In 2016, Hilary Eastmure wasn’t looking for a change. She was 27 and had recently moved to Victoria for a job in radio, which she calls her “first love.” Everything was great. But then an opportunity presented itself: a new job, in a new city, in a new field. It would mean leaving media for federal politics. “I initially had this really strong physical gut reaction that I had to go for it, and that seemed a bit crazy to me,” she says. “I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea.”
Eastmure had downloaded an app called Galaxy Tarot and was casually using it, getting to know the esoteric deck by virtually pulling a daily card and reading up on its symbolism. Killing time before her phone interview for the job she knew it made no sense to want, she opened the app and flipped over a card. It was the Two of Pentacles: a portrait of a man dancing on the balls of his feet, juggling two large coins in the air, forming a swirling infinity sign between them.
“It’s all about adaptability, change and nimble movement,” she explains. “What really jumped out at me was the bit at the end of the interpretation on this app that said: ‘This card may be telling you to follow the money. You may need to travel or even move house to take advantage of material opportunities.’”
Eastmure went into her interview feeling confident, and when she got the job, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “It definitely took some nimble movement and adaptability to make it work,” she says, “but I just pictured that character on the card juggling his two pentacles, and it kind of gave me that confidence I needed.”
Like other woo-woo artifacts—star charts, crystals, runes—tarot cards seem to be everywhere. It helps that the cards look especially nice with an Instagram filter: Nearly five million posts have been tagged with #tarot. One analysis puts Galaxy Tarot among the 100 most-used lifestyle apps in Canada (and it’s competing in a category that includes Tinder).
But the phenomenon extends beyond our smartphones: The metaphysical services industry, which includes tarot reading, was estimated to be worth US$2.2 billion in 2018. Cartomancy (fortune-telling using decks of cards) has entered the swirl of influence culture and, according to Goop, #wellness.
I’ll admit it: I am one of the thousands of Canadian women who use tarot cards all the time. I’m 32, and I caught the bug a few years ago from a Californian friend who was raised on the stuff. I kept it up because I like anything that involves stories and because my basic state is one of being desperate for advice. I feel like I was born a querent (from the Latin for “seeking,” the term for the person asking questions of the cards).
But I don’t really know what I’m doing with tarot, by which I mean I’m an amateur and I only partially understand the nature of my own interest. I’m actually a pretty skeptical person—I just apply that skepticism so widely that it can look a lot like credulity (makes sense; I’m a Libra). I was raised faithless, with a general distrust of dogma, and plenty of what passes for virtuous or rational or normal looks totally bananas to me: capitalism, organized religion, air travel. Ask me if I “believe” in tarot cards, and I’ll tell you, truthfully, that I don’t know what that means. In the case of tarot, I think the more apt question isn’t so much about the belief as the habit: Does the practice feel meaningful or useful? Does performing the ritual bring you closer to being a better version of yourself?
Tarot didn’t start out as an occult thing. The cards can be traced back to late-14th-century Italy and a bridge-like game called tarocchi, played with suits of swords, cups, coins and batons, likely images copied from playing cards that originated with the Mamluks (Arab slave-warriors) and made their way into Europe by way of Turkey. The Italian aristocracy would soup up their basic four-suit decks by commissioning artists to create additional sets of “triumph” cards featuring elaborate allegorical illustrations.
Versions of these decks continued to be used in parlour games throughout Europe (tarocchi in Italy, tarot in France, tarock in Germany) until sometime between 1750 and 1800, when French occultists took it upon themselves to reimagine the cards as holy relics from Egyptian priests and Kabbalah, creating the first tarot decks designed for divination rather than play.
When you think of tarot cards, what you probably have in mind is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which was published in 1910 by Anglo mystics, who were inspired by their earlier French counterparts. The cards are divided into two sections: the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana in suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, and the 22 Major Arcana, which include pop culture go-tos like Death, the Wheel of Fortune and the Fool. The cards combine multiple belief systems: base notes of medieval Italian allegory and Mamluk, an infusion from ancient Egypt, light layers of Greco-Roman and Celtic, with a strong Kabbalistic top note.
The power of this mash-up of the ancient, modern and fanciful isn’t so much its unlikely mystical origins as its ability to wallop you with elemental symbols: Each card is like a scene ripped from a fairy tale, with fragments of allegory, history, drama and myth. The Page of Cups goes to take a drink of water, and a fish pops out instead. The Four of Pentacles is a nobleman squatting on a throne of coins, clutching his wealth. Ten of Swords lies face down in the mud, stabbed in the back. Screaming figures leap from the Tower as it burns and falls.
These images are not exactly subtle, and yet the cards are also crowded with detailed, eclectic references and allusions. The result is something I am helplessly compelled by: stories that are dense and theatrical but also suggestive and fine-grained, begging interpretation. The characters and stories in the tarot are both familiar and strange. The archetypes are primed for remixing, and there are now literally hundreds of varieties. The classic decks have been reimagined and updated again and again, turning up with different social, political and pop-cultural inflections. You can find intersectional feminist tarot, flora-and-fauna eco-tarot and tarot featuring The Simpsons, RuPaul’s Drag Race and Game of Thrones.
“I don’t believe the cards themselves are inherently magical tools,” says Liz Worth, a Toronto card reader and astrologer. “Over centuries, people reinvented it as something we can use to find answers, to divine, to connect with some kind of higher power or whatever name you want to call it. But tarot is still an invention, and we can read patterns and elements in it the same way we can read them in anything.”
Worth is in her 30s, articulate and down-to-earth, with tattoos on her arms and a publishing history that includes several books of poetry and an oral history of late-’70s Toronto punk. She is, in short, super cool, and the kind of reader a new breed of tarot querent might be drawn to. Her cartomancy and astrology business grew organically out of her own spiritual exploration, as she took courses from more seasoned readers and turned cards for friends. When she was laid off from a day job in communications in 2015, she took the opportunity to make it her full-time gig. Minus the occult bits, Worth’s is an increasingly common story of job insecurity, side-hustling and entrepreneurial verve.
The jump to full-time intuitive work was a bet that paid off. “Tarot is having a moment right now,” Worth says. “People are starting to realize tarot is not what they thought it was. They are seeing that tarot is actually very empowering, that it can be self-reflective.”
Savannah Olsen, who owns the The Good Spirit, a tarot studio and storefront in Vancouver’s Gastown, is riding the tarot wave. When she opened shop in 2016, she wanted to create a space that would appeal to a new generation of the mystically curious. Her small boutique is almost ridiculously stylish, like a Pinterest board come to life: a retina-smacking white interior, curated indie-made tarot decks and books and art, the words “All Signs Point to Yes” welcoming customers in gold inlay on blond wooden floors.
Olsen sees as many as 150 customers a week, mostly women, of all ages, and she estimates that around 60 percent are newish to tarot. “It’s all about opening that door,” she says. “I really see the business as being a gateway for somebody who hasn’t maybe thought about that spiritual part of themselves.” More and more, she sees customers who use tarot readings not only to work through some of their biggest and hardest questions but also in smaller moments, “integrating it into their everyday lives.”
Settled in her new job, Eastmure still consults her virtual deck, and the Two of Pentacles has recently popped up again. “I don’t see that card very frequently, so I pay attention when I do,” she says. She still works in politics, though her job is in flux after a recent by-election. She did a little tarot spread to get some clarity, and there it was again: that light-footed juggler, spinning those golden pentacles, keeping them aloft. “It really reminded me of the importance of staying nimble and embracing change,” Eastmure says. “I’ve done it before. I can totally do it again.”
When I asked other querents what they get out of tarot, I saw a lot of my own experience reflected back to me (which, incidentally, is exactly what tarot cards themselves are supposed to do: be a mirror). People talked about the appeal of crafting a meditative ritual, the yearning for guidance in making decisions and, most of all, the exercise of intuition.
“I feel like I have trained myself not to listen to my intuition over a lifetime,” one friend told me. “It feels so refreshing to tune back in.” Another said it helps her access “things I may already know intuitively but which haven’t made their way to the surface of my brain yet.”
That intuition is the feminine counterpoint to masculine reason is one of many gender assumptions clogging society’s pores. And as reductive binaries go, it’s doubly insidious, because it’s not like women have ever had reign over some feelings-based alternative, even a subordinate one. The real damage, for everyone, is the erasure of intuition across the board: the lie that men’s feelings are really thoughts and women’s feelings are nonsense.
If you’ve been socialized to believe your experience has no purchase, it takes work to reappraise the value of what you already know—to learn how to hear yourself think. Which is maybe why it can feel both personal and political to turn to something as frivolous-seeming as tarot cards. In a cultural moment we are fond of describing as “uncertain,” many of us are querents. Today’s tarot users turn to cards less to predict the future and more to examine the present.
“It’s a feminist act, I think,” Eastmure told me about her experience with tarot. “Just embracing the idea of having inner wisdom and being able to tap into your own magic as a woman…something about it feels subversive.”
When she conceived of The Good Spirit, Olsen had a feeling tarot could play a role in a bigger movement—something she didn’t quite have words for at the time. She identifies the 2017 Women’s Marches as a turning point for her. “The core of the work I’m trying to do is to get people to be more in their bodies and use their feelings and their senses and their instincts to guide them. And that’s what we do when we read cards, right?”
Worth similarly emphasizes that intuitive work is a skill of self-reliance: “Tarot is not a vending machine. It’s not a thing where we can just pull the cards and get an answer for everything. Sometimes we have to remember that our own decision-making, our own confidence, our own knowledge about what is best for us—those have to come from us.”
Worth had one take on tarot cards that was really surprising to me, something I’d never considered: “The point of tarot isn’t to use tarot forever. The point is to use it for a little while, until you’ve learned you don’t need it anymore, because that means you’ve learned to listen to yourself.” She says this is something she’s begun to embrace in her business: encouraging clients to graduate away from her. “It’s about creating a sense of empowerment and independence in people: helping them find their way back to themselves.”
Published August 2019, updated August 2020.