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  • Writer's pictureTero Goldenhill

30 Years of Tarot: My Life in the Cards

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

January, 1991: Outside: snow falling down. Inside: an old, wooden table in front of me. On the table, Oswald Wirth cards with their golden shimmer, waiting for me. No matter how difficult the day had been - arguing with mum or dad, problems at school, turbulence of the teenage years - in this moment everything became aligned, centered. Nothing else existed. Breathing in and out, the pack of cards waiting. This is my meditation. Bow to the High Priestess.

I suppose my interest in the tarot boils down to an inherent interest in human behaviour, which in turn boils down to psychology: why we think, feel and behave the way we do. Growing up in Finland, then in the Middle East, then back in Finland exposed me to a wide range of cultures, languages and habits. In Iraq, we lived in a global community, with people coming and going from the four corners of the world. My mum was a teacher. This offered a backstage pass into the microcosm of the staffroom and the mind of a teacher. I remember her thinking out loud why certain students were behaving the way they were, because of the situation at their home. I began to see and understand certain behaviour patterns, and how our actions in the external world are linked to the internal world. At age 12 I became obsessed with parapsychology. I read most of the books available in the town library. It was there when I first saw images of tarot cards, most likely in The Tarot by Richard Cavendish. Soon after I saw the Bond movie Live and Let Die for the first time. Jane Seymour as Solitaire accurately predicting future events made me think that maybe I could also become a successful fortune-teller. In December 1990, at the age of 13, I opened the box of the Waite-Smith (Rider-Waite Tarot) cards: it was a life-changing moment. It felt as if I had met a very old, dear friend after many years. So began my journey as a tarot reader.

Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973)

Looking back now, I'm extremely grateful I began from the fortune-telling side. At the time it was the only use I knew for tarot cards. After about three, four years I was already fed up with it. I began to see how "self-fulfilling prophecy" was no joke: even those of my friends who said they wouldn't take the reading too seriously were clearly affected by it, one way or the other. I became aware of the impact a single reading can have in decision-making and life in general. The fact that my readings were rather myopic to begin with ("Six of Swords, you will make a journey by water, but with this Five of Coins it will be a bad trip") didn't help matters.

I began to see the importance of the present moment: if I change something here and now, it will affect the future. By changing the present, I'm changing the future.

Fortune-telling became less and less important after this.

A sacrifice (November, 1992): I had received a Marseille type deck, which I didn't like. I just couldn't connect with it. I decided to sacrifice it to the River. I stood on one of the old, wooden bridges that crosses the river, and waited for the right moment. It was cold, frost everywhere, wrapping the world in white around me. The water hadn't frozen yet. When I couldn't see anyone else, I began throwing the cards into the dark waters below. "This is for you... receive this gift. Let this flow far, far into the future, returning back into you. One, two, three... receive these images back into yourself."

During my early years with the tarot there was one book that became almost like a Bible to me in its importance: Shattered Moon by Kate Green (1985). The book features Theresa Fortunato, a psychic who uses tarot cards to help the police solve murder cases. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when the police go to interview Elizabeth Brandon, a famous psychic and mentor of Theresa Fortunato. Here's a clip of the dialogue between Lieutenant Oliver Jardine and Elizabeth Brandon:

'May I ask you a question about the significance of the sword cards in the Tarot?' he asked. 'This hasn't been made public, but the murderer has used some of the pictures from the sword cards as a basis for the murders.' 'Then he will die by his own hand.' He hesitated. 'You know this psychically?' 'No. But I do know the first law of black magic - that when one uses the ancient forces of magic for an evil purpose, the evil will always return to one. There is nothing inherently evil about the Tarot or the suit of swords. They simply exist. Like a universal law, like two plus two equals four. Individuals distort the laws, they always have. That is why dealing with them is a waste of time. Better to strengthen the healing forces on the planet. You see, there is so little time. There is so much confusion.'

Finnish editions of Shattered Moon by Kate Green and Tarot Classic by Stuart R. Kaplan


I wished I had someone like Elizabeth Brandon in my own life to guide me with the cards. The answer to my prayers came in the form of another book, Tarot (1994) by Pia Virtakallio. It arrived at a crucial moment, when I was just about to give up the cards, dismissing them as nothing more than a fortune-teller's tool. Pia Virtakallio was the epitome of lifelong learning: she had completed her NLP Master Practitioner training when she was almost 80. She knew her Grof, Fromm, and Jung. She knew hypnotherapy, she had done ESP research. You name it, Virtakallio was always one step ahead of everyone else. She also had a mind like a bacon slicer. Virtakallio's book answered the one question I had gone over in my head again and again: to what end should the tarot be used? The answer was, "Self-knowledge".

"Tarot may be of assistance, when we try to reach a balance within ourselves or try to understand others better. If we understand ourselves better, we have a chance to grow. If we understand others better, we have a chance to build better relationships." (Pia Virtakallio: Tarot)

Pia Virtakallio (1919-2010)

Suddenly everything became clear. The real potential of tarot was not in fortune-telling, but in something else: the cards were a mirror, showing us what was going on inside of us, in our psyche and unconscious.

I took the cards everywhere I went: to military service in Lapland (Swiss 1JJ deck was perfect with its military flair), to holidays abroad, to our summer cottage, to school, to friends. You could do a reading while travelling on the train or bus, or when sitting on the rooftop of the school.

Going pro

I'd imagine most children, when asked "What will you be when you grow up?", wouldn't answer "A tarot reader!". My career options included a professional forger (I remember thinking there's got to be good money in it, provided you're really good), a vampirologist or a demonologist. Mum and dad were not impressed. I settled on the vampirologist. I taught myself the basics of Romanian, as presumably that would come handy. Ce mai faceţi? -Bine, mulțumesc. Dar dumneavoastră? When I found out the nearest place where I could study the subject was Sweden, my interest dropped. Dracu.

I set up my business, Tarotpuu (Tree of Tarot) in 2007, after 17 years of doing readings or reading about the cards, almost on a daily basis. In case you're thinking of going pro, I don't think it's necessary to wait quite that long. Gaining confidence is important. With tarot, that means doing readings. Lots of them. Especially for others, people you don't know. Then again, if you wait until you're really good, you might have to wait forever. As my Art Therapy teacher Marianne Prado once said, "If you're finished, you can go lie inside a coffin". You can never know all there is. Do your best, and that's enough. Learn the theory, learn the history, study symbolism, study the various schools of thought, study what others have said about the cards, and do readings. Think. A good dose of empathy combined with common sense doesn't hurt. Neither does a good sense of humour. Do more readings. Practise, practise, practise. There are no shortcuts.

One of the biggest challenges in this line of work is giving yourself the respect you deserve. Make no mistake - you need to give it to yourself, it needs to come from within you. "Oh but I'm just a tarot reader!". That's where things go wrong. Is helping someone from killing themselves just something? Helping them deal with abuse? Or helping someone find new and better coping mechanisms just something? Deep, soul-level healing, inner trauma work, helping someone working through guilt and shame just something? Tarot doesn't need to be therapy, and in many cases it isn't. Sometimes the reading can be about providing information, and only that, without any underlying healing context. It's still important, and meaningful to the client - life-changing, even - at least if you're doing your job right. If you don't appreciate and value the work you do enough, then who will? Keep this in mind when setting the fees for your practice, or when you get the 100th request to do a freebie for someone. Also, don't use the cards to escape to a fantasy land. Use them to help you and the client cope better in the real world.

The Clients

If I've grown at all as a reader and as a teacher, it's entirely thanks to all the clients and students I've met over the years. It takes a lot of courage to reveal your innermost self to a complete stranger, sitting opposite you (or in a slight angle, in my case) with a pack of cards. People rarely come to a reading when everything is going well in their lives. It's when the shadows fall when tarot reading all of a sudden begins to feel like a good idea. That's when people are usually also vulnerable. This makes them an easy target for the scammers out there: caveat emptor.

The first client I met as a registered, self-employed professional, was a woman in her early forties. Smartly dressed, very polite, reserved, quiet. She chose six cards, which I placed according to the Celtic Cross layout (my own variation), and I turned the cards over. Central cards were the Empress crossed by the Ace of Cups. Surrounding these were both the 9 and 10 of Swords, the 5 of Cups, and the Tower. Her own light pulsating, surrounded by pitch-black darkness. I asked her, "What's been happening in your life lately?" and she burst into tears. Within two years, she had lost her parents. Her sister had died by suicide. She had been married with two children. The older one, a daughter, got diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. She went through the end of life care with her, staying by her bed 24/7 to the end. Their marriage came to an end, with the husband drinking more and more. The younger child, a boy, developed ADHD and began therapy.

We like to think we're in control of our lives, but it's a thin, thin thread which holds things together. Barely.

During one night shift in the neurosurgery intensive care a patient arrived: a young man in his early twenties, brain-dead on arrival. He'd been out partying and drinking, came home, went to bed, fell from his bed onto the floor and hit his head, suffered a massive EDH. Two hours later, I was preparing his body with a colleague of mine, to be ready when his parents would arrive to say goodbye.

You can never know what the client has been through. Never, ever presume anything. We humans are so incredibly good at keeping things hidden, especially from ourselves. Trust the cards. Trust the images. It may sound crazy, and it probably is - why should a set of colourful images on cardboard be able to tell anything about anyone. And yet, they do precisely that. After thousands of readings, I still don't know how it works. I really don't. But it does.

A dream (December 23rd, 2017): 18th century France. I was travelling somewhere by carriage. There were two other people with me, we were all readers or fortune-tellers on our way to meet Etteilla. We got stopped by an officer who said his General wanted to talk to us. We could see troops in a nearby field. Soon the General in question stood next to the carriage door, looked in, and said "I know you are all involved in the occult arts. I want to know if I should advance from here, or will I get defeated if I do so. Tell me, or die." One of the fellow passengers said, "This is very inconvenient. We are terribly busy." I took out a Marseille deck, and turned over the top card. It was the Ace of Swords. I said to him, "This is you, standing here in your war." I then spread the rest of the cards on the bench, and as I did so the cards became separated in the middle, leaving a little gap, producing two fans. I said to the General, "Past or future, which one do you choose?" He replied, "It depends on the circumstance, of course. I refuse to answer." I continued, "Left or right, which one do you choose?", to which he replied the same. I continued, "Forwards or backwards? This time you have to choose." to which he replied, "Forwards, in that case." I then took the first card from the right-hand fan, and turned it over. It was the Popess. I said to him, "You don't have to advance. In fact, it would be better if you didn't." He immediately became relaxed, and looked very much relieved. I continued, "Your troops will be saved, but your own life will not. One or the other has to be sacrificed." We then continued the journey, uninterrupted by anything else. We later heard that the General in question had been killed by one of his own officers, blaming him for cowardice. After I posted this on Facebook, Andrea Aste replied: "I was in the carriage with you, we had the same dream! I remember very well the General. I didn't realise it was you who did the reading for him."

My favourite Death card from the Etteilla I deck, ca. 1788


I sometimes wonder what my life would look like today, had I not come across the Waite-Smith deck back in 1990. I remember during that winter, getting to know the images better and better, feeling as if the characters inside the cards - connected to archetypes, as I later discovered - had found their way into my psyche. Walking to the school in the morning, the Fool, the Magician and the High Priestess were walking with me. Sometimes we passed through a medieval village, sometimes a city far away in the future. There was a new structure, a new foundation, and everything after that became seen from or through that framework. If you start learning the Tarot with a sincere desire and from a place of unselfish motives, the Tarot will change you. It will lift you above yourself to a place where the past, present and future merge into one; where the Child, Adult and Old Age become one. After that experience you can't go back to your old self or your old way of being. With consciousness it's always forward.

Like any set of symbols, Tarot points beyond itself. It has travelled across the highways of the earth, and it will continue to do so, as long as humans continue using images. Going back to what I wrote about the real value of Tarot; to me it's about a new way of thinking. That's what the cards can teach us - a new way of thinking. Whenever we use the cards to do a reading, the cards are normally below us. We are sitting above them, looking down, seeing our own life, our situation, unfold within the pictures. It's as if Tarot would say to us: "It's possible to rise above your situation, and see and understand yourself and your life from a wider angle - see, you're already doing it."

Be free with the Tarot. Don't limit the wisdom of it inside the card frames. If you see a pack of cards close by, grab it, and let it take you on the ride of your life.

"Listen to your inner voice and remember that the only true teacher is the Being that whispers within you. Listen to it: it is the truth and it is inside you. You are divine, never forget it." (Giordano Bruno, from his last discourse before being burned at the stake in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome on February 17th, 1600)

V&A Study Rooms with the original Visconti / Colleoni cards, 2008
With Mary K. Greer at the Waite-Smith Tarot Centennial Party in London, 2009
Opas viisauteen (The Guide to Wisdom) DVD launch event in 2012, with Jyrki Pitkä
Visiting the French Playing Card Museum in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, 2014
A happy reunion with Maestro Osvaldo Menegazzi in Il Meneghello, Milan, 2015
At the UK Tarot Conference with María Luisa Salazar, Rachel Pollack, Kim Arnold and Benebell Wen, 2018

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