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Tarot Hermeneutics

Exploring How We Create Meaning with Tarot

Basic Tarot Hermeneutics Process

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For Small Groups, Readers and Nonreaders

The Tarot Hermeneutics process is a parlor game of infinite play. There are no winners or losers, only depth and mystery of play. Each player plays with their own strength and no expertise is needed to qualify a player.

This essay is a description of the introductory procedure for practicing tarot hermeneutics in small groups. Each member should have their own best known tarot deck for use.

For non-tarot-readers. Limit the deck in some way to ease participation, say, for example, to the Major Arcana only and provide a cheat sheet with glosses for the 22 majors. Add a half hour and some exercises to help people become acquainted with these cards and their images. Other approaches to the limited deck exploration. Aces or other number only. Royals only. Pips only. One or two suits only. Any set only. Any randomly selected group of cards.

For intermediate readers (these are tarot readers who can read the cards without needing a book for reference or books may be consulted, which merely extends time for the play in various steps): the whole deck or just parts of it can be used in the exercise.

In small groups of 3 or 4 readers, give them an item to examine. An art work, picture, painting, sculpture, household object, piece of machinery, any found object, or as in the rest of this example, a small selection, about a page or so, from some literary work, a novel, story, poem. Like Alice in Wonderland or Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

Processing the stimulus: Have people read it silently and also aloud a couple of times. Work actively with the object. Discuss the text with an eye for sensate experience and imaginative content. Identify the emotions and ideas suggested by the text. Given these descriptions of factors,  what do you think the text means?   

The purpose in the small group discussion is to act imaginatively and collaboratively, building upon each others’ associations as a team. Everyone may contribute and add to the discussion, with stories, feelings, and reservations.

The idea here is to open context. Each person brings to the discussion a lifespan of symbolic nexus, a context of lived experience. This symbolic frame is the conscious and unconscious/spiritual reach that reading tarot stimulates.

Organization of the groups: It is important to ask the team to find among themselves two people.

  1. One to record the central images and ideas of the participants through each step.
  2. And another person to summarize and report the results of their process and oracle inquiry to the larger group of the whole.

I believe it is important to take team time to process the item together. If they do not know what the item is for, ask them to imagine what it is. Make a note of these as clues or prods when applying the tarot. Imagination is the point to these exercises, not fixed knowledge. Fixed knowledge is the launching pad for flights of outlandish fancy and fun./p>

In our example of the literary text, add exercises to these readings such as what colors appear when a passage is read? or what feelings do you get? or does this remind you of some experience you have had? How do you envision the story continuing?

Bringing various senses and tactile stimulus by suggestion or association is important to enter into a non-serious space. Puns, jokes, eccentric opinions, whatever loosens the team up to play.

IInvent games to invite novel appreciation of the work.

  • Some simple games: "If I were this I would be..."
  • Color. Pun. Joke. Body part. Time of day. Part of speech. Feeling. Story.
  • Draw a picture for this story, or draw a picture from a story.
  • Dance a story.
  • Impersonate characters: Create dialogs between people or objects or aspects of objects. (Yes, inanimate objects talk.)

Stress that ideas be recorded and not edited. Ideas and images written down belong to the group as its common heritage. As each page for each step is completed leave them out so that any can read them./p>

There are no particular restrictions on how far you let associations develop. No unanimity of points of view need be sought. In fact the greater the diversity of perception the better the engagement of imaginative play. [Time limits and purpose is the only consideration] /p>

Once the item is well known and recreated imaginatively in the small group the tarot analytic section begins.

The tarot hermeneutics process has two distinct parts: The analytic and the random card selection.

The tarot analytic has two parts: a knowledge-base selection of a card and its interpretation that seeks to clarify larger contexts. The Interpretation process has three levels.

Each group member selects a tarot card from their knowledge of Tarot that reflects their understanding of the text.

Sharing their card selection, they share why they selected that card and what this means to them. Other members may add to the meaning of that choice. Also it is important to not critique or censor any choice anyone makes. (In fact stress that diversity or plurality opens more possibility than consensus. The only consensus sought for is trying to understanding someone’s’ point-of view.

Each group member shares their choice of card and their reasons in turn.

This completes the analytic selection of the card and the first level of interpretation.

Next follows the two-part reflexive interpretation of card meanings. This simple process is the heart of the tarot hermeneutic process. It is also why as a learning exercise we use an intersubjective object like a text, image or object and not interpersonal associations.

Now ask each member to consider: How does their card selection alter how they understand the text?

For instance let us say that one member selects The Magician and another member selects The Hermit as relevant to the same text. Each should be encouraged to offer explanations based on their interpretation of the text through the play and imaginative exercises and by what aspects of the card seem analogous or contrastive to provoke the selection.

ThThis invention of reasons may not be easy for anyone initially but it does in turn up unique ways to see anew the text and to extend how a card may evoke experience.

Let each struggle with their own choice of card for a while but eventually invite them to also seek help from other members of the group as a whole.  List the reasons, analogies, differences.

One helpful metaphor is seeing the selected card as a special set of glasses that stresses and suppresses various aspects of the text’s significance, perhaps like a funhouse mirror.p>

After the struggle with the reevaluation of the meaning text because of its association with the selected card, we move on to the final part of the reflexive interpretation.

Next ask the parallel question: How does the text alter our understanding of the meaning and significance of the Tarot card?

[Likewise this question needs to be unpacked so that participants do not short-shift the implications and creative horizons of surprising significance.]

Perhaps completing a sentence such as “The Magician now means to me, as a result of my seeing some likeness with the text … [for example, has an unseen female assistant who really does the trick while he distracts us with his patter.]”

The purpose of this inquiry is to show how our understanding of a card's significance is open-ended and constantly undergoing contextual revisions. Persistence in applying this three-fold way of interpreting a card’s appearance in context open up to scrutiny otherwise unnoticed levels of possibility of significance.

The process is completed with a repeat performance except, instead of a knowledge-based selection of a card, a card is drawn at random as the oracle's comment on the text, as a comment on our analytic selection of a card, as a comment on our group process, as comment on our analytic selection alternation of text meaning, as a comment on our analytic selection alternation of analytic card meaning to text. As a random-wisdom commentary on the text, how does this card alter the meaning of the text? As a random-wisdom commentary how does the text affect our interpretation of the meaning of this random card? 

There are many ways to select the random card. As parallel to the analytic selection, each group member, selects from their own deck a random card. Repeating the process as done for analytic selection, except one adds reflections on analytic process and selection, group process, text understanding, analytic card altered meaning, and then the understanding of text and random card without the inclusion of analytic pick.

Alternatively the group may select an array of cards to address both the analytic and random selections. I have a bias for parallel procedures but alternatives can be easily invented.

The purpose of this tarot hermeneutic exercise is to get readers to become more open to the evolving reflexivity of card meanings and symbolism. An aspect of reflexive meaning exists within each reader as their life-experience context which is highly memory dependent and radically non-standardizable. As such it suggests why no two tarot reader's will ever read the same cards the same way except as an entry to actual interpretation.

Once one or several tarot hermeneutics processes are repeated. It makes sense to have all the groups meet together and reflect on the process. It also makes sense to mix the groups for variant exercises. This process can be adapted to other pedagogical purposes for learning tarot or perfecting reader's skills. For example one can adapt this process for approaching spreads and layout placement and meanings as well as tarot cards.

This exercise provides in miniature the basic process to experiment in developing insight into the reflexive meaning of tarot card reading. It helps to make implicit contextual meaning explicit shared associative meanings.

ThThat the work is done in teams allows a variety of perspectives to float simultaneously, building the habit of collaborative readings, where each reader contributes their particular strength and view of a cards' function and at the same time, are invited to invent and entertain other ways of seeing the cards' meanings, brought on by other reader's insights and associations, and the object of inquiry and the stretching to apply known tarot associations to unknown subjects.

The process was developed for protracted engagement with whole literary works over extended periods. It was then extended by including aspect of surrealist games and open to any object. 

The fuller test of tarot interpretation is in the sustained group work applying tarot to many classic literary, philosophical, and sacred texts. Also developing systematic styles of inquiry into any number of subject areas where wisdom conversations are available. Art works and human organizations are grist for this oracular mill. 

Systematic is not meant so much as method as strings of association, some of which ravels and unravels as significance and incommensurable threads of possibility and improbability.

In sum: the tarot hermeneutic process is outlined below: It includes these elements and these basic steps. Note these basic steps are a bit more complex than in the description above.

Elements: tarot card deck, tarot card reader(s), object or text or part of object of text or idea to be studied.

The process can be done alone as a contemplative and analytic exercise or can be done in a small group as imaginative play.


  1. Convene, set limits, time, persons,
  2. Select object to study
    1. study
    2. play with
    3. analyze
    4. summarize
  3. Tarot reader(s) deliberately select appropriate card(s)
    1. invent reasons for card choice
    2. list reasons
    3. challenge reasons
    4. defend
  4. How does the card selected alter the sense of the object?
    1. what aspects of object are enhanced?
    2. what aspects of object are lost?
    3. summarize variant significance.
    4. How significant is the meaning of this alternation?
  5. How does the relationship between card and object alter our understanding of the card?
    1. what in the card's significance is emphasized?
    2. what is lost or deemphasized?
    3. summarize how the card's significance has been extended or diminished?
    4. is there a reason to remember this exercise?
  6. How can this knowledge become embedded in the oracular significance of the card?
    1. can some image, color, part, place, on the card become mnemonic for this knowledge?
    2. why would associating this knowledge with the card aid in regular tarot readings?
    3. can I see a practical or therapeutic significance to this knowledge?
  7. Reflect on exercise by random selecting card(s) as commentary upon process and results
    1. random card as commentary on the intrapersonal or intrapsychic process.
      1. What does it suggest of level of engagement?
      2. ability to follow directions in parts?
      3. frustration or serendipity?
    2. random card commentary on object of study
      1. what does it suggest about the object an/or our engagement with it?
    3. Random card commentary on our card selection?
      1. how does the appearance of random card alter our interpretation of the selected card?
      2. Does this alteration impact our sense of the card and/or our understanding of the object?
      3. do we wish to revise the scope of knowledge we uncovered in the juxtaposition of selected and random and object? In which ways and how?
    4. Random card commentary about interdependent revisions of the significance
      1. of selected card, random card?
      2. of selected card, random card and object?
      3. about our general conclusions?