Back when I started learning tarot, if you’d asked teenage me whether or not the cards were magic, I’m not really sure what I would have told you. I’d have wanted to say yes. The idea that some form of magic somewhere in the world might be real still had an appeal to me. It still does now, if I’m honest.
I think I knew pretty much right away, though, that tarot cards aren’t magic. Not in the way people usually use the word. I remember opening the cellophane wrapper of my cards, dumping them out, and immediately trying to give my friend a reading using the slim manual that came inside the box. Carefully, I laid out a Celtic Cross spread. I squinted at keywords in the flicker of the scented Christmas tree candles we’d lit to set the mood. (These were the same candles we lit, year-round, when we played with her ouija board, right up until the time her Sunday School teacher declared that ouija boards were the party game of Satan.)
There were a lot of “ummm”s, and statements that went up at the end like questions, and I think we decided maybe she was going to fail her math exam. She never let me practice with her after that.
In fact, I didn’t do another reading for someone else until years later, after college, when my older sister started learning tarot. For most of that time I would never have admitted that I even owned a deck. I taught myself the cards late at night inside my closet (with all the skeletons), where the light wouldn’t wake anyone, crouched over a guidebook in my pajamas.
There was very little about the whole thing that felt magical. And yet.
What’s so compelling about the magic in a tarot deck is that it’s the same magic that’s inside our heads. The human brain is designed to create stories, to invent narratives that hold our lives together. This is true even if you don’t think of yourself as a storyteller. The stuff that happens to us is just that: stuff. You can string that stuff in chronological order like a necklace, but that’s not what makes our experiences meaningful. We do that part ourselves, sometimes in ways that are enlightening and beautiful, and sometimes in ways that are pretty effing grim.
The chronological necklaces of our stuff can become stories about learning what we actually need to be happy and to live well. They can become a story about choices people make. Or they can become the story of how we’re destined to love certain star-crossed people, or how there’s nothing we can do about our actions in life because fate! and passion!, or how things always fall apart because we’re unworthy. Our lives can become stories about powerlessness and shame.
For whatever reason, it seems like the narratives that hold us back are often the ones most deeply ingrained in our sense of who we are, of what our lives mean. We carry them around like we carry our bones.
The magic in a tarot deck is the magic to break those narratives apart into colorful, surprising pieces. Suddenly, stories that felt so obvious you weren’t even aware of them are physically spread on a table before you. When the image and symbolism on a card hooks something in your mind, you can pick that piece of the story up and look at it. You can turn it upside down, manipulate it, start to think about it in a different way.
Meaning and possibilities can open up, where before they were locked shut. It’s not “real” magic, this kind of storytelling. But maybe it’s just magic enough.