When I first got the idea for a discussion of repeating symbols in the Tarot, I figured it’d be a couple of articles, and done. Instead, it led an unexpected course and turned into 11 installments. Not only has my understanding of the cards greatly increased in the process, but the investigation has offered up a delightful array of random facts. Let’s indulge in a recap of those for a moment, in no particular order:
- Luther Burbank and Henry Ford were both ardent believers in reincarnation.
- Burbank considered himself to be “in revolt against the educational systems of our time”.
- Islam and Christianity share two angels in common.
- The angel Gabriel is the Patron Saint of stamp collectors.
- Humans and dogs share the same genetic code, and get the same illnesses.
- The widespread idea that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt is unlikely to be true.
Fun facts aside, though, what’s the point of focusing so intently on symbolism in the Rider-Waite deck? There are two compelling reasons.
First, it’s possible to gain a fair understanding of the major arcana by studying this symbolism alone. If one is new to the Rider-Waite deck, learning the meanings of repetitive symbols will offer the “big picture” about what kinds of forces are addressed in the Tarot. A basic grasp of each trump can be attained even before considering the individual cards, and awareness of the relationships between certain major arcana is greatly enhanced, as well. The next “Intro To The Tarot” class that I teach will surely begin with the study of symbolism, rather than with The Magician.
What if your chosen deck isn’t the Rider-Waite, though? In that case, this study is still extremely valuable. Although each deck offers its own version of symbolism, the actual FORCES that are addressed in any form of the Tarot are the same. An understanding of the meanings of the symbols in Rider-Waite is a foundation that will serve you well, whatever deck you use.
Essentially, there are seven different possibilities for the human life that are conveyed by repeating symbolism in the deck, and we’ll conclude this series with a brief discussion of each one:
Two ideals are put forth immediately in card numero uno, through the Tools of the Magician. The conscious mind strives for connection with higher power through the wand. All the tools together represent the four directions, and the opportunity for harmonious coexistence with the natural environment. These two possibilities are the starting point for a meaningful life.
The expression of the subconscious mind in the material world is the third theme prominent in the Tarot. This principle is represented by Stonework of any kind, and by Water. While the use of water as a symbol for the subconscious is common among decks, there’s a discernible difference in the energy conveyed by stonework. Water suggests the influence of intuition, memory, and universal consciousness. Stonework, on the other hand, implies cooperation between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and points to that as the vehicle that allows subconscious ideas to be manifested in the physical world.
Plant life is also indicative of manifested subconscious activity. In the case of plants, the suggestion is again that of harmonious coexistence with the natural environment.
The Mountain Of The Great Work introduces the fourth theme in The Lovers, and in this symbol, we find a promise. The Mountain speaks directly to the human desire for meaning, and assures that each one of us has the potential in this lifetime to create something greater than ourselves.
The Sun is another symbol that doubtlessly transfers among many decks, like water. This ancient symbol for deity means exactly that in the Tarot. Whether you call it Higher Power, Universal Consciousness, Superconsciousness, Light, Energy, or God, you are describing the forces at work in The Sun.
Animals generally represent human adaptation of the natural environment, such as the wolf and dog in The Moon. They may also signify human adaptation in response to universal forces, as seen in the white horse of the Sun, which represents solar energy and supports a person who rides in a state of purity and joy. The little white dog of the Fool serves as a Spirit guide, and suggests unlimited potential in the alliance between nature and the human capacity for art. In all of these examples there is the consistency of subconscious influence and the human ability for adaptation.
All of these previous symbols relate to the workings of the conscious and subconscious minds, and to our coexistence with the natural world. The symbolism of clothing approaches from another angle. Different states of mind are represented by clothes. Although the symbols themselves aren’t consistent in other decks, the significance of clothing in the Rider-Waite pack is still helpful to understand, as the states of mind that clothes represent will be found in many versions. In fact, all of the themes that we’ve been discussing are basic components of the human experience, and therefore, universal among Tarot decks.
At this point you may have noticed the absence of the angels. Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel are among my favorite symbols, but the truth is, I’m not sure how much they translate into other decks. They carry echoes of of ancient history and imply personalized solar energy, and I always feel fortunate when one appears in a reading. Still, they’re not going to make the cut for our final list of:
Universal Qualities Expressed In The Symbolism Of The Rider-Waite Deck
- Conscious self-awareness and the desire for connection with higher power.
- The expression of the subconscious in the material world.
- Harmonious coexistence with the natural environment.
- Creative adaptation of the natural environment.
- The possibility to create something greater than ourselves.
- Human states of mind.
- Limitless Universal Life-force.
In summary, much of the symbolism in the Tarot refers to relationships; that of the conscious and subconscious minds, and that between humans and the natural world. A symbol stands for an idea, and those put forth in the cards are about the forces that surround the human condition. In a way, the Tarot acts as a guide that consistently points the way toward a sense of higher purpose. That’s why I like to call it a Map For A Meaningful Life.