Tarot reading is like a mirror — and the art of finding meaning is in the card design

Like other therapeutic practices, card reading taps into an internal conversation between you and, well, you — doing so without judgment or fear.

Like other therapeutic practices, card reading taps into an internal conversation between you and, well, you

The She Wolfe Deck. (Courtesy of Devany Amber Wolfe)

The first time I read tarot for someone other than myself, it was my then-roommate's girlfriend, who closed her eyes, wincing, as she pulled the cards from the deck — fearful of whatever negative messages were waiting for her. When she saw the Four of Swords, which, on my traditional Rider-Waite Smith deck, depicts three swords above a sarcophagus with one sword on the side, she screeched in terror. "Oh, that looks AWFUL."

The Four of Swords card isn't fatalistic. Rather, it is contemplation — a brief reprieve after the Three of Swords, which depicts three swords puncturing a bright red heart.

The images on tarot cards range from happy and fulfilling (Ten of Cups, for example) to ominous and terrifying (The Tower) and anything in between. Something that looks exciting can cause pain, while an image that at first appears to be menacing can be a sigh of beautiful relief. Each of the 78 cards in the Major Arcana, Minor Arcana and court cards that make up tarot as we know it is rich and vibrant with a wide net of meaning.

Tarot cards.

Tarot card imagery has evolved over centuries from typical playing cards to mystical-looking figures so common in iconography now. The most famous tarot deck is the Rider-Waite Smith, originally published in 1910 and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith with the academic and mystic A.E. Waite. Design is key to the interpretation of the cards. Some feature objects or groups of people or feminine and masculine characters, highlighting those as energies rather than distinct gender roles. The image of The Fool, with yellow and gold colours, is just as powerful as the image of Death, with white and black with blues dominating the image. Both are, actually, very good cards to receive (depending on the question), signalling newness or freshness or a beginning, just from different design angles.

Tarot decks are not the only way to seek guidance and spiritual aide — there are also oracle cards, which feature a variety of figures, religious icons, animals and mythical creatures, to name a few, in whimsical designs or muted, paired down aesthetics. The illustrations are wholly dependent on the designer and writer of the deck. Sometimes oracle cards are used in conjunction with tarot or used on their own. Oracle cards inherently have less structure and have much, much wider interpretations. There is no hierarchy in the cards.

The Birds Oracle Deck. (Courtesy of Jessica Blaine Smith)

Like astrology, tarot is becoming a trend — popping up more and more in familiar spaces, becoming something to embrace. Jessica Dore, a Philadelphia-based reader, tweets out a card with a reading every day. The Numinous has Tarotscopes for each month. YouTube is full of tarot and oracle card readers who share readings for the zodiac signs each month. There's even a RuPaul's Drag Race deck.

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Tarot and oracle cards are also where artists, illustrators and designers of all sorts can elucidate meaning and guidance through their own styles for specific communities. Devany Amber Wolfe, a Toronto-based creator of the decks serpentfire and She Wolfe, says, "There is quite literally a tarot or oracle deck for every taste: super nerdy, dark, cheesy, funny, TV show-themed, decks all about cats, faeries, trees. Any theme you could think of — which, in my mind, has taken the practice out of the 'strictly occult' into more mainstream culture and consciousness, which is a fantastic thing."

Wolfe released the first edition of the serpentfire deck in 2014, and rather than the classic Rider-Waite Smith, she chose to model hers after The Thoth — a more divination-based practice created by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris that features futuristic designs. It took four years to accomplish, as she describes the endeavour as being 78 individual projects. For Wolfe, the impetus to create her own deck was because she "wanted to create something that would help...understand the depth and breadth of the tarot in my own way, but also in a way that would speak to other people. A deck that was visually stunning and easy to interpret, while also being challenging in nature (just like any good self-reflective tool should be)."

The Serpentfire Deck. (Courtesy of Devany Amber Wolfe)

Canadian freelance illustrator Amrit Brar had a similar experience: after receiving positive responses to the Shitty Horoscopes zine she created, she decided that creating her own tarot deck would be her next artistic and personal project. The cards on Wolfe's serpentfire deck are saturated, psychedelic almost, and a collage of colours and images all convene together. Brar's, however, called The Marigold Deck, is starker in black and gold with white of haunting images. "I've always stated that the design inspiration for the deck was largely just creating an object with elements that I (and my friends) wanted to use," Brar says. "A wealth of skeletons, plants, and gold."

Like Wolfe, Brar says design is important to her because, at the core, she is concerned with intention and aesthetic. "Objects can be beautiful for the sake of enjoying beautiful things, but having a couple of secrets littered here and there keeps the narrative interesting," says Brar.

The Marigold Deck is modelled off of the Rider-Waite Smith but with intentional changes in interpretation reflected in the design. For the Strength card, shown with a woman and a lion, Brar's card went for something less bright and more sombre, focusing on strength as introspection. "I've always related that card to seeking mental fortitude, and I wanted my interpretation of the card to reflect that."

The Marigold Deck's Strength card. (Courtesy of Amrit Brar)

There is a prevailing, if not overwhelming, sense of artistic freedom that comes with designing oracle cards. Toronto-based photographer and writer Jessica Blaine Smith, with the help of her Australian designer and friend Mia Emily Freeman, created the Birds Oracle Deck and explains to CBC Arts that this deck has no rules. "When I tell [customers] that oracle cards really have no rules and there is no wrong way to use them, I often get a frightened glance," Smith says. "I think that in our lives where we have so much structure with schedules and running households, etc. that to have something just for ourselves that can be fun and free with no rules, is initially almost scary."

Smith's Birds of Oracle deck has 44 cards. With Freeman, Smith spent an enormous amount of time on both design and writing — picking which birds go on the cards, if they should be in pairs, and whether or not one was in flight or simply portraying the head on the card. "I literally spent hours contemplating each bird and really trying to get into what I feel are the guts of each one (or my interpretation of what those guts are!)," says Smith. The Birds of Oracle cards are designed on thick, muted, grey-coloured cards with deeply defined illustrations of cardinals, mourning doves, pigeons and many more birds. The ordinariness of nature is, in this sense, that much more extraordinary as a tool for self-reflection.

Tarot and oracle cards are less memeable than astrology, but the practice still has weight in a pop cultural conversation about seeking tenderness and care for oneself. Card reading is often lumped into a category of #self-care that resembles a GOOP life, perhaps, that may or may not include hot yoga, crystals and cleanses, as though the adoption of these elements temporarily or selectively will, in fact, make your life better. Card reading, however, like other therapeutic practices, taps into an internal conversation between you and, well, you — doing so without judgment or fear.

The Birds Oracle Deck. (Courtesy of Jessica Blaine Smith)

Tarot has often been described as a mirror. Cards don't tell your fortune and won't give a precise answer to your query. That is part of its fun, if I'm being truthful. If the messaging is opaque, then it is up to you to further investigate what the illustrations on the card mean for you, weighing their broadest meaning against the specificity of your life.

The way these Canadian illustrators have been able to create a business and a healing practice is a marvelous feat. "Self-publishing (like what I've done) has become very accessible, which is amazing. I love that tarot and oracle decks have become so diverse and prolific," says Wolfe.


Sarah MacDonald is a music and culture writer whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Flare, NOW, and many more. Previously, she was an associate editor at Noisey Canada. She's happy to be here.