Archetype, Archetype, Who’s Got the Archetype?

Here are a few brief musings on the Medieval archetypes in the Tarot de Marseille trump cards, in contrast to their post-19th-Century psychological “rectification.” Note that I don’t delve deeply into the Christian iconography of the early decks, although I recognize its historical significance; I suggest reading Jean-Michel David or Alejandro Jodorowsky for that. Cherry Gilchrist’s Tarot Triumphs is another useful source.

It appears from the on-line conversations I’ve been following that there are two distinct chains of archetypal descent in the tarot. One of them — the older one — is culturally-specific, symbolizing conventions that were widely understood and accepted during the pre-Enlightenment era when they were first captured in the trump cards. Their appeal to the common sensibilities of the time seems obvious. These included the Juggler (a sleight-of-hand stage magician, trickster and mountebank, not an occult master); the “holy alliance” of Empress, Emperor and Pope (no explanation needed); the victorious Charioteer/Warrior-Knight; the four Platonic Virtues: Prudence/Wisdom (arguably pictured in the ascetic Hermit), Justice, Courage/Fortitude and Temperance; the concept of an intractable Fate (the Wheel of Fortune; the Tower; the nameless Trump XIII); the Devil; the Angel of Judgment; the mystical as well as observable Sun, Moon and Star; the Fool as an exemplar of folly, error and misfortune. Others are more metaphysically inscrutable than prosaic and therefore more problematic in their interpretation: the heretical Female Pope; the ambiguous Lover(s); the Traitor hung by his heels (a moral lesson as well as a form of lowbrow entertainment for the masses?); the exalted epiphany of the World (a celebratory post-Apocalyptic pirouette?). Before there were tarot cards, many of these archetypes were kept in the public eye during Medieval festivals as “floats” in triumphal parades.

The Occult Revival in Great Britain at the end of the 19th Century turned this iconography on its head. Suddenly the Fool, heading the procession as “Zero,” was a paragon of innocence and everything that followed was just an initiatory chapter in his spiritual development. This was fertile ground for Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” allegory, and for Carl Jung to pick up the ball with his psychological ramifications (although to be fair, Jung wrote very little about the tarot, it was his New Age acolytes who ran with his ideas, first with astrology and later with the archetypal “Fool’s Quest” of the tarot). The original Medieval motifs were largely lost in the shuffle. This isn’t a problem for those who work only with 20th-Century and newer decks (although the entire philosophical edifice seems a bit shaky if one isn’t interested in psychological profiling or mind-reading with the cards). But attempting to divine with historical decks like the Tarot de Marseille and its Italian forebears can produce a severe case of “culture shock.”

While it’s certainly possible to patch modern esoteric and psychological principles onto the antique trumps, it feels more than a little dishonest. Why would an inevitable turn of Fate necessarily be the purview of the “Greater Benefic,” Jupiter? Why would the scoundrel on the gibbet implausibly sacrifice himself for a nobler purpose? How did the Empress become a pregnant stand-in for Mother Nature? Would even the Emperor’s children call him “Daddy?” Shouldn’t that Woman be primly closing the Lion’s mouth instead of opening it, as Mr. Waite assures us is correct? Although I’ve been working with the esoteric tarot for almost 50 years, in trying to comprehend the social milieu in which the cards were created I’ve set myself the task of matching speeds with the cultural zeitgeist of the Renaissance period that produced it. It won’t be easy but I’m committed to getting more practical use out of my classical decks and I fully intend to read the cards according to their prefatory spirit (even if divination was never their intended purpose).

My understanding from numerous on-line conversations with European tarot enthusiasts is that many of them use only the 22 trump cards in divination. I’ve tried this approach but it seems a bit too much like reading a text message that is all capital letters and exclamation marks (like a Donald Trump tweet). There can be a lack of modulation in the message that, like Christopher Guest’s guitar amplifier in the movie This Is Spinal Tap, takes the volume up to “11.” It can be difficult to isolate that quiet inner voice we prize in our readings from all the shouting. I was thinking about this after re-watching the Enrique Enriquez documentary Tarology, in which he comments that “Life is a conversation that gets interrupted every five minutes.” In that sense, I prefer to see the trump cards as the notable exception that commandeers the telling of one’s tale rather than the rule when conversing with the subconscious. Within the context of the full deck of 78 cards, their random appearance in a reading can provide extraordinary emphasis in the middle of the kind of mundane scenario that typically prevails in daily life (at least for those who discount conflict as a routine occurrence). But I presume that it doesn’t happen all that often or all that dramatically for most of us. In striving for total equanimity and full disclosure, I anticipate receiving a mixed message every time I pick up a deck of tarot cards. I embrace neither optimism nor pessimism, but only realism (which can go either way.)

By the same token, trump cards often imply a level of significance that is unlikely to materialize in concrete terms, making it necessary to reinterpret the apparent influence we see in a card into more commonplace language while also adopting a more impressionistic point of view about its symbolism. For example, where the Chariot might seem at face value to indicate a major triumph of some kind following struggle, it may be more sensible to see it as merely portending an encouraging uptick in one’s fortunes (or at least one’s opportunities to act decisively). I would be more inclined to tell a client “Watch for hopeful signals in a situation you’ve been trying to nudge in a positive direction” than to exclaim “You can expect a great and glorious victory.” While it’s certainly true that small gestures can have large consequences for which we should be alert, in general I don’t think life works that way for most of us. At best, I might see the Chariot as suggesting the chance to move beyond present difficulties, perhaps while also fighting a “rear guard” action to keep pursuit at bay and distance oneself from ongoing entanglements; in other words, expect the best but watch your back and don’t sacrifice your forward momentum to complacency or inattention. Anything more spectacularly upbeat is probably illusory.

I find that “trumps-only” readings, to be effective in a “real-life” sense, require application of a more nuanced interpretive “template,” one that strips away the high-contrast vividness that we tend to ascribe to the trumps and replaces it with a more monochromatic “wash” of meaning. Enriquez commented that, upon moving to a major American metropolis, he found the buildings there to be like a “Hollywood facade,” and our customary understanding of the trumps can amount to the same thing. In fact, I’m more inclined to do “pips-only” readings that exclude trump cards than the other way around. To his credit, Enriquez did try to neutralize the “glamour” that has grown up around the trumps by advising us to look only at what is happening in the pictures and dismiss all other associations as “nonsense,” but this is easier said than done when the “personages” on many of them have antiquated, larger-than-life (and perhaps both overstated and oversimplified) religious and sociopolitical dimensions that must be scrubbed from our consciousness or at least molded into less grandiose modern assumptions.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at .

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