Tarot’s Master Storyteller: Rachel Pollack
by Stephen D. Winick
Rachel Pollack is a master storyteller, having won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction, and the World Fantasy Award. Her novels and stories range from retellings of fairy tales and bible stories to a mystery featuring a transgendered detective. She writes challenging stories for the modern world, but imbues them with ancient traditions and archetypes, including many from the world of Tarot.
Pollack is also one of the most recognized names in Tarot. She’s the author of twelve books on Tarot cards, creator of one deck and co-creator of another. She sees her storytelling as a major part of her ability to interpret the cards. “I think it’s a certain kind of imagination,” she said in a February 2008 interview. “As a story writer, and a novelist, a lot is about connections…having an initial idea and seeing how it fits with other things. And this allows me, when I read, for example, mythology, to see its connections to Tarot.”
Pollack first encountered a Tarot deck in 1970. Prior to that, her only exposure to Tarot had been—appropriately for a poet and novelist—in works of literature. Like many others, she first came across the famous passage in T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land, in which he refers to “Madame Sosostris, the famous clairvoyante” and her “wicked pack of cards.” Eliot, unfamiliar with the traditional Tarot deck, used made-up cards such as “the drowned Phoenician sailor” “Belladonna, the lady of the rocks,” and “the one-eyed merchant,” to go along with traditional cards such as The Hanged Man.
Eliot’s passage, with its colorful card titles, somehow makes cartomancy seem even more romantic than it really is, and has attracted many people to the Tarot. Pollack, however, followed her love of mythology instead, and read Eliot’s mythological sources. One of these was Jessie Weston’s 1920 scholarly treatise on the Holy Grail, From Ritual to Romance. In a fleeting passage on the Tarot, Weston points out the resemblance between the suits of the Minor Arcana and the items present at the first appearance of the Grail in Arthurian literature: a lance, sword, a dish, and a cup. This resemblance has compelled many imaginative Tarot authors, from A. E. Waite to John and Caitlín Matthews. It was most likely this connection that convinced Eliot to put Tarot cards in his poem, which explores other Arthurian themes.
Weston spends the rest of the passage repeating theories of the cards’ origins in Ancient Egypt, China, and India. These had already been rejected by Waite a decade earlier, and have remained discredited since. Given her two sources, then, Pollack knew almost nothing of the Tarot, and most of what she did know was wrong!
In early 1970, however, this would change. Pollack was teaching English at the State University of New York’s Plattsburgh campus—one of the coldest, snowiest places in the U.S. One of her fellow teachers lived near campus, and walked to work. One winter day, when the walk home through the cold seemed daunting, she asked Pollack for help. “She said if I gave her a ride home, she’d read my Tarot cards,” Pollack remembered. Pollack quickly agreed to drive her colleague, and the next thing she knew, she was seated in her friend’s warm house, looking at her first Tarot spread. It was a life-changing moment for Pollack: she became immediately hooked on Tarot. Oddly, given the clarity with which the experience is held in her memory, she does not recall the specific cards, or her friend’s advice. “I just remember how incredibly excited I was by the whole idea of it,” she said.
Immediately, Pollack knew she wanted her own deck. “I remember rushing around looking for a deck, and not just the deck but the little book, which in this case was [by] Eden Gray. I liked the fact that you had this little art form, consisting of a picture, and a text. And that the text purported to explain the picture, but was in a way just as mysterious.”
Given her reliance on Eden Gray, it’s not surprising that she immediately began trying readings, book in hand; Gray’s small paperbacks, along with the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck, have been used this way by generations of beginning readers. Oddly enough, early on in her career as a reader, Pollack developed an uncanny (and uncomfortable) ability to reveal her friends’ secret love affairs during readings—a talent that would later prove important to her career in Tarot.
Pollack’s love of stories soon came into play. She remembers an incident very early in her Tarot career, when she spent an afternoon with a friend, who was a poet. Together they looked through the cards, creating their own stories, and seeing connections to existing ones. “In particular,” she said, “a big moment for me was when I realized the old man on the Ten of Pentacles could be Odysseus, returned home in disguise; only his dog recognizes him. That was a big turning point for me, one that made me realize that you could go beyond the official statement.”
“That got me thinking about Tarot, and thinking ‘what else can you see in these pictures?’ she continued.” Suddenly, the whole world of story, and particularly mythology, was applicable to Tarot. Having studied the great mythologists Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade in college, she was ready to look deeply at any image with possible mythic overtones. One of Pollack’s primary methods of learning about the Tarot, which she calls “loving the images,” was born.
During this initial period of learning about the Tarot, Pollack moved to Europe with her partner, Edith Katz. The two of them studied the cards together as they traveled around the continent, eventually settling in Amsterdam. In the summers, they returned to America to visit their families. During one of these summer visits, a friend asked Pollack to teach her about Tarot. They spent several days at a beach house, going through the cards, and Pollack realized she knew the deck well enough to begin teaching others. Back in Amsterdam, when her part-time job ended, she decided to try her hand at teaching Tarot, and approached the Kosmos Meditation Center.
The Kosmos Center’s program committee called her in for an interview, and challenged her to do a reading for one of them. The lone woman on the committee agreed to act as the querent for the reading. Pollack saw such pain in the cards that she was reluctant to read them in front of the whole committee. Realizing she had no choice, however, she began. First she asked the querent, “Have you suffered a great deal of pain over a relationship?” The querent burst into tears. Pollack then went through the reading, which described the situation and suggested ways to move ahead with her life.
When the reading was done, there was a brief and somewhat awkward silence. Then the chairman of the committee asked, “When can you start?” Later, Pollack discovered that the same committee chairman had been the querent’s lover, and that the two had just broken up. Improbably, Pollack’s longstanding talent for uncovering love affairs had earned her her first paid job in Tarot!
Pollack’s class began shortly thereafter, and went on for two years. She found the environment very supportive, and although most people were new to Tarot, many were studying related disciplines. Pollack mentions especially Ioanna Salajan, later famed as the creator of Zen Comics, who also taught at the Kosmos center. “She taught a weekly course in psychic and emotional self-development,” Pollack remembers. “It was an amazing course, and she did a lot of esoteric ideas. A lot of my friends were taking her classes as well, and without that environment and that group of people, I might not have succeeded as well.”
During her time teaching at the center, Pollack collected all her thoughts on each card and kept them together in a journal. “When I did that, I thought that might be the basis for a book,” she said. “That was where Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom came from.” Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom (1980), Pollack’s first book on Tarot, was originally published in a two-volume Dutch translation, in Amsterdam. Later editions included the two-volume English original, and eventually the one-volume edition from Thorsons, familiar to many of today’s Tarot readers. It is a classic, card-by-card discussion of the spiritual, psychological and divinatory meanings of the Tarot. The first volume covered the Major Arcana in comprehensive detail, while the second covered the Minor Arcana and the process of doing readings. The second volume, Pollack said, was in some ways more exciting to write than the first. “The [Minors] were more of an open field,” she explained, with less tradition of interpretation than the Majors. “There were certainly guideposts to what they were about—the concepts of the elements, primarily. But also, I was writing about Pamela Colman Smith’s pictures, and the amazing thing about those pictures is their sense of story. Each picture is like a scene in a complicated story.”
Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom has been called a “landmark work,” a “classic of Tarot,” and even “the Bible of Tarot readers.” Mary K. Greer, author of Tarot for Your Self (1984), places it in her top ten Tarot books of all time, and Caitlín Matthews, creator of the Arthurian Tarot (2006) and the Da Vinci Enigma Tarot (2005), calls it “one of the most authoritative books on the Tarot ever written.” The book has been very influential in two ways. First, it helped convince people to think of Tarot reading as a spiritual and psychological tool. It was an early book in the 1980s movement of psychological and spiritual Tarot interpretations that included Greer’s Tarot for Your Self, Sallie Nichols’ Jung and Tarot (1980), and Angeles Arrien’s Tarot Handbook (1984). In addition to seeing the cards as filled with spiritual and psychological meanings, this movement also saw Tarot readings as the vehicle for deep explorations. “The great thing about readings,” Pollack explained, “is that the order is different each time you shuffle the cards. You can see them in combinations.” In this regard, Pollack and her contemporaries differed greatly from Tarot writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men like A. E. Waite, who said on p. 42 of his 1911 book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, “I hate the profanum vulgus of divinatory devices,” and saw the spiritual meanings of cards primarily as matters for meditation and for use in ceremonial magic. The ideas developed in the 1980s by Pollack and others, giving readings far greater scope and meaning, continue to hold sway in the Tarot world today.
Second, Pollack’s book taught a generation of Tarot readers the meanings of their cards. While Pollack drew heavily on A. E. Waite and also on Eden Gray in her discussions of the cards, she also put in many ideas of her own, developed through her intense studies of the images on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck—“loving the images,” as she puts it today. The essence of this approach is to “keep going back to the pictures, and not assume that we know what they mean.” Pollack is currently investigating where modern ideas of Tarot card meanings come from, and has discovered that at least a few of today’s prevalent ideas about the meanings of certain cards originated in her own book.
In 1980, Pollack still saw herself as a fiction writer who had taken a quick detour into writing about the Tarot. That began to change, however, as her reading (both of Tarot cards and of other people’s books) suggested another Tarot book. Her style of doing Tarot readings at the time was very thorough, and she went into great detail, trying to wring every last morsel of meaning from a spread. “I thought, ‘maybe it would be useful for people to see this method, since very few other people are doing it this way,’” she remembered. Influenced also by her readings in psychology, she envisioned the new book as a set of case studies. The result was Tarot: The Open Labyrinth (1986), later re-titled Tarot Readings and Meditations. “I did a reading, I got the people’s permission, and then…since it was in writing, and I could stop and think about it, I actually went into more depth [in the book] than I originally had in the reading.” The book contains seven readings, one simple three-card reading, three Celtic Cross readings, and three using the “Work Cycle” spread. It also includes two sample meditations, on the Fool and the Eight of Cups. It is a very useful complement to Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, and is sometimes considered the third volume of a trilogy formed with the two volumes of her previous book.
Pollack never felt like Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom and The Open Labyrinth constituted a trilogy, but she does think the perception helped her career. “Publishers and readers love trilogies. People saw [my work] as a trilogy, and that gave me a certain status in publishing.” As a result, Pollack began to receive commissions, including a book about Salvador Dali’s Tarot and a book about fortune-telling. “Seventy-Eight Degrees changed my professional life very drastically, by having me think of myself as a non-fiction writer as well as a fiction writer,” she remembered.
Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom also led to Pollack’s long association with the German artist Hermann Haindl and his groundbreaking deck, the Haindl Tarot (1988). Germany was always one of the countries where Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom sold best, in a one-volume mass market paperback made for the German market. As a result, Pollack was well known in Germany. When the Haindl Tarot’s original German publisher needed an author for the book that was to accompany the deck, he called Pollack. “I originally thought it was going to be a Little White Booklet, you know? Then Hermann and Erika Haindl showed up with their arms full of these amazing paintings, and it ended up as a 500 page book, published again in two volumes since it was such a huge work.” As with her first books, they were originally published in translation: the German version was published in 1988, the English original two years later.
This was a very different project from Seventy-Eight Degrees, Pollack explained. “Hermann Haindl is extremely political. His cards had a great deal of political content.” Haindl, she said, was a Hitler youth as a child, joined the army, and spent time in a horrific Russian POW camp. He returned to Germany, repudiated Nazism when he saw the evidence of what the Nazis had done, and eventually became a founder of the Green movement. As an example of the political nature of the deck, consider these passages from volume II of Pollack’s The Haindl Tarot:
“The Rider deck of Waite and Smith appeared in 1910, before World War I. The Haindl Tarot comes from the last quarter of the twentieth century, after both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, after the death camps and the famines, after civil wars and organized massacres. With such experience behind us, we cannot look at swords and not recognize their main function. A sword is possibly the first weapon designed entirely for human combat. Bows and arrows, like spears, were used for hunting. Axes and knives serve as tools. Swords exist only for heroic nobles to battle each other.” (p. 65)
“[Swords] show people’s dedication to making beautiful things, highly technical and elegant as well. This represents the achievement of intellect. And yet, they kill people. We find the same problem today. Some of the world’s brightest scientists and engineers devote their time to developing more and more sophisticated devices that can serve only one purpose—the extinction of all life on Earth. The time has come to find uses for the intellect that will serve the world and not destroy it.” (p. 67)
Pollack and Haindl were in agreement on most political issues, which helped them work together. Beyond this, Haindl was very interested in goddess religions, which Pollack also studied. He incorporated this interest into the deck, which features visionary artwork based on mythology of Indians, Europeans, Native Americans and Egyptians. All of this was exciting to Pollack, as was the simple luxury of spending time with the artist. “Imagine if before I wrote Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, I got to spend weeks with Waite and Smith, talking about the pictures and what their intentions were,” she marveled. Eventually, U.S. Games Systems, which publishes the Haindl Tarot in the United States, asked Pollack to revise her work into a one-volume version. Known as Haindl Tarot: A Reader’s Handbook (1999), it completed Pollack’s second unintentional trilogy.
After her work with Haindl, Pollack set her mind to another task: the creation of her own Tarot deck. She had been researching the explosion of new decks for her book The New Tarot (1989), which takes a critical look at over seventy Tarot decks that had been published since 1973. It seemed a logical step for Pollack to join in. “I guess I thought it would be a nice thing to do,” she remembered. “I’d done all these texts for all these other people…Waite, Haindl, Dali. And I just thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I do one?’” At the time, Pollack was also researching her book The Body of the Goddess (1997), an examination of sites of goddess worship all around the world. She had always loved “prehistoric,” “primitive,” and “tribal” art, and had experienced a lot of it, in situ and in museums. She decided to make it the basis of her Tarot deck.
Pollack was not a visual artist, so she planned to go the time-honored route followed by Waite, Aleister Crowley, and many other deck authors: design the deck, and hire an artist to execute it. As many less illustrious Tarot designers have discovered, however, this is easier said than done. Seventy-eight full-color illustrations constitute a large commission. Most artists can’t do it on spec, and most designers can’t pay up front. More than this, most good artists prefer to have more creative control than the typical Tarot format allows. After working with three artists, including award-winning comic-book artist and illustrator Dave McKean, Pollack was back to square one, with her own sketches, intended as models for a more accomplished artist. Pollack began putting some more effort into her own drawings, and went to renowned artist Niki de St. Phalle for an opinion.
De St. Phalle is well known in the Tarot community for her Tarot sculpture garden in Italy. While she was creating the garden, de St. Phalle had met Pollack and asked for a reading, which had helped her release the statues and let them live on their own. Pollack had continued her association with the artist, “reading” the sculpture garden itself, as though it were a Tarot spread, and also featuring the garden in her book The New Tarot. Now de St. Phalle had advice for Pollack: “Don’t find someone else, do your own pictures. These are great. Do it yourself.”
Pollack did not create the Shining Woman Tarot (1992) through an intensive conceptual design process. “Most Tarot decks that you see are conceptually designed,” she explained, “especially because there are two people doing them. Since I was doing it myself, I didn’t have to do that. Instead of having a concept, I just let pictures come to me.” Many of the designs were inspired by artworks and images from her research into prehistoric goddess worship. However, a surprising number were not. She had herself assumed that most of the cards were based on prehistoric art that she had seen, but on going through the cards one day, she discovered that more than half of the designs are completely original.
The deck draws on symbols and wisdom traditions from all over the world. For example, the two of rivers, which shows two fish swimming around each other, head to tail, bears an obvious resemblance to Pisces. But Pollack points out that it was originally inspired by the Yin-Yang symbol. “The Yin-Yang symbol can be seen as two fish, mouth to tail. And I tried to draw that, but you can’t, because fish are not shaped like that. So it ends up being more like Pisces.”
“In the Yin-Yang symbol,” she continued, “the black and white fit together perfectly. But with a dark and white fish, swimming around each other, there’s a void in the center. You have the extra symbol of the emptiness between them. They’re going round and round, which is a cycle, but the center of the cycle is an empty place, which is a very Taoist idea.”
The Shining Woman Tarot marries Pollack’s thorough knowledge of the Waite tradition to her equally detailed ideas about goddess culture and primitive art. The deck’s title derived from her title for card 21, known as The World in the traditional Tarot. It was Pollack’s name for the Goddess, her version of the figure commonly called the “World Dancer” in Tarot circles. The suits are Rivers, Trees, Birds, and Stones, while court cards (known instead as vision cards) are Place, Knower, Gift and Speaker. How well this will work in readings depends on the individual reader, but in any case it’s a powerful, colorful, primal deck.
In 2001, the deck was republished, along with Pollack’s 330-page, indispensable guidebook to the deck, as The Shining Tribe Tarot (2001). There were several reasons for this change of title. One was that there were changed cards, and Pollack wanted people to know that the deck was not exactly the same. More importantly, she wanted to signal that it was not a deck intended especially—or exclusively—for women to use. “I had found that people had misunderstood the title, and had thought that this was one of those feminist, woman-only decks, which it was never meant to be,” she said.
The new title also allowed her to play with several ideas: diviners and Tarot enthusiasts as a tribe, for example. More importantly, it gave her a jumping-off point for an origin myth, about a tribe of celestial beings who helped humans at the dawn of civilization, and gave us the images of the Tarot. This myth is recounted at the opening of the book, leading to the interesting question: why create such a myth, especially if you tell people at the outset that it’s a myth?
Pollack’s answer was both thoughtful and fascinating, showing her deep knowledge of Tarot history. She pointed out that the development of Tarot as an esoteric discipline was almost entirely based on the origin story invented by Antoine Court de Gébelin, in a 1781 volume of his encyclopedic work Le Monde Primitif. Having studied the development of Tarot card meanings, Pollack knew that Court de Gébelin’s interpretations have almost all been superseded by a long line of others, including those of Eliphas Lévi, Paul Christian, A. E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, Paul Foster Case, Eden Gray, and even Pollack herself. But Court de Gébelin’s origin story is still compelling to many. “The very fact that he made this amazing origin story, that the Tarot was the book of Thoth, and steeped in Egyptian mysteries, and passed on by Hermes Trimegistus, and so on…that became a compelling thing for people. And the fact that he said it had been disguised as a lowly card game, but had secret meanings.”
Although there has been a lot of historical research done that disproves all of Court de Gébelin’s claims, Pollack still encounters people who hold on to at least the central idea of his story. “You still find many, many people, even today, automatically assuming that Tarot is a secret message, and that it was designed to be a spiritual, secret, esoteric teaching, and then disguised as a lowly card game. So, origin stories are very compelling, and it was fun to make one up of my own.” In fact, Pollack has made up another origin story, this one for her 2002 book The Forest of Souls (2002). In that story, people from the future made the Tarot, and placed it in the past.
Between Shining Woman and Shining Tribe, Pollack was not idle. She helped design, and wrote the book for, DC Comics’ The Vertigo Tarot (1995); the surreal, gothic artwork is by Dave McKean. The full-color, coffee-table style tome The Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot (1999) also stands out among Pollack’s works in this period. Seen by many as an introductory book, it actually contains many insights that make it an interesting read even for an advanced Tarot enthusiast. Early on in the book, Pollack points out that Tarot is really the most characteristically European system of divination, containing “popes and jugglers, hermits and fools.” The unasked question, of course, is why so many people of European heritage try to ascribe the cards to Africans or Asians instead! With such food for thought, and concise sections on everything from plants depicted in the cards, to the Kabbalistic tree of life, to meditating with Tarot, it’s fun to browse. Finally, the rich illustrations include color photographs and cards from over fifty Tarot decks, and the pleasing design makes it one of the most attractive Tarot books on the market.
Pollack’s next Tarot work, The Forest of Souls, is at once Pollack’s most serious and most playful book about the Tarot, a worthy successor to Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. “It’s certainly one of the books I’m proudest of,” she agreed. The Forest of Souls grew from several sources. First were the special readings she called “wisdom readings,” in which she asked the Tarot for information about the Universe. The idea for those readings came out of some of the Tarot workshops Pollack has taught, particularly the joint course she teaches with Mary K. Greer every year at the Omega institute in Rhinebeck, New York. At Rhinebeck, she and Greer first performed a reading asking “what is the Soul” and then, several days later, “what is soul-making?” “The results were so fascinating,” Pollack remembered, “that I just began to pursue that direction, of asking the cards for their wisdom about spiritual questions.” Wisdom readings use the Tarot in conjunction with other wisdom traditions, to seek answers to such basic questions as “What is God?” Or they use other wisdom traditions as the basis for personal readings, such as one Pollack derived from sayings of Rabbi Hillel. Several such readings form the basis of The Forest of Souls.
In dreaming up wisdom readings, Pollack was embarking on an important project for contemporary Tarot practitioners. “In the 80s, what we were doing was rescuing the Tarot from fortune-telling,” she explained. “On one level, the Tarot had been narrowed down in the popular mind to formulas for predicting the future. On the esoteric level, there were these very complicated occult systems, which most people simply couldn’t understand. So one of the things we did, we started using a psychological approach to the cards and readings that gave the readings much more dimension.”
However, their approach, and the Tarot renaissance that went with it, has been almost too successful. She tells a story about students in one of her classes who were totally unable to describe the picture on the Nine of Wands, instead offering slight variations on what they felt to be its psychological meaning. This turn away from imagery and toward psychology is an imbalance, she feels. “Now I say that we have to rescue the Tarot from psychology!” To this end, she continues to do both wisdom readings and personal readings, incorporating storytelling and spiritual insights along with the standard psychological techniques. For the wisdom readings, she prefers her own Shining Tribe deck, because her personal connection with the images draws out the most meaningful answers. For other readings, she uses a wide variety of decks, but reaches most often for the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, or one based on it.
In addition to wisdom readings, The Forest of Souls was very much influenced by Pollack’s reading in a variety of fields. She mentioned especially David Rosenberg’s literary and spiritual exigesis of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, entitled Dreams of Being Eaten Alive: The Literary Core of the Kabbalah (2000). She likened that work to her readings in the 1970s, in the field of ethnopoetics. “I like their approach to things. That you can approach these subjects through a poetic fascination, steeped deeply in the knowledge of the issues.” Pollack’s book also draws on more conventional aspects of Jewish philosophy deriving from Talmudic and midrashic teachings. Finally, she drew once again on the research she has done on goddess worship in antiquity. The result is, as she deems it in the book’s subtitle, “a walk through the Tarot,” or possibly even a ramble, with fascinating side-trips down spiritual byways seldom explored by conventional card-Readers.
As one of the Tarot world’s leading Jewish thinkers, Pollack has an interesting approach to the connection between Tarot and Kabbalah. Tarot and Kabbalah, she feels, were not intimately connected in their origins; much of the connection between the two traditions was invented by eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century occultists, especially Court de Gébelin and Eliphas Lévi. Still, she feels that this doesn’t matter much, for two reasons. First, the numerical correspondences work very well. There really are the same number of trumps in a Tarot deck as letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and the same number of suits in a deck as “worlds” in the Kabbalah tradition, and the same number of pip cards in each suit as sephiroth on the Kabbalistic tree of life. These numerical correspondences allowed Court de Gébelin to make his claims in the first place, and they are still compelling today.
Second, Pollack points out that most decks since the eighteenth century have been designed with Kabbalah connections in mind, or based on decks that were. This encodes Kabbalah directly into the Tarot decks that most of us use. She particularly likes the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, because Waite and Smith included “little Kabbalistic touches,” rather than overwhelming the deck with overt references on each card. “There are so many decks that include esoteric symbolism, and they kind of hit you in the face,” she reflected. “You kind of look at it, and you say, ‘I can’t do anything with this, because I don’t know what the symbols mean.’ Whereas in the Rider deck, you don’t have to, because it isn’t in your face in that way. The more you learn, the more meaningful it becomes, but you don’t actually have to learn that stuff. And I think that’s very valuable.”
More importantly, Pollack goes back to the original Jewish Kabbalah tradition, which is different from, and more dynamic than, the Hermetic Kabbalah (often written as Qabalah) employed by Court de Gébelin, Lévi, and the Golden Dawn. “In a certain sense,” she confessed, “my approach came out of ignorance.” Pollack grew up in an orthodox Jewish household, but like many Jews, never heard of Kabbalah until she was out of her parents’ home. In fact, she began reading about Kabbalah because of its connections to Tarot. As a Jewish person, she sought out Jewish texts, and never realized until later that she was reading in a tradition quite different from the one employed in Tarot circles. Hermetic Qabalah, she explained, consists of exhaustive, systematic correspondences between Jewish Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, Tarot, and other esoteric fields. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be memorizing lists of things,” she remembered. “I thought I would just read about Kabbalah, and find out what it’s about, and then apply what I read to what I knew of the cards.”
Once she discovered the difference between her own Kabbalah readings and the work being done by others, she became somewhat “chauvinist” about her approach, believing it was narrow-minded to study lists matching cards with letters, directions, elements, angels, demons, and other things. “I’ve not been a member of a secret society,” she said, “where you had to memorize all that stuff and do complicated rituals.” Eventually, however, she came to realize that many people were deriving great value from those lists, including people she respected such as Lon Milo Duquette. Now she realizes that the lists must have something to offer…but they still don’t interest her much. “Maybe I just lack the gene for systems,” she speculated.
What does interest her, she said, are stories. She pointed me to chapter twelve of The Forest of Souls, “The Woman on the Camel,” which is a discussion of the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac, and Isaac’s wife Rebecca. It is an exegetical tour de force, incorporating discussions of two Tarot trumps (The High Priestess and The Lovers), one Hebrew letter (gimel), several previous Tarot analysts (including Case, Crowley, and Arrien), and various interpretations of the Biblical book of Genesis.
Scholars might point out that, despite the timelessness of its themes, this great chapter could not have been written before the twentieth century. In 1909, Crowley published the Golden Dawn’s Book T, which reassigned the Fool to aleph and thus reordered the whole sequence of trumps with respect to their Hebrew letters. Before that, the High Priestess was assigned the letter bet, not the letter gimel. In addition to being the name of the third letter of the aleph-bet, gimel is Hebrew for “camel,” and Pollack’s whole story depends on the High Priestess being associated with a camel. No matter: Pollack was not interested in arguing which sequence was more original or more correct. Like the award-winning novelist she is, she went for the one that made the best story.
In general, Pollack is not much concerned with choosing a system; instead she likes to choose the best of all systems, even elements that seem contradictory. “I prefer to see Strength and 8 and Justice as 11, because that really works for me,” she said. “But I also think you could just as soon do it the other way around. And it’s really valuable to think of it as both.” In The Forest of Souls, she similarly shows that The Fool can be seen as both the next-to-last of the trumps sequence, as Lévi taught, and the beginning, as the Golden Dawn believed. As she points out in the book, it’s no harder than believing the universe is made of a material that can be both matter and energy, both wave and particle.
Pollack’s most recent Tarot volume is Seeker (2005). This book takes the card-by-card approach she used for Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, but aims the exploration at a younger and less experienced audience. Seeker melds the more in-depth descriptions of Pollack’s earlier books with the promise of “learning to read Tarot cards quickly and easily.” To this end, it provides “keywords,” “elemental quality,” and “number quality” for each card. Pollack wrote the book for teenagers, so that (for example) the reversed King of Pentacles is said to “question his values and wonder if he’s focused too much on what he owns—all the clothes, or DVDs, or computer games.” Some of the most common points of reference in the text are schoolwork and the high school social scene.
Because they were concerned that some of the sexual issues discussed in the book might reach an inappropriately young audience, Llewellyn removed the most overt statements that Seeker was a book for teens, and published it as an all-ages book for beginners. “It’s done very well, so I’m not complaining,” Pollack said. Still, had she known, she might have chosen different examples much of the time. “It must be odd for people in their thirties and forties, who see this book that says it’s a book for people to get to know the Tarot, and they like it and take it home…and there’s all this stuff about high school!” Pollack’s adult friends report that this is not a problem for them, with some even praising it as “the best book on Tarot they’d ever read.” It remains, also, an excellent book for teenagers who are mature enough for discussions of sexuality.
Pollack teaches two monthly courses, one in her home in upstate New York, the other in New York City. Some classes are more standard introductory courses, in which all aspects of Tarot, from esoteric meanings to specific readings, are discussed. Usually, these focus on a theme that she has chosen for the month, incorporating simple description, readings and storytelling into the day’s activities. Other classes are intensives, in which a whole session will be spent on one or two cards.
Pollack also continues to team up with Mary K. Greer, for a summer class at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The institute, which she calls “a residential summer camp for spiritual adults,” has been featuring her course with Greer for over twenty years. Readers can find out more be emailing Pollack’s business manager at email@example.com, and getting themselves on her email list.
Making connections between stories and Tarot is still Pollack’s passion today. Her next book, for example, draws heavily on a Talmudic story of two angels who come to earth and are led into temptation. It also goes deeply into the myth of Persephone. Pollack doesn’t believe that the Tarot was designed with either of these stories in mind, but both of them help elucidate, and are in turn elucidated by, the Tarot. The book, entitled Wisdom’s Journey, is due out soon from Llewellyn. “For me, the Major Arcana is a template for all mythology and spiritual concepts,” she concluded. “Everything shows up in it.”
Other future projects for Pollack include two publications from Magic Realist Press. The first, The See of Logos, is a tongue-in-cheek oracle deck that will be released in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. Sample images are available on the Magic Realist website, http://www.magic-realist.com/. The other is a book of short stories that she describes as fairy tales for adults. “Each one of them involves either Tarot or divination, if only just in passing,” she said. “That book is entitled Tarot of Perfection.” The title story concerns a scholar who sets out to produce “the perfect Tarot.” “It’s about what happens in his life because of that obsession,” she said. The rest of the stories sound equally intriguing, and Pollack is very pleased with the book. “It has a fairy tale, fun quality,” she explained, “and at the same time, I feel that there are some really serious spiritual ideas that I developed in my Tarot books.”
Asked for final advice for our readers, she began: “Trust your own sense of the pictures. I think that’s really significant. So many people feel that whatever they see in it must be meaningless, because other people have seen such great stuff.”
“I have this person I was tutoring for a while,” she went on, “this wonderful woman out in Oregon. I said to her, ‘for your next class, take The Fool and The Magician and write down everything you know about them, just write it down in a journal.’ So I called up next time, and I said ‘so what did you come up with for The Fool?’ She said ‘Oh, well, it’s all stuff everyone has done before, I feel silly even talking about it.’ Well, it was this great stuff that I’d never heard of before! She just made these wonderful connections. But she assumed that they were worthless, that everyone else had done it before her.”
“So that’s something I’d say to people. Just really look at the picture yourself. And really believe that what you see in it is meaningful, because it is!”
“Sneaky,” I thought: “even when asked for advice, she managed to tell me a story!”