Understanding the Tarot


Until recently, I had never thought much of Tarot. I had of course heard of Tarot, and had some exposure to the major images, but not much more. As an avid proponent of sound method and reasoning from evidence, I found little reason to put stock in a system which seemed to have so little in common with reality as I experienced it.

A few months ago, my girlfriend gave me a book on Tarot as a gift. The book, The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards, by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa, seeks to explain the multiple layers of meaning the authors believe are contained in the deck. Before this relationship, I had never heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Now, I am obsessed. He is a fascinating person, striking for his combination of esoteric worldview and remarkable productivity.

There are many people with unconventional worldviews, and many people who are highly productive, but far fewer who are both. In this book, Jodorowsky recounts the years he spent familiarizing himself with the cards of the Tarot, going so far as to take each card, one by one, put it in his pocket, and go on long walks through nature in order to better familiarize himself with that card’s inner essence.

While I think of myself as a very rational and grounded person, I have nonetheless had my encounters with various schools of esoteric thought. Books like The Celestine Prophecy and Only Love is Real, and films like Cloud Atlas, with their themes of people being bound together across generations, spoke to me deeply.

As I learned more about Jodorowsky’s views, I became intrigued, and decided to give the book a shot. Here was someone who had spent decades trying to understand a common cultural object; a person and an effort which I could not help but respect. At the very least, I would know a little bit more about Tarot — a conversation piece at the very least.

Having read the book, my opinion of Tarot has changed. While I still do not believe that a Tarot deck has sensitivity to some sort of metaphysical energy, and that a Tarot reading can somehow provide someone insight into the their future, I do understand how the Tarot can be seen as a complex and sophisticated symbolic framework, through which one can frame one’s thinking on a wide variety of issues.

We will now consider the structure of that framework and connections to other sets of ideas.


The Tarot is meant to be a map of the human experience. Just as maps of the world have north, south, east, and west as organizing principles, the Tarot has organizing principles of its own.

The first is the distinction between reception and action. One cannot be listening and speaking at the same time. One cannot be both acting  in the world and reflecting on their experiences in the same moment. These two stances define each other.

The second is the distinction body and spirit. The Tarot views humans as having a corporeal dimension and a more elevated, spiritual dimension. We work in order to sustain our bodies, and we make friendships in order to sustain our spirits. As with reception and action, each of these ideals help define the other.

In making our map, we set these two tensions at right angles, with spirit to the top, body to the bottom, active to the right, and receptive to the left. Doing so, we arrive at four centers: the active spiritual (intellectual life), the active physical (creativity and sexuality), the receptive spiritual (emotional life) and the receptive physical (physical needs):


Four Centers


In time, we will see how these four centers correspond directly to the four “suits” of the deck, but for now it is worth a pause to reflect on the power and simplicity of this mapping. The tension between active and receptive is embedded into our culture, with the idea of the work week and the weekend. The tension between physical and spiritual lives is a central subject matter for myriad world religions. The melding of two basic dialectical tensions to create four distinct “centers” is an achievement of metaphor of no small consequence. This is the central organizing principle of the Tarot: every card will exist in some relation to these fundamental tensions.


Musical notes are helical in nature:




In one sense, notes repeat in endless cycles known as octaves. In another sense, however, there is a linear progression of frequencies. This notion of helical progress, in which aspects of life occur in repeating cycles of transformation, while other aspects of our life exhibit linear progress, is central to the Tarot. This same notion of cycles is familiar to Western culture, being the structure of the “Hero’s Journey” popularized by Joseph Campbell:


In the Tarot, a single instance of this cyclical journey is represented by the numerals 1 to 10, with 1 representing the beginning of the journey and 10 the end. All of the cards of the Tarot exist in some relation to one or more of these 1-10 sequences.


By now, it is hopefully clear that the symbolism of the Tarot is far from esoteric: rather, this framework takes as its basic components some of the most universal concepts in our culture. Where the Tarot truly “pops” is in the way it integrates all of these concepts together:

Cycle of Ten

Here we see the integration of the two basic tensions (active/receptive and physical/spiritual) with the linear numeric sequence associated with a cycle of growth and transformation. In this view, the card numbered 1 can be seen as representing total potential, while the card numbered 10 can be seen as representing total realization. Between them, the cards numbered 2 through 9 can be seen as “traversing” the transformative process by alternating through phases of action and reception, ascending from initial, basic challenges to the more lofty and elevated:

  1.  Total potential
  2. Initial reception, preparation
  3. First action, unskilled
  4. Experience, stability
  5. Skillful action
  6. Reflection, deepening
  7. Purposeful action
  8. Spiritual perfection
  9. Discontent, yearning
  10. Realization, ending

Upon reaching the end of one cycle, we find ourselves at the beginning of the next. The four centers map to the four suits: intellect as swords, sexual/creativity as wands, emotional as cups, and corporeal as pentacles.


We are now able to see how, given this symbolic framework, every card in the Tarot is laden with meaning. The two tensions yield the four centers, or suits. The numeric sequence gives us the cyclical journey. The five of wands then comes to symbolize skillful action in our creative lives. The ten of cups comes to symbolize the end of a chapter in our emotional development. The Chariot, with the number 7, comes to symbolize deeply purposeful action in the world.

The cards of the Tarot are heavy with symbolism, but that symbolism is far from arbitrary. Every card sits at the intersection of a handful of fundamental human concepts, and the Tarot therefore becomes a language for reasoning about the human experience.

To end this post, consider The World, the last of the major arcana, the symbol of total realization. Some say The World is a map of the Tarot: the four centers, with a fifth center (consciousness) unifying them all:




What do you see?


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