Loose Leaf Tarot


Our bodies, our tarot


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.

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Gender and the court cards (heaping spoonfuls of salt required)

Queen and King of pents

So, I’ve always had some problems working with the tarot courts. I’m starting to branch out into using non-traditional decks, but I’m still most familiar with the standard Waite Smith, and the court cards in that deck are… problematic. For me, anyway.

The archetypes in the tarot tend to be focused on finding balance between dichotomies (Moon and Sun, Magician and High Priestess, Empress and Emperor). Here’s what Joan Bunning says in Learning the Tarot, from her description of the fool’s journey: “It is a feature of the material universe that as soon as we name some aspect of experience, we automatically evoke its opposite.”

In the major arcana, these dichotomies are abstract, so while there’s a bit of reductive cringe-factor with cards like the Empress and Emperor, I find it easier to essentially ignore their gendered nature, or to take them with a grain of salt. But the court cards are more down to earth; they’re supposed to represent real people and specific aspects of ourselves. And these cards are the worst offenders when it comes to traditional, restrictive ideas about masculine and feminine traits.

Men act! Women contemplate things! Even the pages are supposed to be boys, because whoever heard of a lady page? You can’t carry messages in a skirt. Come on, now, that would be silly.

The problem I’ve been having lately, though, is that I’m actually making some headway in reading the court cards… but what’s helping me understand these images better is their gendering, the very thing I dislike about them and disagree with in real life. Yesterday my daily draw was the Queen of Pentacles, and I decided to pull the King as well to look at them side-by-side. I realized that for me, these two most clearly sum up the symbolic differences between the kings and the queens. Queens are inwardly-focused, more “passive;” Kings are outward or “active.”

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