Tarot Psychotherapy
with the Birth Cards

by Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.

As a practicing psychologist for over thirty years, I am always on the lookout for accurate methods that will help me get to know my clients quickly. Often, the success of the therapy depends on how well I understand my client's approach to life. For the past three years I have been experimenting with Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone's "Tarot Psychology" methods; specifically the "Birth Cards Continuum," the "Elemental Array" and the "Hidden Face Spread." I have found them to be unusually useful ways to get a lot of accurate information quickly. Moreover, my clients have been fascinated and entertained by the things that I have been able to tell them about themselves based on these methods.

My goal is to integrate tarot with psychology in order to develop a new form of psychotherapy that is solidly based on the insights about us that tarot can offer. At its best, the tarot psychotherapy that I envision will place one's personal therapy in the larger context of one's spiritual evolution.

Today I will describe how I introduce my clients to tarot by calculating and explaining their Birth Cards to them. Of course, these methods can be adapted to enhance any tarot reading or to aid one's own personal growth.

The Benefits of Working with Birth Cards
in Psychotherapy or Counseling

One of the major benefits of illustrating one's life issues with Birth Cards is that it decreases the sense of shame that many people feel about their perceived "flaws." The underlying assumption of Tarot Psychology is that everyone is struggling with the issues of their Birth Cards and that everyone is equal in this respect. In addition, because different sets of Birth Cards have different issues and personality styles associated with them, any system of Tarot Psychotherapy that evolves out of Tarot Psychology automatically recognizes that different people need different approaches.

Birth Card Continuum work assumes that we are reincarnated over and over again and that eventually each of will work on the issues of every Birth Card pair or triplet as we personally and spiritually evolve. This automatically adds a spiritual dimension to the psychotherapy work and allows us to view psychotherapy as only one aspect of our general evolution as spiritual beings. It is my view that we have to have a working ego before we can successfully transcend it. Or, as I might put it in Tarot Psychotherapy terms, we need to feel finished with the issues of this world (Malkuth in Kabalistic Tarot and the domain of pentacles or Earth), before we can commit to the journey of return to our divine source.

Introducing Birth Cards to Clients

Most of my clients are unfamiliar with tarot and are initially surprised that the cards can be used for anything besides "fortune-telling." I introduce the tarot deck that I use in session, a giant Rider-Waite-Smith deck, as having evolved out of a pre-psychoanalytic system of personal growth that draws on a number of spiritual traditions. I then tell them that there is a way, based on their date of birth, to choose two major arcana cards that represent the kind of personal growth issues that they will be dealing with over and over again during this life-time. I tell them that there is no logical scientific reason that I know of why this numerical reduction to Birth Cards should apply to them (after all, the calendar is a relatively new human invention); however I have found these cards to be very useful none-the-less.

How to Calculate Birth Cards

If my client expresses an interest, I go on to calculate his or her Birth Cards by adding the month, day, century and year of their birth together. In most cases the total can then be reduced to only two major arcana numbers which then become the Birth Cards. Once in a great while, one will get a birth date that reduces to three numbers, such as a Sun, Wheel, Magician (19 = 10 = 1). These people will have three important aspects to their life lessons instead of the usual two. For the purposes of Birth Card Continuum work the Fool (number 0 in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck) is not used as a Birth Card as it is assumed that we are all equally "Foolish."

For example, if my client was born on July 8, 1978; I add 7 + 8 + 19 + 78 together to get 112. I then add the first two digits, 11, to the third digit, 2, for a total of 13. Then I add 1 + 3 and get 4. This gives me the two major arcana cards that correspond to those key numbers: 13 = Death and 4 = the Emperor.

Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone are not the only tarot innovators who use one's birth date and other significant dates to calculate relevant major arcana cards, but they are the only ones that I know of who use two and sometimes three of them in this particular way that made them ideal for my purposes. There are also some differences in how various writers calculate Birth Cards. For those of you who would like more detailed information about Wald and Ruth Ann's Birth Card work, there are a set of tapes that can be purchased from the Tarot School. In this article I refer to Wald and Ruth Ann's Birth Cards system as "Birth Cards Continuum" work as a way of differentiating it from other systems.

How I Use the Birth Card Continuum
in Psychotherapy

Once I have calculated my client's Birth Cards, I work with these two cards as if they represent two ends of a continuum. A person with "Death-Emperor" Birth Cards, for example, would presumably need to work on issues associated with both cards, but individuals would differ as to where on the continuum their major issues would be. Towards the Death card end of the continuum are all the issues that relate to letting go of the old and welcoming the new, accepting the inevitability of change and transformation, and making peace with death. Towards the Emperor side of the continuum are the issues that relate to a desire to take on responsibility for others and to control, stabilize, organize and fight for one's personal "kingdom." The Emperor resists any change that he does not personally plan and initiate, while Death represents an irresistible and uncontrollable force that transforms anything it touches.

People who have these Birth Cards are assumed to be working on life lessons having to do with this continuum. They may have achieved relative mastery over one end, the Emperor side, for example; while struggling with the other, the issues associated with Death; or issues relating to both Birth Cards may be equally relevant to them.

My client Mary came to me because she was depressed and angry all the time. She felt that she was there for other people when they needed her, but no one was there for her. Moreover, she felt compelled to step in and take charge of other people's lives and save them from making what she felt to be serious mistakes. This left her feeling exhausted and unappreciated. She wanted to know why she could not stop bossing all these ungrateful people. In addition, Mary also was perpetually sad about all the losses she had sustained in her life. She dreaded, yet remembered, all the upcoming anniversaries of the deaths of virtually anyone she had ever cared about who had died.

After hearing Mary's complaints, I did her Birth Cards and found out that she was a "Death-Emperor." I took those two cards out of my deck and put them face-up in front of her and told her a little bit about what each meant. Knowing that she was a "Death-Emperor" helped me understand that many of her issues were perfectly normal, if a bit extreme in her case, for someone with her Birth Cards. Like many Emperors, she was extremely competent and was convinced that her way was always the best, if not the only, approach to a situation. Luckily for me, she also had a sense of humor. When she said, "So how can I stop being so bossy and always wanting to take charge?" I said, "Never! You're always going to be bossy because you are naturally an Emperor type. Have you ever heard of a non-bossy Emperor? All you can do is work on becoming more discriminating about who you boss and when you should take charge." She laughed and agreed.

In addition, I pointed out that she seemed to be having difficulties with the lessons of the Death card. It was really hard for her to let go and move on. I suggested that since she seemed to have mastered the Emperor side of the spectrum and had no problem taking charge, the harder therapy work would probably occur around the issues of transformation, moving forward and accepting endings. In fact, as I got to know Mary better, it became clear to both of us that many of her attempts to control others came from her fear that they would die and she would lose them if she did not take charge of their health and help them out financially. She acted the Emperor so as not to have to deal with Death.

As Mary's therapy progressed, we returned again and again to her two Birth Cards. They became a short-hand way of talking about her issues and they gave a face to her fears and concerns. The Emperor card reframed the problems she had with taking charge and being bossy in such a way that instead of feeling ashamed of these characteristics, she was able to see them as potential strengths that she could be proud of once she had fine-tuned them.

Charles, another "Death-Emperor" client of mine, was weak on both ends of the continuum. He had had a traumatic and abusive childhood that left him afraid of confrontations. Unlike Mary, he was unassertive with other people and would let himself be bullied by friends and family. However, he expressed his need for control by becoming financially independent at a very early age and getting his own apartment. He only felt safe when he knew he could be entirely self-sufficient in his own little, private kingdom.

On the Death card side of the continuum, he dreaded every up-coming change in his life. He did not focus on past losses as Mary did, but he could not envision an easy and natural transformation either. Despite being very capable and successful, every new life transition, such as graduating college or moving to a new neighborhood, made him highly anxious. Like Mary, Charles was also very responsible and extremely reliable; traits that I have observed often go with Emperor types. Knowing that he was a "Death-Emperor" helped me understand his need to control his own domain and his difficulties with transitions that felt out of his control. It also helped me notice that even though he was unassertive with his friends, he was drawn to jobs that put him in control over a group of people with the authority to organize things as he liked.

Understanding that Charles was a "Death-Emperor" increased my awareness that his unassertiveness was more a result of the abuse he had suffered as a young boy, than a reflection of his natural temperament. As we worked on his reclaiming his Emperor side in the external world, he became more assertive in his personal life and he took a job that allowed him to take charge of his own space and set up his work kingdom as he chose.

Does It Really Matter Whether You Are
Given the Right Set of Birth Cards?

When I first started working with Birth Cards, I wondered if any set of Birth Cards would work equally well in shaping a client's therapy. Don't we all have issues that relate to every major arcana card? I have come to believe that although we may all benefit from working with every Birth Card Continuum, our own set of Birth Cards describe us in some way that the others do not.

For example, what if Mary and Charles had been mistakenly given my set of Birth Cards, the "Lovers-Devil" continuum, the result of a birth date that reduces to 15 (the Devil) and 6 (the Lovers)? In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck these cards are drawn so as to emphasize their similarities. Both have a naked male and female figure with either an archangel or a devil looming over them. It is clear that both ends of the continuum deal with relationships. The Devil side relates to issues having to do with being tempted to be in a relationship for either the wrong reasons or in the wrong way. Selfishness, inappropriate sexuality, and an addiction to superficial fun (such as drinking and over-eating) can be issues. The Lovers side represents a spiritually blessed union where opposites can be reconciled through making appropriate choices and loving attention to each other's needs.

For "Lovers-Devil" types, almost all of their important life lessons occur in the context of relationship and relationship issues tend to play a prominent role in their psychotherapy. Those people whose major issues fall primarily on the Devil side of the continuum are generally motivated by the desire to have a good time. After all, according to the Golden Dawn tradition the esoteric function of the Devil is "mirth." Generally, Devil types are great to have at a party, but not so nice to be in a relationship with because they tend to put their own needs first. They may overlook or rationalize the negative effect that their endless search for a good time can have on their partner. People at the Lover's end of the continuum have their own issues as well. They may be too ready to merge with their mate, tend to overlook their own needs as an individual, or be confused about how much to give of themselves in the relationship.

If we look at Mary and Charles, the "Lovers-Devil" issues do not appear to be particularly relevant. Mary had had no serious romantic relationships in her life and, unlike most "Lovers-Devil" types, was disinterested in sex and marriage. Although she did have issues with other people, they were not the result of her selfishly giving into temptation and disregarding their welfare. Charles was married and did have some minor relationship problems; but did not have issues involving selfishness, sexual acting-out, merging with the other, or the inappropriate pursuit of superficial fun. He was moderate in his habits and was considerate of his wife without being clingy. As a psychotherapist, it is obvious to me that more of their important life issues are highlighted by working with their true Birth Cards, than by working with mine.


Tarot and psychotherapy seem to be natural partners. Many of the most experienced tarot readers are already using the cards to help their clients in ways that have more in common with psychotherapy than divination. Mary Greer's books are excellent examples of this trend; as are, of course, Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone's "Tarot Psychology" methods. As I have shared my interest in tarot with other psychotherapists, I have found that many of my colleagues have been quietly reading tarot cards as well and sometimes using them in session. This seems to me to be a good time for the two disciplines to officially meet and join forces. My personal goal is to legitimize the insights that tarot can offer and make them available to practicing psychotherapists and counselors. From the point of view of my Birth Cards, I am excited about bringing tarot and psychotherapy together because my "Lovers'" side loves to find ways to happily marry opposites and my "Devil" side thinks it would also be a lot of fun.

Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D.,CGP, CPTR has been a practicing psychotherapist for thirty years. Dr. Greenberg is a teaching member of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy; former faculty member of The Masterson Institute for the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy of Borderline, Narcissistic and Schizoid Disorders; and psychology consultant to The Tarot School and is in the National Registry for Certified Group Psychotherapists. Dr. Greenberg has been studying tarot for the past ten years and holds a Third Degree in tarot from The Tarot School.


Card images are from the Universal Waite Tarot Deck, Copyright US Games Inc.