By Arthur Rosengarten, Ph.D.

Excerpt From TAROT AND PSYCHOLOGY (Rosengarten, 2000) (Order information at bottom of this article)

Tarot symbols, in effect, are not collections of human knowledge so much as intuitions of human possibility.  They offer captivating and enigmatic portrayals of psychic life which cannot be simply stated otherwise.  In this sense, they play a crucial mediatory role between the known and the unknown, and are not to be taken literally or allegorically for then they would be about something already familiar. illum-tarot-6-of-swordsSigns, on the other hand, certainly serve a necessary function of their own, and heaven help the road carnage that would ensue if bright red stop signs suddenly became “stop symbols.”  Tarot symbols, we might say, serve as psychic vehicles that transport their unknown contents to a surfacing consciousness.  Creating and expanding consciousness may well be the very purpose of life.  Notes Edward Edinger:

The key word is “consciousness.”  Unfortunately, the experiential meaning of this term is almost impossible to convey abstractly.  As with all fundamental aspects of the psyche it transcends the grasp of the intellect.  An oblique, symbolic approach is therefore required.     

            Each of the 78 cards of the full Tarot pack carries a specific, differentiated, discrete, and oblique symbolic meaning emanating, as Buddhist teachers are fond of saying, “from its own side.”  The vehicle through which such meaning is conveyed has traditionally been called “divination,” admittedly a term quite foreign if not disconcerting to conventional professional parlance and practice.  Divination, in its modern psychological context, can be thought of as conscious blind selection, or as I prefer “empowered randomness.”  As we shall see, this fascinating procedure operates within the philosophical parameters of Jungian synchronicity and is inferred in the ancient Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-origination (mutual co-arising).  Empowered randomness assumes with great confidence that personal meaning will be accessed from an intelligent nonpersonal source.  The medium of that intelligence is the symbol.

              A debate in the emerging science of consciousness centers around the co-occurrence of phenomenal and psychological properties of experience.  As philosopher David Chalmers (1996) laments:

We have no independent language for describing phenomenal qualities.  Although greenness is a distinct sort of sensation with a rich intrinsic character, there is very little that one can say about it other than that it is green.  In talking about phenomenal qualities, we generally have to specify the qualities in question in terms of associated external properties, or in terms of associated causal roles.  Our language for phenomenal qualities is derivative on our nonphenomenal language.                                         

           It seems to me that what is often overlooked in this debate are the unique properties of symbols.  J.E. Cirlot, author of the classic A Dictionary Of Symbols  (1962) notes the essence of a true symbol “is its ability to express simultaneously the various aspects of the idea it represents.”  Symbolic expression may include affinity and correspondence to related entities (as the moon corresponds to love), but never reduction to a single conclusion (the moon means love).  The latter is considered the “degradation of the symbol.”  Symbols whose integrity are upheld tend to generate and catalyze great psychic energy.  Each Tarot card is a condensed collage of image, number, and color symbols expressing simultaneously and energically the various aspects of the mystery it represents.  In Jung’s words, each card is “an intuitive idea which cannot yet be formulated in any other or better way.”

            Depending on the artist’s execution individual cards may themselves include their own internal symbolism, much say as the fish inside the Ace of Cups is associated with the zodiacal sign of Pisces and the cup itself to the transcendental Chalice of the Holy Grail, or the Empress’s red roses serve as a symbol of passion (“dyed from the blood of Aphrodite”).  While mastery of each individual symbol is not necessary to grasp a particular card’s gestalt meaning, a reading’s true interpretive elegance, much as the signature of a “big dream” or the selectivity of a successful poem, is often carried in the detail.  Appreciation of symbolic particulars will enhance a reading’s richness, but practitioners can still be quite effective without thorough comprehension of a card’s every feature.  Like less analytical-reductive approaches to dream interpretation or even the Rorschach, Tarot symbols can also be read impressionistically as well.

Excerpted From: TAROT AND PSYCHOLOGY: SPECTRUMS OF POSSIBILITY, By Arthur Rosengarten, Ph.D. To read more about this classic text, or to order directly from Paragon: