By Judy Jennings © Copyright 2012
The symbolism we’ve looked at so far in this series has addressed three different points of emphasis in the Tarot. These are: The connection of the conscious mind with higher power, the expression of the subconscious mind in the physical world, and the development of each person’s own Great Work.
Today, we’ll consider a different focus by examining the role of animals in the cards. Animals in the Rider-Waite deck generally represent human adaptation of the natural environment. There are some exceptions, such as the astrological symbols in the Wheel of Fortune and The World, but for now our discussion will dwell on the rest. Let’s start with the little white dog of The Fool.
As a dog-lover, I’m going to take this opportunity and run with it. The symbolism of the dog and The Fool together is a reference to another bit of ancient history, the coevolution of human and canine. A species that is said to have descended from only 3 Asian wolves some 15,000 years ago, the dog has not only been changed by human adaptation but has changed us as well. In fact, scientists theorize that our relationship with dogs was key to our survival in earlier times, and that they’ve been an on-going aide to the advancement of the human race ever since. Although our closest animal relative is the chimpanzee, as is the wolf to the dog, a dog has an innate ability to read human social cues in a way the others can’t. Anyone who has a dog already knows this. This is the result of thousands of years of coevolution.
But here’s the surprising part: Humans and dogs share the same genetic code. We get the same diseases. Skeptical? So was I. Check out this article from The Dana foundation, “Your gateway to information about the brain and brain research.” Humanity’s best friend may have more to offer us than we know.
With this in mind, we can assume the appearance of a dog in The Fool isn’t random. It represents the fourth essential concept expressed in the major arcana; the idea that meaning is found in harmony with the natural environment, rather than dominance over it. The little dog of The Fool is no servant, but a companion, protector, and spirit guide. She warns of impending forces, but is willing to follow the very instant the traveler plunges into the abyss. The white color of her coat represents a state prior to manifestation where these attributes have not yet been realized. The companionship between the Fool and the dog, then, symbolizes unlimited potential for those who work in harmony with the natural world. The partnership between nature and art is also represented by the wolf and the dog found in The Star.
In Strength, this idea of keeping in balance with the natural world is turned inward. The lion represents not only the environment, but our own untamed instincts. The relationship shown between the woman and the lion in this card is a celebration of the integration of the forces of nature into the human personality, and the ability to channel them into a positive directions.
The only bird in the cards is an Ibis that perches on the tree with the flaming fruits in The Star. Sacred to Hermes the Magician, the Ibis features a long bill with a natural hook, and represents fishing for truth in the waters of the unknown. In the following card, The Moon, a shell-fish emerges from this same pool, symbolic of the false belief that we are each separate, isolated beings, and begins to travel along the path of the Great Work. This road leads through the different realms of the material world, past extremes of both nature and art, and finally beyond the boundaries of that which is already known. The Ibis stirs the waters of the subconscious through meditation, which then creates the beginning of true changes in the personalty. In this manner, the forces at work in The Star and The Moon have the ability to work together and greatly affect our lives in a positive way.
Finally, white horses parade through two very different cards, suggesting that underlying forces in both are from the same source. In Death, a bridled steed bears an armored grim reaper, while on the other hand, a nude child balances bareback under the radiance of The Sun. In both cases, the horses represent universal solar energy, vast beyond the scope of individual personality, yet manifested in the human life. The child’s outstretched arms indicate self-consciousness that has opened up to Universal Light, and when combined with the absence of saddle and bridle in the Sun, symbolize perfect balance.
Perfect balance is, in fact, the promise inherent in a connection with the natural forces around us. If the Tarot is viewed as a map for a meaningful life, then the directions given for this turn are very clear. There is no way for humans to “win” a war on Mother Nature, no possibility of truly dominating and controlling her. Along that road, there is only the potential for destruction, as we assault the body that sustains us, and that will surely outlast us. But the Tarot urges us to follow another path, one that’s in alignment with the forces of the natural world. In that direction lies the potential for knowledge and understanding beyond our wildest dreams. Follow that little dog!