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The Tarot of the Bohemians book cover, Samuel Weiser Books, NYC, 1971.

I still have notes on the first Tarot reading I did. It was the Rider-Waite deck (Pamela Colman Smith, the deck’s artist, was barely on the radar back then), standard “yellow box” with plaid backs. I didn’t particularly connect with the artwork and actively disliked that plaid, but it was the only deck I could find. What little I knew came from one of the few Tarot books I’d been able to locate: The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Papus (original French publication, 1889). Papus’ references to astrology seemed encouraging, as that was my main study at the time.

My notes show a five-card reading. The first two cards spoke to the Past, the center card was Present, and the final two held the Future. Despite the time references, this was a Yes-No reading, tallying reversed and upright cards like a show of hands. Four reversed cards here meant the answer was No.

My question? Pure teen angst: “Was Brian Jones’ death an accident?” Jones had recently left the Rolling Stones and then drowned in his swimming pool. What really happened that night remains so clouded that speculative news articles still pop up with death-bed revelations and purported confessions. My reading is dated September 1969, and I was nineteen.

Sadly for my mystic-hippy-chick self, the Tarot eluded me. Why did the pictures go one way, when their alleged meanings went everywhere else? Why did these people look like they’d escaped from a Shakespeare play? And why were there so few women? My Yes-No readings became increasingly confused. One problem that’s readily apparent now: I rarely asked a straight Yes-No question. Most of my queries were Either-Or, or qualified: If this happens, will that follow? Other times, I asked no question at all, but then tried to force-fit the cards on to something – anything! – taking place in my life. My copious marijuana use probably wasn’t helping. Confused and disappointed, I put aside the cards and reverted to my preferred oracles, astrology and the I Ching.

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The Motherpeace deck, The High Priestess, art by Vicki Noble and Karen Vogel, © 1981

Fast-forward through nearly two decades: Chaco Canyon, a vast and remote Anasazi site in New Mexico. I was there on a women’s retreat, more deeply exploring the call of spirit, but also craving perspective on some personal upheavals. We hiked among the ruins, and I began learning the practice of shamanic journeying. On the side, I experimented with a Tarot deck the facilitator shared. This was the Motherpeace Tarot, and I bought a copy when I got home from the retreat. This happily began my reacquaintance with Tarot.

Motherpeace was the perfect-for-me-then deck, a fresh start by being so completely unlike the Rider-Waite. The characters are predominantly female, and the book is filled with Goddess lore and feminist interpretation. The cards themselves are round (and plaid-free). Pot-smoking was well behind me, and I had years of fine art, witchcraft and Life Experience to draw upon. Vitally, I learned to frame better questions, which is also crucial in shamanic journeying. For the next ten years, my Tarot work was exclusively with the Motherpeace deck and book.

Even with this so-different deck, I still had an analytical, memory-based approach to the Tarot. That changed perforce with an auto accident in early 1999, a minor fender-bender for my car, but a significant “closed-head injury” for me. The effects were cognitive. Intense analytical thinking, my standard go-to approach to everything, was suddenly gone, maybe forever. Flailing around, trying to stay on-track through the course of any day, I did more shamanic journeying, and read kid’s books, with plenty of illustrations. From pictures, I learned that the accident had washed out the bridges connecting my brain’s dendritic pathways. New connecting roads can be built, but won’t be identical to their old routes. I needed new mental highways, and decided to follow any paths that presented themselves.

Numbers suddenly became compelling: I noticed them everywhere. Tarot has pictures and numbers, so I dived in more deeply, but now from the other side of the pool, a place of less head, more heart. The ease and flexibility of an intuitive approach, although it arrived under duress, changed everything. My old baggage around Rider-Waite was gone, so I found a new copy of the deck (plaid-free backs) and started exploring those roots as if really seeing them for the first time. Numbers morphed to mathematics and sacred geometry, grew into Math for Mystics, and then spun into a renewed exploration of astronomy and astrology that became Planets for Pagans. These meandering roads – auto accident, Motherpeace, mathematics, Rider-Waite-Smith, astronomy, the Tarot in general, shamanism – came back around to Papus.

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Oswald Wirth, La Papesse (The High Priestess), © The Trustees of the British Museum

I still consider The Tarot of the Bohemians heavy slogging, doubtless because “our study of the Tarot, full of numbers, of Hebrew letters and abstract deductions, is not calculated to attract the attention of ladies.” Mon Dieu! Fortunately, a key portion of the astrology in Papus’ text points to Oswald Wirth, whose The Tarot of the Magicians is a book I now treasure. Rather than involving the planets, Wirth’s pertinent astro-tarot realm consists of zodiacal and circumpolar constellations. Those Polaris-circling star-groups are literally the stuff that myths are made of, stories that tie in beautifully with the large Tarot themes of the Fool’s Journey, the challenges we face, and the allies we find.

If my 19-year-old self had known she would eventually find amazing allies, would she have been happier? Probably, but could she have been too contented to make that restless journey to Chaco Canyon? Possibly. And then she might not have come to know, among plenty of other things, why Pamela Colman Smith’s characters look like they stepped out of Shakespeare.

No need to rewrite or second-guess the past: this Fool is as on-track as she needs to be. As healing balm, as beauty, as breadcrumbs marking the wild path, the Tarot always meets us where we are.

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Renna will be speaking on “The Tarot, the Night Sky and the Hero’s Journey”  at TarotCon Denver 2015. Visit our Speakers page for the full line-up of presentations and workshops.

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About the Author

Renna Shesso is the author of Math for Mystics (Weiser, 2006) and Planets for Pagans: Sacred Sites, Ancient Lore and Magical Stargazing (Weiser, 2014, originally A Magical Tour of the Night Sky, Weiser, 2011), and a series of small self-published works. A long-time resident of Colorado, Shesso is a shamanic healing practitioner and teacher, a Tarot reader and teacher, and a priestess of the Craft. Visit her at RennaShesso.com.

© 2015 by Renna Shesso. All rights reserved.

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One thought on “My “Groundhog Day”: Meeting the Tarot for the First Time, Repeatedly

  • March 13, 2015 at 10:14 am
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    Renna, I loved reading your journey with the tarot and your personal experiences, how they brought you to where you are today. I think your an amazing person, incredible teacher and your on my list of people I admire. You taught me my first tarot lessons and I say thank you! Darlene Cerovski

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