It’s all in the cards: Explore the depths of subconscious with tarot

Kathryn Rem

 The Hanged Man. The High Priestess. The Knight of Pentacles. In the season of Halloween — devoted to things mystical and enigmatic — these characters on tarot cards are rumored to be able to explain the unfathomable, make sense of the unknown and answer questions before they are asked.

“Tarot is a psychological journey into your own mind. What the reader tells you, you already know,” said Ruth Souther of Springfield, Ill., a tarot card reader, student of the occult and author of the fantasy novel “Immortal Journey: The Death of Innocence” (Laruso Publishing, 2004).

“You lay them out and see the possibilities,” said Souther, a retired phone company employee who has been reading tarot cards since 1990. “They are not to be taken literally.”

The tarot is a deck of 78 picture cards that has been used for centuries, both as a card game and as an attempt to reveal hidden truths. It is made up of four suits of 14 cards (commonly swords, wands, cups and pentacles) plus 22 cards — usually illustrated with much symbolism — known as the Major Arcana that relate to matters of deep significance (such as strength, justice and death).

Typically, the deck is shuffled and cards are laid out, face down, in a specific order called the spread. The cards in the spread are turned over in sequence and each card is contemplated before the next one is revealed. Each position in the spread is associated with an interpretation, such as past, present, future, influences, obstacles and expectations.

When Rachel Pollack was an English teacher at the State University of New York in 1970, a fellow teacher volunteered to give her a tarot reading in exchange for a ride home.

“I was fascinated by the cards. Each one had pictures and people doing things that seemed mysterious. I loved the idea that there was a story involved with each card,” said Pollack of Rhinebeck, N.Y., an authority on tarot and the author of 30 books, including “Tarot Wisdom” (Llewellyn, 2008) and “Tarot of Perfection” (Magic Realist Press, 2008).

“The two biggest areas that people want to know about are love and work,” Pollack said. “Some readers focus on future events. But modern readers help people look inside. It’s a tool for self-awareness.”

There are hundreds of tarot decks, each embellished with vivid and distinctive art. The most well-known is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which features somewhat passive and gentle illustrations. Others are more troubling, imbued with ominous or demonic imagery. Many decks display a theme, such as fairies, cats, flowers, angels, wolves, dragons and even gummy bears.

Souther, 56, has about 40 decks. When she gives a reading, she wants the subject to touch the cards so he or she feels comfortable with them. Pollack feels the same way.

“Some people feel you have to wrap them in silk or put them in a wooden box to protect them from vibrations. These are myths. Others don’t want other people to touch them, although it’s hard to do if you want them shuffled,” Pollack said.

“The oddest myth I’ve encountered was that you shouldn’t buy your own deck. You should either get them as a gift or steal them,” she said.

Shirley Richardson, a retired state employee from Springfield, has had six to eight tarot card readings from different people. She said some readers were obvious scammers.

“A lot of them tell you what they think you want to know,” she said. “Ask questions. You can tell in the first five minutes if they’re any good.”

Richardson says tarot readings shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“Too many people are brokenhearted. They go in for a reading and it makes them miserable. I have fun with it. I ask some silly things. If the reader can guide you, then maybe something good can come of it.”

Pollack says almost anyone can learn to read tarot cards.

“If you are able to enjoy a movie or TV show with strong interaction between the characters, you should be able to read tarot cards. You don’t have to be psychic. The cards themselves carry the message.”

It’s easier to find a tarot card reader in a large city. If you’re interested in getting a reading, ask in new-age shops and look for ads in shopper publications. Expect to pay $25 to $60, depending on the reader’s expertise.

Free Internet readings are available at and

Pollack advises people contemplating a tarot-card reading to prepare specific questions to ask during the session.

“Do not expect miraculous predictions. And if you go to a tarot reading and you’re told there’s a curse on you, walk out.”

Souther warned against readers who claim to be able to tell the future.

“When they tell you something absolutely will happen, that’s bad. And if they get the little book out that comes with the deck, you’re in trouble.”

Go to a reading with an open mind, Pollack said.

“Be willing to look at the pictures themselves and see what comes out,” she said. “See what it sparks in you.”

Souther says the cards are an interpretive tool and have nothing to do with divination or religion.

“If you hear something you don’t agree with, speak up. You are in complete control. It’s not about the reader; it’s about you.”

Kathryn Rem can be reached at 788-1520