At the tarot table, an older woman with hair so white and thin it surrounds her like a halo, sits with her hands around a cup of steaming tea. At her elbow is a bowl with sand, burning charcoal, and smoldering incense sending up a tendril of smoke. A scented candle on the table behind her joins in the steam and smoke with its aroma, the three braiding and spiraling around the small nook in the back of the shop.
She nods for you to sit across from her. Between you, on the table covered in a soft cloth, sits a deck of cards. You’ve come to have a reading, to be read, and to read for yourself.
The deck is shuffled, separated, and comes together again. A card is chosen and turned. There is an image of a person and their actions seem unrecognizable. How can this be deciphered? Might as well ask the painting in the bathroom what your future holds for all that you can figure from it.
She smiles across at you. Tells you to take a sip from your cup. You look down, seeing another tea cup steaming. She tells you to take a breath, bringing the scent and steam and smoke into your body. The taste and smells relay a message of their own. Opening you, whether you realize it or not.
You look back at the card and somehow the face on the character is one you recognize. Its an expression you’ve made before, just after making a decision and before taking the first step.
She nods. “The fool begins their journey.”
Before we begin this journey, a small disclaimer. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and not meant to diagnose or treat any ailment. Please consult your health care professional before making any changes to your herbal supplement or habits. Do not use any herbs that you are allergic to. Please do your own research as to a plants toxicity, benefits, or contraindications to medication you are taking before ingesting or using habitually. Part of what makes a good witch or magical practitioner is personal responsibility.
Using herbs to help learn tarot can be done a number of ways. If you are more comfortable with the meanings and associations of plants than you are of memorizing card meanings, you can look at a list of correspondences between herbs and each card (or buy one of the decks out there that puts the corresponding herb right there on the card for you).
If you’re more into intuition and homeopathy or plant essences, you could take those associated herbs and meditated on the card while taking the plant’s essence into your body to teach you.
If you’re already into herbal astrology (combining plants with planets, signs, etc) you can look at the tarot’s astrological association and call on those associated plants to guide you.
These roads work two ways of course. If you know tarot, you can walk that path to learn the plants too.
Why does this work?
Tarot, like intuitive and magical herbalism (and like astrology) works on some basic magical concepts. Primarily, the concept of As Above, So Below. As Within, So Without. Or that what is going on in the picture, in the plant, in this moment is reflective of something going on in life, in the planets, in the metaphysical cosmos of fate and wyrd. More simply, its all metaphor for life and herb magic works in sympathy with that metaphor. Or, as many a granny witch I know would say, it just works, don’t think too hard right now, drink your tea.
I’ve been reading tarot professionally since 2009. I’ve been studying herbalism longer and am a certified herbalist but prefer to work primarily as a spiritual folk herbalist rather than in anything clinical. In all those years, i’ve taught both to classes and individuals with varying degrees of success (I tend to get excitable and the students get overwhelmed as I ramble on about the virtues of plant essences or the concept of energetics or comparing Appalachian folk medicine to ancient Greek medicine but I digress…). One thing I recommend to anyone wanting to learn either tarot or herbalism (or anything really) is to take your time. We live in a world that is about the capitalist virtue of instant gratification. But you can’t make a good apple cider vinegar in a day and you can’t learn a practice instantly either.
One of the best ways to learn either is to work with one card or plant at a time. If you’re learning them together, pick a card and its associated plant to work on at the same time. Some plants are friendly and will associate with multiple cards or a whole family/suit of cards. Others are pickier about who they associate with.
Which plant is associated with which card? That might depend on what book or guide you look at. It can be confusing and I could go all day about how these match ups are made. In the end, go with what book or guide you have access to or feels right to you to avoid freezing in indecision. If more than one plant is associated with the card you are working on, go with the one you have the easiest access to. No point in choosing the plant you think sounds the nicest if its super rare and out of your access or budget. For me, give me a handy weed any day.
For example, The Fool and its corresponding plant, Ginseng.
The Fool is the first card in the deck, often given the number 0. It is the symbol of new beginnings, the start of a journey or adventure – including the journey of learning something new like tarot or herbalism. It is often depicted as a youthful person stepping off a cliff because when we start a new journey, we have to have a little trust because we have no idea what is on the road ahead of us.
There are a few varieties of Ginseng, primarily Asian (Panax ginseng) and American (Panax quinquefolius). Both are stimulating, boost the immune system, reduce stress, balance blood sugar levels, and more. Many believe these plants to be a panacea (or a remedy for all ailments). Asian ginseng is often more readily available at health food stores and even your major grocery’s vitamins and supplement aisle.
American ginseng is a rare herb that I have a close connection to via my ancestors that foraged for the plant in Appalachia and sold it alongside the moonshine they brewed – both done under questionable legality. Foraging for ginseng requires a watchful eye not only to find the rare plant but also to stay safe from the snakes that tend to hang out nearby. Its an herb old-timers swear by for all matter of illness and evil and is talked about with the same reverence a medieval grimoire might have for mandrake root. Ginseng, or “Sang” as my Papaw called it, is magic. We all need a lil magic when we start a journey, of course.
Either of the ginsengs will help you, by the way. You don’t need to visit an Appalachian granny witch for a ‘sang charm to learn the cards. You can grab it from the grocery store and have similar results as a beginner.
To learn about this card and this plant, really learn it in your bones, you should sit with it. Take a lil of the plant into you (using a plant essence, homeopath, balm, tea, or, in this case when the plant isn’t toxic, chew a lil of the root itself). Meditate on its effects on your body. How does it feel when you first take it? How does it feel 15-20 minutes later? Meditate on the card by sitting with it and looking at it. Consider its art and any symbols or meanings you can intuit. Consider the definition of the card in your book or guide. If you are artistically inclined, draw/paint, write about, or create something inspired by the card and/or plant. Record any omens, synchronicities, or dreams you have while doing this work. You might be surprised what your own body can teach you about tarot, especially when an herbal ally is involved.
This sort of work can take some time. 78 cards takes over a year if you do a card a week. Such a stretch of time can feel tedious. During this time, you can play with the cards with daily tarot pulls, workbooks and more. Doing this work does not mean you can ONLY do this work and nothing else.
It also helped me to break it into more manageable chunks. Work on the Major Arcana first. Thats only 22 cards. You can do that. After that, work on a suit of cards – just 14 cards more. Then the next suit. And the next.
Before you know it, you’ve made an intuitive, bone deep connection with each one. You will know them as well as you know the tea in your cup and the spices in your cupboard. You got this.
The Herbal Tarot by Michael Tierra
The Tarot Apothecary at Worts and Cunning
Herbs and Tarot by Anne Franklin
[Written by December Fields-Bryant.]