After the recent dustup about whether or not there is a “13th sign” in the zodiac (answer: depends on what system of astrology you’re using, sidereal or tropical), an interesting article appeared called “You Are Not Your Star Sign.” The author describes how some people’s identities are bound up very closely with astrology. This matches up with how one academic critiqued the social function of astrology: among other things, astrology can serve as a way for people to make sense of their lives, but because of the apparently fixed nature of astrology, it can very easily become an excuse for the status quo rather than an empowering insight towards improvement. This, in short, is why I do not study astrology, but I do read Tarot.

It might seem contradictory for someone to use one form of divination but not another. If you “believe” in one, don’t you “believe” in all of them? Well, yes and no, depending on how you define “believe.” A good quote from a fictional character expresses my understanding well:

People always ask me if I “believe” in Tarot cards. It’s pretty easy to do: I own five decks of them. What they mean, of course, is “Do you believe that Tarot cards can tell the future?” and the answer to that is yes – and no.

You can tell the future. If you wear a white cashmere sweater-dress to an important lunch, there is an eighty percent chance that you will spill shrimp cocktail or something else with tomato sauce on it – if only because you’re so worried about spilling something that you go all awkward. You know this, but you’re unlikely to act on the information, even if your mother, your roommate, and your best friend all tell you so.

But if the cards tell you so – and mind, tell you what you already know – you’re more likely to accept and act upon the advice, wear bottle-green wool gabardine, and avoid serious grief and dry-cleaning bills. Tarot is a way of sorting out what’s bothering you and getting advice from the best-informed source – you – in a way that you’re likely to listen to. (Rosemary Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder, 108, emphasis original)

This is a great example of a simple version of a psychological understanding of how Tarot can work. The psychological interpretation doesn’t depend on any idea of the supernatural influencing the cards at all. Skeptics sometimes complain that some forms of divination yield seemingly meaningful results only because of the human tendency to make meaningful stories or patterns out of even random information. This understanding of Tarot says, yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we know it. And it’s helpful to some people some of the time, which is why we do it.

Mary K. Greer, an excellent Tarot author, describes her style of reading as RITE, meaning Reading Interactively for Transformation and Empowerment. She explicitly teaches readers how to guide a querent (the person asking the questions) through a reading so that the querent uses Tarot as an opportunity to reflect on her life, issues, and ideas. In Greer’s style, I, as the person reading the cards to help you answer your question, might say something about what a card traditionally means or how it is often interpreted, but you do the final interpretation. You tell me what it brings up, what you think it means, and how it’s relevant. Then we work together to help you take the actions you choose to work towards the outcome that you want. The goal is your empowerment, which Greer describes as “consciously participating in your own destiny…finding in yourself the most effective posture to take in a situation.” (Greer, 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, Kindle location 69) I’m not reading your future. I’m helping you understand yourself so that you can shape your future.

It takes work to make divination an empowering situation for the querent. It’s easier to regard Tarot as a mystical way to get an inside track on the future than to do the hard work of self-examination that the RITE approach requires, whether reading for oneself or for someone else. But it seems to me that astrology makes it much harder to use that human pattern-making, story-telling tendency, except in retrospect. I think the social critic’s argument above – that astrology usually breaks down into a justification of the way things are, functionally depriving people of empowerment, not providing it – is basically accurate. I know astrology is a lot more than what you read in the newspaper under “This Week for Libras.” I’ve actually studied a little astrology, just enough to know that it’s incredibly complex, and based on a view of divination that was originally about predestination and unchangeable fate, as well as heavily patriarchal and gender essentialist and so on, which makes it even harder for me to use. What I’ve learned hasn’t changed my assessment of astrology’s much lower potential for empowerment, and since I don’t believe it has any predestined information to provide me, I’ve decided that it’s not for me. I may learn more about it in the future, but for now, I’m going to stick to my cards. I may not be able to change my stars, but I sure can shuffle.