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Tarot cards are having a moment with help from pandemic

Skye Marinda, 29, is a self-described tarot coach who does readings in D.C. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

She won’t read your fortune like a psychic might, but 29-year-old Skye Marinda will guide you through a tarot reading to try to find clarity in the present. A self-described “tarot coach” who lives near Capitol Hill in D.C., Marinda began reading tarot decks on her own five years ago and hoped to start publicly reading for others in early 2020.

“I did one event in person at a bar in D.C., and I was like, ‘This is fun, I should keep doing this,’ ” she said. “Two weeks later, everything shut down.”

With public readings no longer possible, she transitioned online where she does readings over Zoom, becoming part of a pandemic boomlet of interest in tarot. A new generation is embracing the 78-card decks thanks to postings from influencers on visual platforms like Instagram and TikTok and unboxing videos on sites like Twitch and YouTube.

For some, it has become a kind of vocabulary for people to talk about themselves or their feelings, said Tara Isabella Burton, author of the book “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.” It’s part of a wider trend of younger Americans mixing and matching different forms of spiritual or religious practices with one another.

“Tarot is a highly visual creative product that fits into the ecosystem of the Internet very well,” she added. “You have the Internet, attention economy, personal algorithm, done alone or over Zoom. It’s the perfect phenomenon.”

Sales of tarot decks have doubled in the past five years, said Lynn Araujo, the editorial and communications director for U.S. Games Systems, and she estimated sales tripled during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. Araujo said that the company saw a similar surge in sales during the 2008 financial crisis, when people were looking for ways to process fear and anxiety.

U.S. Games sells hundreds of thousands of decks a year of the most popular Rider-Waite Tarot Deck and tens of thousands of about 100 other smaller decks.

Marinda, who considers herself spiritual but not religious, is part of a cohort of tarot users who are not turning to the cards for divination, or the practice of seeking knowledge of the future. Before she starts a reading, she always prepares people by saying she can’t predict the future.

“More people are now more interested in it for the self-reflection or space to get validation and clarity versus hearing, ‘You’re going to meet a guy in three months,’ ” she said. “Tarot is great for anxiety. While you may not be predicting the future, you can slow down and shuffle and look at pretty pictures and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m overthinking this.’ ”

Tarot has no singular owner or perspective on how to use it, and its modern iterations are diverse; some people use it in psychotherapy, life coaching and yoga studios. For many, tarot cards are used as a tool for self-care and for guidance on what’s going on in various aspects of someone’s life, from love interests and personal finances, to career paths and other goals.

Tarot has become a daily practice for Audrey Assad, a Nashville-based musician who told her thousands of fans on Twitter earlier this year that she had left the Catholic Church. Assad said that she began turning to tarot in the early weeks of the pandemic when she was dealing with isolation and “existential angst.” Growing up, she was taught to fear tarot, but now she feels like it makes her less dependent on other people.

“Some people see tarot as another silly thing we do to make ourselves feel better. My answer to that is: I want to feel better, even if I know it’s a game," she said. "I do believe it’s a game, not the devil’s portal into my soul.”

Modern versions of tarot have been a major draw for many Kickstarter backers, according to Meredith Graves, who oversees the music and magic categories for Kickstarter. In the past 10 years, crowdfunding platform Kickstarter backers have pledged approximately $21.7 million to tarot projects, and 69 percent of those pledges came in 2020 or 2021. The platform saw tarot’s biggest jump in popularity from April 2020 to May 2020.

“Creators were nervous, asking, ‘Is this the right time to launch a project?’ ” Graves said. “People [in general] were looking for something to do, and they were looking for hope for the future.”

The rise of contemporary artist-made tarot decks is being documented by MIT Libraries, describing the more than 400 decks as “unbound books” with narratives. MIT has purchased decks from crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter or directly from the artists on sites like Etsy with a particular interest in radical, feminist, queer, people of color, and spiritually and religiously diverse revisions.

The idea for the MIT tarot library emerged after an MIT’s curator was staying in a hotel in Washington in 2018 when she saw a tarot deck for sale at the mini bar, according to Alex McGee, an archivist for MIT Libraries.

“That confirmed to us that tarot was having a moment,” McGee said. “If we’re arguing it’s an unbound book, how could we not create a space for it?”

Tarot has also become a lifestyle accessory, Araujo of U.S. Games Systems said, and mainstream stores like Urban Outfitters and Marshalls are selling decks alongside boutique clothing stores, and many fashion magazines include tarot readings. Fashion designer Christian Dior’s spring 2021 haute couture was inspired by tarot.

“When mainstream publishers started to sell decks, at first, we were like ‘Oh no, this is our piece of the pie.’ But the pie is getting bigger, the market is expanding,” Araujo said. “It runs the gamut of people who are super serious to people who just use it as a lifestyle expression.”

Kameron Johnson, who grew up in a Christian home in El Paso, said the pandemic gave her a chance to think about religion and spirituality for herself, and she has since left organized religion. Instead of turning to traditional religious rituals, she lays out three to six cards and uses her intuition to read, asking the question: What am I doing this week?

Recently Johnson argued in her school newspaper at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Texas, that her peers should stop thinking about tarot as connected to Halloween or the demonic.

“You see witches and cauldrons and psychics reading cards, so people think, ‘It can’t be real. It’s just scary stuff,’ ” she said. “The psychic, crystal ball thing leads people to associate tarot cards with things that can tell their future.”

Tarot was once a card game for nobles to play but eventually became associated with the occult as fortunetelling, which is why many religious people have often historically discouraged using them.

Pope Francis has condemned the use of tarot cards when used to try to see the future, calling them “idolatrous.” But some Christians are finding ways to incorporate tarot into their own religious practice. Brittany Muller, an Austin-based stay-at-home mom who is working on a book about a Christian interpretation of tarot said she got into tarot about six years ago through friends. Muller, 31, had grown up in the Catholic Church but after leaving it, she missed the rituals of organized religion, like prayer. So she got her own deck to pull a card every day.

“It became a nice ritual that replaced what that I got from religion,” she said. “Then it turned into its own kind of prayer. During the pandemic, tarot felt like another ritual I could perform at home that seemed prayerful and steady during a time when nothing felt steady.”

Muller said that because she doesn’t use the cards as a form of fortune telling, she believes they can still be used in line with church teaching. Every morning, she goes through prayer and scripture readings for the day, and then she pulls a card from the Rider-Waite deck.

Her family returned to Catholicism six months ago, and she credits her tarot card use.

“I would pull cards like temperance, justice, death, judgment, which are very Christian ideas. I never would’ve darkened the door of a church, but I was coming into contact with Christian ideas through a medium that isn’t considered Christian. It showed me very gently how much I missed Christianity.”

Seeking more interaction with people after a period of isolation during the pandemic, Kaitlin Campbell, 32, decided to start publicly reading tarot for people this past summer while she was living in Portland, Maine. She said she was able to charge $10 for a one-card reading or $20 for a three-card spread, sometimes earning $150 in three hours. As someone who considers herself “kind of Catholic,” she uses tarot to supplement her belief system.

“It’s another prayer practice tool,” Campbell said. “My spiritual life is very biodiverse and is enriched by different practices.”

While many contemporary interpretations of tarot are focused on the journey into the self, Burton said many traditional Christians would see fundamental differences between how they understand the world with more contemporary interpretations of spirituality that say one can get in touch with the universe.

“There are unexamined assumptions in nearly all of our spiritual practices,” Burton said. “It depends how you’re thinking about it rather than what you’re doing with it.”

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