At one time or another the enigmatic set of picture cards known as tarot has been associated with just about every system of esoteric thought known to humanity.  Its origin has been ascribed to sources as diverse as ancient Egypt, India, China, Jewish mysticism, gypsies, and gnostics.  Some have even found a correlation between tarot and the Italian poet Petrarch's Sonnets to Laura.

But these various theories as to where tarot came from have about the same amount of firm evidence, which is next to none.  The only thing that can be definitely said about tarot’s beginnings is that the earliest known historical record of it comes from fourteenth century Italy and refers to tarot as a set of playing cards.  Not until the eighteenth century did occultists began writing about tarot as representative of an ancient, almost lost system of secret knowledge.  Of course it is entirely possible that it was part of an earlier oral tradition of which there is no extant written record.  

Over the last several centuries tarot has been linked to just about every metaphysical system in existence.  There are any number of versions of tarot in which the cards have been purposefully designed and re-designed to correspond with various traditions both ancient and of more recent origin.  Tarot is  extensively used in divination or “fortune telling” in which the cards are taken to represent aspects of one’s life and “fortune.”

Amazingly tarot does seem to fit into any and all of the esoteric traditions with which it has been associated.  Which only further complicates efforts to trace its origins.  Rather than taking on the seemingly hopeless task of trying to establish the “real” beginning and meaning of tarot, it seems to me more useful to regard tarot as a set of symbols that, whatever its origin,  represents typical human experiences that naturally are also present in the many varied schemas that have been devised by people seeking to explain the mysteries of human existence.  The images in the cards symbolize universal themes or archetypes that are repeatedly encountered in individual lives, history, and mythology.  Such archetypal images are not easily reduced to a single definitive meaning but rather radiate out to a possible infinity of meanings.  With that in mind, what follows is in no way a definitive account of tarot but simply my particular view, colored by who I am, of tarot

I am not so much interested in tarot as a means of divination or “fortune telling,” although I do not disparage such practices which in fact can be very helpful.  Rather I am here looking at the cards as an archetypal map representative of situations that are typically encountered in life.  As the theories of Carl Jung seem to me an elegant approach to understanding human experience, I tend to view tarot in the light of Jungian psychology.  Archetypes, a key concept in Jungian psychology, can be most simply thought of as the universal human tendency to experience things in certain typical ways.  While archetypal themes are themselves universal, cultural, social, and personal conditioning colors the way they are viewed.  For instance, a cross-cultural study of associations to the word “mother” would find many commonalities, reflecting the universal ways in which the mother archetype is experienced, along with differences due to variations in cultural and individual experience.

If we think of tarot as a set of archetypal symbols which each individual views from a slightly different perspective, then it is not so difficult to see why there are so many versions and interpretations of tarot.  Each person, in addition to recognizing the universal themes embodied in the images on the cards, will also see in them a reflection of his or her own unique experience.

Since, so far as can be ascertained, tarot seems to be a product of late medieval and early Renaissance European culture, I am considering it in relation to Western tradition, especially its more esoteric strands such as Christian and Jewish mysticism, alchemy, and gnosticism.  Jung was fascinated by these traditions which he believed contained repressed, unconscious aspects of the collective psychological makeup of Western culture.  I also prefer older, simpler, even somewhat crude versions of tarot over more recently designed cards which tend to be more self-consciously symbolic, purposefully created to represent a certain philosophy and less a spontaneous product rising from deeper, more unconscious regions of the psyche.  In many modern decks the order of the some cards has been changed to supposedly “correct” the sequence to one that better corresponds to the esoteric system the cards are supposed to represent.  Most of the illustrations here are from the Angel Tarot deck published by U. S. Games which more closely follows older versions of tarot both in imagery and the order of the cards.

Traditionally the tarot deck contains two sets of cards.  The first, termed the major arcana, consists of twenty two cards with distinctive images.  The second set, or minor arcana, is made up of fifty six cards which in traditional decks (modern tarot designs often add more elaborate symbolic images to the minor arcana), resemble modern playing cards in having simple repetitive designs.  The minor arcana is further divided into four suits of swords, wands, cups, and pentacles which correspond to the modern playing card suits of spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds.

While many interpretations of tarot use the minor as well as major arcana, the major arcana is generally regarded as having more symbolic importance.  As the addition of elaborately symbolic images along with symbolic meaning to the minor arcana is a relatively recent innovation, in keeping with my bias towards the more traditional, I am interested primarily in the major arcana.

A central idea in Jungian psychology is individuation, the life long developmental process of becoming the unique, integrated individual one is capable of being.  Among other things, individuation involves a movement away from the collective towards the realization of one’s autonomy and inherent wholeness.  One becomes more able to consciously choose one’s actions instead of reflexively reacting to societal and instinctual forces.  Individuation as a process can be envisioned as an upward spiral in which the same issues are repeatedly encountered each time with a higher level of awareness as a result of previous encounters.

When the major arcana cards are laid out in the shape of an infinity sign, they can be seen as forming an outline of the process of individuation as an never ending cycle which occurs again and again, though on, hopefully, progressively higher levels of consciousness throughout the course of a lifetime (or, if one wants to include the idea of reincarnation, over many lifetimes).

The first half of the cycle, represented by the first loop of the infinity layout with cards 0 through X, is primarily concerned with relations with the outer world.  Developmentally this is the first part of life, a time separation and differentiation, of emergence of a sense of “I,” in Jungian terms the ego, from the undifferentiated All.

The second half of the journey, with cards XI through XX, is about relation to the inner, more unconscious realm. The ego that was firmly established in the external world in the first half of the process is reproaching the All, establishing a conscious relationship with the mysterious regions from which it emerged.

Cards X (under card XXI here) and XXI, to which we will come back, are transitional cards linking the two halves of the cycle.

In considering this way of looking at tarot, or any other attempt at a schmatic represention of the complexities of human experience, it is important to keep in mind that it is only an approximation, an imperfect attempt to map out something that can never be fully described.  Each life is individual and each process unique.  Jung said that every psychological system is a personal confussion of the founder.  My take on tarot is based in my own experience and perception, and in no way represents the "correct" way to view something which others will see through the lens of their own experience. What follows is a map that can at best give only a rough idea of what we may expect in traveling through life but one which will never be able to completely tell us what each individual's journey will be.

The journey begins with The Fool, who can be placed at both the beginning, where he is assigned the number zero, and at the end, where he is card twenty two, of the major arcana.  We will return to The Fool at the end of the cycle but first we will consider him as zero, the number of infinite possibility, the nothing containing the possibility of everything, the “void and without form” described in Genesis as the primordial chaos from which all creation emerges.  The Fool at this stage represents the newly-born ego or personal identity, not yet conscious of itself as an individual entity distinct from its environment.

In some decks The Fool is about to step off a precipice of which he seems blissfully unaware.  The Fool doesn’t know or follow the rules which govern society, going on his way heedless of what perils may lie ahead. In many myths a future hero begins as a fool, completely innocent of the workings of the world as he blunders along.  Parzival, the knight who in one of the stories involving King Arthur and his count eventually completed the Grail quest, started out as a very ignorant youth with good intentions who in his ignorance actually caused more harm than good.  He had a long, hard road to travel from being a perfectly innocent fool to being able to successfully perform the greatest task of knighthood.

Next comes the the Magician representing the ego, the developing sense of “I,” emerging from the Fool’s state of primal unity into an awareness of itself as a separate entity with the ability to manipulate its environment with the “magical” tools of consciousness.  With a growing awareness of one’s power and ability to willfully control situations, the “will to power” is an important aspect of The Magician.  This is a stage that every parent will recognize as that of the willful child increasingly aware of her power over other people and situations.  This of course is a normal stage of growth, but there is a danger of becoming stuck in it.

Just as the Fool can become stuck in foolish innocence and fail to discover his power, so the Magician may be betrayed by an inflated ego with a false sense of personal power.  It is all too tempting for someone has had a taste of seemingly magical powers to believe that s/he has become a magician like figure with control of his/her fate along with that of others.  Many spiritual traditions warn against the pursuit of magic for its own sake, reminding us that seemingly magical powers are only a byproduct of the journey, not the goal.

The ego of he Magician has yet to learn its limitations.  It is easily inflated, blown up out of proportion, mistaking its limited self for the vastly greater Self (Jung's terms for the totality of the psyche containing transpersonal as well as personal, conscious and unconscious elements), thinking it can impose its will on everything.  But ego inflation is often followed by rapid deflation in which the small self is brought up short via a harsh reminder that it is only a very small, relatively powerless aspect of the Whole with which it has ignorantly identified.

Just as the young knight Parzival seemed to have arrived at the peak of his knightly achievement, a mysterious woman appeared to denounce him for the fool he really was.  In utter shame, he left the Court of King Arthur to begin the disorienting, wandering journey through the wilderness which would eventually lead him to the Grail.  So the High Priestess appears to counter the willful, overly masculine consciousness of the Magician with a reminder of another, more feminine side.  With her appearance, there comes a dawning sense of mystery, an awareness of other forces at work over which one has no control.

The High Priestess is a revealer but, at the same time a concealer of deep truths.  She holds an open book or scroll but a curtain or veil makes it impossible to clearly see what is behind her.  This is particularly well represented in this image from the Morgan-Greer Tarot.  The High Priestess gives a hint of something but bars the way to full revelation.  In its still relatively undeveloped state the ego needs protection.  It is not yet time to plunge into the depths of the mysteries that underlie human existence.  But a sense of wonder provides the impetus to continue  the journey.  There has to be a balance between the extremes of a sterile denial of what one does not know and being overwhelmed by it all.

After an encounter with the mysterious, perhaps even unsettling High Priestess, one needs comfort and reassurance.  So the next card it is that of the Empress, the Great Mother, the Earth Goddess.  She, in contrast to the aloof, spiritual, intuitive quality of the High Priestess, is concerned with relationship, comfort, and nurturance on the physical plane.  As Earth Mother, she is down-to-earth, very much an immediate presence.  With the Empress we are coming to terms with the maternal both in ourselves and others, finding a balance between nurturance and independence, caring for others while also caring for oneself.

Life with The Empress can be so safe and warm that we resist venturing out of her domain.  But then The Emperor calls us away to find our place in the world.  As the Great Father, the Sky God, he is concerned with laws, dominion, and authority on the physical plane.  He is concerned with physical reality and concrete fact.  But if he is to avoid becoming a tyrant he must balance his dependence on law and hard facts with the emotional sensitivity of The Empress and the intuition of The High Priestess.

The Hierophant is numbered V, the fifth center point which unites the four cardinal points of the compass.  The traditional figure on this card is the pope about whom, as the highest authority on earth, medieval society, at least in orthodox Catholic theology, revolved.  The word “hierophant” means “revealer or proclaimer of the sacred.”  Thus this card represents the teacher of orthodox spiritual tradition who proclaims and upholds that which is generally accepted by a society as ultimate truth.

Organized religion performs a necessary social function in providing an established means of understanding spiritual experience.  The trouble, however, with any orthodoxy, whether Western or Eastern, old and established or New Age, is that it sooner or later becomes rigid, unable to expand to accommodate new experience.  Ritual and form become more important than the spiritual experience which gave rise to them in the first place.  The focus shifts from inner spirituality to outer structure, from the original message to the organization formed to supposedly proclaim the message.  Symbols, which once pointed to an ineffable Something beyond representation, become disconnected from their archetypal origins and become lifeless signs conveying at best only abstract theological concepts.  At worse they become meaningless.

If we look at cards II throughV, we see that they depict two sets of masculine and feminine energies which serve to contain and focus the developing ego of the Magician, providing it with a sense of boundaries, supporting the development of a sense of self in relation to the greater society, initiating it in established traditions and acceptable behaviors.  While social programing, with good reason, generally has a bad name, it is essential that one encounter and learn the established ways before venturing off on one's own path.  A basic sense of who and what one is, an identity developed in relation to one’s society and culture, is an absolutely essential prelude to successfully navigating the challenges to that identity that come further along the developmental path.

The Chariot, numbered VII, the sum of III (The Empress) and IV (The Emperor), carries the Royal Child, the well developed ego, confident of its own identity and authority, out into the world.  The Charioteer is well armored with ego defenses in place to defend against the forces encountered in moving out from the secure base of home.  His persona or social role, the face presented to the world, is well established.  With The Lovers an intimate relationship with someone other than the Mother is established.  The task represented by the Chariot is that of setting up a new kingdom independent of the ruled by the Father.

There are two dangers here.  One is forgetting that the charioteer’s armor, his defenses and social role, is only something that is put on and not his real self.  There are of course times when defense of one’s identity and position is essential as is a clear sense of where one fits in society.  But defenses and roles must be flexible enough to be able to adjust to changing circumstances.  Just as a hermit crab must periodically find a larger shell to accommodate its growth, so we need to be able to adjust our armor, our protective self definition as our awareness of self and the world grows.

The other danger is represented by the apparent lack of reins in traditional representations of The Chariot card.  The horses, traditionally a symbol of instinctual forces, are not really under the charioteer’s control.  The ego may not notice this and assume that the forces carrying it onward are part of itself, or at least under its conscious control.  This is another reminder that ego, the small self, is actually just along for the ride.  Ultimate control resides elsewhere.

The figure of Justice (VIII in older decks rather than IX in more recent designs) halts the Chariot’s onward progress.  The appearance of Justice with her balancing scales brings a realization that adaptation to the external world, no matter how successful, is simply not enough.  Ego has encountered a limit to its willful progress and, up to this point, seemingly unopposed conquest of the external world.

The Biblical book of Daniel tells how, during a royal feast celebrating the reign of King Belshazzar in ancient Babylon, a disembodied hand appeared to write on the palace wall that the king had been “weighted in the balance and found wanting” and his kingdom given to the enemy. In a similar way the figure of Justice stops the Charioteer’s triumphant ride out into a world that is seemingly his, redirecting his course inward with a growing awareness of the need balance in  connection to another, inner realm.  The encounter hopefully won’t be as disastrous as the appearance of the handwriting on the wall was for Belshazzar.  But the figure in the card holds a sword to emphasize the seriousness of the balance she holds in her other hand.

“The Handwriting On the Wall”  St. Benedict’s Painted Church  Big Island, Hawaii  Photo by Jim Moyers

Directing our attention inward to try to find find a new balance in what might be missing, we encounter the Hermit, a figure modeled after the medieval religious ideal of the solitary seeker after ultimate truth who abandons conventional life to follow an inner path.  In sharp contrast to the well-lit road The Chariot followed, the image on this card is dark, with only the dim lamp of intuition to light the way.  The Hermit wears a monk’s habit.  In medieval times becoming a seeker of solitude as a reclusive monk or nun was one of the few socially acceptable ways to move outside rigidly prescribed social roles and boundaries to pursue one’s own truth.  As each individual’s truth is a personal one, the quest must of necessity be individual.  While we of course share the journey with others, there will eventually be a point beyond which we must each go it alone.

We are now at the turning point.  From The Hermit’s detached viewpoint the ever-revolving Wheel of Fortune, the constant change which underlies the appearance of permanency, is visible.  Two creatures traditionally associated with good and bad luck, cling to the wheel, endlessly going around and around, up and down.  Above the wheel, on what seems to be a platform, a sphinx-like creature holds a sword, a symbol of discrimination.  From its detached, objective position it can distinguish between the ever-changing ebb and flow of life and the unchanging ground from which it arises.

In most decks the Wheel of Fortune appears to be rotating counterclockwise, traditionally the inward direction.  The Wheel of Fortune (under the World card that ends the second loop) marks the end of the first, outwardly oriented half of the journey as depicted by the cards and, with a change in direction, the beginning of the second, inner half.

The first card we encounter as we enter the second loop of our symbolic map is Strength.  In contrast to the male figures of the Fool and the Magician which started the journey of emergence into the world, it is a female figure who leads the way into the inner realm.  While traditional feminine-masculine dichotomy is today being widely challenged, it is still true that society as a whole continues to place more value on qualities - aggression, power, control, etc. - associated with masculinity while feminine values concerned with relationship, nurturing, receptivity, etc. are less valued with the strength lying within them often unrecognized.  Even women, unfortunately, often seem to undervalue the feminine.  Hence it can be said that our culture is outwardly more masculine while its less developed, less conscious and inner side is more feminine.  In a similar way in the individual psyche, ego, with its outward orientation, tends towards masculine values while the rest of the psyche, largely unknown and too often unappreciated, is often associated with the feminine in women as well as men.

One interpretation of the Strength card regards the lion as the willful, power-seeking ego while the woman is representative of the greater part of the psyche of which the ego is mostly unaware.  Another reading sees the lion as the wild, instinctual aspect of the psyche which must be tamed with gentle firmness.  In either case, the woman and the lion do not seem to be actively struggling.  There is a sense of some sort of cooperation, a creative tension in the relationship which is still an uneasy one, as the relationship of ego, the smaller self, to the totality of the psyche, which Jung called the Self, often is.  But neither the lion or the woman appear to be in danger of being destroyed by the other.

As the ego gives up some of its willfulness, its insistence on being in charge, it finds itself in the inverted position of the Hanged Man.  The values of the outer world are reversed in the inner realm.  It is not that the world itself has changed but one’s position relative to it has been turned upside-down.  The Hanged Man’s hands are behind his back; there is nothing the ego in this position can do except watch what is happening.  Only faith, represented by the rope looped around his ankle, in a greater power directing the process prevents an out-of-control plunge into the depths.

Handing is related to crucifixion, a suspension between heaven and earth, between the  upper and lower realms as beautifully depicted in Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St John of the Cross”.  Jesus Christ was one of a number of ancient deities who were hanged on trees.  As a divine-human being, the divine side of Jesus sacrificed the human.  So the transpersonal aspect of the psyche, the Self, sacrifices the ego’s more secure but limited position.

After the Crucifixion Jesus descended into hell, the place of the dead.  So the Hanged Man card is followed by that of Death.  The old self-identity, the old way of being in the world has to die before a new self can be born.  Dismembered hands, feet, and heads, severed by the Grim Reaper’s harvesting scythe, lie on the ground.  The things ego used to make its way in the world, the things that enabled it to think and act, simply do not work in the underworld.  The figure of Death is a skeleton, a reduction to bare bones, to the absolute inner core of one’s being.

The symbolic death that always occurs to some degree with every change as the old dies away to make room for the new can be mistaken for literal death.  This kind of confusion between the symbolic and literal can lead to a suicidal crisis in which impending change is equated with death.  Even when we are stripped to almost nothing like the skeletal figure of this card, even when it seems as if all has been lost, there is new life to come if we can only hold on and let the process unfold.

Following Death the figure of Temperance, an angel or messenger from a higher realm, appears to temper, or mix in the proper proportion the water of life.  “Temperance” has come to be equated with absence.  But in older usage the word refers to the process of mixing or tempering wine with water as was the custom in antiquity and is still practiced in the Christian mass.  Tempering is thus about mixing things in the proper proportion, finding the right balance.  Justice pointed to the need to find a new, more balanced center.  Temperance establishes that balance.  In this card from the Waite deck the need for balance in contact with two opposite but complimentary realms of conscious and unconscious, known and unknown is further emphasized by the angel having one foot in water and the other on land.  Previously ego believed itself to be the center; now it knows that it is only a satellite revolving around a center somewhere deep within the Self.

But as we temper the waters, seeking the right  mix of energy flowing both inward and outward, we become aware of dark forces residing in the unconscious, that part of the psych of which we had previously been mostly unaware.  In sharp contrast to the angelic image of Temperance, the Devil, the personification of all that has been rejected as evil both individually and collectively, appears on the scene.  We naturally prefer to look towards the light, but when constantly facing the light we don’t see the shadow that is cast behind us.  As the Self is defined as the totality of the psyche which contains everything, it must have within it darkness as well as light.  We have to face both if we are to know the All.

The dark, or shadow aspect of the psyche will find expression regardless of all attempts to keep it hidden.  It is a paradoxical truth that we can only escape bondage to the dark side when we recognize the power that it has over us.   By admitting that unconscious forces within us have a greater power than conscious ego, we make it possible for them to emerge from the shadows into the light where we can begin to more consciously choose our response to them.  When recognized for who he really is, Satan, “The Accuser” in Hebrew, is restored to his original position as Lucifer, “the Light Bringer.”

The typical Christian image of the Devil is based on that of Pan, a Hellenistic god of nature, instinct, and fertility.  So the shadow, the dark aspect of the human psyche, contains a natural, fertile power as well as the potential for evil that we fear.  

As with any archetypal force, there are dangers in dealing with the Devil.  The ego, the personal self, may come to believe that is is responsible for the darkness it discovers within the psyche and be overwhelmed by a sense of worthlessness, mistakenly believing the evil it discerns to be its own.  Or, conversely, ego may assume that it has direct access to the Devil’s immense power which is its to command at will.  One way leads to overwhelming depression; the other to black magic and satanism.  In either case the ego makes a serious mistake in identifying with an archetypal force.  Throughout the inner journey it is essential to maintain balance and distinction between ego and archetype, between the personal and the transpersonal, losing sight of neither

After more or less successfully dealing with the  Devil it is tempting to assume that we understand the nature of reality and erect a rigid, tightly structured conceptual structure, represented in Tarot as the Tower, to contain our understanding.  But knowledge and experience, no matter how all encompassing they may seem, is still limited.  Sooner or later there comes a “bolt from the blue” that bring us back down to earth.  Any conceptual structure, any set of teachings, theories, beliefs, “universal laws,” etc. will eventually prove inadequate to the mystery of human existence.  This card is sometimes entitled “The House of God,” the earthly church which often claims to contain ultimate truth.  Organized religion is in many ways helpful in providing a container for spiritual experience.  But all too often it becomes rigid, constructing and exclusive rather than expansive and inclusive.  The container becomes more important than that which it is supposed to contain as believers are told that they must shape their experience to fit into what has become a very cramped space.

Again and again we are reminded that no abstract theoretical structure set up to try to explain the experience of a reality that is by definition greater than the individual will ever be able to assimilate the Whole.  Meister Eckhart, a medieval German mystic, described the journey of the soul as a never-ending voyage ever deeper into the eternal mysteries of the Godhead or Ground of Being.

Looking closely at the image on the card we see that only the crown-like top of the tower is being knocked off.  The tower itself is still standing otherwise undamaged.  The attack is not so much on the tower and the conceptual systems which we erect in trying to give order and understanding to our experience as it is on the tendency to try to make such systems the “crowning achievement,” the ultimate explanation beyond which we need not, are often told we must not go.

Traditionally the lightning bolt, in addition to being the Sky Father’s weapon and means of returning hubris filled humans to their proper station, was also the phallus by which he fertilized Mother Earth.  So the realization that beliefs and concepts held as true are inadequate can create fertile new life and possibilities.

After the storm of the Tower, the Star rings peace, refreshment, and new life.  The Star acts from a balanced center which has finally been established.  The figure here is definitely human in contrast to the angel figure of Temperance.  The journey has descended to the depths of Death and the Devil, then tried to ascend to the heavens in the Tower only to find that neither is the proper human realm.  With the Star we have come back down to earth, the middle human plane which mediates between the upper and lower realms.

The figure of the Star is nude, with nothing to hide.  She is in contact with both land, the realm humans live in and know best, and water, the largely unknown and inhuman realm which on our planet surrounds and contains the land that, in the process of creation, emerged from it.  She holds two vessels similar to those depicted in the Temperance card.  While the angel of Temperance was mixing the liquid, the woman in the Star pours it upon both land and water, giving the proper amount to both realms, conscious and unconscious, personal and transpersonal.

In many traditions each individual is believed to have her or his own star, a celestial counterpart representing a cosmic origin and destiny.  The eight-pointed star, along with seven smaller stars depicted in the Star card, represent the ancient seven planetary spheres plus the eight sphere of the fixed stars through which the soul was thought to descend when coming into the world and, when its physical incarnation has ended, ascend on its way back to its origin.

After the Star’s reassuring reminder of the Source of our being, we encounter the dark, mysterious realm of the Moon.  This card is one of the strangest in the tarot.  It represents the deepest, most unknown, and least human regions of the psyche.  Prior experience is of little help here.  In order to get through the gate represented by the two towers in the Moon card from the Waite deck and over the distant mountains we have to discard everything we know to proceed with nothing but faith to guide us.  St. John of the Cross called this type of experience the Dark Night of the Soul.  The Moon again represents a kind of death experience, but this time we don’t fall into it, as happened with the Hanged Man, but go forward under our own power.

Two canines guard the path.  Mythologically the dog is the companion of the dead and guardian of the gates of the underworld.  Canines have two natures represented here as dog and a wolf.  Dogs are generally regarded as friends, guides, and protectors of humans whereas wolves traditionally are considered threatening, dangerous, and devouring.

The moon itself has two natures.  In one it is associated with intuitive, creative, inspirational, visionary energy.  On the other side it is often regarded as the source of illusion, madness (literally “lunacy”), and death.

The paradox (and paradox is always present in the Whole as it contains both sides) is that the things that give life are also most dangerous to it.  The Great Unknown is the creative source from which personal awareness arises, but it also has a regressive pull.  The crustacean that seems to be depicted as coming out of the pool may in fact pull emergent life back into the water to drown and be devoured.  There can be a temptation for ego to want to escape the problems of life by returning to the sea of the unconscious in the form of fantasies, grand schemes, and illusions that are “more fun” than the struggle with the challenge of becoming more conscious.  Again, balance between the personal and transpersonal, conscious and unconscious, is an absolute necessity if we are going to be able to continue the journey.

Lunar conscious, like dim lunar light, tends to merge, to dissolve distinctions unlike the brilliant light of the sun which differentiates objects, making them clearly visible.  Both types of light are necessary parts of the process of psychological and spiritual growth.  In alchemy, in which Jung found many parallels to psychological process, the opus lunae is followed by the opus solis.  So, after passing through the lunar Land of the Dead, moving through and over the mountains in the distance, we emerge, reborn into the innocence of a child, into the life and light of the Sun.

The Sun, which brings things to light, is an apt symbol for consciousness.  The Hermit’s dim lantern has become the all-illuminating light of the Sun.  What was at the beginning of the second half of the journey only a faint intuition is now full daylight.

But the two children (who can be said to be male and female) are still separate and there is a wall between them and the Sun.  We are still not at the final integration but await the call to the Last Judgement and resurrection.

The Judgement angel, Gabriel with his horn, calls us to a grand culmination on a higher plane.   The child couple of the Sun have grown to maturity and united to produce the child who, as represented in the Waite design of this card, stands between them.  The divine child, as a third entity, is a symbol of new creation and life with potential for the realization of the wholeness which is inherent in every new being.  

Judgement Day, the final reckoning for all creation, is often thought of in negative terms.  But it is anything but negative for those who are prepared.  It is the time of resurrection as represented in the nude figures rising from their tombs, the beginning of the Second Creation, the redemption of all that was lost after the First Creation.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the sun, moon, and stars, the source of light and life as we know it, will on Judgement Day be replaced by “the splendor of the glory of the Most High,” (2 Esdras 7:42), the original, pre-existent Light.  The limited consciousness that we have known is replaced by original, all-encompassing consciousness.  The Source, of which we have had only fleeting, indirect glimpses, is now seen “face to face.”  (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“The day of judgement is decisive and displays to all the seal of truth,” (2 Esdras 7:104.)  Judgement, the “last judgement,” brings knowledge of who we are along with final acceptance of that truth.  We move beyond “should and ought” to “is.”

The Judgement sentence is not to heaven or hell, but to the World, our world, our life, our dance danced freely as it is.  The figure in this card is the anima mundi or world soul which the gnostics and alchemists sought to free from its entrapment in gross matter.  It is nude, free and natural except for the flowing veil which is sometimes said to conceal its hermaphroditic nature.  It is surrounded by a mandala-like wreath, a symbol of wholeness.  The figures in the corners are, in Christian iconography, the four writers of the gospels.  In more ancient tradition they represent they represent the four fixed signs of the zodiac associated with the four elements which in combination were believed to make up the material world.

The figure in the World card resembles the image of the Hindu deity, Shiva Nataraja,who dances the Cosmic Dance of the eternal cycle of creation and destruction.  The World represents the Self, the All which is the culmination and the beginning of the process.  As the culmination, it is the conscious realization, as a result of the journey which proceeds it, of the Whole.

As the beginning, the World card represents the Cosmic Egg or Womb containing the seeds of the next cycle.

Alchemical Illustration from Jacobus Sulat, Mutus Liber, 1677

And once again the Fool, innocent of what lies ahead but in possession of a higher degree of awareness than before by virtue of the round just ended, emerges to continue the journey

The Fool has, to some degree, become enlightened in the course of his journey, sharing his wisdom as well as foolishness with those he encounters in his return to the mundane world in which everyone, no matter how enlightened, must live.  A similar figure is depicted in the last of the series of Ox-Herding pictures which depict the process of enlightenment in Zen Buddhist tradition.


Bare-chested, barefooted, he comes into the marketplace.

Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!

Without recourse to mystic powers

Withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.

From Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1967

Tarot card illustrations are from Angel Tarot, The Rider Tarot Deck: The Original Waite Cards (both published by U.S. Games), and Morgan-Greer Tarot (published by Morgan & Morgan, Inc).

Further Reading

Clifton, Chas S,  “The Unexamined Tarot,” Gnosis No. 18, Winter 1991, pp. 44-51.

Decker, Paul, Depaulis, Thierry, & Dummett, Michael, A Wicked Pack of Cards, The Origins of the Occult Tarot.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Douglas, Alfred,  The Tarot.  NY:  Penguin Books, 1973.

Newman, Kenneth D, The Tarot: A Myth of Male Initiation.  NY: C.G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, 1983.

Nichols, Sallie, Jung and Tarot.  NY:  Samuel Weiser, 1980.

Walker, Barbara G, The Secrets of the Tarot.  NY: Harper and Row, 1984.



Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

With the next card, The Lovers, we encounter the first of many challenges to that identity that come as one begins to move beyond familiar authority and relationships.  Traditionally this card, also called “The Two Paths” or “The Crossroads,” depicts a young man standing between two women, one of them seemingly older wearing the Empress' crown, depicting his mother, and the other nearer his age, his lover.  His loyalty is shifting as the primary relationship in his life moves from within the family to someone from outside.  The struggles that sometimes ensue are the stuff of drama in everyday life as well as countless stories in books, plays, and movies.

In choosing to be with a lover we forever sever some of the bonds that tie us to family.  Movement into independence often involves feelings of disloyalty, betrayal of rules and authority to which we have looked for guidance.  There may be a sense of guilt, of the forbidden, of having taken something which does not belong to us, as when Prometheus stole fire from the gods, in this movement towards independence.  This is of course parallel to the feelings that often accompany sexual awakening.  As this card indicates, sexual initiation and movement beyond parental authority and control often occur together.

The figure of Cupid or Eros, who is in hellenistic mythology not the cute figure of Valentine’s Day cards but an irrepressible cosmic force, who appears above the figures in the card reminds us that there is a transpersonal force operating behind the movement toward greater independence.  Just as one does not consciously choose to fall in love, it just happens, so there are within the psyche instinctual forces driving the quest for greater wholeness.  The drive towards individuation, becoming who one truly is, can no more be ignored than the sex drive (which itself is a drive towards wholeness in uniting one physically with another who seems to hold the promise of  making one at least momentarily complete).  The impetus to grow is beyond the power of the will to control and will make itself manifest whether one chooses to go along or not.  In the Jungian view, psychological disturbance is the result of a refusal by ego, the personal level of being, to cooperate with the transpersonal drive towards individuation.

Fortune's Wheel was a common motif in medieval art and literature, depicting people from all strata of society going up and down as Fate turned the wheel.  In the Carmina Burana manuscript (c. 1230) a king is depicted on the wheel.  The figures on the top, downward, bottom, and rising positions respectively are labeled "I reign, I reigned, My reign is finished, I shall reign."

©2016 James C. Moyers

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