Flashcards of the Self
You've seen it happen in movies or read it in mystery novels. The hero, seldom the villain, happens upon a tarot reader who draws a card and it is--what else--the Death card. Gasp, sigh. You, yourself, might have easily predicted that would be the single tarot card to turn up, especially in a mystery. And, until recent television advertisements, that one card-turning action was likely the only thing that many people knew about tarot readings--turn over a card and its name or title tells you all you need to know to foresee the future. That cliché of a plot twist has misled millions of viewers and readers into thinking they've experienced the essence of the tarot.
Recently, television commercials promoting tarot readers assure gullible listeners there is another "essence" to tarot, namely that the cards can tell them whether or not they are pregnant,who is the father of their child, and the answer to many other of life's mysteries. In Los Angeles, where I live, little shops located every few miles along major boulevards light their otherwise unimaginative decor with brilliant purple neon signs declaring "Fortune Telling. Tarot. Palm Reading."
So, it's little wonder that if you tell people you read tarot cards, they may indicate either that they've never heard of them or, with a knowing nod or wink, will ask you to predict their future. After all, they've seen how it's done on television.
Even publishers of decks subtly promote the fortune-telling idea with the little white booklets (LWBs) that accompany their decks, that list a string of words or phrases ("misery," "voyage," "contentment") for each card. One well-known California tarot expert demonstrates the insignificance of these booklets by opening a brand-new deck at each of her presentations and throwing the LWB over her shoulder. As newcomers gasp, long-time tarot readers nod knowingly.
The American Tarot Association runs a Free Tarot Network where readers can get a free one-card reading and a Free Reading Network, providing three-card readings. What are the two most popular questions? Those that have something to do with romance (Does Mikey love me? Will Mikey marry me? Is Sharon my true love?), and those that either request winning Lotto numbers or want to know whether or not the questioner will win the Lotto and, if you please, when.
If you are an experienced tarot reader, you already know that these are not questions the tarot answers well and, if you are a beginning reader, now is the time to learn. One of the major jobs those of us who read for the networks have is to educate people about the kinds of information the tarot can give.
For the last decade there has been a movement afoot--or should I say, at hand?--which well-known tarot authorities Mary K. Greer and Rachel Pollack call the Tarot Renaissance.1 It incorporates the idea that tarot readings can form a new basis for stimulating self-awareness, personal growth, and inner transformation.This approach has become so popular among tarot devotees that it is rapidly replacing the idea of the tarot as a fortune-telling device, except in those ubiquitous novels, television commercials, and desolate storefront tarot parlors bereft of any capacity to kindle an inner flame.
Contemporary users of the cards (called "readers") realize that tarot readings correspond to, and express, the ongoing progress and needs of our own daily lives. They act as a map of our personal lives, both exterior (the mask) and interior (the psyche).
Someone--I think it was the famed American journalist, columnist, and sociologist Walter Lippmann--wrote that the greatness of Charles de Gaulle was not that he was in France, but that France was within him. Paraphrasing Lippmann, it's not so much that we can find ourselves in the tarot--and certainly we can easily enough--no, the greatness of the tarot lies in the fact that the tarot is within us, card by card, stimulating and expressing aspects of our life journeys if we care to access them.
To understand how that can be, we need to look at both the basics of the tarot and its relationship to archetypes.
The tarot deck consists of seventy-eight cards, divided into a group of twenty-two cards called the Major Arcana (arcana means mysterious knowledge) and fifty-six cards called the Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana is further subdivided into sequentially numbered cards, starting with a card numbered zero--usually placed at the beginning, sometimes at the end, of the other Major Arcana cards and typically called The Fool--plus twenty-one additional cards called Trumps.
The fifty-six Minor Arcana cards--called simply suit cards in older decks--are divided into four suits: wands (also called batons, rods, scepters, staffs, or staves), swords, cups (chalices), and pentacles (coins, disks). Each suit has fourteen cards numberedfrom aces (ones) to tens, plus four court cards, often called the page (sometimes princess), knight (sometimes prince), queen, and king.
Contemporary-themed decks may contain additional cards or attach different names to cards to more fully carry out their theme. Caitlín and John Matthews's Arthurian Tarot identifies the zero fool card as "The Seeker" and the first Major Arcana card (The Magician) as "Merlin." Subsequent Major Arcana cards are also renamed to fit the Arthurian legend.
Until the twentieth century, Minor Arcana cards showed only designs (called "pips") for the ace to ten cards, that is, the Ten of Coins simply showed ten coins on the card. Cards designed for use by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a nineteenth-century occult order, added a divinatory name to each of the Minor Arcana cards, such as Lord of Great Strength (Nine of Wands) or Lord of Abundance (Three of Cups). Then, in 1909, Arthur E. Waite, a Golden Dawn member, created a deck and commissioned the visionary artist Pamela Colman Smith, also a Golden Dawn member, to paint it. Her innovative inspiration was to fully illustrate scenes for each of the Minor Arcana cards. A new model for the construction of future decks was born, and it became a fantastically popular idea.
THE COLLISION OF MYTH AND REALITY
Imagine yourself sitting around the campfire at tarot camp, listening to your tarot counselor tell stories. She begins, "Once upon a time there were a group of people known as Gypsies." Here she smiles knowingly and adds, "because they came from ancient Egypt.
"When they did," she continues, "they brought with them ancient mysterious knowledge printed as tarot cards, yet disguised as fortune-telling cards. These were later transformed into bridge or gaming cards."
You've heard this story from other counselors in other years. You and the story are good friends. You smile and nod as you listen because its familiarity makes you feel so comfortable that you are certain it is true. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, and the next day your tarot counselor is fired.
The group of people commonly called Gypsies have never used that name for themselves--they call themselves the Romany, or Roma--and they and their culture did not originate in Egypt. Further, thanks to a dedicated group of tarot historians who operate as an Internet group known as TarotL, we know that tarot decks were first used regularly throughout Europe in the early fifteenth century and then only as gaming cards, seldom as fortune-telling devices, and never as personal empowerment tools.2
Playing cards, used in the late fourteenth century, preceded tarot cards. At that time the ruling family of Milan, the Visconti family, commissioned two decks of lavish hand-painted cards. The first, known today as the Cary-Yale tarocchi deck, had a background of gold leaf and featured twenty-two images known as the triumphs, trionfi. Later, the family commissioned a second deck, known today as the Visconti-Sforza deck, likely to commemorate the marriage of Bianca, illegitimate daughter of Duke Filippo Visconti, and Francesco Sforza. Both the cards and the game they inspired were called tarocchi.3
In the eighteenth century, Court de Gébelin and le Comte de Mellet introduced the tarot to the public as the work of the Egyptians (see their entries in the dictionary section). Counteracting that myth has been an uphill battle ever since. It was furthered by nineteenth-century French occultists and members of the aforementioned English organization, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. At this time, members of the French and British groups alike began creating their own decks, and associating the meanings and origins of the cards with secret ideas and artistic symbolism, Hebrew letters, Kabbalistic concepts, astrological connections, and other "divinatory" systems (see various entries in the dictionary section).
The "myth" of tarot is heavily intertwined with fanciful ideas, some quite erroneous. No matter how compelling or inaccurate they are, they have also led us to understand that attending to various symbolic expressions associated with tarot cards, whatever the deck, can stimulate us to delve deeper into understanding ourselves, as symbolism has always been meant to do.
THE SYMBOLIC QUEST
Dictionaries tell us that symbolism is a way of expressing the invisible. It is an artistic method for revealing or suggesting otherwise intangible truths or states, and a way of representing divine beings and spirits. The artistic or storytelling expression of symbols serves to evoke emotions within and, thereby, to provoke us to more fully consider who we are.
The well-known Swiss analyst C. G. Jung spent a lifetime studying our human ability to understand certain emotions, ideas, and motifs (storylines) through symbols. He borrowed a medieval term for "idea" and called those symbolic ideas "archetypes" (first patterns). Jung believed they were "memory deposits"--innate predispositions--derived by condensing innumerable similar, natural tendencies of the human race. He called this totality the "collective unconscious." By this he meant that at the most basic level, humans everywhere share certain instinctual patterns--of--ten referred to as psychic energy, primal forms, myth-building structures--which we transform into images and symbolic models. When these come into individual consciousness, they always are expressed as images, since archetypes themselves are formless.
Psychologist Jean Houston calls archetypes the "organs of Essence," the "gossamer bridge" that joins spirit with nature and "self with the metabody of the universe."4 Archetypal images, as images always have done, serve to help us confront the unknown,without and within. They give our lives a sense of meaning and authenticity.5
Archetypes and their images are the primary life-motivating agents in our individual psyches, and the overall psychological patterns shared by all cultures. And we have twenty-two of them in the Major Arcana of the tarot deck.
For Jung, the value of an archetype was not that we could, or should, identify each one as a specific image acting within, but rather that we could use it as a springboard for a process he called amplification. If we use an image as the stimulus to connect associated images, thereby touching its multiplicity within our own being, we expand our knowledge of the many facets of our character. Archetypes prevent us from having too limited and literal a notion of ourselves. Attending to archetypal images and associations helps us to enhance our inner perspective, and especially to awaken to unrealized possibilities.6
In addition to artistic renderings, another of the most prevalent symbolic ways that archetypal concepts are presented is through myths and fairy tales. Although we have a tendency to think of myths as depicting "ancient" fantasies, their characters were, in fact, expressions of archetypal human situations, themes, and concerns that still exist today in our psyches.
Clothed in different costumes, those concepts continue to shape current movies and television shows. Consider, for example, the "redeemer-hero" archetype, who typically appears modest at some level yet by his struggles or battles with various types of "monsters" or villains saves a maiden in distress or, better yet, an entire kingdom. Ever heard the story or seen it dramatized? Think Jack of beanstalk fame, who saves his poor, starving mother and redeems himself from his earlier silly mistake of using all their food money to buy "useless" beans.
Think Superman or Batman. We all know how well they save maidens in distress and their respective cities from evil exploiters. Would poor Gotham City still exist without the constant effortsof Batman? Thanks to James Bond, both women and England--and sometimes the world--remain safe. As for Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars sagas, who can do better than rescuing the princess and saving the entire universe at the same time?
The popular 1999 movie The Sixth Sense even presented the story of a child hero who bravely undertakes to face the demons that haunt him.7 No matter whether it is the hero of the latest movie, legal thriller, or detective novel, the "redeemer-hero" still actively exists in our consciousness.
This archetypal story is not likely to ever disappear since rescues and the righting of wrongs reassure us that we are not doomed. It reflects the notion that there is hope, that we "lesser heroes"--Joseph Campbell referred to us collectively as The Hero with a Thousand Faces--can find our way in our individual journeys through our own complicated, convoluted world.
The point of all this is that like those heroes, all of the cards of the tarot deck represent expressions of ourselves, or experiences along our own heroic archetypal journeys.
If we choose to understand them that way, tarot cards are like signposts of interior messages, "flashcards of the Self." The late Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz wrote that when we use a "divination" device, such as the tarot, we are really attempting to contact, at that given moment, the rhythm of the Self, our core regulating archetype, sometimes perceived as the soul.8 If we fail to relate to, or connect with, our archetypal dimension, says Jungian analyst Edward Whitmont, the result is spiritual impoverishment and a sense of meaninglessness in life.9
Tarot cards, especially the Major Arcana cards, represent active archetypal forces and principles in the universe and in the lives of each of us. Rachel Pollack calls them seventy-eight images that are gateways to the imageless.10 Our work with them, if done properly, constitutes an attempt to contact what Canadian analyst and author Marion Woodman regards as "the God within."
Tarot cards and layouts are, indeed, gateways into the rhythmof that higher dimension--certainly not because they predict the future, but because when understood in depth, they offer a new opportunity to review aspects of our past and present lives and to make subsequent decisions with meaningful new awareness. They can open us to the hidden or deeper spirituality of our psyches.
The information in this book allows you, the reader, to have a more complete understanding of the symbols on the cards and of each card itself. It allows you to partake of your own inner adventure, to live your life through an awareness lens. Studying the cards "nudges" you to be open to the variety of possibilities that exist for understanding any one tarot card with respect to your own life. In that understanding, the cards empower you to consider new ideas and possibilities. By giving in-depth credence to the "inner world" of tarot symbols, you have the chance to affect your own inner and outer worlds, to bring about growth and change, to enhance your creativity. This is the difference between using the cards to "tell" the future and using them to stimulate and assimilate future choices and experiences.
We are not called "human stagnates." We are called human beings, persons in process, persons involved in the act and art of actually shaping or reshaping ourselves, or working to understand what Frank Barron calls the "patterns within diversity."11 At whatever age, but especially as we grow older, it may be that one of the most important tasks we can undertake is what psychotherapist Mary Baird Carlsen calls "meaning-making"--taking what we have experienced and arranging the symbols to make sense of who and what we are.12 Marie-Louise von Franz said, "The only worthwhile adventure for the people of today is the adventure within."13 Little can provoke our sense of that adventure more than an understanding of how the tarot cards apply to each of our lives.
PICTURES FROM THE HEART. Copyright © 2003 by Sandra A. Thomson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.