On Tarot, Magic, and the Division of Sacred and Profane

vintage tarot readerWhen I was a child, my bookshelves were home not only to my small collection of books, but also to a smattering of my parents’ belongings as well. Amidst retired picture books and Goosebumps novels, one could find texts on Jungian Psychology and dream interpretation, the complete works of Shakespeare, and (what would become my personal favorite) the core works of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. Nestled on a shelf above my bed, there was also a little woven basket filled with buttons, a few vintage photographs of my grandparents, and a foiled box of cards with indecipherable writing on it that I would later learn to be French.

When I discovered the box, I immediately opened it and took out the deck. The cards were blood red on the back with ocher embellishment and gold edges, so that when I held the deck as a stack the sides gleamed, smooth and shining. And the images on the faces of the cards were…strange. I didn’t know what tarot cards were when I first looked at the deck, but the images made me feel something I didn’t have the vocabulary for at that age. They were archaic, occult, powerful; they made me aware of latent, untapped worlds beneath my skin, beyond the veil of this world–if you believe in that kind of stuff. Which, I do.

I felt as if I’d found a treasure–like a protagonist, discovering a magical object that was about to undo something in my reality and take me on an adventure. I’d found something that had made me aware of the sacred world. And when my mother explained to me what they were, I was certain my adventure was about to begin (and I suppose, in a way, it was).

What I experienced is not an uncommon phenomenon. You can feel it when you enter a place of worship or a cemetery, when you gaze out across mountaintops, when you watch the sunrise over the ocean, when you listen to that song that makes you feel so full-to-bursting that you can’t help but wonder how in the world did they create this? It’s a feeling of elation, of time-out-of-time, an ecstatic inkling that there is something more than the physical world we live in.

In anthropology, researchers would consider this an experience of the dichotomy of sacred and profane. There is no good definition for “sacred” that won’t ruffle some feathers, but I’m willing to bet you know what I mean when I use the word: the essence of something that is more than just this mortal world. Profanity’s first and often ignored definition is simply that which is not sacred, meaning that the laptop I’m writing this blog entry on is profane. Your cell phone is profane. Your morning coffee is kind of profane, but since so many of us make a ritual of it, it could become something sacred. (The truth is, anything can become sacred if you feel the sacredness of it.)

Discovering that tarot deck, and definitively recognizing the difference between the world I lived in and the feelings I got from the cards (or letting my imagination run wild with the idea of them), set me in unconscious pursuit of more things like it. In some ways, I have spent more than three-quarters of my life in search of the sacred, of things that would let me touch that world. I often joke with my best friend that I’m “addicted to psychic readings,” but the truth is I collect them like some people collect My Little Ponies or Hummel figurines, because with each experience I hope it will put me, if even momentarily, in the vicinity of something magical–something sacred.

The problem is, of course, there’s no way to prove any of it is real–not the meaning behind the feeling, and not the psychics. But am I after truth? Am I after reality? No. That’s the world we already live in, this profane world where (almost) everything is concrete, definable, understandable. In the sacred world, there is no such thing as proof. There is no such thing as fact. There is only the feeling, and if you’re lucky that feeling can be a knowing, and I suppose that knowing might be called faith–another word to ruffle feathers with.

But when I was a child, I held my mother’s tarot deck for the first time and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the sacred world exists. Whether it is the world of God or gods, spirits or magic, angels or demons, I will probably never know in this life.

But I do know this: for me, it is the place where story lives.


PrintThe Hierophant, Book I in the Arcana Series – Coming June 18!

Demons are watching you. They move invisible through our world, hunting for rare prey–most humans don’t see the monsters that lurk in the dark, and as long as you can’t see them, they can’t hurt you.

But Ana sees the demons. Creatures once found only in bedtime stories told by her late mother have crept from the shadows, whispering her name, and stirring ancient magic in her veins.

On the day her tarot deck foretells a disturbing change, Ana encounters an uncanny young man who literally stops her heart. Trebor has strange powers, and an even stranger quest, and for some reason wants to help her. But the closer Trebor gets to unlocking Ana’s power, the more important–and dangerous–his own quest becomes. And in a world haunted by demons determined to find the key to their empire, there is much more at stake than one girl’s soul.

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