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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Tarot as Divination

There is a great deal of energy expended trying to discover the original tarot. It is pretty well understood that as a deck of cards used in gambling and other forms of gaming the technology did not exist until around 1350 – 1450. The design of the cards and their suit structure has definite origins in the Middle East and probably made its way into Italy just prior to the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople completed in 1453.

My emphasis in this essay however is not in the early structure of the tarot cards themselves, or their prototype in Ottoman playing cards. Rather I think that one must understand that the cards themselves as an oracle are secondary to the fact that reading them is a continuation of a ancient and universal practice of divination.

The most a universal, one could say archetypal, pattern for divination is definitely astrology. It is always the most developed system of divination in world cultures that have developed histories of writing. Understanding astrology was part of the royal court system of laws that represented the cycle of nature and the cycle of society in Sumerian and later Babylonian record writing systems. Lists and lists of particular instants line up in lines a variant order.

The myths of primitive people pretty much universally include star and solar system lore as a basis of how human beings fit into the world and behave towards one another.

Maps of cities and territories were based on how the heavens were understood not only mythically but also observationally. Stonehenge for instance shows an uncanny correspondence to the nature of the heavens as observed during the time these stones were erected.

Though astrology is definitely the most elaborate, even to this day, system of divination, other styles of divination were also very much in evidence. In China the I Ching provides a systematization of an oracle that was based on recognition of patterns in the natural world. Likewise reading the spontaneous patterns from the entrails of sacrificed animals and other natural phenomena represent ways of attempting to discover patterns, especially periodic repetitions of change in the world.

Here one not only has the beginning of religion as a recognition of our interdependent needing to stand within each other and the world in order to survive, but also the striving to understand science as a recognition of the patterns that hold the world together that are both visible and invisible. Here the invisible includes both the vast as the macrocosmic heavens and the miniscule as in the microcosmic infinitesimal atoms or substance that holds everything together and yet allows things to be different as living and nonliving.

Let us for a moment look deeply into what the word divination means.

To divine means to recognize the pattern of something that is not otherwise recognizable. We all exist within structures and the structures in time show us repetitions and variations that lead to semblances of predictability. Divination is grasping the sameness in the chaos of differences so that the differences do not overwhelm. Likewise divination is grasping the significance of change in the wedge work of similarities and routine.

Looking deeply into what it is we do when we divine, we can say that we are on the cusp, on the edge, looking two ways, inside and outside simultaneously. Likewise our two eyes provide depth. Whereas one eye, will see everything as flat and without the roundness of levels. Two eyes provide this sense of depth by doubling or overlapping what it sees. So it is with divining, we are seeing what is plainly seeable, and what is not yet brought into seeing.

Seeing what cannot be seen but is suggested in the seeing is the psychophysiology of divination. It is not what we use for divination, so much as it is, in how we retrain our brains to see what is otherwise not seeable.

This is called the imagination. Imagination is the mirror of perception. Likewise imagination is the mirror of misperception. How we train our imaginations as organs of valid knowledge is at the heart of divining.

For instance, in tarot, though we do pay attention to the regularities of the suit structure of the deck and the repetition of numbers and images on the cards as holding significance, what usually attracts us as tarot readers are the specific images, and the way they suggest ambiguous and multifaceted human situations. It is the image as reproduced within our imagination that both takes us away from the physical object of the card, and at the same time through careful observation the image as perceived can also reinvigorate our imagination to see otherwise than what we have thought to have seen before. One can study cards for years, and realize that there are aspects of the cards in the images that we have systematically overlooked, seen without seeing what is actually there. Noting these discrepancies and ambiguities can be one way to refresh our interpretations of cards and their meaning.

So I would never go so far as to say that the thing that is used in divination is not without significance, our tarot cards are not tabla rosas but specific images of various and ambiguous purport. It is the fact that they are images, however, that, though renewed in the perception of them, become pliable in the imagining of them as a tapestry of interconnecting significances ever unfolding in the mind of the tarot reader.

There is a genius to the beginner mind of tarot reading that is constantly shown by people new to the discipline who show ingenious ways of reading the images they see and interpret, that often open vistas of insight and understanding that the consensual meaning of the card has closed off. Many tarot readers rush to develop a general sense of what each card means and revisit that understanding when encountering the card in a reading.

Eventually this practice can lead to an innervations of creative tarot interpretations. Yes, we must rely upon our memory but not so much so as to dictate the meaning of the card; but rather as to remind us of its many levels of possibility that is offered in each encounter with the card. Each card held by itself can, when properly introduced into our imaginative faculty, should, in theory, offer a new possibility of meaning every time it appears. By this assertion I am not suggesting that any card can mean anything, because the card itself as designed offers us the invitation to discover its hidden suggestions of significance otherwise not yet encountered. In some ways then, our recalling what the card consensual y means represents a form of premature closure on true import of the significance of the card.

I believe that one of the reasons why we tend to be so promiscuous with our decks of various tarots is that we recognize the laziness by which we glaze over falsely familiar images in our encounter with the card, losing the mystery of the card as it seeks to speak to us anew in each genuine act of divination. Divination then is an invitation to see the world now as ever new and pristine. Each moment is a complete new creation. To the degree that we see and experience this new creation we are blissfully awake to infinite possibility and wonder, awe and the mysteria tremens.

And it is as divination that I am concerned here. So to continue with my unpacking the meaning of divination let us continue, we are on the edge of a mirror that recognizes the unity of all by reflecting the all in the all as a one.  This holistic vision is the interior vision par excellent. It is as it were a sort of a racing of the imagination so that the imaginal can reappear in its pristine way that creation is ever renewed in the instant.

Being on the edge is then being both inside and outside the suggestions of the image. The discipline of the perception of the image is what invites us into the external mystery. One could say that this is the science of tarot. Likewise, there is an inside to the image as mirrored or re-created in the living imaginal fabric of our concrete perceptive consciousness that blends our discrete perceptions into a whole that is more and, if we get critical, less than what we actually perceive. Tarot reading as an intuitive process develops the many facets of this imaginal realm.

Recognizing that we are between, but betwixt, holding together, laced in a pattern, strapped to a web of intersecting significances, that are like perfume and mist, images reflected on smoke, flapping into potentialities and possibilities, while slapping over the shoals of actualities and limitations, shaped by the surfaces of sea and ocean, rolling waves against the shore, that carves gossamer lacing sea foam upon the sand, in its season, we call ourselves, a life ever in their turning the tide of birth and death, of in breath and out breath, energetic patterns of growth and decay, metamorphoses of self as other and other as self. It is the image itself that invites us into the mystery that is beyond this divide, disguised as self and other and other as self.

When we locate this imaginal world within our capacities, it carries with it a sort of bliss or ecstasy. The ecstasy causes us to embrace the bold wideness of the sky with all its vast reach that becomes our intimate area of the living significance and possibility, while at the same time, it concentrates us into an enstasy of intricate and minuscule comprehension of the negligible in the small. One of the seductions of quantum physics is its archetypal nature to tease us into this ecstatic/enstatic mode of bliss. The bliss is the nature of consciousness acting as consciousness without the trappings of ego identification. To the degree that we import identification into our bliss, we begin to corral our edgeless being into being less than what it is, and we become imprisoned by space that is by its nature, merely a bow to our own intentional being.  Space is the mirror in which things seem to be things in their pattern. Place is an important positioning, where this delving into the mystery unfolds into our stories that arise as we feel our way through the patterns given us by the images on the card.

Put simply imagination is the sacred space of psychic intuition that allows us to see the true nature of things, if we do not cover them over too much with our reliance upon a rote and memory. Memory can be either a friend or a foe that goads us to accept what messages it brings at face value without further investigation.  Here we use memory as an enemy to true perception.  Memory as a friend invites us to rethink what we know into the present fabric of new circumstances that offers new possibilities, and thankfully in the bliss of the present we may well seek a further significance in what yet remains unsaid in the ever unfolding significance of the possibility endlessly teasing us by its silence to hear the untold story in the never ending story.

Divination then is as intoxicating as is poetry and art, and, for the same reason, it has to be looked upon with suspicion by those who too willingly sacrifice the divine to human reason and a sense of control and organized wonder. Tarot readers are as subversive as the poets, artists, and the anarchists who haunt the margins of civilization, not as its enemies but as its true prophets. Likewise consider how delicate the art of divination may proceed within each of us by degrees and by happenstance. In attempting to create standards and certification of practice, some of us may prematurely miss the mark of understanding how apparently whimsical and wily divination can be for each reader daily. Though such efforts are worthy of esteem within the confines of human systems and moral norms, divinization itself seems to resists such standardization. Standardization makes sense when considering the outside of the visionary capacity, such as training the eye to see what the actual image is and not skipping over the perception to  presumed image.  The true creative image stimulates on the inside of the tarot reader, a substituting semblance that is both subject and object as one imaginal act that opens us into the mystery of lives and things. Such creativity cannot be certified or codified.