Through archetypes and multilayered symbolism, the tarot deck depicts an individual’s journey toward enlightenment and the illuminating lessons one learns while en route. For many, the use of tarot can be a form of divination, inspiration, or even entertainment. However you choose to use them, each card in the deck possesses an inherent and unique meaning. As Michelle Tea suggests in Modern Tarot, the cards are “an ancient story system.” Whether you believe in the mystical power of tarot or if you’re just smitten with its aesthetics, the deck has a tale to tell. In hopes of helping you decipher its countless narratives, we’ve put together a literary guide to the Major Arcana to keep you inspired and in touch with your inner bibliophile.
David Burr Gerrard
David Burr Gerard’s The Epiphany Machine is an engrossing page-turner about fate and freewill. Set in a world where a sewing machine-esque contraption offers individuals insight into their future, present, and past, readers follow the novel’s reluctant hero, Venter Lowood, as he contemplates the drawbacks and dangers of relying on external forces to define his identity and his relationships with others. Dark humored yet sincere, this book will awaken your inner magician, reminding you to trust your gut instincts and to create your own destiny boldly.
How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven
Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman
THE HIGH PRIESTESS
A collaboratively written compendium for those longing to embrace their inner High Priestess, Basic Witches is a savvy and illuminating toolkit for surviving the modern-day world. From selecting talismans or a familiar to how to break curses or read tea leaves, Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman’s magical lifestyle guide is an uplifting and transformative must-read for anyone – witch or otherwise – in need of spiritual enlightenment. Consider it as essential as sage.
In the traditional Rider Waite deck, the Empress represents creativity, art, and beauty. It depicts a wise matriarch who is in touch with the fullness and complexity of her feminine power. Morgan Parker’s irreversibly soul-shaking collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is the poetic manifestation of all that the Empress embodies. An unblinkingly honest and at times raw meditation on womanhood, race, and desire, Parker’s stanzas will encourage you to ground yourself, to honor your journey (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and to cherish your place in the universe.
Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
In 2016’s Kill ‘Em and Leave, James McBride exalts the larger-than-life Emperor of funk James Brown. Throughout his in-depth and engrossing look at the King of Soul, McBride pays homage to the man behind the myth and the legacy he left behind. A literary testament to Brown’s enduring impact on the American psyche, this fascinating and heartfelt biography is a deserving tribute to an unforgettable musical genius and innovator.
Eve L. Ewing
The Hierophant card is a reminder of your personal belief system and of your connection with your cultural identity and its historical past. The archetype of the Hierophant represents an individual who proclaims sacred truth, who reminds us to honor our past and to revel in life’s wonders and mysteries. Similarly, Eve L. Ewing’s spellbinding debut, Electric Arches, inspires readers to examine the sacredness of human persistence, vulnerability, and triumph. With searing wisdom and heart, each of Ewing’s poems are a swoon-inducing praisesong of Black womanhood, girlhood, and self-discovery. Part holy text, part survival map, this collection is absolutely divine.
An oft-coveted card in a tarot reading, the Lovers represent harmony, union, and yup, you guessed it, intimacy. Associated with the astrological sign Gemini, the Lovers card is all about balance and honesty with yourself and others. When upright, this card is a cosmic green light of sorts; when reversed, it’s a wake-up call. Perhaps best illustrated by A Separation, balance or imbalance with those we love can be life altering (for better or worse). With evocative prose and gut-wrenching urgency, Katie Kitamura’s novel is a parable about the way love can heal and harm us.
Jami Attenberg’s brilliantly funny and heartfelt novel follows the ups and downs of a latter-twenties twentysomething New Yorker who’s unapologetically still in search of herself. Like the Chariot card, Attenberg’s heroine, Andrea Bern, is in the proverbial driver’s eat from page one. As the story progresses Andrea learns how to wholeheartedly embrace the totality of who she is, shortcomings and all. A tale of determination, vulnerability, and transformation, All Grown Up is a quarter-life coming-of-age story about what can happen when we dare to determine our own path.
A heartening memoir about perseverance and the power of music, The Skin Above My Knee recounts Marcia Butler’s difficult childhood and equally trying adulthood. As Butler grapples with the trauma of her past, readers discover how creativity and passion became her saving grace. With straightforward yet gripping prose, Butler’s story is a celebration of self-determination and the strength of the heart.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
The Hermit seeks inner truth. They yearn to understand their history and present path. They are contemplative and wise, much like the inspired pages of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s genre-defying Dictee. Through images, fragmented stanzas, and prose, Cha proves page after page that she isn’t afraid of a little (or a lot of) soul searching. Through the voice of Demeter, Joan of Arc, Persephone, and her own mother, Cha’s solitary yet transcendent journey encourages readers to look within, to truly known themselves.
Stephanie Powell Watts
WHEEL OF FORTUNE
Stephanie Powell Watts’s debut novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, follows JJ Ferguson’s pursuit of the American dream. Determined to win back the affections of his high school sweetheart and build his dream home, JJ’s aspirations converge with limitations beyond his control on the heels of his return to his hometown. Forced to reckon with an irreversible fate, JJ and those closest to him learn to adapt their hopes in the wake of their shared and separate futures.
The color associated with the Justice card is red, which is considered to be the color of lifeblood, of the force that drives us to action. Here we see a seated figure holding a sword pointing upward in one hand and a scale hanging downward in the other. An illustrated expression of the hermetic phrase “As above, so below,” Justice urges us to seek the truth with empathy and to be aware of our own needs as well as the needs of others. Aja Monet’s poetry collection My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter is a vibrant manifestation of the Justice’s cause. Through vibrant and revitalizing stanzas, Monet celebrates those who’ve come before us and paved the way to progress. Her poetry is a powerful and curative testimony of how political the personal can be.
THE HANGED MAN
Many of the characters in Emily Fridlund’s short story collection Catapult find themselves in limbo. Caught between life-altering decisions, altercations, or paradigm-shifting occurrences, her protagonists are forced to examine their beliefs in order to reach transcendence. Like the Hanged Man, Fridlund’s stories reveal how our consciousness can impact our perspective and our fate. Whether it be through the eyes of a woman whose tarot reading becomes the catalyst to her search for redemption or the heartache of a husband who fears his marriage is disintegrating, each story possesses a kernel of wisdom that no one should be without.
A Writer on Writing
Often viewed as the most ominous card in the tarot deck, Death is indicative of beginnings and endings, of transition and evolution. Seated on a white horse and holding the flag of the harvest crown, Death appears as a symbol of rebirth rather than mere devastation. In her book Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes, “All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you … all must descend to where the stories are kept.” Here, Atwood highlights Death’s power, the ability for the past to inspire new ideas, new stories, and new horizons. Rather than something to be feared, death, as Atwood suggests, leads us to where narrative blooms.
Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway takes a revealing and honest look at the ways mercy (even when it isn’t deserved) can lead to a deeper sense of awareness and community with others. Through frank but enlightening prose, Lamott shares how mercy can lead to second chances, aligning us with our higher self. With humor and heart, she urges her audience to nurture and cherish the purpose of their lives. Like the Temperance card, whose astrological sign is Sagittarius, this book is a manual for cultivating authenticity as well as tolerance.
Synonymous with bondage, the Devil card depicts a horned and beastly figure. Winged in a fashion reminiscent of a bat, the Devil is vampiric, a parasitic entity. The fifteenth in the tarot deck, this card is connected to the Lovers, who appear beneath the Devil chained in cavernous darkness. A suitable pairing to sum up Antoinette Cosway’s plight in Wide Sargasso Sea, this card, much like her marriage to the diabolical Rochester, is depictive of destructive restriction. Offering a different perspective on the gothic romance of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys’s classic exposes Rochester and his nation’s sinister side.
Octavia E. Butler
The Tower represents upheaval, disruption, and epiphany. A card that eerily mirrors the political climate of 2017, the Tower isn’t just about turmoil, it’s also about the disintegration of false ideologies and structures. The world of sci-fi pioneer Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower mirrors that of the Tower. Amid the dystopian landscape of Butler’s forever timely narrative, her teen protagonist Lauren envisions something new, something better, than the chaotic present she inhabits. Against the backdrop of the rubble that surrounds her, she builds something new, a revolution rooted in hope and her will to survive.
On the Star card a feminine figure appears beside a body of water. Holding two vessels, she pours water onto the surrounding land so that it will thrive. With one foot on the land and the other in the water, she encapsulates both common sense and intuitive foresight. Above her, a large star shines, surrounded by a host of smaller stars. Associated with Aquarius, the Star card represents hope, endurance, and transformation. The energy of the Star is perhaps best captured by Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light. In the collection’s title essay, she writes, “I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness I can decently manage … I am going to write fire … I’m going to go out like a … meteor.” Those familiar with Lorde’s work can attest that she did exactly that, and even now, she continues, like the stars to shine, urging us to cherish our inner light and vibrance.
Jessica B. Harris
The Moon card represents the unconscious, the realm of cognition and dreams. Reflecting the light of the sun, the Moon’s beams descend upon the water and the creatures below who bask in its luminescence. The Moon uncovers lessons learned in the past in order to guide us to our future. In My Soul Looks Back, Jessica B. Harris recalls the friendships, loves, and soirees that defined 1970s Black bohemia. Through her memories, readers get a glimpse of how she became the woman she is today and the joy that can be found by revering the past.
Peter Bagge’s full-color biography of Zora Neale Hurston captures the life and times of the legendary literary giant whose sharp wit and timeless words defined not only the Harlem Renaissance, but also future generations of writers. Like the Sun card, Zora’s story, although not without its trials, is ultimately one defined by endurance, self-acceptance, and unparalleled intellect. Fire!! is a reminder of the importance of radically being true to yourself.
Adrian Shirk’s recent memoir, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, exalts and examines the power of women prophets and religious leaders. By highlighting women like voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, acclaimed astrologer Linda Goodman, the clairvoyant Fox Sisters, and the revolutionary Sojourner Truth, Shirk affirms the power of women’s voices and visions. Like a kindred spirit to the Judgement card, Shirk advises her readers to follow their intuition and calling, to profess their own visions and dreams.
At the end of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s spellbinding debut, Here Comes the Sun, readers watch a contemplative Margot on a sundrenched day. “Everything glitters … just like Margot had always thought it would,” Dennis-Benn writes. In this moment, Margot, like the figure on the World card, is attuned to the elements, to their beauty but also to their limitations. Just like Dennis-Benn’s novel, the World depicts a woman at its center, emphasizing how vital it is for women to see themselves in the world in order to understand their past and present path. The World stresses that it is possible to be whole, even if that wholeness is temporary.
Pulitzer prize winner Colson Whitehead’s vivid and captivating novel The Underground Railroad follows Cora and Caesar on their journey from slavery toward what they yearn for most: freedom. Through one harrowing escape after another, the pair gets closer and closer to manifesting their desires. Like the Fool card, Cora and Caesar are on the brink of new beginnings. Armed only with the essentials, they press forward despite uncertainty. Step by step, Whitehead’s protagonists brave the unknown in search of a life they alone can define.