Dec 07, 2022 Last Updated 5:41 PM, Feb 19, 2020

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Tarot Meanings: Symbolism, Stories and Self-knowledge and Tarots Major Arcana

The twenty two cards of the Major Arcana are richly-symbolic. Each of them resonates with fairy stories, myths, legends, representing archetypal figures found in literature and art from all over the world. 

Much modern Tarot interpretation is influenced by popular psychology in general, and Jungian psychology in particular. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) had an almost mystical concern with our spiritual nature, and his fascination with oracles, dreams, and astrology, was in many ways closer to ancient occult teachings than the psychology of the twentieth century.

In ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ he wrote that, ‘the collective unconscious is common to us all:  it is the foundation of what the ancients called “the sympathy of all things”.  Amongst his writings he records numerous examples of personal ‘psychic’ experiences. These include telepathy, prophetic dreams, visions and even a ghost sighting.

At a very basic level, Jung saw the human psyche in three parts: the conscious mind, the personal unconscious, and the vast collective unconscious  - a kind of living image bank that belongs to us all. Potent universal figures, such as the ones we find in the tarot images, reside in both personal and collective unconscious where they symbolise eternal truths. These symbolic beings are known as archetypes. 

Look through the Major Arcana and you will see these figures, and notice how they can be found in art, stories, movies and so on. These figures enter your own life story, or you embody them from time to time.  When this happens, they tend to appear in your dreams, and in your tarot readings.

Some obvious examples might be:

The Magician (1):  from ballets, such as Swan Lake, through to Harry Potter – the archetype of the magician is everywhere. He’s about control, for good or sometimes negative reasons. But we’ve seen him around since we heard our first fairy story.





The Empress (3):  A sensual, loving woman whose fertility represents life itself – here is one of the archetypal images of the numerous great mother goddesses of world-wide myth.  Egyptian Isis and Greek Demeter are two well-known examples. There are many more.




The Moon (18):  The tarot image for the Moon also often depicts two dogs, howling at the sky beside a pool of water. Dogs (and werewolves) are linked with the Moon in many mythologies, guarding the gates of the underworld or guiding the souls of the dead.  We know the Moon is a lump of cold rock, but what spooky movie doesn’t contain a night shot of the Moon, riding high in the sky? This image tells us, as does the tarot card, that we are entering mysterious realms where normal rules don’t apply. 

When you’re studying tarot it can be illuminating to play around with the archetypes suggested by the Major Arcana. We may not, for instance, have many emperors (card number 4) around today, but we have presidents, bosses, fathers, chief executives and so on in abundance. A card such as The Hanged Man (12) seems more of a challenge, but once you delve a little deeper into mythology, and consider the meditative qualities of yoga, you begin to understand the complex ideas of sacrifice and waiting embodied in this enigmatic card. 

Tarot cards should never be regarded as a simple method for just telling your fortune. Ordinary playing cards can be used for this purpose, and are better suited to readings where you want a quick answer on your romantic or job prospects. 

The tarot is, amongst other things, a tool for divination. It can be used to analyse problems, clarify the decision-making process, or even help you to understand yourself and others a little better. It can stimulate your intuition, and help the mind to escape from that habitual straitjacket of logical thought into a more freewheeling world. 

‘Know Thyself’ were the words carved above the entrance to the fabled Delphic Oracle in Greece. Self-knowledge is essential both when reading the cards for another, and when trying to understand what they are telling you personally. You could say that self-knowledge and acceptance are what all forms of serious divination are really all about. When the cards are used to predict the future they can be uncannily accurate, but will invariably point to possibilities rather than probabilities. In this way they direct your attention towards those choices, attitudes, and decisions shaping your life. The cards may seem to present choices, or even suggest a positive course of action. But the responsibility for action is firmly in your hands, and with knowledge and clarity you can take steps towards fulfilling your own potential.

by Jane Lyle

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