Updated: Feb 16
By Tim Woody
The following is excerpted from a longer post exploring the role the Tarot plays in our lives as teacher and healer. Those interested in reading this article in its entirety can find it on the author’s blog (link at the end of this post).
In his book Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards (available on Amazon), the indispensable companion text to his restoration of the Camoin Tarot de Marseilles, flimmmaker and Taroki Alejandro Jodorowsky says,
“When we eliminate the illusion of ‘reading the future,’ the Tarot becomes... a tool for self-knowledge. By honestly confronting the characteristics of our personalities that have gone off course—habits, identifications, manias, vices; narcissistic, antisocial, schizoid and paranoid disorders; personal delusions, crazy ideas, depressive feelings, emotional immaturity, twisted desires, and needs imposed by the family, society, or culture—we can attain knowledge of our real essence, in other words, what is innate in us and not acquired. The individual can stop being what others want so that he can become who he truly is.”
(Jodorowsy, Way of Tarot 420)
The Tarot teaches us by the use of its body, the seventy-six cards that comprise the Major and Minor Arcana. The Minor’s division into four suits of pips and Honors (Page, Queen, King and Knight) allows the Tarot to speak directly to specific elements of our being, fundamental forces that make up each one of us just as the cards make up the Tarot. Moreover, the suit Deniers (coins or pentacles) speaks of our physical being—our bodies, homes and finances. The suit Coupe (Cup) speaks of our emotions and social faculty. Baton (Wand) concerns passion and desire, the creative and sexual mode of expression, and Epee (Sword) relates to the keen edge of intellect, the rational mind. When all of these forces are flourishing and balanced within us, we feel like whole human beings and enjoy health and well-being. This is the state the Tarot hopes we will experience.
Trouble develops when one or each of these forces loses proportion, stagnates, or just gets altogether quashed. Jodorowsky describes this evocatively in Way of Tarot: “Depending on what blows life has dealt us, we will be different ages in our four centers: a person can mentally be an adult of forty, be eight years old emotionally, fifteen sexually, and sixty physically.” (Jodorowsky 116) How does this happen? In the most pronounced of cases, one of our “suits” becomes diminished when some piece of trauma, subtle or extreme, directly affects it. Perhaps as a child we were routinely ignored or ridiculed when we tried to share something that excited our sense of beauty; accordingly our passion (Wands) may feel fragile and weak, frozen in pre-adolescence. Maybe as young adults an emotional overflow left us incapacitated in a dangerous situation; after this we bury our emotions deep, afraid they will betray us.
Most frequently, though, various authorities explicitly instruct us to suppress these vital forces. Modern day sensibilities tell us that only the mind (Swords) is reliable, that emotion is superfluous, desire is embarrassing, and the senses of the body are misleading. As a student I became fascinated with the Orthodox Desert Fathers, basically all of whom were ascetics, denying the body and the passions. I began to consider it admirable to let my body suffer in minute ways, to deny my passions their healthful exercise. Though I hardly engaged in this experiment with even a fraction of the reverence and devotion with which the Fathers did, the result was enlightening—my health quickly declined, body and mind.
To those of all religions and traditions who are called to the path of renunciation, we offer our heartfelt respect and awe, but the Tarot is not one to encourage us to take this path. Rather the Tarot tells us to be first what we already are, which is people. People have bodies that should be loved, cared for and enjoyed. We have emotions which tell us much about the world and our experiences in it, as well as the experiences of those around us. We have passion to drive us to feats of achievement and of creation, passion that tells us how to excite pleasure in the body and soul of the person for whom we long. And we have the intellect that lets us wait and watch, scheme and synthesize. When all of these work together, we become not only healthy but formidable, ready to be transformed into whatever else we are meant to be in this life.
Pip Pip Pooray
Not long ago, while away from Knoxville on a gig with my swing band, I met a “Tarot reader” from out of state. The quotation marks are necessary because, as she proudly told me within moments of our handshake, the cards are just an accessory to her psychic powers—they serve her, and she’s doing all the “reading” on her own. This is not at all my relationship to the cards; they speak, and I am the humble translator. I am only able to read the cards because I have spent quite a bit of time listening to them, strengthening my connection to them as I would hope to do with any teacher who bears wisdom that will help me. Toward this end, I’ve also had to understand abstractly how the pips work. The suits themselves, as Jodorowsky describes, correspond to the vital forces, and tell us which of these needs our attention; the pips, exhibiting the numbers one to ten, allow us to work in some numerology for further elucidation.
This is not your great-great-grandmother’s numerology (which Gordon White, in various podcast appearances, has described as essentially a Victorian game) in which each number corresponds to a specific spiritual concept or field of action. Rather, in the pips, these numbers are part of a dynamic system, listing the stations of growth. The aces are all potential, the tens are the return to potential that immediately follows full realization and judgment. Thus, a given number in a given suit tells us exactly where we are in our development there, and perhaps precisely where our growth has halted.
The Nines and the Tens give us an excellent example of how stagnation works by numerological station. In traditional numerology, the nine is a terminal point, meaning death to the more superstitious among us or transcendence that is too unstable, too spiritual for quotidian life. In the Tarot, it is instead the fullness of preparation, the seat of overwhelming action. Jodorowsky says,
“The 9 has a characteristic that separates it from the other odd numbers of the first decimal series: it is divisible by three. On the one side it is therefore active (the side toward the 8), and on the other it is receptive (toward the ten). An androgynous number and the stage of crisis, the 9 heralds a change that will lead to the end of a cycle.” (Jodorowsky 303, italics mine)
If we find ourselves stuck on the nines, it is because we are over-prepared, over-qualified, and severely under-confident as a result.
The Nine of Wands, for instance, may speak of a man who knows his partner’s needs so well that he is afraid to begin satisfying any of them if he cannot satisfy all of them at the same time. The Nine of Cups shows us a person who has so faithfully committed herself to emotional introspection that she knows it is time to address all the hurt she carries directly, perhaps to act decisively to repair the divisions in her family. She feels driven to act, empowered even, but also so aware of the complexity of her situation that she thinks she needs a flaming bolt of inspiration that will tell her how to proceed without making everything worse. The immediate cure to this state of empowered paralysis is simple but intimidating—if we are stuck, waiting for a sign, we must act now without that sign, stepping out on faith.
The tens describe what happens once we’ve taken that step. We act decisively and intentionally, despite our insecurities, and then stand to be judged. Perhaps this judgment comes from within ourselves, perhaps from those around us. Perhaps it comes from a boss or a spouse. But judgment is the inevitable and appropriate result of any fully realized, nine-ish action. If we are stagnant at the tens, it’s because we’ve done everything except submit ourselves to be judged.
The Ten of Coins (Deniers), for instance, could portray a bakery owner who has boldly won the confidence of a local ice cream shop, convincing them they should partner to make ice cream pies next summer, to be sold by both businesses. The recipes are done, the numbers are right and the deal is made, but the pastry chef cannot bring himself to pull the trigger and buy the front of house freezers and the new signage. He can stay in this place of reticence until the summer has come and gone, or until the ice cream store’s confidence melts away. Or he can go public, float the final expenses, and let it be out of his hands. Until he does the latter, he’ll be stuck worrying about ice cream pies and unable to move onto the next bold idea.“
Maybe I should have added the ice cream after I took them out of the oven...” (Getty Images).
By way of contrast, sometimes we may stagnate out of pride, finding a humble two pip or three pip to be a distastefully meager start. The twos tell us to bide our time and let things accumulate; the threes tell us that we have accumulated at least enough to make a good venture without being afraid of devastating loss. Imagine a violinist, freshly graduated from the conservatory and back in her home town. Classical music and the skill that goes into refining its performance are not well understood there, and initially the only music work she can find is volunteering at the community center, spending three months teaching a room of children to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She asks the cards why she feels like she is wasting away, and the cards give her the Three of Swords, telling her to accept her situation for now and to get up there in front of the kids. After all, an entirely new period of intellectual growth begins after graduation, and she will only arrest her growth out in the “real world” if she insists on being seen as the expert she was when she accepted her diploma.
This principle played out for me over the winter of 2018 and the spring of this year. I had just launched an Instagram to promote my Tarot practice, and every day I would ask the cards what they would like me to share with the Gram. I longed to display my faculty with the cards and my intuitive development, to help my followers however I could (and, if I’m being honest, to plumb the depths of mysteries esoteric and universal). The cards, however, knew that I felt uncomfortable with broaching the topic of passion and desire in a public forum. This discomfort does not bode particularly well for a Taroki, as a given client well may have a blockage in this area of life and so will need to hear me speak about it with confidence and grace. Accordingly, the cards gave me readings on desire about seventy-five per cent of the time when I wished to post to my feed. I was living in the three of Wands, and had to remain there until I accepted my ability to broach this topic, even in front of a growing number of strangers. I embraced my discomfort, accepted this humble beginning, and soon felt at ease even with the hottest of readings.
A Family of Trumps and Queens
So the pips have shown us what needs healing and even suggested what we should do to accomplish this—are we alone from here, left to bootstrap ourselves into motivation or equanimity? Sometimes, but usually at least one of the grand characters of the cards will appear to lead by example or to warn by misadventure. These characters populate the Honors, or Court Cards, and the Trumps, also known as the Greater Arcana, the cards most closely associated with Tarot in popular awareness.
When I’m reading for (other) young people, whether they’re in school or in the world, the first three Honors—Page, Queen and King—appear constantly. Many times I’ve pulled the King of Coins and delivered the cursory declaration that the client is jealous of her dad’s money. Frequently the cards have much more to say after this; the wisdom of the patriarchy is born, however gracefully or imperfectly, through our fathers’ actions, and there is both security and guidance to be found there, if we can only overcome whatever keeps us from accepting it.
Likewise with the Queens and the matriarchy, though in both cases something more converse may be true. Perhaps an older client is stuck on the five of Cups because his mother was very judgmental of “all that woo woo stuff,” and he’s never been able to make sense of his desire for a heart opened to the movements of spirit. Or a mother has seen in the drawing of the four of cups and the nine of coins that she is concerned about the financial well-being of her family, and the Knight of Wands appears to reveal to her that she is judging her adult daughter’s (gender binary need not always apply to these cards) emphasis on sexual realization at the neglect of fiscal responsibility.
Similar things happen with the human figures of the Trumps, though with a different sort of specificity. VII—The Chariot, for instance, shows us a youthful man seeking to consolidate his power and resources into a force that will affect the entire society in which he lives and moves. Maybe the client is this man, and the pips present will show him what is keeping him from success in this endeavor or what has given him such a strong, obsessive concern with his legacy so early in life. Or The Chariot is again a husband, a son, or a lover of the client’s and has much to teach her about initiative. There are twenty-two majors and seventeen of them show (more or less) human figures, so this is not the place for a more indulgent exploration of how they fit into our lives; suffice to say that if the pit we have dug is all the way down to bedrock, the trumps point us to the people around us most likely to have a ladder or another shovel.
VII—The Chariot, a potent trump
The unabridged version of this article can be found on the author’s blog.
To learn more about Tim’s practice or to schedule an appointment, visit the Classic Cartomancy Website
More information on the Jodorowsky-Camoin Tarot