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 didn’t stop there—she has written numerous books on the tarot and continues to publish books on tarot and related subjects. Mary is 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.
Mary seems to live and breathe the tarot. You’ll read in this interview that multitudinous interests and scholarly pursuits saturate her open and unique approach to both tarot and life itself.
Could you talk about your first experience with the Tarot? And how you became “Tarot author Mary K. Greer.”
I had always been drawn to the words magic/gypsy/witch, but as an Army brat in the 50s and 60s, hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 Christmas in 1967, when I got back to college (in Tampa, Florida), 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 deck—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 wasn’t 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).
But you were kind of identified with the tarot among your friends even then?
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. It’s funny—I just knew that that’s 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 material…For 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 Albee’s play, Tiny Alice (I was a theatre minor). All of a sudden, there it was on the stage…all 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 it—they were so pleased to see that intellectual interest coming full-bore into bloom.
But the (tarot) books I was picking up didn’t 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. Don’t wait.” He was introducing me to other authors, and I realized that I was as capable and as intelligent as the other people I was meeting. So…on 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.
I’m still not perfectly sure of the Mary K. Greer-as-progressing-tarot-author timeline. Didn’t you study in London before this?
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 wasn’t getting any training, as I still couldn’t 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 weren’t 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 master’s 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 people—the second time I ever taught a tarot class! It was a little overwhelming…As a result, I over-studied and over-prepared. I’ve 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.
Was it when you were in England that you joined the Golden Dawn?
No, I didn’t join the Golden Dawn until I was writing Women of the Golden Dawn in the early 90’s. It’s 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 horrified—we were only supposed to talk about the effects of chants. We weren’t supposed to do them.
I don’t know if Theosophy is still the same, but at the time, that was not my approach. You can’t 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 spiritualism…it wasn’t 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 Harding’s Women’s Mysteries and that opened up the whole world of women’s 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 Women’s Studies, including classes in Moon Mysteries and various Goddess traditions. But I also taught writing and other classes. In California, I got it all…I met Starhawk and got to know a lot of people in, but didn’t join, Reclaiming (her coven).
I was usually too busy. I was also going to graduate school. I had my master’s degree from Florida and was going for my PhD. I’m a PhD-dropout. (Laughs)
I’m an ordained Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis. It’s 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 couldn’t 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. She’s 85 years old.
Does everyone who joins the Fellowship become a Priestess?
No. You have to go through a training program to become a Priest or Priestess. There are correspondence courses if you can’t find a teacher, available through their website. This is the first time I’ve joined anything like this, because I’m not much of a joiner, but I just fell in love with Lady Olivia. She’s an extraordinary person. She likes the work we’re 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, UFO’s, channeling, sound healing, and work with dolphins. Some of it gets a little far out for me, but I try, when I’m in somebody else’s space, if what they’re teaching is not something I necessarily believe in, to create a “willing suspension of disbelief.” That’s a poetical concept taken from Coleridge. He proposed assuming that attitude when reading the Romantic poets. That’s what I do when I go to one of these talks. I’ve 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.
I’m 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 it’s true are missing out on a lot when they cut out everything for which they don’t have absolute proof. That willing suspension of disbelief opens up centers in your self so that you can experience things that you wouldn’t have believed possible. And then you discover that such things do happen.
What is most important piece of advice you have for card readers, or aspiring readers?
Rules are made to be broken! At the same time you might want to take a look at what a rule is trying to express and determine if is it worthwhile in some form or another. Let go of rules that are unnecessarily limiting. When you look at a card and can’t think what it means: Simply describe the card. More often than not, that will get your intuition flowing. Intuition is not always right. It is different than psychic insights and it is worth cultivating those differences. While your first thought is worth noting, it’s not always worth saying. Continue to develop your reading skills, which include everything from symbology to interpersonal communications.