The other day I arrived home to find a package on my doorstep. I picked up the package and noticed how heavy the package way. I thought to myself, what the heck is this? It was sent to me, but did I was not expecting anything that day. I opened the package and found inside my advance copy (from the publisher North Atlantic Books) of Holistic Tarot by Benebell Wen. Damn that was fast shipping and holy cow this book is huge! Cover to cover the book counts in at 874 pages! It is very rare to come across tarot books this extensive.
Wen’s Holistic Tarot presents a comprehensive guide for using the tarot as a tool for self-knowing, exemplifying the modern tarot movement. It is a book for the 21-century. Wen threads together western esotericism and eastern philosophy beautifully. Holistic Tarot has almost everything you need in one book.
Full disclosure, I have not read the book in its entirety. Instead, I have read the main sections, which explain Wen’s approach, philosophy and perspective of tarot and how one should use the book. I have also reviewed each section for highlights and areas of interest and discussion. Because of the length of this book I cannot review the whole thing. Never the less I believe I have presented a fair evaluation of Benebell Wen’s work.
Chapter one, Tarot Analytics, A Holistic Approach summarizes Wen’s direction which she has geared the book. There are many points of discussion to be found here. I found myself either agreeing with Wen or questioning/disagreeing with a few of her points.
Wen’s perspective is clearly defined on page one, second sentence, where she says that tarot is a “science of the mind”. Wen elaborates, explains that tarot has absorbed the wisdom of many cultures through the ages. The tarot “represents the spectrum of human archetypal conditions and personalities, which can be used by the modern day practitioner for psychological projective evaluation”. Wen describes tarot as a holistic tool. Holistic by definition is inclusive in approach in regards to healing. It takes into consideration the body/mind/spirit (whole person) instead of focusing on one part or symptom. For Wen, tarot as a holistic tool allows us to “mine the unconscious” for answers. Tarot is also a tool to be consulted in decision making by charting a “road map for the solution”.
Do not pick up this book if you want to learn fortunetelling, Wen takes an anti-fortunetelling position. “I do not support fortune-telling and I do not believe in future-telling. My approach to tarot is not predictive. It is analytic”. Wen un-deifies the tarot by assuring the reader that tarot is not “a tool of the gods” or “demons” (the later ok, but the former I have some things to say). In chapter three Wen says that “fortune telling serves no benefit”. It diverts the client’s attention from the present into the future. It also diverts the client’s focus from their spirituality and into future outcomes, to the “superficial and the material”. Wen says that you should use tarot to understand the why and how as to not lose sight of what is happening now. Wen is too pessimistic about fortune telling for my taste.
I find that Wen is making concrete statements. Wen defines what her tarot analytics is in contrast to fortune telling to make it clear to the reader what her approach is. However, I feel there could have been more of an effort not to discredit or shrug off fortune telling/divination so early in the book. She does “acknowledge” the different perspectives such as a card game, fortune telling or the integration into alternative religious practices. But I feel that someone with little background with tarot who picks up this book may take the side of Wen and adopt a negative opinion of fortune telling. That can easily lead to a superiority view of Wen’s approach or approaches similar. Fortune-telling/divination will then be looked down as lesser. Is this slipper slope thinking? Maybe, but it is possible. Wen does tell the reader to come to their own conclusions and not to blindly trust her word on what tarot is and is not.
To be fair, I am someone who does support this holistic application of tarot and I do promote this perspective. I do agree that tarot is an effective tool for self-knowing and I steer my clients towards that direction in my private session. Nevertheless, I also like the “magical” side of fortune telling and divination. The holistic view, while important, for me, reduces the craft to pure Materialism, in the philosophical sense.
Wen’s tarot analytics epitomizes the modern tarot movement (tarot for self-knowing). Tarot and psychology have been blending more and more over the years (Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility by Arthur Rosengarten Ph.D, Tarot Coupling: Resources & Resolutions for Relationship Readings by Gina Thies). While the psychological insights are indeed useful and have provided great new ways of looking at tarot, it is a double edge sword for reasons I mentioned above (elitist positions/materialist perspectives).
What I do applaud Wen for doing is making tarot secular and promoting its nonreligious affiliation. This removes religious fear, fear for people wanting to learn tarot and fear of those wanting a reading. Wen’s comments on the Pope’s remarks about the tarot and salvation that “only Jesus saves”. Wen’s approach is non-supernatural and in my own words Christian safe. Wen says that tarot is like “mind mapping, a method for better visualizing viable solutions to a present problem”. There is no contradiction with the Pope’s statement that “Jesus saves” and the approach of tarot analytics, any predictive attributes from tarot analytics is akin to weather forecasting, it is subject to change. This sums up the common opinion of the majority of tarot readers within in the modern movement.
Chapter three, Allaying Fears and Offering Theories attacks your fears head on. Wen makes you face the dark and spooky cards, Death, The Devil and The Tower. This serves a useful point, to remove the negative baggage and presumptions, some people may have or form when encountering the tarot. We are presented with different theories as to how tarot operates. Wen has an eloquence about explaining the different theories and presents the non-mystical as well as the mystical, to be balanced.
Back on the subject of fortune telling (this seems to be the crux of my review, but Wen also brings it up again and again), Wen again reflects core modern tarot movement ideas. The concept that tarot shows possible outcomes, not fixed outcomes is central to Wen’s ideology. Tarot does “not predict the future”, it “shows the most likely destination of your current journey”. For me this is still fortunetelling, just nondeterministic.
Chapter five Anatomy of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, Wen, like a surgeon, cuts into the deck and breaks down the cards. There are many charts and tables. The whole book is filled with wonderful illustration, charts and such. I love that so much, visual aids are important, especially when dealing with a tool like tarot that has many underlying ideas and concepts related to them. Charts help organize ideas and understand the relations between these concepts. Like element associations, elemental qualities, cardinal direction and others. Wen is clear to make the reader aware of different ways of viewing card meanings, how one card could have two different elemental associations (Magician Air or Earth for example). Wen allows the reader to try to decide which works for them. This is much appreciated as it presents tarot fairly balanced. Wen presents information openly and leaves it to the reader what to make of it.
Chapter six The Personal Journal, Wen gives good ideas for what one can do with a tarot journal. Tarot journaling is important and sometimes people are not sure what to put in their journals, Wen covers this with solid recommendations.
Chapters seven, eight and nine deal with the learning of keywords. When it comes to learning the cards and their meanings Wen suggests the memorization of keywords through repetition, which is the “most effective way”. Wen also suggests that you start to practice reading for a teddy bear as a way to get yourself acclimated to the reading process. Wan warns students who jump the gun and read for real people too soon can do more harm than good. Like a medical student operating on a person without practice on the cadaver, Wen’s analogies are gold.
Wen does not reduce tarot to just keywords and nothing more, which some may jump to thinking. She makes clear the cards meaning’s are nuanced and layered. “Keywords are starting points”, tarot reading is not “the regurgitations of memorized card meanings or prepared statements”. True, I agree. To understand a card, we must put our finger on the center or core of the card’s “soul” or “essence”. Once we pin point that we can move outwards, peeling back the layers like an onion. Keywords can assist your intuition.
There are 172 pages of card evaluations and meanings, including reversals. I will not go into each card and comment; we would be here for all eternity if I did. What I notice is that Wen compares cards to one another to highlight the interconnections between cards. This is important when doing a reading to recognize patterns and themes. Wen presents the esoteric undertones of the cards. She is able to bring insights to the cards via Asian philosophies which is a refreshing shift from the typical Western philosophical perspective (but does not ignore Western thought).
For the Major Arcana, elemental and astrological glyphs accompany each card with key words. For the Minor Arcana keywords are provided based on the card and the numerological value. For example, five of wands, “competition, rivalry, contention” “Number 5, Uncertainty, adversity, changing tides”. Wen also includes the useful meanings of recurring cards of the same number. “Three Fives, competition” “Four Fives, Unexpected advantage”.
With respect to court cards, Wen does an impeccable job of presenting this commonly difficult matter. Again, you will find charts galore that will guide you to understanding courts. Like with recurring minors, Wen gives us meanings for when we have many court cards in a reading. 3 Knights are “social cliques of young men”, 2 Queens “competing for the Seeker’s attention or affections”.
Wen provides many case studies (sample readings) throughout the 141 pages in chapter 14 The Fundamentals of Readings Spreads to show tarot in action with real clients. As you go through the book Wen teaches different techniques, each paired with a case study to show its application. We see theory put into practice. In addition, there are so many illustrations! Some of these chapters could be a stand-alone book. To say it is impressive is to do Wen a disservice.
Chapter 24 Inappropriate Questions deal with what a reader should avoid. This is a topic thoroughly needed in tarot literature. More people should be really thinking about what is an inappropriate question and does one deal with a situation, which deals with one. Wen gives practical advice in this area of ethics. Wen gives a guided process for possible scenarios regarding health, abuse, relationships and legal matters. We must recognize our limits as a tarot reader and know when to decline a reading and refer the client to a professional, like in the case of suicide or medical question. In addition, there is a whole other chapter, which deals with ethics more specifically.
Other sections include, preforming an “opening of the key” a Golden Dawn method. I will have to try this, I have avoided this because I felt it a difficult thing to learn from a book. I trust Wen will not lead me astray. Wen also gives attention to the Tarot de Marseille and the Thoth decks. A chapter for professional readers is also included, which includes nice bar graphs on demographics and other statistical information. There are some sections, which I am omitting from my review for time constraint reasons. There are many valuable parts of the book in addition to the ones I have selected. Too many to discuss to be truthful.
At the end, we have a treasure chest (120 pages) of an appendix. Truly, the appendix is a book of its own, highly valuable. I can’t stress how much I love charts!
What is lacking from my observations is the application and influence of Hermetic Qabalah. If you were looking for a shortcoming, it would be this one thing. The Qabalah is essential to tarot like astrology. The relationship between the Tree of Life and Sephirot.
Overall, I am deeply amazed and grateful for Wen’s contribution. Holistic Tarot has almost everything you need in one book. If your goal is to use tarot in the analytic approach of the modern tarot movement, Wen has given you your bible.