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Symbological Interpretation

Symbolism is a vast well from which to draw card meanings, but there can be some problems in this area. Attributions to other occult disciplines are fairly consistent between different decks. (Admittedly, there will be a few differences, such as assigning Swords to Fire rather than the traditional Air element, but these can often be overlooked if you wish to do so.) Symbolism, on the other hand, varies from deck to deck. Even the dozens of variants of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck have some different symbolism.

The problem that arises from this is that your interpretations, when based on symbolism, really apply to only one or two decks at a time, unless only the most basic symbols are used. The Two of Wands in the Rider-Waite and its variants can easily be seen both as Bunning saw it (achievement and personal power) and as Waite did (desire for greater power despite having plenty). The Thoth version of the Two of Wands does not show these, in my opinion; it really does not show any concrete concept because the picture shows only the two Wands.

When you get into "themed" decks where all the cards relate to some central symbol or concept, this problem generally worsens. Trying to relate all the Tarot cards to a myth (Mythic Tarot, Arthurian Tarot), to an animal that appears in every card (Dragon Tarot, Unicorn Tarot) or to anything else that could be considered a theme (Tarot of Baseball, Herbal Tarot) generally does a good job of totally replacing the symbolism with something appropriate to the motif. And though this can create interesting and beautiful decks, it often interferes with the reader's ability to associate with symbolism.

If your decks are all extremely similar in symbolism, or if you use only one or two decks, the symbolism method may prove useful. For those who would like to try it, I will list some examples shortly. But for serious students with a number of different styles of decks, the effort needed to define the meanings for every symbol in every card would be enormous. If you wish to find meaning in symbolism anyway, you are by all means free to do so, since that is your choice. But I personally find it simpler to read with meanings that cover most, if not all, of the different decks I use.

That said, here are some of the most basic ways to interpret meaning through the use of symbolism.

  1. When a certain color is more prominent in the card than any other, there is usually a reason for it. Also, when an object is colored in such a way as to stand out from the surrounding scene, there is probably significance to be found in its colors. Each color has a wide range of attributions, but here are the most common ones:

  2. Numerological analysis really doesn't fall under symbols but I'll list it here because, when doing symbol analysis, numbers play an important role. The number of the card can be important, as can the number of any symbolic objects in the scene (animals, stars, leaves, flowers, etc.) A book on numerology will have more detail, but here are some general meanings:
    1. Creation, unity, beginnings, the first manifestation.
    2. Duality, opposites, balance, conjunction of opposites.
    3. Creative power, movement, the trinities.
    4. Foundations, solidity, stability, the elements.
    5. The microcosm, the five senses, also change and disruption.
    6. Harmony, balance, equilibrium, perfection.
    7. Intelligence, enlightenment, the highest point of wisdom.
    8. Regeneration, evolution, growth, strong founations.
    9. Attainment, fulfillment, perfection - a triple triad.
    10. Perfection, divine support, the return to Unity.
    Remember when working with Major Arcana that you can reduce the number by adding its digits (so 11 becomes 2, 12 becomes 3, and so forth.)

  3. The suit objects themselves can provide a lot of meaning, and each suit has its own basic principles of interpretation.

  4. What the characters in the scene (if any) are doing can provide a lot of insights into meaning. Are they looking at each other, away from each other, or are they both looking at the same thing? Do they seem friendly or hostile? If you can see their faces, what can you tell from their expressions? Does what they are saying with their face disagree with what they are doing with their body? It's hard to tell the personalities of people in static scenes, but often the color and style of the clothes they are wearing will give information on what they are feeling.

  5. Anything that looks out of the ordinary in a card is generally useful in a symbological analysis. Take for example the snail on the Rider-Waite Nine of Pentacles. In such a florid and well-tended garden one would not expect a snail to be crawling around underfoot. So why is it there? Another example in the Rider-Waite deck is the wind-buffeted trees in the middle of a desert landscape on the Knight of Swords. A hint: cypress trees are associated with Venus and therefore with emotions.

  6. What I call "recurring motifs" are symbols that appear on many cards of a suit and link them all together symbologically. The three main recurring motifs in the Major Arcana of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, for example, are the red-on-white color scheme, the river or pool, and the mountains. Cards that share a symbol like this often have a common meaning, and a card that probably should have such a symbol, but doesn't, is significant too. Why are the pyramids on the rest of the Rider-Waite deck's Wands court cards missing on the King of Wands?

This is not by any means a comprehensive list, but it should prove a good starting point for those interested in studying symbols in the Tarot cards. General symbols (angels, animals, flowers) are far too plentiful and complex to discuss in any detail, but a book on symbolism will have a comprehensive list of these. A psychological study on symbolism, such as those performed by Carl Jung, would be recommended reading for those genuinely interested in symbological analysis. Feel free to make your own personal list of symbols and expand upon that list as much as you see fit.

Copyright 2000 James Rioux