by Inna Semetsky, PhD
In 2006 I published a short entry titled “Tarot” in the Encyclopedia of Religious and Spiritual Development that I want to reproduce here with minor changes:
A Tarot deck consists of 78 pictorial cards. The pictures on the cards resemble illustrations to a fairy tale, or an adventure story. This is the story of an individual journey through life, with its many events and experiences. Each card represents a moral lesson that a human soul must learn in order to be fruitful and creative in experiential endeavours. In order to go ahead, each one of us has to often leave behind some illusions and dependencies that are counterproductive to human growth and spiritual development. These situations are also symbolically represented in Tarot cards. Nearly every one of the cards has an image of a living being, a human figure situated in different contexts. This figure is not just a physical body but the mind, soul and spirit as well. And while a body goes through life and accomplishes different tasks, the human psyche too goes through transformations, as life itself calls for the constant renewal and enlargement of our consciousness. The journey through the cards’ imagery is therapeutic as each new life experience contributes to self-understanding and, ultimately, spiritual rebirth. In the Tarot deck, rebirth is signified by the Sun card, with its image of a small child warming in the sunshine, the psychic energy of a child enriched by the solar energy of the whole universe.
There is no proven origin of Tarot cards. Different sources mention different geographical and historical roots. The only factual information about Tarot genesis is a set of seventeen elaborately painted cards now located in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and documented as dating back to 1392. The collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York contains thirty- five cards from a full deck whose origins go back to around the middle of the 15th century. Tarot has been traditionally used as a divinatory tool, although Michael Dummett presents Tarot as belonging to a family of card games, integral to specific cultures. Psychologically, each card in the deck carries a strong humanistic aspect in terms of the dominating personality drive being an instinct to grow, develop, differentiate, and nurture our spiritual feelings. Tarot readings, despite being traditionally considered irrational, nonetheless help to achieve a wider scope of awareness than rational thinking alone can provide. Tarot brings to awareness many initially unperceived meanings thereby contributing to human learning based on both actual and potential experiences that encompass past, present, and future aspects. The cards may be considered to project subconscious human desires, wishes, beliefs, and hopes, and the power of Tarot symbolism is such that the images may transcend existing blocks and defenses. The Tarot images cannot be reduced to merely arbitrary symbols; according to the Hermetic tradition they constitute, in a coded format, an ordered system of esoteric knowledge hiding in the Memoria. The Tarot symbols can be considered to represent the universal language that is structured in accord with a certain syntax and semantics. A Tarot reader translates the non-verbal, pictorial language of symbols and signs into spoken word. Many typical life experiences are represented in the patterns that appear when the cards are being spread in this or that layout. As themes emerge in the course of a reading, therapeutic material is being gathered. This material contributes to the healing of one’s psyche as it provides the necessary guidance toward solving a variety of problems or clarifying an ambiguous situation. The four suits in the Tarot are connected to four ancient elements: pentacles to earth, wands to fire, swords to air, and cups to water. One of the most popular spreads is called the Celtic Cross: it comprises ten positions combined together to provide information illuminating a particular question or query. Some positions in a spread signify the dimension of time; that’s why there can be a peculiar feeling of gazing into the future and revisiting the past during readings. Philosophically, a spread reflects a four-dimensional view on time, in which past, present and future events coexist. David Bohm, a physicist, has posited all events as enfolded in the timeless implicate order. In the physical world they unfold into explicate order thereby creating time in our customary three-dimensional reality. Perhaps Tarot readings enable us to access the implicate order in its past and future aspects. Moving along the levels of order human consciousness undergoes evolution: it grows and expands as it reaches the spiritual realm. The spiritual quest becomes quite literally associated with personal growth as an individual acquires greater knowledge and awareness along his/her developmental path.
This is only a very brief and general introduction to the Tarot story, but its focus is the important problematic of human development, that is, our intellectual and moral growth as a function of learning from the information “encoded” in the Tarot images. In my 2011 book Re-Symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic I have substantially expanded this theme, while staying faithful to the idea of experiential learning and informal education provided by Tarot readings and the interpretation of images.
I am less concerned with Tarot “history and mystery” (using Sir Michael Dummett’s words) than with the practical effects of Tarot having far-reaching implications at the level of individual and social consciousness. A talk show on 2 June 2011 with Erik Davis, host of Progressive Radio Network, on the topic “Tarot, bricolage, and the language of images: talking about reading and cards with Inna Semetsky” clarifies this point.
In Richard Roberts’ account of Tarot readings, including a reading for, and a dialogue with, Joseph Campbell, he suggested that it is rather pointless to construct hypotheses “about Tarot origins… because the ultimate importance of Tarot is that it is a symbolic system of cosmic, moral, and natural laws, each of which has the same underlying principle, operating in all areas relevant to human endeavor, and which ties together all three systems” (1987, p. 7). The very fact that Tarot is alive and well today confirms its resilience. For the purpose of my continuous research into, and practice with, Tarot it matters little who, where and when gave birth to Tarot because the “essence of their importance for us is that a very real and transforming human emotion must have brought them to birth. It seems apparent that these old cards were conceived deep in the guts of human experience, at the most profound level of the human psyche. It is to this level in ourselves that they will speak” (Nichols, 1980, p. 5).
Tarot “speaks” in the language of signs, symbols and images that becomes “decoded” by a genuine reader. This language differs from the verbal expressions of the conscious mind. The common language of expression used by the objective psyche or soul (Anima Mundi) should, if properly understood, allow us to see beyond the veil of individual and cultural differences and barriers. The world’s quintessential soul, Anima Mundi, holds together the four physical, material, elements, namely air, earth, fire and water; itself being a fifth, invisible, “element”. Through Tarot, the invisible becomes visible and we can access the deep meanings of our experiences. It is the hermeneutics of Tarot, described in detail in my book that provides us with the opportunity of understanding this common, even if hypothetical, symbolic language. The Bible refers to a time when the whole Earth was of one language and of one speech, and all people were one. Medieval symbolism considered the World as a book of God written in a codex vivus, which is to be deciphered. The philosopher Bacon contrasted the apparent unreliability of human communication with the language based on real character, the use of which would have helped people to understand each other by means of shared meanings. This understanding can expand the realm of our choices and possibilities, of which we may remain unaware if not for the Tarot guidance. Valentin Tomberg presented Tarot Arcana as authentic symbols that can render us capable of making discoveries and engendering new ideas.
As recently noted by philosopher and abbot Mark Patrick Hederman in his book Tarot: Talisman or Taboo? Reading the World as Symbol, Tarot provides us with the system to fill the gaps produced by the area “where education and trained sensibility are in short supply” (2003, p. 86). As an educator, I agree with Hederman that “each of us should be given at least the rudiments of one of the most elusive and important symbolic systems if we are even to begin to understand human relationships. This would require tapping into a wavelength and a communication system other than the cerebral, reaching what has been called the ‘sympathetic system’ as opposed to the cerebro-spinal one” (Hederman, 2003, p. 87). At times when for various reasons it is difficult to understand the whole of the personal situation or attain an overview of seemingly disparate bits and pieces that do not make sense, a Tarot layout that symbolically represents the complicated and mixed aspects of one’s life, further confused by the unique way the individual psyche perceives them, connects the dots and provides a chance to recognize how they all are interrelated.
Thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears, problematic interpersonal relationships, intra-psychic conflicts, the immediate environment, significant others, desires and wishes – in short, the whole phenomenology of a person’s life-world, of which however s/he might not yet be aware at a conscious level – is symbolically represented in Major and Minor Arcana. As a lesson to be learned, it is our stopovers along the experiential journey through life experiences that contribute to our learning and self-understanding. Tarot not only speaks in a different, silent, voice, but also enables a process of critical self-reflection analogous to the ancient Socratic “Know thyself” principle in the heart of an examined life. This examination is achieved via many lessons “embodied” in the images that together lay down an unorthodox “foundation” for the existing, both actual and potential, moral knowledge in the form of the collective memory gained by humankind over the course of its history. Such a foundation, when properly constructed, should help us in repairing what Karl Marx called the crooked timber of humanity.
In the Tarot deck, the potential of/for self-knowledge is signified by the image of The High Priestess, Major Arcanum number II.
She is as a symbol for Sophia, or Shekhinah, or Ennoia; all the feminine principles of Wisdom across religions and cultures, yet all representing the return of the Goddess for the purpose of unfolding the scroll she holds in order to reveal to humankind the secrets of hidden, Gnostic, knowledge. The High Priestess sits on the throne as on a seat of transformation, ready to reveal to humankind the words of wisdom “written” in the scroll she holds. Her knowledge is of the long-lost speech that describes the true nature of things in the symbolic language similar to the one, according to myth, used by Adam before the Fall (or before the confusion of tongues in Babel). The High Priestess is a symbol of spirituality and female intuition as a special sensitivity and sensibility. She signifies the invisible and secret knowledge versus the sensible and empirical; yet she can potentially express herself, thus making the invisible present. This lost or forgotten speech may manifest itself in the unconscious contents such as a slip of the tongue in Freudian psychoanalysis, in dreams, in Jungian active imagination, and in Tarot symbolism. The unconscious contents enfolded in the scroll that the Priestess holds are not arbitrary but accord with specific grammar or code that provides them with structure, making them potentially available to consciousness. The Priestess’ number in the deck is 2, which in Jewish mythology, for example, signifies “Beth”, the second letter in Hebrew alphabet meaning the house (home). The Priestess’ house of wisdom would have been opened with the two keys (and the keys are often portrayed on this card in some other decks). The gold key is Logos and reason; the silver key is intuition and imagination; thus The Priestess symbolizes the holistic wisdom in which the feminine mode of knowing is complementary to essentially male rationality. According to a Jewish myth Shekhinah dwells here – in this world – while desperately wanting to reconnect with her beloved: she is the bride, the feminine counterpart, of God. Contrary to God’s transcendence, Shekhinah represents divine immanence in this world. While in rabbinic literature the term Shekhinah is used primarily as a synonym for God’s presence in this world, some Kabbalistic sources suggest a kind of mythic separation from God: the divine as present in, but yet hidden from, the human.
Sophia is God’s (that is, celestial) self-reflection (in the terrestrial) because it is wisdom indeed which is necessary for self-reflection. Yet, being separated from her beloved (in exile, according to myth) Shekhinah/Sophia is often sad and depressed, and sometimes appears to us at this plane of manifestation in the guise of the Holy Ghost, as symbolically portrayed in the Minor Arcanum Nine of Swords representing the twilight zone between night and morning. She needs to be recognized and spoken to, but we cannot perceive her message and wake up. Her voice is silent (Semetsky, 2010) therefore we are forced to let her go. In Egyptian tradition her name is Isis, the goddess of the rainbow and bridge between heaven and earth, who was also depicted as a wisdom figure in mythology. The symbolic meaning of The High Priestess is the very essence of hidden wisdom, the search for which was the task undertaken by Socrates in his effort to prepare educators as philosophers, literally: lovers of wisdom.
Shekhinah’s presence, while only potential in the symbolism of The High Priestess is being actualized in The Star, the imagery of which conveys the brightness of divine sparks as symbolic of the forthcoming transformation towards new understanding, new society, new culture, New Age.
Robert Place (2005) reminds us of the 12th century monk Joachim of Flora (also known as Gioacchino da Fiore) who had an epiphany in which he saw all history ascending through several levels, each associated with one aspect of the Christian Trinity. In the Age of the Father, the world was created and the Old Testament written. In the Age of the Son, Christ was born and has died on the Cross, the New Testament was written and the Church began. The New Age, envisaged by Joachim, would be ruled by the Holy Spirit. This promised Golden age of reconciliation will be infused with love and, according to Joachim’s vision, humankind will be able to communicate with the divine directly, not via an official Church, which would thus be dissolved. The divine will be found within and not without. The passing of the Golden Age is characterized by modern over-rationalization following the mythical death of the god Pan, or rational Apollo taking over nature bound Dionysus. The resurrection of the harmonious, peaceful and prosperous Golden Age (that was presided over by the virgin goddess Astraea – The High Priestess) and the infusion of the symbolic language of images into culture will bring back Justice as its guiding archetype at the social level.
Anonymous (2002). Meditations on the Tarot. Tarcher
Hederman, M. P. (2003). Tarot: Talisman or Taboo? Reading the World as symbol. Dublin: Currach Press.
Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot, an archetypal journey. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, Inc.
Place, R. (2005). The Tarot: History, symbolism, and divination. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Roberts. R. (1987). The original Tarot and you. San Anselino, CA: Vernon Equinox Press
Semetsky, I, (2010) . “Silent Discourse: the language of signs and “becoming-woman”’. SubStance #121, Vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 87-102.