A few years ago, Leslie Scott-Jones was wandering around the Aquarian Bookshop on West Main Street in Richmond, looking for lavender incense. Walking by a table of tarot card decks, she received a message from one of her maternal great-grandmothers: “That one.”
Scott-Jones stopped—she’d learned to listen to these messages when she received them—looked at the table, and asked, “Which one?”
“That one, down there.” On the bottom shelf were two decks, and Scott-Jones felt guided to one of them, the Dreams of Gaia deck.
She’d felt a connection to spirits since she started having déjà vu when she was about 6 years old, but this was her first tarot deck, and the timing seemed appropriate—she’d recently begun hearing from more and more of her ancestors and had started consciously tuning in to this aspect of herself. Tarot was another way she could focus on those messages.
For those who are curious about their own connections to spirits, Scott-Jones leads a Demystify Tarot course online via The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative that includes four two-hour sessions, held on consecutive Wednesdays. Courses start on May 20, June 17, and July 15.
Scott-Jones is perhaps best known in town as an activist, a theater artist, and a musician (she’s artistic director of the Charlottesville Players Guild and sings in the Eugene Martin Band, among other groups), but she’s also a reader and a medium who has studied Spiritualism and psychic sciences at Arthur Findlay College in England.
But those who sign up for the course don’t need to have any sort of pre-existing (or rather, pre-acknowledged) connection to the metaphysical. “Anyone can learn to read tarot,” says Scott-Jones. “If you feel yourself called to do it, you can do it.”
While tarot reading is sometimes treated like hokum, or a magic trick, akin to gazing into a crystal ball to tell the future, Scott-Jones says the practice is just another way of accessing spirituality, like prayer or meditation. “People think about metaphysical things as ‘other,’” she says. “They think about it as something that they can’t do, or [that] they have to be initiated into. The truth is that everyone has it. Some people might call it something different, but every one of us has a connection to spirit, and it’s up to us how well we work that muscle. That’s really all it is—it’s working the muscle, it’s learning how they [the spirits] communicate with you, what it means when they show you certain things, and learning to listen to that still, quiet voice. Along that journey, you discover things that you never would have known,” including how many other people have their own highly personal connections to the metaphysical, whether it’s through religion or other belief systems.
“Whatever you believe about ‘the other side,’ let’s call it, tarot is a way to connect to those energies,” says Scott-Jones, and understanding the tarot deck—where it comes from, what each card means, and how to follow one’s intuition during a reading—is the warm-up to the exercise.
Much like the four-suited standard decks currently used to play poker, spades, bridge, and other games, tarot cards were originally used for parlor games, specifically, a bridge-like game called tarocchi, which was popular among Italian nobles (who had leisure time) in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Variations of the game and its cards spread throughout Europe over the next few centuries, and by the late 18th century, when Spiritualism became trendy in western Europe and the United States, people were using tarot cards—which are full of imagery and symbolism—in cartomancy, or divination via cards, a practice much, much older than the tarot deck itself.
Interest in the metaphysical, in astrology and in tarot in particular, is again on the rise, says Scott-Jones, and as a result, artists and readers are creating all sorts of tarot decks. While each deck differs slightly in design and outlook, most are based on the 78-card Rider-Waite deck, initially available in 1909 and mass-produced in the U.S. throughout the 20th century. (This is the one you likely see in your mind’s eye when envisioning tarot cards.)
Like the Rider-Waite, most modern tarot decks include a major arcana (trump cards like The Fool, The Magician, Death, etc.), and a minor arcana comprised of four suits (such as pentacles, wands, swords, cups) of numbered cards. Each trump card, each suit, each number, has its own meaning, and Scott-Jones will spend the first three classes explaining them. The fourth week is reserved for the court cards, which can be a bit more difficult to read because their specificity offers up a lot of room for interpretation, and that can be intimidating for a beginning reader.
When individual cards are pulled together in a reading, they take on new meaning, and learning to decipher the combination of cards that comes up in each unique reading takes not just the knowledge Scott-Jones hopes to impart, but time, practice, and courage.
“You need to be open to ingesting the information, and you have to be brave enough to share the insights” gathered from the cards, she says, and that’s especially challenging when the cards are telling you something you don’t want to hear. “The cards are there to tell you what you need to know.”
“It’s not magic. There is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad. It is what it is. It’s a tool to use to navigate your life.”
“If a reader is doing it right, it should feel like a therapy session,” says Scott-Jones, who emphasizes that interpreting cards is always a very personal thing, and folks must learn to read for themselves before reading for others. “It should feel like you’re getting some sort of insight into who you are, who you want to be.”