By Amber Brinnier
Humans have always sought to speak with or interpret messages from higher powers. Whether they believe that is their own higher self, those in the spirit world, or a higher cosmic being, divination has existed in all forms of religion and spirituality since humans first civilized themselves.
Today, two of the most popular forms of divination that have entered into the mainstream consciousness are tarot and astrology. Many people are turning to tarot and astrology, or those trained to interpret tarot and astrology, to help navigate these uncertain times.
As a tarot reader and astrologer myself, I have noticed that many people seem confused as to what tarot and astrology are for, and what they can do.
First and foremost, tarot and astrology, and most forms of divination, are not fortune telling or able to tell the future.
As creatures of free will, there is not, and can not be, any fixed future. Even though we know what the movements of the planets are going to be for many, many years to come, we can’t tell exactly what those movements might mean for us down here on earth. What we can do is follow the patterns created by the stars.
Watching the Stars
Astrology is a language created by humans thousands of years ago to interpret the movements of the planets. Following the movements of the stars and planets is one of the oldest continuous activities done by humans. Lunar calendars and depictions of constellations have been found carved into bone and on cave walls as long ago as 32,000 B.C.E.
Ancient people worshipped the stars and the moon, believing them to be deities, and over time developed a language to describe what they saw as they watched the stars night after night in their dance with one another. They noticed parallels between events on earth and aspects in the night sky, in cycles of life and the cycles of the planets’ movement.
Imagine how brightly and magnificently the stars must have shone, when the only light pollution came from communal fires, and the only entertainment after the sun went down was the telling of stories about how we came to be, all mapped out in front of our eyes in the skies above us.
What they couldn’t do was tell the future. They might have thought of it that way, but in reality what they were doing was noticing patterns. It’s similar to the way that meteorologists predict the weather: when certain conditions are met, it is likely to expect certain weather patterns to happen.
In the same way, we can see the patterns of planets in their movements and predict patterns of energy and events that will be similar to what we have seen before. To some, this might be the same as predicting the future, but we don’t know the details of an event or how something is going to play out until it actually happens.
For example, a client asks an astrologer ‘I want to receive one million dollars. When will this happen?’
There’s no way for an astrologer to look at a chart and see that one million dollars is on its way to that person, and it will come in 6 months.
What an astrologer can see is if there is any indication in a person’s natal chart and transits that they could receive an abundance of money; for instance, Jupiter, the planet of abundance, in the 8th House which rules, among other things, other people’s money, is often thought of to be an indicator of receiving an inheritance.
But there are innumerable other factors at play, and it just isn’t possible to read anything as detailed as an exact sum of money in somebody’s birth chart.
In the Cards
Tarot is quite a bit more modern. Developed as a card game in the 15th Century in Italy as Tarocchi, and popularized in France as les Tarots, its beginnings were not very mystical or esoteric at all. However, a pair of freemasons noticed a striking similarity between the imagery of the trump cards - what we now know as the Major Arcana - and the ancient teachings of the Egyptian god Thoth, also known as Hermes.
The idea that a simple card game would hide a world of hidden wisdom is truly a remarkable one. It points to the idea that as humans we are constantly searching for symbols and archetypes to make sense of the world as we know it, and, like astrology, use these archetypes as another form of language to speak with the divine.
Over time the structure of the tarot deck, known as the Marseilles deck, was linked with the Kabbalah - an ancient tradition of Jewish mysticism that was picked up and adapted by Christian esotericists around the same time as the first known Tarot cards.
According to the Sefer Yetsirah (Book of Formation) the world was created with ten numbers and twenty-two letters. The comparison is striking, as the Major Arcana contains twenty-two cards, and each suit of the Minor Arcana has 10 numbered cards.
Eventually the tarot was synthesized along with astrology and other esoterica into the organization known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, created to raise a person’s level of being so that he or she could become a true magician.
However, the greatest influence on the tarot, and the most well known, is the deck produced by two former members of the Golden Dawn organization; the scholar and magician Arthur Edward Waite and artist and spiritual medium Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith.
Called the Rider Waite deck, as it was published by the Rider company of London in 1909, it contains what many consider to be the ultimate imagery of the archetypes of the cards. Until this deck, the Minor Arcana only showed arrangements of symbols in the suits - six of swords would show just that, an arrangement of six swords. Smith, however, painted a scene on every card.
By doing this, we are able to enter the scenes of the cards and treat them as moments in a story. Suddenly every image contained a precise and detailed architecture of symbolism, and those looking to the cards for answers don’t need to have studied the complex layers of meaning in the card, or learn all of the details in order to use the cards in readings. The pictures alone can spark inspiration and meaning.
The most interesting and magical part of the Tarot is that all of the many deep layers of meanings, like astrological correspondences and letters of the Kabbalah, were ascribed to the cards after they were created. This creates in them a sort of timeless nature; their meanings have evolved and will continue to evolve.
Of course this is because the medicine and wisdom of the cards generates not from the actual cards themselves, but from the reader and their relationship with the archetypes and symbolism of the cards. Because of this we see the many beautiful modern interpretations of the Rider Waite Smith deck today.
Fixed or Fluid
Tarot as a divination technique is much more mutable than Astrology. Astrology requires a decent amount of study to be able to really dive into a chart.
There are the signs of the zodiac, which is the baseline of what most people know of astrology. Then there are the planets, each within a specific sign depending on the day and time the chart was cast. There are the Houses of a chart, where the planets fall in signs depending on the time of the day - to the minute! - the chart was cast. There are aspects and degrees, the relationship the planets were making with each other at the time the chart was cast. And that’s just looking at a single chart - a snapshot of a single moment.
The planets are constantly moving, or transiting, as we say in the language of astrology. On top of aspects they make with each other as they transit, they are also making aspects to planets as they were in a particular moment - such as a birth chart. Every aspect, degree, and placement of a planet in a chart has a specific energy that surrounds it.
This is why it does no good to classify someone simply as their Sun sign - everybody’s birth chart is different. Even twins can have different rising signs, and thus planets falling in different houses, if they were born minutes apart.
Astrology is fixed. We know where the planets are going and what they are going to be doing.
Tarot, however, is more fluid. It depends on the person doing the reading, as well as the person receiving the reading.
Each card has a general meaning, but the way that meaning is integrated varies from reader to reader. Some readers prefer to read Tarot “by the book”, in the way that it was ascribed a hundred years ago, while more and more readers are approaching it in a more inclusive, intuitive way.
While many tarot readers advertise their services as divining the future, it is more helpful, and much more fulfilling, to look at card readings as helpful medicine for the moment - a check-in with the Soul.
Climbing the Spiral
Tarot and astrological readings surrounding what will happen in the future can sometimes have visible results, but remember, we are creatures of free will.
Our existence, like that of the planets, rotates on a spiral, with cycles and patterns repeating. Unlike the planets, however, we are free to break out of these patterns if they are not serving us.
In fact, some would say it is our life’s work to climb the spiral, and align with our highest selves.
Tarot and astrology are useful tools for that work. Through symbolism of familiar archetypes and energies, they lay the patterns out before our eyes, a road map of sorts that may not necessarily show us exactly where we’re going - that’s up to us - but in a beautiful, profound way, give us the tools and instructions on how to get there.
Amber Brinnier is a nomad tarot reader and astrologer based in Portland, OR, where she lives with her black cat, Winnie, when she isn’t exploring the country in her silver van, Sylvia. You can follow her adventures in tarot, astrology, and general witchery on Instagram @thewitchweed.