Skip to content

How does Tarot work? — Part 2

May 4, 2013

Have you ever wondered how the Tarot works?  I recently asked a variety of Tarot experts, each with their own unique perspective, to give their thoughts on this question.  In Part 1 of this exploration, we went from variations on a theme of “I just know that it does work” to a comparison of the Tarot to the Internet.  In this second of two parts, we will further consider the Tarot in terms of levels of consciousness and messages from the Divine.  Again, I hope you enjoy the following thoughts and theories about how the Tarot works.


James Wells says that our intention creates a meaningful connection —

At the time of writing, I believe that the tarot works because we intend for it to work, we want it to work, we make it capable of working. Humans are creative beings, pattern finders and meaning makers. These capacities help us to survive in a world that so often comes across as chaotic. I can get through the grief of a relative’s death or surprising health diagnosis because something in me wants or needs to find something in these experiences that will serve my mental-emotional survival during and beyond the events.

When I apply this to our use of the tarot, I believe that taking an idea or intention into time set aside for exploring it primes the creative, “meaning finding aspect” of ourselves to discover something in the symbols, characters, and concepts of whatever card(s) we select from the deck. As I look at the card with my issue or topic in mind, the convergence of question and card sets something in motion within me that creates relevance. My imagination blends the context I have set with the tarot image so that meaning emerges.

James Wells is a tarot consultant and teacher who is the author of Tarot for Manifestation and a forthcoming book of original layouts for personal and cultural transformation. You can book personal sessions and group learning experiences with him through


Bonnie Cehovet references Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” —

For me, the Tarot works because the images are reflective of life—of archetypal energy (the Major Arcana), and of the energy of day-to-day life. It reflects the experiences that are common to all of us, and what Carl Jung termed the “collective unconscious”. To facilitate our understanding of the images and their relationship to each other, we overlay this foundation with what we know of things like the elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth), Numerology, and Astrology. And, of course, of our own personal experiences. In the end, we know one thing … it works!

Bonnie Cehovet is the author of Tarot, Birth Cards, and You, and the upcoming Tarot, Ritual, and You, both from Schiffer books. Her website is


Johanna Gargiulo-Sherman refers to levels of consciousness, and has some fun in the process —

Ready, Aim, Fire! The field of battle is a card spread or layout, the question your target, your weapon of choice the Tarot, the objective—to obtain an answer.

The Tarot acts as a trigger mechanism that responds to the many levels of consciousness within a time / space continuum. A pat answer at best, but does one always hit the bull’s-eye? No. Does proximity count? Yes, and in many cases this is what is experienced. One cannot discount the skill of the reader in the course of a reading.  They must not only psychically tune into the seeker’s energy, but also recognize the cards’ pictorial symbols and language, thereby trusting the revelations surfacing from the subconscious.

How does the Tarot work? As a weapon against ignorance.

Johanna’s work-for-hire, The Sacred Rose Tarot is seeing its 33rd year in publication by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.  She is known for her psychic abilities, and her mentor in this field of study was the former Professor Hans Holzer, author, lecturer and paranormal investigator.  She is currently revising and expanding her book Guide to the Sacred Rose Tarot originally published in 2003 and currently out-of-print.


Lisa Hunt likens tarot cards to storytelling and says that it stimulates our active imaginations —

Our lives are comprised of stories and experiences. Some are hopefully wonderful and others are inevitably unpleasant, but all provide a narrative about who we are and what we may become. I liken tarot cards to storytelling and see it as an important devise for stimulating our active imaginations.

For me, seeing and feeling meaning and stories in pictures helps to bring things into focus. The visual stimuli break things down into basic components that invigorate clear, creative thinking. It provides a way to get in touch with our intuitive senses and to see our inner and outer worlds with an objective lens.

Our intuition is often clouded by rationalization and conditioned thinking. Sometimes we simply ignore what we deep down know is best for us. This can lead to impulsive behavior and even bad choices. But I think tarot cards help us to engage the senses, opening up the channels between different layers of consciousness and providing us with invaluable insight. Suddenly, elements of our dream-world start blending with our conscious thoughts and provide us with patterns, symbols and themes that can help us to sort through problems, disillusionment, fears, hopes and all manner of conflicts and curiosities.

I don’t think reading tarot cards is as difficult as some may think. It is a matter of opening up the heart and mind and letting the images tell the story.

Lisa Hunt is the author / artist of many tarot decks including the award-winning Ghosts & Spirits Tarot published in 2012. She is currently working on an oracle deck entitled Winged Enchantment to be published by US Games.  Her website is and the Lisa Hunt Art Facebook group is


Ferol Humphrey talks about the levels of consciousness that access the infinite knowledge of the Universe through our intent —

How does Tarot actually work? It seems that we must ask this question if we wish to approach Tarot as a serious process. We cannot know, but we may ponder.

When I use Tarot for investigation, I imagine that I am performing a corollary of the Sugar Supersaturate String Crystallization process which I observed in child science lessons. For me at age 13, this very basic lab science experience seemed like a philosopher’s answer to how the human brain works in conjunction with the quanta of knowable information. The lab demonstration: A solution of sugar water is prepared in a glass, sugar added to the water continually until it no longer dissolves and lies on the bottom of the glass — the water is now a supersaturate of sugar. Introducing a soft cotton string into the sugar water, one need wait only seconds to see sugar crystallizing on the string like rock candy.

When I consider an idea and shuffle my Tarot deck, I experience my subconscious, conscious, and superconscious awareness to be receiving and giving order to knowable information from an infinite field which is both personal and impersonal. I believe that in some combination of card fall and innate internal order, the answer has formed around my intent and will naturally be available to me if I wait quietly. The Universe, in my view, is a supersaturate of knowledge. I simply request pertinent information with my focused intent.

Ferol Humphrey is a dynamic and innovative personal development specialist working internationally. Using many forms of art and Tarot, as well as her large array of immersive techniques, Ferol helps individuals and groups quickly develop pioneer spirit—courage, character, honor, and truth—for living according to their own choices and values. To bring Ferol to your area and learn more, visit


Donald Michael Kraig uses an analogy of a complex connection of psychic inputs —

After years of working with the Tarot I came to the conclusion that the Tarot works by triggering a pyramidal psychic and sensory link. Picture a tetrahedron. At the three corners of the triangle at the base are the Tarot cards, the reader, and the person being read for (or an aspect of yourself if you’re reading for yourself). At the apex of the tetrahedron is the Divine/God/dess/Godhead, whatever you want to call the Source of All. Tetrahedron

The card triggers a flow of data from all sources, ranging from comments by the person being read for and subtle signs that the subconscious of the reader picks up to sudden insights from the Divine. The reader’s higher self filters, deletes, and, unfortunately, sometimes distorts (due to past experiences and limiting beliefs) all of this information. The best readers, in my opinion, are able to almost instantly objectively take the information and put it in terms the client can accept and use. I would add that the flow of data from all points of the tetrahedron is not equal. Sometimes, for example, a reader will get more from the card and less from the client, or vice versa.

Donald Michael Kraig, a longtime student and teacher of a variety of spiritual topics, is a Certified Tarot Grandmaster, has been teaching the Tarot for over 20 years, and is the author of books including Tarot & Magic and the classic text, Modern Magick.


Katrina Wynne says that it helps us access our deepest connection with Divine Mind —

My belief is Tarot cards are an intelligently developed tool, a cultivated process spanning millennia, from stones and other divination devises, to paper playing cards and Tarot decks, which function as a conscious intermediary between our subconscious mind and Divine Mind (universe, essence, God/Goddess, etc.).

Delving into reading Tarot cards, and other oracles, begins as a Fool’s leap into the unknown, with a desire to know life, self, the Divine. Once we initiate this channel of communication, between our conscious mind, intuitive awareness, and Divine energy, the cards become the language of dreams, the intermediary, the Rosetta Stone, that allows our human perception to translate communications from other dimensions to ground in our earthly realm. Used as the Magician’s magical tools, the cards then become the wings of the eagle, sending our prayers up to heaven.

Tarot cards channel the message from and act as the medium for accessing our deepest connection with Divine Mind. Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, all we need do is click our heels and remember we are already home. In other words, Tarot cards are the training wheels of our Chariot on the psychic highway. Once we no longer need them as a tool, we are ready to release our attachment and realize the unitive message of the World/Universe, that we are one with spirit and have come home.

Katrina Wynne, MA is an internationally recognized teacher and professional psycho-spiritual counselor. She combines over 40 years experience with Tarot and other metaphysical traditions with 25 years as a mental/spiritual health counselor to support your most wonderful life. Her latest book An Introduction to Transformative Tarot Counseling is available on her website and on Amazon as a Kindle eBook.  Her websites are:
Transformative Tarot Counseling™ classes & sessions:
Oracle Soup – a podcast with Katina Wynne & Gina Thies:


And finally, we have this arcane explanation from the inimitable Enrique Enriquez —

Tarot cards operate under the same principle as dollar bills: once we inscribe pieces of paper with symbols we see them take off and have a life of their own, to the point that we intertwine our fate with theirs. Symbols are meeting points. We trace them so they can outline us, in a process that is never vertical but horizontal: symbols are bridges, not towers. Once we agree to their veracity, symbols hide their true nature as imaginary solutions behind the consensus of “reality”, which in this case simply means that space where we don’t feel alone. This way we walk around our cities with our pockets filled with paper, feeling safe.

While handling tarot cards, as well as dollar bills, we would do well by remembering that, from the point of view of the table, a piece of paper simply blocks the light.

Enrique Enriquez is the author of Tarology, a book that deploys the pataphysical poetics of the Marseille tarot, and EN TEREX IT and EX ITENT ER, a two-volume set of conversations with some of the most active tarot practitioners in the world. He is also the subject of Tarology, the Poetics of tarot, a film by Chris Deleo.  Once a week Enrique makes language behave like a tarot pack. To get on his private e-mail list, please write to and answer one question: “what is the fastest letter in the alphabet?”


So there you have it: A variety of thoughts about how the Tarot works!  But the discussion should not end here.  If you’ve enjoyed these theories and ruminations, and you would like to join in on this conversation, feel free to add your comments here.

  1. Dear Tarot philosophers,

    Such wisdom and experience … so glad to see these postings. Thank you, James, for compiling this treasure and to the artisans who provided the gifts.

    I am particularly enamored with the descriptions shared by Enrique Enriquez and Donald Michael Kraig. So glad to be the filling in this metaphysical and symbolic sandwich.

    Blessings to all,

  2. Loved it! I found it fascinating that essentially everyone was making the same point (to my mind). LOL I’d just had an in depth discussion about ‘owning’ information well enough to pass it along in the owners own words in order to spread the word. This is just perfect! Brilliant, James!

  3. Apologies in advance for the length of this! I think James is right that we have only partial answers to this question. Here is my contribution, which, although it in some ways reprises what has already been proposed, might offer a philosophy of the logic involved in the approach to an answer.

    I would like to say more than that the Tarot is a species of apophenia – the human propensity to find meaningful patterns in the random. Apophenia is required in order to perceive sense in the cards (and in life) but standing alone it would tend to make of the Tarot nothing special, simply a more detailed and layered version of the spread of leaves on one’s lawn, for example. Which might be adequate, but it fails to account for how the same themes tend to pop up for people in Tarot readings.

    Leaving the mundane, we enter the realm of the supra-mundane. Here we encounter models of thought, assumptions and analogies which provide a narrative or story of explanation. However, all we have are metaphors. That there is “something” out there which arranges the cards in accordance with our psyches could be considered a necessary postulate if we want to say that the Tarot works in a way that is not simply human interpretation. How do we characterize that postulate? This varies. Initially I was drawn to the thought of Freud and Jung – archaic remnants, the collective unconscious, archetypes and all that – however whilst both thinkers emphasize the imagistic or pictorial as the via reggia or Royal Road to the unconscious, in their writings the “unconscious” is situated and explained structurally rather than substantively. Ultimately, although the terms are illustrative, they remain somewhat elliptical as the precise connections conditioning the phenomenon of psycho-physical parallelism (and much else) remain opaque.

    A second postulate it would seem necessary to advance is that of in-formation or intra-formation: whatever is “outside” must also be within (you could call it your Higher Self) or the cards could not reflect our inner worlds. The Stoics called it “pneuma”: a divine breath that animates us. It does not follow from this that everything is made of the same “stuff”, only that there is a trace of Otherness within us. Some call this orchestrating principle the Divine. However, the term is still metaphorical as it cannot be reducible to the finitude of human cognition. As human and finite – even with a Divine spark within/without – the Divine is not, even with a hefty admixture of Gnosticism, directly accessible in its totality. It could also be theorized that this Otherness converges with the territory of ghosts and spirits. Perhaps it is Spirit Guides, ghosts, or what many call angels, who influence our readings. However that may be, I think we have to conclude that the Tarot works through an Otherness or alterity that is beyond the scope of human finitude – we can only point to it with our metaphorical gestures and perhaps reveal glimpses of it rather than encapsulate it in some sure and certain act of cognitive disclosure. It is otherwise than being or beyond essence (that’s us) to echo the title of a book by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. As Descartes wrote, the idea of the Infinite surpasses whatever we can think of it (picture the Ace of Cups where we are the Cup and the Infinite the overflowing water).

    I do not know how the Tarot works if that means a complete and exhaustive piece of cognition but, beginning with the premise that it does, we can see what is necessarily entailed in order for that to happen. How we articulate that Otherness is always going to be tentative and provisional; a work in progress. In the end we can only translate the cards with language which returns us to the human. The cards cannot speak without us; the Tarot works through an intrication of the human and a radical Otherness or the auspices of a Universe which provides glimmers of itself here and there.

    • Wow, thanks for these well thought out comments, Donna! Here are a few responses to some of the points you made.

      “However, all we have are metaphors.” —
      So true. Our language does not have a facility for the arcane and the esoteric, which is why we have to resort to analogy and metaphor so much in trying to explain how the Tarot works.

      “whatever is “outside” must also be within” —
      Yes, as in the Magician’s maxim, “As above, so below.”

      “I think we have to conclude that the Tarot works through an Otherness or alterity that is beyond the scope of human finitude – we can only point to it with our metaphorical gestures and perhaps reveal glimpses of it rather than encapsulate it in some sure and certain act of cognitive disclosure. … As Descartes wrote, the idea of the Infinite surpasses whatever we can think of it.” —
      Like the blind men and the elephant!

      “How we articulate that Otherness is always going to be tentative and provisional; a work in progress.” —
      Yes, this is why I started this whole thing with a statement that begins: “My own theory, which is in a constant state of flux…”

      Finally, I like this conclusion:
      “the Tarot works through … the auspices of a Universe which provides glimmers of itself here and there.”

      Thanks again!

      PS: I hope you don’t mind, but I inserted paragraph markers in your post to enhance the readability (IMHO).


    • Donna, your suggestion of input from an external, and yet internal, Other comes closest, so far, to my perception of how Tarot “works”.

  4. Yes, I loved your blind men and the elephant. I couldn’t agree more and it puts the perfect Tin Hat on the topic.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. How does Tarot work? — Part 1 | James Ricklef's Tarot Blog
  2. How does Tarot Work? | Psychic Talk

Leave a Reply to Transformative Tarot Counseling™ Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: