Is Tarot the Answer to Your Break With Spirituality?

Many of us grew up sitting in a church, mosque or synagogue alongside our families.

But while 59 percent of baby boomers consider religion to be a very important part of their lives, according to the Pew Research Center, more and more millennials are leaving the traditions their parents held. Compared to adults older than 40 in the U.S., 17 percent fewer adults younger than 40 identify with a religion.

With a new gap in spiritual identity, some millennials are looking elsewhere to provide the fellowship and structure their faith communities once offered.

Not long ago considered fringe or taboo, practices like tarot, sound baths and astrology are on the rise, with horoscope sites reporting more traffic than years prior. Astro meme accounts on Instagram have garnered millions of followers and it’s not hard to find a brick and mortar selling healing crystals in most cities.

Credit: Dana Halferty
Des Moines, Iowa-based artist Cat Rocketship draws three tarot cards they designed. The first represents the past, the second the present and the third the future.

These traditions are not backed by any provable science, but, according to practitioners, that’s sort of missing the point.

These are spaces that tap into intuition that’s outside of the black and white rule books many were raised with. According to Cat Rocketship, an illustrator and tarot reader from Des Moines, Iowa, tarot is a tool that helps us look inside of ourself to listen to the patterns and stories that already exist and pull them to the front of our consciousness. Thinking about tensions at work a lot when a card pops up in your reading? Maybe you should listen to that gut instinct and examine why it’s there, they say.

[ICYMI: How Millennials Are Making Sense of Religion]

On top of organizing one of the largest holiday craft markets in Iowa, Rocketship found the time to illustrate a tarot deck of their own. I sat down with them and a few cat friends in their home studio to ask questions about the role tarot fills both artistically and spiritually in their life.

Credit: Dana Halferty
Artist and tarot reader Cat Rocketship does a tarot reading in their living room.

Tell me a bit about your art.

Cat Rocketship: I’m an illustrator, so I draw a lot. But lately I work digitally, drawing on an iPad. I draw for myself. A lot of illustrators are freelancers, but I most often do commissions and sell my own art at craft shows.

How did you get into tarot?

CR: I needed an assignment for myself so I decided to make a deck. I actually learned how to read tarot as I was drawing this deck.

Could you explain a basic tarot deck for someone who doesn’t know much about it?

CR: Tarot is a deck of cards with traditional symbology. The deck consists of 78 cards and the first 22 are called the major arcana. These represent major events or people on your life journey.

You start out as the fool knowing nothing and you go through peaks, valleys, lessons and turning points until you end up at the world — a card that represents being fully fulfilled and the world as your oyster.

The rest of the cards are your four suits that each have their own meanings. Cups are emotions. Swords are sharp wit, intellect, power. The cards interact together to create a story. Within that, the Rider-Waite deck is sort of the classic deck that many artists base their decks on.

Credit: Dana Halferty
Cat Rocketship shows meaningful cards in the tarot deck they illustrated.

It’s interesting to see that many people who might not be drawn to traditional religious settings have found a spiritual home in practices like tarot. What role does tarot play in your spiritual expression?

CR: It’s an invitation to explore whatever that spiritual, metaphorical, looking for patterns or listening-to-your-gut space is. It’s a tool I use to legitimize my intuition.

Do you think it fills a similar role as organized religion?

CR: I think the role of organized Christianity has changed dramatically in the last 50 years in the United States. For a long time we used religion to support community and strengthen family ties because we needed those ties to survive more than we need them now. Sometimes how that was accomplished wasn’t so great.

With globalization we’ve come to a new era of chosen family and breaking unhealthy ties when we need to. But that leaves gaps in our lives. I’ve delved more into spirituality in the last couple years because my friends are interested in it, and they are interested in participating in it together. They are also the same people for me that are my chosen family.

It’s a fun hobby that we share together. We read the same books and trade notes, celebrate witchy holidays together, and it’s not always people you would expect.

I grew up in the Lutheran church. I got in trouble when I would ask too many questions and that didn’t really work for me, so leaving the church was pretty easy. I did feel community there though, and I started to realize I was missing some of that support system and shared space to explore the unknown and patterns and theories and connection with something more than the commodified world we live in.

Credit: Dana Halferty
Cat Rocketship grew up Lutheran. Today, they practice a different type of spirituality with their friend group.

It sounds like art and tarot are such a natural merger for you.

CR: Absolutely. Tarot to me is like art therapy. If you want to learn how to read tarot it’s really simple — pull a card and ask what it’s telling you. The mysterious part of that is when you set an intention on what you want to be thinking about.

Some people read where they are asking really specific questions for specific guidance. I like asking more broadly about the past, present and future and then I pay attention to the story that I tell myself about the three cards I draw. The first card tells me where I came from, the second card what I am experiencing today, and the third card where I am growing and what I can be thinking about to get there.

What does giving a tarot reading feel like?

CR: The first thing it is for me is scary. It’s definitely letting in vulnerability for both people. Especially if someone asks for a reading. If someone is asking for a reading they are usually looking for guidance or wisdom whether it’s from you or from spirits in the world, and that’s part of the vulnerability.

I have parts of me that are very woo woo. I read my horoscope, I pay attention to the eclipse, I set new intentions for what’s coming up. And then at the same time I’m like, “That’s all f***ing bulls***.”

Credit: Dana Halferty
Cat Rocketship in their Des Moines, Iowa, studio. An illustrator and activist, they organize one of the largest maker fairs in Iowa.

If a beginner wants to get into tarot, where should they start?

CR: There’s an iPhone app called The Golden Thread, and it gives you a beautiful experience. The art is actually really good even though it’s on your phone, and I loved it because it helped me learn the cards. It gives a couple key words to think on, gives context and a story to the card, calls out important symbols in it, and how it interacts with other cards. That’s a good place to start.

I would also window shop at stores that carry multiple decks. Hold them in your hands and see if you like the feeling of the deck. You need to feel like you can connect with whatever deck you are using.

I get a lot of feedback from people buying my deck and one thing I keep hearing people say is that they feel like the deck is on their side. I think it’s because I draw these quirky skeletons. Death maybe isn’t so bad in their world. As you start to collect decks, you ask yourself, “What do I need today? Do I need someone that’s on my side or do I need a hard friend that’s gonna tell me the truth?” And I think I love that about art as well.

Credit: Dana Halferty
The moon tarot card, as designed by Cat Rocketship. It’s their favorite.

Do you have a card in your deck that you are particularly proud of?

CR: I love the moon card. It’s about cycles and seeing things in a new light. The card has two columns on either side representing balance and the moon shines on a coastline where two dogs are barking up at it, kind of saying that whatever has been revealed in this light cannot be ignored. These dogs are already barking about it, so everyone knows about it now. And there’s this lobster crawling out of the ocean — something surprising that shows itself.

It pops up for me a lot around gender. I’m still on a gender journey, and that card has felt very supportive to me. I was at a show in Omaha this summer with a large framed print of that drawing and a woman walked up, touched it and started crying. She asked me about the meaning, so I told to her about it, and she said her child had just the day before come out to her as trans and she felt her kid reflected in this so she wanted to take it home to them.

That’s so beautiful for someone to feel the energy you poured into that card and have it be a healing space that drew them in without words.

CR: Yes. Exactly. That card has served me well. I don’t think I could lift one above that.

Dana Halferty

Dana Halferty is a lifestyle and adventure photojournalist who can most often be found in a hot spring or writing music when she isn’t telling stories through photographs. Invite her on a roadtrip, offer up a negroni or talk to her about the ocean and you might be her next best friend. You can follow her on instagram @danahalferty.