Why a Heathen Tarot Reader?

I have been a Tarot reader over half my life now. My parents both learned to read before I was born. My aunt has at times been a professional reader. I grew up with Tarot decks in the house, and an awareness that there was something special about them. I got my first deck for my 17th birthday when my older sister took me shopping because she thought our parents refusing to teach me before I turned 18 was ridiculous. I taught myself to read from the book and what I could remember of my parents’ example until they consented to teach me what they knew. I have since elaborated on their teachings well beyond their own studies, and made a Tarot practice entirely my own.

People have occasionally suggested to me that as a Heathen, I should be using the Runes for my preferred divination method rather than the Tarot.

I understand why some people think the Tarot isn’t compatible with Heathenism. The background on the Tarot is solidly Mediterranean whether you go with the real history or the mythic origins. The reason it appeals to so many Neo-Pagans is that it has long since been adapted for use by Hermetic Qabalists, who restructured it as a tool for studying Western Ceremonial Magick, partially obscuring its historical Italian Catholic origins, and emphasizing the mythic Egyptian origins. Although many of those Hermetic Qabalists were Germanic in ancestry, and many Neo-Pagan traditions have stripped the rest of the overtly Abrahamic elements from Western Magick forms, the Tarot such as we know it is clearly not Heathen.

The problem is, the Elder Futhark barely works for me as a divination method. I can read them as omens when I encounter them in my environment, dreams, or trance visions. I can occasionally read them if I deliberately pull them from a bag, but it requires that I be in enough of a diviner’s trance that Runes are irrelevant unless the Runes themselves are my goal. That can be very useful for studying them, or cultivating a relationship with the Runes as spirit entities, but it makes them almost useless to me as a divination system.

I’m not rejecting the Runes! I find the Runes very useful for more active forms of magic – Galdr charms, bindrune talismans, and so forth. I use them regularly in those ways, as well as simply writing in them. My old car still has the bindrune wards drawn on the ceiling in permanent pen, much to my boyfriend’s delight and his passengers’ confusion. But the passive nature of divination doesn’t mix with Runes for me.

I’ve heard that the Runes were not historically used for casting lots. Maybe that’s part of why.

Maybe the Runes are too abstract for me. I find pip-cards frustrating for the same reason. 5 cups without further context isn’t more useful to me than 5 letters that don’t make a word, much less a paragraph. I work well with the Runes as fragments with which I can create pictures and narratives. I’ve been described as someone who “thinks in bindrunes.” But they don’t seem to be sufficient narrative for divination by themselves.

I do have a thoroughly Heathen method of divination: Oracular Seidh, Spae, Utiseta. But Spae and token readings aren’t really interchangeable – that’s like peeling vegetables with a seax.

That Tarot deck I chose on my 17th birthday was actually the Norse Tarot – the closest thing I could have found to a Heathen Tarot deck. That’s actually kind of odd, since I wasn’t particularly drawn to Norse mythology at the time. I’d grown up reading myths and folktales from all over the world, but especially Europe and the Mediterranean. I thought I wanted a Celtic deck, because I was most comfortable with the Northern European folktales, and with modern Celtic Folk music. I thought fairytales meant tales of faeries, and that faeries were necessarily Celtic. I thought the aspects of folk art that appealed to me from all over Northern Europe were specifically Celtic.

I was wrong.

In retrospect it’s obvious both how and why the Norse Tarot was the deck that felt the way I thought a Celtic deck should feel. I have since acquired an Arthurian deck that also feels similar to what I had been looking for then, and have realized that what I’m really looking for in a Tarot deck requires a mix of Scandinavian and Celtic influences, amongst other things. Luckily, although I was a bit bemused, I trusted my intuition and went with the Norse Tarot when I found it that day.

That was my first real introduction to the Runes. The Norse Tarot attaches some of the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc to the Trumps. Of course I’d seen them before in art – my parents are Tolkien fans – but I’d never actually studied them myself. The Runic associations in the Norse Tarot make certain amount of sense, but the Trumps are not really equivalent to any Futhark. They’re correlated most directly to the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, (something I’m really only familiar with because of the Tarot.)

Lacking direct knowledge of the Runes, I didn’t have what I needed to use the Runes to influence my interpretation of the cards, which is really the value of such associations. Instead I ended up with some skewed ideas of what some of the Runes mean, until I had the time and inclination to study the Runes themselves almost a decade later.

These days I have about as solid an understanding of the Elder Futhark as I do of the contemporary Tarot, which is to say that I have mastered both enough to teach them, but I still have plenty left to learn. I’m sure I always will.

The thing is, as much as value the Tarot, I’m so not a Qabalist. The strong current of Abrahamic mysticism running through the Tarot has always been slightly off-putting to me. I understand it, certainly, but it just doesn’t resonate with me. Strangely, that a standard modern Tarot deck is base 10 and base 7 is more off-putting than most of the rest of it. There are a few of the Trumps – the “Triumphs” of Catholic pageantry – that have never sat right with me: Judgement, for example, just doesn’t click. But for the most part I’m sufficiently steeped in Western religious, occult, and mystical tropes that I have no difficulty dealing with the Tarot.

It’s just never felt like it’s entirely my own.

So for maybe a year now, I’ve been re-designing the Tarot, stepping away from the Abrahamic philosophies somewhat, but not entirely – they’re still part of my surrounding culture, and many generations of my ancestors were Christians after all. I’m particularly restructuring away from the base 10 and 7, towards a base 3 and 4 system that is heavily influenced by my knowledge of the Elder Futhark, of Northern and Central European folklore, of growing up in Northern California, and of being a person who is very Seasonally Affective. Because I’m correlating to the seasons, I’m sticking with the 4 Mediterranean elements rather than the Celtic 3 or Norse 2, for the suits, but those, too, are changed, as are many of the trumps, and the overall structure of the deck.

After a fair amount of time fiddling with the conceptual patterns until they clicked, I’ve finally started the art for the individual cards. I look forward to sharing more of this project with you as it progresses!


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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3 Responses to Why a Heathen Tarot Reader?

  1. Pingback: Crafts and Services FAQ | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

  2. Pingback: DPM 4: Let’s Talk | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

  3. Pingback: Tarot of Seasons – First Sketches | EmberVoices

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