By Daisy Waugh
It’s come out of the fairground tent and moved into the mainstream. Novelist and professional card reader Daisy Waugh explains why tarot offers hope and direction in an uncertain world.
I was at a party last week and a man I had known but not seen for many years – an opera singer – came bounding up to me. ‘I hear you’re a professional tarot reader these days,’ he cried. ‘How much do you charge? Or maybe I could sing you a song instead? Would you read my cards for free?’
Ah, the beauty of the sharing economy! People have offered me all sorts of things in exchange for a tarot reading: babysitting, chauffeuring, DIY… On the whole, to be frank with you, I prefer PayPal. But he was right: I read cards professionally, as well as write novels. And I’m lucky – I seem, by happy chance, to have caught the front end of a wave.
It’s extraordinary how public attitudes to the tarot have changed – even in the few short years since I first stumbled upon it. Where, four years ago, I was slightly embarrassed – even fearful, in the face of so many curled lips – to discuss my new passion, now I have people begging me for readings.
The tarot, for all its occult connections, its magical powers and scary-looking Death cards, has gone mainstream. Better yet, it’s fashionable.
Last year, New York’s The Week magazine ran a piece wondering: ‘Why is tarot crazy popular all of a sudden?’ US Vogue online offered a beginner’s guide to reading the cards, and The New York Times magazine The Cut went with: ‘How tarot became the trendiest party game’. When New York sneezes (so the saying goes), London catches a cold. In the UK, January’s Economist lined up eight tarot cards on its New Year cover to describe the outlook for the year ahead.
Why is tarot so ‘crazy popular’ now? Maybe, in the current angry climate, it’s not that surprising. The world is in upheaval, uncertainty abounds. Our 24-hour news flow constantly rams home the message that life as we know it is teetering on a cliff edge of anarchy and/or extinction.
On Twitter, we henpeck and bully one another over our petty political differences. Meanwhile, Instagram encourages us to present a perkily untroubled image to the world, to compete for each other’s approval. And in the midst of it all, I think many of us feel pretty lost.
Where once we might have turned to organised religion for answers, today we are left with a void: no obvious framework from which to try to make sense of a bigger picture.
The tarot offers a gateway to a broader, gentler and more spiritual perspective. Like religion, it insists upon the existence of a wisdom beyond our limited human comprehension – and by doing that, it offers us hope.
What I know for sure is that the tarot is hugely popular these days, and my skills are much in demand. I rarely walk into a social gathering without someone asking eagerly if I have brought my cards.
The answer to which, by the way, is always no. New York journalists may write it up as just a party game but, in my opinion, laugh-a-minute drinkathons and tarot cards don’t mix. A decent reading is an intimate and fairly intense experience. Even if a person is only asking the cards whether they’re in line for promotion, other matters are more than likely to come up: finance, health, sex and relationships – the cards don’t leave much out of bounds (although a reader can try to be delicate).
Often clients ask simply for an ‘overview’ – a sort of spiritual/psychological MOT. At which point almost anything can arise. Is your sister stealing your inheritance? Is your husband gay? Is your boss in love with you? All these questions can be suggested in the cards.
As for specific questions, they are, of course, 100 per cent confidential but they tend to run along familiar themes – sex, money, love, career… Sometimes it’s very hard. Someone asks: is my marriage over? And the cards that come up are, for example, the Hierophant, which represents (among other things) marriage; and the Three and the Ten of Swords, which can represent emotional pain and painful endings. So the answer in the cards seems loud and clear.
The question is, how to present that answer in a way that the client might be able to draw some strength from. Above all, I try to stress that nothing is ever set in stone; that even if, as things stand, the marriage looks headed towards the finish line, it doesn’t have to be that way. A client can listen to the cards and take action if they don’t like the way things are going.
The earliest known tarot decks can be traced back to 14th-century Northern Italy and were originally – ostensibly – designed purely for use as a card game (all forms of mysticism being frowned upon by the Catholic church). Today there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of different decks. The Rider-Waite, which I learned on, is the most recognisable. It’s only 100-odd years old, but its symbolism is drawn from a mix of ancient belief systems: Kabbalah, ancient Egyptian and Christianity chief among them.
The pack consists of 78 cards. The client shuffles and pulls a certain number (depending on their question), which the reader arranges in a pattern on the table. Each card has a specific, root meaning, but that meaning will alter depending on where the card lands and which cards are surrounding it. The meanings are always nuanced and I try to stress this.
Even so, when clients pull the Death card they tend to forget all my words of warning. They get jumpy. (And it’s true that the image of a grinning skeleton on horseback, riding through fallen corpses, does look rather alarming.) To be clear: the Death card does not necessarily signify death. It signifies the end of something important – a cherished project perhaps, or a relationship. And, yes, it can also – sometimes – mean physical death.
But the point of a reading isn’t really about telling the future, it’s about connecting with the present and offering an insight into the influences surrounding you, so that you can work towards an outcome you might prefer.
So the presence of the Death card can simply represent an ending in some important area of your life and suggest that you might need to prepare for that – maybe even to celebrate. As I say to my clients, you can look on a reading as 45 minutes of speed therapy or you can embrace the magical idea of our existence as one universal knowledge.
That a tarot reading is often accurate and almost always comforting is something most people who’ve experienced it would find hard to refute. How that comes about is still open to question. But if a client leaves a reading feeling bolder, wiser, stronger and more inspired than they came in – and that is the aim – does it even matter? I think not. So you don’t know how the cards work. Do you know how your iPhone works? Just roll with it.
Enough of the sales pitch. If someone had told my journalist self five years ago that I would be writing a piece like this, let alone practising as a professional reader, I would have fallen off my chair with derision and mirth.
In fact I only really discovered the tarot by accident. A friend and I enrolled on a one-day course for the hell of it. We knew nothing about the tarot beyond what we’d seen in the movies, and we thought it would be interesting – funny – to spend the day with some New Age nutballs.
But in the end her alarm clock didn’t go off and she never turned up. It was a blessing in disguise. Her absence meant I could immerse myself in the whole New Age nutball experience without fear of being sniggered at. By the end of the day I realised that I had stumbled on something amazing.
At home I asked the cards a question just for the hell of it. It was a work-related question, not very interesting: a project I was convinced was brilliant. But the cards suggested the exact opposite to the answer I was expecting. Sure enough, a couple of days later, my agent called to tell me (kindly) that it was possibly the worst idea I’d come up with yet.
I was lucky enough to live within reach of the famous College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington (where Arthur Conan Doyle was once president) and for a while the place began to feel like my second home. Fast-forward a few years, and the same cynical journalist who had enrolled on a one-day course for a laugh – ha ha – was at the local tube station handing out fliers offering tarot readings.
People responded to the fliers, and then recommended my readings to their friends. I had to pull back a bit or I would never have had time to write.
Today the tarot is an inextricable part of my life. I don’t just offer readings, I also write mystery novels starring a tarot-reading detective. And just like my detective heroine, I ruminate with my cards over almost every decision I ever make – including, in fact, the one to change my pen name. (Against the publisher’s advice, and somewhat to their annoyance, I am writing these novels under the pseudonym E V Harte.)
I pull cards before work meetings and after arguments; I pull cards, in their absence, to check on the wellbeing of family or friends and, indeed, for updates on the current state of any enemies. I pulled cards mid election campaign – and got the Five of Swords and the Five of Cups, implying to me that we were engaged in a vicious and pointless fight from which our country would stagger on, sick and enfeebled.
Sometimes, when I think I’m using them too much, I hide the cards somewhere I know I’ll be too lazy to fetch them. Card readings can be addictive – for clients, too, especially if they didn’t like the answer the cards gave them first time round. I tell people they shouldn’t return for readings more than three times a year – and certainly not if they’ve come to ask the same question again. Apart from anything, it’s a waste of money.
No, the tarot cannot tell the future – but, yes, it will pick up on the myriad influences surrounding you at the time of a reading and suggest to you, with some accuracy, where things may be headed. So if the guy didn’t want to marry you in mid-April, he probably still won’t want to marry you in May. Unless you’ve won the lottery since then. And if you have – guess what? The cards might already have spotted it coming…
Daisy’s latest novel, The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene under the pseudonym E V Harte, will be published by Constable on 7 September, price £8.99. To pre-order a copy for £7.19 (a 20 per cent discount) until 27 August, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. If you would like to book a tarot reading with Daisy, go to daisywaugh.com.