Creativity is a strange animal; it is uniquely human. Chimpanzees and other non-human species can use tools, but humans are the only species able to create tools and enhance their design. Whales, birds and dolphins use systems of sounds to communicate with each other; some non-human primates can be taught certain hand gestures and simple language; and your pet may respond to language commands. However, humans are alone in their ability to represent sounds using symbols and then to assemble them into a language. Even more impressive is the ability to represent abstract ideas and thought with language. You don’t need to be afraid to describe what afraid feels like.
Humanity’s approach to visual media is similarly unique. An artist can draw many things from memory and a musician can repeat a song, melody or sound. However, artists not only reproduce what they see and hear but they also manipulate it. Pablo Picasso’s cubism is one example of an artist’s ability to see something, analyse its components and then break it apart and reassemble it in an abstract form. Early rock musicians such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney and John Lennon reinterpreted sounds they heard from early American music and created a unique genre that is the basis for much of the popular music you hear on the radio today.
You might be wondering what this has to do with the tarot. As a visual and artistic medium, the tarot is uniquely suited to assist you in playing with language and symbols. It can be a wonderful tool for unlocking your creativity.
A tarot deck is similar to a regular deck of playing cards. It has face cards and numbered cards, also called pips. However, its structure is unique. The tarot is comprised of 78 cards divided into two sections, instead of the 52 cards found in a standard deck of playing cards.
The minor arcana
The largest section of a tarot deck is called the minor arcana, or the section of ‘little secrets’. As with regular playing cards, this part is made up of four suits. The most common names for the suits found in the tarot are wands, swords, cups and pentacles. Each suit is numbered from one to ten and also contains face cards, called courts. The tarot has four court cards — one more than a regular deck of cards. Although the names of these court cards vary in modern decks, they are typically based on the European court system. Each suit contains some variation on the following: page, knight, queen and king.
Suits, elements and numbers
Each suit also corresponds to an element. Cups are linked to water. Cards in this suit relate to emotions and feelings, relationships, dreams and psychic ability. Wands are associated with fire and depict initiative and intuition, virility and energy, creativity and industriousness. Swords are associated with air and it is in this suit that truth and logic reside; it is also home to words, thoughts, stresses and anxieties. Pentacles are the suit of earth. The material world lives here. It is the place of touch, stability, sensation and stubbornness. Each suit has cards describing situations that relate to these elements.
One way to explore the meanings of the cards in the minor arcana is to combine the element of the suit with the value or number of the card. For example, the suit of cups is associated with the element of water, which is home to feelings and emotions. Twos represent duality and relationships. Thus, the two of cups is a card of covenant, love and commitment.
Sometimes the suit and number don’t fit. For example, wands are the home of fire. Passion, energy, intuition and initiative are represented by fire. This part of your being isn’t always comfortable with sharing, therefore the two of wands can symbolise the need to pause and reflect on your energy, remembering that there is still work to accomplish once you have conquered the world.
You may also notice there are numerological similarities between the 1–10 cards of the minor arcana and their numerological counterparts in the major arcana. The minor arcana is the place of everyday life, whereas the major arcana represents something larger.
Court cards work in a similar fashion. They represent the roles you adopt in everyday life. For example, the page is often referred to as the card of the student or the learner. Therefore, the page of pentacles, at home in the element of earth, is an avid student or apprentice, taking in knowledge, pouring through information and looking to absorb the world around her like a sponge. She’s at the beginning of her journey, striving to someday achieve the mastery of the king.
This table provides a starting point to further explore the meanings of the tarot. Although not critical when using the tarot creatively, it is nonetheless important to understand the basic meanings of the cards.
|1||Beginnings, a gift or offering, raw essence, the pureness of the suit/element|
|2||Choice, duality, interaction, relationship, an attempt to find balance|
|3||The act of creation, abundance, manifestation|
|4||Structure, security, stability|
|5||Instability, change, challenges|
|6||Giving, generosity, success, harmony|
|7||Personal choice, look ahead, “just prior to movement” phase|
|8||Movement, “meeting, facing and mastering”|
|9||Intensity, completion, fulfillment of the suit|
|10||Excess, extreme, transition, manifestation|
|Page||The student of, the apprentice of, the learner of…|
|Knight||The explorer of, the mover-and-shaker of…|
|Queen||The matron of, the keeper of, the guardian of…|
|King||The master of, the leader of, the elder of…|
The major arcana
The smallest section of the tarot consists of the remaining 22 cards. It is called the major arcana, or the section of “big secrets”. It’s the section with which you will be most familiar. It’s often seen in films and on television. The Lovers and The Fool cards from the Tarot of the Witches deck were used by Jane Seymour’s character Solitaire in the classic James Bond movie Live and Let Die. The Sun card from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck is seen at the very end of the credits in the popular drama Mad Men.
The major arcana Deals with archetypes such as The Empress, The Hermit, The Devil and The Fool and big ideas such as Death, Judgment Strength and Justice. These concepts are so familiar that often intuition is all that’s needed to understand their basic meanings. They represent the big ideas of human existence, the shared experiences that Carl Jung claimed made up the collective unconscious and the universal archetypes of the human drama.
When viewed from start to finish, the major arcana also describe the Fool’s Journey, a universal story of growth and exploration that has been told in myths and legends throughout history. The table below provides a starting point for the general meanings and themes of each major arcana card.
The major and minor arcana, when placed together, make up the standard tarot deck.
|Major arcana card||Key words and phrases|
|0 – The Fool||The beginning of a journey, carefree, free-spiritedness, blind optimism, a leap of fate|
|1 – The Magician||Master of the elemental tools, strong communication, focus, skill|
|2 – The High Priestess||Inner self, inner knowledge, inner wisdom, potential|
|3 – The Empress||Sensuality, tenderness, abundance, fertility, Mother Earth, the archetypal ‘Mother’, sensuality|
|4 – The Emperor||Rules, structure, society, laws, stability, order, the archetypal father, leadership, authority|
|5 – The Hierophant||Tradition, doctrine, orthodoxy, conformity, societal norms, the archetypal headmaster|
|6 – The Lovers||Duality, choice, partnership, synthesis, amalgamation, the finding of “the other”|
|7 – The Chariot||Maturity, coming of age, boldness, daring, success, movement|
|8 – Strength||Inner strength, inner calm, passionate but peaceful|
|9 – The Hermit||A guide, a search for meaning, a shift from the outer world to the inner, the archetypal wise one, introspection, contemplation|
|10 – The Wheel of Fortune||Natural change, cycles, natural consequences, ‘what goes around, comes around’, sudden appearances|
|11 – Justice||Balance, fairness, justice, negotiation, truth|
|12 – The Hanged Man||A complete change in perspective, independence, suspension of action, 180-degree turn of events|
|13 – Death||Transformation, the cocoon before the butterfly, a clearing away, a letting go, release|
|14 – Temperance||Blending, harmony, healthy equilibrium, the alchemical combination of two unlikely elements|
|15 – The Devil||Overly focused on materialism, personal desires, chained, imprisoned, lack of mobility|
|16 – The Tower||Upheaval, dismantling, destruction, a tearing down, a rude awakening|
|17 – The Star||Hope, healing, wishes, the calm after the storm, promise of a new day|
|18 – The Moon||Inner mysteries, imagination, dreams, fantasy, reflection, illusion|
|19 – The Sun||Emancipation, enlightenment, youthful optimism, radiant rejuvenation|
|20 – Judgement||Exultation, that “eureka” moment, a call from within or without, shouting a message from the rooftops|
|21 – The World||Completion, highest potential, full awareness, dance for joy|
Know your Tarot
In their book Around the Tarot in 78 Days, Markus Katz and Tali Goodwin state “the tarot is not just a deck of 78 cards; it is a real place — a place where your mind lets the mysteries and your imagination flow over the landscape, a magical place”. A creative exercise that can be used to help you learn about the cards is called Entering the Card. This is a common exercise described in many tarot books. It involves selecting a card and, as would an actor, entering the scene depicted in the card. Use the following directions to assist you in this exercise. Have a journal ready to record any impressions from this activity.
Select a card from your deck. Hold it. Look at it. Let your eyes wander its surface, taking in the general colour, scenery, people, creatures, buildings and natural surroundings. Now begin to pick out any unique features of its environment. Observe detail such as rich colours of clothing, the facial characteristics of any people, animals or magical/mythical creatures, the texture of materials and the natural environment. Place the card firmly in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes.
Imagine yourself standing at the edge of the card in the same way you would stand in a doorway about to enter a room. When you’re ready, take two steps into the environment of your chosen card. Look ahead of you. Look right and left, above and below. Take a look behind you. Pause for a moment and take in your panoramic view. Select an interesting object and walk towards it. Observe its colour and texture. Reach out and touch it. Pick it up. Get a sense of its weight and density. Take note if it’s hot or cold, wet or dry, smooth or rough. Try to determine its purpose in this scene. Try this with several objects in your scene.
Move on. If there are creatures, either human or non-human, walk towards them. What are they doing? Are they alone or with someone? What is their mood? Listen to the sounds in your environment. Do you notice any animals or other environmental noises? Are there conversations going on? If you’re comfortable, begin a conversation.
Let your imagination carry you away. When you’re done, take a deep breath. Move towards the entranceway that brought you into the card. Stand on the edge of the frame. Open your eyes.
Record any impressions of your visit. Did the characters say something interesting? Did you notice something in the scene that wasn’t in the card? Did a particular object or character stand out or play a significant role during your visit? Was there anything said? Of course, adding questions that seem pertinent to you is important and will only enhance your experience working with the tarot.
Using your imagination through a technique such as ‘Entering the Card’ is a creative way to become intimately familiar with your tarot deck. It is also a great way to flex your creative muscle. Cestaro and Alligo’s Tarot of the New Vision is a deck that may provide you with further insight into this process. It was created based on the illustrator’s perspective of what might be happening from the inside of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck looking outward.
The artist and the tarot
There are hundreds of tarot decks on the market. Some are artistically simple and consist of only a few colours or symbols. Others are theme-based and contain images from particular myths, belief systems, genres or even television shows. Still others have rich and complex symbolism.
Many of the decks in production today contain stunning images. All can be seen as 78 pocket-sized pieces of art. The propensity of this deck-wide artwork is new in the history of the tarot. Prior to 1909, only the 16 court cards and the 22 cards of the major arcana were graced with images. These images varied little from deck to deck. The Fool in one deck had common characteristics when compared with the Fool from other decks. Also, the minor arcana contained only simple images related to the number and suit of the card, similar to playing cards. For example, the six of swords would simply contain six swords. The ten of cups would contain 10 cups.
In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith changed the face of the tarot forever. She was the illustrator of the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Her images are so influential that the deck is often referred to as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck instead of its original Rider-Waite name to ensure that Pamela Colman Smith receives recognition for her contribution.
Colman Smith was a turn-of-the-century artist. She was involved with several esoteric groups and was intrigued by astrology, numerology and ritual magic. In 1904, she joined The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn along with Arthur Edward Waite. Although Arthur Waite was an occultist and had been involved in The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn since the 1880s, he was not an artist. He was looking to create a deck that combined the esoteric teachings of the Golden Dawn with other divinatory systems such as astrology and numerology. It was Colman Smith’s innovative pictorial representation of the minor arcana pip cards that made the Rider-Waite deck unique for its time. Colman Smith’s tarot artwork combined with Arthur Waite’s interpretation has had a lasting impact on tarot work for the past 100 years.
Modern artists have delved into the world of the tarot. For example, David Palladini was an American illustrator. He drew images for several children’s books. He also illustrated Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. In 1973, he created the Aquarian tarot deck. It remains one of the most popular tarot decks in print. The cards in this deck are renowned for their Art Deco style; rich orange, yellow and red colours; and the ornate head gear worn by many of the characters in the cards.
A more recent example of the tarot as art can be found in the Gaian Tarot deck. This beautifully depicted, earth-based deck was a nine-year labour of love by Joanna Powell Colbert. Each card is wonderfully illustrated and linked to everyday life. She used a six-step creative process while making each card. This process included the gathering of information and moved through the steps of creativity using digital images, line drawings and paintings as she approached the finished product. She describes this process in much greater detail on the My Story page of her website at www.gaiantarot.com.
Creative exercises with the tarot
“Every picture tells a story.” “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Expressions about the power of the image are common. A tarot deck is a portable, 78-card treasure chest of pictures. It makes the tarot a supportive medium for exploring your inner artist. It lends itself well to creative exercises involving images, pictures and drawings.
One way to familiarise yourself with the tarot and use it as a creative medium is to create your own tarot card. Sketch, paint, photograph or locate images in any print media that relate to your impressions of a particular card. For example, you may assemble images containing dark and dreary colours, destruction and rubble or examples of the number 16, place them on card stock and you’ve created your own Tower card. Use vibrant colours, items in pairs, intimate parts of the body or examples of a lover’s embrace and you have The Lovers. Take a picture of nine staked tomato plants and you’ve created the nine of wands.
Your tarot deck can also be a tool in your writing toolbox. Select a card at random at the beginning of your day and write your impressions of the card. Use the meaning of the card to construct a writing prompt or question. For example, drawing the seven of cups might prompt the questions: what path might I choose today? What are my true desires? What might I be missing in order to move forward?
You may also choose to use your cards to help you write a story. Draw one or two cards and relate them to a narrative element. You may choose to draw random cards related to the protagonist, the plot, the conflict, the climax or the setting. Did you draw Strength for your protagonist? Create a story centred around a stoic, Artemis-like hero. Did the three of cups appear as your plot? She may be headed on a celebratory journey with two close companions.
It is the ability to be creative that separates humanity from all other living beings. Your tarot deck is a tool for creative expression that welcomes exploration. It can move you towards a more intimate relationship with your deck and may help you unlock your creative genius. Play with it.