Interview with Mary K. Greer Conducted by Diane Wilkes
This article initially appeared in Geraldine Amaral's journal, Celebrating the Tarot.
What can you say about a woman whom, I always think, needs no introduction to anyone in the tarot community. Had Mary K. Greer only authored the classic work, Tarot for Your Self (TFYS), that action alone would be enough to earn her a spot in the Tarot Hall of Fame. But thank Goddess she didnít stop thereóshe has written numerous books on the tarot, all excellent, and continues to publish books on tarot and related subjects. Her tarot workshops at Omega with Rachel Pollack are so popular and well-attended that theyíve been asked to come back for 15 years running, which might be an Omega record. Mary is also highly in demand as a lecturer and presenter at tarot conferences, yet she manages to find the time to encourage novices on Tarot-l to explore and discover the magic of the cards.
Perhaps you are one of the sad few who have never read any of Maryís books and think Iím guilty of burbling hyperbole? Here are some thoughts on Ms. Greer from others:
Arnell Ando, tarot artist and author, said, "Mary K. Greer is a powerful, complex woman of extraordinary talent for writing and public speaking. She puts so much thought and preparation into her presentations as to inspire new dimensions of understanding in any Tarot student or scholar. She is highly academic and not afraid to voice her opinions on any issue involving the Tarot and encourages us to look within ourselves for our own truths. She is a teacher in the true sense of the word."
Tarot historian and author of Tarot Symbolism, Robert OíNeill offered his thoughts on Mary in poetic form:
"Love and love and love.
Give and give and give.
Sacrifice self (a worthless illusion) to learn and help.
That is Mary's way.
Actually a damn fine way, if you think about it!!"
Mary seems to live and breathe the tarot. Youíll read in this interview that multitudinous interests and scholarly pursuits saturate her open and unique approach to both tarot and life itself.
Diane: Could you talk about your first experience with the Tarot? And how you became "Tarot author Mary K. Greer."
Mary: It was Christmas of 1967 and a friend of mine got one of Eden Grayís books for Christmas. The two of us sat there looking at it, absolutely fascinated, but hadnít a clue. We couldnít try it out since we didnít have any cards.
Diane: Was this your first experience of anything "occult-related"?
Mary: I had always been drawn to the words magic/gypsy/witch, but as an Army brat in the 50ís and 60ís, hadnít had any access to anything related to such things. Of course, I tried out a Ouija board with my friends in high school. I moved a lot and whenever I moved to another place, I would go to the library and look up those three words: gypsy, witch, and magic, but military libraries didnít have much in those areas. But I did get a very good grounding in early dream research, "ghosts I have known," and some early yoga books, because those were the only books in those sections of the library.
But after that Christmas, when I got back to college (in Tampa, FL), I asked around to find out where I could get "these things." I was told there was an odd store on the other side of town that I could try, so I borrowed a car and drove there. There were a few decks, and I chose the Rider-Waite-Smith deckó the University Books edition.
I was off and running. It was hard to find books, at first. There was the Eden Gray, but I soon wanted more information.
There was also a book called The Painted Caravan by Basil Rakoczi, which was the only book our university library had. It pretty much convinced me that that wasnít quite the tact I was looking for.
I spent a couple of years of just really doing tarot. New decks started coming out, and when anybody who got a deck, word would get around, and we would get together. But it was like the untrained training the untrained (laughs).
Diane: But you were kind of identified with the tarot amongst your friends even then?
Mary: Oh, definitely. I read for friends and friends of friends. I pretty much realized within that first year that someday I wanted to teach it as a college class. And I envisioned myself as a 60 or 70-year old woman writing down her life wisdom writing a book about the tarot. Itís funnyóI just knew that thatís what I wanted to do.
At the same time, I was an English major studying what we then called "Archetypal Criticism." This was basically Jungian materialÖFor me, the tarot was a walking image set of all the principles that I was discovering. And at the same time I was reading Erich Neumann, a Jungian mythographer, and Joseph Campbell and Jung. This was in 1968, and this whole world was opening up to me. I was so excited; it was like I had found something that clicked.
It was the combination of these ideas and this set of images. I got turned on to the Jungian, or Archetypal Criticism, from seeing Edward Albeeís play, Tiny Alice (I was a theatre minor). All of a sudden, there it was on the stageÖall the archetypes and symbols, and I knew exactly what was going on. I had never had that level of insight before. So, I went rushing off to my faculty advisor and my professors, spouting off. And they were wonderful about itóthey were so pleased to see that intellectual interest coming full-bore into bloom.
But the (tarot) books I was picking up didnít reflect these connections.
I became a tarot author when I wrote TFYS. I was on sabbatical in 1979-80 in Mexico with Ed (Buryn), who became my husband. He had written books, and was really encouraging me to write what I had committed myself to all those years before. He said, "Of course you can write a tarot book. Do it now. Donít wait." He was introducing me to other authors, and I realized, "Hey, theyíre just ordinary people. Theyíre just normal."
Diane: But before that, didnít you live with Jim Carroll (Basketball Diaries)? He was an author.
Mary: But he was a poet, and poets are a whole different sort. Poets are geniuses and Jim was a poetic genius, at least in his youthÖI donít know about now. Itís the kind of thing where you say, but "Iím not that." Ed, on the other hand, was more of a normal human being, if you can call him that. (Laughs.) And I realized that I was as capable and as intelligent as the other people I was meeting. SoÖon the long car ride back from Mexico, I outlined the book.
While writing the book, I was teaching basic skills classes using workbooks at the New College of California to build up an understanding of reading comprehension and vocabulary and how to develop a sentence bit by bit. A lot of the techniques that are in (TFYS) come out of the workbooks that I was using in the basic skills classes. There was one in particular that I thought was just beautifully designed for taking big topics and working piece-by-piece through them. That was where I got my model.
I was also teaching a journal writing class in the New College degree completion external program. One of the requirements was to keep a journal and I saw how powerful it could be. So, the idea of journal writing were also a big part of the book.
Diane: I know Tristine Rainierís The New Diary was cited in the bibliography of TFYS.
Mary: Her book was the most influential on me, though I certainly went to a lot of other sources and had been working with journals for a long time. I definitely have my mentors, the people who think the way I want to think or open a door to what feels really comfortable to me. What I also got from Rainierís book was her style of writing to the reader. I really felt like I was her best friend and she was talking directly to me. So I tried to emulate the sense that she gave me of just being talked to by a friend. Another important teacher/mentor was Angeles Arrien (The Tarot Handbook), who gave me permission to use several of her inspired techniques in my book.
Diane: Iím still not perfectly sure of the Mary K. Greer-as-progressing Ėtarot-author timeline. Didnít you study in London before this?
Mary: In 1967, I discovered the tarot. In 1968, I was reading up on it and exploring it. I graduated in 1969, lived in Atlanta for a year where I also started learning astrology, and left for London in 1970. I studied tarot there with other people, and went out with the brother of the then-owners of Atlantis Books in London. He turned me on to some material. I met people who had known Crowley, so I was getting closer, but I still wasnít getting any training, as I still couldnít find a class or teacher in tarot.
I did, however, find astrology classes, so I studied at the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society and some other astrological meeting places that I went to regularly. I also made some friends who were interested in these things. Two people who I spent most of my time with ended up becoming major names in the astrological community: Caroline Casey (Making the Gods Work for You) and Ananda Bagley, who has a computer astrology company in England.
After 1970-1971, I returned to Florida and found an astrology teacher there and continued with astrology. I also joined Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.). I later met a couple who had written some books on tarot, but they werenít teaching classes then. They did show me a Jungian spread they had developed.
Then I was married briefly, and as part of the "getting over it" process, I threw myself into teaching a tarot class. I was employed at the University of Central Florida as a typesetter and graphic designer, and was working on a Masterís Degree in English Literature. I told them I wanted to teach a non-credit Tarot course, and they were thrilled. I taught my first class in 1974. The next semester, I taught another class, and because the Orlando newspaper did an article about me, I ended up with 60 peopleóthe second time I ever taught a tarot class! It was a little overwhelmingÖ
As a result, I over-studied and over-prepared. Iíve certainly learned to be a better teacher since then! (Laughs.) It was an exciting time for me and it really helped me at that point.
Diane: Was it when you were in England that you joined the Golden Dawn?
Mary: No, I didnít join the Golden Dawn until I was writing Women of the Golden Dawn in the early 90ís. Itís not like there are Golden Dawn Lodges in every town. The closest I had been able to get before was going to the Theosophical Society. But they only wanted to talk about things; they never wanted to do them. Each person in a study group was supposed to lead a section, and I got to lead the section on chants. So I brought in a tape with some chants on it, and said we were going to chant together. People were horrifiedówe were only supposed to talk about the effects of chants. We werenít supposed to do them.
I donít know if Theosophy is still the same, but at the time, that was not my approach. You canít know what chanting is about unless you do it.
I also went to some spiritualist churches. I got training in psychometry and other psychic skills, but the Florida teachers were from the old-school spiritualismÖit wasnít the approach that I was interested in, though some of the training was pretty good.
I played around with solitary magic for years, too, until I moved to California in 1976, and then it was like everything opened up. In 1977, I got turned on to the Goddess through reading M. Esther Hardingís Womenís Mysteries and that opened up the whole world of womenís spirituality. I was teaching at New College of California in San Francisco and they let me teach Tarot as an academic subject. I also taught Womenís Studies, including classes in Moon Mysteries and various Goddess traditions. But I also taught writing and other classes. In California, I got it allÖI met Starhawk and got to know a lot of people in, but didnít join, Reclaiming (her coven).
I was usually too busy. I was also going to graduate school. I had my Masterís degree from Florida and was going for my Ph.D. Iím a Ph.D-dropout. (Laughs)
Diane: Do you ever think about going back and getting your Ph.D.?
Mary: I have a fantasy. If I had all the time and money in the world, Iíd probably get a Ph.D in English Literature. Or AnthropologyÖbut the kind of Anthropology Iím talking about would probably not be accepted, and anyway Iím already involved in it.
Diane: Which is?
Mary: I know several anthropologists who have "gone native"ófully-credentialled, but then joined the community they were studying. Iíve been doing a lot of workshops in Shamanism. I just spent a little time with Susanna Valdez, who went to Mexico to study the Xuichols for a monthóand stayed for 25 years. Now sheís part of the community, and runs a cultural center for reclaiming their art that honors their values, yet earns them money.
Iíve also done a few talks and shamanic journeys with Hank Wesselman who is a local anthropologist. He has been working with the Leakeys in Africa and the oldest human bones that have ever been foundÖand is on the cutting edge of such research. But he had a shamanic opening a few years agoóat first he wondered if it was a nervous breakdownóbut it was a true shamanic opening. All of this work connects to other things in my life.
Iím an ordained Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis. Itís a religious organization that was started almost 30 years ago in Ireland by an Anglican priest, Lawrence Durdin-Robertson and his sister, Lady Olivia Robertson, who couldnít believe in a religion focusing on human sacrifice. Through his studies, he felt that a church of the Divine Feminine made more sense to him. He died a few years ago, and his sister, who had previously taken a back seat, came forward and travels extensively now around the world. Sheís 85 years old.
Diane: Does everyone who joins the Fellowship become a Priestess?
Mary: No. You have to go through a training program to become a Priest or Priestess. There are correspondence courses if you canít find a teacher, available through their website. This is the first time Iíve joined anything like this, because Iím not much of a joiner, but I just fell in love with Lady Olivia. Sheís an extraordinary person. She likes the work weíre doing here in Nevada City, so she comes here once a year and we put on a public ritual ceremony. It gives people a chance to meet Lady Olivia and us a chance to do a public working. It takes place in a de-consecrated Catholic Church and is quite wonderful. I live in a world and community where there is a great deal of magic and ritual.
For instance, we have a local organization called New Frontiers of the Gold Country that brings in all sorts of wonderful speakers from around the world to give talks and workshops on a whole range of subjects. There is a lot of Sacred Geometry, UFOís, channelling, sound healing, and work with dolphins. Some of it gets a little far out for me, but I try, when Iím in somebody elseís space, if what theyíre teaching is not something I necessarily believe in, to create a "willing suspension of disbelief." Thatís a poetical concept taken from Coleridge. He proposed assuming that attitude when reading the Romantic poets. Thatís what I do when I go to one of these talks. Iíve found that my critical mind is still there in the background, making notes, but in another part of my mind, I willingly suspend disbelief and give myself over to the experience.
In UFO talks, for instance, Iíve done short journeys involving connecting with extra-terrestrials, and Iíve found it a very interesting phenomenon. In the time that Iím there, and for about 24 hours afterwards, I have a heightened sensitivity to other-earthly things (laughs). I get new levels of understanding through the experience. I donít have to accept the explanations for it, but by going into the experience with them "as if" it was true, Iím able to open doors that are pretty amazing.
Iím also one of these people who respects logic and real historical facts as well as made-up lore (which I also honor), so I respect both sides, but can tell the difference between them. But those people who have to touch and feel something to know itís true are missing out on a lot when they cut out everything for which they donít have absolute proof. That willing suspension of disbelief opens up centers in your self so that you can experience things that you wouldnít have believed possible. And then you discover that such things do happen.
Diane: Tell me about your new book on reversals coming out from Llewellyn.
Mary: I kept seeing books where reversals were stagnant and predominantly negative, so I decided something needs to be done about this. Llewellyn was delighted with the proposal and very supportive, so I settled down to write it.
One of the things I discovered in writing the book is that reversals are not all fun (laughs). Thereís a reason why theyíve gotten a bad rap. They are disruptive, they can be troublesome, they can be problematic, they can be painful. And I got every one of the reversals in my life. I went through a period of a lot of difficulties when I was writing this book, and I list just some of them in the introduction because they were so amazing. My attitude was that there was a lesson for me in each one of them, so I tried to work with them as they were happening, which is one way of "righting the reversal."
A reversal doesnít work within the ordinary "reality" of contractual time. It works in its own realm, which is where a lot of the problems come into play. We live in a time-oriented, logical, rational world and reversals are the contrary, the opposite of all of that. I ended up listing thirteen or so ways to look at a reversalósomething for everyone. I also note situations where you might use the reversed meaning even if a card is upright, such as in a position like "What is blocking you." One of the categories Iíve added is the shamanic dimension of the reversal, which is the principle that itís not ordinary reality, but a different kind of reality with a different set of principles. One of the best ways to work with a reversal is to work shamanically with the card, and then itís working with you.
Diane: Will you be doing any tarot conferences, classes and/or workshops in the near future?
Mary: BATS will be held in early October in San Francisco, and Iíll be presenting there. At the end of October, there will be a weekend workshop in Los Angeles that Iíll be conducting with Rachel Pollack. On November 11th and 12th, Geraldine Amaral is hosting a weekend workshop I'll be doing in Washington, DC. In mid-November, I will be doing a tarot workshop in San Francisco with members of the Reclaiming coven. People can contact me at 530-265-3179 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
As someone who has taken numerous workshops with Mary in the past, I can only recommend that anyone who can go to any presentation or workshop she conducts, should do so forthwith. Every one I have ever attended has been life-changingóin a good way. That's the literal definition--to me--of a meaningful teacher.
But don't take my word for it. Here's what Geraldine Amaral has to say on the subject of Mary Greer-as-teacher:
"We all know that Mary Greer is a terrific writer and that her understanding of the Tarot is extraordinary. Her ability to draw powerful meanings from the Tarot images is remarkable. But to me, Mary's greatest gift and strength is her ability to be present. Whether she is leading a workshop, or doing a private reading, she is has an uncanny ability to really listen to what is being said: looking for cues and taking in what is being expressed. She pays attention, truly receiving and mirroring back. Personally, I have learned so much from observing her gift of being present."
Addendum: I am planning to attend the November 11 and 12 workshop with Mary in the Washington, D.C. area. Geraldine has informed me that a few openings remain available. Click here for more information.
Hope to see you there! --DW