All cards were on the table, but this was no poker tournament for the unenlightened.
Future decisions, clarifications, illuminations — not bank accounts — stood in the balance, as deck holders relaxed in a crescent-shaped row in the back room of New Vibrations, a year-old shop in Fondren that specializes in spiritual items and books.
Up front, Mark McElroy explained the logic and misconceptions behind tarot.
"Tarot speaks to deep things in our lives. It doesn't have to be scary or mystical," McElroy said, propping his broken foot to the side while wiggling his fingers dramatically over his deck of colorfully designed cards. "What each card means is up to your interpretation of it."
Those at the workshop debunked one major stereotype of tarot: that it's only embraced by supporters of the occult.
Rather, about a dozen professionals, musicians, artists, students and parents attended McElroy's tarot workshop, where they learned how to "read" and rationalize tarot cards and use their newfound skill in their everyday lives as a means of problem solving.
"I started seeing tarot as a brainstorming tool, like how psychologists use ink blots," said Michael Morris, a student at Belhaven College who has been reading tarot for a year. "You see what you want to see and it gives you focus to organize your thoughts. I kind of see it as being your own therapist by using the cards as a sounding board to get your mind going and thinking."
McElroy, a Jackson resident who's studied tarot since 1996 and has published several books on the subject, found that many people turn to tarot to help them make sense of the world, stay centered and make better choices when confronted by conflict.
"A lot of people are curious and a lot of people are frightened of tarot," he said. "We're so busy going and doing that we barely have time to catch our breath, much less ask where we're going and why. The cards provide a great excuse to think about the context of what you're doing and how it affects your life."
Starting in the early '90s, the West experienced a resurgence in tarot, an ancient practice considered by modern-day supporters as a great source of knowledge for anyone willing to make the effort of contemplation.
There are now more than 2,000 such decks on the market, with large retail chains, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, stocking up.
New Vibrations owner Karen Parker said the workshops, first held last month, were proving to be such a crowd-pleaser that she planned to continue hosting them.
At the core of each deck are basic figures found in religions, myths, legends, fairy tales and even the Bible. During a "reading," the reader pulls cards out of the deck and lays them in formation. The figure on each card is supposed to stimulate the reader's intuition in order to expose an element of their (or another person's) subconscious and illuminate an issue in their life.
If properly conducted, the reading tells a story, with the images on the cards creating a meaningful pattern to clarify problems and situations.
"I start with the intuitive process," McElroy said. "What do these images bring to mind? What pops into your head when you see them? It's easy for people to look at them and associate them with whatever is going on in their life."
For example, if the "Desire" card is selected, one can assume that the subject should focus on accomplishing a goal they've wanted to do or something that would feel fulfilling. Drawing the "Fool" card might suggest the reader concentrate on a new experience or consider taking a creative leap. The "Wheel" hints at how cycles play into a reader's situation, as in "What goes around, comes around," while the "Two of Cups" suggests a new relationship or people coming together for a common purpose.
Libby Spence, a professor at University of Mississippi Medical Center, pulled an "Eight of Swords" card several times during her daily readings last week. She determined that the card meant she was conflicted about a situation, namely, a financial problem.
"No matter what you do, somebody's not going to be happy," said Spence, 49, explaining the card's relation to her reality. "That was the way I was feeling in my situation ... just trapped. The card said how I really felt and reflected my paralyzing indecision ... I don't think the cards tell you what to do, but they make me aware of situations, like a sign. There's never a solution until you're aware of the problem."
McElroy considers tarot a practical tool that can help — not hinder — a person's spiritual well-being. Today, only a small percentage of readers use tarot cards as a predictive tool, he said. Most choose to use them for meditation or self-reflection, instead.
"The tarot can predict the future as well as you can," he said. "It disappoints people when they expect tarot to be spooky and strange."
Still, something about the cards' mystic-like appearance stirs skepticism.
John Butterfield, an associate pastor at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Ridgeland, said that according to the Bible, tarot falls into the same category as occult practices and divination, such as consulting spirits and mediums or looking to astrology for answers.
"(Tarot) circumvents a person's relationship with God and relying on God's will," he said. "In some instances, it's false spirituality as well."
McElroy, who considers himself a Christian, said fear of tarot stems from a mixture of ignorance and human nature's fear of the unknown or the unexplained.
"The cards have a traditional meaning assigned to them by the original designers," McElroy said. "Our society is just mythically and symbolically illiterate. That's why we're so scared of these images today."
McElroy added that tarot was created by Renaissance Christians and that "Trump" cards tell a Christian story.
"The pope's in there, the resurrection's in there, heaven is in there ... (Tarot) has practical benefits that have nothing to do with lighting candles and wearing costumes," he said.
Many of the students who attend McElroy's classes are Christians, while others, like Debi Lewis, consider themselves spiritual, but not linked to any specific religion.
"God answers everything if we ask him and we're looking for it," said Lewis, a yoga instructor who lives in Flowood. "We can relate to God, we just need to shut up and listen. I would say tarot is a tool to do that."
Each morning, Lewis pulls a card from her deck to mentally prepare for the day.
She recently consulted the tarot as she contemplated closing her yoga studio in Fondren. All signs pointed to starting a new chapter in her life, so she decided not to renew her lease.
"I don't make decisions based on the card, I'm making decisions based on the facts at hand," she said. "The cards help expand your mind and help you think of things you haven't thought of before. It tends to be funny and curious when I do it myself."
There are 78 cards in most tarot decks. Of those, 22 are called the major arcana ("big secrets") or trump cards. When they appear in a reading, trumps receive special emphasis.
The other 56 are the minor arcana ("little secrets"), and include "pips" and "courts." The "pips" include numbers 1-10 in four different suits — coins, wands, cups and swords.
The remaining 16 are the "court" cards of each suit — king, queen, page and knight.
Source: Mark McElroy, author of Taking the Tarot to Heart, Putting the Tarot to Work and creator of The Bright Idea Deck.