“The first card of thirteen sets the tone, speaks of your intention…the reading will flow in an ancient way…”
These overheard words sounded like poetry. So much so that I surreptitiously tapped them into my Evernote app so I could think about them later. That was roughly three years ago—my husband and I were at a now-shuttered wine bar downtown where, a few tables away, two women were reading tarot cards. I strained my ear to hear more, but the only other word I picked up was fire.
I’d had very little experience with tarot—the only other time being when I impulsively bought a deck during a summer rife with romantic woe. I was drawn to the images and the sense of company and communication the deck provided (I was living in a single on a campus that felt like a ghost town). I started with simple readings, three or four cards at a time.
One day, I drew an upside-down hanged man. I didn’t need to be an expert reader to glean meaning. The card and its imagery gave me a way to express what I already felt: staying in my current relationship was a form of self-injury. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the traditional meaning of the card, but I felt so spooked that I didn’t use the deck again. When I confessed my dalliance with divination to my mother, she chided me for flirting with a what she thought was a darker realm (“don’t even mess with that stuff—just in case!”). We shared the same philosophy re: ouija boards—(what if it opens an evil portal?!?). I promised to toss the cards.
But I also left my lover.
Now, in 2019, Tarot decks have nearly entered the mainstream, and like several other practices of the occult or alternative spirituality, they’ve gone through an Instagram-worthy glow up (you can even get a Millennial pink deck from Urban Outfitters, naturally). It’s given me pause for thought. In an era when more people than ever seem to avoid affiliating themselves with a particular religion, spiritual practices that involve physical objects—from tarot cards to crystals—seem to be everywhere.
While the jaded gnome inside me would write these talismans off as another branch of our contemporary, commercialized self-branding (again, pretty objects like these do look good on social media, especially in the aura of increasingly popular witchy vibes). But given my own experience with tarot and alternative spirituality, limited as it may be, I realize that Millennials’ interest in creative and expressive means of spirituality is much more than something to hashtag.
For one, physical objects of spirituality, occult and otherwise, are as old as civilization itself, predating social media by, like, a lot. Whether you’re stroking rosary beads or wearing a Kabbalah bracelet, attaching spirituality to something tangible can have a way of connecting the spiritual experience to the physical world, and sometimes, an object can help facilitate an intangible experience by representing your values and serving as an evocative symbol. These cherished items offer us sensuality, something we often feel is lacking in modern, digitalized times.
Behavioral scientist Stuart Vyse further situates the current occult trend in generational differences and secular circumstances. “Older generations are more likely to seek consolation and a sense of order through religion … There is some evidence that in times of turmoil – both political and economic – people are drawn to paranormal beliefs,” he says. (Of course, the Millennial generation isn’t the only one with a fascination for alternative spirituality tied to its history.)
Furthermore, Vyse continues, “there is much more insecurity about jobs for the current generation of young people than in the past, and for liberal millennials in particular, the world has suddenly gone a little crazy… Considerable research on astrology suggests that believers are drawn to it for a sense of control.”
In addition to a sense of control, tarot cards provide an element of self-discovery—something Millennials tend to be quite keen on, especially when it’s done on our terms (and there are countless ways to customize your tarot experience). Couple that with the sense of eerie comfort that accompanies consulting an invisible force (even if that force is your own intuition)—and the popularity of tarot decks may begin to make sense.
Lastly, it’s impossible to separate tarot from the aforementioned witchy aesthetic. Although many clothing and jewelry brands have certainly hopped on the trend as a savvy marketing move, witchiness, for some, is about more than style. While interest in witchcraft and its accessories comes and goes with the years, witchiness, at its core, takes on feminist implications—especially in the post-#MeToo era.
Pam Grossman, author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic and Power, argues that the witch is the “ultimate feminist icon: she is “a fully rounded symbol of female oppression and liberation. She shows us how to tap into our own might and magic, despite the many who try to strip us of our power.”
Wow—do you have goosebumps, too?
After my husband and I returned from the wine bar, I sheepishly expressed my fascination with the tarot reading I overheard. “Oh tarot?” my ultra-rational, non-religious, crystal-allergic husband said. “I’ve got a deck!” He explained that he’d purchased a set of Rider-Waite cards years ago for research purposes while he was studying screenwriting and had hung onto them for the art. We decided to do a reading for each other, improvising when we didn’t know what exactly the cards meant.
It turned out to be an incredibly fun evening, prompting us to share things wouldn’t have occurred to us to share otherwise. Although we never did it again, the experience showed me that rather than summoning dark forces, dabbling in alternative spirituality, especially tarot, could help you summon your most intimate thoughts while giving you a visual language to enrich your mind’s landscape. Tarot could even help someone articulate their goals for manifestation or work through a troubling past experience. All of those years ago in my lonely dorm, tarot helped me define my present in a way I’ll never forget. Practicing tarot, therefore, may just be a natural and empowering extension of self-care for some.
What are your thoughts on tarot cards?
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