Interview with Rachel Pollack - Conducted by Diane
I remember seeing a catalogue for Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. There was a course on Tarot being taught by Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack. I was so enamored with Tarot for Your Self that I felt I had to attend this course or die. Summer passed without my attending the course, and I lived…but I decided to find out more about this Rachel Pollack, since Mary Greer thought enough of Pollack to work with her.
I then found and read 78 Degrees of Wisdom from cover to cover (covers-to-covers, actually, because it was then a two volume set; the newest edition of the book includes both volumes in one, plus some minor changes). In fact, I had started reading professionally about this time, and I used her books as my foundation with my readings with the Universal Rider -Waite-Smith deck (prior to that, I had solely used Thoth for professional readings).
Only afterwards did I realize I already OWNED one of her books: Teach Yourself Fortune Telling, a book that covers in some depth divinatory practices such as palmistry, the reading of tea leaves, crystal ball scrying, runes, and tarot, as well as a less in-depth review of several other methods. I had not realized how prolific Rachel was or how wide-ranging her writing then. I’m not sure I do now.
A cursory perusal of her writing credits now is stupefying—she is a literary descendant of the sculptor, painter, architect, and poet Michelangelo, in terms of range and prowess. She has written award-winning fiction, numerous books on tarot and divination, as well as The Body of the Goddess: Sacred Wisdom in Myth, Landscape and Culture. She has written text for several tarot decks, including Haindl, the Salvador Dali, and Vertigo. She has also written the text for several comic books: Doom Patrol (issues 64-87),
|A small sampling of Rachel's prodigious output. Photograph courtesy of Crystal Sage|
The New Gods (issues 1-11) , and Time Breakers (limited series). In addition, she also co-edited (with Caitlin Matthews) Tarot Tales, a collection of tarot stories and New Thoughts on Tarot: Transcripts from the First International Newcastle Tarot Symposium (with Mary Greer).
Not only that, Omega has just begun to publish a line of books and they asked Rachel to write The Power of Ritual, which was released early this year. Even I didn’t know about that one (but I have already remedied my ignorance and bought it at Borders, which led to a delightful synchronicity discussed in the interview below).
In fact, my research turned up even more Rachel Pollack books I didn’t know about. She wrote the text to Fabrications, a collection of photographs by Gisela Gamper. And did she or didn’t she write Journey Out: A Guide for and about Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Teens? (I asked—that was another Rachel Pollack—a nice, straight Jewish grandmother from Colorado who has been very gracious about the various happenstances of mistaken identity. They got together once in New York City over lunch.)
Finally, to return to tarot, she conceived of and created Shining Woman Tarot, a unique book/deck set. Caitlin Matthews described it as "the deeper levels of creation run through this pack, with a delightful freedom and wise love." Tarot Network News reviewed it, calling Shining Woman Tarot "the crowning jewel in the Tarot diadem of geocentric shamanism."
Devising questions for this interview, based on the length and depth of her life’s work (so far!), was simple; the difficulty was in paring down the excess of questions one could ask. There was enough material to write a book (something Rachel clearly has no difficulty doing), but we settled on an interview for Celebrating the Tarot.
Diane: When, where and what was your first introduction to the tarot?
Rachel: I was working at State University in Plattsburgh, New York. And there was a teacher who would wait an hour or more for a ride, even though she was only a five or ten minute walk from the school. Because it was the coldest place on the planet, she didn’t want to walk home even that short distance in the cold. She offered to read my tarot cards if I would give her a ride home. I only knew of the tarot from T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland, so I was very excited about it. What I liked was the combination of words and pictures, and the fact that she could look things up in a book to find meanings. I think [the author] was Eden Grey.
Diane: What was your first deck?
Rachel: My first deck was the Rider-Waite, the one with the ankh on the back. It was published by a company called University Press, which might have been an imprint of Weiser’s.
Diane: When you wrote 78 Degrees, how long had you been reading the tarot?
Rachel: Let’s see. I started reading in the early Spring of 1970. I started writing the book in 1978, and it was first published in 1980.
Diane: Eight years. You know that it is one of the most frequently recommended books on Tarot.
Rachel: That’s nice to hear.
Diane: Is there any chance of The Open Labyrinth being reprinted?
Rachel: Not under that title. It was reprinted as Tarot Readings and Meditations, which might be hard to track down, but I think it’s still in print. (Amazon.com lists Tarot Readings and Meditations as out of print—Ed.) I was proud of that title—The Open Labyrinth. Except I realized later that it was not entirely right, because labyrinths are always open, aren’t they?
Diane: How and what in your background influenced/served your understanding and approach to the tarot?
Rachel: I would definitely say that my lifelong interest in myths and fairy tales and other ways of structuring. Archetypal welling up of images was very important to me. I had loved fairy tales as a child, and then became deeply involved in the study of myth in college, first through Joseph Campbell, who I "discovered" in 1965, when he gave a speech in New York, and later through Mircea Eliade and others. Whatever systems we see in the Tarot, it works primarily through its images, which is why it has lasted through so many centuries and so many versions.
Diane: Do you see yourself as primarily a fiction or non-fiction writer…or simply a writer?
Rachel: Originally, I started out as a fiction writer. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to write non-fiction. But when I was in Amsterdam, most Americans got jobs teaching English to people who wanted to get a better job, that kind of thing. But I wanted to do something more interesting, and I decided I had a lot of ideas about tarot that I wanted to share. So, I created an outline and materials to teach a course on Tarot. In fact, that course was the basis of 78 Degrees of Wisdom, which I wrote in Amsterdam.
Ironically, most of my published works are non-fiction. I would say now that I see the two kinds of writing as equal in my writing life. And not really that different. In both, I see myself as a kind of champion—for fun, I sometimes say Amazon Knight—of the imagination.
Diane: Did you ever read tarot on a full-time basis?
Rachel: For a short time, when I was in Amsterdam. I didn’t like the aspect of trying to convince people they needed readings. Someone would say, "I’m having problems with my boyfriend," and I’d feel like I should say, "We should do a tarot reading on that." A friend of mine was a masseuse—a very, very gifted healer, but she was always asking her friends to get massages, and that got on everyone’s nerves after a while. I didn’t want to get like that. I didn’t like that aspect of reading full-time.
Diane: Was there a significant tarot community in Amsterdam?
Rachel: Not really, no. There were people who were very into the occult and Crowley, but nothing from the psychological point of view, which was my approach.
Diane: It’s interesting that you say that. I remember once you asked how people combined tarot and astrology and I was surprised, because I thought you knew everything about the tarot, including kabbalah, astrology, etc.
Rachel: No, that’s Mary. [laughs] I understood that if you knew astrology, that could help you get an understanding of tarot using those correlations, and vice-versa. But what I never quite got was how that would help you in terms of divination. But when I was writing my book, The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Tarot, I did do some work in that area.
Diane: That brings up another question that I suspect others beside myself have. When I first heard that The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Tarot was being released, I rushed to buy it online. It was advertised as a paperback published by Element, and that was the only way I thought it was available. I was rather upset to discover it in hardback published by Barnes and Noble, especially since it was less expensive, too!
Rachel: Well, Barnes and Noble is a monster in the publishing world, and they get what they want. What they wanted to do was have a series of books on various forms of divination. It’s not really a hardback book, anyway—there’s no cloth binding. It’s cardboard. The weird thing is there was a hard cover like that with 78 Degrees of Wisdom. I’ve never seen it. A publisher named Borgo bought up piles from Thorsons, and used the original cover, but in hardback.
Diane: And you don’t own one?
Rachel: No, they never sent me a copy.
Diane: Well, that gives the book collectors out there something to look for: a hardbound version of 78 Degrees of Wisdom. You’ve been teaching tarot with Mary K. Greer at Omega for 12 years. How did you two meet?
Rachel: I met Mary at a tarot conference in Amsterdam. She was invited specially from California and was staying in a little attic room at the Center. My partner, Edith Katz and I made a special point of meeting her and spending time with her and the three of us had a great time. Mary had been teaching Tarot at Omega for two years with another woman, Alayna Zachary. I was visiting my father in New York and dropped by to say hello. I ended up giving an impromptu guest lecture on Mary’s invitation. Alayna decided not to continue to do the class the following year, and Mary asked me to join her.
Diane: And you’ve been giving the course ever since. How would you describe your influence on her tarot worldview, and vice versa?
Rachel: Well, for my influence on Mary, you’ll have to ask her about that! But she has certainly had a great influence on me. I basically came out of the tradition where the reader explains the meanings of the cards. I tried to do that in the deepest and most profound way possible, and it was clear to me this meant more dialogue with the questioner, so you could go deeper. But it was still an extension of that tradition. Mary was kind of a revolutionary, in that she showed all of us how to involve the person on every level of interpretation. My way of reading now is much more of a mix of those two approaches.
Something else I got from Mary was the idea of using the cards in different ways in your life besides reading and meditation. She was always finding new ways to use them, for ritual, or taking notes, or organizing ideas, creating affirmations, and so on. I was actually moving in that direction before I met Mary, for instance, using the cards to create stories, something I did from the beginning, but Mary showed me how you can play with the cards in so many different ways.
Another thing I want to say about Mary is that she’s a brilliant scholar, and yet she always makes things so joyous and accessible. She’s a great model for how to take knowledge and really reach people with it.
Diane: Tell me about this year’s Omega workshop.
Rachel: We based it on the idea of the Millennial leap. Omega asked us if we could come up with something in connection with the Millennium and I’d actually been thinking a lot about that subject, so I wrote something and showed it to Mary, and she added some ideas. Part of the idea was that 00 is not really the new millennium but it’s obviously separate from the old, so it’s the Year of the Fool, who leaps into the unknown. And then on February 29th, I was teaching a class in New York and I found out that because of some quirks in the calendar system there wouldn’t be another February 29th in a year when all the numbers change for 2000 years (3000 won’t be a leap year). So I decided to create a spread for leaping into new ways of being, and that became one of the themes of the class.
And Mary’s publishing a book with Llewellyn on reversals, so that became another theme, not just how to understand them but how to really use them in creative ways. She came in with a chart that listed more than one hundred ways you could interpret a reversal. If you got a reversed card, you could close your eyes and point to the chart—and use that for your interpretation. And at the end of the week, we created a living Tarot reading with a message for the world as it is about to enter the new millennium. We’re considering writing that up as an article for Llewellyn.
Diane: How did you two end up co-editing the New Thoughts on Tarot book?
Rachel: It began as an idea I had for Mary and I to do a dialogue about tarot in a workshop setting. The students would also participate, of course, and we could transcribe the material and publish it as a book. When we proposed the idea to Newcastle [Publishing], they thought it was a good idea, but felt it would be even better as a tarot conference. An editorial assistant ended up transcribing and editing the material, but Al Saunders, the publisher at Newcastle, listed us as co-editors. because the initial idea had been ours.
Diane: Which tarot authors—besides Mary K. Greer—do you recommend to others—and what are your favorite tarot books?
Rachel: Other than Mary’s…I like Gail Fairfield’s Choice Centered Tarot. I find her ideas on different ways to read the cards a great source for applications. I’ve developed different techniques that are important to me from ideas I originally saw in Gail’s book. In particular, her dreamwork concept has become one of the major areas of my work. I’ve gone in my own direction with it, but the original ideas was a short suggestion in Choice Centered Tarot.
I like Cynthia Giles because she has a great modern sensibility; she combines serious scholarship with a respect for readers. She honors both. For history, Kaplan’s Encylopedias are great. Bob O’Neill’s Tarot Symbolism is very good for history combined with metaphysics. Wicked Pack of Cards is important for its scholarship, even though the authors seem to feel that if you disprove the occult claims for the Tarot’s origins then it all becomes meaningless, which I don’t agree with at all.
Brian Williams’ book on the Minchiate Tarot is truly wonderful, a genuine model for how people can approach Tarot in the future, especially historically. And I always tell people to read widely in myth, esoteric teachings, and psychology.
Fiction and poetry are important, too. In fiction, I recommend Italo Calvino’s Castles of Crossed Destiny, Tim Powers’ Last Call, Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symmetries, Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps, Francesca Lia Block’s The Hanged Man. Of course, The Wasteland is still a great Tarot work, even if T.S. Eliot claimed to know next to nothing about the cards.
Diane: Another co-editor, this time of Tarot Tales, is Caitlin Matthews. Tell me a little bit about how that book came about.
Rachel: I was at a conference on Merlin that Bob Stewart (R.J. Stewart, author of numerous books, including The Complete Merlin Tarot and Dreampower Tarot). I knew I couldn’t offer any serious scholarship to people like Stewart or Kathleen Raine, so I decided that for my contribution I would improvise a story with the cards.
I used the Solleone Tarot, and decided to really be spontaneous, so I would wait until the morning of the conference. I got an idea for the story, and a lot of the development, from the first cards I drew, but no ending. It was a little nerve-wracking, because it came down to an hour before I was due to speak, but then I shuffled and pulled a couple of cards and there was the ending. I did the story and Caitlin Matthews liked this idea so much she tried it out to fill in a gap in a mythic cycle for a book she was writing. It worked very well, and she called me and suggested we edit a book of such stories, written by different people. She invited esoteric writers and I invited fantasy writers.
Diane: Tell me a little bit about your process of writing stories using the tarot. How does using tarot with your writing differ from your normal writing practice?
Rachel: When I do a story with the Tarot, I think of it as a collaboration. I start with absolutely no idea of what the story will be. No plot, no characters, no setting. I mix the cards the same way I would for a reading, then draw some and see what they suggest. It’s important to let the imagination respond totally openly. So I might draw the Emperor and come up with the idea of a tramp sleeping in the shell of a destroyed building—except that the tramp is actually God. Things have gone very badly for him since he broke up with his wife. This actually became my story, Knower of Birds. And the funny thing about it is that it mirrors certain Kabbalistic myths about God and the Shekinah, which I did not really know until I read The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai.
Diane: In your book of short stories, Burning Sky, several of your stories end ambiguously. One of my favorites, The Malignant One, has a Lady and the Tiger type-ending, with the perceived ending reflecting more on the reader than the writer. How would you compare that to tarot—if you would, that is.
Rachel: In the story, the woman has just escaped a demon called a Malignant One. He’s described as a traveling salesman and he’s trying to stop her from getting to a meeting that would have great effect on the world. She’s saved by a Benign One, a benevolent spirit, disguised as a clumsy waitress, who spills hot coffee on the salesman and breaks his spell on the woman. At the end, she gets into a cab and it becomes clear that the driver is another spirit, but you don’t find out if he’s Malignant or Benign. How the reader takes it can indicate something of the reader’s attitude. I myself think of the driver as Benign, but I wanted to leave it open.
In readings, I often will ask someone what the card means to them, what they think is happening in the picture. How they interpret the action can say a lot about what is going on with them. For example, in the Shining Tribe Tarot, the Ten of Rivers shows a couple raising their arms as they look at a house. Some people see it as a celebration of their home, which is how I thought of it when I drew it. But others see them as waving goodbye.
Diane: Two other decks that you have written books for are the Dali and the Haindl. Could you tell me a bit about each of those experiences?
Rachel: The Dali was a commissioned book. During the time I wrote the book, Dali was fairly old and sick, so we were never able to discuss the deck together. I really only had a very short time to do that book, about four weeks. A lot of the work went into tracking down all the sources for the classical art Dali uses. The cards are a kind of clip art from famous and not-so-famous paintings, which Dali touches paint on. For the Hanged Man, for example, Dali used a painting called Young Man Among Roses by Nicholas Hilliard, and turned it upside down. My knowledge of classical painting is weak, but a friend introduced me to a curator at the Amsterdam Modern Art Museum and he identified most of them for me.
The Haindl Tarot was a great opportunity. I was originally asked if I wanted to write something for a new tarot by a German painter. I thought the publishers meant a little white book, so I said, "Sure." Hermann and Erica came to see me with an armful of his wonderful paintings and it became clear it would be much more. I eventually spent weeks with them in their home going over every painting in great detail, talking about the artistic structure, Hermann’s life history, spiritual wisdom, and political ideas. It was a great experience.
Diane: Is your newest book The Power of Ritual? How did you end up writing that? Did you and Omega discuss a book about tarot?
Rachel: Well, Omega had started a series of holistic books, and they were looking for people to write one on ritual. I actually was the third writer to work on it, but the others had not done that much, just an outline and a first chapter. I liked the outline, though, which made it easier to write, though I ended up changing it a good deal. For many of the books the writer is actually a ghost writer, with someone else’s name on the cover. But since I was an Omega teacher, and had done a number of books, they thought it good to have me as the official author as well as the actual writer—something I was certainly happy about.
Partly as a result of this work, but also because it’s the direction I was going anyway, I’ve been using more ritual in my readings. I recently did a reading for someone who was trying to change a longstanding behavior. A couple of cards gave her the image of emerging into her own power. At the end of the reading, I had her visualize herself inside a hard shell, and then, with an actual knife, I cut her out of it so that she could emerge into the light.
Diane: I was reading the book in the Borders café near my home. You wrote that blessing someone in ritual is easy and can be done anytime. Just as I was reading that passage, the woman next to me sneezed and I said, "Bless you." I had to laugh at the synchronicity.
I understand Llewellyn is releasing Shining Woman under another name. When will it be released, are there any changes, etc.
Rachel: Yes, it will be released under the name Shining Tribe in 2001. Seven cards are different—three have been altered and four are brand new. They were cards I was never really satisfied with, so now I have the opportunity to make the changes I want. Brighter colors, a new border instead of the boring white one and the book is twice as long as it was.
Diane: What other works are presently in progress?
Rachel: I'm doing a book for Llewellyn called A Walk Through The Forest of Souls: Journeys In the Sacred Tarot. I think of it as my most major statement on the cards and their mythic possibilities since 78 Degrees of Wisdom. I also have a mystery novel coming out from St. Martin's Press. It's a traditional murder mystery and I'm hoping it might be the start of a series.
Diane: What is your schedule like in the next year or so, as far as tarot classes and workshops?
Rachel: I’m doing a workshop with Mary in Los Angeles at the end of October. Then I’m doing a weekend class in Washington, D.C. with Geraldine Amaral November 10-12, one in Toronto the following weekend, and then happily there's a break until Germany at the end of March, and then Denver in May. This is definitely my busiest year for teaching!
Diane: Imagine a friend coming to you and asking you for advice about starting to learn tarot. What would you tell her or him?
Rachel: The first thing I would say is to play with the cards, look at them, make up stories about them, get to know them as friends. Then I would say to just jump in and start doing readings, even if that means looking every card up in the book. I also would say to work directly with the pictures and keep coming back to them. As a practical step, I always tell people to get a notebook, assign several pages for each card, and then write down whatever they know about the card right now, from their own impressions to whatever they might have picked up. Then. as time goes by, they get more knowledge and insights, especially ideas that come up in readings, to add to their writing. Eventually they will have their own book.
It figures that Rachel would be able to suggest a method for someone that would result in a book, since she’s been so prolific in this area…Another happy synchronicity occurred during the period of this interview; people on a Tarot e-list (Tarot-L) were discussing desert island decks. Kimberly Schwartz, webmistress of a tarot website-in-progress, www.overtheedgetarot.com, wrote that her desert island tarot book would be 78 Degrees of Wisdom. Naturally, I emailed her to explain why. Her answer explains why this book is a perennial favorite among tarot enthusiasts.
Schwartz wrote: "I was lucky that a couple of my first tarot books (Nichols and Giles) were good. But when it came to "learning the cards," as opposed to learning "history, mystery, and lore," the books I had read seemed to present the concept that there were specific established meanings for specific cards. But then the books disagreed as to what those meanings should be...despair!
Then I found 78 Degrees of Wisdom. It was accessible, it was readable, it was not filled with obscure occultist references that I didn't understand. But I could tell immediately that this was not a book which skimmed the surface of tarot. It was apparent that Rachel was an author who had lived "a life in the cards" [to use one of her phrases]; who had both digested the cards and then absorbed and synthesized her ideas.
It holds a place on my "favorites" list because it was the first book which gave me a sense that there is a system, a structure, a progression to be found within the Rider-Waite-Smith deck…Far from just giving me "key words" or "key concepts," as other authors did, she told me why she was saying what she was seeing, by relating her observations to the images and symbology on the cards themselves. For the first time, I was touching the magic of the images.
So that's why 78 Degrees made it onto my "favorites" list to begin with. But now, yea these many years later, why is it still there? Because I don't get bored with it. I make it a practice to re-read 78 Degrees about once a year or so. And I always learn something new, each time…It doesn't purport to give "answers." [So many tarot books do, you know.] Instead, it gives clues-- akin to trailblazing signs--but validates the seeker on his/her own personal decisions about interpreting the clues."
I think the reason Rachel is so successful in writing both fiction and non-fiction is her "championship of the imagination," which informs all of her work. When I asked Mary Greer what she had learned from Rachel Pollack, this is what she said:
"Rachel has influenced me in so many ways through our fourteen years of co-teaching at the Omega Institute that I will mention just one. Through Rachel I have become aware of the importance of "story" in reading a card. Rachel sees the story in the markings of a rock on her path, or the shape of a tree. It's not simply a metaphor for what is going on in her life. The card, the rock, the tree has its own tale, its own integrity first. Only then might we discover how its unique story might be relevant to our own situation. So, perhaps you could say that I've learned to listen more carefully to the nature of a thing, and accept what it has to say about itself before I try to figure out what it means."
We are all richer for Rachel Pollack’s respect for her "collaborator"—the Tarot. And I know I am not alone in my eager wait for the publication of A Walk Through The Forest of Souls: Journeys In the Sacred Tarot. Since it is bound to reflect Rachel’s "wide reading" and experiences of the years since she wrote 78 Degrees of Wisdom, the new book is destined to be another perennial tarot favorite.