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Tarot: talisman or taboo? reading the world as symbol

30 November, 1999

This book by the Benedictine Mark Patrick Hederman gives an introduction to the Tarot, a history of its uses and abuses, a practical guide to its value as an underground map to the unconscious where the springs of our creativity are hidden, and where God can enter our lives. It also provides a meditation on each one of the twenty-two major arcana which can help the reader to undertake their own spiritual journey.

240 pp. Currach Press 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.currach.ie



  1. Why the Tarot?
  2. Tarot in the Past and in the Future Yeats,
  3. Tarot, and the Golden Dawn
  4. Tarot: Your Number is Up
  5. A Christian Reading of the Tarot?

0.            The Fool
I.             The Magician
II.            The High Priestess
III.           The Empress
IV.           The Emperor
V.            The Pope
VI.           The Lover
VII.          The Chariot
VIII.         Justice
VIIII.       The Hermit
X.            The Wheel of Fortune
XI.           Strength / Force
XII.          The Hanged Man
XIII.         Death
XIIII.       Temperance
XV.          The Devil
XVI.        The Tower
XVII.       The Star
XVIII       The Moon
XVIIII      The Sun
XX.          The Judgement
XXI.         The WorId

Tarot, Titanic and the Twin Towers



Mark Patrick Hederman has been a philosopher and monk for over thirty years. A founding editor of the cultural journal The Crane Bag, he is also the author of several books on the dialogue between religion and art and between religion and the unconscious.

The Tarot cards are like ‘an idiot’s guide’ to the unconscious, an easy way to subvert the rational and allow the energies beneath to creep up through the floorboards. Brother Mark knows getting in touch with the unconscious can be difficult and dangerous. The unconscious is also where the springs of our creativity are hidden, and where God can enter our lives. Our ordinary approach to life, our trained and cultivated ways of thinking, are allergic to it’s swampy unknown.

One can only wonder what his fellow monks make of this book on the Tarot cards, but many will welcome it as a means of getting in touch with their unconscious creative energies and spirituality.



We live our lives in a tiny area of light, as if we were huddled under a sub-standard streetlamp. This small circle of visibility that surrounds us is what we call conscious life. We live and move in our day-to-day world within this orbit. But there is a vast area of darkness and of mystery beyond this floodlit patch. This outer darkness is what we call the unconscious.

The unconscious is that area of ourselves that is beyond the reach of our ordinary ability to reason, outside the realm of our day-to-day activity. It is a distinct area. As such it is vast, strange, hidden. We would hardly know it was there if we did not get inklings of it, whispers, rumours. That is why we have to use images from our familiar world to describe it.

Western culture has been constructed as a citadel within this vast labyrinthine forest. We have built ourselves impregnable walls and surrounded our compound with such fortresses and ramparts that for several centuries we were able to persuade ourselves that there was no reality, hostile or otherwise, beyond the frontiers of our self-constructed spaceship. Beyond consciousness and whatever was approachable by our reason there was nothing that need concern us. The ship became our universe, in almost complete denial of the ocean in which it was floating.

How this came about and how the mirage was maintained are interesting stories in themselves. What we have come to call Western culture at its most fundamental involved, and still involves, what can almost be described as an hypnosis. It has become commonplace to describe the rise of Adolf Hitler and the imposition of Nazi ideology on Germany, for at least one decade during the last century, as hypnotism of a whole people by processes ranging from propaganda to education. This somewhat chilling and clear-cut example can serve as a model for a less obvious, far more extended and much more global hypnosis that has spanned our Western world for at least three centuries. However, its roots go back very much further than the seventeenth century.

The ideals on which we Westerners base the conduct of our lives are hybrid and ancient, coming as they do from European philosophy at its earliest and most idiosyncratic. Most of our thinking was done for us by the Greeks. Their legacy was so solid and convincing that few thinkers coming after them gave their explanation a second thought. Why reinvent the wheel? If someone has done such a good job explaining the universe, why bother to revisit the archives? Western European philosophy since the Greeks has been described as a series of footnotes to Plato. But listen to the warning which has crept into our language and has taken on the wisdom of a proverb: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, I fear the Greeks especially when they come bearing gifts.

The phrase comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, book II, and it will be worth our while to pause and examine it. The book describes the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Its purpose is to show that Rome was a direct descendant of the Trojans. The book from which the above quotation is taken describes the way in which the Greeks tricked their enemies and overcame them. It tells also, although the author may not have been aware of this, how the Greeks eventually destroyed Rome as well And stretching down the centuries it can also describe how the Greeks have had the power to destroy, in some way, each one of us.

The Trojan horse had been left behind by the Greeks, supposedly as an offering to Neptune for a safe return home. It was a massive wooden sculpture erected on the beach. The Trojans were meant to believe they had won the war and that their enemies had retired defeated. We too are meant to believe that the Greeks went home long ago as far as we are concerned, and that there is nothing left behind them on our beaches that we need worry about. Laocoon, Trojan priest of the sea-gods, warns his compatriots that this is a trick: ‘Either some Greeks are shut inside this timber work, or it is a machine for overlooking our walls, perhaps to pry somehow into our homes and threaten us from above, or it contains some other kind of treachery; put not your trust in horses, my fellow countrymen, whatever it turns out to be, I fear the Greeks even when they are bearing gifts [or, perhaps, ‘especially when they are bringing gifts]. (1) With these words he heaves his spear into the rounded side of the horse’s belly as if to prove its hollowness. Later, as Laocoon offers a bull in sacrifice to Neptune on the seashore, two sea monsters crawl from the ocean onto the beach, devour his two sons and then wrap themselves twice around his neck and his stomach and drag him after them behind the statue of Minerva, where we don’t see exactly what happens to him. But he doesn’t reappear.

The Trojans tremble at his fate and interpret it as punishment for Laocoon’s sacrilegious attack on a gift to the Gods. They carry the horse into their city with ceremony and celebration. At midnight, from their hiding-place in the belly of the horse, the Greeks give access to their fellow countrymen, whose ships have only been hiding behind the island of Tenedos, a few miles from the land. A whole civilisation is thus destroyed. The question I ask is similar to that posed by W.B. Yeats: ‘Is there another Troy for them to burn?’ Have not all of us been somewhat burnt by the Greeks?

The destruction of Troy came from the sea, the depths of that underworld where monsters lurk. Minerva was Goddess of the dawn (her name connects with the Latin mens and the English ‘mind’). The priest of the ocean deep and the prophet who warned against the Greeks was sacrificed on the altar of reason, the place of worship of the mind. Laocoon was sacrificed to the Goddess of mind, the dawning of consciousness. His neck and stomach were divided from his head.

What we inherited from the Greeks was a way of life, an explanation of ourselves, an architecture for civilisation. Most of our words to describe any of our important enterprises are Greek: politics, ethics, economy, philosophy, etc. The list is almost half of our vocabulary. Every time we invent or are overwhelmed by something new, we reach for a Greek word to label it. The ‘tele’, the ‘phone’, ‘gamma’ rays, ‘micro’ soft, ‘paedophile’, ‘psychopath’ are Greek words.

We may quite understandably think that we have changed considerably in the twenty or so centuries which separate us from the ancient Greeks, but they set the parameters and the direction so definitively, many centuries before the Christian era, that they determined both the limits and the quality of even our most recent lifestyles. Alexander Pope puts it in a nutshell:

‘Tis education forms the common mind:
Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined. (2)

And let no one misquote me or get me wrong. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the Greeks. What they contributed to all future development in the West is both ungainsayable and inestimable, from pharmacology to the Olympic Games, for instance. My point is that the corollary of such massive endowment was an impoverishment and debilitation in certain important and, since that time, neglected areas of our humanity.

Plato and the Greeks in general had a very pessimistic view of the human situation: human life is not much to boast about (Republic, 486 A); all flesh is trash (Symposium, 2II E); and the Laws describe mortals as sheep, slaves, puppets or toys of the Gods. Plato was not just a puritan, he was what Iris Murdoch (3) describes as ‘a moral aristocrat’; he not only regarded most of the rest of us as irretrievable in terms of , goodness’, but he saw salvation as a kind of thinking. Philosophy, as a spiritual discipline, would allow people to change their lives and become ‘good’. As F .M. Cornford (4) points out, the confidence that the G reeks placed in reason was based on the enormous strides being made by geometry at the time of Socrates. Geometry, as the name spells out, means measurement of our world. In Plato’s view, reason was equal to the world, able to take its measure. The Republic seems to be based upon the assumption that there can be a world where everything is harmonious, where things can run like clockwork, where we, as human beings, can reasonably attempt to know ourselves and our world. The model for such a state of affairs is the clarified world of mathematics.

The legacy of Greek philosophy has been the belief that consciousness is our way to human perfection, and that the unconscious is an area to be avoided, sealed off, obliterated. Science as the adequate, efficient, omnivorous combined-harvester is required patiently to reap the universe and translate its harvest into mathematical formulae. The unconscious is relegated to the world of exterior darkness.

It was not just the unconscious that was ostracised. Anything irrational was also off limits. This meant that many aspects of what it means to be human were discounted as substandard, unworthy of the glorious title of ‘rational animal’. And these pariahs are mostly connected with our bodies. Plotinus, who, after Plato and Aristotle, was perhaps the greatest formator of our Western world, was, we are told explicitly, ashamed of being in the body. He held, to quote him directly, that: ‘Corporeal things … belong to the kind directly opposed to the soul and present to it what is directly opposed to its essential existence’.(5) All this long before Christianity emerged to strengthen and universalise such prejudices.

Quite naturally Greek words became the vehicle for Christianity in many of its fundamental formulations. The unwritten teachings of Jesus Christ became articulated in systems of thought which were available and apparently compatible. These are essentially Greek patterns of thought, although fed also by other sophisticated local cultures. Neoplatonism, for instance, which was derived from the views of Plotinus, influenced a large part of early Christian doctrine and spirituality, especially through the writings of the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius, a sixth-century Syrian monk who was thought to be the New Testament convert of St Paul (Acts 17:34) and who deliberately forged his writings to pass as such, a deception that wasn’t discovered until much later. His merging of Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian theology received almost apostolic status because he was believed to have been a contemporary of St Paul. And although it did provide some very beautiful and fruitful guidance towards a particular school of mystical experience, it also loaded the dice very emphatically against the body, corp orality and physical self-expression. The result was and is a very admirable and very beautiful explanation of the universe and of ourselves. However, it is dangerous and detrimental because it makes serious errors of judgement about who we are, about what is essential to our nature and what is not, and, above all, what an all-powerful and all-perfect God would or would not find acceptable about our humanity. Our invitation to become ‘children of God’, which is what the Incarnation was about, when translated into this local culture, can be interpreted as an invitation to renounce being human and to set about becoming divine, to stop being animals and start being angels. The invitation is read as asking us to become the opposite of what we are as human beings. If ‘spiritual’ is interpreted in this way, it means renouncing or repudiating everything that is not spiritual, which means our nature, our flesh and, above all, our sexuality. In the Philebus (65-6), for instance, Plato seems to suggest that the very absurdity of sex is repugnant.

A distorted simplification of the complexity of humanity, an arbitrary selection of certain elements for cultivation and certain others for cauterisation, and the imposed authority of one particular faculty over all the rest: these provided the groundwork for the socio-cultural and psychological labyrinth which became our Western heritage. An exaggerated emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ and a vilification of the ‘physical’ led to a glorification of the conscious and a repudiation of the unconscious. Reason rules and the irrational is outlawed.

One of the most obvious purveyors of the irrational is the imagination, and this is why the Greeks were ultimately suspicious of it. Art was out. In The Republic (398 A) any poets or dramatists who might visit the ideal state should be expatriated. Plato, like all dictators and most puritans, detested theatre. We can only imagine what he would have thought of television! He was aware of the danger of politically destructive ridicule and its subversive undermining of social stability. ‘An old quarrel between philosophy and poetry’ is broached in The Republic (607 B). Books III and X give an extended account. Aeschylus and Homer are dangerous subversives misleading the people by portraying the Gods as undignified and immoral and as subject to helpless and foolish laughter. Poets and playwrights should teach us to respect religion, admire good behaviour and learn that crime never pays. Unfortunately the theatre, in Plato’s view, had become the hotbed of anarchy, the cauldron of vulgarity, the cynical caricature of civilised life. Aristophanes, for instance, makes a laughing stock out of Socrates through slanderous buffoonery, which vindicates the lowest aspirations and mediocre lifestyle of the great unwashed.

The irony, however, is that even while the Greeks were banishing art, the way they were doing so was itself art. Their moratoria would not have survived if they had not been conveyed through art works. Even Plato’s Dialogues are works of art. Virgil is, of course, a consummate Latin artist, and the Trojan horse can be a metaphor for the way in which art got sneaked into the equation by the Greeks themselves, in spite of themselves. Ulysses, like Jacob, robbed them of their own birthright. The double-pronged tradition of rationalism and idealism at the top and myths, legends, poetry and theatre underneath, provided the schizophrenic structure which carried the germ of European civilisation. The wooden horse was itself a work of art. Inside, it was a blueprint for conquest, a war machine. But outside, it was a massive wooden sculpture. So, even the division between conscious and unconscious may have been a legacy of the Greeks, mathematics and geometry feeding the mind while myths and legends, like dreams, stock up the imagination.

Of course in the museum of history, art is voluminous and abundant, while philosophy is a skinny and unimpressive pamphlet in comparison! If there are two original philosophers in a generation, it is a major harvest. Most of these are men and, as Iris Murdoch has again pointed out: ‘Moral philosophers, attempting to analyse human frailty, have produced some pretty unrealistic schemata’ (EM 457). ‘The explanation of our fallibility is more informatively carried out by poets, playwrights and novelists. It has taken philosophy a long time to enlist the aid of iterature as a mode of explanation’ (EM 457). Art accepts as a given the ambiguity of the human person. Indeed, great artists often seem to ‘use’ their own vices for creative purposes, so that ‘the bad side of human nature is secretly, precariously, at work in art’. Where philosophy and theology are purists, art is a shameless collaborator, and Plato ightly identifies irony and laughter as prime methods of ollaboration (EM 449). Laughter (as distinct from amused smiles) is undignified, explosive, something violent and extreme, offending against the modest sobriety that is, with such an mpressive backing of theory, commended in the Philebus. Plato seems to equate an absurdity-rejecting dignity with some sort of virtuous self-respect. Thus the holy among us are recognisable by the length and straightness of their faces.

Now, for others, Christianity is a religion not of self-conquest but of self-surrender. Perfection is not as important as completion. Humility is the founding attitude that makes any further Christian virtue possible. Iris Murdoch puts it succinctly: ‘[I]t is worth asking the question whether one can be humble with unimpaired dignity’ (EM 45°).

If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that not only is it unhealthy to neglect the unconscious part of ourselves, but it may even be ‘sinful,’ if we understand this word as ‘missing the mark’ (6), or effectively ignoring the call to be human. The result of remaining unconscious, of not dealing with who we are, is that we become a danger to ourselves and to others, which is fine if we have no responsibilities. However, if we are called to be leaders or teachers, if we are in positions which affect the lives of other people, then the danger of not getting in touch with our unconscious is that, whether we mean it or not, even with the best intentions in the world, we end up doing evil.

Most of us are aware by now that the twentieth century was for many people a hell on earth and that this hell was a human creation. It was a hell of cruelty and mayhem resulting from the incapacity of powerful people to decipher their unconscious motivation, whether in concentration camps, institutions, schools, or families.

After the holocaust there should be no possibility of neglecting the unconscious in ourselves. We have to find out about our darkness, about the shadow side of ourselves. Whatever way we do it, whether through science or dreams or art, each of us has to discover and explore the labyrinth of the dark, the unconscious, the shadow side. The unconscious is slippery as an eel. We see glimpses but we cannot describe a shape. Its language is incomprehensible, even inaudible to most. But, no matter how difficult it is to decipher, such work must be undertaken. We must recognize that most of our past, whether personal or historical, took place underground, in silent rivers, ancient springs, blind pools, dark sewers. While the task of making these accessible to our consciousness is difficult, it is nonetheless imperative. Even more so at the beginning of a new century when we hope to outline some plausible tracks into a better future. We have to read the signs of the times” especially those that whisper to us from the depths of the earth. Early detection of volcanoes, for instance, can save lives. And the truth of what we are now, and of what we might be in the future, is mostly hidden underground.

It is also true that everything that happens in our world is indicative of who we are and how we are living on the planet. Significant events, however arbitrary and random they may seem, are coded messages about the behavioural patterns that preceded them. I don’t mean this in any kind of moralising way, as thuugh, for instance, natural disasters might be punishment for unseemly conduct. I mean that whatever we do and however we behave, our lifestyle and our attitudes towards the place where we dwell are bound to have effect upon the nature around us, whether that involves our own bodies or our total environment. The task of rendering such signs legible and accessible was in the past left to artists and so-called prophets. However, at this time we must learn to read such signs for ourselves. We can no longer abdicate or delegate this responsibility. Each one of us has to learn to decipher what is happening to us now, in a way that helps us to detect those silent underground symptoms that indicate the inappropriateness of our present postures, and the alternatives, which might hasten our assumption of a more authentic humanity.

The twentieth century was a blundering between ideologies. Ideologies are false futures drawn in big pictures by those who take it upon themselves to shape our destiny. These are inventions of some human mind rather than humble acceptanceof what we really are. History as we have known it is mostly a concatenation of disasters, resulting from such attempts to impose a strait-jacket. The truth requires that we inch our way forward with constant reference to the subtler music of who and what we are. The future can be skewed. Mission statements, ten-year plans, vision documents, can be a way of imposing our own myopic architecture, of obliterating the splendour of what might have been: the future perfect.

There are a number of ways to gain access to the dark of our unconscious. The first is by being attentive to our dreams. We dream every night but we may not be conscious of it. It takes time and attention to let ourselves become aware of these dreams. They are the language of our unconscious telling us what we refuse to tell ourselves during our daylight hours. Nor are they easy to interpret. We have to learn to crack the code. We have to find out about our darkness, about the shadow side of ourselves. This is not a luxury, an optional extra. It is mandatory. Whatever is not made conscious is likely to be repeated. One of the major obstacles to dealing with this reality in an effective way is the refusal to admit that it exists at all, or the conviction that it is unnecessary to find out about it and integrate it into our psychological, our social, our educated selves.

Apart from our own dreamtime, there is also the great reminder of this reality contained in the stories of our ancestors. What dreams are to individuals, myths and legends are to peoples. Such a storehouse exists for all of us as peoples of the Western world, and these coded keys to our unconscious are mostly Greek in origin, or at least the version of it that has reached us was fashioned in that other, older aspect of Greek culture, their myths and legends.

Apart from the language of dreams and the storehouse of mythology, there is the phenomenon of art. (7) However, many people feel uncomfortable with any of these three privileged modes of access. You hear it so often: Art means nothing to me. I can’t even begin to understand it. And: I never dream, and even if I do, I can’t remember any of it after I wake up.

However, in this battle-scarred and war-weary twenty-first century planet, we have begun to crack the code of such dreamlike indications. We have understood that gods and goddesses placed by antiquity in the heavens above or in the depths of the ocean below are to be discovered inside ourselves, deep in our own intestinal labyrinths. A valid question might be why we had to wait through twenty centuries before we woke up to this reality? Some say we couldn’t face it until now, that we were unprepared for such exploration until the conscious side of ourselves had developed the tools that would be necessary both to achieve the exploration and to survive it. The development of these tools was made possible by concentrating our energies in the direction of conscious thought and not being distracted by less calculable concerns. In other words, it was only because we refused to acknowledge the existence of the unconscious that we were able to concentrate on making scientific consciousness the powerful weapon that it has become today. Science, as well as providing methods and equipment, also developed attitudes of mind: there was nothing we could not know, nowhere we could not explore. And now this has come full circle, with the conscious mind turning its attention to the unconscious.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, resistance to entry and discovery of the unconscious was particularly trenchant and totalitarian. Most fundamentalist movements in society were versions of religious thought systems, all of which waged war against art, for instance, as a kind of idolatry, whose purposes were presumed to be hedonist if not evil The discovery of the unconscious by scientists and doctors was condemned as immoral, and all attempts to understand the reality of humanity as a bodily phenomenon were resisted as degradation of our true nobility as spiritual creatures of God.

One significant symptom of such a mind-set is the attitude to that most primal and expressive form of art which is dancing. After three years in Africa I am aware of how irretrievably impoverished most of us Westerners have become in this essentially human way of being. Dance is the manifestation of the spirituality of matter, demonstrating the most elegant and spiritual poise of our nature in its bodily aspect. It is both the accomplishment and the expression of well-being and the most fundamental and artistic way of attuning ourselves to the rhythm of the universe. It has been
part of religious self-expression in most cultures the world over. It is the most natural way to participate in the liturgy, for instance. But in our religious education there is an endemic prejudice against it. Africans who have been trained in our religious ceremonies have in a few years not only lost their natural aptitude for it but have learned to despise it as an irreligious activity. The Bible itself is aware of such attitudes:

David brought the ark of God up from Obed-edom’s house to the Citadel of David with great rejoicing… And David danced whirling round before the Lord with all his might, wearing a linen loincloth round him. Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with acclaim and the sound of the horn. Now as the ark entered the Citadel of David, Michal the daughter of Saul was watching from the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before Yahweh; and she despised him in her heart.

As David was coming back to bless his household Michal, the daughter of Saul, went out to meet him. ‘What a fine reputation the king of Israel has won himself today,’ she said ‘displaying himself under the eyes of his servant” maids, as any buffoon might display himself: David answered Michal, ‘I was dancing for Yahweh, not for them, and as the Lord lives … I shall dance before him and demean myself even more. In your eyes I may be base, but by the maids you speak of I shall be held in honour.’ And to the day of her death Michal, the daughter of Saul, was barren.
(2 Samuel 6: 12-17, 20-23)

The attitude of Michal summarises our patrimony in Western European culture. It is part of the Greek and Roman inheritance. Most of the Fathers of the Latin Church, for instance, were opposed to dancing, having learnt their prejudices from the Greeks. Several saw it as ‘evil’ and linked to pagan worship. However, most contemporary educated ‘pagans’ were of a similar view. Sallust, Plutarch, Lucian and Cicero condemn it explicitly, although the last mentioned is recorded as having varicose veins and swollen legs so, according to Renaissance writers, may have been condemning what was impossible for himself.

Ambrose of Milan (34°-97) in his commentary on St Luke’s Gospel (6, 8) says ‘there is no compatibility between the mysteries revealed by the resurrection and the shameful contortions accomplished in the dance’. His convert Augustine (354-43°), commenting on the psalms (XCI, 2), warns against desecrating Sunday with pagan practices. It would be better, in his view, to spend the Lord’s day digging, despite the moratorium on work, than dancing. John Chrysostom (347-4°7), the golden-mouthed preacher of Christianity, in one of his homilies on St Matthew’s Gospel (XLVIII, 3), says: ‘Where there is dancing, there is the devil. It was not for this that God gave us feet that we might jump around like camels.’ ‘Everything should be full of chasteness, of gravity, of orderliness’, he tells us in his Homily XII, 4, on St Paul’s Epistle to the Collosians, ‘but when I look around me I see the opposite: people frisking like mules and camels… And you might say if neither virgins nor married couples are permitted to dance, who will be left to accomplish this activity? My answer would be, no one – for what need is there of dancing?’

Such an example of how wrong we can be about one fundamental aspect of our lives shows us the possibility that we have been getting it all wrong at other more universal and all embracing levels, listening too carefully to wrongheaded prescriptions about ourselves and our way of life. Many such prejudices have been splashed into the gene pool by our most intelligent ancestors. Let us, I say, take from the Greeks the extraordinary richness of their heritage but let us be fearful also lest they teach us to despise what is essentially our own. This is one of the important roles of the artist: to show us the beauty, the truth and the idiosyncratic pertinence of what is essentially ours. Science teaches us about human nature; art reveals to us the uniqueness of what it can mean to be human. I fear the Greeks, especially when they are bearing such gifts as rejection of the body, disregard for the unconscious, disdain for art, disapproval of dancing. Au contraire, ‘Zorba’, I say with that great twentieth-century Greek artist, Kazanzakis, ‘teach us to dance!’

The tarot cards, as well as teaching us to dance mentally, also provide us with an easier route to the unconscious. This alternative route uses some of the materials, shapes, signs and symbols used by artists and our dreams. Playing with the cards in a certain way helps us to cover the same area, using similar symbols and shapes, but in a more accessible and less daunting way. The tarot cards introduce us to a new kind of space and another kind of time. The space involved requires from us a kind of lateral vision; the time involved is experienced as coincidence, more professionally labelled synchronicity, another Greek word. The major arcana of the tarot are visual aids to the unconscious. They are vivid shorthand portraits, something akin to the Chinese ideograph or picture writing. These latter do not try to represent a sound, as other alphabets or musical annotations do; they abbreviate a person or a thing. The ideogram for ‘sun’ or for ‘tree’ in the more primitive Chinese alphabets is an outline sketch of these two realities; so much so that certain artists claim to be able to see these references immediately without having learnt the language. In a similar way, the pictures on the tarot cards are recognisable to all of us; they can be used as a visual slide-rule on which we can play out our own particular psychological equations.

Like the stained glass windows in Chartres, the tarot cards bring us back to a time before what we call the modern way of thinking started. They provide a window to an alternative world, another way of thinking. They are relics of a religious sensibility. like secret agents in disguise they have been hidden as entertainment and as fortune tellers’ gimmicks but as such they are camouflage for a secret army.

Between the mystery and the structures we have received as Church, Scripture, Tradition, there is an abiding testimony to the time before these were set in place. Such testimony was, of necessity, oral or visual, pre-literal stimuli. The tarot trump cards are 22 spiritual exercises through which we can immerse ourselves in the spirit of that living tradition. This requires an activity different from and deeper than academic study or intellectual explanation. Deep and intimate layers of the soul become active and bear fruit when we meditate on the arcana of the tarot. The cards are something like a ferment or an enzyme (Greek: en = in, zeume = yeast) which can stimulate the spiritual and psychic life. What they reveal are not secrets (things hidden deliberately by some human will) but arcana, which means what is necessary to know in order to be fruitful in the domain of spiritual life. In Latin, arca is the word for a chest; arcere the verb means to close or to shut. In English the word ‘arcane’ comes from this root. It means something secret or mysterious. The word is also
used in such well-known artefacts as Noah’s ark and the ark of the Covenant in the Hebrew Bible.

So, we can visit the 22 cards as if they were an art gallery. These trump cards also act as projection holders, hooks to catch the imagination. They represent symbolically those instinctual forces operating autonomously in the depths of the human psyche which Jung called the archetypes. It is from this unconscious part of ourselves that our relationship with the spiritual and the divine emanates, as does every other aspect of our relational being. The cards can be useful to us in either our vertical or our horizontal relationships. They can help to negotiate our passage through the world of the spirit as well as the world of other people.

Projection is an unconscious, autonomous process whereby we see in persons, objects and happenings in our environment those tendencies, characteristics, potentials, and shortcomings that really belong to ourselves. Every child is born with these hereditary projectiles; there is nothing we can do about it. But we can become aware of what we are doing at all times, and we can sketch out for ourselves the wardrobe or the cast that we are continuously projecting.

These major arcana of the tarot present us with a billboard of this star-studded cast. Hollywood has used them shamelessly and relentlessly: Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Ralph Richardson, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Judi Dench, to name but a few from the last century. All these are paid to be our archetypes of the silver screen. The tarot cards are a more basic and less romantic quiver of projectiles.

Although the specific form of these images may vary from culture to culture and from person to person, their essential character is universal. People of all ages and cultures have dreamed, narrated and sung about the archetypal mother, father, lover, hero, magician, fool, devil, etc. Religion has its
own set of archetypal models: Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Elizabeth of Hungary, Louis VIII of France, Blanche of Castille, Gregory the Great, Margaret of Scotland, etc.

I hope to introduce you to this easy and available medium in the course of this book and show you why the tarot cards are a most valuable source of spiritual growth. The tarot pack is a way to meditate. It is a beautiful and attainable work of art. Anyone can buy a pack. You can carry it with you on a train, spread it out in your own room. For three centuries it has been hijacked by occultists and necromancers, to the extent that it has got a bad name. People flee from it. I have heard it called ‘the devil’s pack’. It has become something of a scapegoat. And yet, before this happened it was used in a perfectly harmless context and developed within the tradition of Christian symbolism. It can be for many people who find art inaccessible an alternative way of thinking artistically. And it could be for most, what I have seen described in other contexts as, ‘an idiot’s guide’ to the unconscious.

There are other such methods and tools, some of them equally elegant and engaging. I think of the I-Ching, for instance. But this is essentially Asian in origin and character and therefore more difficult to access for Europeans. I prefer the tarot for myself because it is Western in its imagery. This is not for racist or chauvinist reasons; it is simply a realisation that there seem to be pools of the unconscious that underpin various landmasses or ethnicities. Dreams and myths testify to the regional clustering of such varied undercarriages. It does seem to be true that we share with others a common unconscious which connects with our genes, our culture and our stories. Nordic as opposed to Celtic mythologies, for instance. But at a more generic level, it is true that the Western world as a whole is penetrated by a particular unconscious and that this has been the origin of the strange figures that make up the 22 major arcana of the tarot pack.

Whatever way these cards have been used in the past or are being used in the present, I am proposing them here as unique manifestations of a deep, almost inaccessible part of ourselves which it is essential for us to access if we are to come to terms with the world we have created for ourselves to live in. These cards are a moving (in both senses of the word) kaleidoscope, a symbolic map of the penultimate layer of humanity. The only other access to this landscape we have, apart from our dreams, over which we have little control, is through the mediumship of artists. We generally misinterpret or fail to see what these mediums are saying to us until about a hundred years after they have spoken. Art is, after all, mining the unconscious in ways productive of its own forms. Only a
small minority are gifted with this capacity. And yet each one of us is required to exercise such muscles to render ourselves capable of recognising these signs, these shapes, these symbols, these archetypes, these colours, if we are to find our way in the landscape which is emerging as the twenty-first century. Also it is the business of each of us and all of us to piece together the jigsaw of our collective unconscious. The tarot cards provide us with some interesting fragments, which we can pore over as an archaeologist might piece together fragments of some very ancient broken statue, to provide clues about the workings of some very ancient civilisation. That statue and that ‘civilisation’ are deep inside ourselves.

The cards can act as visitors from inner space. As psychological constructs, these 22 characters, the court cards of Europe, are archetypal figures emerging over the centuries from the depths of our unconscious. They are the way we meet the people of the world around us, the faces we project onto the faces that confront us every day of our lives.

The cards divide into recognisable groups: seven are women on their own; five are men; two show an angel with three human figures; two represent a pair of male figures; one is a bisexual devil with two prisoners: one male, one female; death is an indeterminate skeleton with a scythe who has just mown a field of human limbs, including two heads: one male, one female; the Wheel of Fortune shows three strange creatures made up of various animal parts; the moon is a sad looking human face with two dogs baying in front of a pond containing a crayfish.

In other words, almost in the way that fairy tales or nursery rhymes carry an unconscious dictionary of human experience, these cards are a catalogue of our unconscious telephone directory. These are the pictures we use to paint the world of the people we meet. These are the archetypal features we project onto the different people who enter our world. Every woman we meet is potentially a divine vision or a spiritual guide; every man is either a dictator or a guru. And we resent them all for being such, even though it is we ourselves who have thus designated them.

However, that is reading the cards at a psychological or even sociological level. There is another spiritual way of reading them, which is the most fundamental aspect of this book.



1. Virgil, The Aeneid, II, 1. 49.
2. Alexander Pope, Moral Essays, line 149.
3. Iris Murdoch, ‘The Fire and the Sun’, in Existentialists and Mystics, ed. Peter Conradi (Chatto & Windus, London, 1997), p. 403. (Hereafter referred to as EM with page number in the text itself.) In what follows about the Greeks I am indebted to Iris Murdoch both for the understanding, which is similar to my own, but, more importantly, for the felicitous expression of this understanding, which was her incomparable gift both as philosopher and as artist.
4. F.M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology (Kegan Paul, London, 1937).
5. Plotinus, Enneads, III, 6.6.
6. This would correspond to the Hebrew word Hatta and the Greek word Hamartia, which translate our word ‘sin’ and which mean ‘missing the mark’, not achieving our full potential.
7. I have approached the unconscious in terms of art in three previous books: Kissing the Dark (Veritas, Dublin, 1999); The Haunted Inkwell (Columba, Dublin, 2001); and Anchoring the Altar (Veritas, Dublin, 2002).

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