The Tarot: Narrative, Therapy, Self-Making

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos 

When I am not doing well in my own head, I turn to the tarot. While no substitute for therapy or psychiatry, the tarot has an ancient function that is symbiotic with these modern methods for coping with the wild unruliness of the mind. I know it sounds silly. But before there was psychology and medicine, there was magic, and that is not silly at all. People crave rituals and symbols; they crave narratives about themselves with which to play and to experiment. And the tarot is nothing if not an arcane form of play and experimentation with the idea of the self, packed with ritual and narrative and symbol. Magic, you see, is a very minor thing. It does not make great things happen, and, when it is practiced honestly and forthrightly, it does not claim to make great things happen. Instead, magic is meant to open up little moments, little apertures into self-understanding, that allow for the flourishing of subjects in an otherwise mean and obscure world. It is difficult to be a subject in the world; it is a task with no guidebook and with few obvious parameters. Little practices that seek after the integration of the self with the world, that seek to make distinct and clear not only who the self is but what the self means and is capable of accomplishing and being with the materials of the world at hand—these kinds of practices, which include both the tarot and psychotherapy (the latter being perhaps a practice of magic in our modern lives), make it feel immanently possible to exist and to grow and to change. And what feels possible becomes possible. 

I think an example is necessary. I decided to do a tarot spread specifically for this essay, to lay bare exactly what I mean when I say that the tarot offers an opportunity for playing with the notion of oneself in the world. Before I take you into that spread, though, I want to explain the tarot as best as I can.

It is a deck made up of seventy-eight cards. Fifty-six of them belong to what is called the Minor Arcana. They are split up into four suits: cups, wands, swords, and pentacles (or coins). From these four suits come our modern hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds, respectively. Also like a modern deck of cards, each suit runs from ace to king. To read the Minor Arcana, one needs to understand the meanings of both the suits and the numbers and face cards in each suit. The cups symbolize pleasure and the social. The wands symbolize the power of intuition and knowledge. The swords symbolize the force of the will. And the pentacles symbolize material concerns like wealth and work. The meaning of numbers and face cards shifts from suit to suit although certain rules remain constant. The ace always means the dawning experience of a raw and unfiltered sense of that which the suit symbolizes. One who draws the ace of cups, for instance, finds oneself in a period of their life in which new and expansive experiences of pleasure are near to hand. Somewhere in the middle of the suit, usually around the five, there is always some kind of crisis, a crisis of pleasure or of the will or of knowledge or of material life. The knight always represents a fruitful abandonment of the self to a battle with the quality symbolized by the suit. The queen always represents a powerful self-integration in relation to the quality of the suit. The king always symbolizes mastery of the quality of the suit within the self. 

Equally important to the numbers and the faces and the suits are the illustrations upon each card, which are always highly narrative in nature, little snapshots of stories that reveal different facets of life: sharing pleasure with others, experiencing betrayal, arriving at a crossroads where a decision must be made, struggling against others or against oneself, succeeding and failing in all sorts of ways, and so on. The images are an important aspect of the tarot and fundamental to understanding its psychological function and usefulness. Whenever I read the tarot for someone, I make sure they take a good look at the image on each card. The most meaningful aspect of tarot reading is finding a way to fit oneself to the image on the card, arriving at one’s own understanding of what its symbols indicate. The images ignite something in the seeker who comes to the tarot. Sometimes, the meanings my seekers take from the images on the cards run totally contrary to the official meaning of the cards, and this is something I always welcome. The tarot is about building a narrative of one’s life—one’s past, present, and future—one symbol at a time. Its rules are fluid and flexible, just as the interpretation of images is fluid and flexible, because people are that way: no two subjectivities react to a symbol in the same manner, and the meaning that a subject takes away from a symbol—a symbol that is meant to intimately and powerfully reflect themself back to them—is impossible to accurately and concretely fix. The role of a tarot reader is not to define each card but to guide the seeker to self-discovery using each card as a tool for reflection. 

The remaining twenty-two cards of the seventy-eight card deck are called the Major Arcana, and these are the trump cards in the game of tarot (for tarot is actually a trick-taking card game that one can play, and it is played most commonly in France). These are numbered zero to twenty-one. Together, the Major Arcana forms a narrative called The Fool’s Journey. The first card, the zero, is therefore titled the Fool, for each of us enter the world fools, untutored in the ways of things. The Fool travels throughout the world, meeting all of its odd and striking figures: the High Priestess, the Emperor, the Magician, the Hierophant, and on and on. As the Fool meets each of these figures, he becomes them, learning to embody their attributes, displaying their powers and experiencing their limitations and failures. As he ventures farther in the world, the Fool begins to understand its abstractions and the forces that govern it. For instance, he encounters the Wheel of Fortune, and he realizes that much of life relies upon luck. He experiences the wellspring that is Strength and the hard, firm edge that is Justice. He meets the Hermit, who teaches the value of withdrawal from the world to contemplate these forces. He glimpses the Chariot, which represents the possibility of charging into the world to experience these forces. The Fool, in short, grows up. 

Finally, the Fool is executed (the famous Hanged Man), and he meets Death. But Death in the tarot does not symbolize an ending; rather, it symbolizes a beginning of the highest import: the sloughing off of old ways of being and the passage into a higher understanding of oneself in the world. On the other side of Death, the Fool meets celestial forces, forces greater than Strength or Justice or Fortune. The Fool learns about Temperance, the mixing up of elements to create new elements. He faces off against the Devil, who is the embodiment of enslavement and the will to dominate. He scales the Tower, which is struck by lightning and destroyed and teaches him the incredible mercuriality of fate, how it can drastically change at any moment. He stands entranced before the Star and the Moon and the Sun, who teach him, respectively, transcendence, illusion, and joy. He meets Judgment, who announces the regeneration and rebirth of all things. Finally, the Fool encounters the World. This is the Fool’s greatest encounter. He embraces the entirety of the World with all of its complexity and contradiction, embraces it and becomes expansive like it, holds his own internal complexity and contradiction in his mind all at once and then raises these to harmonize with the great, wheeling World. Then, all of the sudden, he is born into that World a Fool again. 

We are all going through the Fool’s Journey all the time, growing and changing in cycles that, hopefully, bring us to ever-greater heights of self-understanding and understanding of the world around us. One can think of the Major Arcana as constituting the characters and personas that one becomes and adopts throughout one’s daily life, as who one is in one’s affairs. One can think of the Minor Arcana as representing these affairs, the events and daily concerns that one muddles through as these characters. 

Of great import to a tarot reading are also inverted cards, cards that appear upside down, and the spread, the way in which the cards are arranged on the table between reader and seeker. First, inversions: there is great disagreement among tarot readers about how to read inverted cards. Most readers tend to think of an inverted card as the opposite of the narrative or persona the card indicates. For instance, were the Lovers to be inverted in one’s spread, the reader would indicate to the seeker that trouble in love or the end of a relationship is near. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of inversions as experiences that are present and possible in one’s life but are blocked or interrupted. Were the Lovers to appear inverted in a seeker’s reading, I would suggest to them that there is a store of potential love and affection in their life that they are struggling to access to its full potential. Were the Five of Wands, which symbolizes a struggle against others in the realm of knowledge or intuition, to appear inverted in a seeker’s spread, I would suggest to them that there is a struggle in their life that needs to happen but that, for whatever reason, has yet to actualize. I came to this way of reading inversions through a long history of tarot reading for others and for myself. I find it is more suggestive, more open to change and narrative fluidity, than merely declaring that the opposite of what the card symbolizes is manifesting in one’s life. The notion that there are always potentials available to us, but that they can be blocked off from us, produces, in my opinion, more ardent self-searching and greater insight than fortune-telling. 

Next is spreads. There are a number of standard spreads, some of which have been used for decades and others of which have been used for centuries, passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Each position in the spread is meant to indicate a different facet of one’s life: one’s job, one’s love life, one’s future, one’s past, and so on. While I love this long history of spreads, and while I use these standard spreads from time to time, I prefer a spread of my own invention. First, one shuffles the cards while focusing hard on a realm in one’s life in which one desires insight. Then, one cuts the deck and draws three. These represent, from left to right, the recent past, what is drawing to a close in one’s experience of time; how and what one experiences the present to be; and the future, but not the future in a fortune-telling kind of way. I think about the future in the tarot, not as a fixed object that is hurtling through time toward the seeker, but as a mixture of what the seeker desires and what the seeker fears is coming toward them, an indication of the future that they are building for themselves in their own thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present. Then, one cuts the deck again. From it, one draws two cards. The reader places the first card below and between the past and the present. The second, the reader places below and between the past and the future. These I call the mediators. They indicate that which the past is teaching the present and that which the present requires to transition into the future. They are, simply put, lessons: they indicate what one needs to know in order to make the transitions in time between endings and beginnings, which one inevitably must make. Finally, the seeker cuts the deck a third time, and the reader places the final card at the point below and between the mediators, completing an upside-down triangle. I call this final card the crux. It is the theme to which all of the cards above it speak. It is the final statement of what and who one is now, what and who one is ceasing to be and what and who one is becoming. In this mixture of ceasing and becoming is the essence of the seeker, that most important symbol in the narrative of the seeker-in-the-world. 

And this is how I read the tarot. Perhaps, as I have walked you through the process, you have begun to see how the tarot is a form of therapy, a way in which to narrate oneself, to experiment with possibilities in one’s life and to begin to ask the right types of questions about who one is and what one experiences. Perhaps you think this is all nonsense. Either way, you would be right, for magic is both deadly serious and wonderful nonsense. This is what makes it magical.


I must admit that anytime one does a tarot spread for oneself, it is a bit terrifying. The images and symbols one encounters worm their way very deeply into the subconscious. There is a theory out there that therapy does not uncover the self but creates it in such a way that, once created, it appears as though it were always already there, natural and fixed, when in fact it is a product of concerted attention and creativity. The tarot is like this. When one analyzes one’s own cards, one inevitably finds oneself fitting the story of one’s life to the story the cards tell, and sometimes the cards tell harsh and uncompromising stories. 

Luckily, today’s is not a harsh or uncompromising story. The three cards in the top row are Judgment, the Knight of Cups, and the Seven of Pentacles. The mediator, or lesson, between the past and the present (Judgment and the Knight) is the Ace of Swords. The mediator between the present and the future (the Knight and the Seven) is the Eight of Rods inverted. The crux of them all is the Four of Swords. 

Judgment, in my deck, depicts an angel, emerging from a pink cloud, blowing a trumpet. This trumpet is an annunciation of rebirth, of the rising up of the dead from their death and into new life (it is a very Christian idea of Judgment). This is true: the new year has brought, for me, a sense of possibility, a renewed sense of myself in myself, and the revival of old dreams. This is what is ending for me, something I have experienced to its fullest and am now incorporating as a past experience that, nevertheless, deeply informs the present. The Knight of Cups rules over the present for me. This means that, in my relationship to pleasure and sociality, I am seeking after the ability to abandon myself, to charge into battle, on balance with a desire for nobility and self-control. This is very much a present theme in my life as regards the cup in particular. I have a complicated relationship to alcohol, and I am puzzling my way through it right now, trying to understand and better explicate for myself where and how indulgence in pleasure is right for me. I am also trying to make sense of myself as a social being, as a person who takes pleasure with others. This is where the self-abandonment of the knight really comes in. I was once deeply at ease in social settings, and that is not true for me anymore. Right now, what I desire most ardently is to slough off my social anxiety and share in pleasure freely with friends. I did this just last night, which is perhaps why this card is here this afternoon. The Seven of Pentacles rules over the future. The Seven depicts a man pondering seven coins, clearly distraught and depressed. This card indicates, to me anyway, a deep dissatisfaction with the material conditions of one’s life, with its day-to-day necessities. Right now, I am looking for a new job and frustratingly paused and blocked in my work on my PhD dissertation. As such, this card represents real and present fears in my life: that I will arrive in a future where the work of the everyday is displeasing to me and that ennui will block me from taking hold of the coins—that is, the opportunities—so plainly in front of me. 

The mediator between the past and the present is the Ace of Swords. The Ace of Swords represents the freshness and newborn power of the will, the simplest and purest expression of how one effects change in the world and exercises control over oneself. In this position, it indicates that, as I seek to take the energy of Judgment, its reinvigoration of passion and enthusiasm in my life, into my quest to battle my way through my relationship to pleasure and the social as a Knight of Cups, what I must carry as a lesson is the importance of basic, simple willpower, self-restraint and the cutting edge of determination to temper both the resurgent energies of self-discovery and the recklessness and wildness of a knight who bears a cup full of wine. Between my struggle in the present and my fear in the future, there is the Eight of Wands inverted. The Eight of Wands depicts eight flowering branches extending out into space. It is a card that symbolizes the growth of the intuition and the mind, the expansion of knowledge and flowering of new possibilities in one’s thinking life. Its inversion in this position is a warning: if I abandon the drive to grow and change, to blossom and incorporate new insights and feelings into my thoughts and intuition, my ennui will dominate my decision making, and I risk ending up in a place of distinct misery with the material conditions of my life. The card’s inversion urges that I open my mind up to new learning and cautions that, right now, it is a bit closed down. At the same time, the inversion suggests that, though blocked, this flowering is a distinctly present potential, something lying in wait of activation.

The crux is the Four of Swords, which depicts a crypt or great hall in which a king or prince has been laid to rest in a marble sepulcher. The card represents tradition and family, that which gives meaning to a lineage of kings or princes, the respect which we show to our kin. The crux, then, indicates that I must bend my energies toward the family I am always in the business of building with my husband and my friends—my queer, chosen family, my own lineage in the world. This card is the apex of the upside-down triangle, and it speaks upward through the triangle’s body and to its base. The more I invest in valuing my relationships, in finding family wherever it offers itself and then eagerly embracing that kinship, the card suggests, the easier it will be to take hold of my willpower (the Ace of Swords), to recognize those places in which my thoughts and intuition are blocked (the Eight of Wands, inverted), to keep alive the sense of self and passions so newly raised from the dead (Judgment), to battle and conquer the complications in my relationship to pleasure and others (the Knight of Cups), and to put to rest my fears of being dismayed by the necessities and material conditions of daily life (the Seven of Pentacles). Had I thought of this before the reading? No. Does it seem quite true to me now, having thought it? Yes. Yes, it very much does. 

None of this is fortune telling. You might find very different meanings in these images than I do. But these images speak directly, for me, to conversations I have had in the last few days, to actions I have taken, to fears I have turned over and over in my mind as recently as this morning. At the same time, the cards’ determination by chance and their arrangements relative to one another, which emerge from that chance determination, force new ways of thinking about the various psychic phenomena that bustle for space in my mind at present. The tarot does not divine for me what will happen tomorrow. Instead, it serves as an aid to forming how it is that I think about what is happening inside and around me. Through it, I do the work of making clear the vicissitudes and intensities of today.


This has been perhaps an overlong essay for its subject matter, full of information that is likely of no use to you. Why did I write it? Well, whether they emerge from tarot or therapy or wine with friends, we all need narratives of ourselves in the world. Narratives are how we ground ourselves when we are feeling distinctly inside ourselves, and they are what we hold onto when we are feeling tossed about on uncertain seas. In sharing a little narrative of my own life with you, I have performed a kind of confession, not unlike the confessions that we make to therapists or to priests. The purpose of confession is to shape narrative. In front of the eyes and ears of another, our own narratives take on weightiness and reality. They firm up. They become present, and we become accountable for them. So, I must thank you for taking on this winding, unnecessary journey. It was necessary for me, you see, necessary to say something about where I am today and what I feel today so that I might understand who I am and what I experience, and someone might share that understanding with me. Remember that the tarot is, in its most basic form, a conversation between two people, one in which two people exert all of their creative and analytical capacities upon understanding the unique affordances and challenges of one of their lives in the present moment. Too often, I read the tarot to myself in isolation. Today, I have made that reading into a confession to you. I feel, in my imagination, your presence distinctly. I thank you for your presence there in my imagination. It has made my little story real.