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Secret Language of Tarot

Secret Language of Tarot

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by Ruth Ann Amberstone, Wald Amberstone, Mary K. Greer (Foreword by)

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Secret Language of Tarot sets itself apart from other tarot books by teaching readers how to translate the pictorial symbolism from one deck to another, strengthening the reader's ability to recognize specific icons in any deck and in the world around them. The Secret Language of Tarot can be used as both a reference book and as a series of guided meditations on


Secret Language of Tarot sets itself apart from other tarot books by teaching readers how to translate the pictorial symbolism from one deck to another, strengthening the reader's ability to recognize specific icons in any deck and in the world around them. The Secret Language of Tarot can be used as both a reference book and as a series of guided meditations on the individual symbols. Each of the seven chapters contain a set of symbols that share a common theme. Extensive research provides readers with the lore and mythological meanings of the symbols to help foster intuitive powers. The explanation of imagery is both insightful and eclectic. When read from beginning to end, The Secret Language of Tarot reveals a hidden current of understanding and connection between the individual cards of the deck. Each chapter ends with an Integration Lesson and a special Symbol Spread to deepen the understanding of the cards. The Secret Language of Tarot brings imagery and intuition into a course of study of the tarot. It is a must-have for any serious tarot reader that is written in accessible language for the novice as well.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Reading tarot symbols is complicated-each appears many times and in a variety of contexts in a deck, with many possible layers of meaning. (For example, a rose can symbolize "the feminine path of emergence" when appearing with the Magician, and as a "style of learning" that bestows "unconditional love" when appearing with the Hierophant.) Using Ride-Waite-Smith imagery, the Amberstones (Tarot Tips) provide both a reference manual and a course on reading tarot symbols, even introducing discussions as if speaking directly to students. Becoming a skilled tarot reader requires an odd combination of natural talent and skill-familiarity with symbols through study is important, yet at the same time, "tarot imagery was originally created to evoke an immediate, intuitively surefooted emotional response from [whoever] looked at it, whether they knew anything about tarot or not," say the Amberstones. To get in touch with both aspects, they provide exercises to help "enter your inner universe and find whatever you are looking for" when contemplating various symbols. Though the guide is organized thematically rather than alphabetically as most symbol dictionaries are arranged, it still works well as a reference manual. (Apr.)

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Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2008 Wald Amberstone and Ruth Ann Amberstone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57863-416-3



Welcome to the Tarot School course on imagery and intuition that we'll call The Secret Language of Tarot. In this course, we'll be exploring the meanings of the visual imagery of tarot in considerable detail and in depth. We think that by the time we're done, we'll have created a significant body of work that tarot students will find valuable for research and as important foundation material for the meanings of the cards.

We'll be using the Rider-Waite-Smith imagery as our benchmark, but the information in this course should be transferable to any deck you care to use. We think it will also give your intuition a lot of additional material to work on. The symbolism and significance of the visual imagery of tarot is partly universal, partly esoteric, and partly tarot specific. All of it is historical, and all of it, we hope, will be fun to learn and useful in more ways than one.


We begin with the crowns of tarot. In the RWS deck there are nineteen cards that contain a crown, and these come in many forms, each with a meaning of its own. The nineteen cards are: The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Chariot, Justice, Death, Temperance, The Tower, the Ace of Swords, the 4 of Pentacles, and all the kings and queens.

We'll begin with some meanings for the crown in general, drawn from universal symbolism. The three main aspects of the crown's symbolism are:

1. Being set on the crown (or top) of the head makes it a symbol of overriding significance. It shares the quality of the head (the summit) and what is above the head, a gift from on high. It also sets the seal of transcendence on any great achievement or accomplishment.

2. Its circular shape is a symbol of perfection. It is a ring, worn on the head, that marries what is above to what is below.

3. The material of which a crown is made dedicates the wearer to the form of divinity associated with that material. A gold crown, for example, associates the wearer with the alchemical properties of gold (i.e., purity, perfection, and the attainment of the highest possible states, both inner and outer).

The word "crown" comes from the Latin "corona" and earlier from the Greek "korone" (curved) and "kornu" (horns).

A corona is the circle of radiance surrounding a source of illumination. The main physical and symbolic example of a corona is the circle of radiance around the sun. In alchemy, each planet is illustrated as receiving its special radiance in the form of a crown given to it by the sun.

The corona around a physical or symbolic object can be shown as a concentric circle or as emanating rays. A halo, for example, is a spiritual corona surrounding the head of a spiritually elevated being.

A diadem is a crown in the form of a circlet around the head or around the ceremonial hat on the head of a royal figure. It is a symbol of a divinely supported secular authority.

A glory is an arc or a circle of rays around another visual symbol, suggesting divine inspiration or protection.

Korone, the Greek word for curved, is used in this context for any form of circle or circlet worn on the head to signify a connection with the gods. This includes the wreath, the crest, and horns, as well as the crown, diadem, and tiara.

Examples of different kinds of crowns in tarot include the:

• horns of Isis (The High Priestess)

• diadem of the zodiac (The Empress)

• domed crown (The Emperor, The Tower)

• papal tiara (The Hierophant)

• celestial diadem (The Chariot)

• toothed crown ( Justice, the 4 of Pentacles)

• glory (Temperance)

• stylized diadems (kings and queens)

The crown in all times and places has been associated with royalty, and royalty is conferred only by the divine recognition, symbolized by the crown. The crown is also a symbol of ultimate achievement, the sign of victory and pre-eminence in any field of endeavor (e.g., a crowning achievement, a heavyweight-boxing crown). In organisms, the crown is the top, as in the crown of the head or the crown of a tree.

No one can become the king or the queen of a kingdom of any kind without a crown. A coronation, the ritual of establishing legitimate royal authority, is the ritual of placing a crown on someone's head.

Each separate crown in tarot has its own symbolism. Here are three examples:

The High Priestess

The crown of The High Priestess is the crown of Isis/Hathor, two names of the Egyptian self created Great Mother Goddess who brought forth everything else. Hathor was the Queen of Heaven, and Isis was the "Oldest of the Old who existed from the beginning."

In both forms, as Isis and as Hathor, the goddess is said to have given birth to the sun. Hathor was the Nile Goose who laid the golden egg of the sun, and Isis was the womb of Horus who was the reincarnation of Osiris. The womb enclosing Horus in hieroglyphics is "Hat—Hor" or Hathor.

Isis and Hathor as a pair were sometimes known as the Bright Mother and the Dark Mother. In later times, Isis was paired with her dark twin sister, Nepthys. Together they guaranteed the immortality of the pharaohs in the form of birth, death, and resurrection.

The visual emblem of these paired goddesses, as illustrated by the crown of The High Priestess, was the sun disk lying between the horns of the Moon-Cow Goddess. The central sun disk signifies the male spirit soon to be reborn (Horus), enclosed and protected by the horns of the goddess, one light and one dark.

In Hellenistic and Roman culture, Isis was highly revered as the Divine Mother, "eternal savior of the race of men." The image of Isis suckling Horus became the model for images of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Parts of the myth and worship of Isis were transferred to Mary early in the Christian era.

The crown of Isis combines in The High Priestess with her watery robes and the sickle moon at her feet, symbols of Mary as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), to join primary Egyptian and Christian spirituality in a single Hermetic image.

Also, the lunar symbolism of The High Priestess's crown (waxing, full, and waning phases of the moon) is revered in Neo-Paganism as the special sign of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, Crone).

All together, the crown of The High Priestess is a universal symbol of the original authority of the divine feminine. In a reading, it will be useful to remember the power of all things feminine, the moon and its phases, and women's spirituality.

The Hierophant

The crown of The Hierophant is a three-tiered, toothed golden crown—three gold diadems signifying divinely sanctioned rule over three kingdoms. The segmented, or toothed, top of a crown is a symbol of rays of the sun's light.

The papal tiara is a triple diadem over a simple cap called a camelaucum from the Byzantine court of the seventh and eighth centuries, where it was a sign of high social status. The diadems were added one at a time over several hundred years and probably are more ornamental than symbolic. Still, the papal tiara signifies both a spiritual and a secular authority—rule over the Catholic Church and over the territory of the Vatican.

Simultaneously, it is a Masonic reference hidden in a Christian one. The three tiers of the crown refer to the three degrees of Masonry, the three levels of initiation, and the three levels of attainable human consciousness. It is the symbol of the Teacher.

The lowest level is the first degree of Entered Apprentice, whose field of endeavor is his physical body and his social existence. The Entered Apprentice strives to perfect his physical habits, his work ethic, and his social behavior.

The second level corresponds to the second degree of Fellowcraft, or Masonic journeyman, whose field of endeavor is his mind and his psyche. This involves self-examination and psychological healing and wholeness, as well as academic study and intellectual refinement.

The third level is that of a Master Mason, whose work is spiritual. His concern is the heart and the soul, both his own and others'. As compassion, this concern takes the form of teaching and moral and symbolic leadership.

The gold color of the crown is an alchemical reference to purity and the perfection of the self in the Great Work.

The three vertical lines at the top of the crown are a Qabalistic reference to the Hebrew letter associated with The Hierophant, which is Vav. It means "hook" and refers to the manner in which The Hierophant, as the great teacher of tarot, binds together the highest of teachings with the physicality of his disciples.

In a reading, The Hierophant's crown should remind you of spiritual leadership, moral, psychological and spiritual effort, and the learning process in general.

The Chariot

The crown of The Chariot is a Masonic symbol, a composite of sun, moon, and stars and glory. This is one form of the Masonic Rule of Three, which generally states that every visible thing is paired, made of an active and a passive, an exuberant and a severe, a bright and a pale, a stable and a changeable aspect, and that an invisible divine moderating principal binds the opposites together.

The sun is the symbol of everything active, exuberant, bright, and stable. The moon and stars are the symbol of what is passive, severe, pale, and changeable. The glory is the symbol of the divine perspective, which sees itself in every manifested form and resolves all dualities. In this card, the crown is a visual symbol of the consciousness that seeks to rule itself by bringing all forms of inner opposition into harmony. The sun, moon, and stars and glory represent all inner forms and forces harnessed to a single will and a central wisdom.

The crown is also a Qabalistic reference to the card's esoteric title, The House of Influence, which brings all good things from above to below and from below to above. It is a spiritualized astrology of sun, moon, and stars and a ruling, organizing, encompassing glory, the invisible whole that is hidden in its visible parts.

In a reading, the crown of The Chariot reminds you of balance, harmony, self-control, and the wisdom to pull opposing forces together. It can also be a reminder of the blessings that flow from such harmony.


The people who created the system of imagery in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck were pretty serious people. Not much of a sense of humor, very much in their heads, not much heart, we think. But their thinking and their pictures are actually very interesting in themselves.

We're at the beginning of a course on the meaning of tarot imagery, and you might have a question that ought to be answered. That question is, "What does this information do for me?" It is esotericism, art history, symbolism in general—maybe it's interesting, maybe not, but is it connected to you in some way? How might it be personal?

Well, here's how. The whole deck is a special construction of symbols, and they have only two purposes here:

1. They show you a path to your own highest nature, what is best and purest in you. They point to the path of return for anyone who wants to travel it. This may or may not be important to you now, but at some time in your life, you may find yourself very happy to have those pointers.

2. They bring divine energy down to the level of the everyday world, where they talk about everyday things in a powerful and useful way and teach you how to do the same.

In both directions they remind you of tarot's version of how the world is made and how a human being is made, so you can use tarot to help yourself and others. It's hard to be a doctor if you don't know anatomy, and meaningful images are the anatomy of tarot.

Symbols act something like electrical transformers. When electricity is generated at the power plant, it's measured in thousands and tens of thousands of volts. When you use electrical current to power your home appliances, you can use only 110 volts at a time. Between the source and its ultimate uses stands a whole series of what are called step-down transformers, which make something overwhelming into something convenient and useful. In tarot, the visual imagery serves this function.

In the previous section we talked about the crown. What is important to remember about a crown is that if you are ever entitled to wear one, it makes you unique. In any kingdom there is only one true crown, and it is the symbol of what is best, highest, and most responsible in the wearer.

At its best, the crown marries the wearer to his or her highest self. At its worst, it gives authority to someone who hasn't earned it, creating a tyrant.

And now we come to the pillar.

What you most need to know and remember about the pillar in general is its masculinity. It rises vertically from the horizontal plane of the earth. It is intended to be an absolute contrast to things as they normally are. It is a symbol of intentional difference. Of course, there are times when the pillar becomes feminine, but we'll get to that later.

Pillars serve four main purposes:

1. to support

2. to define

3. to identify

4. to separate

In its function as support, a pillar keeps what is raised up from coming down. This is true in a building, where structural pillars hold up roofs and upper stories. To damage or remove such a pillar threatens the entire structure. This is also true in social and symbolic structures. Certain traditions, rites, and individuals are considered pillars whose presence supports the whole structure. Even heaven is supposed to be supported by pillars.

The function of support implies will, endurance, purpose, and the ability to surrender individuality to the common good. The pillar here is a humble servant.

The second function of a pillar is definition. In this form, strength is not the issue and a single pillar is not enough. It must be one of many, whose purpose is to create a line or circle on one side of which is the ordinary everyday world and on the other is a special, even a consecrated space. Here, too, the individuality implied in the phallic vertical shaft is subordinated to the higher purpose of the group.

The third function is to serve as a proud marker for the existence of a god or a hero. When such a pillar is erected, it is a statement: "Here dwells the spirit of ..., whose name is sacred or glorious." In this form only, a pillar stands alone, supporting nothing but an important memory or serving as a living reminder of some potent personality.

None of these three functions can be found in the RWS tarot. So why mention them? Just for the fun of it, or in case you come across pillars serving these functions in other decks.

The fourth function of a pillar is to separate one condition from another. This function uses pillars in pairs, as a gateway or entrance to sacred space and the mysteries of a higher condition or consciousness. This is how the pillar appears in tarot, on just three cards: The High Priestess, The Hierophant, and Justice.

Let me remind you here that tarot is nothing but a concoction whipped up out of symbols. The RWS deck in particular is a world of symbols with a lineage. And this lineage has three levels:

1. The ritual universe of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Many of its symbols were drawn into tarot, and tarot itself is used in its rituals. It is a universal language that can translate one kind of magical jargon into another. In tarot, alchemy easily becomes Qabalah, which becomes astrology and numerology, and so on.

2. The Golden Dawn, in turn, drew heavily on the symbolism and ritual of Freemasonry, which has no dealings with tarot at all. The Waite deck gets its symbolism from Freemasonry more than any other source.

3. Masonic symbolism emerges from a mix of biblical, Greek, and Egyptian philosophy and religion, each of which tried in its own way to explain God, man, and the world. Freemasonry turned these explanations into galleries of images and pictures that it mixed and merged in its own way to make its own explanation of the nature of things.

So this brings us back to pillars and tarot. There are, as we said, just three cards in our deck that have pillars on them, The High Priestess, The Hierophant, and Justice. If you understand the pillars of The High Priestess, you understand the essence of the others. And here the pillars become feminine.

The High Priestess

There are three visual aspects of the pillars of The High Priestess that especially stand out:

First, the pillars of The High Priestess are a pair—so you know you're looking at a symbol of initiation. On one side of the gateway they create is the person who is looking at them—mainly you, out in the world, ignorant, but knowing that important knowledge awaits when you pass between them. The pillars are considered to be the labia that mark the vaginal entrance to the Holy of Holies, the location of the feminine mysteries.

Excerpted from THE SECRET LANGUAGE of TAROT by WALD AMBERSTONE, RUTH ANN AMBERSTONE. Copyright © 2008 Wald Amberstone and Ruth Ann Amberstone. 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.

Meet the Author

Ruth Ann & Wald Amberstone teach, write, and publish about tarot on all levels, from divination to psychology to esotercism and magical practice. They are perpetual pioneers of new tarot techniques and remain lifelong tarot students. They are the authors of Tarot Tips: 78 Practical Techniques to Enhance Your Tarot Reading Skills regular contributors to Llewellyn's Tarot Calendar and Tarot Reader almanacs.

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Secret Language of Tarot 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
edjezz More than 1 year ago
I may be biased here because I am a recent student of the Amberstones. However I have been studying the cards for close to 20 years and have accumulated many books. This book does a great job of delving into the symbolism of the cards and meshes nicely with their formal training. After a short time of working with the Amberstones, I am confident that I will have a much deeper understanding of the cards. If you are fairly new to the Tarot or never really focused much on the symbols, seriously consider this book, you will look at the cards in a new light.
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