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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Taroting the Red Book

About century years ago, Carl Jung retired from the psychiatric sanitarium where he worked, to attend to his private practice and to pursue his own studies of the Unconscious. Over the next several years, even decades, Jung developed the heart and soul of his analytical psychology.
Last year, after decades of sequestering, a central artifact of this study of his own Unconscious was published and translated. This Is Jung’s Red Book. It is a hand written, calligraphic and illuminated, illustrated with his own paintings, mandalas.

Here Jung gives expression through fantasies of the nature of the unconscious. The Red Book represents early appearances of contents from the unconscious. As Jung himself says in his autobiography, everything in his later psychology, his exploration of alchemy, his investigation into the meaning of archetypes, his formalizing of active imagination derives from these unvarnished experiences of his own psyche his own confrontation with the Unconscious.

It is one of those accidents of history that was at the same time that the Rider Waite Smith tarot deck was published. Jung himself seems not to have paid much attention to that innovative deck, so that when he references tarot in some of his later notes he is usually referring to the Marseille decks or some Swiss variation.

When learning how to do active imagination in a therapeutic setting, one learns that a way one comes to understand the meaning of symbols that arise in one’s fantasies, be they from waking reveries or sleeping images, is to amplify the symbols with other symbols. To let them speak to us. Not only in the dim light of some reductive rationality, but also as a way to uncover their deeper or more universal meaning.

Likewise with good tarot reading, after we have a general grasp of what the cards consensually mean, we should explore the images on the cards as symbols, allowing the symbols to evoke other symbols, until we have populated the whole world with a symbolic imagescape.

As one becomes a serious tarot reader, it is almost impossible, not to be affected by the understanding of symbolism current in analytical psychology and derived from Jung’s work. One of the important ways that we can enrich our understanding of tarot and, at the same time, drink from the source of Jungian insight, is to apply our tarot reading with a reading of the Red Book itself. In this way I am adding symbol upon symbols and am directly experiencing the language of the birds, meaning, opening myself to a pure unconscious dialogue with the unconscious. Perhaps the image that makes this clear is like a glass bottom boat, where I am able to see the undersea world without having to drown.

Jung’s fantasies in the Red Book act as keys within locks that open the wellsprings of the Unconscious. Here they are unvarnished, and though he provides some commentary, it is of the initial sort, that is still under the sway of the numinous material. As I read these fantasies, I lay out tarot cards as a way of guiding me further into the nature of the unconscious. I usually keep the spread as simple as possible.

Usually one card is all that I draw upon and then I ask of the card what it has to say about the fantasy and what the fantasy has to say about the card. Because the content of the Red Book is so rich I am a layout several cards in a pattern to encompass various aspects of the fantasy. What I have discovered here in learning how to reread my tarot cards in conjunction with the content of the Red Book is that the symbolic meaning of the cards on many levels is much richer than we are led to practice when attempting to apply tarot card meanings merely to the happenstance is of somebody’s everyday life.

I highly recommend that you make part of your tarot study a opening to the Unconscious by applying tarot cards to myths, fairy tales, alchemical allegories, stories, and when and if you’re so inclined, profound guides to the Unconscious such as Carl Jung’s Red Book. The one condition that I would suggest is the gentle reflection of the puzzle of the fantasy and its symbols with the learned understanding of the tarot card being only the prelude to what the card it may itself be suggesting about the fantasy. Likewise realize that because of the accident of that card coming up with this symbol and what it may mean is also opening new ways for you to understand not only the meaning of the fantasy but also the meaning of the tarot card. In this way we invite ourselves into a deeper and more profound level of association as far as what the cards mean.

Obviously it makes sense to keep these explorations in your own tarot journal. That the nature of the symbols may not readily makes sense to you, nor is it necessarily true that the ready at hand explanation is the most accurate. Maintaining a sense of puzzlement, bewilderment, perplexity, all opens one to the continuing influence of possible deeper and surprising integration. All symbols are multi-valent and so should never be reduced to merely a handful of associations.

This study will constantly reinvigorate the familiar symbols on the card so that they address greater levels of meaning and significance. Remember that as we learn the special ways of understanding the tarot and how it applies to the secret connection of things with one another, they are gifts that are to be treasured and also shared with the tarot community.

May the language of the birds free you in flight whether it be day or night.