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Book Review: Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea – 11/7/2020

Part manual, part memoir, Michelle Tea takes you on a journey through the full tarot deck, offering insights based on her own experience and study. Her down-to-earth prose style demystifies tarot into something anyone can learn and practice. Like Queering the Tarot, Tea makes an effort to separate tarot from its historical gender binary.

Modern Tarot... frustrated me, at times. It's tough when your own gnosis or independent understanding of a card's meaning clashes with that of a more established writer. So what do you do when you disagree with an author?

You list your beefs in order.

  • IV, The Emperor: I disagree with the assertion that expressing emotion under The Emperor's influence puts you at a disadvantage, or that they don't have time for emotions. The Emperor is an intensely emotional card, representing ambition, willpower, and WANT. It is the distilled essence of any and all kings in the minor arcana. They possess and represent drive, a need to plan, and create structure around an idea/project/etc. Where the Emperor may suffer, I believe, is when they disconnect from their emotions in service of their ambition, or plans, or efforts to create either a literal or figurative structure.

  • IX, The Hermit: Calling my boi a "downer card"?! In my personal experience, there is nothing more liberating than to know yourself enough to say, "I need some alone time," and trust that the people around you will respect that. The true gift of The Hermit is the ability to carry peace and quiet within you no matter where you go. If you find yourself "buzzing", for lack of a better term, you have the ability within you to walk your own mountain path and shine a light on your emotions or thoughts. "Why is this situation bothering me?" is a question that is hard to ask, but which gets easier with practice. Tea also fails to address The Hermit's dark side: depression, withdrawal, anxiety, and other situations/thought patterns that isolate an individual without granting the clarity and peace The Hermit is known for.

  • XIII, Death: I disagree most vehemently with Tea's interpretation that Death represents something that is being taken from you, or that it should be renamed as Grief or Mourning. Certainly there is an element of sadness in the Death card, but that is not its primary purpose, nor is it adversarial. It is natural, and inevitable. Think of the processes a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly: it liquifies itself within its cocoon and emerges changed. To me, a mammal with bone and muscle and a complex nervous system that treats making a phone call and running from a tiger as equal dangers, this sounds HORRIFYING. But to a caterpillar, it's just what happens. Think of Death, then, as a change that takes place so gradually you may not even notice until you're pulling rotten fruit out of your refrigerator (no that's never happened to me, what are you talking about...). The noticing of the change is what may feel traumatic, not the change itself.

  • XVI, The Tower: By like token, I think Tea's interpretation of The Tower to be a little incomplete. The Tower is something that happens to you, and the only thing in it you can control is how you react, and how you rebuild once the dust has settled. There is a "duck and cover" aspect to The Tower that I felt was missing from Tea's explanation of the meaning. To me, the difference between Death and the Tower is the difference between taking apart a Lego project piece by piece to tidily put it away, and smashing it until all the pieces are scattered across the carpet.

I don't mean to make it sound like I hated this book--quite the opposite. Like Queering the Tarot, Tea's book provided me with the chance to examine my own conventions and biases when interpreting cards, and invited me to challenge them. In the cases where I disagreed with her, it also served to confirm what I believe to be a better interpretation based on my own study, experiences, and understanding. And in a deck of 78 images, to only strongly disagree on four of them is pretty good. I found her interpretations of the minor arcana to be more or less conventional, adding it to the tarot "mulch" I've collected over the years.

One thing this book does that I haven't yet encountered (though I know other volumes exist) is create spells based on each card, to either manifest or banish the energy represented in the images. Being new to the path of active casting, I would have appreciated a more comprehensive bibliography of the resources she used to construct her spells. The mention of casting may still raise eyebrows in some circles, but in Tea's case the rituals she's created focus more on manifesting or welcoming positive energy into your life than on "casting spells". She incorporates the use of both crystals and herbs into these rituals, and all seem to contain a thread of mindfulness that will seem familiar by now: what do I REALLY want? What am I REALLY feeling? These are important - but hard - questions to ask.

Despite my gripes, by and large I found this to be an enjoyable read. It's a valuable addition to anyone's tarot library, good for those who may be frustrated with the archaic language in older resources.

Happy reading!

Disclaimer: This post was not sponsored, endorsed, or solicited by the author.

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