Symbology in Tarot –  Movement, Subconscious and Collective Memory

As we have already discussed in our previous article titled Introduction to Tarot, the traditional deck is divided into two types of cards, which are basically different:

  1. Major Arcana: these special cards represent the major milestones and critical junctions of our life cycle: birth, education, work, love, death, etc.
  2. Minor Arcana: these cards represent the multiple vicissitudes in our lives.

In this article, before we address the significance of the combinations, we would like to discuss some basic concepts, which are of critical importance for novices like us. Let us first recommend the excellent book Truly Easy Tarot by Mantis, which has clarified many concepts and turned out to be a springboard in our Mystical Quest. The Major Arcana are the trump cards of a tarot pack and they were initially used in the 17th century as a special deck for gambling. There are 22 of these in a traditional 78-card pack; they are numbered with Roman numerals from 0 to 21. Each one depicts a scene with one or more individuals, with a clearly defined symbology.

According to the experts, each trump card has a divine interpretation, which appears to the sensitive individual when it is laid on the table in a straightforward manner. However, when the cards show up inverted, it means that the particular feature alluded by the symbology is, at the present time, “blocked” or “restrained” in that life. Some experts never read in the reverse mode, but others consider that reading to be highly complementary in our lives, similar to the Ying and Yang of the I Ching. The concept of matching of the opposites is fundamental to our understanding of it.

The flourishing of esoteric endeavors and secret societies in 19th century Europe did propel Tarot to a greater diffusion in the popular classes and its use as a divination tool. But there was a pioneer in Psychology that valued it as a good tool to explore the tenebrous depths of our Subconscious and Collective Memory. According to Mary K. Greer, Karl Jung said in a 1933 lecture that the Tarot deck was “really the origin of our pack of cards, in which the red and black symbolize the opposites, and the division of the four—clubs, spades, diamonds and hearts—also belongs to the individual symbolism.” He believed that the different combinations of scenes are in fact archetypal ideas related to “the playful development of mankind.” He daringly claimed that if we understand how we evolved from our past (collective and personal) into our present coordinates, we might be able to “grasp the flow of life” and, hopefully, predict part of our future. He instructed his pupils to study esoteric disciplines but warned them to approach them, not with the arrogance of the Cartesian discourse, but with the raw intuition that our ancestors used to great advantage in those dangerous times in dark caves.

We would like to humbly recommend two tactics that have eased our learning process of Tarot. They are:

  1. The importance of Movement in the interpretation of the combinations.
  2. We should tap into our Subconscious and Collective Memory.

Movement

For many, many years we have cavalierly disdained Tarot in general because, as a physician long trained in scientific certainty and aversion to quackery, we suspected that, besides any intrinsic values, it had been used by charlatans to reap easy money. Indeed it has, and still is, manipulated by callous individuals that prey on innocents. However, the preparation of this blogging series—the necessary scaffolding for a book—prodded us to seriously tackle all these esoteric activities with an open mind.

The various combinations of the deck can be considered as a snapshot of an ongoing motion in the life of an individual (or a group of them) that started in the past, arrives at our present and will project into the future. The Major Arcana cards depict a scene where someone is doing something or being the subject of somebody else’s actions. Let’s look at the example of Card Number 0 The Fool. What is he doing? Find the meaning of movement.

He is a young man that, holding a walking stick with a small knapsack in his right hand and a white rose symbolizing innocence in his left one, is perilously standing at the edge of the precipice, with the company of a loyal little dog. Is it warning him of great danger if he makes another move forward? Or is it perhaps pushing him to quickly grab the big opportunity he has been waiting for? The answer is that both interpretations can be valid at some time.

The Upright Wisdom interprets the appearance of this card as a signal of a new start, in the labor, professional, financial, family or love realms; it also implies that the individual must take a leap of faith if he/she/ihr wants to have a radical change.

The Wisdom in Reverse interprets it as warning to pause in a specific endeavor or relationship. Danger lies eerily ahead, and the individual must re-evaluate options. If the individual stubbornly insists on moving forward, dire consequences will come.

Are you slowly getting the drift of what we are, perhaps rather clumsily, trying to convey in our words?

Subconscious and Collective Memory

Since we sought refuge in those dark caves in the beginning of Mankind’s presence on Planet Earth, we have cozied up to our loved ones besides a crackling fire and fallen asleep to give a necessary pause to our Conscious minds. That is precisely when the Subconscious takes over center stage in the theater of our lives to act upon. Slowly, we play past experiences, our present fears, our hidden traumas, our hopes. The Subconscious is the reservoir of all the experiences that are deemed to be part of the hidden human experience— good ones, bad ones, and the ones in between. Moreover, ever since we start our life in the depths of our dear mothers’ wombs, we are already receiving their filtrations. Every minute of our lives, we are hoarding many souvenirs and interpretations that we will readily re-transmit to our kindred, for better or worse. It is never a choice. We get them, like it or not…Can’t escape it.

In order to shut off the tremendous bombardment of noise and unsolicited messages that our excessively digitalized society throws at our senses, we must take a pause. After carefully looking at the cards laid on the table, we should close our eyes for a few seconds and seek the help of our Subconscious mind. Toc. Toc. Toc. Need help.

Take the necessary time to sit down at the majestic library of our accumulated Human Knowledge and calmly pore over the dusty manuscripts and manuals of the ones that preceded us. They are still talking to us through them. Then you may find some critical clues of what is happening today and, hopefully, what will happen tomorrow.

In the next installment of this series, we will start to analyze those scenes together. Do not panic. We can do this.

Note. The featured image is the painting Fortune teller by Albert Anker, 1880. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fortune_teller,_Albert_Anker,_1880.png

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.

Symbology in Tarot – Introduction

During their long hours of boredom between their skirmishes with many foes , the Christian Knights of the Crusades—spared by their high social standing from the menial tasks for survival—liked to play cards with each other and with guests from different nationalities in their fortified redoubts, including the Mamluk Egyptians. The Mamluk Sultanate, based in Cairo, was a Sultanate with strong trading ties to their neighboring nations, including the contested Palestine of the Middle Ages. They inherited many cultural assets form Antiquity, including the Tarot card game.

Surreptitiously introduced in their baggage on their way back home—the European Continent was in the grip of the ultra-reactionary Inquisition that frowned upon almost any vehicle for having “a little fun”—the illustrated cards made their way to the polite nobility gatherings in Bologna, Vicenza, Milano, etc. Eventually some ingenious operators assigned values to some symbols—the divinatory Tarot cards. The earliest patterns of the cards represented Batons, Coins, Swords and Cups; the first documented set of cards appeared between 1440 and 1450 in Milano, Ferrara, Firenze, and Bologna; the Italian Wars disseminated the game all over the continent.

The Visconti-Sforza nobles of Milano—the very same ones that barbarically ate with their hands, which prodded a shocked Leonardo to invent the fork—commissioned the design of a tarot-like 60-card pack with 16 card sporting images of the Roman gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were labelled as “trumps” in allusion to the “triumphs” of the generous duke—a little deference for his gesture. Soon there were several Italian regional variants—like the Piemontese, Bolognese or Sicilian Tarocco—the French Tarot of Marseilles, the Swiss 1JJTarot, etc.

The 78-card Tarot deck used by experts has two separate line-ups:

  1. The Major Arcana: seat of the big secrets or trump cards. It consist of 22 cards without suits that represent The Magician, The High priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Lovers, The Chariot, The wheel of Fortune, The devil, the Hanged Man, The Tower, the Sun, the Fool, etc. There are 21 numbered cards using Roman numerals; the Fool is the only one without one.
  2. The Minor Arcana: seat of the lesser secrets. It consists of 56 cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each.

The Major Arcana cards represent the major stations of human life as we go on living; they represent all the archetypical situations encountered by The Fool (our proxy traveler) along the Roads of Life, starting at number 0 (himself) up to number 21. When one of these cards appear, something is afoot and we must pay extreme attention to it.

The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits: wands, pentacles, swords, and cups. They are supposed to complement the information provided by the trump cards and focus our attention into possible opportunities and/or avoiding harmful situations.

Aleister Crowley—inventor of the Troth deck—said: “The origin of the pack is very obscure…The only theory of ultimate interest about the Tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah.”

Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.

What do you think? Please tell us.

Don’t leave me alone.