Friday, February 17, 2006

Tarot as Mirror of the Psyche: An Introduction

My first exposure to the Tarot, when I was an angry teenager intrigued by all things "dark," came from a small paperback I found in a department store: Eden Gray's 1971 divination handbook, The Complete Guide to the Tarot. There wasn't a lot of information about the cards, either history or symbolism, but she created an aura of mystery, of the occult, that appealed to me at the time. Over the following years, I witnessed Tarot readings at street fairs, at parties, and at other places where readers might find willing querants. I never sensed that the reader was revealing knowledge unavailable from any other source. It seemed like entertainment and nothing more.

Eventually, while attending graduate school, a friend introduced me to the Tarot as a symbol system, as a collection of images capable of various meanings depending on how one connected with the symbolic aspects of the cards. He didn't tell me what the cards meant--he asked what they meant to me. We talked about the images as symbols connected to archetypes of the unconscious mind. From that brief introduction, my relationship to the Tarot developed, continually changing and deepening.

As I became familiar with the cards, connecting to various images in each of the several decks that I own (and even attempting to construct my own deck through collage), I grew more curious about the process by which the cards can and do act as mirrors to the psyche. While I see the fortune-telling use of Tarot as roughly equivalent to reading one's daily horoscope, I have found over and over again that the Tarot can reveal the unconscious workings of the psyche. I am most interested in how the Tarot works to divine psychological states that have not yet reached consciousness.

The Cards

With that interest guiding the exploration I am now launching, I want to work through the Tarot, card by card, looking at the symbolism, the place of the card within the deck, and what the card might reveal about the psychological process of personal evolution. There are 22 cards in the major arcana, beginning with The Fool, which is unnumbered or given the zero place, and ending with The World, numbered XXI.

The Fool is often seen as the Self that moves through the following 21 cards, gaining experience, wisdom, complexity, and depth--this is why the card is usually not numbered or given the zero place. I believe it is possible to see the process as a kind of enlightenment quest. With that in mind, I hope to reveal an elementary meaning for the cards as they might relate to that theme. I will use cards from several decks, but I will mostly be using the Osho Zen deck and the Crowley Thoth deck. That choice is made mostly on their more universal symbolism. The traditional Rider-Waite deck has been given Christian symbolism that limits its universality.

Some authors divide the 21 major trumps into three groups of seven cards each (trumps I-VII, trumps VIII-XIV, and trumps XV-XXI). These three groupings might be seen as Joseph Campbell's monomyth (separation, initiation, and return) or, as Sallie Nichols (Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey) describes them, the three groups might be seen as the "Realm of the Gods," the "Realm of Earthly Reality and Ego Consciousness," and the "Realm of Heavenly Illumination and Self-Realization."

My take is the these two differing systems are one and the same. The first grouping can be seen as the prepersonal, the time when our parents have the powers of gods in our psyches. This is a time when we are working to become a unique self, separate from our family of origin. The second grouping is the personal, the time when ego emerges and becomes solidified. This is a time in our lives when we are being initiated into the adult world, into life as an autonomous Self. The third grouping is the transpersonal, the quest to move beyond the limits of ego and into higher levels of development.

The Process

I am going to use a Jungian approach to reading the cards. Within this model, the major trumps are considered to be projection holders, meaning that they can act as mirrors that reflect elements in the psyche. In Jungian psychology, projections are shadow elements displaced from the psyche and reflected onto the people and events in our lives. Through reclaiming our projections, we can discover our unconscious tendencies, psychological characteristics, unclaimed strengths, despised weaknesses, and unmet potentials reflected in environment around us.

Each of the major arcana is an archetype of the psyche, which is where the images get their power. As projection holders, the cards become containers for the various symbols attached to the archetype that each card reveals. In this way, each deck reflects an alternative interpretation of the archetypes--and there are now literally hundreds of decks.

Because the cards really are mirrors of the psyche, this exploration will necessarily reveal more about me than it will about the cards themselves. Please keep this in mind as you read my meditations on each card. If you are interested in Tarot, buy your own deck and develop your own relationship to the cards.
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