December 31, 2021

Research | Tarot, Myth & Symbolism

Some notes from my readings on the Tarot and the archetypes and symbolism contained within them.

People often confuse the purpose of the Tarot, many think the Tarot is for fortune-telling. In reality, the aim is for psychological unification. Pollack R, Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom, P16

In the mid 15th century an artist named Bonifacio Bemba painted a set of cards for the Visconti family of Milan. The Italian game of Tarocchi included 4 suits of 14 cards and 22 cards showing different scenes “trumps”.

The trumps depict medieval social types “Emperor” or “Pope”, virtues such as “Temperance” or “Fortitude” as well as other religious-mythological scenes such as “the last judgement”. One card in the deck however didn’t appear to fit….

The hanged man.

He is hung by one leg upside down with his hands casually held behind his back to form a triangle with his head at the bottom. His right leg is bent behind his knee to produce the figure of a cross or the numeral 4. The face appears relaxed or entranced. This image didn’t represent the usual hanging at the gallows. Some traitors were hung upside down, however, the serenity of the card depicts something different. The Elder Edda describes the god Odin hanging from the world tree for 9 days and nights, not as punishment but in order to receive enlightenment. Shamans also use this position to induce radiant visions. There is speculation that the young man is being initiated into some sacred tradition.

The Kabbalah

There is an interpretation that this deck of cards corresponds to the Kabbalah which dwells deeply on the symbolism of the Hebrew alphabet. The letters are connected to the paths of the Tree of Life and they are each given their own symbolic meaning. The Hebrew alphabet contains 22 letters, equalling the number of trumps in the deck.

The Kabbalah also reveals the 4 letters of God’s unpronounceable name YHVH, they each represent the four worlds of creation, the four basic elements of medieval science, the four stages of existence, the four methods of interpreting the bible, and so on. There are 4 court cards in each of the four suits.

Finally, the Kabbalah works with the number 10, 10 commandments and 10 Sephiroth (stages of emanation) on each of the four Trees of Life. And the four suits contain cards numbered from one to 10.

Some believe that the Tarot deck originated as a pictorial version of the Kabbalah.

Carl Jung’s spiritual archetypes

Jung believed these spiritual archetypes were structured into the human mind. Jung’s archetypes include Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Ruler, Creator, Caregiver, Magician, Hero, Outlaw, Lover, Jester, and Regular Person (or Everyman). These are depicted throughout the Major Archana.

Other Origin Stories

In the 18th century, an occultist declared the Tarot to be the remnant of the Book of Thoth, created by the Egyptian god of magic to convey all knowledge to his disciples. In the 19th century, another Frenchman linked the cards to the Kabbalah and since then people have looked deeper into the Tarot, finding more and more meanings and wisdom.

The Tarot is viewed by some as a kind of path a way to personal growth through understanding ourselves and life.

Tarot Structure

Trumps – Travelling through the 21 stages of the Arcana

A psychological process, passing through different stages of existence to reach a stage of full development.

The following cards talk of duality and I found this particular exert from the book really interesting:

“At the source of all these dualities, we feel we do not know ourselves. We sense that deep down our true nature is something stronger, freer with great wisdom and power; or else a thing of violent passions and furious animal desire. Either way, we know that this true self hides, or perhaps lies buried deep inside our normal, socially restricted personalities.” Pollack R, 1997, Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Thorsons, St Ives. P15

Of the 22 cards, there are 4 cards that show four basic archetypes. The archetypes are a single-minded picture of one aspect of existence.

The 4 anchor Cards

The Fool (0)

  • A dancing joyful figure, richly clothed.
  • About to leap into the lower world.
  • 0 is not strictly a number but represents the absence of a number, therefore contains all numbers within itself
  • In Arabic the 0 represents the egg, too indicate all things emerge from it. Originally written as a dot (a single point/source of life)
  • Symbolises infinite potentiality, no definite form has been taken yet.
  • A perfect state before duality
  • Once action is taken in one direction all other directions previously open to them at that moment in time disappear. It’s a limitation of the physical world.
  • The split between potentiality and reality is sometimes seen as a separation between mind and body. The mind is unlimited able to go back and forth in time, the body is weak subject to physical restraints.
  • Fallen from a primeval paradise as represented in many religions
  • The fool expects nothing, plans nothing, has no concept of the difference between possibility and reality.
  • The fool, splits into The Magician and The High Priestess, they represent the splitting gap of the fools innocence into the illusion of opposites. The world shows the restored unity achieved through growth outlined in the subsequent cards.
  • Innocence, courage, optimism, inner faith, new beginnings
  • Some set this card apart from the trumps as it belongs everywhere leaving 21 cards to follow (three groups of 7)
  • Combines (wands & Cups) fire & water representing the way of transformation.

The Magician (I)

  • Stationary and not moving, a fixed state of existence.
  • I the first genuine number, the first reality
  • Forms the archetype of odd, male, light, action, consciousness
  • Phallic wand pointing to the sky, bringing the energy of life in it’s creative form
  • Duality of opposites alongside The High Priestess
  • A creative force, ideas, unity, willpower, making something real, giving life a meaning and direction
  • Pointing downwards to the earth – creativity which needs to be grounded in physical reality to get value from it. He acts as a lightening rod, drawing spirit from the heavens and draws it down into the earth/reality. Inspiration originally meant “filled with holy breath” and derives from the same root as spirit. The frenzied artists is overwhelmed by a power to great to discharge it into reality. We are not supposed to contain the energy but channel it we live our best lives when we create or are active, by releasing the energy it opens us up to receive more to flow. Holding on to it blocks the channels and we become stagnant/depressed.

The High Priestess (II)

  • Like the Magician the figure is stationary.
  • Forms the archetype of even, female, dark, passivity, unconsciousness, mystery, wisdom
  • i.e. opposites with The Magician
  • She sits between two pillars, a vaginal symbol as well as a symbol of duality (this is repeated in subsequent cards)
  • Intuitive awareness, inner truth, inexpressible unconscious that can only be maintained through total passivity
  • In Kabbalist imagery the High Priestess sits between the Pillar of Mercury and the Pillar of Judgement and represents the Pillar of Harmony. Or the two pillars can represent the two main pillars in Jerusalem (Boaz and Jakin) representing passivity & mystery and actions & consciousness. The reversals of the colours of the letters carries the idea that duality is an illusion and each extreme carries the other embedded inside it.
  • Crown represents the three phases of the moon (menstrual cycle mirrors the lunar cycles.
  • The Tarot splits the female archetype between The High Priestess and The Empress (III). The former is the darker, mysterious and hidden, more subtle aspects. This assigning of qualities to women comes from mainly men and male ideals, women are mysterious and strange unless safely in a mothering role, when they’re seen as loving and merciful.
  • Passivity contains it’s own power, it gives the mind a chance to work, to reflect and to learn. It allows the unconscious to emerge. It allows the inner voice to be heard. Societies focus on achievement fosters a terror of the unconscious, without it’s wisdom we can never truly know ourselves or the world.
  • The water behind the veiled pillars, represents the unconscious and the truth hidden there.
  • We cannot enter the temple because we don’t know how to access our unconscious, therefore we must travel through the trumps until we reach the star and moon where we can finally stir up the waters and return with the wisdom to the conscious light of the sun.
  • Virtually all moon goddess religions feature myth’s of the goddesses ferocious side.

The World (XXI)

  • Like the fool the figure is joyful and dancing, but naked of clothing.
  • Exists outside of the material world
  • Some decks represent the figure as a hermaphrodite
  • Carries two magic wands, one in each hand which mirror the symbol of duality seen in the High Priestess card.
  • Male and female unified
  • A higher freedom/joy
  • A perfect state once we have reconciled the opposites buried in our psyches.
  • Wisdom

Remainder of the first third of the deck (Cards 1-7)

representing consciousness the outer world/society.

The process of maturity. From the child to whom a mother is all-loving and a father all-powerful, through education to independence. They depict society and nature. We move on from seeing the opposites of the Magician and Priestess as they mingle together in nature to produce the reality of the physical universe. (I + II = III)

Splitting the 21 card deck in three. 7 symbolically represents the seven planets of classical astrology, seven pillars of wisdom, seven lower stations of the Tree of Life, seven openings in the human head, seven chakras and seven days in the week (which come from the planets as personified in the Roman and Norse gods). The number Pi that exists in all circles is 22/7.

The first card in each of the three thirds/lines of the Major Arcana are The Magician, Strength & The Devil – cards of power. The magician and strength are linked with the infinity symbol above their heads ad the Devil bears a reverse pentacle. The Devil with one arm up and one arm down is a parody of the Magician, in some decks, the Devil is referred to as the black magician. In some decks Justice, not Strength is card VIII which is an even closer resemblance to the Magician and Devil. A similar vertical correspondence in the three lines of cards can be seen.

The next three cards show us a triad of nature, society and the Church. They also signify mother, father and education. The final two cards on the line represent problems of the individual, love & sorrow and surrender & will. In our early existence, our personality exists within the creation of our parents and society, many then break from their parents (Freudian emergence/puberty/ rebellion from parents),

The Empress (III)

  • The soul glorified in nature, the natural world, reality
  • Represents motherhood, love, gentleness, sexuality, sensuality, emotion and the female mistress
  • Passion/non-intellectual rather than ideas/thought/facts. A passionate approach to life.
  • The Priestess represents the mental side to the female archetype, the empress is pure emotion.
  • Aphrodite, Ishtar or Erzuli. Venus.
  • We must experience the outer world completely before we can hope to transcend it.
  • One through passion can we sense from deep inside rather than through intellectual argument.
  • I + II = III activeness + instinct = emotion. Fire + water = creation
  • At her feet grows a field of grain (goddess of agriculture/Mother Earth) her necklace with nine pearls symbolism the nine planets, while her crown contains 12 stars for the signs of the zodiac. She wears the universe as her jewellery. The great mother is not the form of nature but the underlying principle of life. The stars are 6 pointed which combines two triangles, the upward one symbolises fire and the downward water again combining the magician and Priestess into a new reality.The river is the force of life, symbolising the unity of change and stability, the water is never the same, yet always remains a particular river.

The Emperor (IV)

  • Mastery of self, the father
  • A human construct, society, stability, severity, authority, punishment, rules, obedience, laws, power, “the system”, repression, rational approach. Analysis and measurement over emotion and intuition.
  • Symbolises the abstraction of society replacing the direct experience of nature.
  • Shown as old and stiff, dressed in iron representing sterility of life, rigidly governed by rules. The river from III has become a thin stream, barely able to penetrate the lifeless desert. He holds a ankh (Egyptian symbol of life) to indicate that under the law he bears the power of life and death. Four rams, the symbols of Aries, adorn his throne, while at the crowns peak he bears the sign of Aries, which symbolises force, aggression and war, but as the first sign of the zodiac also signifies the new life of spring, which can emerge from the stability of a just society.
  • We must absorb the rules, traditions and beliefs of society, then go beyond them to form a personal cod of conduct.
  • In the BOTA tarot deck the Emperor sits on a cube rather than a throne, The cube symbolises the world and the Tarot itself, as well as the Hebrew alphabet and the paths of the Tree of Life. The symbolism arises from the fact that the cube contains 12 edges, 6 faces and 3 axes, and 1 centre, adding to 22, the number of trumps, Hebrew letters and paths. And because the Tree of Life is help to represent all creation, the cube symbolises the universe.

Hierophant (V)

  • represents the Church, or education, tradition, a human construct, conformity, societies ideas and codes of behaviour, a surrender of responsibility (our own inner Spence of obedience).
  • The Temple – mirrors the pillars from the high priestess
  • Also known as The Pope or the High Priest. Linking it to trump II, the archetype of inner truth.
  • Signified initiation into a secret doctrine (with a set of beliefs they must learn and accept before gaining entrance).
  • Emperor and Hierophant companions, sharing responsibility for humanity, one providing physical needs the other spiritual growth.
  • The crossed keys at his feet are gold and silver, representing the outer and inner ways, the sun and the moon, the Magician and Priestess which we are being taught to combine. Three people, the triad are shown in the card, representing the need to mediate the two opposites and hold them in balance.

The Lovers (VI)

  • The lovers – mirror the pillars from the high priestess
  • Adolescence, intellectual and moral independence
  • Individual emerges with their own ideas, desires and purpose
  • Away from isolation and towards love
  • We must combine reason and passion, body and mind
  • A new understanding of life through relationship

The Chariot (VII)

  • The 2 sphinxes – mirror the pillars from the high priestess
  • victory, powerful will,
  • Kabbalistic title for number 7 is victory. It stands as a victory point for completion of the first line of the Major Arcana. Mature adult, successful and able to direct their will.
  • The 8 pointed star on his crown shows his mental energy directing his passions ( the 8 pointed star considered to be half way between a square of the material word and a circle of the spiritual world). The chariot rests in water which showing hat he draws energy from the unconscious. He carries symbols which we’ve seen in the previous 6 cards, showing he’s moved through them and they’re reflected within his personality.
  • The Chariot has been compared to Jung’s idea of persona. A mask to deal with the outside world.

The second third of the deck (cards 8-14) – representing the subconscious, who we really are

In the second section of the Major Archana, we move from the outer world and its challenges to the inner self. The contradictions concealed in The Chariot’s powerful image must now be faced openly, The mask of ego must die.

Strength (VIII) in some decks Justice not strength is card VIII

  • Inner strength to confront yourself calmly and without fear.
  • The lion signifies all the feelings, fears, desires and confusions supressed by the ego in its attempt to control life.
  • On a deeper level the lion symbolises the whole force of personality, usually smoothed over by the demands of civilized life. It has been tamed and is now ready to be released.
  • In alchemy the lion also stands for gold, the sun and sulphur. Sulpher the lowest element and gold the highest. The process by which sulphur becomes gold is be transforming the lower self.
  • Strength allows inner passions to emerge, in the first step in going beyond the ego.
  • The card has similarities and differences to The Chariot. The main difference is that in Strength the character is a woman, and in The Chariot the character is a man. This is also represented by the number of the cards, 7 being masculine and 8 feminine (the number of openings in the body). Traditionally man represents rationality and agression and woman emotion and surrender. It is thought that The Chariot and Strength belong together, similar to the Magician and The High Priestess. They each embody two types of power, Masculine (control, conquest and dominating the world through reason and will) and Feminine (intuition and the release of deepest emotions which takes great courage and strength).
  • The womans figure, hair and floral belt connect her to the Empress also. Representing natural instincts and passion.

The Hermit (IX)

  • Withdrawal from the outer world for the purpose of activating the unconscious mind.
  • This process is symbolised by the downward pointing ‘water’ triangle.
  • The hermit symbolises a teacher who will show us how to begin this process and help us find our way.
  • The upward pointing ‘fire’ triangle symbolises this special guide.
  • In medieval times the hermit represented an alternative to the Church, he demonstrated the possibility of approaching God through personal experience (isolated from society). People often attributed magical powers to them. Often seen as givers of wisdom. Similar to a modern day guru.
  • The hermit symbolises that only by removing ourself from the outside world can we awaken the inner self.
  • The hermit signifies a transition.
  • Through the techniques of meditation, psychic discipline or analysis we allow the hidden parts of the psyche to speak to us.

Wheel of Fortune (X)

  • As the 10th card is represents the completion of one cycle and the beginning of another.
  • If you include the fool this card splits the trumps into two groups of 11
  • Turning wheel – change in outlook from the external to the internal (such as the Death & Star cards)

Justice (XI)

  • The image of this trump is derived from Greek Titaness, Themis, who appears, with her blindfold and scales, on courthouse frescoes across the Western world.
  • This card indicates that the psychic laws of justice, by which we advance according to our ability to understand the past, depends on seeing the truth about ourselves and about life. The Tarot Justitia, therefore, wears no blindfold.

The Hanged Man (XII)

  • Represents peace and acceptance of what has come before.

Death (XIII)

  • The democracy of death was a favourite theme of medieval sermons. All of us will die, whether rich or poor.

Temperance (XIV)

The Final Third of the deck (Cards 15-21) – representing spiritual awareness, releasing archetypal energy

The Devil (XV)

The Tower (XVI)

Star (XVII)

Moon (XVIII)

  • The two towers mirror the pillars from the high priestess seen from the other side

The Sun (XIX)

Judgement (XX)

The child rising between the woman and the man mirror the pillars from the high priestess

The World (XXI) – see above