Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What's in a Picture?

At some point as a tarot reader, one questions the importance of the images on the cards.  I doubt anyone these days would argue that the pictures and symbols of the tarot are meaningless or that one could just as easily draw from a pack of cards labeled only with the card titles and get the same reading.

However, there is always the question as to how much to rely on the standard meanings and how much to incorporate the images into a reading.  After all, if we had no mutually agreed-upon interpretations for the cards, then the tarot pack would be no different from an oracle deck.

The Un/importance of Image?


The images of a tarot (or oracle) card do a lot of things.

  • They contain important symbols, people, and scenes that can tell us what the reading is about
  • They show where people are looking or energy is flowing in the spread
  • They set a mood (within the card, within the spread, or both)
  • And a lot of other things!

We, as humans, have developed to receive and rely upon visual stimuli for survival, so it makes sense that the image of a card - what we can SEE - holds a lot of weight for us. 

Still, rote definitions have their place in a tarot reading.  Archetypal decks, such as the RWS, TdM, and Harris-Crowley (Thoth), and decks styled like them have a set of meanings for each card that have become somewhat a tradition for the deck.  In the RWS tradition, the Three of Swords is not a fantastic card (what with all that heartbreak and needing to heal your hurts), while I would be rather happy to see it in a TdM deck (because an explosion of new ideas is usually welcome).

I see no difference...


Also, new "tarot" decks, like the Dreams of Gaia Tarot or the Mary-El Tarot, have broken with the Golden Trio of traditional decks to redefine each card as the creator envisioned its energies.  Because I believe in honoring the intentions of the creator whenever possible, I think it's necessary to at least read through the guidebooks that accompany such trailblazing decks to better understand the meaning and symbolism of each card.

But this brings us back to our original conundrum:  How much should we focus on the card image, and how much should we focus on the card's definition?

The answer is, I don't know, and I can't tell you.  We each as tarot and/or oracle card readers must discover that for ourselves.  I know, I know.  It's a total cop-out, but there really isn't any other fair answer.

However, one thing we must never do is judge someone for their reading style, regardless if it's based completely on definitions or card images.  No one is an automaton for using a definition-based style, and no one is a wishy-washy intuitive for using an image-based style.  Each way has its strengths and weaknesses, and just because I might prefer one way doesn't invalidate anyone else's way.


How I Incorporate Image Interpretation into My Readings


Personally, I start by grasping the meaning of each card in a spread by referencing an internal catalog of possible interpretations and aligning those with the positions (if any).  This first step not only allows me to check that I actually know what the card is trying to convey, but also I can observe my "gut response" for any consonance or dissonance for each card's meaning in the present spread.  Does something seem to contradict its standard meaning or interpretation?  Is there a card that seems not to fit in with the others?  What does everything mean individually and together?

If there are any cards that don't seem to align with their standard meanings, I pick them up and take a good hard look at them.  Usually I look for

  • symbols
  • items that figures are holding
  • the directions figures are facing
  • what figures are doing
  • the apparent attitude with which those figures act
  • items in the background 
  • the overall mood of the card - how does it make me feel?

The images provide clues as to what the creator of the deck is trying to convey; the images that I notice and focus on are the ones that my deep self is telling me are critical for understanding the cards.

A knight in shining armor and a knight who looks a little lost?


For Major Arcana, I might also think about the astrological and elemental associations usually associated with it.  For Minor Arcana, I first note the Suit and Number/Rank and think about what the specific combination can mean.  When I've thought about possible meanings, I look to the card again for guidance about which interpretations are best represented in the image.  Those become the "main meaning" of the card for that context/reading.  Any interpretations that are not supported by the card image become minor layers of meaning.

Once I've actually figured out what a card is trying to tell me, I begin to adjust the reading by noting the visual relationships (e.g., similarities, implied lines, etc.) between the cards.  Are certain figures facing each other or turning away from each other?  Is someone walking or riding towards another card?  Are objects upturned, spilled, slashing, pointing, cutting?  What do these visual relationships tell me?

From there, I start to weave together the reading, to make sense of everything together.

So I guess you could say that I incorporate a mix of definition-based reading with image-based reading, taking definitions as a starting point and expanding upon them based on the images of each card.  Everyone will have a different reading style, so others will have different proportions of definition-to-image bases for themselves.

I honor that, and I honor you as continue on your tarot journey.

Blessings!

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