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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Becoming a Tarot Diviner in the 1970s

This story comes from a gem of a book written as a Phd dissertation in Sociology that does a reasonable job describing the occult milieu in the USA. Unfortunately the book was published for the library scholar's market and so is scarce and overpriced for most tarotists. However there is interlibrary loan!

The Esoteric Scene, Cultic Milieu, & Occult Tarot by Danny L. Jorgensen (Cults and Nonconventional Religious Groups, edited by J. Gordon Melton: Garland [Routledge]) excerpts are taken from chapters 5 & 8 pp. 104-28; 225-226:

[Personally this is a honest account of learning the fundamentals of tarot. I find his conclusions adequate given the time he devoted to study and practice. His theory could use some more sophisticated modeling as communications theory and as a semiotic of tarot symbols. His use of the academic literature is relevant. The only major item that I am aware of from sociology of the occult and could have given his interpretation a bit more precision is Science and its mirror image: A theory of inquiry by Charles D. Kaplan, Warren D. TenHouten(1973, Harper & Row) that deals with occult divination as a reverse image of science. Paul has a degree in cultural anthropology and a practice background in participant observation methodology. I am thoroughly versed in most of the academic citations in Jorgensen's study

Excerpt from Chapter 5: The traditional wisdom and lore of fieldwork warns the researcher against becoming overly or intimately involved with insiders, identifying with them, taking on and internalizing membership roles, or "going native". Complete participation, Gold (1958, 1969) argues, conflicts with the principal research aim of observation. Too great a rapport with insiders and assuming their worldview is thought to result in conceptual confusion, blurred vision, and thereby a loss of objectivity. Even if going native is seen as a beneficial fieldwork strategy, Wax (1971,1979) notices, it ultimately is impossible for fieldworkers to internalize completely an alien culture and experience the world as a native.

A distinctive advantage of participating while observing, however, is the/span> possibility of experiencing the insiders' world of interaction and meaning, directly and existentially (Jorgensen, 1989). Adler and Adler (1987) observe that the performance of membership roles in field research was nonreflectively part of the many classic studies of the early Chicago sociologists who implicitly drew on their insider roles to describe social meanings and interactions. Against the idea that the members' thoughts, feelings, and activities are somehow epiphenomenal, subsequent
schools of thought have argued cogently that these phenomena constitute the basic human realities to be described, analyzed, and interpreted. There are several outstanding examples of the tremendous value of "becoming the phenomenon" as a fieldwork strategy.

While conducting fieldwork in Africa, Jules-Rosette (1975) became a member of a native fundamentalist-Christian sect. Concerned that she did not understand insiders' religious practices and rituals, Jules-Rosette experienced conversion to the group and participated as a member. Through this experience she reports feeling and seeing a world of meaning theretofore obscured from the standpoint of an outsider and even less intimately involved participating observer. Similarly, Damrell's (1977, 1978) studies of two religious groups as a member strongly suggest that he thereby gained a unique and illuminating picture of the religious experience and life of its native members. Neither of these cases, or several other examples that might be cited (see Jorgensen, 1989) provide any indication that the researchers lost their ability to describe, analyze, or interpret human existence sociologically (also see Krieger, 1985).

Earlier critiques of realism, positivism, and related strains of Enlightenment rationality more recently have culminated in a diffuse, broad-based intellectual movement, commonly referred to as postmodernism (see Murphy, 1989; Boyne, 1990; Featherstone, 1988). Epistemology is relativized radically and methodology is rejected by postmodernism (see Gadamer, 1975; Feyerabend, 1978). Ethnography and participant observation have been viewed as part of the modernist preoccupation with methodology and thereby a privileged scientific epistemology (see Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Lakoff and Turner, 1989; Marcus and Fisher, 1986; Van Maanen, 1988). Denzin (1986, 1989a, 1989b, 1989c,1991), for instance, argues that a concern for methods or procedures for collecting qualitative materials by way of participant observation or related strategies derives from a modernist infatuation with objectivity and scientific truth. Postmodern ethnography, in Denzin's view, sees theory and method joined in an interpretative process, and it concentrates on thickly describing (Geertz, 1967, 1988) experiences and activities of societal members, thereby displaying the voices, emotions, and actions of natives so that lived experience is accessible, directly, to the reader. Methodology, consequently, is an unnecessary preoccupation that leads to unwarranted claims to truth (or Truth). From a postmodern perspective truth is relative, a part of its interpretation.

I agree, substantially, with Denzin and the so-called postmodernist critique of modernism, especially its realist and positivist reflections. I disagree, however, with his conclusion that rejecting the subject /object dualism, methodological positivism, and explanatory theorizing also requires us to forsake a concern for a methodology of participant observation. I also reject existing formulations of epistemological relativism. All interpretations of reality are not equal. Positivistic methodologies and realist explanations are inadequate because they largely ignore the experiences and meanings of societal members. The epistemological status of my interpretations of esotericism is debatable. The experiences and meanings of members, however, constitute their realities. This is what I seek to describe, analyze, and interpret; and the ways in which I have done this, by a methodology of participating and observing from the standpoint of membership roles, are crucial. Since theory, findings (my interpretation), and method (becoming the phenomenon) are linked inexorably, some discussion of how this was accomplished is of the utmost importance.


At the outset of my inquiry into extraordinary experience I remained ignorant of the tarot and its divinatory use. My initial encounter with the cards came through Dee, a student who claimed to be a "witch," during my earliest explorations of the cultic milieu in the Valley. She invited Lin, me, and our children to her home one evening for the purpose of discussing occultism. Dee had previously mentioned her divinatory use of the tarot, and in anticipation of this meeting we decided to ask her for a reading. Shortly after our arrival Dee brought out several tarot packs. As she explained the cards and how they worked we looked them over carefully. Though quite young, our children exhibited special interest in the packs. Like the children, I was fascinated with the pictures as art and as symbolic images.

Later that evening Dee eventually spread the cards for me and talked about past, present, and future events in my life with a strange certainty. My notes on the evening (recorded the next day) indicate that I was not exactly impressed with the reading. Discussing the matter, Lin and I agreed that the tarot was something of special interest to us. It was one of the first occult practices I had observed and experienced first-hand.

We continued to interact with Dee and her children socially, and from time to time we got together to discuss matters of mutual interest, commonly the occult, a dominant theme in Dee's life. On one of these occasions Dee again read the tarot for us. My reading was especially unusual since after spreading the cards and making a few comments, Dee refused to continue on the pretense that she could not tell me what the cards said at this time. I noticed that Dee's readings tended to dwell on the relationship between Lin and myself. Her references to one or both of us having a sexual affair with someone else became a recurrent feature of these readings. Lin and I were not married and we deliberately refrained from revealing the nature of our relationship to most people, although our living arrangements and interaction left little doubt that we were a couple. I suspected, however, that Dee's readings were a not so subtle attempt to get us to reveal more about our relationship.

Shortly thereafter I became convinced that Dee's references to Lin's prospective affair was an effort to manipulate us. Her comments included a detailed description of a particular male, with blonde hair. I initially passed it off as ludicrous, but it aggravated me and I gradually came to entertain these suggestions seriously. Almost unwittingly I found myself looking for the blonde-haired male among our friends, associates, acquaintances, and other people with whom Lin interacted. Rationally I regarded this response as rather stupid, but it was a compelling matter emotionally. Lin felt my reaction was silly, but since these prophecies bothered me, they also bothered her. Lin's fieldnotes, pertinent to this situation (recorded a month after the first meeting with Dee) are instructive.

[Dee] has read the cards for herself, her family, and friends for years and has a collection of decks, several of which I found exceptionally pleasing in an aesthetic sense. She read the cards for Danny and me, but her interpretations were, on the whole, vague and at this point I can remember only a couple of items from my reading which were specific. One prediction she made was rather noteworthy, more because of our reaction to it than because of its possible accuracy: she stated that I was going to have an affair with a blonde man. My first response was, "Oh, how silly!," and Danny and I reasoned that since we both had noticed a romantic attraction by [Dee] toward Danny, she was in a roundabout manner attempting to either create discord between us or to question our attitudes about an open relationship. Even though we verbally negated the idea of my having an affair, I began to notice in Danny's behavior what was, in my opinion, an irrational jealousy directed toward all the blonde men with whom I interacted. To me this was a real revelation: my Danny, the most sane, most rational, most skeptic of men—being affected by a prediction made by a tarot card reader!

It is difficult, retrospectively, to convey the social context in which this situation arose, but I admit that this forecast really agitated me. I responded by distancing myself from Dee.

Stimulated by Dee's use of the tarot, Lin became interested in getting a deck of her own. We began visiting occult bookstores in search of a tarot. Since it was Lin who was especially interested in the tarot at this point of our fieldwork, her notes (recorded months later) about this situation are informative.

I was fascinated and intrigued by the power (or suggestion?) inherent in the tarot and decided to obtain a deck of my own. We were researching several occult groups in the area at the time, and I also felt that my interest in and knowledge of the tarot could serve as an entree, a ticket for acceptance by the participants in these activities. Having legitimized my desire to own a tarot deck, we began a search for purchase that extended from [the Valley] to [the West Coast] and finally ended when Danny bought me the Aquarian tarot deck (illustrated by David Palladini) and the accompanying Symbolic Key to the Ancient Mysteries by F. Graves.

Using the book's instructions Lin began learning the symbolic meanings of the seventy-eight cards and other information necessary for doing divinatory readings, such as shuffling and spreading the cards, as well as particular techniques for interpreting the order of the cards, and so on. By early 1977 she was doing readings for herself, the rest of the family, and a few close friends.

The occult theosophy of the tarot, as discussed in Chapter Seven, is rather complex, and divinatory readings require memorization of meanings as well as an ability to integrate these ideas in such a way as to make them available for immediate recall. Although tarot divination looks simple, it requires an elaborate knowledge and specific skills. On this point Lin's fieldnotes are instructive.

I practiced many layouts for myself, family, and friends, gradually discerning what I had to learn in order to become an accomplished Tarot reader. This in itself was a discovery since I had initially thought that I had only to learn the meanings of each card in order to execute a reading. However, I soon realized that my first task was to acquire an understanding of the spread, or layout, I used—the Celtic method in which eleven cards are positioned more or less in the shape of a double cross. I designed a diagram of this spread and memorized the explanations of each of the positions, for I had realized that the position in which an individual card is placed affects its meaning in the spread. With this came my first comprehension of what an intuitive process the Tarot is.

Lin's early readings, consequently, were performed in a very uneasy and sometimes tedious fashion. As part of her plan of study, Lin used the book accompanying her deck as a workbook, writing in different interpretations of the cards and additional information in the corresponding sections of the text. Her early divinatory efforts depended on extensive consultation with these notes and the text. She also "obtained several more books on the Tarot which offered alternative meanings for each card." She reported that these additional materials "allowed me more freedom in my interpretation" (fieldnotes).

Lin enrolled in a class on tarot offered by a "professional" tarot card reader, a man who also was the minister and leader of a religious cult in the Valley. In attending these classes we were surprised and disappointed that the instructor seemed to be simply reading divinatory meanings of the tarot to the class from standard reference works. Lin recorded that:

I began to take lessons from a professional Tarot reader with the hope that we could garner more information about how the reading of the cards was accomplished and about what the Tarot meant, and to what extent it was used, in the lives of members of the class. This turned out to be a failure, however, since the classes consisted primarily of the teacher reading from his favorite book on the Tarot and the students dutifully copying the interpretations for each card mentioned.

As a nonparticipant observer I was interested to see that Lin commonly knew as much about the cards, from her previous study of standard sources, as the instructor. As is her style of learning, the first several class meetings were characterized by a constant dialogue between Lin and her teacher. I found these sessions an excellent opportunity to collect information about tarot card readers and the theosophy of the cards, but Lin quickly became disenchanted with the classes. She observed that:

There was little interaction among the group and the only "discussion" on a personal level was short and direct answers to questions I raised. Finances also being a pervasive influence on our decisions about how our time was taken, we decided to abandon the classes and obtain our data from other sources.

Thinking that she could accomplish as much by individualized study, Lin stopped taking lessons. She negotiated withdrawal from this class with the minister, and we maintained trusting and friendly relations with him until the end of our fieldwork (as discussed in Chapter One).

In February 1977 I started seriously considering the possibility of following Lin's lead and making the tarot the focal point of my fieldwork. In early March I attended another psychic fair. This time I decided to request several tarot readings to learn more about its operation. At the fair I paid for and received two tarot readings from different professionals in the Valley. The first reading was very general and it did not impress me as especially interesting or unusual. The second reading was more interesting, largely due to the obviously polished and accomplished performance of the reader. Over the next few days, weeks, and months I periodically reconsidered the advice of the tarot reader and made a conscious effort to seek verification of the more specific predictions. After several months I arrived at the conclusion that some of the predictions had indeed happened, but not in ways that seemed especially out of the ordinary. By a year later, however, a different assessment had begun to emerge. Several interim events, coupled with an emergent friendship with the second reader, left me uncertain about the accuracy of his predictions. I was beginning to formulate some of the ideas that later became part of my interpretation of tarot divination (see Chapter Eight).

As a tarot card reader, Lin's experience and interpretation of the psychic fair differed from mine. She observed that:

Upon listening to and transcribing the tapes several factors became apparent to which I had formerly given little attention. One aspect—the experienced vs. inexperienced querent and /or the silent vs. verbal querent—enabled me to see just how important the interaction between the "client" and the reader is to a successful reading. Prior to that time I had concentrated my thoughts only on my performance as a reader. Another observation concerned the degree to which we agreed that a reader was "good," or "successful," or "professional." This brought to me certain criteria for judging a reader, and raised the question: "How does one known when he/she is an accomplished reader?" We also noticed certain idiosyncrasies and/or common conventions of the readers that made me more aware of my own practices during a reading.

Lin's observations eventually resulted in our more formal concern with the process whereby we were "becoming the phenomenon," the evaluation of a reader's competency, and what constituted a successful divinatory accomplishment.

Over the following year I began an involved process of becoming a tarot card reader. While I started using the cards in a divinatory fashion, my abiding preoccupation with the tarot tended away from divination and toward a study of different schools of occult thought based on the tarot. I commonly used it for meditation, and even more commonly spent my time with different texts on the occult tarot. This investigation led me deeper and deeper into the literature on esotericism and occultism. In these ways my encounter with the tarot served as a concrete point of departure into the world of contemporary esotericism, and the focus of subsequent observation and participation. It justified some of my activities as a seeker, provided reasons for being a client, and led me to become a student in the esoteric community.


I was reading occult literature on the tarot, extensively and intensively, receiving tarot cards readings in the esoteric community, and observing Lin's divinatory use of the cards. It therefore was not extremely difficult for me to begin using the cards for divinatory purposes. The transition from an observer of divination and querent was eased by personal difficulties. I began using the cards to talk with myself and divine possible alternative courses of action. It was reassuring to be able to generate information from the cards about personal problems and decisions I was facing. In consulting the cards I learned that upcoming events would result in satisfactory outcomes for me, and they did. Yet, taking occult divination seriously was conflictual for me.

I constantly asked myself why anyone would take such nonsense seriously, and almost without exception I was able to dismiss and explain away seemingly extraordinary events rationally and sociologically. Entering into an occult frame of reference became possible for fairly brief periods of time and under particular circumstances, like when I faced existential dilemmas. There was a game-like quality to this in my experience. Unavoidably, I found myself constantly snapping back into a more rational, sociological perspective. Having made a sincere commitment to directly experiencing an occult reality and being unable to sustain an occult interpretation of events only intensified this conflict.

Another factor easing my transition from tarot observer to participant and reader was the frequency with which Lin was conducting divinatory readings. The people who came to our home in search of a tarot reader provided opportunities for me to begin reading the cards for friends and strangers. After about a dozen rather clumsy attempts at divination I became increasingly confident of my ability to read the tarot. Within several months I was reading the cards with a degree of success and self-confidence that surprised even me. I found this ability to deliver a seemingly successful performance rewarding, and it appeared that I might be able to verstehen the members' reality in this way.

Throughout 19771 continued to collect esoteric literature pertinent to the tarot and decks of cards. Study of this literature provided me with a enhanced sense of the occult meanings of the cards and an underlying theosophy. My study of tarot literature reflected a growing commitment to this occultism and, like many students, I started to interpretatively integrate the occult lore of the tarot into a personal meaning system. My powerful commitment to a rationalistic, scientific worldview still made it difficult many times to accept occult teachings or take them at face value. Gradually I learned to suspend belief in science sufficiently so as to be able to enjoy occult experiences and teachings. I found it possible to slip in and out of interpretative frames, perspectives, and worldviews, even though this commonly required a huge leap of faith. It became easier to interpretatively manipulate an understanding of the occult such that it did not appear so ridiculous and conflictual from a scientific viewpoint.

My growing interest in and commitment to the occult tarot led to widening my literature search, and the inclusion of more academically legitimate sources of information. Study of the history, philosophy, theosophy, and uses of the tarot gave rise to a series of related questions about the history of esotericism in Western cultures. I increasingly came to the conclusion, reflected in Chapter Two, that esotericism essentially constituted a distinctive cultural tradition. Though perhaps naive, I felt that to appreciate esotericism adequately, the entire history of Western culture would need to be rewritten. These conclusions, then, reflected the manner in which I was able to synthesize a commitment to exoteric science with an interest in esoteric arts and sciences, like the occult tarot. While sustaining my commitments to rationalist and empiricist epistemologies and related ontologies, I also felt a growing appreciation for the limits of such knowledge. Esotericism and occultism added dimensions lacking in scientific worldviews, for me, especially an acknowledgement of emotional and intuitive aspects of human experience. I was not willing to relinquish a scientific worldview, but I was willing to call it into question, radically, and modify it in terms of occult claims to knowledge and conceptions of reality.

Our apartment became a common meeting place for a diverse collection of people interested in esotericism and occultism during 1977-78. The tarot frequently was the focus of discussion, and Lin regularly was requested to provide divinatory readings for visitors. She recorded that:

In an effort to gain more experience as a reader of the cards, I began to orally advertise my skills to friends, students, and neighbors. Their response was gratifying; not only did they request readings, they also brought their friends and relatives to me.

Having gained considerable confidence in my own ability to read the cards, I too began reading the tarot for friends and other visitors. As the news of our divinatory activities circulated among our friends and acquaintances, people began requesting this service with greater frequency. Evenings commonly were spent with friends and recent acquaintances reading the tarot and discussing its arcane wisdom.

Applying readings of Goffman (1959, 1974), I found the ability actually to read the cards less important than the ability to manage and sustain the impression that one is able to divine past, present, and future events. The art of impression management is developed and honed in the process of reading the cards, not necessarily by any amount of study or intellectual preparation. I developed divinatory skills by a combination of reading the tarot and referring to esoteric literature on the topic. Knowledge of esoteric and occult literature enhanced my repertoire of meanings associated with the symbolic cards, while performing tarot divination provided occasions to apply my arcane knowledge and cultivate my performance in concrete situations.

I disliked being in the position of counselor for strangers and listening to their problems. I was a sociologist, after all, not a psychologist or counselor. Yet, the tarot provided a series of structural procedures and solutions for dealing with people's problems, as well as a routinized format for talking about them, about issues I otherwise found too intimate to raise. I generally did not feel comfortable, in other words, informing people that they had problems with relationships, family, careers, and the like, not to mention giving them advice about these matters. After considerable practice with tarot divination I gradually became increasingly confident that I could read the cards in a manner much like people who provided this service for pay. Perhaps I wasn't a tarot card reader, but I thought I could deliver a fairly convincing performance. Divination, after all, seemed pretty artful. Who was to say that my insights were not psychic or occult?

Many of the people I interacted with, however, were novices to the occult. Since my primary research interests were in people who engaged in esotericism as a way of life, I began exploring the possibility of taking a course in tarot from a professional reader in the esoteric community. In the summer of 19771 attended an organizational meeting of a formal class on the tarot in the community. The instructors, a couple who read the cards as part of full-time involvement with esotericism in the Valley, were people with whom I had interacted before and respected. Lin and I previously had received readings from Ham, and we knew from participation in the community that he widely was regarded as a leading tarot adept, perhaps the best reader of the tarot in the Valley. During the meeting and for over an hour afterwards I talked with Ham about my interest in the tarot. He knew I had been reading the cards on my own and questioned my need to enroll in the course. I explained that I felt it necessary to receive more formal instruction from someone with expertise in tarot divination. I was pleased that Ham did not seem to be interested in me simply as a source of tuition, and I convinced him that I would profit from formal instruction.

The following weekend we met the instructors at a local occult bookstore for the purpose of taking the first of two half-day lessons. Out of about 20 people who had attended the organizational meeting, we were the only ones to show up for the classes. Ham decided to cancel the class, but he agreed to take us on, informally and without pay, as students. After about an hour of discussion during which time we asked Ham and his spouse Sue many questions about the tarot and its divinatory use, Ham suggested that we practice doing readings for one another. Reading the tarot, he asserted, was the best way to learn it. Furthermore, he noted, the tarot was like a complex book of knowledge. Like many books the more one read it the more one learned and gained insight. Divination was one way of applying this knowledge and gaining further insight. I was asked to provide a reading for Sue, and Lin and Ham paired off to do a second reading.

It would be impossible to overstate my anxiety and discomfort with this situation. Theretofore I had done readings for many different people, well over a hundred readings, but never before I had read the tarot for an accomplished reader, let alone my instructor. Amidst indescribable apprehension, perhaps even terror, I asked Sue to shuffle the cards and cut them. I then spread the cards in a very simple past, present, future format and began offering divinatory information. To my surprise words came easily, as before in my attempts at divination. For me reading the tarot was like telling a story. There always seemed to be a story in the cards, and my job was to find it in the symbolic images, bring it alive, weave these meanings together, and relate them to someone's life, hopefully in a way they found meaningful. As I continued reading, patterns of meaningful people and events began to emerge from the cards, and I arranged these meanings into a set of instructions and advice that I hoped would seem significant to Sue. Still ill-at-ease, however, I hurried quickly through the reading, bringing it to an abrupt close, no doubt prematurely. A sense of failed performance, if not incompetency, pervaded my consciousness. I nevertheless posed the standard closing to a reading, something I learned from observing and receiving readings. "Do you have any questions about anything?," I asked. Sue asked a few questions about my divinatory advice, carefully and gracefully managing the situation so as to indicate her appreciation. She almost convinced me that I had been helpful. She told me that I had done an adequate job. We then reversed the roles, and she provided me with a reading. Sue finished the reading and we discussed it before turning to find out how Ham and Lin were doing. Ham had just finished reading the cards for Lin and they were wrapping up the discussion of his advice. It now was Lin's turn to read the tarot.

With her usual poise and polish Lin began reading the cards for Ham while we watched and listened. I experienced a tremendous sense of relief that my turn was over, and I became absorbed with the event. As Lin began reading the cards for Ham I noticed that her usual intuitive capabilities were operating. Occasional comments by Ham and Sue suggested that Lin was "hitting" on people, places, and events that they recognized as significant. As the reading progressed, Lin became more and more confident about what she was saying to Ham. At several points I became uncomfortable with the directness and candor of Lin's commentary, particularly as she touched on aspects of Ham's personality and life style. I wondered about how this information would be received. Toward the close of the reading Lin became very specific and personal about Ham's self. Almost breathlessly I awaited his reaction.

To my relief he immediately indicated that he was impressed with Lin's reading as well as the boldness of her extrapolations. Yet, he seemed resistant to confirm what Lin had said. Sue promptly entered the conversation and slowly, almost point by point, confirmed Lin's assessments, while checking to be sure that such a degree of self disclosure was not objectionable to Ham. With Sue's input, Ham became more open and he seemed to confirm his spouse's disclosures. Having concluded our readings I checked the time and discovered to my surprise that we had been working with the tarot for more than two hours. As it was late, we drew closure on our meeting. Before leaving, however, Ham and Sue encouraged us to try reading the cards for pay either at a psychic fair or in connection with one of the occult bookstores. Clearly it had been a worthwhile experience for all. In parting we planned to get together again in the near future.

This meeting marked the beginning of a growing friendship. Although we did not even informally receive additional lessons on the tarot as such from Ham or Sue, it was a common focus of informal conversation. On many of these occasions Ham, in particular, assumed the role of instructor and proceeded to educate us about the tarot, its divinatory use, the ethics of occult practice, the mores of the community, and related matters. Although it never was acknowledged explicitly by any of us, our relationship had come to resemble the classic form of occult education, namely one involving a master or adept and his/her apprentices. Comments by other members of the community as well as our corresponding treatment by them left little doubt but that we were regarded within the community as Ham's students. Being identified in this way also meant that we were seen as part of the psychic segment of the community. As our teachers and sponsors, Ham and Sue were to prove invaluable in facilitating our acceptance in the community as tarot card readers. Ham's extensive involvement with the occult and detailed knowledge of the local scene and community also made him an outstanding informant. Throughout the remainder of my fieldwork Ham regularly was consulted about the particulars of the community, and occult practices. By the conclusion of my fieldwork he was not only my teacher, sponsor, and most valued informant, but a trusted and trusting friend.


In the early fall of 1977 Lin and I were asked to read the tarot for a fund raising event at the local Unitarian Church to which several of our friends belonged. In spite of my apprehension about doing tarot divination in public, for pay, before complete strangers, we agreed. This was a ground-breaking experience for me. Lin had done many readings for complete strangers in alien settings, but I had never before read for complete strangers outside of our home. My consternation about this was increased by the knowledge that many, if not all, of the potential querents would not be familiar in the least with the occult, and they therefore would be unprepared for an actual demonstration of it. Next to the hostile, disbelieving client, the novice, as discussed in Chapter Eight, is regarded by readers as the most difficult type of person to serve. Put simply, the novice querent generally lacks the background necessary to understand and acknowledge an occult performance.

My first reading confirmed all of these fears. Arriving at the Church after Lin had been reading for several hours, I found a long list of people signed up for readings. So as to give anyone an opportunity to receive a tarot reading I quickly organized a table in the room with Lin. My first querent was a woman about 45 to 50 years of age who had been quite anxious to receive a reading. Unbeknownst to me, she had expected a completely private reading; that is, a reading in a setting without other people present. I briefly explained the tarot and provided instructions about shuffling and cutting the cards. I then proceeded to spread and read the tarot. She met every comment I made with absolute, total, and complete rejection, almost before the words were out of my mouth, it seemed. Nothing I could say fit her experience. After about ten minutes of this horror, I stopped and indicated that all I could do was to read the cards. What they signified with respect to her life required her participation. I suggested further that if she was unhappy about the reading, I would refund her money. We agreed to continue, and she was less combative. She even occasionally acknowledged the gist and propriety of the comments. I hurried to finish the reading, but she insisted that I spread and read the cards again so she might really get her money's worth. I agreed, only for the purpose of being rid of her without further argument.

Once the reading was over I was ready to leave, and I did not care if I ever read the tarot again. The minister came by and explained to me that the woman had been upset that the reading was not private. Slowly, what had happened fell into place. I hurriedly arranged to relocate my table in another room and continued reading the cards for other querents. Much to my relief, the rest of the readings were very routine. I even counted two of the readings as successful. This enabled me to salvage some sense of accomplishment at reading the tarot in public. Having survived this experience I found it difficult to imagine that anything in the future could shake my faith in an ability to read the tarot.

From January to the middle of April 1978 was our most intensive period of participation involving the tarot in the esoteric community. We (mostly Lin) conducted interviews with all of the key people who read the tarot for pay, and other key informants with whom trusting relations had been established. We also socialized with many of these people, some of whom were among the core membership of the community. Social evenings in the homes of practitioners or at our place provided an excellent and unobtrusive setting in which information about the tarot and the community could be gathered. In important ways our participation with these people came to be defined as friendship, to which the collection of research materials was secondary. Lin also conducted a class in tarot divination during this period. Once a week our home became the headquarters for a small group of people learning to interpret the tarot for divinatory purposes. It also was a frequent gathering place for people interested in the occult, and a place where people (many of them friends) came for tarot readings.

From my standpoint frequent requests for divinatory readings had become a problem. I many times simply was not in the mood to do a reading. To do a satisfactory reading I found it necessary to mentally prepare and concentrate intensely. It was not something I could easily turn on and off. Most of my tarot readings took an hour to complete, and I not infrequently spent up to an additional hour talking with the querent. I decided to stop reading the tarot for just anyone unless I collected a fee, although I did relent occasionally and read for friends without compensation.

Drawing on a previous relationship with Jay, the leader of APRA, we hinted about being interested in reading the tarot at a psychic fair. He did not pick up on the allusion immediately. Although I knew that not just anyone was accepted as a fair participant, I still did not fully realize how the gatekeeping process operated. Accidently, but fortunately, I mentioned in a subsequent conversation with Jay that Ham and Sue had stimulated our interest in reading the tarot at a psychic fair. Talking with Ham later on I found out that Jay had discussed our fair participation with him. Ham told me that he assured Jay of our competency and legitimacy, thereby becoming a sponsor after a fashion. Clearly implicit in Ham's remarks was the idea that if we screwed up it would reflect badly on him.

In February we accepted an offer from Jay to purchase a booth and read professionally. We received further support and encouragement in this decision from Ham and Sue. Reading the tarot for pay at a psychic fair radically reoriented my perception and understanding of the esoteric community, practitioners, and professional practice. As a professional reader I assumed a perspective on the occult

from which I theretofore had been excluded. In attending previous fairs as a seeker, I arrived after the fair was in full operation, after all of the front work had been done, and practitioners were prepared to meet outsiders. As a professional practitioner I was privy to this mostly backstage work, and I experienced giving professional performances directly in the community context.

Since we were just beginning professional practice in the community, we purchased one rather than two booths. The idea was for one of us to read for a while and then trade off. In this way we both would have an opportunity to read for pay without incurring the expense of an additional booth. This strategy provided us with much needed rest periods, as well as opportunities to circulate among insiders and conduct research.

We arrived at the psychic fair around eleven-thirty, half an hour before it opened to the pubic. Our booth was off in a corner of the room. I was more or less aware that the best locations were reserved for regular fair participants, prestigious specialities, and practitioners of reputation, although I had not given the matter serious thought before. Jay apologized for locating us in the corner, drawing my attention to the matter, but he did not offer to relocate us to a more centralized position. Subsequent conversations with readers at the fair reinforced the importance of booth location for making money and as a reflection of one's prestige. I determined to study this matter further. Jay's apology did seem strange to me. As a novice practitioner in the community I had few expectations. I certainly did not expect to be treated with deference. Besides, my primary interests were in doing research, not reading the tarot, even though these interests had become interrelated. I sensed that since Jay was dependent economically on practitioners who purchased booths, he was making a concerted effort to keep us happy. Later I learned that community members easily are offended by where they are located. Bad feelings and long standing disputes among people derive from these situations, ones which may seem trivial to an outsider.

We proceeded to set up the booth. Lin brought a fringed shawl to use as a table covering. A friend made us a large poster advertising tarot readings. With the sign in place over the booth and the table arranged to our liking, complete with tarot packs, we were ready for business. Even though it was not my first time, I was nervous about reading for pay. Only one of us would be able to read at a time, so I retired to the car to brush up on my divinatory skills. Lin came out in about an hour. Business was slow and she was anxious to share some new information with me. Just before the public arrived, she reported, several professional practitioners went from booth to booth casually asking what people planned to charge for a reading. A fee of ten dollars a reading was defined as the going rate at this fair. No one said that undercutting the ten dollar rate would be regarded as a breach of the emergent order, but this was clear to us with little reading between the lines. Ham later explained the ethics of this to me in detail.

As the fair progressed we became concerned about covering the expense of the booth, a forty dollar a day investment. Lin had done only two readings and we therefore needed two additional customers just to break even for the day. Our concerns were intensified by the frequency with which this was a predominant topic of conversations among other professionals. Everyone's primary concern, it seemed to me, was with whether or not they would make expenses and show a profit for the time invested. The better known psychics were doing a good business, but we were not alone in having only a few customers. The lack of activity throughout the day provided plenty of opportunity simply to sit and talk with other professionals. This was a fortunate situation from my standpoint as these conversations contained ample insight into the actual work-a-day world of professional practitioners.

By the end of the day we had conducted 4 readings for pay. We would not have done even this many except that Ham and Sue sent several clients to us as they were too busy to handle everyone. This experience and subsequent observation led me to the realization that many of the clients were regulars at fairs. They knew the readers by reputation, and were more likely to request service from experienced practitioners of note. The following day was not much better for us. We did six readings and thereby covered our fair overhead. We, however, also spent nearly sixteen hours in the booth over two days!

Lin did several more readings in the afternoon. Even so, when I arrived in the late afternoon she was somewhat discouraged by the lack of business. I was excited, however, by the wealth of information she had collected from casual conversations with practitioners during the day. Lin left shortly after I arrived as we had a dinner engagement that evening. I planned to read as long as there was business and then to join her at our friends' house. Just as I was ready to leave several querents sat down at my booth. I had no sooner finished two readings than another client arrived. I finished this reading and prepared to leave when Ham sent another client to me. Though already late for dinner, I felt more obligated to Ham, and I provided the querent with a reading.

As I reflected on fair participation I realized that reading the tarot for pay was not an enjoyable experience for me. It was extremely demanding emotionally, and even nerve-racking. It consumed valuable time and provided little reward beyond the collection of research materials. The clients I seemed to attract most frequently, women between fifty and sixty years of age, were the very people I experienced the greatest difficult in reading for. All of my readings had gone well. I felt greater and greater confidence in reading. My performance and professional demeanor were greatly improved. But, I did not enjoy the experience in the least.

Reading at the fair had provided invaluable experience and insight about professional practices in the esoteric community. In the fair setting the reader has no choice of clientele. The service is provided on demand. Except under the most exceptional circumstances it is considered unethical to refuse service to a client, even a difficult one. Even under the best of circumstances, I found tarot divination to be a very risky business. In the more confined, private setting of a home I had the opportunity to prepare mentally for a divinatory performance. I was able to draw up knowledge of divinatory meanings of the cards and mentally anticipate each step of the reading. In the private setting I usually had an opportunity to become acquainted with the querent before reading the cards. In doing the reading I found time to explain what was happening to the client, and prepare them for what to expect. It was possible, in other words, to negotiate with and convey to them my understanding of the occult tarot. Once the cards were spread I felt little pressure to immediately demonstrate deep, extraordinary insight into the querent's life. If I felt unsuccessful in the private setting, there was plenty of time to spread the cards and try again, without revealing professional incompetence.

The more casual, private setting of a reading is radically transformed in the highly public context of a psychic fair. Divinatory readings are requested by complete strangers. I never knew when someone would come by and request a reading. I either had to be prepared constantly, or get ready quickly. Since I did not know the querent, unless I asked directly (and readers sometimes do this), there was no way of knowing if I was dealing with a novice or a more experienced client. Beyond agreeing to a price, readers at fairs rarely converse with clients before beginning a reading. I eventually learned, however, to do this as part of the reading during the very early stages. In the fair setting, I experienced a subtle but immediate concern for revealing some deep insight into the querent's life. If an account based on the cards was not forthcoming or if the querent did not recognize and participate in the construction of meaning, there was a temptation to read the querent; that is, employ even the slightest verbal and especially nonverbal signs and cues to render meanings. Every reader is conscious that such information is available, and that it may be useful in the event that one is unable to "get anything" from the cards. Unlike casual readings, public readings at fairs created great anxiety about the possibility of failure or showing incompetence. Querents have paid for and expect a demonstration of the occult. Other practitioners expect you to deliver. Your reputation and identity in the community literally depends on an ability to deliver a successful performance of divination on demand.

Most of the time I experienced little difficultly in finding sufficient material in the cards to perform divination. The symbols and patterns of significance commonly seemed to jump out at me, words flowed easily, and querents provided sufficient feedback to confirm that what I was saying was meaningful. If this does not happen professional practitioners have a remedy, namely "cold reading". By way of this technique readers check out the querent's style of dress, age, gender, rings, and any other visible or verbal cues that might be potentially useful. On this basis the reader attempts to demonstrate quickly a deep insight into the querent's life. If lucky, the reader hits on something to which the querent responds. Once a dialogue is established it then becomes possible to return to the cards and develop this theme: health, sex, marriage, money, career, and so on, based on an attribution of the cards.

Lin's fieldnotes provide a concrete examples of how tarot card readers feel about cold reading. She observed that:

There is another element involved in Tarot situations, that of "reading the querent." I've discovered that, especially when spreading the cards for people I don't know, I rely on a variety of cues to help me with the reading: i.e. sex, age, marital status, and apparent socioeconomic status (e.g., dress, speech), to mention the most obvious. I approach a reading for a middle-aged female with a different "mind-set" than a reading for a youthful unmarried male. Events suggested by a certain card are put into a perspective presented by the above-mentioned cues and are given directional assistance.

Professional readers attempt to do straight readings, ones based exclusively on the cards or related techniques for their interpretation, whenever possible. But most of them also resort to cold reading techniques when all else fails. This is especially important for the reader attempting to establish a reputation. Once a considerable reputation has been established, it then may be possible occasionally to admit that for whatever reasons, one's psychic abilities simply are not working.

I have heard readers make such comments, but such an admission is potentially disastrous for the psychic fair newcomer. Tarot card readers also express concern for difficulties deriving from dependence on cold readings of a client. Lin, for instance, recorded in her notes that:

There is a danger, however (especially when reading for friends), in allowing these cues and other known information to interfere with, or even take precedence over the observations of the cards. On the one hand, attention must be given to visual and verbal cues; on the other, meaning must be derived from the cards themselves. Too frequently there's a temptation to read what I believe should be, rather than what is, available in an interpretation; to offer my own advice rather than that of the cards.

Hence, while tarot card readers do not deny being influenced by visible and verbal information about a client, they generally feel that these resources must be integrated with an interpretation of the tarot cards. Like Lin, tarot card readers in the esoteric community commonly bestow a certain reality on the tarot itself, apart from their interpretation of it.

It is no secret among insiders to the community that readers sometimes use cold reading techniques. The service-for-pay situation itself is viewed by many members as a form of professional prostitution. Readers uniformly distinguish between serious readings, performed for self, friends and other members, as different from readings performed for pay. This is not to say that readings for pay are discernably different from other readings. The fundamental difference resides in the way in which readers' experience and regard them, not in the results. At the aforementioned psychic fair insiders joked about particular clients ("what a dope") and the reading for pay situation. Toward the end of the fair, after the early afternoon tension subsided and readers were more relaxed and tired, a reader broke up the insiders present with the behind the scene remark that: "Well, here comes another mark, oops, I mean client."

In the spring of 1978 we again read the tarot at a psychic fair in the esoteric community. Having been through this experience before I was much more relaxed, and the fair seemed more routine. I still did not find reading the tarot for pay to be a pleasant experience, but at least it was not painful. We clearly were treated at this fair as members of the community. There were many signs of this. That we were invited to participate again in a psychic fair was a very positive indication that we had passed the most severe test of membership. Our booth was located in a central meeting area, widely regarded as one of the better areas. Community members and leaders congregated in and around our booth during slack and break periods, engaging in casual conversation, gossip, and fair talk. We were greeted with familiarity, and conversations not uncommonly involved discussions of participants' personal lives, as well as all varieties of esotericism. I was invited to deliver a special lecture on a topic of my choosing. I understood this to be an honor and took it as a significant sign of being accepted as a fully participating member of the community.

As summer approached I gradually discontinued participating actively in

community affairs. My attention focused on describing findings, analyzing them, and writing a dissertation. Movement away from intensive participation in the community was facilitated by less activity in the community during the hottest summer months. I continued to interact with close friends in the community as I prepared them for my eventual disengagement. I also used this period of fieldwork to test out preliminary formulations of findings with trusted informants and friends, like Ham and Jay. Since I had been applying for academic positions elsewhere I was not completely unprepared for an eventual departure from the Valley. I liked the area, however, and hoped to remain somewhere in the state. Our move from the Valley across the United States in September 1978 happened too quickly for me. Leaving the field was a rather abrupt experience. Except for a few close friends and informants, I was unable to negotiate satisfactory closure on relationships with members of the esoteric community.


My initial exploration of the cultic milieu was conducted from the standpoint of a sociology graduate student looking for a dissertation topic. At the outset what I knew about the occult was based on popular cultural images and a very casual reading of pertinent scholarly literature. This knowledge about the occult was not inaccurate, it fairly faithfully reflected popular and scholarly views of the occult, but it had little to do with the esoteric scene as it is experienced and lived by members of this American milieu. I was unprepared for demonstrations of occult practice, and consequently when I observed them, I failed to see anything particularly extraordinary. Although most of the beliefs, practices, people, and groups constituting the esoteric scene and community in the Valley are visible, I did not know where to look to find them, and I was unable, initially, to distinguish readily observable patterns of belief, cults, practitioners, or networks of social relationship among them.

Once I encountered information about where to find practitioners and groups I found it easy to attend public meetings, lectures, and psychic fairs. In frequenting these activities I hoped to locate a group to join and study, but I was not aware until much later that insiders would see me as a nominal member of this scene and define me as a seeker. Although I moved deeper and deeper into the esoteric scene and community in a relatively brief period of time, what this meant to members and how my perspective on their affairs changed just as rapidly, was only gradually realized in my experience. The decision to become a client of practitioners in the community was a more deliberate decision. I was vaguely aware that as a client people treated me differently than as simply a seeker. I recognized that it was becoming easier for me to distinguish among insiders, including particular bodies of knowledge, practices, practitioners, groups, and patterns of social relationship, and that insiders increasingly acknowledged me with greater familiarity. Yet, I only gradually learned what this meant from the standpoint of the esoteric community.

To be an insider to the esoteric community is to possess a knowledge of esotericism and occultism, categories of membership, types of practitioners and

groups, as well as patterns and networks of relationship constituting distinctive worlds of meaning. Before attending the first psychic fair I was completely unaware of the esoteric community, not to mention the different factions I learned to distinguish. Differences among tarot card readers and psychic practitioners seems obvious and even taken-for-granted to me now, but it had no meaning to me before I became involved in community affairs. Through my use of the tarot I learned to see specific theosophical orientations to the cards, styles of interpretation, and particular procedures. None of these meanings existed for me before. Whatever I thought about gypsies as an outsider was significantly different from the type of person I learned about as a member of the community. For members this label serves to identify an illegitimate practitioner and it clearly reflects the moral order of the community over and against fakes and frauds. As a matter of routine, members recognize different esoteric doctrines, related practices, and types of people associated with these practices. Tarot card readers never use the term "fortune-telling" to identify what they do. "Fortune-telling" is what gypsies do.

To become a devotee of the occult is to learn new and different ways of interpreting the mundane affairs of everyday life. Divinatory performances, as discussed in Chapter Eight, require a shift of consciousness so that parties to these procedures are prepared to appropriate occult knowledge. These realities differ from the cognitive style of the natural attitude as ordinary everyday life realities are described by Schutz (1973) and Berger and Luckmann (1966). As a finite province of meaning, occult realities transform wide-awake consciousness, suspension of doubt, practicality, self awareness, intersubjectivity, and a sense of time in remarkable ways. In occult practice wide-awake consciousness is greatly expanded, not in the unconscious or inattentive style of dreaming or the seemingly disorganized style of insanity, but in the sense of a heightened awareness of things unavailable to mundane consciousness. Occult thought, in this regard, is similar to scientific ideas about objects like the id, superego, atoms, germs, black holes, anomie, and deprivation, most of which are also unavailable through ordinary experience. Like scientific knowledge, occult realities require more or less extensive training and socialization whereby the adept learns to see what is otherwise unavailable. Normal consciousness of time, self, and sociability also are expanded. Esoteric realities include souls, spirits, and entities without ordinary historical limitations. Occult time is cosmic, and it may include a belief in extra-terrestrial ancestors of earthly humankind.

The process of becoming an occultist is a gradual experience. It generally is not marked by a single dramatic moment after which the world is suddenly different. Luhrmann accurately describes this process as "interpretative drift." Like Luhrmann, Lin and I drifted into occult beliefs as a way of interpreting the world of everyday life. Unlike Luhrmann, Lin, and myself, people generally experience interpretative drift more or less unreflectively. Once a person has begun to accept the plausibility of occult interpretations, however, the use of an occult frame of reference sometimes becomes intoxicating.

Occult knowledge becomes a way for people to make ordinary life decisions in non-ordinary ways. After her introduction to the tarot, Leah, one of Lin's students, changed her name and thereby her social identity to correspond to an esoteric understanding of reality. She regularly used the tarot to envision present situations and anticipate the future. It became a means of making sense out of virtually every aspect of her life. Not incidentally, she was otherwise a fairly ordinary woman from a respectable middle-class background. When I first met Leah she was 28 years old, divorced from her first husband, teaching public school, raising her daughter, casually dating, and doing art.

By her account, to illustrate further, a girlfriend invited her to a local bar where they were to meet other friends and play a few games of backgammon. After several visits to the bar, Leah decided one evening to take her tarot cards. In retrospect she maintained that she had a feeling that she should do a reading for a man they had met. At the bar that evening she mentioned the tarot to this man and another person near them immediately became attentive and requested a reading. Although they had not met before, Leah had previously seen this man in the bar and she agreed to read the tarot for him. This meeting, she felt esoterically, must have been preordained. Through the tarot reading they became friends and later began dating. When I first met her friend, a lawyer, at Leah's home one evening, they both talked about the tarot and how significant Leah's reading had been for them. We were playing a regular card game that evening and Leah's date began talking about psychic powers and seeking Leah's cooperation in meditating upon receiving a good playing hand. They would join hands across the table and concentrate on particular cards. Several outstanding hands merely reinforced this attempt to call upon psychic powers. Though perhaps frivolous, their beliefs were not insincere.

Several days later Leah came to our house. Since meeting the lawyer they had become almost constant companions and the esotericism of the tarot had become an important source of solidarity between them. He had invited her to go with him on a business trip to Hawaii. Leah was anxious to go but a previous boyfriend lived in Hawaii, a guy about whom she still cared and wanted to see. To complicate the situation further, Leah was aware that since she and the Hawaiian boyfriend had been apart, he had become involved in a romantic relationship with another woman. Although she wanted to go to Hawaii, in thinking about the trip, Leah began to realize that the lawyer was not the person she wanted to be with. By Leah's account she attempted to resolve this very complex situation by tarot divination.

In consulting the cards she had the feeling, attributed to divination, that the man in Hawaii was about to call her. Sure enough, by her account, he did call within several days to report that he had just broken up with the woman he was seeing, and he wanted Leah to come for a visit (thereby confirming her divinatory intuition). In relating this story it became clear that Leah was using the tarot and related occultisms to interpret present circumstances and make decisions about what course of action to follow. The evening she related the story we were asked to read the tarot for her. Neither of the readings we provided pointed directly to a particular course of action. Indeed, I deliberately used the tarot as a way to explore Leah's feelings about the situation, and raise questions she might want to consider in choosing among alternatives. She used my comments, however, to justify making a particular decision. I encountered an untold number of situations like this during my fieldwork. Like many other people, Leah learned to use esoteric knowledge to make sense of her existence and to make complex decisions.

Leah's experience stands in stark contrast with the experiences of people who do not subscribe to occult teachings. To interpret events esoterically requires that one at least accept the plausibility of these doctrines and practices. Once this assumption is made esoteric interpretations become real. If this assumption does not hold, practices like tarot divination are impossible. This was demonstrated vividly to me in an attempt to explain the operation of the tarot to a friend, a graduate student from a large midwestern university. Unable to accept the plausibility of tarot divination, my friend found it absurd and laughed almost uncontrollably at my efforts to provide a demonstration for him.

My divinatory use of the tarot at psychic fairs made accessible to me the backstage activities of professional practitioners. It would have been difficult by any other means to uncover the informal rules and implicit understandings in the community defining ethical practices, practitioners and relationships among them, techniques for producing a divinatory performance, ways of establishing fees, perspectives on clientele, and a host of related matters. In reading the tarot I gained first-hand experience with this occult practice and its social accomplishment. My membership in the community, in all relevant ways, facilitated rather than inhibited efforts to describe this social world sociologically.

Unlike Rambo who experienced serious difficulty in separating her role as a member (exotic dancer) from her role as sociologist, I constantly fought to keep my sociological consciousness from controlling my membership experiences. Although I was able to perform the role of tarot card reader and pass as such in the community, to think, feel, and act as an occultist for more than brief periods of time was exceptionally difficult for me. My experience of occult realities always was game-like. My ability to experience an occult reality was greatest when I used the tarot for study and meditation, rather than in a divinatory fashion. In reading the tarot for clients I constantly feared that something I said would become the basis for important, consequential actions. Though not inconsistent with discussions I found in occult literature, particularly the writings of Crowley, my experiences and accounting for them only vaguely resembled the more ordinary abilities of community members to suspend doubt about nonempirical realities. My interpretations of these experiences ultimately were more philosophical and sociological than occult, as I understood them.

Unlike the most committed members of the community, my occult identity was temporary. I was fully aware that it was something that could be shed once the research was finished. While I temporarily became the phenomenon, I did not go native, if going native requires that one abandon self and surrender completely to the occult. This is extremely important since it reflects, perhaps negatively, on my interpretation of the members' world of experience and meaning.

Lin's experiences with becoming a tarot card reader were quite different. Unlike me, she much more fully incorporated an occult identity as part of her "self." In part this process was facilitated by testing occult claims to knowledge. Shortly after she began reading the tarot for other people, Lin recorded that:

I decided to attempt an experiment with this influx of new "clients," most of whom I did not know well: I asked each querent to write out a specific question for the Tarot to answer, without allowing me to see it. The results were frequently rather astounding to me: e.g., the cards for the querents who asked about their love life showed a majority in the suit of cups the suit associated with love]; students requesting information about their studies had a majority of cards in the suit of swords [the suit pertinent to intellectual matters].

Lin, like many tarot card readers in the community, also reported having experiences, typically ones perceived as somehow anomalous, which confirmed the extraordinary quality of divinatory knowledge. She observed:

One reading was especially significant to me, for I had preconceived notions about the question I thought the querent would ask. My neighbor, Debi, requested a Tarot reading shortly after a conversation we had in which she informed me that the disease with which she is afflicted, Muscular Dystrophy, was worsening, and that she would have to wear a leg brace. I was certain that the question she would ask would be directed in some fashion towards her physical condition. However, the cards in the spread I read for her were concerned with her vocation, more precisely with an artistic endeavor in which she was about to engage. Her question: Will I fulfill my desire to become a photographer?

Her experiences with reading the tarot thereby served to reinforce the idea that something extraordinary indeed was happening, and these experiences supported her emergent identity as an occultist.

Lin, like other readers in the esoteric community, construed assorted experiences with the occult as indicative of "professional" competency. She noted that:

I started this "journal" of my experiences with the Tarot almost a year ago, and have had many varied experiences and involvements since that time. I have read the cards, as a professional, at a Church fund raising event; I have read the cards for local professional readers who put their seal of approval on my competency; I have taught classes on reading the cards; I have even accepted money for my Tarot services.

Reflectively questioning further whether or not she truly had become a professional tarot card reader, Lin reasoned that:

First, I have been accepted by acknowledged professional readers as worthy of their esteem—my readings were perceived by them to be accurate, and my advice to the point. Second, and perhaps most importantly, I am aware of my abilities; I know, by comparing my performance with that of other readers, that I am as capable, and as knowledgeable, as some of the best readers with whom I have come in contact. Because of this I have arrived at a place with friends and acquaintances where I sometimes feel like the physician who is cornered at a party and expected to provide free medical advice. How should I let my friends know that I am now less willing to spend several hours of my time on a reading if there is no return for it? Perhaps I would feel differently if it were a more occasional activity, but lately I have had three or four request a week for my "professional services" with the assumption made that it will be free.

Lin's experiences consequently served as a basis for comparison and contrast with mine. My frequent inability to take occultism seriously except as an interesting fieldwork exercise was balanced through our conversations by Lin's genuine, existential reflection of an insider's viewpoint.

from Chapter 8:


My view of the occult tarot and its uses stands opposed to widespread public, religious, and scientific images which see occult knowledge and practices as somehow illegitimate and reducible to defective reasoning, people, or social organizations. The occult tarot is not unlike many other bodies of sociohistorically created knowledge which have been subjected to constant interpretation and serve as the basis for certain human practices. Unlike ordinary, commonsense knowledge, the occult tarot represents extraordinary knowledge claims. My aim in this chapter has been to describe some of the ways in which contemporary occultists use the occult tarot, and to analyze and interpret its use for divinatory purposes.

Tarot divination was viewed interpretatively as a dramatic performance by a reader for a querent. The general structure and context of this interactional situation is understandable sociologically. It consists of a script, structures of relevance, and discourse. Through complex sequences of interaction, parties to tarot divination generate a set of predictions about the past, present, and future of the querent. Expressions of possible fact may remain as discrete observations. Yet, participants commonly come to see them as connected and interrelated in a meaningful whole or totality. This happens in several ways.

In the course of a reading, the client and/or the reader may explicitly make connections among the many sequences of conversation. The temporality implicit or explicit in a reading and the stream of symbolic images provided by the tarot cards provide grounds for envisioning continuity and unity. The assumption that clients have problems recommends that the reader's advice should be interpreted as connected to some focus or foci. The assumption of plausibility indicates that advice will be meaningful and interrelated, even if it does not seem to be at the outset. Social actors constantly employ their social biographies and social contexts reflexively to seek meaning, even in the face of apparent absurdity.

My analysis and interpretation supports the contention that the meaning and sense of occult practices like tarot divination are produced and sustained by societal members through a complex but otherwise ordinary process of social interactional negotiation. This documentary method of interpretation also applies to common sense activity, psychotherapy, and many other aspects of human existence, such as science. Because of the "magical" character of social interaction, serious occultists have little need for self-conscious trickery. If they perpetrate deceptions, these deceits are part of recognizable strategies of impression management, and thereby routine features of human interaction. Clients and readers may exhibit gullibility and engage in "deficient" reasoning. Yet, these are not discriminating properties of occult practices. The supposed defects of tarot divination are pervasive features of face-to-face interaction. Occultists and common sense actors inappropriately use causal, probabilistic, and correlational thinking. But, truth and meaning are negotiated by these folks in spite of these defects. Just as science necessarily depends on common sense and is not substitutable for it, so too it seems unlikely that occultists would find scientific thinking or ritual to be a satisfactory substitute for tarot divination. If nothing else, occult practices are affectively satisfying, while scientific practices apparently are not.

Does tarot divination work? Yes, of course, it works or people would not do it. Is it possible to foretell future events by way of the tarot? I do not know. Probably not in any kind of a scientifically observable way, if by "foretell" one means objectively and fully to envision events which have not yet happened. Although it has not happened to me very often, I have experienced occult demonstrations by way of the tarot and otherwise which I cannot explain or interpret adequately from a sociological or otherwise scientific standpoint. Does this mean that magic works? Once again, I do not know. I do know, as my occult friends argue, that the world is most wondrous; more fantastic than our present ability to account for it. Were it not, at the very least many of us would be very bored.