot School in New York. “And that has resulted in an explosion of creativity. It’s true—and in keeping with the teachings of the Golden Dawn that we all need to find decks that speak to us.

“The dominance of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is a happenstance of publishing,” she said.


Cushing was raised a Catholic. Until she got into her teens, she attended church regularly with her family.

“I had that spiritual, mystical bent. When I had my first communion, I thought there would be light and music from above,” she said. “Then I rejected all that and devoted myself to political activism.”

Years later, someone she knew through work was trying to raise money by offering Tarot readings. Remembering how she only went to the reading thinking she was helping the friend, she laughs.

“But she had this round deck, and I just was fascinated with it,” Cushing recalled. “I guess I was feeling some kind of gap spiritually.” It was the Motherpeace Tarot deck. She bought a copy. With her roommates, she began playing with it. Cushing started reading books by Mary Greer and Rachel Pollock.

In 1999, Cushing went to a workshop held by the two authors at the Omega Institute.

“I loved it,” Cushing said. “It went deep into the history of the cards, but it was also playful and funny.”

One exercise involved an open reading done by Pollock, where attendees were invited to contemplate a single card together.

“In the card I was looking at, there was a ball of fire, and I felt I was being tempted to accept it. In a lot of ways, the Tarot’s been that ball of fire for me. That guided meditation has also been the seed inspiration for the new site I’ve launched.”

The site (journeyintothetarot.com) offers a series of guided readings Cushing has begun recording. Every week for paid subscribers, she does a group meditation on a different card. Instead of presuming a card’s meaning, she offers prompts and ideas for things people might see in a given card or want to think about and visualize.

She has also attended the Reader’s Studio in New York. It’s an annual event held by the Tarot School (tarotschool.com) with an international audience. Initially she attended as a novice; now, she gives readings there. After an early visit to one of these gatherings of Tarot fans, attendees from the Valley decided they wanted that kind of trading of knowledge to happen more often. They now meet monthly at the Forbes library in Northampton and host a website (masstarot.com).

“We assume a basic level of understanding,” she said, “but it’s grown from a half dozen members to almost always at least 15 or so attending each meeting.”


In talking about one card, Cushing invariably includes other cards that relate to it.

Studying the cards in depth, learning their different interpretations and coming up with your own, patterns emerge in the cards. Instead of seeing each as an independent kernel of wisdom, you begin to see the significance of the numbering system—the sequence of the cards tells the stages of a journey; there are narratives at work in the cards. To understand the meaning of any one card, you really need to have some notion of how the suits and arcanas work overall.

A Tarot reading is like detaching pages from a larger book and scrambling them together to tell new stories.

Death is the 13th card of the major arcana, a suit with 21 numbered cards (22 including the Fool, who is numbered zero). As scary as it may be to get Death in a reading, it’s important to remember that it’s a transitional card—in the middle of the sequence, not an ultimate end.

Same goes for the ten of swords. After that grim card with a body stabbed with 10 swords, the page, knight, queen and king of swords all seem to be doing quite well. The ten of swords can be interpreted as great sacrifice for great goals. A skilled reader might have been able to tell me that when I was a spooked college kid waiting out a winter storm in my dorm room. Maybe they could have also told me that the body used as a pincushion was illustrator Pamela Colman Smith’s interpretation and didn’t need to be mine.

In that regard, reading a book was no help.•

Author: Mark Roessler

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