Memories of the Past, Memories of the Future: Semiotics and the Tarot
The field of communication phenomena as part of the typology of cultures calls for the identification of specific semiotic systems representing their "languages". In this respect culture is seen as a set of texts described by collective memory (Lotman 1990).
The expression in the title of this paper, memories of the
future, seems however to be a contradiction in terms. To resolve the paradox,
this paper will address a specific pictorial, that is, extra-linguistic,
language expressed in the signs and symbols of Tarot. Tarot images survived
through the ages and although their exact origins are debated appear to
have been in existence, in their modern form, since the fourteenth century.
This paper, first, will go through some of the cultural
"memory traces" left in history by the Hermetic tradition and revived
during the Renaissance (see, e.g., Yates 1964, Faivre 1994, Tomberg 1993). Second, the paper will present Tarot
pictures as polysemic representations of the images of collective memory,
organized into a semiotic system and constituting a pictorial "text"
represented by the cards' layout. As a text, the layout can indeed be
"read" and interpreted. The paper will address the spatial-temporal
distribution of cards in terms of a symbolic representation of the memory
pool called by Carl G. Jung the collective unconscious. In semiotic terms,
memory is the capacity to preserve and reproduce information. In this
respect, the Tarot deck serves as a lexicon, and each Tarot layout becomes a
symbolic text having both a synchronic and diachronic dimension. The paper will
conclude by asserting that bits of information virtually stored in the
diachronic depth of the collective memory are reproduced by means of each
synchronic reading, thus re-creating the memories of the past and
simultaneously creating, as if anew, the memories of the future. This action
of signs is posited as an intelligent communication.
It appears that the only factual evidence of the possible
origins of Tarot is the collection of seventeen cards now in the Bibliotheque
The Egyptian-born Plotinus (250-70 CE) reconstructed an
ancient Greek metaphysics by incorporating elements of the Hermetic tradition
(see Faivre 1994, Yates 1964) thereby founding the system of Neoplatonism
which grew into "one of the strangest chapters and strangest tales"
(Deely 2001: 113) in the history of philosophy. For Plotinus, the soul's
memories could be either in words or in images. As a form of thought, which
transforms beliefs into inner knowledge, or gnosis, the Hermetic tradition
survived many centuries into the Christian era. Revived by Marsilo Ficino
(1433-1499), Pico della Mirandelo (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600),
it informed the Renaissance, since then being manifested in a plurality of
forms including the pictorial representation of this knowledge in the symbols
of Tarots. Ficino, who believed in the Egyptian roots of Hermes, has
translated the Corpus Hermeticus into Latin. Bruno took the Egyptian
revival even further: for him, the mind works solely through archetypal
images, the latter indeed reflecting the universe in the human mind. Valentin
Tomberg, in his book "Meditations on the Tarot: a Journey into Christian
Hermeticism" (1993), cites sources as diverse as Plato and St. John on
the Cross, Zohar and St. Paul, Bergson and Ouspensky, Dionysus and
Leibniz, Augustine and Teihard de Chardin as representatives of ancient
Hermetic, mystical, thinking. Faivre (1994) traces the Western esoteric
tradition from its ancient and medieval sources to Christian theosophy up to
the twentieth century philosophers of science "the 'gnostics of
The hypothesis about the origins of Tarot in its present
form that appeals to me personally is that it might have been a means of
keeping and protecting an esoteric knowledge, which was considered a heresy
in the eyes of the medieval Church. Any deviant groups such as Cathars or
Jewish Mystics were persecuted to the point of near eradication. As a matter
of fact, Jews running away from the Spanish Inquisition were welcomed in the
Cathars' communities. As Guirdham (1993) points out, Cathars' degree of
tolerance was unusually high in the Middle Ages. Elsewhere in Europe Jews
stayed in ghettos and remained there well into the twentieth century in many
The esoteric law of correspondences, articulated in the Emerald
Tablet (and incidentally, resembling the non-linear, that is, circular
causality posited by the physics of today; see, e.g.,
In this respect, the pictorial cards are capable of positing that what was always already presupposed (cf. Deely 2001) and what constitutes the informational content of the image on the card. During readings, when the cards are spread in a layout that comprises positions signifying all three aspects of time simultaneously, human perception encompasses both past and future compressed in the "present" quality of a reading. This paradoxical quality of the immaterial mind being incorporated in the tangible form of cards seems to accord with pre-modern science (a.k.a. Enochian physics, see Schueler 1989) that posited the difference between all manifested phenomena as the difference in degree, and not in kind. They differ according to their frequency of expression only. Therefore time is paradoxically a-temporal and, as pertaining to its functioning in a Tarot layout, is essentially expressed in its so-called fine-structured format that unites positions combining past, present and future like on a hypothetical temporal map displaying in the here-and-now the dynamics of what was before and what will have been after.
The Hermetic tradition posited memory and imagination as blended together: as Faivre (1994) notices, "a part of the teaching of Hermes Trismegitus consisted of 'interiorizing' the world of our mens, from whence the 'arts of memory' cultivated" (Faivre 1994: 13). The layout may be considered a physical, material representation of Memoria, posited by Augustine. To Augustine, a pagan turned Christian, we owe certain important developments in semiotics, which are subject to debates even today, in particular a distinction that he posited between natural and conventional signs, that is, signa data and signa naturalia that affect the philosophical conceptualization of intentionality (see further below). In his Confessions, Augustine describes "the fields and spacious places of memory (campos et lata praetoria memoria), where are the treasures (thesauri) of innumerable images'" (in Yates 1966: 46). Memoria is a realm of images, the paradoxical realm of objective psyche, or the impersonal, collective unconscious, posited by Carl Gustav Jung, and constituted by archetypes, which represent multiple patterns of typical human situations, behaviors and events. Jung described archetypes as the dynamical structures of the psyche that determine the contents of the unconscious. In semiotic terms, archetype is a symbol of transformation, and symbols themselves act as transformers capable of raising unconscious contents to the level of consciousness. As noticed by Noth in his "Handbook of Semiotics", symbols as Jung defined them are "the conscious forms given to the unconscious archetypes to which we have no direct access" (Noth 1995: 120). Indirectly, though, they can be communicated by being mediated via the symbolism of Tarot images in the layout.
The Hermetic tradition, by affording Memoria a
privileged place, seems to have anticipated the theory of the unconscious, as
we know it today. Plotinus, for example, defines soul in terms of its, as yet
unknown, memories: "even when one is not conscious that one has
something, one holds it to oneself more strongly than if one knew'" (Ennead
4.4.4. in Miles 1999: 79). Soul, for Plotinus, "is and becomes what
it remembers" (Ennead 4.4.3. in Miles 1999: 79). As a sign, the
very depth of the psyche creates a relation between the sensible and the
intelligible, or the connective bridge between the human and the divine that
supposedly contains in itself Platonic
"reminiscences". Human mind, in Hermeticism, is a direct reflection
of the divine "mens" equipped with its full creative potential. Frances
Yates (1966) describes the art of memory via its relation to the psyche and
affirms that it is the very aim of memory to be able to unite intellect and
psyche within the psyche itself by means of the organization of
The art of memory, as such, goes beyond the aforementioned
temporal map and presents also a spatial organization of the psyche. James
Hillman contends: "using the terms of today, we might translate this art
[of memory] as a method for presenting the organization of the collective
unconscious" (Hillman 1972: 179), the archetypal patterns of the latter
inscribed in the symbolism of the Tarot cards. Carl Jung, referring to
various phenomena that may appear random and senseless if not for their
meaningful synchronistic significance, has suggested that it may seem
"as if the set of pictures in the Tarot cards were distantly descended
from the archetypes of transformation" (Jung CW 9. 81). The collective
unconscious encompasses future possibilities, and "[a] purposively
interpreted [image], seems like a symbol, seeking to characterize a definite
goal with the help of the material at hand, or trace out a line of future
psychological development" (Jung CW 6. 720), that is to perform a
prospective, prognostic and as if futuristic, function, reaching out as such
to the said memories of the future. The here-and-now quality of each
reading invokes one's present state of mind that nevertheless may project
both past and possible future events according to cards' positions in the
layout. An event is defined in contemporary physics as an actualized
possibility of this event's objective tendency, or its potentia, to occur.
The layout thus presents a spatial-temporal organization of the psyche, or
both its structure and dynamics, despite the psyche per se always
being posited, rightly or wrongly, in non-spatial terms.
Tarot cards have been the subject matter of my research for a decade. Semiotics, as a study of signs and their signification, describes "cartomancy (including taromancy)'as a branch of divination based upon the symbolic meaning attached to individual Tarot cards or modern decks, interpreted according to the subject or purpose of a reading and modified by their position and relation to each other from their specific location in a formal 'layout' or 'spread"' (Sebeok 1994, vol.1: 99-100). Communication, as pertaining to semiotics, is not confined to verbal signs as in the studies of linguistics, but includes the extra-linguistic and non-verbal modes. Semiotics considers pictures, as well as stories consisting of pictures, as belonging to the category of signs. Not only do "pictures have a continuous structure' [but] it [also] induces the reader to' read the picture as if it were a written text" (Posner 1989: 276). Tarot images, as symbols and signs, establish the syntactic structure of a layout in the form of a pictorial "text". They are purposeful and meaningful semantically and are polysemous, that is, change their meanings dynamically depending on the context they are situated in. The corollary is that, being a text communicating messages, the Tarot spread can be read and interpreted thus having a potential transformational effect on the subject of an individual reading functioning as a counselling session. My earlier research in the behavioural sciences (Semetsky 1994) has presented some empirical findings of Tarot being a powerful, as well as empowering, method that could be effective in clinical psychotherapy, career counselling, or marital therapy. The interpretations of the cards' meanings in 15 reading sessions in this pilot study, when one and the same card, however situated in different contexts, acquired different connotations, serve to illustrate the concept of polysemy.
The layout (Fig.1), used as an example of a typical
reading, presents ten positions that signify specific connotations as
described further below, but is not exhausted by them. Their meanings are
only partially arbitrary: in the clinical context of my pilot study (Semetsky
1994) I assigned specific therapeutic correlations to the relatively stable
traditional meanings denoted by the layout. As Guiraud pointed out in
"Semiology", signification is only relatively codified:
"Codification ' is a process: usage renders the sign more precise and
extends its convention. '[D]epending on each
particular case, signs are more or less motivated" (Guiraud 1975
: 25). Providing that a semiotic code serves as "the correlation
or correspondence between sign repertoires or signs and their meanings"
(Noth 1995: 205), each position may be considered, in brief, as
"encoding" the following:
Position 1. The subject's presenting problem, or an area of a particular concern to the subject of the reading.
Position 2. The influence, such as impulses, feelings, traits, or behavioural patterns (not necessarily the subject's own), or some other sign that may strengthen or weaken the problem the subject is concerned with, as per position 1. Quite often, this position signifies some, as yet unperceived, obstacles.
Position 3. Some past unconscious factors that contributed to the present situation. The "roots" of the matter in question which are deeply embedded in the unconscious and may appear, quite often, in the subject's dreams.
Position 4. A significant moment in the subject's history that still affects the situation and whose implications are so strong that they might show up in the subject's future dynamics. Even if the subject did not pay particular attention to it and almost "forgot" it, such a memory comes out in the reading if significant.
Position 5. A potential, or coming into being, future. Perhaps some motivations, even if outside of the subject's conscious intent, have contributed to this development, which thereby shows it presence, even if only as a trace of "the memory of the future".
Position 6. The further development of the situation as it unfolds in the immediate future.
Position 7. The subject's current state of mind comprising thoughts, accompanied by affects, shows up in this position. The subject's own perceptions may be quite overwhelming to him/her, or even obsessional.
Position 8. The subject's immediate environment, that is, home, or support system, family, friends, partners, relatives, business associates, in short people representing significant others for the subject in relation to his/her presenting problem.
Position 9. The subject's hopes and wishes, aspirations and ideals, are shown here. They are often accompanied by fears or anxiety.
Position 10. A possible outcome of the current dynamics as it envelops all contributing and hindering factors represented by cards that will have occupied each position.
We can see that some positions in the spread appear to
correspond to what in contemporary philosophy of mind are called the
propositional attitudes and which indeed encompass such common semantic
categories as beliefs, fears, desires, and hopes. With the total of the
seventy-eight cards in a deck, the number of possible combinations and
permutations of the cards that "fall out" in each position is huge
and tends to infinity if the type of spread is more complex, thereby
reflecting the richness and plurality of diverse human experiences. For Jung,
there are as many archetypal patterns as there are typical situations in
life. Cards serve as signifieds for the aforementioned positions and are
interpreted differently depending on where exactly they are located in the
layout, that is, in the context of which particular position this or that
card is being "read".
The triadic quality enabled by mediation makes the Tarot system a genuine sign, a Peircean correlate of the representamen-interpretant-object triad. Noth presents a synopsis of a triadic sign tracing its definitions and different terminology from Plato, to Stoics, to Peirce, to Ogden and Richards (Noth 1995: 90-91), and notices that in order to construct a semiotic triangle (Fig. 2) connecting, in general terms, sign-vehicle, sense, and referent, the path of mediation, represented by a dotted line between a sign-vehicle and a referent, must be present.
The reading, as the means of indirect communication, "fills up" such a dotted line, when a card falls out after a card, until they form a layout in a semiotic process of creating meaningful structures of experience via iconic signs: "sense is the mediator of the referent" (Noth 1995: 89). A pictorial phrase, another one, yet another, unfold into a narrative the myth of an archetypal journey (Semetsky 1994). What is the informational content embedded in the twenty-two so-called Major Arcana? The first card, numbered zero, is called the Fool portrayed by a youth that signifies innocence, an open mind, and the possibility of multiple life-choices. That's where the journey starts.
This is an experiential journey comprising symbolic lessons
that the soul must learn in the school of life during the process of what
Jung dubbed individuation of the Self. The Fool may indeed become a Magician,
Trump number 1, a symbol of practical wisdom and successful accomplishment of
goals. Signs are dynamic: they grow and become other signs. Each subsequent
card represents an evolution in human consciousness as a function of
experience in a phenomenal world. The High Priestess, Arcanum number two, is
a symbol of female intuition and spiritual life. The Empress and the Emperor
(cards three and four, respectively) are, in Jungian terms, the archetypes of
anima and animus, that is two subpersonalities that may
manifest in real life by ways of perception and action which are represented
by figures of the opposite sex in each individual psyche. The fifth major
card, The Hierophant, is the Jungian archetype of Persona, that is, societal
conventions, orthodox belief systems, and conservative politics. And so the
journey continues, and the Fool is learning its moral lessons, some of which
are expressed in such virtues as courage (card number 8) or temperance (card
number 14) until the paradoxically wise Fool becomes a child again. This time
it is a Divine Child warming up in the rays of the Sun, card number 19, and
ready to be symbolically "reborn", in the guise of Judgment,
Arcanum number 20.
The final card, numbered 21, is called the World, or Universe in some decks, and represents the
Jungian archetype of the individuated Self. The culmination of the journey
taught the Fool the lesson of accepting responsibility in the world and for
the world. The circular shape on the World picture represents a continuum, that
is, the never-ending search for meanings in the changing circumstances of
experience. The remaining fifty-six minor cards comprise four suits numbered
from Ace to 10 and including the four so-called court cards in each suit. The
symbolism of four suits is related to four Jungian functions. The numerical
growth from Ace to 10 represents the progressive mastery of a problematic
situation, even when encountering a temporary defeat that may be connoted by
some numbered cards. The dynamics never stops: pictures tell us multiple
stories about feeling happy or feeling sad; making plans or breaking
promises; winning or losing; experiencing financial difficulties or laying
foundations for a marriage; falling in love or getting out of an abusive
relationship; starting a new venture or experiencing separation anxiety' The
ever expanding and varying multitude of experiential situations and events
may always present new challenges: the story of the Fool's journey is an
unlimited semiosis indeed.
At the level of sign-production information, encoded in the
pictorial story, is being transmitted vertically due to resonance-like
communication following the aforementioned "as above so below"
principle. But this Hermetic formula in not strictly mimetical: mimesis turns
into semiosis because of the signs' triadic relation. Noth (1995) points out
that different sign models, albeit retaining triadicity, do suggest different
interpretations of the relata: "the order of the relata in the process
of triadic mediation has been interpreted in a different way" (Noth
1995: 89), which means that the sequence of the "dotted line" may
shift for as long as it "closes" the triangle. In other words, the
The question, however, arises and here I would like to
reframe the aforementioned Augustine's classification of signs as follows:
if natural signs are non-intentional and by signifying something beyond
themselves make us aware of that category like the much-quoted smoke which
signifies fire; and if the unseen emotions behind a facial expression are
included in the class of natural signs; and if the same unseen emotions are
encoded in the iconic image of a particular card because it stands for an
archetypal pattern denoting, for example, strength (card number 8), or hope
(The Star, card number 17), or phobia (The Devil, card number 15), or the
unspeakable pain (The Tower, card number 16) then we arrive at a paradox
and have to question again whether the category of natural signs presupposes
intentionality and/or involves the idea of intention. In this respect Tarot
images not only represent intentional states, but also belong to the category
of signs used with communicative intent not the classical natural
unintentional signs, but the natural signs that are communicated with a sort
of unconscious intention. If so, the great divide between the sensible and
the intelligible, between Logos and Mythos, is indeed moot.
This relativity correlates with the ancient Hermetic worldview that posited
all manifested phenomena as based on the principle of homology, that is, the
only difference between any of them is just the degree of their evolutionary
development in space-time. Indeed, mind may very well become embodied in
matter as it so does in case of Tarot readings. The layout per se becomes a
visible, material link in a signifying chain of a larger symbolic order. And
sure enough, because it represents an instance of a diachronic, ex memoria,
unfolding of this signifying chain, this instance being but one synchronic
slice represented by a concrete spread, in this discursive enfoldment meaning
emerges. When past, present and possible future are combined together we not
only observe but also consciously participate in an instant of our own
evolution evolution of knowledge, evolution of consciousness.
The complex relationships between cards in each position can be inferred from the meaning of each. The static layout of each particular reading can be considered a closed system within a larger open one. This closed system, in semiological terms, represents a synchronic network of paradigmatic relationships, but the emergence of meaning the whole interpretation, that is is possible only because of the syntagmatic network of the signifieds and the existence of the temporal chain. In its material form, the Tarot spread may be considered a projection of what a Russian semiotician of the Tartu school, Yuri Lotman, called semiosphere (Lotman 1990), that is, a symbolic analogy to the concept of the biosphere of organic life. The universal field of communication phenomena envisaged by Russian neo-semioticians as part of a typology of cultures called for identification of the specific systems representing their "languages". And a universal field of communication phenomena in nature needs to identify its own system, which would represent the "language" it speaks, albeit in a non- linguistic mode. Lotman saw culture as a set of texts generated by some yet unknown rules, and a non-hereditary collective memory. As for nature, its generative rule is the principle of self-organization that, according to modern-day evolutionary biology, physics and chemistry, is capable of manifesting itself at a physical level; and its collective memory at the level of the psyche is being expressed via Tarot symbolism. Tarot thus functions in the capacity of a meta-language by means of which the non-hereditary, but self-organizing, collective memory speaks to us, and as such, in a metaphoric sense, gives birth to a new "text" after each "conversation".
The text that is being read must be first written metaphorically,
of course. So the emergence of a particular pattern in a spread represents
first the process of "writing". An invisible realm acquires
visibility and legibility, and in this respect the pictorial text of a layout
is the result of ordering of signs in accordance with the seemingly
generative, active and self-organizing, grammar. The "writer" the
subject of the reading speaks by means of projecting the
content of the "text" as aspects of his/her sociocultural history
and psychological memories appearing in the guise of pictorial cards.
Simultaneously, the subject is spoken to by becoming informed about
the meaning of this content during a reading. In the process of a reading the
subject, similar to cinematic suture, "inserts itself into the
symbolic register in the guise of a signifier, and in so doing gains meaning
at the expense of being" (Silverman 1984: 200), but and this is the
crucial difference for the purpose of becoming. The very idea of a
psychological change or transformation due to the discovery of meanings is
based on the principle of creating a new level of order, not maintaining the
existing one. In fact, the new level wouldn't be possible without the future
acting upon the present, being pulled into the present by archetypal forces
contained in the Memoria. In a larger frame the written text, albeit
expressed not in words but in pictures, is itself an interpretive system,
within which it acquires the status of a text when its writer the subject
of the reading perceives it as such. And in a very minimal sense, a reader
is a "bilingual" interpreter, whose function is to translate the
non-verbal "sounds" of the language of the unconscious into the
spoken word. Let us turn again to Augustine (in Clarke 1990: 26-27):
The transformation into the Word, that is, the action of signs from the viewpoint of sign-production, is thereby an intelligent, or