It was once seen as the preserve of fairground fortune-tellers spouting platitudes from a booth, and ageing hippies with a fondness for Aleister Crowley and the occult. Now, the art of reading the tarot is back in style, with books, artwork and onstage readings captivating a new generation of fans.
Instagram is full of beautifully shot tarot spreads, with cards showing the High Priestess or the Wheel of Fortune very much to the fore, while tarot-card readers are the heroines of crime novels such as Ruth Ware’sThe Death of Mrs Westaway and EV Harte’s Dolly Greeneseries, and enthusiasts can get decks featuring everything from Alice in Wonderland to Game of Thrones.
Brooklyn artists Kahn & Selesnick crowdfunded their recent project, the Carnival at the End of the World tarot deck, through Kickstarter, while Rough Trade Books has just published the Autonomic Tarot, an experimental 30-card linocut tarot deck collaboration between writer David Keenan and artist Sophy Hollington.
Young Adult author Maggie Stiefvater has created her own tarot deck, the Raven’s Prophecy Tarot, which references her bestselling Raven Cycle series. And Litwitchure, created by best friends Fiona Lensvelt and Jennifer Cownie – billed as a Literary Tarot Cabaret and Consultancy – was a hit at the recent Port Eliot festival, with appearances due at other festivals, and even a podcast planned.
“Jen and I had been interested in tarot since we were teenagers wearing too much eyeliner. Then, a few years back, we signed up for a three-month course through Treadwell’s Bookshop and began reading for friends and people at parties,” says Lensvelt, 31. “What started out as a way of getting free glasses of wine became something different and more interesting – at Port Elliot we interviewed authors on stage by reading their cards, and it worked really well.”
For Lensvelt, the increased popularity of the tarot is part of a wider trend towards mindfulness. “There’s a real sense of community in using it, particularly among younger women,” she says. “People think it’s about predicting the future, but it isn’t. It’s about the present, and it can be very empowering. It’s no surprise that a lot of the online communities are driven by queer people or people from minorities, segments of society where people feel as though they’re not seen or heard, because tarot allows you to consider a problem, give a voice to it, work it through and see where the blocks might be. It can give voice to problems or fears.”
Novelist Caroline O’Donoghue, whose musical side-project Greyhounds, Greyhounds, Greyhounds includes a song about tarot as a vehicle of revenge, agrees. “Throughout the ages, the idea of magic has given hope to people who have none, or the sense of power to those who feel that they have no power, and the tarot definitely taps into that,” she says. “Women and minorities, people with a lower locus of control, are far more likely to visit a psychic or a tarot-card reader because they’re more open to the idea of things they can’t control.”
Nor is it simply new twists on an old art that are touching a nerve. Sales of the most famous tarot pack, the Rider-Waite, created in 1910, “have suddenly shot up, tripling those of five years ago”, says Judith Kendra, publishing director at Rider Books. She attributes the increased interest to “political and social uncertainty [leading] people to turn towards the spiritual and mystical in a hunt for answers”.
“There’s definitely a sense that people feel lonelier or have a lack of certainty in their lives, a massive void that has left them looking for other ideas,” says Daisy Waugh, who in addition to writing the Dolly Greene Tarot Detective series under the pseudonym EV Harte works as a tarot-card reader, offering consultations from her home or via Skype.
“People are clearly looking for other ideas, and I think tarot allows us to consider where we fit in the universe. It works as somewhere you can go in with a problem and come out feeling clearer and better about the world.”
Keenan, whose Autonomic Tarot was born out of a poetry-inspired desire to experiment with the form, agrees that tarot-reading is about offering a space for “an intimate conversation to take place”.
“I’ve had people sobbing when I’ve read their cards, people telling incredible stories … it allows an intimate space to open up, the sort of intense connection that you really don’t get on social media,” he says. “Even the big, harsh cards like Death can be comforting and almost beautiful. They give you agency and say yes, something difficult might be happening but here’s how to use it as an engine of change.”
And even the more sceptical can find themselves, if not converted, at least open to new ideas. “I didn’t know anything about tarot before writing The Death of Mrs Westaway,” says Ware. “I thought it was all about telling the future and predictions and making money off people’s fears. I went in very sceptical and thinking I would find it all hooey but instead I came out with a huge amount of respect for tarot readers and tarot as a practice. A good tarot reader doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen, they simply allow you to think your question through in a different way.”