Breaking Every Rule: Mary K. Greer’s Life in Tarot

By Steve Winick

The last year and a half has been an exciting time for Mary K. Greer. For one thing, she has won three major awards. Long recognized as one of the leading authors in the Tarot field, Greer is still surprised at the recent recognition. “This is really quite extraordinary for me,” she said in an August, 2007 interview, “because I’m not somebody who normally gets awards! I didn’t even get trophies for swimming or things like that!” Of course, no one wants to dwell too much on awards, which sometimes amount to little more than popularity contests. But in this case, there’s something compelling about the prizes. If you look closely, they’re like that old Tarot-reader’s standby, the three-card spread: as individual cards, they may be impressive, but read as a whole they describe a truly outstanding life in Tarot.

To begin with, let’s take the Mercury award, given each year by the Mary Redman Foundation to “an individual whose work has delivered to us, in some unique way, the message of the gods.” Greer got the very first Mercury award, in 2006, for her very first book, the 1984 classic Tarot for Your Self. Naturally, this award stands for the past, a very accomplished card 1 for her three-card spread. Card 2, for present influences, was dealt when Greer’s newest book, 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, also won a major prize; the Coalition of Visionary Resources, a New Age and spiritual trade organization, named it 2007’s best book in the divination category. In between these two books, Greer spent twenty-three years as a leader in the Tarot community. As if to drive home this point, her third recent award, The International Tarot Award, is described by the Association for Tarot Studies as a “Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions.” For Mary K. Greer, it’s the perfect “outcome card” for her three-card spread.

Like the cards in a reading, these awards seem to complement each other in uncanny ways, too. Consider this: given that the Mary Redman Foundation is dedicated to “esoteric sciences which teach us about…a dynamic relationship between the soul and the stars,” one might expect their first award to go to an astrologer. Greer’s Mercury award, then, was not only a recognition of the importance of her book, but a vote of confidence for Tarot among the various metaphysical paths. The International Tarot Award did the corollary, by giving a vote of confidence to metaphysics in the world of Tarot. According to Jean-Michel David, who organized the award, once the nominees had been selected, they fell into two camps, “those with a predominant interest in the history and development of tarot; and those with a dominant influence in tarot usage.” Greer was one of the practitioners, and in her opinion the award reflected the organization’s “recognition of the Tarot practitioner over the historian or theorist.”

How does such an exemplary career get started? Greer filled me in. It was 1967, and she was in college. A friend got an unusual Christmas present, a copy of Eden Gray’s classic manual The Tarot Revealed. “I was so jealous that she had gotten this book,” Greer remembered, “because as a little kid, we moved a lot, and my mother would always take me to libraries. And by the time I was 10, I had worked out that I would go to the card catalog of any new library, and look up ‘gypsy,’ ‘magic’ and ‘witch.’” After coveting the book, Greer decided to go on a quest for her own pack of Tarot cards. She heard about a strange store on the far side of Tampa. She borrowed a car and made the journey. “It was not only Tarot cards,” she remembered. “The whole store fulfilled my fantasies of ‘gypsy, magic and witch!’” She bought her first pack, a Rider-Waite-Smith deck from University Books. At the time, she was a literature major, studying Jung and Joseph Campbell in classes on archetypal criticism. “It all came together when I realized that the images on my deck allowed me to tell the kinds of mythic stories that all that archetypal criticism was about. So we could see the hero’s journey in somebody’s life by reading the Tarot cards. And it was just a huge awakening for me.”

Her decision to make Tarot part of her career was immediate. “I started talking to teachers and writing these papers, and I started blowing them away because I was so excited and working on cutting-edge material. I realized that Tarot was the key to that, and I needed to follow it. I knew that it would take me on a journey. I decided right away that I was going to teach Tarot in college, and I was going to write a book about the Tarot.” Her initial investigations of the Tarot were therefore quite serious. “I kind of saw myself in the future, as a little old lady, writing down my life experiences. So I started out, right away, saying ‘I need to collect information, and knowledge, for this book that I’m going to someday write!’”

She learned to read the cards, and even to do professional readings for others. At the same time, she read up on the history and mystery of the Tarot deck. She began with literary approaches, and from there incorporated more psychological and mystical readings, including the works of Aleister Crowley, Richard Roberts, and many others. She took the popular Tarot course offered by the mystical order Builders of the Adytum (BOTA). All along, she still wanted to write her own Tarot book, but something was holding her back. “I said, ‘what do I have to say that’s different from what all these other Tarot authors have said over the years? Do I have anything different to say?’”

By the 1980s, she was appearing at Tarot conferences, and a remarkable thing happened. “I realized I had a different approach! I was teaching workshops in journal writing at a college that I was teaching at,” she explained, “and I realized that that was really the key to how I was using Tarot. I was using it for myself; it was this very personal process. And I was going against what all the other books said to do. Because they all said ‘don’t do Tarot for yourself.’ There were maybe only two or three books that hesitatingly said, ‘of course, you CAN read Tarot for yourself,’ but then they never said anything more beyond that. So I realized, that really is a new area that nobody’s touched on, so that’s where I can bring in something new and different. So that’s really how Tarot for Your Self came about. I used the techniques that I’d been using in the writing classes, and the experiments I was doing with Tarot.”

Another thing she believes made the book special was its workbook format. As students move through the exercises, they write answers to many questions, and perform many exercises, in spaces provided in the book. “I was teaching basic skills in a college, and I was influenced by some wonderful textbooks teaching study skills and basic grammar,” she explained. “I was very impressed by the way they would hold somebody’s hand through a process, and slowly develop a concept. So I really should give credit to that!”

The book was immediately successful on the relatively small Tarot scene. “It was the right time and place, it really was,” Greer remembered. “People were hungry for it, because everybody was reading Tarot for themselves. They were doing it somewhat surreptitiously, because the books said not to…so it was like this huge secret that everybody knew, and a rule that nobody followed. Yet nobody really knew how to talk about it!” Greer believes the book freed a lot of Tarot devotees to follow their own paths, by breaking established Tarot taboos, such as the one about not reading for oneself. “My philosophy was that taboos are what the word originally meant, which is sacred,” she explained. “So I started to look at the Tarot taboos that way, and said ‘what if these are sacred, holy things, but that we just need to be careful how we do them?’ So I just broke every rule I could find! And I recommended that in the book.”

Greer’s next two Tarot books, Tarot Constellations and Tarot Mirrors, blended the workbook concept with more traditional, informational books. “I sometimes call Tarot Constellations my ‘cookbook,’” she said, “because in it I did tell readers what I thought of personality, soul and year cards, which in the first book I deliberately didn’t. In the first book I gave exercises to help you find out what they might mean for yourself.” As she was writing Tarot Constellations, however, she found herself growing unsatisfied. “As I wrote down everything about personality and soul cards, and some of the other things in there, I wondered to myself, ‘where’s the heart and soul of it?’”

This question led directly to her next book, Tarot Mirrors. Tarot Mirrors was based on a number of more personal events, including Greer’s own visions and dreams, as well as some striking moments of synchronicity. As an example of the latter, she explained her discovery of Tarot correspondences in On the Nature of Personal Reality, one of the books written by Jane Roberts out of channeled messages from the multidimensional personality Seth. Greer had begun reading the book some years previously, but had stopped, and had never picked it up again. Needing a text for a writing course, she selected it on the spur of the moment, and reading it this time, she noticed exact correspondences between Seth’s lessons and the Tarot. For years, she had been taking notes in books in what she calls “Tarotese”: she would use the Major Arcana as shorthand and write in the margins which cards corresponded to the concepts under discussion in the book. When she did that with this book, the cards came out in the familiar sequence of the Major Arcana, beginning at 0 with the Fool. “It went along this way until I got to Death. And then Seth was talking about creative life energy, and I said, ‘Oh, Seth, you’ve led me along this far, for all these cards, and now you’ve let me down!’ And I turned the page, and Seth says, ‘and this creative life energy, you humans call Death.’”

All this is spooky, of course, and Greer hasn’t read the Roberts book since. “I wonder if I would see the same things? I don’t know if I would. Something happened, and it was very powerful, and I had to do what I had to do.”

There is much more to Tarot Mirrors, the final book of what is often called Greer’s “trilogy,” than the Seth correspondences; she was, after all, attempting to represent the heart and soul of Tarot. For one thing, she revisits and reconsiders the conclusions of the 19th century occultist Papus, whose work had been denigrated or trivialized for years. In Tarot Mirrors she writes of Papus, “I have found his structural understanding of the Tarot to be enlightening not only in metaphysical contemplation, but also in the very practical work of readings.” Combining ideas from Papus and Seth, Greer provides a complex but rewarding system for exploring deep personal issues in readings. Looking back on the book, she sees it as more philosophical and less emotional than she felt it was when she wrote it. “It gets into the ideas behind Tarot much more. I really explored what are the elements, historically. And I examined the symbolism, on many levels.”

After finishing her “trilogy,” Greer spent a good deal of time and energy researching the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the famous magical order whose heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her interest in the Golden Dawn began with the Tarot; the BOTA course on Tarot, which Greer had followed, was based on Golden Dawn teachings, and anyone studying Tarot’s correspondences to Astrology and Kabbalah must eventually grapple with the order’s teachings on the subject. The Golden Dawn and its related organizations also included Arthur Edward Waite, Pamela Colman Smith, Aleister Crowley, and Frieda Harris, the principal authors of today’s most popular Tarot decks. In all, it seemed eminently worthy of study for a serious Tarot reader.

Greer’s research on the Golden Dawn has informed all of her later Tarot work, but it was particularly influential on her next two books. First came The Essence of Magic: Tarot, Ritual, and Aromatherapy. This work began as an attempt to explore correspondences between the Tarot deck and flower essences. That path, however, proved difficult for Greer, as her attempts to attend workshops and gather information were thwarted. Eventually, she began to be interested in essential oils, and realized that these had some of the same characteristics as the flowers she was originally studying. “As soon as I saw that, all these things started falling into place,” she remembered. The Golden Dawn had established correspondences between the Major Arcana and various perfumes, which were a useful starting place. At about the same time, Greer became friends with several expert herbologists and was able to learn from them. A practicing magician and witch in her own right, Greer added her own ritual practice to these elements, and, as she says, “combined it all together” to create the book.

Delving more deeply into the history and practices of the Golden Dawn, Greer’s next major work was the historical account Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses. “I was especially fascinated, because I knew that this was one of the first magical organizations where men and women worked together as equals,” she explained. When she began reading about the order, Greer already knew a bit about Maud Gonne; as a literature major, she had read a lot of Yeats, and his relationship with Gonne is at the heart of many of his best-known poems. She was interested in theater, so Florence Farr’s roles as an actress and director, and Annie Horniman’s as a producer, fascinated her. Finally, learning that many of the Golden Dawn’s teachings were channeled from the spirit world by Moina Mathers made her curious about this little-known, but crucial, Golden Dawn figure. In her studies of the organization, she soon learned that the four women could be considered the spiritual center of the Golden Dawn. “My theory was that the Golden Dawn would never have become the powerful organization it did, with the real understanding of magic, especially visionary magic and the scrying process, if it hadn’t been for these women,” she said. “So I set out to prove it.”

The book also contains an appendix devoted to Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who collaborated with Waite to produce what is often known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Smith was the artist who drew all seventy-eight cards; Waite gave her the specifications on what to draw, but it’s not clear how detailed they were, especially for the Minor Arcana. Since this was the first modern deck with scenes on each Minor Arcana card, Greer thinks it’s likely that Smith had quite a bit of input into the ultimate feel and design of the deck. “She came up with the images in the Minor Arcana based on what I’m very convinced were the stories of the Grail, and additionally some Masonic materials that Waite talked to her about.” Although she speaks of Waite showing Smith materials and discussing them with her, Greer does not rule out other, more mystical methods of obtaining the information. She pointed out that Smith experienced synaesthesia: pictures were created in her mind when she heard music, and when she drew them, the composers would often report that she had reproduced or reflected the messages they had intended the music to convey. When doing this kind of drawing, Smith claimed that if she added or changed anything in the image, it would vanish from her mind. “She had to train herself to stay open to what was coming through,” Greer explained. “And I think that’s what happened in this deck.” (In addition to the appendix in Women of the Golden Dawn, Greer has written a separate article on the Rider-Waite-Smith Minor Arcana, which was published in the 2006 issue of Llewellyn’s Tarot Reader.)

Since her study of the Golden Dawn, Greer has continued writing Tarot books, often inspired by the courses she teaches, which range from introductory workshops to the three-day course she gives at the Omega Institute with her long-time teaching partner, Rachel Pollack. “I love it in a class, when someone will say, ‘I just can’t get this,’ and I have to come up with something on the spot to help that person have a breakthrough,” she said. “That’s where most of my techniques have come from.” Given this insight, it’s not surprising that two of her more recent books, The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals and Understanding the Tarot Court, focus on the thorny elements of reading Tarot that are often people’s sticking points.

“Reversals had always been a little bit of a sticking point for me,” she said, “but I always found it worthwhile to struggle with it.” The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals taught her a lot about these tricky upside-down cards, including, she said, to be careful around them! “Upright cards are pretty much overt, obvious, out there, direct,” she said, “and reversals are not. I like to think of them as being ‘red-flagged’ in that there’s something about them that we have to pay special attention to. Even if it’s the best thing in the world to have happen to us, it’s got some kind of twist in it. You have to be very sensitive to what that is. Sometimes it can take you into a very deep inner place, into a dream world. It can give you tremendous insights; it can show you where your blocks are, where your resistances are.” Once again, her outer life developed synchronicities with her Tarot work; working on this book ushered in an era of reversals in her life, including everything from small injuries, financial mishaps, and computer glitches up to weeks in a back-brace, her stepdaughter’s developing breast cancer and, equally dramatically, her divorce, which was finalized the day she began to write about the Death reversal. “The book helped me see it as a series of deep learning experiences, and to get everything I could out of them so that I wouldn’t have to repeat any of those things again.”

As for the court cards, like other people, Greer has found them difficult in the past. But she has worked diligently on them in her classes, helping others come to grips with them, and she came to writing Understanding the Tarot Court with a storehouse of exercises she had used. Because court cards can represent people in your life, she said, understanding them “requires a lot more of looking deeply, and observing, and being aware of personality characteristics.” Her book, co-written with Tom Little, explores various aspects of the court, including their resonances for family, society, relationships, and the querent’s own personality. For the querent, one thing does usually hold true, in her opinion. The court cards, “always, always, always represent an aspect of yourself,” she said. “It may be an aspect that you’re projecting on to someone else, but remember, the more you project, the less you are willing to own that aspect of yourself.”

The positive lesson you can take from this, she said, is that “those people can be great teachers for you, of those qualities. To say ‘a reversed Queen of Swords is somebody at work who means you harm,’ is, I think, a very potentially harmful thing to say. You’re going to be on the lookout, and suspicious of anybody who’s black haired, and of a certain age. The tendency is to create what you expect, and to see anything this person does as an evil, harmful thing.” On the other hand, she pointed out, “If you own it as an aspect of yourself, then your major obligation is to find out where it is in you, but also to figure out if there’s somebody who may be playing that role for you. And the court reversals, I like to see them as ways in which the cards’ energy cannot be smoothly or directly expressed. So the reversed queen of swords may be an intellectual woman in a context where her intellect is being put down. So she’s going to use her quick wits in a rather nasty way. And that’s what I think may be going on with a lot of the reversed court cards.”

Her most recent Tarot book, the one that won the Coalition of Visionary Resources award, is 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card. Like her previous two works, it grew out of the workshops she has been giving for the last thirty years. Also, it revisits and expands some of the key areas in her first book. “I had wanted for a long time to do a book based on the kinds of things I do in my workshops and classes,” she said. “Some of that is material out of Tarot for Your Self; I still do some of those exercises. But I’ve developed so many more, and I wanted to give people the experience of that.” As one might expect, the book is essentially a comprehensive set of Tarot workshops in book form, laying out twenty-one lessons designed to familiarize students with the cards. Each activity can be done at two levels, an apprentice level and an adept level, creating a total of forty-two levels. Some of the lessons involve multiple activities, making the book a treasure-trove of hands-on exercises.

“I’m very much into multi-dimensional education,” she explained, “teaching that uses all of the senses, and from as many different perspectives as possible. Everybody’s got a different learning style; what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to make sense for another person.” Greer carefully avoided some of the tempting clichés of Tarot, too. After all, there are twenty-one stations on what is often called “the Fool’s journey” through the Major Arcana. “I played around with corresponding each one of the ways of reading with one of the Major Arcana cards,” she said. “I let that go, because I found that I was putting things in an order that I didn’t want them to be in, and I was pushing my metaphors, and letting the correspondence to the card take over. And I didn’t want that to happen. A discerning reader can find hints of it in there, but I wanted the material to really work, so I let go of any system that could be somewhat artificial.”

In writing 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, Greer said, “I also came clean about my own style of reading, which I came up with a name for. My ex-husband Ed suggested “Reading that is Interactive, Transformational and Empowering, because I had been using those terms, and he said, ‘that spells rite! R.I.T.E. You should call it that!’ So I did, and it’s helpful because it gives people something to grasp on to.”

Asked about her readings, Greer was happy to expand. Her favorite deck is the Rider-Waite-Smith. “I personally think that’s the most fascinating deck that there is,” she said. “It’s intrigued me for forty years.” Her favorite spread? The Celtic Cross. “Although I use lots of other spreads when I’m reading for myself, or when I’m teaching,” she said, “when I really want to get the most out of the experience I tend to fall back on the Celtic cross. Partly because I know it so well; I know all of its alleyways, and underground passageways between the cards. So it helps me to see a pattern in the person’s situation very quickly and easily.” She likes to give long, thorough readings. “I like to do readings that are about an hour and a half long. And in that hour and a half, we pretty much touch—at least touch—on everything that’s in 21 Ways.”

As for questions, she has preferences on that, too. “I find so many times that people ask the wrong question. Then half or more of the reading is struggling to figure out what’s really going on, when the question that they asked was not what the whole spread is about. The core question that I prefer reading with is ‘what do I most need to look at in my life right now?’ I like that because it’s easy to add “around my relationships,” or “around my relationship with so-and-so,’ or ‘around my need to make money.’ By asking it in that open-ended way, the cards themselves, especially the cross itself, those two crossed cards in the middle, will tell us exactly what the issue is. So the cards themselves narrow it down almost immediately, and get right to the heart of it.”

Asked how she thinks Tarot works, she laughed. She’s played around with a lot of theories, she said. But in the end, she admitted, “I have no idea.” That’s not to say she doesn’t know how a good many readings work. Readings, she acknowledges, are related to therapy sessions. This has been deliberately true in the latter half of the twentieth century, when many Tarot readers began to be overtly influenced by psychological and therapeutic models. Greer sees herself as part of that movement, in her use of Jungian ideas and approaches from Gestalt psychology. Greer also made another fascinating point about Tarot and therapy, though: modern forms of divination, including Tarot, may draw from psychology, but psychology has equally drawn from older instances of divination. “Divination, which is one of the oldest human cultural artifacts, has always been a form of folk therapy,” she said. “Folk therapy, by which I mean divination and other forms of traditional advice-giving, has been around a lot longer than psychology. We’ve learned a lot from psychology and scientific therapeutic techniques. But all that is based on something that was not owned by any particular professional group for thousands and thousands of years.”

As for the mechanics of a reading, that too can be understood psychologically. “You can look at Tarot readings entirely as projective experiences,” she said. “It’s projecting onto the images on the cards, whether you as the reader are doing the projecting or you as the client are being guided through a process of expressing projections. Either way, it’s a projective device.” But, she has studied psychology closely, and she knows it wouldn’t be right to dismiss a Tarot reading as “just a projection.” On the contrary, “that’s who and what we are,” she cautioned. “We are our projections! And from that point of view that’s all we need to explain Tarot.”

On the other hand, there are other readings, and especially individual moments in readings, that can’t be easily explained. There are many times, she said, when querents approach her with specific questions, she turns up the first two cards in the spread, and, in her words, “there are no other cards that would have been more literal statements of what the person just said. Then, that shiver goes up your back, and everything for me just lights up. And I can’t explain that. We can all it ‘synchronicity,’ we can call it ‘quantum physics,’ or ‘string theory of multi-dimensional universes.’ You can call it anything you want! I love it!”