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Few things are more exciting to me than stumbling across a text or image that perfectly reflects a tarot card, especially when it makes me reconsider my ideas about that card.

Today I read the following in the mystery novel A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, says to a family at their annual reunion:

“We believe Madame Martin was murdered.”

There was a stunned silence. He’d seen that transition almost every day of his working life. He often felt like a ferryman, taking men and women from one shore to another. From the rugged, though familiar, terrain of grief and shock into a netherworld visited by a blessed few. To a shore where men killed each other on purpose.

They’d all seen it from a safe distance, on television, in the papers. They’d all known it existed, this other world. Now they were in it. . . .

No place was safe.

Ah, a perfect rendition of the Six of Swords! I was first struck by it being from the viewpoint of the ferryman, not the passengers. A ferryman who is compassionately aware of the deep emotional shifts of those he is transporting—but not partaking directly in those shifts. For a moment I thought, ‘But, of course, the Six of Swords is about the ferryman, not necessarily the passengers! A ferryman who again and again observes this shift taking place in those he ferries. A ferryman who is both separate and yet momentarily involved.’

There is no indication that the author, Louise Penny, had the tarot card in mind. Rather this is a common classical metaphor linking Charon and the river Styx to the family of a murdered person being ferried out of the world-as-they-had-known-it to a shore previously viewed only as a distant abstraction.

I often ask a querent, “Where are you in the card?”  With the Six of Swords, the querent is always one of the figures, but it could equally be the ferryman or the hunched-over adult or the child. By contrast, with other cards, the querent occasionally sees him or herself standing just beyond the borders, behind a column, or, in the case of the Tower, still inside the structure—divorced from the action.

With the Six of Swords there is usually an eventual recognition that the querent is all three persons in the boat. As ferryman, the querent tends to feel he or she is in charge or at least doing something active that will lead to a better end. As passengers, anxiety or grief tends to trump hope, yet there is still a belief that the destination will be better than the “familiar terrain of grief and shock” that they’ve just left.

Interestingly, in the novel, the seven main suspects had, just the day before, gone out together in the lake on a boat—a passage fraught with animosity and repressed danger. The Chief Inspector/ferryman recognizes that the new world they are now facing will be more terrifying than the passengers ever could have imagined. Furthermore, they aren’t just visitors—blessed because they can leave—they will soon be inhabitants. There’s no going back. Grief and shock may exist in the land of the innocent. But, in the land of the experienced, as William Blake well knew, wrath and fear dominate, and the ferryman can’t stop it from happening. (See Blake’s Poems of Innocence and Poems of Experience.)

How different the card looks to me now. It is full of foreboding, and yet there is calm in knowing that this is an inevitable journey from the false safety of innocence into the land of Blake’s experience where realities will finally be faced. As in all murder mysteries the truth will be revealed. But, in an actual reading, is the client always ready to hear such truths?

Doesn’t the admonition, “to know thyself,” mean that we have to come to know and take responsibility for the part within ourselves who “kills another”? Both the querent and the reader want the other shore to be better than the one from which they’ve come, but there are times when we have to go through much worse. What is the reader to tell the client? And, here there are no easy answers.

I hope this makes me stop and think before I blurt out cheerfully, “Oh, you are going through a transition from the rough waters of the past to smooth waters ahead.” Sometimes I, the reader, am the ferryman/chief inspector, who must recognize with compassion that real detection can strip the soul bare and set one in the dread grasp of Blake’s tyger and not in the rejoicing vales of the lamb (see poems here). The rest of the Sword suit (7–10) warns what may come from a detection of the wrongs, or what comes to light when one really wants to “know thyself.” Does the querent really want to go there, or is the querent trusting the reader to ferry them to a safe harbor?

Still, I think it helps the reader—the ferryman who steers the way through the cards in a spread from one’s familiar anxieties to a different shore—to consider what may be truly implied from such a scene in the suit of Swords. This new perspective reminds me that in a reading I am attempting to steer the course when I don’t always know what is lying in wait for my passenger on the other side or how prepared my passenger might be to meet that. It is a grave responsibility.

Here’s an intriguing quote from G.I. Gurdjieff, In Search of the Miraculous (1949), p. 100-101.

“In order to know the future it is necessary first to know the present in all its details, as well as to know the past. Today is what it is because yesterday was what it was. And if today is like yesterday, tomorrow will be like today. If you want tomorrow to be different you must make today different. If today is simply a consequence of yesterday, tomorrow will be a consequence of today in exactly the same way. . . .

“If a man wants to know his own future he must first of all know himself. . . . Knowing the future is worth while only when a man can be his own master. . . . In order to study the future one must learn to notice and to remember the moments when we really know the future and when we act in accordance with this knowledge.”

Any thoughts on this? It’s worth reading the whole section in Gurdjieff’s book (link to text above). How might these thoughts relate to our reading tarot?

When does a traveler stand concurrently at both the beginning and the end of his journey . . . ready to embark, yet puzzled by the dust of travel already on his shoes?

from The Last Days of Madame Rey: A Stephan Raszer Investigation by A. W. Hill.

The answer can be found in the comments section. Don’t look until you think you’ve got the answer.

Went to hear Coleman Barks read poetry last night. It was food for the soul! I was especially struck by the first poem he read—“The Water You Want”—from Rumi. It began

“Someone may be clairvoyant, able to see the future, and yet have very little wisdom,”

which, of course, caught my attention.

The poem speaks of a man who sees water in a dream and, still in the dream, convinces others to follow him toward this mirage, when all along he is sleeping next to a river of pure water (ultimately no further than the blood in his veins). This points up how we live in a dream, and we are advised to:

“Give up subtle thinking, the twofold, threefold multiplication of mistakes. Listen to the sound of waves within you.”

To me this speaks of the paradox inherent in reading tarot, where we miss seeing the, often simple, import; we miss the sound of waves within. Nevertheless, I sometimes let myself wander in the dream, drawn by a mirage or two or three. In the case of The Best Cities for Singles reading, I even encouraged several people to wander along with me. Yet, there is a point when I wake to the rhythmic pulse of the water within (of which such poetry serves to remind me).

Without the dream and without the peregrinations, I may never have come to know the pure water for what it is. The tarot takes me through a labyrinth, a winding in and out, back and forth, to reach a center that is no further than the next heartbeat, yet known all the better for the journey to it. Yes, I lie next to the water I want, but I value it more for having followed the mirage, and knowing that, too, for what it is. Photo: Walking a Chartres-style labyrinth with friends.

“The unknowable lives in a pack of cards after it has been fairly shuffled but before it has been dealt, when all the possibilities are open, and when each possibility matters.”

—from Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull (NY: Tor, 1997), p. 60. [Note: really good novel but read reviews first to see if it is your cup of tea.]

In responding to a comment by tarotgirl about my previous post I wrote:

You can also create a spread around a definition or description of a single word or concept.

She asked: “How would you create a spread around a single word?”

So I thought I’d write my response here.

It’s not the word itself, but the definition of the word that I use. The parts of the definition become the position meanings and the word itself is the theme of the reading. Word roots could also be used.

I collect definitions of words that I find intriguing like for “symbol,” “imagination,” “meaning” and “myth.” Almost every writer on these subjects defines these words as they have come to understand and use them. Some of these definitions are very poetic, some strike at the heart of life’s dilemmas and issues. They can help us see the world and our mundane situations through a different lens, similar to what Rachel Pollack calls “Wisdom Readings” – but in this case, focusing on the wisdom in our own lives.

For instance:
According to Joseph Campbell: “A myth is a public dream; a dream is a private myth.”
You could draw two cards for what is the “public dream”/myth of your situation and what is the “private myth”/dream aspect of a situation. In doing this you take yourself out of the mundane level of what’s going on and choose to look at it from a wider perspective.

Or, Freud: “A myth is conscious ignorance and unconscious wisdom.”

You could ask “In this myth that I have about my mother . . . (add specific details) . . . : what is the conscious ignorance on my part (Card 1)? and what is the unconscious wisdom (Card 2) in that story?

Besides elucidating situations in your life, you can arrive at a very deep understanding of what the author of the definition was trying to convey. By operating “as if” this definition were true, you can also get a sense if it really works or not – it may just be a nice platitude that doesn’t go anywhere. Your life becomes the test case.

If you try this technique and like it, leave a comment and let us know what definition (or favorite quote) you used and how it worked.

Although I’ve been using this technique for a long time, I want to mention that the inspiring tarot author James Ricklef came up with it independently and taught it at one of the Bay Area Tarot Symposiums, using favorite quotes and proverbs. His book on creating spreads, Tarot: Get the Whole Story, is excellent.


Pamela Colman Smith (also known as Pixie), artist of the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot deck, wrote nothing about the deck she created except in a letter to her mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, “I just finished a big job for very little cash!” She did tell us, however, in an article called “Should the Art Student Think?,” what must have been her own approach to reading the cards. This is the core of my own reading style.

“Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose. . . . First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body. . . . After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details. . . . Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! . . . Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.”*

Essentially, she’s suggesting the following steps:

  • Describe the card literally.
  • Describe what seem to be the emotions, style and attitudes of the people on the card.
  • Physically embody the card—act it out.
  • Make up a story about what’s happening and turn it into a first person account (so you are feeling everything yourself).
  • In your mind’s eye, step over the border of the card (through the door).
  • Enter into that world, seeing beyond the borders to things you never knew were there.

In my opinion, this is the best way to discover what these cards mean for you in any situation.

*“Should the Art Student Think?” by Pamela Colman Smith in The Craftsman 14:4 (July 1908), pp. 417-19. Read the article here. See also my post on the Art of Pamela Colman Smith.


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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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