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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Session 2 Readings

Alejandro Jodorowsky [pronounced Ho-dor-OW-ski]; and Marianne Costa: The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards (Destiny Books)


The Tarot Is a Complete Entity

The majority of authors of Tarot books are content to describe and analyze the cards one by one without imagining the entire deck as a whole. However, the true study of each Arcanum begins with the consistent order of the entire Tarot; every detail, tiny as it may be, begins from the links that connect all seventy-eight cards. To understand these myriad symbols, one needs to have seen the final symbol they all form together: a mandala. According to Carl Gustav Jung, the mandala is a representation of the psyche, whose essence is unknown to us. Round shapes generally symbolize natural integrity, whereas rectangular forms represent the mental realization of this integrity. In Hindu tradition, the mandala, the symbol of the sacred central space, altar, and temple, is both an image of the world and the representation of divine power, an image capable of leading the one contemplating it to illumination. In accordance with this concept, I thought of organizing the Tarot as if I were building a temple. In all traditions, the temple summarizes the creation of the universe, seen as a divine unit that has exploded into pieces. Osiris, imprisoned in a chest by his jealous enemies and his brother Seth, was cast into the waters of the Nile, mutilated, dismembered, then resuscitated by the breath of Iris. Symbolically, the Arcana of the Tarot are a chest in which a spiritual treasure has been deposited. The opening of this chest is equivalent to a revelation. The initiatory work consists of gathering together the fragments until the original unit has been restored. You start with a pack of cards, you mix up the Arcana and display them flat, which is o say cut the God into pieces. You interpret them and put them to k together in sentences. In a sacred quest the initiate reader (Isis, the soul) puts the pieces back together. The God is resuscitated not in an immaterial dimension but in the material world. A figure, a mandala, is composed with the Tarot so that the whole thing can be seen with a single glance.

This idea that the cards were not conceived one by one—as separate symbols—but as parts of a whole did not appear to me all at once. It was a long process fueled by vague intentions, but over the course of the years I made discoveries that provided convincing proof that this "complete entity," the Tarot, desired to create union.

I organized the cards by placing the even numbers on my left and the odd numbers on my right, because in Eastern traditions even numbers are considered passive and the odd numbers active, and because the right side is considered active and the left passive. I compared the ornamentation of Western temples with Eastern ones. On the facade of Gothic cathedrals, for example, Notre Dame of Paris, an androgynous Jesus Christ, standing between an earthly dragon and a heavenly dragon, gives us his blessing. On the portal to his right (or to our left as spectators) stands the Virgin Mary (femininity, openness), and to his left we see a priest dominating a dragon with his staff (masculinity, activity). Conversely, in Tantric Buddhist temples, the male deities are placed facing our left side and females our right side. The explanation for this is that Buddha is not a god but a level that every human being, if he or she performs the great spiritual work, can attain. The believer ceases to be a spectator and takes a place between the male and female principles, transformed into a temple. Conversely, Christ is a god, and no believer can become him, only imitate him. Eastern saints are Buddhas. Western saints imitate their God—which is the reason cathedrals behave like mirrors. The right side of the building represents our left side and the left side our right. The Tarot of Marseille, a Judeo-Christian creation, indicates to us in The World (XXI) that we should use it like a mirror: the woman is holding the active baton in her left hand and the receptive retort in her right (see p. 40).

Taking these details and others, which it would take too long to list here, as my guides, I gradually shaped groups of cards that one day finally took the form of a mandala. I obtained a swastika, the symbol of the creative whirlwind around which the hierarchies it creates fan out. This symbol, which obviously indicates a circular movement around the center, the action of divine principle on manifestation, was long considered to be an emblem of Christ. In India it was made into the emblem of the Buddha, because it resembles the Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra), but also the emblem of Ganesh, the god of knowledge. In China, the swastika symbolizes the number ten thousand, which is the sum total of beings and manifestation. It is also the original form of feng: it indicates the four directions of squared space of the Earth as a horizontal expansion emanating from the center. In Masonic symbolism, the pole star is depicted at the center of the swastika, and the four arms (the Greek letter gamma, whose shape is that of the square) of which it consists are the four cardinal positions of the Big Dipper around it (the Big Dipper symbolizes a guiding or enlightening center).

I should acknowledge, though, that the Arcana can be organized into one whole in countless ways. As the Tarot is essentially a projective instrument, there is no definitive, unique, perfect form within it. This is consistent with the mandalas drawn by Tibetan monks using different-colored sand. They all resemble one another but are never alike.

Our study of the Tarot begins with the understanding of this mandala. It is not possible to analyze the parts without understanding the whole. When one knows the whole, each part acquires an overall significance that reveals its ties with all the other cards. When one plays an instrument in an orchestra, it resonates with all the others. The Tarot is a union of the Arcana. When, after many years, I managed to successfully put it all together in my first consistent version of the mandala, I asked it: "What purpose does this study serve for me? What kind of power are you able to give me?" I imagined the Tarot answered me: "You should acquire only the power of helping others. An art that does not heal is not an art."

But what does it mean to heal? Every illness, every problem is the product of a stagnation, whether it be one that is physical, sexual, emotional, or intellectual. Healing consists of regaining fluidity in one's energies. This concept can be found in Lao-Tse's book, the Tao to Ching, and in an even more precise fashion in the Book of Changes, the I Ching. Could the Tarot correspond in some way or another to this kind of philosophy? Knowing that the optical language of the Tarot could not be imprisoned within one single verbal explanation, I decided to adopt as my motto the words of Buddha, "Truth is what is useful," by giving the four Suits a meaning that I would never dare claim to be in any way unique or definitive, but one that would be the most useful for the therapeutic utilization I sought to give to the Arcana. It seemed to me that instead of using the Tarot like a crystal ball, making it a tool that enabled exotic seers to penetrate hypothetical futures, I would put it into service for a new form of psychoanalysis: Tarology.

My initial tendency, when attempting to organize the cards into a mandala, was to obtain a symmetrical shape. After many fruitless attempts, I could see the impossibility of such a task. I remembered that during my first trip to Japan, the guide leading me around the ancient imperial palace pointed out that no walls were ever constructed in a straight line and that no windows or doors were divided into symmetrical squares. In Japanese culture, the straight line and symmetry are considered to be demonic. Actually, the study of sacred art shows that it is never symmetrical. The door of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that is located to our left is wider than the door situated to our right. All symmetrical art is profane. Nor is the human body symmetrical: our right lung has three lobes, while our left one has two. The Tarot reveals that it is a sacred art because the upper portion of any card is never identical to the lower, nor the left side to the right. There is always a small detail, sometimes very difficult to make out, that breaks the resemblance. For example, the Ten of Pentacles, which at first glance seems perfectly symmetrical, holds in one of the lower corners (to our right) a pentacle that is different from the rest. It has only eleven petals, whereas the pentacles located in the other three corners have twelve (see p. 307). The flower on the lower end of the central axis has two short light-yellow leaves, whereas the two leaves of the flower of the upper end are longer. I think that the creators of the deck intentionally drew minute details to teach us how to see. The vision our eyes transmit to us changes depending upon our level of awareness. The divine secret is not hidden, it is right in front of us. Whether we see it or not depends upon the attention we give to observing the details and establishing ties between them.

Once aware that beneath an apparent symmetry the Tarot is forever denying repetition, I began to realize how the Minor Arcana were arranged in accordance with a law that could be stated as follows: Out of four parts, three are almost identical, and one is different. And out of the three that are equal, two have more resemblance to each other. In other words: ([1+2] + 3) + 4. Examples of this are multiple. Here are but a few:

  • Out of the four Suits (Swords, Cups, Pentacles, Wands), three bear the names of manufactured objects (sword, cup, pentacle) and one bears the name of a natural element (wand). Among the three first Suits, two objects resemble each other more (cup and pentacle stand on a surface); the third is different (a hand holding a sword in the air).
  • The Pages of Swords, of Wands, and of Pentacles are wearing hats. The Page of Cups is bareheaded. In the Swords and the Wands, the points of the V's are turned toward the center; in the Cups it is turned toward the outside.
  • In addition to the symbol that corresponds to them, the Queens of Wands, Cups, and Pentacles are lifting an object with their other hand. The Queen of Swords is not.
  • Three Kings are inside a palace; the fourth is in nature. Three are wearing a crown, the fourth a hat.
  • Three of the Knights' horses are blue; the fourth is white. And so forth.

If we look for examples of this law in different religions, mythologies, or reality, we find, for example:

  • In Christianity, three (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) plus one (Virgin Mary). Of the first three, two are immaterial (Father, Holy Ghost); the third (Jesus Christ) is embodied. In other words: ([Father + Holy Ghost] + Jesus Christ) + Virgin Mary.
  • In the four Gospels, three are similar (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and one is different (John). Of the three that are similar, two share almost a complete resemblance (Mark, Luke), with the third slightly different (Matthew). In other words: ([Mark + Luke] + Matthew) + John.
  • The Kabbalah makes a distinction between four worlds: three immaterial worlds divided into two that form the MacroposopusAtziluth (Archetypal) and Briah (Creative)—and one that is the Microposopus, Yetzirah (Formative). This trio feeds the Fiancee, Asiah (Material). In other words: ([Atziluth + Briah] + Yetzirah) + Asiah.
  • The Four Noble Truths discovered by Gautama, the Buddha: suffering, desire, greed, the Middle Way. In other words: ([suffering + desire] + greed) + the Middle Way.
  • The four castes of ancient India. Action in the material world: the sudras (workers), the vaisyas (merchants), the kshatriyas (warriors). Action in the spiritual world: the Brahmins (priests). In other words: ([sudras + vaisyas] + kshatriyas) + Brahmins.
  • In the four elements, three are similar (air, water, fire) and one different (earth). Among the three that are similar, two are more so (air, fire), and one is different (water). In other words: ([Air + Fire] + Water) + Earth.
  • On the human face, the ears, eyes, and nostrils are double, whereas the mouth is single. The eyes and ears are separated, while the nostrils combine into one nose. In other words: ([Ears + Eyes] + Nostrils) + Mouth.

Thanks to this formula, we can organize the four temperaments of the body (nerves, lymph, blood, bile); the four trios of the Zodiac (Aries-Leo-Sagitarius, Gemini-Libra-Aquarius, Cancer-Scorpio-Pisces, and Taurus-Virgo-Capricorn); the four phases of alchemy: the work at the yellow stage (citrinitas), the work at the red stage (rubedo), the work at the white stage (albedo), and the work at the black stage (nigredo); the four states of matter (gas, liquid, solid, and plasma); and so on and so forth.

Finally, by studying several alchemical engravings in The Rosary of the Philosophers, I found confirmation for the Tarot mandala.

Picture 2 from Rosary of the Philosophers

NUMEROLOGY (not for Session 2)

If I give The Fool the role of infinite beginning and that of infinite ending to The World, if I grasp that the Pages, Queens, Kings, and Knights, as they bear no numbers, could not be identified within each of the Suits as the numbers 11, 12, 13, and 14, I am left with six series of ten numbers: Swords from One to Ten, Cups from One to Ten, Pentacles from One to Ten, Wands from One to Ten, Major Arcana from The Magician to The Wheel of Fortune, and again from Strength to Judgment. If I wanted to understand the essence of the Tarot, I had to visualize these ten numbers with their six aspects. For example, the One includes the four Aces plus The Magician and Strength. The Magician is represented by a man and Strength by a woman. The Sword and the Wand are active symbols, while the Cup and the Pentacle are receptive symbols. What this showed me was that these ten numbers could be defined as male or female but were androgynous at all times. In traditional numerology, however, I discovered that the number 1 was claimed as the first odd, active, male number representing the Father, the unit, and number 2 was the first even number, one that was passive and female, representing the Mother and multiplicity. It was impossible for me to support this antifeminist esotericism in which the numbers, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10, labeled as "feminine," were synonymous with obscurity, cold, and negativity, and where the odd numbers, 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, were exalted as male and associated with light, heat, and the positive. To avoid this, I eliminated all concepts of masculinity and femininity when defining the ten numbers. I chose to associate the even numbers with receptivity and the odd numbers with activity. A woman can be active and a man receptive.

I also found in a large number of books a definition of 2 as duality, 1 + 1. This seemed quite clumsy to me when applying it to the Tarot. Because, if we adopt this theory, all that remains to be done is to interpret each of the following numbers as simple additions of units of one: 3 would therefore be 1 + 1 + 1; 4 would be 1 + 1 + 1 +1; and so on up to 10. There is another esoteric tendency to give numbers a meaning based on the result of internal additions. The most complex of all would be 10, whose meaning would be different depending on whether it was the result of 9 + 1, 8 + 2, 7 + 3, or 6 + 4 (the result of repeated numbers such as 5 + 5 being excluded). As there is no reason for this system to stop with simply adding two figures, it leads to aberrations like 10= 1 +2+3+4, or 10= 3+ 5+ 2, and so forth.

A symbol is a whole, just like a body. It would be ridiculous to claim that the human body is the sum of two legs + two arms + one torso + one head and, by continuing along this path, + one liver + two eyes, and so on. It is similarly absurd to define each of the ten numbers in the Tarot as the sum of other numbers. To understand its message, we should consider each of these numbers as an individual with its own particular characteristics.



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