Having my dominant arm in a splint for the past week or so has taught me two things about tarot, one quite obvious and the other relatively unexpected. The obvious: doing satisfying spreads is really hampered by not being able to shuffle well. The more surprising: in all the years I’ve been reading tarot, I’ve never really learned to connect the cards with my physical self, with what’s going on with my body.
I’ve tried a few times since I broke my wrist to do a little low-key session, to figure out how to make use of the unavoidable down time and delays that come from an injury. But even leaving aside the shuffling, I’m just not getting much out of the cards I pull. They don’t feel relevant to something so physical as, “Dear Tarot, I can’t do all the things and also painkillers make me feel funny, halp please.”
The truth is, I’ve always connected tarot pretty exclusively with the more conceptual, psychological aspects of my life, not much with day-to-day living and certainly not with my physical needs. This blind spot is partly a result of my personality. I’m a swords person all the way; my strengths and my weaknesses almost all come from that air-place of intellect, abstract ideas, and observation.
But I’m thinking there’s more to my physical disconnect with the cards, something actually inherent to the traditional organization of the major arcana, and to the imagery of the Waite Smith deck. It’s a gender thing, and something that intersects with the general lack of diverse bodies in most tarot decks.
Today I went through and pulled the small pile of cards that did suggest physicality to me. I noticed something straight off: I pulled very few major arcana, and one of them was the Empress. She’s arguably one of the most physical cards in the deck, and one of the key “feminine” balance points in the fool’s journey. She embodies the material aspects of what the traditional tarot sees as female energy and power. Ladies are nurturing. We give birth to stuff. We are like the lovely sheaves of wheat, sprouting all fertile from the loamy soil of our unconditional mother-love. If you are hungry or sad, the Empress will feed you and let you crawl into her lap on her squooshy cushion throne. If you want ideas for an action plan, you’d better go to the Magician, or the Emperor.
I’ve come to have a more nuanced appreciation for the Empress, but when I started learning tarot, I had zero patience for that gendered bullshit. There were too many other interesting cards in the deck. I could sort of get on board with the High Priestess, but I honestly hated the Empress. I think I gravitated to the more abstract cards because the cards relating to material, physical life seemed to be telling me a restricted story about what it means to be a woman.
When I decided recently to take my tarot practice more seriously, I didn’t have a clear grasp of my weak points (except for my trouble with court cards). Now I’m starting to see them more clearly. I’m also wondering how many of my blind spots have developed because I was disengaging from aspects of the tarot tradition that sat wrong, that linked archetypes to ideals I wanted to reject, or at least complicate.
A lot of people who are women don’t fit into the image of fertile-passive-mother-being, and yet we’re still women. If our bodies aren’t the Empress, where are our bodies in the tarot? Where are bodies that don’t fit a binary? It sounds like an overly-analytical point (see above, re: swords). But tarot is all about the meanings we attach to the cards, and the fact is, I’ve never attached my body to the images I see there. And I’ve got the privilege of being cisgendered, white, and able-bodied.
If others have struggled with this, I’d love to hear from you, and I’d also appreciate suggestions of more inclusive decks that maybe break with the usual gendered names for the major arcana. I know there’s more out there than the Waite Smith and its derivatives, and I’m making it a goal to find a great deck that helps me challenge limiting meanings of the cards.