Many people today are reevaluating their lifestyles. In the last couple of years, a lot of us, especially those of us who have grown up to the beat of continuous health, social, and economic crises, have become increasingly aware of the destructive behavioural patterns present in our hegemonic society. We are concerned about environmental, animal, and human welfare. So, some of us have altered our diets, avoiding the consumption of animal products; we have altered our buying habits, rejecting fast fashion and prioritising buying second-hand and local; and finally, we have all become witches.
Yes, you have read that right. The practice of Wicca, a neo-pagan nature-centred religion, has recently accumulated a large number of devotees. Be it for craving a communion with nature, protesting patriarchal structures, or reclaiming a term that has traditionally sought to subdue women and marginalised groups, the rise of the witches and so, “witchy” shops, feels now unstoppable. As a north-east London resident, it seems that on every corner I bump into a shop with the words blessed, spirit, worship, moon, or coven, splattered on its display window, welcoming me in. Inside, lovely comforting earthy, usually women, sell crystals, books on astrology, a variety of candles and incense, spell kits, singing bowls, bundles of sage, and of course, tarot cards. Tarot cards are experiencing a major revival at the moment, and chances are you either own a deck or know somebody that does. Yet, how is the practice of reading tarot gendered? First, let’s zoom into the cards.
A tarot deck has 78 cards and is divided into two sections: major arcana and minor arcana. There are 22 major arcana cards. These relate to big life events and include cards such as the Fool, the Magician, the Empress, the Emperor, Death, and the World. On the other hand, you have 56 minor arcana cards which are divided into four suits: cups, wands, swords, and pentacles. Each suit has numbered cards from 1 through 10, as well as four court cards: page, knight, king, and queen. As you have probably already noticed, tarot cards are heavily gendered and follow cis-heteronormative behavioural assumptions.
The Emperor and the Empress are clear masculine and feminine archetypes. They represent the gender binary and polarities of man/woman and father/mother, they are interpreted as leadership and authority vs. beauty and fertility. Similarly, all suits contain a king and a queen. Kings are associated with bosses, power, and wealth, whereas queens are associated with devotion, nurture, and support. Furthermore, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck and Tarot of Marseille deck, the two most traditional decks, represent those traits associated with femininity, as well as with nature, through women. For example, Justice, Temperance, the Star and the World are pictured by women. Interestingly, Strength is depicted as a lion being tamed, nurtured, or cared for, by a woman. Additionally, the Lovers card is, of course, depicted through a heteronormative coupling.
Newer tarot decks are adopting more inclusive illustrations that incorporate a variety of gender expressions and sexual orientations. Similarly, interpretations of the cards are moving away from strict heteronormative understandings, however, in essence, tarot continues to be divided into cards with feminine and masculine energies. If the practice of reading tarot is so deeply gendered and heteronormative, how come it is so popular amongst feminist and queer groups?
There is something about spirituality in general, and tarot in particular, that embodies dissidence and resistance to the norm. In Victorian England, as a reaction to rapid industrialisation and new scientific knowledge, the occult and tarot became fashionable. Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, accompanied by the sexual revolution, feminism, the civil rights movement, anti-war sentiments, and anti-capitalist organisation, Wicca gained momentum and tarot became VERY popular. In fact, Paul McCartney wrote the Beatles’ 1967 hit, ‘Fool On the Hill,’ a song that challenges the Global North’s arrogance considering other cultures and beliefs, inspired by the Fool tarot card. Likewise, Led Zeppelin used many tarot-like images on gatefold sleeves and album covers, most famously displaying the Hermit on the gatefold sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV.
Perhaps by looking into the history of tarot we might understand the relationship of this practice with nonconformity. Tarot is closely associated with Roma culture. The Romani have spent centuries living on the margins of European societies. They have been oppressed and shunned, being one of the many groups persecuted by Hitler’s Germany. Due to their itinerant nature, cartomancy and divination were often practised as a means of economic survival. So, racialised economically deprived, mostly women, would tell wealthy white women and men, their fortune. Tarot was something practised outside ‘decent’ European society and culture. Unequal gender, racial, and class power relations are thus innate to tarot cards, however this is often overlooked, and even, romanticised.
Bohemian lifestyles and fashion have been associated with artists, intellectuals, and leftist political dissidents. Bohemian describes people who are unconventional, artistic, and forward-thinking. However, Bohemian, referring to a region in central Europe, is a word first used pejoratively to describe Roma people. And so, a group racially and economically marginalised by Europe, who was forced into slavery and targeted through genocide during WWII, is erased, and instead fetishised into a group of itinerant nonconformists. Now, your long flowy flowery dress, chic head scarf, golden necklace, and bangles convo might embody your *insert slur* soul, but it does so essentially through cultural appropriation and erasure. A similar dynamic can be found in tarot. Tarot cards were not invented by the Romani, they were a deck of cards that appeared in Italy in the 15th century that were used to play games. However, it is the use given by the Roma people that gives tarot its mysticism and marginality which may relate to bohemianism and free-spiritedness, to a break with the norm.
However, there is another element that makes tarot cards captivating. According to data presented by the Washington Post in 2021, in the 5 years preceding that date, the sales of tarot cards had doubled. Additionally, sales had tripled during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic. A similar surge in sales was found during the 2008 financial crisis. So, it seems, that people turn to tarot, just as you might turn to any other religious practices, to process fear and anxiety. In fact, tarot has been shown to benefit mental health alongside therapy, as a tool to practise self-care, open dialogue, and process your thoughts. Perhaps this is why women and other marginalised groups, as groups that often seek relief through community-building and expression, turn to tarot. Or perhaps, it is the feeling of being failed by traditional Western structures that makes us seek for advice and knowledge in different places.
The fact is that today many people are fascinated by tarot cards. And although it is difficult to find data on this subject, those concerned with crystals, astrology, and tarot, are predominantly women, and some queer men. So, when I dragged my partner to participate in a tarot reading circle with me in our local “witchy” shop, he was the only cis-man in a group of about twenty people. Those that read tarot cards professionally are also principally women.
Tarot practice and its history is gendered, racialised, and classed. Although many of its traditional dynamics have now disappeared, they form part of the trajectory of tarot and must not be forgotten or dismissed. Yet, tarot as a tool for dissidence and self-care must also not be devalued, and instead be practised with honour and recognition to those that shaped its usage.