This article is loosely part of a series I’m engaged in about the need for a new mythology, a worldview to unite humanity. I’ve reached the stage where I’m examining ancient myths, to see what relevance they have for us in modern times. The Tarot is not exactly a myth, but it is similar in that it conveys an ancient wisdom through symbolic images. (For a guide to the series so far, see under Mythology near the bottom of the Blog Index page.)
I’ve been interested in the Tarot for several years, following an extraordinarily accurate reading I once had — there just happened to be a reader at a barbecue I was attending, so I took the opportunity, just to see what would happen. I was so impressed that I began to study the Tarot, and then to give my own readings. (For an account of this and other methods of divination, see this earlier article.) Having said that, I do not claim to have a deep understanding of the Tarot and all its esoteric symbolism. Nor do I claim originality in my interpretations — there is already a lot of material out there on the internet and elsewhere. This article is aimed, therefore, primarily at beginners, those who have as yet little or no acquaintance with the Tarot. Hopefully readers with a deeper acquaintance will also find some interesting points.
Whether or not you believe in the Tarot as a tool for divination — what is colloquially called ‘fortune telling’ — the 22 cards of the major arcana are nevertheless a remarkable depiction of the soul’s spiritual journey into and through the material world, which I’m going to describe here. There is therefore a strong connection between the Tarot and ancient hero myths, which tell a similar story, especially that of Hercules. (I hope to write an article about that later.)
This will up to a point be my own take on the cards, but I should say that my understanding is heavily influenced by a book called Living the Tarot: Applying Ancient Wisdom to the Challenges of Modern Living by Amber Jayanti¹. Also interesting is Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey by Sallie Nichols². In what follows I’ll be referring to the Rider Waite deck, although lots of other interesting ones are available.
The first card in the series is called The Fool. It shows a jester-like figure about to step, perhaps unknowingly since he is looking up skywards, over a cliff edge. This represents the soul prior to its incarnation and descent into the material world. Although it is the first card, it is numbered 0 because it represents the spiritual aspect of a human that is of the same nature as God; it therefore has connotations of infinity and nothingness, being without form. It is called The Fool because the soul is incarnating for the purpose of gaining knowledge and experience in the world; it is assumed at this stage, somewhat humorously therefore, to be ingenuous, inexperienced, thus ‘foolish’.
The next card is called The Magician. This represents the incarnated soul still in the womb, or perhaps at the moment of birth. In either case the soul at this stage retains its divine wholeness — the figure stands before a table on which are placed symbols of the four elements of which all reality is composed, according to ancient belief, and above his head is the figure-of-eight symbol of infinity. These are the clues that he has not yet become a limited human being. The card therefore suggests that in theory absolutely anything is possible for this soul. He will, however, have to learn to limit himself and focus on the specific purpose of his incarnation.
The next card is called The High Priestess, representing the Feminine Mysteries, the irrational and interconnected psyche. For the soul’s journey this means the state of unconsciousness following birth, being immersed in the psyche with no awareness of oneself as a separate being.
Then follows The Empress which should be interpreted as the mother, the first being that the soul experiences as separate from itself. This card is about that relationship, the bonding stage with her caring and unconditional love.
The next encounter is with the father (The Emperor card). He provides discipline and education, teaching the child the ways of the world, helping him or her grow in understanding.
As the child grows older, he or she begins to think about the big questions: ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Why am I here?’, and so on. At this stage, however, there is not enough maturity to come up with one’s own answers, so one tends to accept the teachings of others. This is depicted on the The Hierophant (an ancient word for a High Priest), which shows two monk-like figures seeking guidance from this authority figure. (In some decks this card is called The Pope, the ultimate authority to whom one has to submit in the Roman Catholic tradition.)
The next card is called The Lovers. It shows a young couple naked. We are obviously meant to think of Adam and Eve, because in the background we see a serpent entwining itself around a tree. I associate this card with the period of post-puberty adolescence, the hormone rush, the passionate, mad crushes, obsessions with pop stars, and so on. Fortunately, on the card is an angelic figure, probably representing the Higher Self, watching over affairs, making sure that the soul does not lose its way during this difficult, impulsive period.
A new section then begins, because the next card is The Chariot, which shows a young man leaving the city of his birth, having reached adulthood. He will be subjected to the world of the opposites, the complexities of the psyche, and will therefore be pulled in different directions, symbolised by the two sphinxes, one black, one white, which pull the chariot. He will have to hold firm to the reins to control these sphinxes, thus charting his course through life’s problems.
The first adult challenge is depicted on the next card, Strength. This shows a female figure trying either to close or open a lion’s mouth. There is some debate about this, and the ambiguity is possibly deliberate; both are implied. The lion symbolises the wild side of human nature: biological drives, desires, passions, instincts. We obviously should not let these run riot, and act them all out. There is therefore a conflict in the personality, which Sigmund Freud would describe as the conflict between ego and id. As a dedicated materialist, he would be bound to see things in those terms. The Tarot, however, shows a divine feminine figure (Carl Jung would call this an aspect of the anima), controlling the biological drives (if closing the mouth), but not eradicating them, allowing them some form of expression (if opening the mouth). We have to form a right relationship with our instincts and passions; without them we would become merely robots.
The next card is The Hermit, which I like to relate to The Hierophant. Earlier on, as a teenager, the soul relied upon external sources for spiritual guidance. Now this reclusive, introspective figure, having learned about life by passing through the Chariot and Strength phases, is ready to rely upon his own intuitions and judgements in order to formulate his philosophy of life. This is the beginning of wisdom.
Then follows the Wheel of Fortune, the symbolism of which is very complex. At this stage of the soul’s journey, we can interpret it simply by saying that it signifies that a new phase of life is about to begin.
The next card Justice is the summary of everything that has happened so far. The soul has gone as far as it can go by relating purely to the material world. It has learned about life, has an integrated personality, is socially mature, and is therefore capable of making finely balanced decisions. The card shows a queen holding in her right hand a sword, which symbolises discrimination and a sharp mind, and in her left an evenly balanced pair of scales, symbolising the ability to judge wisely when difficult decisions are required.
We are now approximately halfway through this journey. Everything since The Magician has been about the soul’s relationship to the material world. In the second half there is a complete reversal; from now on everything will be about the soul’s relationship to spirit, thus the realms above. This is depicted in dramatic form on the next card The Hanged Man, perhaps the best known card of the Tarot deck. Human beings usually have their feet firmly on the ground; they are sustained, supported, even nourished by the earth. On this card, however, the feet are turned upwards, showing that from now on the soul will be sustained and nourished from above, by the heavens. Most people would feel uncomfortable if this were to happen to them, might even consider it a form of torture. The figure depicted, however, looks completely serene, and has a halo around his head, thus suggesting his willingness to engage with the spiritual realms.
Then comes Death, which has to be interpreted as psychological or spiritual death and rebirth; the grim reaper shown is, after all, riding on a horse towards a new sunrise. The card therefore represents a completely new personality, aligned with the world of spirit, the old one having been shattered.
The next card Temperance confirms this, since it shows an angelic alchemist mixing, blending and reorganising the waters of the personality. The rising sun from the Death card reappears here.
Then comes The Devil, which represents everything that humans are chained to: habits, compulsions, addictions. All these have to be overcome, let go of. This card may perhaps also represent what Carl Jung called the shadow, the repressed darker aspects of our personality, which have to be dealt with.
The next card is The Tower, which was perhaps inspired by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which humans say: “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves”. The Lord’s response is: “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11.4–6). The meaning is clear; humans have got ideas above their station, have become too big for their boots. Heaven reacts accordingly, and the Lord decides that the humans need to be taken down a peg or two. He therefore confuses their language, and scatters them across the Earth, so that they are forced to stop building the city and the tower.
The Tower card therefore depicts a conflict between human will (that of the ego) and that of the divine (the Higher Self). The latter is demanding complete surrender from the ego, and the card shows the consequences of resisting this. The heavens will take their revenge; lightning destroys the tower that the hubristic humans have built. This may have been what Jesus was referring to when he said that the sin against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. This card also reminds me of the words attributed to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his arrest and execution: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. But thy will not my will be done” (Matthew 26.39). Jesus here is learning the lesson of The Tower card.
The same conflict is also depicted, in less dramatic fashion, on another Tarot card, the Four of Cups, which shows a young man folding his arms, stubbornly refusing to accept what a ghostly (spiritual) hand is offering him.
It would seem that the Higher Self wins this battle, because on the next card The Star normal service is resumed.
Firstly, the card shows that the soul, following the encounter depicted on The Tower, has surrendered to the will of the Higher Self; from now on it is going to be guided by the stars, the will of heaven.
Secondly, there is an obvious correspondence between this card and the earlier Temperance; both show a female figure mixing and rearranging waters following a dramatic transformation of consciousness. The star thus represents the emergence of one’s deepest sense of Self following this surrender, since a star is a well known symbol of a great personality. The Jungian writer Edward Edinger describes the image of the star as “a transpersonal centre of identity”, further saying: “The notion that one’s identity has an a priori existence is expressed in the ancient idea that each person has his own individual star, a kind of celestial counterpart, representing his cosmic dimension and destiny”³. We can therefore assume that the soul we are following has reached this stage of its journey; it is reconnecting with the purpose of its incarnation. (Also, as Edinger goes on to say, the poet Wordsworth uses the same image in these lines: “The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar”⁴.)
The next two cards are The Moon and The Sun, representing the Divine Feminine and Masculine aspects of the soul’s spiritual personality.
The Moon is a strange card, since the image more closely resembles a sun with a kind of crescent moon superimposed upon it⁵, which may be a reference to the impending marriage of the male and female aspects of the personality. As we have seen, the cards of the major arcana so far depict the evolution of consciousness of an individual soul. The Moon card seems also to be a summary of the planet’s evolutionary journey, thus the whole story of the evolution of consciousness so far. It shows a long, long path disappearing into the distance, which has emerged from a pond, a symbol of the unconscious psyche. There are plants and grass, a vegetation level of existence. Out of the pond is crawling a crayfish, a pre-mammalian creature, thus a very primitive level of consciousness. Slightly further along the path, we see two mammals, a wild wolf alongside a dog, the domesticated creature into which it has evolved. Dogs are known as man’s best friend, thus close to humans, perhaps as close to being human as it is possible to be for an animal.
The moon/sun is in the distance, however, as if it were the ultimate goal of this journey. Before that becomes possible, however, there is an initiatory threshold which has to be crossed, symbolised by two towers which the path passes between. (It’s worth noting that we saw something similar on the High Priestess card. She sits at the entrance of a temple, on both sides of which are the two pillars.) A pair of towers or pillars is a well known esoteric symbol. From an online article I’ve extracted these relevant phrases:
- “Since the dawn of civilization, the entrance of sacred and mysterious places have been guarded by two pillars”.
- “ Twin pillars are archetypal symbols representing an important gateway or passage towards the unknown”.
- “They mark the passage towards the unknown and the otherworldly”.
- leaving “the material world to reach a higher realm of enlightenment”.
Since the pond, vegetation, crayfish, wolf and dog are placed before the threshold of the two towers, The Moon card suggests that the whole evolutionary process has been leading up to this point, but that this is a threshold which animal life cannot cross; it is reserved for humans. Our journeying soul now has to be initiated, in order to cross this threshold.
The land beyond the two towers seems remarkably barren by comparison, uncultivated territory, perhaps suggesting that humans have only rarely been there. In the distance the path disappears into a mountainous area, climbing being an obvious symbol of spiritual advancement towards the heavens.
On The Sun we see a joyous young boy, naked, riding a pony. His unashamed nakedness leads me to think that he has been freed from the embarrassment associated with nudity in the Garden of Eden story (Adam and Eve make more than one appearance in the Tarot deck). I’m also reminded of more lines from the Wordsworth poem just quoted: “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy”. Some of the divinatory meanings for The Sun are: the awakening of the child within, recapturing lost spontaneity, the return to an authentic and open-hearted state of being, having the openness of a child with the wisdom of your adult years behind you. This sounds very much like the goal of Taoism. I suggest that the soul we have been following has now freed himself from Wordsworth’s prison-house, and recovered the “clouds of glory” with which he entered the world. This card also reminds me of the words attributed to Jesus: “unless you become as little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”⁶.
The Judgement card seems, for reasons not clear to me, to be strongly influenced by Christian theology. The message is nevertheless clear. A trumpeting angel is calling upon all souls to wake up to their true nature. At the same time, the soul whose journey we have been following is being judged, to see whether it is ready to rediscover its original spiritual nature, the fact that it was made in the image of God. As the Hindus say: “Tat Twam Asi”, translated roughly as “you are the same as the universal essence”⁷.
The soul seems to pass the test, because the final card is The World, suggesting the successful completion of the spiritual journey, returning to one’s divine state, cosmic consciousness, the sacred marriage of masculine and feminine, self-realisation.
In the Rider Waite deck (and also Builders of the Adytum, see below at the end of the article), we see an apparently female figure enclosed within a wreath, which is surrounded by the four figures of a man, an eagle, a bull, and a lion. On those three points I have always thought that a hermaphroditic figure, the ancient figure of the uroboros (a snake eating its own tail symbolising eternity), and a depiction of the four elements out of which the ancients believed everything in the universe was made, would be more appropriate. To my pleasant surprise, therefore, I’ve recently come across a deck which incorporates exactly those points. In Juliet Sharman-Burke’s Mythic Tarot the central figure⁸ is a body with two heads, one female, one male, enclosed within a uroboros, outside of which the four figures are replaced by symbols of the four elements, namely the four suits of the Tarot’s minor arcana — swords (air), wands (fire), cups (water), and pentacles (earth)⁸.
The text from the accompanying workbook⁹ says: “The figure is of a hermaphrodite, symbolising the unity and perfection to be gained when all the lessons have been learned and are balanced. The final stage of the journey results in the unification of all opposites: masculine and feminine, dark and light, positive and negative. The four symbols in each corner stand for the four elements from which the world is supposedly composed, reflected in the four suits of the Minor Arcana, the Cup, the Wand, the Sword and the Pentacle. The four elements have fused to form a perfect fifth, symbolised by the central figure: man as a fully integrated being. The figure is protected by the golden snake devouring its own tail, the symbol of eternity”.
This journey is presumably available to all humans, at least when they are ready for it. Isn’t it a great shame that the Tarot is not more widely known, and that it does not feature prominently in our education system?
from the Builders of the Adytum deck
1. Wordsworth, 2000. She is a member of an esoteric group called Builders of the Adytum, an offshoot of the Golden Dawn, founded by Paul Foster Case.
2. Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980
3. Ego and Archetype, Shambhala, 1992, p159
4. Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
5. The sky is of the same light blue colour as on The Sun card which follows, so no attempt is being made to suggest nighttime.
6. There are many variations in translation in the different editions, but the general idea can be found in Matthew 19:13–15, Mark 10:13–16, and Luke 18:15–17.
7. Chandogya Upanishad, repeated several times in chapter 6. One translation of the original text says: “This finest essence — the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are” (Hindu Scriptures, edited by Dominic Goodall, Phoenix, 1996, p140).
8. I’ve scanned a copy. Apologies for the large size.
9. Eddison Sadd, 2001