Table of Contents


Tarot Reflections

 August 1, 2004

Mythconceptions: Is There More to the Cards than Just Reading Them?
Mark McElroy

Mark McElroy's Putting the Tarot to Work demonstrates how to use Tarot cards as powerful tools for your business and career. His next book, Taking the Tarot to Heart (available in January 2005), applies the same positive, creative approach to love, sex, and relationships. For weekly creativity tips and practical applications of Tarot, visit Mark at


“What we have today is a demythologized world … What we’re learning in our schools is not the wisdom of life. We’re learning technologies, we’re getting information. Mythology teaches you what’s behind literature and the arts – it teaches you about your own life.”

-- Joseph Campbell, “Myth and the Modern World” (in The Power of Myth)

Yesterday, I visited The Glory of Baroque Dresden, an engaging art exhibit / cultural exchange program hosted in Jackson, Mississippi. One gallery of the exhibit recreates the Audience Hall of the Residence Palace of August the Strong. On the ceiling looms an elaborate painting: a congregation of mythic figures hovering among billowing clouds.

My audio guide went to great pains to explain how – unlike contemporary visitors – people from the era of August the Strong would have immediately recognized these figures. “Justice dominates the picture, with her scales in hand. Beneath her, the virtue of Strength, in the form of Hercules, wrestles a lion. The figure to the left, the stooped man holding a lantern, represents Time.”

Without the commentary of the audio guide, these references are lost on most attendees. The figures speak volumes, though, to anyone who has studied Tarot.

Life without Myths
In generations past, an education included an introduction to mythology – the stories that have shaped and governed human behavior for centuries. Myths outline expectations for behavior and provide glimpses into the logic behind social order. They stabilize and organize societies. They provide the “why” behind The Way Things Are, and exposure to them introduces us to an unwritten code of ethics with more power than any externally imposed code of law.

In The Power of Myth, scholar / philosopher Joseph Campbell expresses no surprise at the increase in social upheaval and senseless violence that dominate our headlines. The reason behind our restlessness? Our lack of exposure to the great myths of all cultures … and our failure to produce contemporary myths that resonate with contemporary reality.

Campbell made this observation in 1988. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Politicians pressure the schools to teach toward standardized tests. Administrators, hungry for government funds, slash arts and language courses. Public school teachers find themselves teaching little more than the basic skills needed to pass tests and hold down low-wage jobs.

The result? Each generation learns less and less about its rich heritage of myth. Graduates are set adrift in a world without meaning … and without the foundation needed to manufacture that meaning for themselves.

The Modern Church’s Big Mythstake
Especially where I live (in the American South) the churches used to compensate, to some degree, for this deficit. Sunday schools exposed children to Adam & Eve, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Jonah and the Whale.

With the dominance of Christian fundamentalism, though, there’s no longer any effort to teach children how to apply these stories to contemporary life. Instead, the Scriptures are presented as verses to be memorized, and conclusions about them are now a matter of record. As the Vice President of one “Christian school” once explained to me, “We aren’t here to teach our students how to think … we’re here to teach them what to think.”

Meanwhile worship services – once an opportunity to direct attention toward the Divine – are increasingly structured to render worshippers into spectators. Instead of introspection, the emphasis is on engagement and entertainment. Spiritual practice once meant tuning into the mysteries; now, at mega-churches across the nation, the ecstasy of turning inward has given way to the mind-numbing practice of clapping along with the band.

The product of all this, of course, is spiritual starvation. This explains, I think, the growing popularity of alternative religion, self-guided spirituality, and the New Age movement in general. Education, society, and the churches no longer offer guideposts to the World Within. And while most people can’t quite put a finger on what they’re missing … many of them know they’re missing something.

A few of these will turn, at some point, to Tarot.

Navigating the New “Underground Stream”
And this is where we, as Tarot readers, writers, enthusiasts, and educators come in.

We’ve all heard the fanciful tales: that Tarot cards preserve the secret insights of ancient societies, that the Trumps were originally illustrations used to initiate Egyptian priests, that esoteric scholars compressed their knowledge into the structure and themes of the original Tarot deck.

And while there may never, in fact, have been a literal “underground stream” of esoteric knowledge concealed in the cards, increasingly, the Tarot does represent a modern “underground stream” – knowledge that, by virtue of neglect, has once again become esoteric. As people who work with the cards, we become guides to and guardians of this mythic knowledge. Every time we lift a deck, we hold a library of links to the collective wisdom of mankind, powerful enough to provide structure and order to entire societies, mapped onto little squares of laminated cardboard.

Are we brave and bright enough to recognize the potential of the Tarot? If so, then we must also embrace the obligations that come with stewardship of this new “underground stream”:

  • While intuitive approaches – looking at pictures, describing what we see, and associating it with the situation at hand – are fine for beginners, they are, at best, a good “first step.” If we are going to connect with the true, transformative power of Tarot, we must eventually go beyond “riffing” on the cards … and begin the serious study that will connect us with the rich reservoir of myth that lies just beneath the surface.
  • We must recognize that every anecdote, every keyword, every symbol, every fable, and every fact we can associate with a card become “hooks” capable of catching powerful ideas and insights. Raw “card reading” talent is valuable, but insufficient on its own. Knowing a keyword per card is no longer enough. We must dedicate ourselves to reconnecting ourselves and our clients with stories powerful enough change lives … and change the world.
  • We must impart a new awareness of stories that have been forgotten. We must help untrained eyes grasp the value and relevance of stories no longer told. We must become skilled in the art of applying ancient wisdom to modern life.
  • We must deploy our knowledge, humor, cleverness, honesty, courage, creativity, and intelligence, to help everyday people make sensible, ethical, and compassionate choices in our Brave New World.

Once we do these things, we will be more than “Tarot readers,” and we will see that our work with clients is more than “a reading.” We will understand – and, perhaps, be awed and humbled by – the scope, importance, and depth of what we do each time we shuffle our bright little cards.


Subscribe to Tarot Reflections, and receive notification of each update!

Request to be added to the list by sending email to!



All articles remain the property of their respective authors.
Tarot Reflections is a publication of the American Tarot Association - Copyright (C) 2004
Questions or Comments? Contact Us.