The success of a Tarot reading is directly related to the evocative power of the cards. In a well-designed deck, the images are not only rich in symbolic content, but also inspire the creative imagination with their ambiguity.
The images have no context, inviting us to create our own story. What, for example, is happening on the first image below? Is the woman mourning a lost love (symbolized by the dead dove and its mourning partner)? Is she sad about the dead dove? Did she kill the dove? What about the second one: who is the man stealing away with the swords? Why is he doing it, and who is he stealing from? Who is the woman on the third card? What is that expression on her face? She looks less concerned about being bound than one would expect. In fact, might she enjoy being a martyr? Or is she a masochist? The scene on the fourth card looks innocent enough, but who is the man in the background? A soldier? Why would he be there?
Because the images are ambiguous, they are open to numerous interpretations. Psychoanalysts would say that, whatever story we make up for a card, we are “projecting” an inner state—fears, desires, motives, beliefs—on the card.
Tarot decks differ in the ambiguity of their images. Take a look at these examples. Two decks that excel in ambiguity are the Bohemian Gothic Tarot and the Victorian Romantic Tarot by Magic Realist Press. In these decks, not only are the images richly evocative: the expression on the faces of people are often ambiguous. In this card from the Bohemian Gothic Tarot, for example: who is the predator, and who the prey? In the Rider-Waite deck, people have no or neutral expressions, so we project our own meanings on the scenes.
The Tarot of Metamorphosis is ambiguous in a different way: its surreal images have a dreamlike quality, with people, objects and scenes morphing into something else.
Tarot cards are evocative for another reason: the images contain symbols that are universal yet, like dream images, we might have our own associations with them. The images and symbols can conjure up metaphors, clichés, myths, fairy and folk tales, religious figures and even personal memories.
Decks that rely heavily on symbols to add and expand card meanings include Robert Place’s Alchemical Tarot, Rachel Pollack’s Shining Tribe Tarot, and the Haindl Tarot. Ciro Marchetti’s Tarot of Dreams indicates the astrological symbol, Hebrew letter and position on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in the corners of the major arcana cards, and the astrological symbols for the minor arcana. The Quantum Tarot includes science and physics symbols.
If you are interested in learning more about the symbols, consult a dictionary of symbols such as Cirlot’s A dictionary of symbols or Jack Tressider’s The Watkins dictionary of symbols. An excellent book to consult for number, suit and court card symbology is Mary K Greer’s 21 ways to read a Tarot card. It lists associations for each number, suit, and types of court card (kings, queens, knights and pages). Sandra Thomson’s Pictures from the heart is one of my favourite sources of information on symbols. She also includes myths and mythical figures associated with the cards.
Because of the rich symbology and ambiguous images, card meanings can be frustrating. As Tarot became associated with various esoteric systems, the meanings ascribed to the individual cards expanded. Some Tarotists shifted the traditional interpretations to match their themes or chosen systems, while others combined the often disparate interpretations in one comprehensive list. This meant that the cards were given meanings that diverged considerably from one another, and even contradicted one another.
Here is Mary K Greer’s suggested meanings for the Seven of Swords (see the second card above—the man sneaking away with the swords) from her Tarot for your self.
Sneaking around. Lying. Overwhelmed by the odds, avoiding confrontation. Research: collecting the knowledge and ideas of others. Preparation. Set-up. Distribution. Stealth. Subterfuge. Theft. Wit. Disarming others.
I am particularly fond of “Research: collecting the knowledge and ideas of others.” The suit of Swords is, after all, about ideas, thoughts, reasoning, and communication!
According to Aleister Crowley, the card is titled “Lord of Futility.” He goes on:
There is vacillation, a wish to compromise, a certain toleration. This card suggests the policy of appeasement, a contest between the many feeble and the one strong, a striving in vain.
The variations can be explained by taking note of the esoteric systems the author applied to the cards. There are differences, for example, between the meaning of numbers assigned by numerologists, and those taken from the Tree of Life. Tarot decks also differ in the way they assign elements to the suits. Although most decks follow the Rider-Waite and Thoth example of associating Swords with Air and Wands with Fire, decks based on Gardnerian witchcraft usually associate Wands with Air and Swords with Fire. Tarotists also differ in assigning planets and astrological signs to the cards and elements to the court cards.
As contradictory as the upright meanings of the cards can be, it is nothing to the variety of reversed meanings. For the Seven of Swords, Waite suggests “Good advice, counsel, instruction, slander, babbling.” Mary Greer adds:
Prudence. Avoiding danger. Overturning plans and arrangements. No subterfuge. Coming out in the open. “Out of the closet.” Retrieving something. Returning to the scene of the crime. Stolen goods returned. Examining past actions. Advice and instruction. Initiation. Esoteric knowledge and interpretation. (Tarot for your self)
For divination, these contradictions may pose a problem. For creative thinking, however, more is always better. Every association you make with a card is a source of inspiration. Once you have noted all your associations with a card, you might want to consult one or more of the excellent books that offer a variety of interpretations for each card. Some that I would recommend are:
- Mary K Greer’s Tarot for your self: includes upright and reversed meanings, both traditional and some very interesting variations.
- Anthony Louis’s Tarot plain and simple: gives several upright and reversed meanings per card, and includes “situation and advice” and “people” sections per card.
- Sandra Thomson's Pictures from the heart: A Tarot dictionary is a wonderful source of card meanings; she includes a discussion of each card, giving examples from various decks.
- Paul Huson (Mystical origins of the Tarot), Jana Riley (Tarot dictionary and compendium), and Bill Butler (Dictionary of the Tarot) offer compilations of interpretations taken from various sources, old and new (from Etteilla, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and on to modern interpretations).
- If you like working with reversed cards, a must-read book is Mary K Greer’s The complete book of Tarot reversals.
- Another wonderful book that does not give card meanings, but teaches you ways to read a Tarot card, is Mary K Greer’s 21 ways to read a Tarot card.