“So, the very first thing is kind of a kick in the ass,” says Lori Simeunovic, who goes by Tarot Lori professionally, as she draws the Four of Cups. We’ve connected on a Sunday morning over Zoom to talk about her 35-year career in tarot, and when she offers to read for me, I can’t pass up the opportunity. The cups, she explains, represent love and abundance, but the worried figure on the card looks distracted. “This card is asking you to be more present. I call this a ‘cranky grandpa card’ because in my head, it has this old-man voice like Clint Eastwood,” she says, radiating Old Hollywood glamour with her Corvette-red lipstick and platinum-blonde hair in front of a shelf of crystals. I’d classify myself as tarot-agnostic, but I find myself leaning closer and closer to the screen as she flips through her well-worn deck of Rider-Waite-Smith cards.
Tarot seems to be everywhere lately: on The White Lotus, where a spacey heiress played by Jennifer Coolidge receives an ominous reading; in the purse of actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who told British Vogue she loves to pull the cards out at parties; in the creations of Montreal jewellery design studio Sofia Zakia, whose tarot collection features gold-and-diamond card pendants. Simeunovic, who started out doing readings in nail salons and coffee shops, has been swept up in the craze: she just signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins to write about rituals and tarot. What was once a patchouli-scented pastime, discoverable through your witchy aunt or local crystal shop, is now decidedly chic and increasingly ubiquitous.
Tarot cards have been a party staple since the late medieval era. Fifteenth-century Italians played parlour games with their decks, which are similar to modern playing cards: four suits, each with cards numbered one to 10, followed by four face cards. In tarot, these 56 cards are called the minor arcana, divided into swords, cups, pentacles and wands. Then there are the 22 cards of the major arcana, many of which are familiar even if you’ve never picked up a deck: the Devil, the Lovers, the Chariot. By the 19th century, the cards had become associated with divination and fortune-telling, largely after French occultist Éliphas Lévi helped popularize their esoteric symbolism.
Today, tarot is a popular tool for self-reflection and introspection, not unlike therapy. For someone like me, who finds the thought of talking about my feelings and anxieties excruciating, the open-ended nature of a tarot reading offers a comfortingly indirect approach. “It’s like a conversation with your soul, and I’m the interpreter,” says Simeunovic. “I also say that it’s like life coaching the crap out of yourself.” When my attention snagged on the Four of Cups, a figure who is always scanning the horizon for what’s missing, I felt my own worries represented.
As with pretty much every other aspect of our lives, the tarot business was transformed by the pandemic. Simeunovic says that COVID-19 exploded her reach as people started scheduling readings on Zoom, sometimes even for first dates. She believes that people became more attracted to tarot, astrology and other forms of “woo woo,” as she puts it, as a way to combat the pandemic’s isolating effect. The striking imagery and open interpretation of the cards also make them ideal for social-media algorithms; the #tarot hashtag has over 45 billion views on TikTok.
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Maybe that’s why tarot is flourishing among millennials and Gen Z, whose members are also much less likely to belong to organized religions than their elders. Several of my friends, while telling me about their tarot practices, mentioned that they used to be religious. “Tarot and other mystical practices fill that void,” says Keagan Perlette, a Quebec City writer who publishes a newsletter on tarot cards and astrology. “Why are we here? What am I doing? You can ask those questions without tying them into the dogma of religion, which can feel restrictive or unaccepting.”
Whether you think tarot is a fun party trick or a direct line to the cosmos, it can be an effective way to slice through the Gordian knot of your own tangled thoughts. “These are just pieces of paper,” Simeunovic says, but there’s pleasure to be found in listening. “When you’re shuffling your tarot deck, you’re acknowledging that there’s some force outside you that you can’t see and you can’t control,” says Perlette. “Whether you call it God, or the universe, or physics—it’s something you can’t touch, but it’s going to come and give you a message.”
This article appears in print in the April 2023 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $9.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $39.99.