Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tarot Symbols and Their Uses

The design of the Rider Waite Smith Tarot deck expressed such a powerful vision that it changed both the way of reading cards and influenced the design of new decks for 100 years now.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of it was that it put a picture on every card in the deck, and every picture unleashes ideas, taps into the subconscious and participates in the telling of a story to the person who is requesting the reading, or through the reader to the person requesting the reading.

In the original design, the author, Arthur Edward Waite, and the artist, Pamela Colman Smith, incorporated many metaphysical symbols to add layers of meaning to the use of the cards. These provide guidance and advice of a spiritual nature and address the essence of issues portrayed in the images. They form part, not the whole of the meanings behind the pictures. Usually the central image will bring some insight or understanding to light all by itself, and it is not always necessary to understand all of the reasons behind various details. That is part of the genius of the design; there are plenty of clues there, and intuition guides us in picking up on them and making a whole and useful narrative.

Many artists, authors and designers have followed the patterns created by Waite and Smith, and so when people are learning about tarot, this deck is still a jumping off point for understanding a deck and how to work with it, providing a valuable frame of reference that aids in understanding the process.

However, in recent years, many excellent artists and designers have proven that a great deck can be made from all kinds of images, from abstract or representational paintings to black and white drawings to photographs to computer enhanced images to reproductions of great art to fantasy stories to great literature. And these can be effective even without incorporating the metaphysical symbology included in the RWS because the choice of imagery can cover a tremendous amount of territory on its own.

Other types of symbols such as numbers and colors are more universal and accessible, and these two elements are found in nearly every deck, except, for example, decks designed in black and white or without numbers.

Even though some concepts may be changed by design, the essence usually remains. Changing Judgment to Karma, Devil to Temptation, Death to Transformation, Fool to Seeker, World to Universe and so on, simply makes the concept more gentle or more palatable to some people.

Any collection of images can make a good deck to read with, including some non-tarot oracle decks, such as the Soul Cards, Psy Cards, Medicine Cards, Angel Cards, Faery Cards, Titania's Fortune Cards or Madame Endora's Fortune Cards, which do not use suits, major and minor arcana, court cards or numbers as methods of organization. Randomness characterizes their design as well as their use.

Tarot is special because there is a progression in the story lines, an organization of the images, a flow between both intuition and logic, or as many people might say, between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the creativity and chaos and the order and principles.

Images are a rich and nuanced way of addressing consciousness at multiple levels simultaneously. A person can have one of these experiences looking through a bunch of old family photos, or a book of art or photography, although the family photos might be too limiting because there are too many personal references, whereas the universal symbology of a tarot deck is open to everyone, and a book will always present things in the same order, where shuffling a deck can present virtually unlimited juxtapositions of images together, which varies the messages and their impact.

The creation of the tarot deck is one of the most powerful tools we can use, not simply as a fortune telling device, but as a self teaching tool or meditational device in the same way a mandala works.

One old tarot reader always maintained that if a person did not have any other books, and if they were simply locked in a room for a month with nothing to read or look at but a tarot deck, that at the end of that month, they would have keys to all the important life lessons in their hands, and the cards could help them unlock the mysteries of the universe.

True, it takes most people far longer than a month to learn to use a deck of cards, and even those of us who have been using them for years are never done learning from them, as layer after layer reveals new secrets to us. It is amazing how you can look at a picture hundreds of times or thousands of times and still find something you never realized before or never noticed before. They were designed that way, and that is the genius of the deck.

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