I have a confession to make. I’ve been working as a full-time Tarot reader/teacher since 2017. (Working with and reading playing cards since 1986 – I was 9. Tarot since 1990 – I was 12 or 13. Reading for strangers in exchange for payment since 2013.)
I have always struggled against a lot of the ideologies that get shelved next to Tarot and cartomancy. For decades I had a hard time really putting a name to it. I knew much of what I encountered in the shops that carry Tarot decks felt off… there was a lot of misogyny dressed up as traditional divine-archetype role-playing, there was rampant cultural appropriation claiming to be honoring and somehow “returning to” a “natural state” while conspicuously excluding people from the cultures being referenced, there was a confusing assemblage/collage approach to esoteric beliefs and rituals that worked to amplify a sense of awe while also disengaging with touchstones of reality. The line between free-spirited open-minded spiritualist and untethered appropriative callous individualist was sometimes difficult to discern.
As with any spiritual practice where people tend to come with their most vulnerable selves into a realm which is, by definition, not concrete… there is fertile breeding ground for manipulators, abusers, and just plain scam artists. The questioning-nature of spiritual practices, especially for those who are seeking alternatives to the dominant culture’s codified religions, can lead one fairly easily down a slippery slope of reality denial and falling into the wide open jaws of a cult.
Pre-2020 I had already noticed a trend towards some alarming thought-processes in people I was encountering and of course the uptick in conspiracy theories and outright cult recruitment over the past two years has been incredibly steep. Quite frankly, I became overwhelmed and scared. I was being approached by people with all manner of pain and confusion who were also starting to form concrete allegiances to some deeply troubling beliefs with damaging implications for the overall wellbeing of society as a whole. Knowing that Tarot had already historically been used in problematic ways and that there is no shortage of material out there which can easily be used to support this dangerous reality-slippage, I found myself stumbling over how to approach Tarot with the public. Reading for myself I’d get lost in considering how to address the symbolism I found in the cards, whether it be a historical deck or a contemporary artist’s version.
This past week I received The Tarot of the Drowning World by Kahn-Selesnick. It is a photographic art Marseilles-style deck. Each card is a carefully composed vignette half-submerged in a dark pool of water. The images simultaneously appear to be sinking into and emerging out of the water. There are human figures in the Major Arcana but they are handled in such a way that they read less as human individuals and more as true archetypes. The Minor suits have no humans, the court cards are created from assemblages of objects that vaguely nod to a figurative silhouette.
Each card is a rich and beautifully composed work of art. For the first time in many years I felt the sense of wonder I had as a child pouring over the art in my first Tarot deck. Here I held in my hand imagery that was beautiful while also hinting at and allowing for darker, messier truths. Art that left room to explore the depths of human experience within a beautiful container.
Normally I do a quick “what type of deck are you” reading when I receive a new deck. But for The Tarot of the Drowning World, I dove right in and asked, “What role does Tarot play in my life now?” A simple 3-card draw. 7 of Cups, an appropriate nod to the foundational sense of overwhelm from which my question had sprung. 6 of Swords, indicating my current work to reconcile my relationship with my practice with that of the perceived use of Tarot in current popular culture. King of Cups, a gentle nudge to find my center and be confident within my contemplative work. As a final clarifier, “What should I do?” The Knight of Pentacles replied, “Do the work.”