Tarot and the Media: A Quick Tour
From Cosmopolitan and The New York Times to NBC Think, Aeon, and Mental Floss . . .
As it turns out, Tarot never really goes out of fashion as a topic. But Tarot stories have been surfacing more often in mainstream publications, I think, since 2017 — possibly because generating an endless stream of content has become such a necessity for marketers and publishers.
So Tarot turns up in the “bigs” (like Cosmo and NYT) as well as digital mags like Aeon, and content collections like Mental Floss and NBC’s Think.
I haven’t performed a detailed analysis, but my general impression is that mainstream Tarot stories fall into two general categories. One comprises semi-serious accounts, often coupled with celebrity leads and/or personal anecdotes. The other is a genial mash-up of how-to and self-help.
The first category is actually bigger than one might expect. Not huge, of course. But then . . . why does it exist at all?
For example: A Tarot story recently popped up on my NBC news feed, in the “Think” section. It was headlined “Tarot cards don’t predict the future. But reading them might help you figure yours out.”
Nicely written by “Jenni Miller, pop culture connoisseur,” it turns out to be partly an account of her 2017 interview with “the famous Chilean-French surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky” — who is also a well-known Tarot enthusiast.
Spoiler alert: Jodo had amassed a huge collection of Tarot decks, but was told by Surrealist icon Andre Breton that the only worthwhile Tarot was the Marseilles. So Jodo disposed of his collection and started over.
Speaking of the Times, Tarot pops up there every so often — contextualized in some way that lends a layer of pop/seriousness to the topic. For example, this 2019 profile of Jessica Dore, whose master’s degree in social work serves well enough to link her Tarot readings with psychotherapy — and whose huge Twitter following provides the kind of cachet preferred by Times editors.
Meanwhile, online, the digital magazine Aeon (which takes itself so seriously that it now requires writers to be “academics” with institutional affiliations) published this 4,000-word story in 2017:
The author — a British journalist — takes readers through a reasonably accurate summary of Tarot history, then switches to an account of his own experience as a Tarot querent, and closes with his personal theory of Tarot divination.
Here’s a highlight:
Tarot reading works, ultimately, because we make ourselves the willing victims of our cognitive biases. Under the influence of false-pattern detection, or apophenia, we turn the string of necessarily disconnected statements made by a medium or tarot reader into a coherent narrative in which we are the hero.
The piece, which ends up in a few off-hand Jungian flourishes, looks smart because it mentions book titles and uses quasi-academic jargon. And the researched part is well done. But there’s often a slightly snide tinge — and the author’s opinions are supported by absolutely nothing.
So Aeon’s “The truth about tarot” is much like other semi-serious mainstream articles I’ve come across, combining the appearance of historical rigor with an emphasis on psychological connections, and a sort of one-off authorial anecdote. Bottom line: I’m honestly not sure whether such stories do harm or good, in terms of creating a more positive understanding of Tarot.
It seems I haven’t left much time for the how-to/self-help category, but one example will serve well enough. Here’s a snip from Sami Main’s charmingly simple overview, published by Cosmopolitan in 2020:
The story is short, bright, and just the sort of thing that might engage the Cosmo audience. Best of all — nothing in it is wrong or untrue!
So that’s a speedy tour of how Tarot is treated in today’s media, as promised. But I’ll leave off by suggesting one of the better examples of the semi-serious story, published first in Collectors Weekly and reprinted in the online magazine Mental Floss. Although the historical account is off-base in some places, there’s an appealing focus on decks — including novelty Tarots as well as antique oracle decks — and the author’s approach is nicely balanced.
Questions remain to be considered, though. What (if anything) do “content consumers” make of these Tarot glimpses? And does it matter?