By Judy Jennings © Copyright 2012
In the study of Tarot symbolism, it’s helpful to notice there are four different realms of the natural world that are expressed in the major arcana. These are the mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms. Today, we’ll turn our attention to the symbolism of plants. We’ve previously discussed examples of the mineral kingdom, but in the form of stonework, which indicates the effects of human adaptation. In The Moon, we see the mineral realm in an unmodified state at the edge of the pool alongside the plant kingdom. Out of the waters of the subconscious crawls a hard-shelled crab, suggesting consciousness limited by the belief that we are each separate, isolated beings. The crab passes first through the mineral and plant kingdoms, then past the realm of animals and that which is already known. Only then does the self connect with higher meaning and begin to shed that outer shell. In this case, plants are part of a group of several symbols working together to represent the evolution of human consciousness. In more general terms, however, the appearance of any type of plant life indicates that the forces represented in the card are based in the material world.
Some plants have specific meanings. Roses, for example, are a symbol of Venus and they indicate desire. We see them in three major arcana. In the Magician, their presence is a suggestion that power drawn from a higher source is modified by human desire. Paul Case takes this idea even further, writing “This is true of all self-conscious activity. Every moment of our waking consciousness is motivated and conditioned by some type of desire.” In Strength, the chain of red roses encircling the woman represents artistic adaptation of desire. Although it isn’t pictured very clearly, the chain forms a figure eight, or infinity symbol. In some decks, she is shown leading the lion by this chain. The symbolism of the eighth arcana is a clear message that the way to rise above our basic instincts is through creative self-control of our desires. The third rose appears in the hand of The Fool, but in this case the rose is white, indicating freedom from desire.
The plant life found in The Empress represents Mother Earth. Cypress trees in the background are sacred to Venus, as is the ripening wheat in the foreground to Isis, Hathor, and Ceres. The lush garden setting in which the Empress resides emphasizes a relationship between this card and The Magician, who also stands among luxuriant vegetation.
The Irises in Temperance are a reference to the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, and an important clue to the meaning of the card. Iris, daughter of Elektra and sister to the Harpies, was the winged messenger of the gods. Known for her swiftness, Iris traversed to the ends of the world and to the underworld, as well, to deliver these messages to mortals. This symbolism reinforces the ideas expressed in the representation of the archangel Michael. Temperance signifies vibrational cosmic energy, bearing the power to transform our lives, and the presence of the Iris suggests how suddenly that can happen. Consider the rainbow, and how quickly she appears and disappears.
The High Priestess, situated between The Magician and The Empress, sits in front of a veil embroidered with palms and pomegranates. These symbols suggest the union of opposing forces, most specifically the conscious and subconscious minds. This is one of the most prevalent messages in the major arcana.
The flaming fruits in one of the trees behind the Lovers represent the 12 astrological signs. All of these fruits bear triple flames which together, according to Paul Case, represent 36 different personality types. He also states that the fruits on the other tree are symbolic of the five senses, although only four are shown in the Rider-Waite interpretation.
There are three more major arcana that contain plant life as important symbols. The Star, card of meditation, features an Ibis perched in a tree representing the human nervous system. The symbolism in the combination of plant and animal here refers to the necessity of quieting our thoughts in order to make way for messages from the subconscious.
The four sunflowers cheerfully greeting the day in The Sun represent all the qualities of the number four that we’ve previously studied; order, measurement and benevolence. They signify the four realms of nature, the four seasons, the four worlds of the Kabbala, and all of the forces found in the four suits.
Finally, in The World we find a wreath in the form of an ellipse surrounding the dancer, suggesting all the possibilities of the number zero, as well as a connection to The Fool. The ribbons that bind the wreath at the top and bottom are tied in figure eights, a subtle but important clue. Those symbols join The World to The Magician and to Strength, and tell us that the forces found in the earlier two arcana have now been fully realized in the physical world.
I followed up on another clue as I was looking for a way to wrap up this discussion. In his writings about the symbolism of plants, Paul Case mentions that he was excited by the work of Luther Burbank. Considering the source, I knew that was a hint that the famous horticulturist’s work contained a little-known metaphysical side. It took some digging to find it, but eventually I stumbled across the Autobiography Of A Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, another great admirer of Burbank. In his chapter devoted to the botanist, titled “Luther Burbank-A Saint Amidst the Roses”, the Yogi quotes him extensively. Burbank’s work with hybridization resulted in the development of 800 new species and varieties of plants. In this brave new age in which we live today, GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are foisted onto the world, driven for the most part by corporate greed, and to the great concern of many of us who live here. It’s an interesting reflection, then, to consider the original intentions of the pioneer of this field. It’s never too late to get back to love.
I’ll leave you today with these excerpts from the autobiography, and here’s the link if you’d like to read more: http://www.ananda.org/autobiography/#chap38
Excerpts from Autobiography Of A Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, Chapter 38, “Luther Burbank-A Saint Amidst the Roses”:
“The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.” Luther Burbank
Burbank’s little adopted daughter came romping with her dog into the garden. “She is my human plant.” Luther waved to her affectionately. “I see humanity now as one vast plant, needing for its highest fulfillments only love, the natural blessings of the great outdoors, and intelligent crossing and selection. In the span of my own lifetime I have observed such wondrous progress in plant evolution that I look forward optimistically to a healthy, happy world as soon as its children are taught the principles of simple and rational living. We must return to nature and nature’s God... I am in revolt against the educational systems of our time, severed from nature and stifling of all individuality...New types of training are needed—fearless experiments. At times the most daring trials have succeeded in bringing out the best in fruits and flowers. Educational innovations for children should likewise become more numerous, more courageous.”
“The most stubborn living thing in this world, the most difficult to swerve, is a plant once fixed in certain habits. . . . Remember that this plant has preserved its individuality all through the ages;...Do you suppose, after all these ages of repetition, the plant does not become possessed of a will, if you so choose to call it, of unparalleled tenacity?...The human will is a weak thing beside the will of a plant. But see how this whole plant’s lifelong stubbornness is broken simply by blending a new life with it, making, by crossing, a complete and powerful change in its life.
“My friend Henry Ford and I both believe in the ancient theory of reincarnation,” Luther told me. “It sheds light on aspects of life otherwise inexplicable. Memory is not a test of truth; just because man fails to remember his past lives does not prove he never had them. Memory is blank concerning his womb-life and infancy, too; but he probably passed through them!” He chuckled.