Cards on the Table is an interview series conducted by Enikő Vághy that introduces readers to different practices and philosophies of Tarot readers from various backgrounds.
Photo credit: Viktor Pachas
Eniko Vaghy: Welcome once again, numinous community, to the second installment of Cards on the Table. Today, we have the utmost pleasure of welcoming Jezmina Von Thiele. Jezmina, would you mind introducing yourself to our readers and possibly explaining your identity within the magickal / spiritual community?
Jezmina Von Thiele: Thanks so much for including me in this series! I’m based in NYC, and I identify a lot with the Romani “Gypsy” figure of the drabarni – a spiritual healer, or in the Western spiritual tradition, a witch. “Gypsy” is the racial slur that refers to the Roma, a diasporic ethnic group originally from India. Unfortunately, it’s the word people are most familiar with, although it is not the preferred term. I work my Romani family trades from my mother’s side of the family, fortune telling (tarot, palmistry, and tea leaves), dancing, and hands-on energetic healing. The type of Romani dance I perform professionally is a fusion of the ecstatic traditional dance my grandmother taught me, which has as much to do with listening to the body and spirit as it does learning steps. I love to incorporate the other forms of dance I’ve studied, including belly dance, modern, transcendental, and others. Romani healing has some similarities to Reiki, and because I’m a Reiki Master, I combine the two, but unlike Reiki, it also incorporates light massage, herbalism, and spell work. I often incorporate crystals and essential oils, too, and other Celtic-Romani Pagan elements from my time studying in a coven, and from my father’s side, a smattering of witchy Irish-Italians. In the same vein, I offer house blessings / cleansings, spell work, charm-making, and a number of other spiritual services. A good deal of this work requires me to be with the client (or audience), but I am perfectly able and happy to read tarot over the phone and perform healing, spell work, and charm-work from afar. I work both independently and with Tarot Society, a lovely occult boutique and reading parlor in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I read for individual clients and for all kinds of events, including parties, galleries, events, book launches, bars, festivals, and fairs, and really anything else you could throw at me.
I’m also a yoga instructor working with studios, private clients, and corporations, and because I’m an English professor and art teacher as well, I enjoy leading workshops that combine mindfulness, divination, spell work, yoga, and creative work. Above all, I feel my purpose is to serve Sara la Kali, the Romani goddess / saint, in spreading love, healing, protection, and creative expression.
EV: What Tarot deck are you currently using? What attracted you to this deck and how did you come to obtain it? Oh, and here’s a fun question I’d like to throw in: Which card in your deck do you relate to the most?
JVT: I’ve been using The Universal Tarot for years and years now, which is unfortunately now out of print and hard to find. I fell in love with it because it’s the deck that my witchy Italian aunt on my father’s side uses. She is such an educated and perceptive reader with a background in art and art history and well-versed in mythology, and the cards bring out the best in truly nerdy witches like us. I love that the deck incorporates symbolism from the seven major religions / philosophical traditions, because no matter who I’m reading for, I’m likely to connect with that reader’s worldview, whether they’re religious, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist. The artwork is also understated, luminous, and mysterious. I learned tarot more intuitively because Romani card reading is a little different, though I draw from what my aunt taught me and from the Romani style.
Roma traditionally don’t read tarot – instead they use playing cards – and my mother’s side is no exception. We always read with my grandmother’s terrifyingly honest cryptic deck The Revelation Fortune Telling Playing Cards from the early 1900s. The deck was gifted to her by her American mother-in-law when she arrived in Boston, having fled from WWII Germany (where Roma were victims of genocide as well) on the arm of an American soldier (who was later revealed to be a violent schizophrenic, but that’s another story). Her mother-in-law wanted to show her that she was happy to have “a Gypsy” in the family and that she respected her traditions, and we’ve read with it ever since. Naturally, that’s the deck I identify most with, but I rarely read with it. At this point, it has a deep magic that is beyond trade work. It is only to use amongst the family, and only when we most need it.
EV: On your website, (which, may I just gush, is beautiful), you explain that you learned to read the cards from your grandmother who is of Romani-Sinti heritage. What I’ve noticed while preparing questions for Cards on the Table is that most professional Tarot card readers have their own special history with the tradition. Would you mind discussing how your heritage impacts your connection with the Tarot and how this legacy influences your method of reading?
JVT: Thank you! It’s funny because most Roma and Sinti (a Romani sub-group to which I belong) see fortune telling as a trade, not necessarily a spiritual practice. Imagine it like unlicensed Jungian therapy, using symbols, dreams, and metaphors to navigate the client’s issues. Roma generally only perform this for outsiders to make a living because historically Roma were forced into nomadism by persecution and were only permitted to be performers and fortune tellers. Even today, education and employment discrimination against Roma is a very real thing, along with hate crimes, illegal deportation / evictions, police brutality, forced sterilization, etc. However, there are divinatory and spiritual practices, usually performed by a drabarni for the Romani community, which include dream-work, ancestor-work, scrying, herbalism, and a number of other practices. My grandmother grew up in WWII Germany, in the midst of a genocide that wiped out nearly half of Europe’s Romani and Sinti population. It was not safe for her mother and grandmother to teach her the Romani language, and by extension, a number of drabarni traditional workings. My great-great-grandmother, Mathilde Von Thiele (whose name I use in my trade work), decided to teach my grandmother a mish-mash of safe practices, including fortune telling, all under her own brand of drabarni work. I find this is more common in the Sinti community, which was hit very hard by the WWII genocide.
So my grandmother passed these traditions of card reading, tea leaf reading, palm reading, dancing, and healing with the gravity of centuries of persecution, and a war that took many of the men in her family. I had the strong sense that it was not just my legacy to perform these trades, but my duty to keep her family traditions alive. Learning her family wisdom in her rickety little trailer is one of my happiest memories. We started palmistry, hands-on healing, dream interpretation, and dancing when I was five years old. All required a lot of spiritual work, and we continued from there. She taught me how to meditate (though she did not call it that) and how to build an ancestor altar, how to call on the ancestors and good spirits to help me open my heart and mind to best serve my client (who was also my grandmother). She taught me ecstatic movement, and herbal remedies, and other little fragments of her culture that she carried with her. My family is mixed / assimilated by both love and necessity, so she didn’t think it was necessary to keep it only to ourselves and encouraged me to work my trades as soon as I was ready so that I would always have something to fall back on. And as an adjunct English professor, let me tell you, I always need something to fall back on. While both types of work are very different, I think I get more out of my trades than I do out of academia. It’s difficult to measure things like that, but I approach every reading with a client with the same love and vigor that I had when I was five years old. I want to serve, I want to heal, and I want to continue the legacy.
EV: When you conduct a reading for a client, either in person or by phone, how do you prepare yourself? For example, do you use sage to purify the environment or incorporate certain types of crystals—or other ingredients from other spiritual traditions? Or do you rely purely on your intuition and focus?
JVT: I can feel my grandmother tutting in my ear when I don’t make the right preparations to read someone, so it feels almost non-negotiable. I definitely follow the ritual my grandmother taught me, but I’ve also added elements of my own picked up from my various studies with a Celtic-Romano coven in college, my work with my friend who is also a Cherokee-Navajo medicine woman, my yoga training, and other influences. In general, before a phone reading or before the client arrives in the space, I light a candle at my altar (if I’m in my home) or at a makeshift altar and all on my ancestors and spirit guides to help me best serve the client and speak from a place of love, truth, and wisdom. Then I purify the room using a bowl of salt water, which I sprinkle all over the room, my cards (or whatever tool I’m using), and myself. Then I use some combination of sacred sage from my friend’s reservation, copal, palo santo, and sweetgrass (depending on my mood and intentions) to purify the room, my tools, and myself. Then I usually grab a favorite quartz crystal (or put it in my bra close to my heart) and meditate to clear my mind, and open myself to become a channel for intuition and healing. If I’m reading in person, when the client arrives, I offer a little salt water and smudge cleansing for them if they’d like it, make them an herbal tea mixed to help them relax and feel receptive, and I burn some incense or diffuse oils aimed to support the reading if they enjoy scent.
Of course, when I’m reading at events like The YouTube Holiday Party, a The BUST Craftacular Fair, or a trendy bar in the city, I need to do a lot of this before I leave the house. I carry the crystal with me (still in the bra) like a portable altar to help me center wherever I am, and I might lead the client through a few purifying breaths before we get started.
EV: What does the Tarot mean to you? That is, what has it helped you discover about yourself and what do you think the Tarot can do for others?
JVT: Tarot is a key to the mysterious dream world each person contains – the subconscious, the ripples of unexplained connection, the omens we notice (and perhaps try to dismiss), and the ever-changing, ever-braiding narrative of our lives. It is one of many ways to know the the highest self and the shadow self; the past, present, and future self; the spirit self; and the firmly-rooted corporeal self. It is a tool to break open dreams, fears, and desires, and to follow the red thread of fate that the Roma believe connects all things and find it running through your very being.
EV: On top of being a professional Tarot reader, you are also a poet. Could you explain if and how the Tarot influences your work and vice versa? Also, I understand that other forms of card-based divination, such as Lenormand, have the possibility to mimic regular writing patterns. There is a subject accompanied by a modifier, and this results in a very explicit reading for a querent. However, in Tarot, it often seems like the reader is trying to garner a message from a spread by parsing and synthesizing the various symbols and connotations contained in the cards. Do you feel like there is a relationship between the Tarot and poetry?
JVT: My relationship with both art forms began when I was very young and open to everything, including my own strong intuition. In that way, the two are connected. I experienced sexual trauma throughout my childhood and did not know how to process what was happening to me outside of divination and poetry. In that way, the two kept me alive because I was able to make meaning out a horror that was otherwise eclipsing. It was not smooth, logical meaning, because poetry and tarot do not deal in that – it was a subtler, darker, and more hopeful way of knowing that there was more to me than violence. Naturally, the metaphorical nature of the tarot deepens the metaphors of poetry, and vice versa, but more than that, poetry and tarot are disciples of the sublime – the overwhelming beauty and overwhelming horror of existence – and teach you how to live in it. Sometimes I’ll pull a single card for a poem I’m working on if I’m struggling to pull my metaphor tight, and it helps me see the underlying vibration of the poem more clearly.
I’m also a fiction writer and creative nonfiction essayist, and I often do my own variation of Celtic cross readings for my characters when writing fiction to help me understand their crisis, resolution, qualities, and narrative arc because that particular form is so akin to narrative already. I sometimes read for myself in the past when working on a memoir piece for the same reason, and I find these practices to be enormously helpful, particularly for book-length projects which, after poetry and short stories, feel unwieldy. Pulling cards for characters, character selves, or an entire project helps me stay focused, perceptive, and connected to the piece I’m writing.
EV: On social media, you’ve stated that you “don’t believe in bad cards, just bad trains of tarot-inspired terror thoughts,” which I love. When I started to get into the Tarot, I purchased books that basically said, “Well, The Lovers and The High Priestess are great cards, but if you draw The Tower or the Three of Swords you’re doomed.” This doesn’t seem to be a very positive way of approaching the Tarot. Sure, not everything in life is going to be sunshine and rainbows, but this negative way of perceiving the cards seems counterintuitive, even hazardous to the longevity of the tradition. Could you expand on your belief for our readers?
JVT: Thanks! I posted that after watching The Love Witch by Anna Biller, which is one of my favorite films these days. I was inspired by Elaine’s (Samantha Robinson) iconic Three of Swords meltdown, which I completely understood. In a heightened state, a card reading can sometimes send you down a bad trip if you don’t get what you want to hear. Also, if you want to take an awesome Romani grandma’s advice, the books are bullshit. The only truth in the cards is your intuition and what resonates with you. You can learn the traditional meanings, but work on developing intuition over memorization because meanings change per person, reading, spread, and position. If the Tarot book says your client’s life is going to fall apart if she draws the Tower, but you really feel like your client’s old way of life is going to come crashing down to reveal a new resilient self, well, that’s more likely to be true, and it’s frankly a more helpful way to understand an enormous life change.
I think what’s important to keep in mind is that Tarot is never that specific. So if you draw a card asking, “What’s going on with my love life?” and you pull the Three of Swords, usually representing heartbreak, anxiety, and over-analysis, that doesn’t necessarily mean y’all are going to break up (or that you’ll go on a killing spree, like our dear Elaine). It could mean that you’re distracting yourself from this relationship by obsessing over past failed relationships, or over yourself and your perceived flaws, or over your fear that y’all are going to break up. Rather than panicking, it’s an opportunity to investigate what your fears are and why your coping methods aren’t working. What could you do instead of giving over to an introspective nightmare? You could pick up a copy of The Dance of Anger or Nonviolent Communication and improve your skills for connecting with your partner. You could take this as a reminder to work on healing that wounded, frightened part of you in therapy, or through self-care, journaling, and conversations with trusted friends. No card is a death sentence, and if you see a card and just *know* that you have to break things off with someone, well then it sounds like you already knew you wanted to break things off anyway. Think of each challenging card as a call to attention to a part of yourself and your story, and your quest is to learn what you can from it in order to process and heal.
EV: What do you think is most important for people to know or keep in mind as they embark on their own personal journey with the Tarot? Do you have any advice for aspiring Tarot readers who have just started to learn to read the cards?
JVT: My grandmother always told me to never read for myself because my hopes and fears will warp my judgment. For that reason, I suggest that new Tarot readers start off reading with friends in comfortable, conversational, and loving environments. I recently published an article with Greatist explaining just how to do that. At the same time, I do read for myself sometimes, but when I’m feeling stable, and usually I just pull a few cards for clarity or for daily meditation. A daily card is a nice way to start off getting to know its meaning (the book’s and your own) and experimenting to see if you know how it might connect to your day.
Now here’s grandma’s advice: Most importantly, before you crack open any books, look through each card of the deck and decide what it feels like to you. Those feelings might change, but analyze the card like you would an artwork or a poem, and let your heart respond to it. This is an emotional learning rather than a logical learning. Let your private meanings take precedence over any book’s teachings. Get to know them like your dreams.
Begin a meditation practice, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes a day, maybe upon waking, before bed, before reading, or when you’re feeling unsettled. It may be as simple as deep breathing with a hand on your heart, repeating a mantra you like, giving gratitude, or asking for blessing. Always meditate before working with the cards, and if there’s a ritual you’d like to do beforehand, even better.
And if you can, try to record your dreams right when you wake up. You can keep a dream journal or take voice notes. As you work with the Tarot, your dreams will help you understand the cards, yourself, and your purpose. Roma believe that ancestors can visit in dreams, and you can ask them to guide you, if that’s your thing, even if you’ve never met them. There’s got to be at least a few cool ancestors in your long line of lifetimes and lifeforms who are totally in it for you.
Your spiritual practice is even more important than knowing the cards because otherwise how will you listen when they speak to you? When I was a little chickadee, my grandmother told me, “Watch the lines of the palm until you can see the pictures moving beneath them, and read that story as it plays out before you.” This, I believe, applies to everything.
Jezmina Von Thiele is a Brooklyn-based writer and poet (often published under Jessica Reidy) and works her Romani family trades fortune telling, dancing, and healing. She is also an art model and yoga teacher, and in addition to working as an English professor and art teacher, enjoys teaching workshops incorporating movement, divination, yoga, mindfulness, and creativity. She is working on her first book, and you can follow her lifestyle blog for more magic and beauty at www.jezminavonthiele.com.
Enikő Vághy is currently a graduate student at Binghamton University, studying English literature and creative writing. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in journals such as Street Light Press and Paterson Literary Review, among others. A proud descendant of immigrants and factory workers, Enikő uses poetry to share her personal history and bond with people from various walks of life. She firmly believes that when women unite, anything epic is possible—to her, Agape Editions represents this power perfectly.