Introducing the Tarot: a psychological perspective

 Tarot cards, in the richness and variety of their images and symbols, have exerted a fascination over the human mind and imagination for hundreds of years. Just as the origins of the tarot itself are shadowy and mysterious, so participating in a tarot reading can transport both the reader and client to a level of experience which defies the linear world of the rational mind, yet holds it own validity and wisdom.

People regard tarot cards with feelings ranging from the wary and fearful, to the gullible and accepting, to the angry and dismissive – they are rarely indifferent. A reading, done well, can let us see how our personal journey brings together aspects of the ever-repeating pattern of life, as represented by the seventy-eight cards. This awareness of connection to the timeless human struggle can bring dignity and meaning to our individual experience, especially in times of difficulty and turmoil.

Tarot Deck


This two-part article is an attempt to explore the Tarot. The first part should give the reader some idea of the depth from which the tarot can be approached, of issues raised by its practice, and of how it can be used as a valuable aid to self-development.

The second part presents feedback from two clients, one female and one male. They were chosen for the way in which they brought together, in their respective accounts, elements of most people’s experiences of the tarot creatively and responsibly used.


How, then, should one use the tarot as a reader, or approach it as a client? My overall experience has led me to a holistic perspective. From this standpoint everything in existence – material and spiritual, microcosm and macrocosm, inner and outer – is seen as connected with everything else. Time itself is seen not in terms of separate measurements of days, hours, and minutes, but in terms of unity : thus a moment possesses its own meaning, carrying particular clues regarding its relationship to past, present and future.

This view of time is best expressed via Jung’s concept of synchronicity which conveys the idea that each moment in time possesses unique characteristics expressed on all levels at once.

In applying this concept of time to consulting the tarot, the Greek notion of ‘kairos’ – the right moment – is highly relevant. In order to have a meaningful encounter with the tarot several core conditions need to be present. Firstly, the client should have a strong desire to clarify whatever is the issue of the moment. Secondly, the reader should be open and receptive to the client’s need. And thirdly, they should both respect the medium, ie the tarot cards, which they are about to consult.

The Reading

This being the case, the cards are chosen and laid out at a particular moment in time. What happens? It is impossible to know fully – and mystery is part of the potency of the experience.

But you could look at it this way: a biologist cuts a section through a piece of tissue, lays it flat on a slide, uses staining material to bring up the features, then puts it under a microscope bringing the section into clear focus. If s/he is skilled, a detailed picture of the organism from which the section was taken can be built up. This analogy can be applied to the moment the tarot cards are chosen, laid out in all their glowing colours in a particular order or spread, then interpreted by the joint efforts of reader and client.

This section cut through time, the moment of choosing, in some mysterious way seems to reflect the current life of the client. It also carries, in symbolic form, information regarding how s/he came to be in this situation, and some ideas regarding possible courses of action and future outcomes.

Moirai - the Three Fates
Moirai – the Three Fates

Fate or Free Will?

Nobody knows what the balance is between fate and free will. Observation and experience of the flow of life at an inner and outer, personal and collective level eventually leads most of us to form an opinion of this profound topic. Just as there seems to be a connection between who we are and the kind of life we have, so it may be that fate and free will, past, present and future are all part of the same weave – and cannot be separated.

I think that free will rests in our ability to use self-awareness, slowly and gradually developed as fully as possible, in working with the grain of our own lives. It may be our destiny to face certain unalterable circumstances; but the level of awareness we bring to the challenge profoundly affects the level on which we are able to live with the outcome.

Tarot cards should not be seen as implying a fixed and fated future; in my opinion this approach is crippling to a person’s ability to lead their life creatively, restricting any sense of their own free will. Perspective on this point can be gained by considering the parallels between the modern physicist’s view of probability, and that presented by the symbolic pictures on the faces of the tarot cards.

Briefly, the physicist observes the shifting dance of waves and particles and is only able to suggest future outcomes in terms of statistical probability. The tarot reader can observe and describe core energies, in their symbolic form, at work in past present and future – but can only speculate regarding the range of possibilities which flow from each core.

Modern physics has also demonstrated that the presence of the observer influences, however subtly, the outcome of the experiment. By giving definite predictions in a tarot reading, it is highly possible that the reader’s intervention –in some hidden but powerful way – predisposes the client’s life in the direction of the reader’s suggestion.

The Counselling Dimension

The pictorial symbols of the tarot provide a creative framework within which a person can contemplate their life’s meaning and direction, and gain guidance. But the reader, in being approached for his/her skills, is stepping into the counselling role, whether prepared to acknowledge this fact or not.

The essence of good counselling lies in being able to create a safe and supportive environment in which another person can lay out their hopes and fears, clarifying where they were, are and hope to be – and where the counsellor can help their client to see what the inner meaning and creative potential may be in even the most difficult situations, whilst encouraging her/him to take full responsibility for choices made.

All counsellors have a responsibility to use wisely the power they take on by virtue of their role. This means being prepared to subject their own lives to honest scrutiny via training and/or undertaking their own therapeutic journey. Those who take on arole of power without being prepared either to acknowledge that fact, or examine their own motives, are likely to be a danger to the vulnerable people who seek their help.

This point applies especially to those of us who work within the context of the great arts of tarot reading, astrology or the other symbol systems such as the I Ching or palmistry; these are powerful tools, carrying both healing and destructive aspects. Our job is to empower our clients, not to glorify ourselves, and to help them develop creative solutions to their own challenges, not  to become dependent on us.

The Hermit

Part Two:


1200 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2014

Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page


12 thoughts on “Introducing the Tarot: a psychological perspective

  1. I started to use the cards several years ago when my then teen daughter became interested in them. Now, they have become part of my spiritual practice as I grow and learn with them.

  2. Yes, there is a spiritual depth in those 78 variations on the human condition which the Tarot cards depict. It is profound to be able to link into interconnectedness from a primarily symbolic, rather than intellectual, perspective.

  3. See me over here in the corner, waving? I’m your truly indifferent person. I never remember any response to tarot cards other than, “Oh, pretty!”

    But I certainly do appreciate the latter part of your article, where you address the responsibility implied in any counseling. In a society that increasingly raises up dependence as a satisfactory human condition, how ironic it may become that individuals who practice such arts as Tarot actually will be conservators of values our grandparents cherished!

    1. Hello Linda,
      yes, as you say – that would indeed be ironic!

      I do hope both part one, and part two of this article where you read actual clients’ responses to their experiences of Tarot readings, offers you at least some indication that there’s a lot more to those cards than just pretty pictures…

    1. Thanks, Sagittarian Mind! I’ve just posted the second article which gives a couple of clients’ perspectives next. I agree with you in principle re the use of astrology and Tarot together, something I have yet to try since I use both systems separately.

  4. I liked your reference to the cards as a Medium. They are indeed. Like a radio or a Television set, they are merely a channel for communication. I used the rune set as a medium for a while and found it was very accurate, as long as I got my own predispositions out of the way first. The channel must be clear for an accurate spread. The other part of the matter is where your message is coming from. There are all kinds of entities around us who are interested in affecting our outcomes. For a positive direction…. it helps to pray to whatever higher power you believe in. You want your channel clear and the direction it comes from finite.
    I used them because I was having trouble telling the difference between the messages I Wanted to hear, and those being sent ever so quietly by more positive guidance. When I prayed, first, and then got my channel cleared, I got very accurate responses. Not always what I wanted to hear, but real, nevertheless.

    1. Many thanks, Ellen, for this thoughtful response – and for the guidance re how to use the medium of the Tarot cards with respect and reverence for the Source from which direction and inspiration can flow through to those of us who are using the medium, either for our own benefit or for that of our clients. This basic attitude of reverence and respect is truly necessary to receive clear guidance, whether the medium is Tarot cards, the astrological horoscope, the I Ching, Runes or palmistry. They are all asking for help and support from the same Source.

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