Read an Excerpt
using the cards to make better life decisions
By Gail Fairfield
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Gail Fairfield
All rights reserved.
CHOOSING A TAROT DECK
The key to the Tarot is in the symbols used on the cards. They are the triggers and catalysts for our insights into ourselves and our lives. These symbols are chosen and drawn by people who are depicting the Tarot concepts in ways that are comfortable for them. Since an author's insights are filtered through her personal system of beliefs, her work will be affected by her psychological characteristics, philosophy of life, cultural values, and experiences with the Tarot. Since the older Tarot materials reflect the "truths" of the Middle Ages, our experiences with the Tarot are often colored by the belief systems and values of that era.
If we want to apply the Tarot to our lives, we need to understand the basic concepts that lie beneath the symbols drawn by any given individual. Once we have uncovered these concepts, we can try on the symbols that have been used to represent them. We can decide whether the symbols chosen by a given author for a particular deck of cards are appropriate for us, in our own cultures and subcultures. Through understanding some of the kinds of symbols in use, we can more easily evaluate the Tarot materials that are available and choose the decks that work best for each of us.
Pictures of people represent, most clearly, the values and attitudes of the people who have drawn them. The images represent somebody's view of people and human interactions. Because we are all people, the human image is perhaps the most powerful of all the symbols used in the Tarot. Whenever we see images of people of certain sizes, colors, genders, and ages, we respond to them according to our own identification with those characteristics. Some of our responses are easily identifiable; others are more subtle. Because of the complexity of our responses to the human image, it is especially important for us to be aware of the impact that these symbols have on us.
Gender As A Symbol
A traditional analysis of human interaction is that which links males with assertiveness, females with nurturing, and their union with wholeness. The union of men and women is supposed to be the ideal whole from which creativity (in the form of children) springs. When this system is being used in Tarot materials, the images of men and women and their interactions can represent very definite personality qualities and conditions. In some traditional texts, a male image on a card immediately indicates a quality of control, command, aggression, or leadership. A female image represents qualities of passivity, nurturing, submission, or receptivity. In this analysis, women who have assertive qualities are seen as going against nature A traditional text might say something like, "If the querent is a woman, this card shows that she is a shrew and a troublemaker ... if a man, this card shows that he is strong and commanding." Men who are sensitive are seen as weak. Another text might read "If the querent is a man, this card shows that he is ineffective and not respected ... if a woman, this card shows that she is strong in wifely qualities." Tarot texts that narrowly attribute some qualities to men and some to women, end up alienating people who want to experience the whole range of human qualities.
In the traditional analysis, there is no way to achieve wholeness except by the union of male with female. Individuals who choose to remain independent are seen as incapable of achieving true fulfillment. Any relationships between members of the same gender are considered innately inferior. In fact, individuals who choose these options are not even represented in most Tarot materials. Our personal growth can be severely limited if we feel that our own energies are not complete or unified unless we are in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. We each have the potential for wholeness within us. We can be whole persons who choose to interact with other whole persons, of either gender, not people who are searching for completion from outside of ourselves.
Many of us are beginning to see that the qualities of assertiveness and nurturance exist apart from the genders of male and female. The unification of the aggressive, active energy and the supportive, enfolding energy can happen within one individual, not just between individuals. Some Tarot materials are beginning to reflect the changes in our attitudes toward personality qualities and their associations with specific genders. However, many decks and books still reflect the more traditional, rigidly defined sex roles. As we work with various Tarot decks and texts, we need to be aware of the sexist and heterosexist attitudes that they reflect and reinforce. We need to recognize that sex-role stereotyping is not an integral element of a sacred teaching; it is simply the point of view of a person who designed a particular Tarot deck.
Race As A Symbol
Most Tarot decks are blatantly racist in that they confine themselves to the use of Caucasian images. The exclusion of people of other races is significant in itself and reinforces the misconception that the Tarot (which reflects the pattern of life) is only relevant to the white race. Where images of people of color are used, it is important to note what they symbolize. Often, they are supposed to symbolize our fears and pains, our guilt, our unknown depths, our uncontrollable urges, and our bondage or entrapment. For example, in some decks the only Black people are The Devil, slaves, or The Hanged Man. Most often, images of people of color are used to symbolize fearful parts of our lives.
Each individual needs to discover those fears, passions, and doubts within herself and to claim them as common to us all. White people do not have to use images of people of color to symbolize the things they fear and/or want to control within themselves. Also, we need to explore the dominant culture's assumption that "white is better, lighter, brighter, and more positive." When we recognize that all people have creative energy, we do not have to use images of white people to symbolize our enlightened awareness. We need to examine the decks we use to see the ways in which racism is being perpetuated, either by the exclusion of people of color or by their inclusion in negative or violent imagery.
Class As A Symbol
In Europe, throughout the last four or five centuries, the Tarot has been used primarily by the ruling class, occult initiates, educated philosophers, and witches or gypsies. The insights and information of the witches and gypsies has been transmitted by word of mouth and is not always publicly available to us. Instead, we have the materials that have been developed and published by the privileged classes. We can see that bias in the names of the cards and the images on them. The scholars and nobles that developed the Tarot materials as we know them today, depicted Emperors, Kings, and Popes. They drew on esoteric philosophies, mystical teachings, classical works, and the literature, history, and myths of many cultures. They saw the Tarot as a tool to be used by the initiated or privileged people who had the leisure and education to study and understand an intricate maze of symbolism.
Only in the twentieth century has the Tarot become available for use by the general public. Of course, as interest and business have boomed, the number and variety of Tarot materials has increased as well. But in many Twentieth Century materials we still find a focus on the esoteric meaning of the Tarot, as it was analyzed by the rich and educated elite We find that the old relationships between the rulers and the ruled, the educated and the less educated, are maintained. The interpretations of the cards often equate the power of the upper class position with positive qualities while they associate the lower class situation with negative qualities. The language used in many of the texts is still aimed at the scholar.
Today, we have an opportunity to demystify the Tarot. Some authors are already beginning to present interpretations that steer clear of references to scholarly literature and avoid allusions to obscure mythological or philosophical writings. They are attempting to make the Tarot a tool that is easily available to everyone. Many are even renaming the cards in an attempt to have the titles describe the meanings of the cards instead of reflecting archaic social structures.
By using basic concepts and straightforward language in our work with the Tarot, we can begin to break down the barriers of class and make the Tarot accessible to everyone.
Body Image As A Symbol
Hardly any of us look like Greek Gods or Egyptian Goddesses! Few of us have "perfectly" proportioned bodies (whatever perfect is). Some of us are fatter, some of us are thinner; some of us are taller, some are extra short. Most of us have some kind of physical impairment to our everyday functioning. Some of us wear glasses or move around in wheelchairs. Some of us use hearing aids, some have internal disabilities that no one can see, some are missing limbs. We are all unique in our body shapes and capacities and we are all capable, creative persons. In most Tarot materials, people who are not "ideal" in their physical shape or abilities are only included if they symbolize poverty, disaster, or misfortune. Most Tarot decks don't show us ourselves. They show us somebody's concept of a perfect person. As new Tarot materials emerge out of a broader consciousness, we are beginning to see images of real people in the cards.
Age As A Symbol
Tarot decks generally treat children as creative, energetic beings who are ready to begin life with enthusiasm and faith. Young people are seen as being a bit reckless, willing to take a few risks, but on the road to adventure and experience Middle-aged people are seen as the sensible and mature leaders of society. Older people are depicted only occasionally; when they are included, they are usually seen as quiet, but inactive, sages. We need to begin including more older people in our Tarot materials. We need images of people of all ages with various energy levels and personality qualities.
As we examine Tarot materials, we must be aware of the value judgments that the author has made when depicting various people. In addition, we can tune into the ways in which the author portrays the interaction between those people. Each of us interacts with other people in our lives. Some of us interact with many people, some interact with only a few. Some of us choose to be involved with people who are like us; some enjoy being with those who are different. But we all interact with other people
Many of our relationships involve a power imbalance When two people get together, one person usually has more status, power, or control than the other. When whole groups get together the imbalance of power is most marked. In our world today, men tend to have power over women, whites over people of color, heterosexuals over homosexuals, able-bodied over differently able, mature adult over younger or older people, management over workers, rich over poor, political leaders over followers, educated over less-educated, and so forth. In one way or another, the imbalance of power between individuals and groups has touched each of our lives.
We tend to feel that we have power if we control other people and that we lack power if we are controlled by others. This control involves some individuals or groups setting and enforcing the limits and conditions of other people's growth and development.
There is also another way of looking at power and control. We can gain control over our own lives without controlling the lives of others; others can control their lives without having to control us. We each can have the personal power to be ourselves, individually and in groups, without measuring ourselves against one another. We can take charge of ourselves, make choices based on our own needs, and become responsible to and for ourselves. We do not have to allow or expect one person or group to make decisions for another, to be responsible for another, or to generally take charge of another. Basically, that is what liberation movements are about: groups of people gaining control over their own lives.
Many Tarot materials depict relationships only from the unequal-power perspective They often associate the dominant, powerful person or group with positive qualities and the powerless group or person with negative qualities. When we look at the Devil card in some decks, we may get the message that the Devil is bad, male, and Black. On the other hand, the Emperor is almost always presented as a white man who is an authority figure It is encouraging that some of the newer Tarot materials do depict equality-based relationships between groups and individuals and support the development of personal power—the power of self-determination.
It's clear that placing a person on a Tarot card is no simple act. Interpretation of the message of that human image happens on conscious and unconscious levels. We need to look carefully at the cards we choose to use and examine which of our own attitudes they represent and reinforce
* * *
Now that we have explored the human image as a symbol, let's take a look at some of the other symbol systems that are used in the Tarot:
The purpose of mythology is to tell a story that explains why things are the way they are: why it rains, why there are poor people, where the sun goes at night, why we feel anger or jealousy, what happens when we die, why winter comes, etc. These stories have the psychological power to make us feel comfortable with the events of our lives. Mythology helps us feel that there is a reason for what happens and shows us where we fit into the picture.
People who design Tarot decks use many of the mythologies of the past and present, including Egyptian, Greek, Oriental, and Mayan mythologies as well as scientific, Biblical, and Matriarchal stories about why things are the way they are They choose mythologies that represent universal truths to them and use the symbols of those mythologies in their Tarot materials. Some authors do an excellent job of educating us about their chosen mythological symbols. Others leave the research up to the readers and assume that the users of their materials will understand the symbols in the decks. Suffice it to say that mythological symbols from any source are only valuable if we are familiar with them. Once we explore the stories, we may find them to be priceless in helping us to understand our lives or we may find them to be useless. It is up to each of us to choose the mythologies, and Tarot decks, that are appropriate for our lives.
Images of plants and animals appear in the Tarot quite often. They are usually part of a scene in which people also appear or part of a border, background or stylized pattern. Sometimes they appear in a more central, focal position. Symbols drawn from the weather and the seasons also appear frequently. While some of the symbols for plants, animals and the elements seem to have universal meaning, others are used by authors who intend for them to have very specific meanings. As in the case of mythologies, some authors explain their symbols well; others do not.
Of course the impact of natural images will change depending on a reader's own experience. Snow might have a multitude of meanings for a person raised in Alaska and no meaning at all for someone raised in Panama. Each person's response to the snow, lightning, a dog, or a tree will color her response to the cards that display those symbols.
Religious symbols are very commonly used in the Tarot. In the more traditional decks, the symbols are usually taken from the Christian tradition (the Cross, angels, priests, the Pope, and saints) or from the Jewish tradition (the Torah and Tree of Life). Deities, revered people, and meaningful motifs from Eastern and Pagan religions are also finding their ways into the Tarot. With the revival of Witchcraft and Goddess-oriented religions, many of the old gods are taking a back seat in our lives and in our newer Tarot decks. However, it is important to remember that religious symbols are just that—symbols that represent important concepts for people who hold particular religious beliefs. Out of context, the symbols may be meaningless. They may even create an adverse reaction if the person using the cards has negative feelings about those religions.
Excerpted from EVERYDAY TAROT by Gail Fairfield. Copyright © 2002 Gail Fairfield. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.