The Handmaid's Tarot: Margaret Atwood Knows Her Major Arcana

Lori Lamothe

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(Victor Moussa/Adobe.stock.com)

Are you counting down the days until Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale airs this September? While you're waiting, why not do a Tarot reading with Margaret Atwood's favorite deck? If you're surprised that one of the world's most brilliant and prolific writers knows how to read cards, you're not alone. Tarot has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, so I was happy to learn Atwood knows her Major Arcana.

In her latest essay collection, The Handmaid's Tale author reveals she not only knows how to read Tarot but that she uses the Visconti Tarot deck. The deck, which she received as a gift several years ago, dates back to 15th century Italy and is the oldest surviving version of the Tarot. The cards feature hauntingly beautiful medieval scenes and bear no writing. If you want to take a look at its incredible artistry, you can visit the online collection at The Morgan Library and Museum.

Not purely academic

Atwood has used Tarot cards to give her students ideas for their fiction, but her knowledge isn't purely academic. As a graduate student at Harvard, she studied T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland," which includes a number of references to the Tarot. Eliot was not especially interested in Tarot but contemporaries like William Butler Yeats were.

Her academic knowledge expanded when she moved back to Canada. She learned to read fortunes at the beginning of her career when she was teaching in Edmonton. During the long, cold Canadian winters she even picked up some astrology and palmistry from the art historian who occupied the other half of the house she rented:

"I'd learned about the Tarot through studying twentieth century literature. I'd had a copy of the Marseille deck in my possession for some time and was in the habit of casting fortunes with it, until it got a little too accurate for comfort."

Atwood has been called prophetic because her fictional worlds have an uncanny way of coming true, but she has also created characters who claim to possess psychic powers. In her short story "My Evil Mother," the main character is a teenager living with a mom who is the uber suburban homemaker. She wears starched dresses, flowery aprons and pearls--but she has a distinctly witchy side too. For one thing, she reads Tarot and claims to see the future.

Is the girl's mom really a witch or just a woman trying to protect her daughter? Either way, she uses Tarot to keep her child safe.

Things fall apart

In an Amazon interview with her friend and fellow reader Damian Rogers, Atwood said the surge in Tarot's popularity in recent years has much to do with the need to tame our increasingly unruly world:

The more chaotic things appear out there, the more people are in search of some form of structure, a way of making sense. It’s certainly a period of chaos—old values being challenged, stuff falling apart, political systems that worked for a long time being called into question, and major power struggles going on all around us, of many different kinds.

If you aren't familiar with Tarot, you probably want to start with the 22 Major Arcana cards. Atwood mentions a few in her essay "Three Tarot Cards," which appears in Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021. Check them out below, along with her interpretations.

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(Amazon)

Regardless of your beliefs about Tarot, Atwood stresses that there are endless possible futures for us all.

Oracles in the ancient world were always ambiguous. They didn’t say, this will inevitably happen. They were like warnings—if this, then that. People ask, “Are you prophetic?” and I say absolutely not. There isn’t one The Future. There are an infinite number of possible futures, and which one you get is going to depend on what you do now. But of course, the other bad thing about that is that you can’t infallibly predetermine the results of your own actions.

The High Priestess

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La Papesse(Morgan Library)

Originally known as La Papesse, or the Female Pope, this card is all about mystery. Created in approximately 1454, the card shows a veiled woman wearing ecclesiastical robes and a triple-crown tiara. In one hand she holds a book, in the other a cross.

The card symbolizes occult forces, secrets and intuition. The moon governs the card so the emphasis is on change, instincts, impermanence and illusion. It's the embodiment of the sacred feminine.

Like any symbol, La Papesse and her meaning has continually changed since medieval times:

La Papessa has been on a wild ride since the fifteenth century, going from a traditional allegory of the established Church, to a heretic, high priestess of an occult lodge and, most recently, a neo-pagan witch. --Tarot Heritage

In Atwood's view, the High Priestess tells aspiring creative types they need to work hard to make their illusions convincing. It's a fine balance: don't show your hand too early but you must still pull your readers in from the first page:

"Moonlight and indirection, not the full noon-time glare all at once. This is good advice for novel writers."

It's good advice for everybody else, too. There's something to be said for candor but it's wise to hold a little of yourself in reserve. If we expose our wild ideas and seemingly impossible goals to the harsh light of day too soon, they may not survive. Nurture your creative side in secret—then dazzle the world.

The Wheel of Fortune

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Wheel of Fortune in the Visconti deck(Morgan Library)

The High Priestess shows us how to nurture our creativity but Atwood's next card reminds us to pay attention to time. This is also a card the derives from a goddess, though it celebrates a different kind of power. In Roman mythology, Fortuna is the deity of fate, i.e. "Lady Luck." Needless to say, she's fickle and changes her mind based on. . .well, who knows.

While the original Greek version of the goddess emphasized her caprice, the Romans tended to equate her with fertility and prosperity. Not surprisingly, she was very popular in Rome. But even the Romans understood that what comes around goes around.

The goddess has disappeared from modern decks but she's present in the Visconti version. Atwood's advice to novelists is to use The Wheel of Fortune as a reminder to watch the clock and take control of time:

"It is he or she who arranges time and turns the wheel, elevating some characters to happiness, deposing others or even killing them off. Perhaps time in the novel is always a combination of wheel and road: the wheel revolves and fortunes—in love and life—are made and unmade, but all the while the wheel is traveling along the road and time is progressing in a linear fashion as well."

How does this apply to real life? If I've learned anything over the past few years, it's how unpredictable life can be. We can't alter the past but if we think of ourselves as the creators of our own stories, we might be able to make positive changes. There's also something to be said for flexibility: no matter what the future holds, we can ride it out. Because Fortuna will probably spin her wheel again. Oh, and time management? Definitely an area worth paying attention to.

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The Roman goddess Fortuna(Mary Evans Picture Library)

Justice

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Justicia card from the Visconti deck(fromoldbooks.org)

Atwood's final choice is Justicia or The Balance, and for her it symbolizes the end of the novel. Like the previous Arcana cards, it derives from a Roman goddess. If you've ever been to court or have watched a legal drama, you have probably noticed the iconic statue of her wielding sword and scale. She's usually blindfolded but not in the Visconti Tarot. Atwood's Justice sees all.

In many ways, this card opposes the whimsical, unpredictable Wheel of Fortune. Think Karma on a universal scale. Have your novel's characters acted honorably and courageously? Then maybe they get their happy ending. Have the antagonists committed unspeakable crimes? If Justicia prevails they will receive a fitting punishment.

Is this always the case? Not at all. As Atwood says, "We live in an ironic age, Dear Reader."

Whatever their fates, characters' lives remain in the hands of their creator until the last page. Sadly, we'll never have as much control over justice in the real world as writers have in theirs. It doesn't mean we can't strive for balance, however—in our jobs, our relationships, our friendships and our futures.

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Roman goddess Justia(jonesday.com)

Whereas Atwood considers only three cards in her essay, the entire deck is rich with possibilities. Whether you use Tarot to jump start your writing or your life, each card can be a springboard for new ideas. They're also gorgeous and make the idea of meditation a lot more appealing (at least for me).

When I was in college I worked for a librarian who happened to be a pagan, not to mention one of the most interesting, empowered women I knew. Every morning she got in touch with her inner self by walking a golden labyrinth she'd painted on her kitchen floor. She also liked to pull a single Tarot card from her well-worn deck and study it deeply.

If you pull three cards or one, this centuries-old practice may give you insight into things below the surface of your psyche. And unlike Gilead, the Tarot allows women to be just as badass as men.

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Labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres(Wikimedia)

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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