The “Death” of Tarot
by J. Karlin (i.e. "jk", Tarot nom de guerre or magie for Glenn F. Wright)
Originally published January 21, 2003.
“There is nothing 'good' or 'bad' and certainly not 'evil' about Tarot. But there is plenty of good and bad, and perhaps a touch of evil as well, in life.”—(jk)
“People on TV always get some part wrong, like—'In the future fifteen people will be famous.' ”—Andy Warhol
“They have seen vanity and lying divination…Because ye have spoken vanity, and seen lies, therefore, behold, I am against you.” —God
On October 7th, 2002, just as students were arriving for class at a Bowie, Maryland middle school, a shot was fired at one of the children. It came from the rifle of a sniper team, who were in the process of becoming the best known pair of scope-snuffers in US history (leaving the singular honor still to either Lee Harvey Oswald—assuming he really was the lone gunman—or Charles Whitman). Along with a high-velocity bullet that severely wounded a thirteen-year-old boy, the snipers left a message for police, a "calling card" some of the media termed it.
That message, and particularly the card that bore it, proved to be as deadly to Tarot, and particularly to the interests of the close-knit industry of cardmakers, bookwriters and professional associaters who peddle Tarot, as the sniper's bullets proved to be all too often to their human targets. For what the snipers chose to use as their calling card to police was a Tarot card, and not just any Tarot card, but the best known and most frightening Tarot card of all—Death!
On the front of the card, one of the snipers, 17-year old Lee Boyd Malvo (AKA John Lee Malvo), had scrawled a simple introduction: "Call me God."
Whatever the intent of this message, and whatever symbolic point, beyond the obvious, that the snipers had in mind in using a Tarot "Death" card to communicate to police, the effect on Tarot, and its peddlers, was immediate and dramatic.
Andy Warhol said, back in 1968, that in the future everyone would be world famous for 15 minutes, meaning that celebrity would be commodified, and the demand for it would be so great that even ordinary people, who hadn't really done much of anything to rate it, would be briefly celebrated and consumed, and then of course promptly forgotten. And Andy was definitely talking about what happened in this particular case of the "Death" of Tarot, as in a few days of the Tarot-card sniping incident what the Tarot industry could dredge up to perform as spin doctors were joining the ranks of the other no-account "analysts" plaguing the national anti-news programs.
In a matter of days, previously (and deservedly) unknown Tarot experts were actually being asked to give their opinions to an international audience regarding how Tarot's use in the killings could help profile the killer. That this was of course as absurd as having Brokaw or Jennings interview Miss Cleo for special insights into the killer's psychology and motive didn't stop anyone, focused as the media usually are on telling "six-degrees" anecdotes.
But there was a problem—nobody, including the news media, knew a damned thing about Tarot. So, to tell this anecdote with at least a suggestion of credibility, they were going to have to find someone who did know something about Tarot, or who claimed to anyway. As usual, the Tarot peddlers, who also know little enough about Tarot (but a little more than most people), were ready to step in to enlighten their new huge crop of clients.
But why was the Tarot industry SO motivated to quickly get on top of this murderous wave, and in the way they did so?
For one thing, Tarot had already taken a severe public beating in 2002, with the Miss Cleo scandal getting more outrageous and ridiculous every week—Nancy Garen was suing Miss Cleo for half a BILLLLLION dollars for correctly following the instructions in Garen's silly tarotbook!—and literally the last thing the industry needed was the heavily promoted notion that Tarot is something homicidal maniacs like to use to express themselves while they're shooting school children.
Yet, and deeply ironically of course, here also was the greatest opportunity to promote Tarot to a national and even international arena that the industry had ever seen. That a pile of corpses was buying them this chance was obviously merely the industry's silver lining in somebody else's very dark cloud.
When the police first leaked the information about the Tarot card being found at the Bowie school shooting, the explosion of ignorant conjecture regarding its possible meaning was, not surprisingly, rife on the net. For example, here is one early Usenet "analysis" of the meaning of the sniper's message:
“The significance of this card is primarily in the numerology, not so much the symbolism...it was a 13-year-old boy, yet the age itself bears a small death of childhood into manhood...transition that can be painful.”
As dumb as that was, news media attempts to figure out the Tarotic implications wouldn't be much better. One Usenetter, showing that a lack of expertise is easily compensated for by the rare gift of common sense, pointed out something that escaped nearly everyone else in the coming days:
“The card says [D]eath. It probably has a picture of a grim reaper on it, then it means death, no matter what fortune tellers think.”
That kind of pragmatic view, voiced by a few people, including myself, was ignored or even ridiculed as the attitude of one likely in sympathy with the sniper.
Of course the first thing members of the news media did, when they realized they were going to have to deal with Tarot!?, was to go to Google.com and look up someone—anyone—who seemed like he or she might be a credible authority on what it all meant. One is reminded of the mad rush of the OZians (no, not Ozzyans), upon seeing the Wicked Witch's "Surrender Dorothy" message written in the sky.
"What does it mean!", they cried, and then someone naturally thought of the Wizard, holed up behind his curtain just hoping the Witch wouldn't come down and turn him into a turnip or something. But the OZians didn't know their Wizard was just a swindling carny. They believed the Wizard, being the Wizard and everything, should be able to tell them "what it all meant".
But when they stormed the hall of the Wizard, they were turned away and told the Wiz was busy (trembling with terror). Only Dorothy got in, with her friends, and then only to be told THEY would have to go dispatch the Witch. Great!
Well, at least when the Medians stormed the hall of the Wizards of Tarot, they weren't treated so rudely, even though it might have been better for everyone if they had been. No, on the contrary, the Wizards of Tarot were ready to chatter to the world and the bloody, Warholish world had FINALLY come to their door!
One of the main things the Medians wanted to know from the Wizards was how this "Death" card thingy impacted the high and holy Archetypal SNIPER PROFILE. What does it tell us about the killer, oh mighty Wizards of Tarot?
Hmm…the Wizards of Tarot thought about this for a moment.
Now, let's see, what does a Tarot Death card left at the scene of a shooting by a killer probably tell us about the killer?
Suddenly it came to them!
What it told us was: that the killer COULDN'T have been a Tarot reader, especially not a Tarot Wizard, because any one of them WOULD NEVER have chosen that tacky old Death card to represent mundane icky "death"—why, EVERYONE who knew ANYTHING about Tarot knew: Death doesn't mean "death".
If a Tarot Wizard wanted to go whack people and Taroticize about it, he'd have picked the correct card, one approved for such purposes by the Tarot industry board of governors (if they had such a thing). And right there, the ticket to stupid-hell in hand, the Medians rushed to employ that ridiculous piece of pomotarot dogma into their own propaganda pieces, articles which often sought not so much to report about the killer and the search for him, but instead to spit and howl at the killer, like some poor cornered animals, angry that their own police-state predators couldn't find these cowardly Tarot-reading snipers.
The Medians now had a weapon of their own however—the snipers didn't EVEN know anything about Tarot—the stupid fools! Yes, that would hurt them, wouldn't it? Insults for bullets seemed a pretty fair trade the second week of October.
Here, for example, is an offering from the Washington Post, which assured its readers on October 10th, 2002—
“Now it becomes some bad Willem Dafoe movie [which one?]. Our elusive sniper has perhaps been watching too much cable and has employed a hokey cliche: He has left a tarot card…What tarot card has the sniper reportedly left as a message? Death, of course. Which doesn’t even really mean death, if you know anything about tarot cards.”—"The Killer's Calling Card", Washington Post, October 10, 2002, by Hank Stuever and Hamil R. Harris
See. The magick words, "if you know anything about tarot cards", designed to profile the killer as a doofus, whose only skill was that he could shoot people at will and not be caught by the post-9-11 anti-terrorist hell-hounds.
BIG DEAL!—he sure didn't know anything about Tarot! Somehow, that was supposed to make people feel better, knowing the killers were inept fortune-tellers.
But the problem was the snipers weren't telling fortunes, they were terminating them, and they were really good at that. Only the day before, the Washington Post had the gift of MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield beating (or repeating) them to the punch on the magick words (this spell offered by Ashleigh to criminologist, Casey Jordan):
“I don’t know how much you know about this Vietnam situation where some of the soldiers used to leave the death Tarot card behind, but if you know anything about Tarot cards, the death card doesn’t really mean death, it sort of signifies change.”—Ashley Banfield, "journalist"
Yeah Ashleigh, like a graveyard sort of signifies change.
On top of everything else, Ashleigh was kindly pointing out to all those Vietnam-vet snipers what dumb motherfuckers THEY were, leaving the "death Tarot card" behind. Surely, their commie targets probably feel a lot better about their (dead) situation now, realizing their asses were capped by idiots who didn't even know how to properly use Tarot cards.
Once Ashleigh had spoken the incantation, and the snipers had been put in THEIR place, she turned to criminologist Jordan, to make sure Casey was on board for the whole ride, and Banfield asked her:
“So I suppose my question is does that mean that this killer maybe is following in the path of the Vietnam vets or is it perhaps that this killer has no clue about Tarot cards and isn’t quite as smart as maybe he thinks he is?”—Ashley Banfield, "journalist"
Sneer, boo, hiss!! at the evil sniperscum! Suddenly, in a rifleshot, it was a sign of idiocy in the USA to have "no clue about Tarot cards."
No slack journalist is Ashleigh, she didn't even risk the possibility that some halfwit cablemite would miss the utterly obvious political spin of her question: ALL CRIMINALS ARE STUPID—no matter how effective they are at doing their crimes and scaring the shit out of everyone.
Jordan, her mind rattling googlebits as she struggled to find the correct rephrasing of Ashleigh's pomotarotism to make it sound as if she too were some kind of Tarotologist (or Tarot-criminologist), blurted back:
“It could be either one [!!]…I don’t think that he probably had his Tarot cards read, because you are correct, most people who know about Tarot know that the Death card signifies symbolically change or transformation.”—Casey Jordan, "criminologist"
So, now the MSNBC audience was doubly-assured, by both their journalist-performer AND the criminologist-performer, that most [or maybe all] people who know about Tarot know that the death Tarot card signifies everyone's favorite Death euphemism—change or transformation.
Furthermore, if only Malvo had possessed the good sense to have gone to a fortune-teller before selecting his calling card, criminologist Jordan was certain THEN he would have known better than to have selected Death. But then, what would the Medians have done?—sneered at the fact the snipers WERE knowledgeable about which Tarot card to select for marking their kills?
Of course, neither Ashleigh Banfield nor Casey Jordan knew anything about Tarot, nor particularly about the death Tarot card when they spoke these words to their audience. Nor did the writers of the Washington Post article, Hank Stuever and Hamil R. Harris, know anything about Tarot when they claimed that "Death… doesn’t even really mean death."
That's why their and other Medians' many repetitions of the dogma sounded so similar. They were all copying Tarot industry spinogma, designed to avert suspicion from Tarotiers (especially from the Wizards themselves) and at the same time attract attention to Tarot, and particularly to the safe, cuddly version of it peddled by the Tarot industry.
2013 Update—I want to add one additional quotation here, from John Walsh of America's Most Wanted, just to give more of a context for why the Tarot industry was rapidly descending into crisis mode, after the discovery of the Tarot card.
Here Walsh, being interviewed on the same day as Jordan, and once again by MSNBC's Ashley Banfield, describes what the Tarot card could mean:
“It may have been someone, maybe a psychic or someone, that uses Tarot cards, that this psychic may have said, you know, I have delusions or I believe God sent me on a mission, or that someone, you know, had gone and bought Tarot cards.”—John Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted, being interviewed by Ashleigh Banfield on October 9, 2002
One of the first places Median googlers found in their search for instant Tarot wisdom was the ATA, the American Tarot Association, which, because of the enormous attention this little Tarot industry group suddenly received as Medians swamped its website and telephones looking for Deathly answers, became itself a news story for a day or so during the brief Tarotlife of Sniperfest.
The ATA has had a colorful, and some might say checkered, existence, as one can see by examination of this complaint issued by numerous members of the organization against its own leadership in mid-2002.
Sniperfest thus proved to be, given the ATA's need to once again pull itself up from the muck of scandal, a serendipitous opportunity for the organization to finally establish itself as THE credible representative of industrial Tarot. And here, only a few days after the Tarot card had been left by the snipers, were the ATA and its agents being quoted by real-world big-time quoters like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Talk about Christmas in October!
However—and this is often the problem of opportunities provided to the sorely unready—this gift was just as much a tremendous threat, since if the agents of the ATA were actually given wide coverage to speak their minds about the subject of Tarot, and particularly about the supposed dogma of Tarot as it related to the snipers, they might actually do so.
And so, on October 11th, 2002, The Baltimore Sun reported this confession from the president of the ATA, Sandra A. Thomson,
“We all knew right away it wasn't a tarot reader who did it. It wasn't anybody who knew about tarot, because a tarot reader wouldn't leave that card.”—Sandra A. Thomson, President of the American Tarot Association (in 2002)
Again, the if you know anything about Tarot posturing, here presumably validated by whatever authority The Baltimore Sun, or anyone else, automatically granted to Sandra A. Thomson just because she was leader of googletarot6 (i.e., 6th on the list of googlesearch "Tarot").*
*NOTE: as of July 10, 2013, the ATA has dropped to 26th place, coming in right after "The Housewives Tarot".
According to The Sun:
“Devotees of tarot say the cards have nothing to do with the occult or with fortune tellers.”—"Tarot card's usefulness as a lead is uncertain", The Baltimore Sun, by M. Dion Thompson, October 11, 2002
Really? NOTHING to do with the occult? Or fortune-tellers?
The Sun didn't say which "devotees" it was talking about, but it did use that quotation immediately before introducing the remarks of another ATA officer, the vice-president Mark McElroy:
“Most people who are tarot scholars, or readers or enthusiasts understand that the [Death] card stands for renewal.”—Mark McElroy, quoted in The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 2002
McElroy is not identified in the article as either a "tarot scholar", "reader", or an "enthusiast", but it seems clear the Sun at least counted him as some sort of "devotee" of Tarot.
McElroy was further quoted in the Sun article:
“In this case [of the sniper's Death card] a lot of people are latching onto this card and trying to draw a meaning, but who really knows.”—Mark McElroy, quoted in The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 2002
Except, somehow the president of the ATA did seem able to know—
Again: "We all knew right away it wasn't a tarot reader who did it."
How did Sandra Thomson know this, and why, given that both Thomson's and McElroy's quotations were provided in the same Baltimore Sun article, didn't the Sun's staff writer, M. Dion Thompson, note that this seemed to be, at least, a difference of opinion between the main officers in the ATA concerning what "we" can know about the sniper via his Tarot message?
But, as usual, the remarks were left without clarification, perhaps because the obvious contradictions offered by these Tarot industry spokespeople were thought by the Sun's editors to speak (silly) volumes in themselves.
In addition to offering comments to national newspapers, the ATA made the decision to supply the Medians and other Sniperfesters (including the snipers) with web resources—a media FAQ, and "talking points". As McElroy explained on October 10th, 2002, on the Yahoo group TarotL:
“…faced with the horrific events in the DC area, we elected to provide the media, the Tarot community at large, and the public with an optional resource for clear, consistent information. This included talking points, a media FAQ, and a recommendation to refer reporters to a media-trained spokesperson. As a former Director of Communications for a global telecom company [MCI], I can assure you this is a standard and reasonable response for any organization to make.”—Mark McElroy, Yahoo group TarotL, October 10, 2002
Some of the "clear, consistent information" the ATA chose to provide the Medians was the following:
“No definitive 'key' to the meaning of any Tarot card exists, because meanings assigned to Tarot cards vary from book to book and user to user. The Death card is no exception to this rule.”
Which of course suggested that, if you know anything about Tarot, you might think, as a condition of this supposed variability of definition, that Death could mean "death".
However, the ATA was quick to insist:
“Generally, however, the Death card is not associated with physical death.”
Why, generally, that was the case, and who was doing this associating, the ATA didn't explain. And then, confirming the spinogmatic stance of President Thomson, the ATA media piece stated:
“Because that person [i.e., the sniper] appears to share the popular misconception that the card [Death] is associated with physical death, that person likely knows very little about the Tarot, and is most likely not a Tarot reader.”
So, let's understand the moral math here. The chief concern of the ATA was to put the Medians off the idea that, as John Walsh had babbled about, there was some kind of Psychic Sniper loose in the DC area. No, demanded the ATA, because the sniper clearly did not know how to read Tarot cards. Again, you can see how this line of argument fit well into the MSM's shrill, idiotic, SNIPER IS STUPID chant.
Again, no supporting evidence was supplied by the ATA for why this bold claim of theirs should be accepted by anyone else as being true. They simply affirmed it, and it was accepted by the MSM, on the basis that the ATA, appearing high up in search results for" Tarot", must be experts or something. Later in the ATA piece, the Medians were encouraged to contact "a media-trained spokesperson", that being the very same Sandra A. Thomson, chief "We all knew right away" fortune-teller for the ATA.
In fact, Thomson was so busy denying that part of the variable key to Death could be death, that she offered up a helpful guide to both the sniper and any future killers that would want to choose their death Tarot card like the experts. After boldly claiming that "No one who uses the tarot cards would select [Death] to indicate this type of action"—i.e., killing people—Thomson was asked what kind of card people who used Tarot cards WOULD choose to signify they were killing people. And Thomson, in a sense, projected what must have been her true feelings about what was happening (to the Tarot industry), and affirmed that "they" (ALL people who use Tarot cards) would choose the Tower card to make that particular point.
The fact that this seemingly "definitive key" to the Tower card plainly contradicted the ATA's claim that "No definitive 'key' to the meaning of any Tarot card exists" was not explained. Though, after noting the nature of the illustration on the Tower card, involving "a bolt of God's wrath", New York Times writer Kate Zernike did reasonably conclude about Thomson's choice:
“That, of course, could only inspire more speculation and conspiracy theories.”—"Experts Debate the Sniper's Links to Popular Culture", New York Times, by Kate Zernike, October 11, 2002
Well, yes Kate, but at least it would be speculation about an expert Tarot death reading, and not that of an obviously rank amateur like the stupid sniper (who didn't even know Death wasn't death).
Now, to provide some Tarotic context to this discussion of what the Tarot Death card actually means, or could mean, and whether or not the snipers were inept or good Tarot readers, we can turn for a moment to a consideration of some facts about Tarot and its Death card.
Noting the following complaint from the Washington Post Medians who simply didn't want to hear much about Tarot—"The explanations [of 'what it means'] go on forever"—I swear my explanation will be as brief as possible, but Tarot does have a 550-year history to consider.
Also, I apologize in advance for not making bold, sweeping (and baseless) claims about what things can or can not mean, but I do always advise students of Tarot history (particularly) to don their skepticism outfits when going forth into the muck and myth of what is claimed (versus what is known) to be true about Tarot.
The good news is that you can keep your skepticism outfit donned when reading Median scribblings as well.
So, what about that Death card?
Death has always been there, right from the start of Tarot. It appears in the oldest surviving decks, the Visconti-Sforza Tarots of the 15th century, and there is no reason to think that the people who viewed that card five and half centuries ago pondered the mystery of its meaning.
It was stark and obvious, and it plainly meant death—that is, the condition of non-living, rotting, corpses.
It is sometimes difficult for people who are so vigorously opposed to going at all into that good night, to the extent of pretending it isn't really going to happen to them, to realize that they are in fact dying right from the moment they are born (or conceived).
That just seems SO politically incorrect and unfair! Cute little babies are dying? All the children of the world that Jesus loves are dying? Smart-mouthed yet ever-so-wise teens, who KNOW for a fact they are invulnerable, are dying? And all those people paying good money to embalm themselves at 30 (even if they are really 50) are dying? And even all those pioneers freezing their heads?? They're ALL dying?
Well, no, the frozen head types are already dead, but yes all the rest are dying, right out of the gate of life.
But who the hell wants to pay money to be told that?
And that's an important point. Most of what modern, commercial, Tarot is about is selling people tellings they wish to be told, and that often has little if anything to do with what traditions in Tarot, including those involving fortune-telling, indicate they SHOULD BE told (if they should be told anything).
For example, it has been reported (yes, by Medians) that the particular version of the Death card that Malvo chose to use for his reading was that from the A. E. Waite deck, which is the most popular design for Tarot cards in the world today. The Waite deck was first published in 1909, and Waite wrote a book about Tarot to accompany his cards, called The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
In the last half of this book, Waite supplied many of the fortune-telling instructions, and meanings, that have guided Tarot readers, and other tarotbook writers, over the past 90 years. So what does Waite's book indicate the Death card should mean?
Well, first off, that's not as direct or easy a question to answer as you might think. For, to properly understand meanings in Tarot, it's necessary to realize that there are at least two different kinds of meanings we're talking about.
1. There are the meanings indicated by the symbolism on the Tarot cards (the symbolic meanings).
2. And, there are the fortune-telling meanings of the cards, many of which are traditional and often have little if anything obviously to do with the symbolism of the cards (particularly of more modern cards like the Waite deck).
So, to properly answer a question such as what did Waite intend his Death card to mean, we have to think about this in at least these two basic ways, and look at what he says about them both.
First, with respect to the symbolic meaning of the Death card, Waite says the following about its traditional deathly appearance and interpretation:
“The method of presentation is almost invariable…amidst ordinary rank vegetation there are living arms and heads protruding from the ground. One of the heads is crowned, and a skeleton with a great scythe is in the act of mowing it. The transparent and unescapable meaning is death.”—A. E. Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot
Then Waite continues with the part that the Tarot industry focuses on—
“but the alternatives allocated to the symbol are change and transformation.”—A. E. Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot
So we see that Waite himself understood that the unescapable* meaning of Death was death.
*NOTE, i.e., "unable to be avoided or denied."
Yet, recall the ATA's claim:
"Generally…the Death card is not associated with physical death."
Later, in describing his own version of the Death card, Waite says the following:
“There should be no need to point out that the suggestion of death which I have made in connection with the previous card [i.e., The Hanged Man] is, of course, to be understood mystically, but this is not the case in the present instance.”—A. E. Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot
The "present instance" of Death, in other words, which is not a mystical death, as in the case of the Hanged Man, but is instead the real thing—death.
Now, it is true that Waite acknowledges other possible interpretations of the symbolism of the card, but the point is that the most obvious interpretation is NOT something he dismisses or claims is only rarely or oddly to be made or found, but that it is unescapable—so unavoidable and undeniable.
Undeniable—unless you're peddling Tarot in the post-Apocalypse and need a quick getaway from uncomfortable, downright scary, and most important (to peddlers) unprofitable indications.
Finally, Waite supplies fortune-telling (or "divinatory") meanings for the card, which recall we've been told by the ATA can not include mentions of physical death.
Waite's divinatory meanings for Death are:
"End, mortality, destruction, corruption".—A. E. Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot
There are other, more mundane, indications given, but these four terminal ones lead off, and thus are obviously what Waite considered the basic divinatory ideas of the card.
And again the ATA's position: "Generally…the Death card is not associated with physical death."
Had the ATA's representatives simply not bothered to read Waite's book? Or did they dismiss his meanings for some unspecified reason?
In an interview with me, after being asked about Waite's divinatory meanings for Death ("End, mortality, destruction, corruption."), ATA president Sandra A. Thomson admitted:
“I don't even know what divinatory meanings of the cards are.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003.
After explaining to her that there was a difference between symbolic and divinatory meanings, a distinction she didn't seem to understand, she then asked me why I insisted that there had to be such a division of meaning.
She asked: "Cannot 'end' be considered a symbolic meaning?"
Of course it could be, but then the meaning is listed under the section in Waite's book entitled "The Greater Arcana and their Divinatory Meanings", something which Thomson admitted she didn't know anything about.
Thomson did indicate however:
“It is my personal belief that every RWS card [RWS=Rider-Waite-Smith, in other words, every Waite card] has at least three levels of meanings (not including the astrological, the kabbalistic, and other associated schools of thought), but to go into them would be too complicated.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003.
I also asked her to explain to me why some symbols on a Death card meant what she said they did.
“I do not know how to answer 'why' questions in Tarot or otherwise.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003.
In spite of Thomson's difficulty with answering "why questions", after I asked her repeatedly to explain to me WHY, in view of what Waite actually wrote about his Death card, and in light of the ATA's own views that the card could have many different meanings, Death can't mean death, she finally admitted to me:
“[I]n all the readings I've heard of where death was drawn, no one ever died.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003.
Now, let's take a brief trip back in time, to 1980, to one of the most influential Tarot books ever written, Jung and Tarot, wherein its author, Sallie Nicholls, sought to explain why she did not think Death could mean death:
“I have been reading the Tarot professionally for clients of all ages for many years. I keep a record for each spread. In these spreads, Death has turned up frequently but never has anyone who drew this card met physical death…It would seem that Tarot doesn’t intend us to consider this card literally, but presents it, rather symbolically in the context of transformation in our lives on this planet.”—Sallie Nicholls, Jung and Tarot, 1980, in the section "What About the Death Card?" (page 377)
As we see, the "Death has never killed a querent" argument has a recent tradition. There are many problems with it. Not the least of which is the idea of a card acting as a kind of magic spell enforcing its theme on a querent. This makes about as much sense as saying the word "death" in a sentence has the power to cause a death. But of course, in some sentences, that is the case. This goes to the general weakness of coherence and common sense in the methods of modern Tarot reading—which read people and their moods and their money, and not cards.
I next asked Thomson what percentage of the readings in which Death was drawn did she think she'd personally heard of. She did not reply. I also asked Thomson why, given her own interest in testing the Death card as a predictor of mortality, especially versus others she felt were more appropriate for this purpose, she did not feel that she was in fact engaging in fortune-telling. But, again, she had no response to that question.
In the end, Thomson's approach to Tarot is clearly based much more on her personal feelings, than on her knowledge of Tarot symbolism and meanings.
Her response to the media was based not merely on her organization's interest to put a positive spin on the Tarotic aspect of the sniper story, but was likely also rooted in a personal battle Thomson seems to have been fighting all the way up from her Southern Baptist roots in Oklahoma. As with Rodney Dangerfield, Thomson just can't get no respect.
Her verdict about her family:
“… they KNOW, and you cannot tell them otherwise, that I am doing the work of the devil.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003
When I asked her if that bothered her, Thomson replied:
“The whole idea of fascist Americans bothers me.”—Sandra A. Thomson, interview 2003
In addition to the agents of the ATA, the Tarot industry's other chief spokesperson during the bloody 15 minutes was Stuart R. Kaplan, president of what is claimed to be the largest producer and seller of Tarot decks and books in the world, United States Games Systems, located in Stamford, Connecticut.
While Thomson's Tarot spinogma seemed motivated largely by issues of self esteem (or the lack of it), Kaplan's concerns to protect Tarot from the facts were mainly commercial in nature. It is fair to say that Stuart R. Kaplan, along with considerable help from the minds and talents of a number of conveniently dead Tarot artists, put modern Tarot on the map.
His obsession with the cards led to his becoming a collector of old Tarots and then a publisher of Tarot decks and books, a business which in his own estimation has garnered him in excess of 100 million dollars in sales. Needless to say, Kaplan's interests in Tarot are considerable, although of that peculiar commercial nature which often places people into conflict with any natural inclination they might possess to tell what they view as unprofitable truths about the subject.
So, when the sniper's card came calling, Kaplan recalled:
“My initial reaction was possible concern that association between the killing and a tarot card might unfairly lead to a negative impression toward tarot.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, 2003 interview
And Kaplan later added:
“…there might have been initial dismay similar to concerns by firearm owners when a gun is used in a robbery/killing.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, 2003 interview
Of course, the dismay felt by firearm owners would be rooted in a concern over possible government regulation of their right to own firearms. And since a national movement has been stirring for some time, in light of various frauds committed by people using Tarot cards as their tools of crime, to license and even ban fortune-tellers, there is no wonder that Kaplan, who of course sells cards to people without asking their motives, wouldn't be in favor of laws limiting people's freedom to purchase and use Tarot cards as they see fit.
While Kaplan says he "…did not contact nor discuss U.S.Games Systems' response with anyone inside nor outside the industry", his comments to the Medians nevertheless seemed as if they were written by the same spinogamists as those working for the ATA.
Kaplan affirmed to the Washington Post, in an October 10th, 2002 article:
"The death card "doesn't really mean death. More usually than not, it means transformation, a clearing away of the old to make way for the new, an alteration."—Stuart R. Kaplan, Washington Post, in article entitled "Man Shot To Death at Pr. William Gas Station", October 10, 2002.
Of course, one could argue Kaplan was simply repeating the dogma of those who know anything about Tarot, but in Kaplan's case this is a particular problem for him, since he is on record as saying precisely the opposite, that the Death card does in fact mean death.
When and where did he make this seemingly heretical statement? In the 1972 book, Tarot Classic, Kaplan reveals on page 111 that the Death card's divinatory meanings include: "illness, POSSIBLY EVEN DEATH."
Kaplan notes just above this that the card means abrupt change of the old self "though not necessarily physical death." Of course the latter is another way of saying "possibly even death."
So, Kaplan informed his readers in 1972 that the Death card CAN MEAN death. Furthermore, Kaplan's company, US Games Systems, which publishes numerous Tarot packs, includes in each Tarot a set of instructions for using the cards in fortune-telling (the thing the ATA claims Tarot isn't properly used for). In some of these Tarots, the fortune-telling meanings reflect the opinions of a particular designer, but in others Kaplan uses the very same meanings he published in 1972, and so millions of these instructions have been distributed to the world, and continue to be, including meanings for Death which include "possibly even death".
Yet, the ATA demands that if you know anything about Tarot, you'd never give "death" as one of the meanings of Death. So, does that mean Stuart R. Kaplan doesn't know anything about Tarot? Or does it mean that someone, for some reason, isn't telling the truth?
Regarding the character and performance of the Tarot industry's agents during Sniperfest, Kaplan said in January, 2003:
“In the final analysis, we believe the tarot community was well represented by calm and thoughtful authors, readers and publishers who presented a fair and true picture of tarot to the public who were being exposed to tarot for the first time through an unfortunate and tragic set of circumstances.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, January, 2003 interview
However, in any true final analysis, one cannot honestly ignore that the Tarot community repeatedly made statements to the press, and perhaps to investigators of the "unfortunate and tragic" circumstances, that they must have known were in direct contradiction to the facts of Tarot history and tradition, and even to past written comments made by Tarot peddlers themselves in their books about the subject.
Finally, in looking at Kaplan's own performance in Sniperfest, one decision he reportedly made seems, in light again of his own words concerning it, difficult to understand except as a crass act of commercial grandstanding. While Kaplan now claims that "Soon after disclosure of the tarot card, U.S. Games Systems was contacted on separate occasions by the Maryland Police Department, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the FBI to verify identification of the card," it has also been reported that Kaplan initiated this contact himself by calling the tip line.
While helping police to identify the Tarot card seems a worthwhile offer, Kaplan was willing to go much further than this. Kaplan offered to release to police a list of his customers "in the capital area", a move which even Kaplan admitted was like looking for "a needle in a haystack", and that "…there's just a slim chance that what I have can help locate this guy."
For those who therefore might have considered Kaplan's actions a questionable invasion of his customers' privacy, his retort is simple:
“U.S. Games Systems reasoned, and rightly so, that to refuse to cooperate with the authorities would be very damaging to tarot's image.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, January, 2003 interview
He also said regarding this image-protecting offer:
“U.S. Games Systems had a responsibility to step forward as the leading publisher of tarot to properly present the positive image of tarot.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, January, 2003 interview
Asked if "the positive image of tarot" was necessarily the truthful one, Kaplan declined to comment.
However, he optimistically concluded:
“I do not believe the tarot industry, tarot community nor U.S. Games Systems were adversely affected by the tarot card incident.”—Stuart R. Kaplan, January, 2003 interview
Despite this positive assessment, it seems likely that Tarot has been damaged by the events of 2002, events which one could reasonably argue are the logical consequences of decades of dishonesty practiced by a community and industry far more concerned with peddling a Tower of positive images than telling something (perhaps painfully) true about Tarot.
The damage, therefore, may be truly positive in the sense of helping to focus attention on some long-standing destructive habits into which many Tarot students, practitioners, and peddlers have fallen. In 2003 we can hope that another, better, Tarot community starts to emerge from the ashes of these disasters, a community which doesn't unduly concern itself with the "positive image of tarot", but which instead devotes itself to learning about, and telling the truth about, Tarot.
In reviewing this article, which was first published more than ten years ago, I was struck by how much things seem not to have changed. Indeed, if anything, because so many new users and pushers of Tarot have come on the scene since Tarot's Annus Horribilis of 2002, the general ignorance surrounding even recent history of Tarot has increased significantly.
Frankly, most people reading this old story will ask: so what? So, some Tarot people, years ago, spun some tales about Tarot and the Death card, because they wanted others to think nice things, instead of horrible things, about Tarot.
What's wrong with that?
Nothing, if you're OK with lying and being lied to.
And, unfortunately, many more Americans now are quite OK with dishonesty, which they view as a "he said-she said" equation, with no real truth or facts discernible or possible, but only shades of opinions and biased views of what could be, might be, true.
This is what you get in the popular view of things, when the official view of things, in government, or on a small scale in the Tarot community for decades now, is that the truth is what you can get people to believe—or more pertinently, what you can get people to BUY, whether or not they believe anything at all.
It was in researching this article that the last vestiges of any faith I once held in the offerings of the MSM were totally dashed. If the MSM were so lazy they would take the word of a bunch of desperate little Tarot hucksters as worth reporting, what other total bullshit, from similarly unreliable sources, were they giving us?
Unfortunately, later that dreadful year of 2003, I got the unadulterated answer to that question, as the MSM utterly abandoned their responsibilities as journalists, and became paid propagandists of George W. Bush's war crimes in Iraq.
Meanwhile, unlike what I had wished, that maybe Tarot would learn a lesson from 2002's nadir, it was not to be. As with the USA's war policy, the Tarot industry doubled down on its shams.
The popular interest in Tarot faltered after 2002, and crashed about 2005, as is evidenced by Tarot's Ngram on Google Books, as well as a similar quantification of Tarot titles at Worldcat, which shows publication of books with "Tarot" in the title to be presently at its lowest point in twenty years.
The Tarot community, or culture, or whatever you want to call the popular, exoteric amalgam of silly walks Tarot has been forced to perform by the carnival of freaks and charlatans posing as Tarot "masters", has finally exhausted the patience of people.
Glenn F. Wright
July 11, 2013