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It’s (not) in the cards


Jack Higgins’s otherwise fairly realistic wartime novel The eagle has landed includes a passage in which a female character consults a pack of Tarot cards in an attempt to foretell two of the male characters’ futures.

It seems that Tarot cards were used as ordinary playing cards right up to the 18th century – but then they became associated with supposedly ‘occult’ forces, and it is this they are mainly known for today. Since I don’t believe in such forces, I find this idea not only absurd, but also – because of its potential misuse to manipulate people psychologically – dangerous (I reject religion on precisely the same grounds).

One of the commonly used Tarot packs, and the one evidently referred to in the book, consists of 22 ‘trump’ cards whose names have varied through history but are always emotionally charged: the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Hierophant (an ancient word for someone who guides people towards knowledge, insight and wisdom – known in some packs as the Pope….), the Lovers, the Chariot, Strength, the Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgement, the World. Clearly, all kinds of meanings can be attached to such concepts; and since there is no single accepted ‘reading’ of any of the cards, whoever is doing the reading can make of them anything he or she likes. Their meanings can change in combination with other cards, or if they are upside down (from the reader’s viewpoint), or if the wind is blowing from the east (I mean this sarcastically, but I can’t rule out that some readings do actually depend on such chance climatological factors). At one point the female character in the book reassures one of the male ones that he will not die soon, even though the seventh card she has dealt (supposedly indicative of his future) is Death – for it is upside down, and this (so she tells him) means he will in fact live for a very long time. Whatever….

I said ‘chance climatological factors’, but of course the whole point of Tarot readings is that there is no such thing as chance – for everyone’s lives are controlled by occult forces, and hence can be predicted in advance, provided you’re ‘a sensitive’ (as the female character calls herself, adding that the cards are in fact ‘a tool only’).

Sceptics (of whom there are many) have wondered how someone’s supposedly preordained future can change utterly from moment to moment – for if the cards are dealt again (face down so that the reader cannot see them) they invariably land in a quite different order, and quite possibly the right way up after all (so all of a sudden your life expectancy can be reduced by many years, only to skyrocket again if the cards are dealt a third time….).

Although the Wikipedia article on ‘tarotology’ admits that it ‘is considered pseudoscience’, the related article on the Major Arcana (as the 22-card pack is known) makes the following astonishing statement: ‘It is tempting … to dismiss the whole thing as one big, self-delusional failure … However the problem with this position [my italics] is that while no historical evidence may be invoked to justify any of the esotericists’ claims made for Tarot during the course of its 200-year evolution, nevertheless the notion that the tarot has occult, mystical, cartomantic, and magical significance has persisted to the present day, where it enjoys a certain degree of popularity and acceptance in a wide range of groups’.

I don’t for the life of me see why this should be a ‘problem’. Large numbers of people believe all kinds of things that are clearly self-delusional, but that does not make them true – as in ‘fifty million lemmings can’t be wrong’. Talking of which, the idea that the furry little hamster-like creatures called lemmings commit ‘mass suicide’ by jumping off cliffs is as mythical as the idea that our lives are controlled by occult forces and that our futures can be predicted by a pack of cards. In reality, they breed like… well, lemmings, and when demographic (lemmographic? sorry….) pressure exhausts the food supply they migrate in large numbers. They can swim, and in their urge to go elsewhere they often try to cross bodies of water; if these prove too wide for them, they simply die of exhaustion in mid-crossing.

We humans like to attribute purpose to all kinds of natural phenomena, hence the ‘mass suicide’ myth. The lemmings don’t want to die – they just breed too fast for their own good (rather like us humans, in fact). And since we don’t like to think that our lives are at the mercy of blind chance, we invent myths about ‘occult’ forces – such as religion, and the power of Tarot cards.

But when the female character in the Higgins book reads the Tarot for her soldierly lover – reluctantly, for despite being a ‘sensitive’ she clearly has no idea of what she’ll find, and just as clearly does not want the news to be bad – she promptly turns the seventh card face down, tells him it was Strength, makes up a plausible-sounding interpretation, and leaves the room. Once she has gone, he of course turns the card face up again, and discovers it was in fact the Hanged Man. Whereupon he says to his fellow soldiers ‘Women can be very silly at times. Is it not so, gentlemen?’

No further comment.



From → Books, Religion, Science

  1. So do we assume what happened to the soldier was that her cards were accurate, he snuffed it, she’d made up something anodyne and reassuring, and he was scoffing at what was the truth? Et puis?

    • At that point in the book there was no indication that the character was going to die – although (spoiler warning!) he did, for perhaps surprising reasons. My point remains that the Tarot cards were brought into the story and assumed to be in some way relevant – whereas to my mind they’re yet another fairy tale.

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