Tarot Card Confusion

by Douglas Gibb on May 26, 2009

Question over Tarot card meanings

These last few days have seen me searching the Internet for other like minded Tarot blogs and websites. In the short time that I’ve spent on these sites I noticed that the most common mistakes centre on five cards; the Fool and the Magician; the Hierophant; The Emperor and the Hermit. Either the writers don’t understand the root concepts behind these cards or they’re writing them in such a way that the overall effect blends their meanings interchangeably. I thought I’d take this opportunity to see if I couldn’t clarify some of the key concepts behind these cards.

Historical Events

When I was learning the Tarot, I would often connect cards to historical events, this came naturally to me; I love history. Before we take a look at the five cards mentioned above, I want to give a very brief example of how I can get a lot out of thinking of the cards, albeit in a very general sense, historically.

The Black Death

The Tarot was first introduced into Europe between 1420 and 1440 in Italy. In Europe, the Black Death was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1347 and 1351. Whenever I contemplate the Death card I can’t help but wonder if the original designer of Tarot was influenced by this event. When I therefore see the Death card, I think of two things. I think about a force of nature that is outside of human control, and I also see, not just in terms of old age, death affecting everything (sometimes in a frightening and all encompassing way) and everyone, regardless of age. Death, in a divinatory sense, does not so much indicate a personal resistance to change or a transforming experience (although that is still the case, if the cards point to subjective experience, which is rare) but a force outside of the individual; that is greater than the individual. Resistance, in this sense, is such a silly word because there is nothing to resist. Death cannot be controlled and it cannot be influenced to any great extent. Our powers of influence, with regards to influencing Death, are so small that the perceived difference is negligible.

DeathHowever, transforming experiences do happen. Consider near death experiences that people have and the far reaching and life changing effects this brings. Like I said earlier, this is rare and not often seen, in part, because not many people ‘cheat death’. The reason it’s a point of interest, is because of its rarity of occurrence. In an everyday sense, the Death card indicates letting go of old habits. However, I have often found that when Death appears in a reading, it indicates something outside of the clients control; something that will alter or change things; something that will not be enjoyed; something where the client will try to ‘cheat death’, but more than likely, not succeed. Incidentally, not succeeding is a good thing spiritually. The death of the personality, if not the body, can produce greater awareness of consciousness.

Tarot’s Relationship With History

The example of the Death card was to indicate, before we start our examination of the five cards I mentioned above, two things. The first was how history and its relation to an event and the development of Tarot, helped to shape my understanding. The second is influenced by personal experience in reading Tarot cards for a living. I will be applying both these methods in an attempt to clarify the cards outlined below. I want to make one final point; these are techniques or ways of contemplating the cards that have worked for me and I know they won’t work for everyone, nor should they. One of the exciting things about studying the Tarot is to find ways that both you and the Tarot can grow and enrich each other; I’ve often found that my experience of life in general has been greatly impacted by this developing relationship.

The trick to relating to these cards is to remember that once upon a time, the Emperor was a real person; the Pope had a direct hand in the running of politics and horses were every day sights (not, trains, planes or automobiles). Nowadays, it’s hard to relate to the image of a Chariot, or a Papus, or a Queen in the same way people would have done back in 1440. We have a difficult job in trying to make these images everyday things and experiences in the same way it would have once been. It’s not unlike trying to learn the Mayan calendar; we have not grown into that system, it is foreign and yet, with time and contemplation that calendar can become just as natural and instinctual as our own. It is no different with Tarot card imagery. With all that said, let us look at some more cards.

The Fool Card

When I think of the Fool, I usually represent him as a beggar, a person without money or power. In the Visconti-Sforza deck, which is dated to around 1450, the Fool is dressed in white rags. I always like to connect my ideas to historical concepts as best I can because it usually allows for a greater degree of understanding and depth. Incidentally, when I first started contemplating the history behind the Tarot images, I noticed a huge improvement in my ability to read.

The FoolThe Fool has no experience. That’s the first point to consider when thinking of the Fool. For example, if the Fool appears in a reading concerning a relationship, I would say that the people involved have no previous experience with which to guide them. If they did, then you would see the Magician. Instead, they are experiencing a completely new type of relationship, any rules that they used to use to gauge a relationship or used to use to reassure them, are now no longer relevant.

The next important consideration for the Fool card is the lack of authority, power or money he has; in fact, he has none of these things. The Fool, in some respects, also promises none of these things. What it indicates is something new; something that you would ordinarily mock (like all good beggars are) and also something unexpected. On a spiritual level, beggars were connected to divinity, and in some senses this paradox (no money; outside the rules of society) elevated them to a divine status – not unlike the Pope. This is due to the spiritual principles of poverty and (traditional spirituality included) being outside the conditions of society.

The Magician

The Magus

The Magician is experienced. Perhaps, too experienced? He’s a fast talking coward that will say anything or do anything to get what he wants; he’s a con man and a thief who employs sleight of hand and deception; he’s educated; he’s a Magus; he’s spiritually enlightened (for different reasons to the Fool); in other words he’s a contradiction. In a reading, do we like him?

Personally, I’ve found him to be a contradiction; an ambiguous influence. Usually, he’ll indicate the client is self-employed or is at least planning to be. In relationship readings, he’s not to be trusted, he lacks commitment and depth. However, he can indicate a type of confidence; the kind that doesn’t exist unless it’s in the moment, talking fast and making things happen.

The Hierophant

The Hierophant card was formally known as the Pope. During the 12th and 13th centuries the Pope had huge power over the political landscape of Europe (more on the connection with the Holy Roman Empire, the Hierophant and the Emperor, later in this post), often dictating War; the Crusades. However, by the time the Tarot was being used as a card game their influence and power had already peaked. I see this tension every time the Hierophant appears in a reading.

HierophantThe Hierophant card still has many of the ‘Pope’ style influences within it. It is a dogmatic and inflexible, perhaps even stubborn influence. This card, in its Pope role, isn’t somebody who offers guidance, rather he offers dogmatic lessons; he is the establishment in schools, business and in matters of spirituality. The concerns of the individual are irrelevant. In this aspect of the card, the Pope can have an influence on the politics of the client.

In its Hierophant role, this card is about initiating people into the mystery traditions, such as the Golden Dawn (although the term Hierophant was originally used to indicate the mystery schools of the Greeks; and their initiator into those mysteries). Perhaps, in a less formal way, this card is about hidden knowledge. I once read an excellent application of this principle in a divinatory reading; if the question concerns love: Love is indicated but the nature of which has not yet been revealed. It’s worth trying to apply that principle, if the other cards indicate it as being appropriate, to other life style questions.

In a divinatory sense, I have experienced both sides of this card. It rarely indicates advice, unless it’s in a formal dogmatic way; such as a financial adviser, Lawyer and so on. In this case it’s important to confirm, through examination of the other cards, the accuracy of this advice. It can also indicate the structure of an organisation and so on.

The Emperor

The EmperorThe Emperor is also a card that seems to be misunderstood. In a very basic way, if this card appears in a reading, it indicates authority. The history of Rome went through three distinct phases; the Kings, the Senate and the Emperors. It’s interesting to contemplate the transition from King to Emperor; what does that mean for the Emperor Tarot Card? The people didn’t like a monarchy so they formed the Senate; but that too gave way to the Emperors; possibly as a result of indecision (there were actually many different factors) amongst the Senate. What does that tell you about the Emperor and his role? What role does he fulfill?

The Emperor does not listen to advice. The Senate, to use an example, is just for show. The Emperor does not make a good lover, husband or wife. The Emperor controls; the Emperor dictates; the Emperor makes laws and expects them to be obeyed. In a divinatory sense, the Emperor represents the clients Employer (or, depending on the cards) indicates that they are the Employer. In a relationship reading it indicates control, perhaps bullying.

The relationship the Emperor has with the Hierophant is complex. Historically, power between these two key figures oscillated. It’s well worth considering this to aid in your connection to these cards and their respective roles.

The Hermit

The Hermit does not care about worldly matters. The Hermit does not care about relationships, politics, money, wealth or power. Historically, the Hermit was somebody who gave up everything to lead a spiritual life; that is actually a gross over simplification but my description is helpful within the context of understanding the Hermit card.

The HermitThe Hermit does not seek relationships with others. People seek relationships with them. This is an important point, although the Hermit can indicate guidance from somebody else, this situation is unusual. The client themselves would have to cultivate the relationship with the Hermit before the Hermit felt it was appropriate to offer guidance. Also, because the Hermit cares little for worldly matters, the guidance or advice given will not always be easy to hear.

The Hermit was often pictured holding an hour glass to indicate Time (in many ways this might have been the most prominent concept behind the Hermit); this links into several related concepts to do with old age and wisdom. In a Tarot reading this card can indicate time.

In addition to the historic influence of the card, I have found that the card points to issues of secrecy and concealment. In this matter, the card can indicate concealed feelings for somebody; being covert; keeping things hidden; wanting to be on their own. Finally, given the overall concept of retreating from the world, I have found that this card can also indicate alcoholism; gambling and addiction (especially if the 7 of Cups is present).

Conclusion

Overall then, the most important concepts that I want to convey are: linking the cards in a very fast and loose way to historical events can assist our relationships to the cards. By being clear about the concepts behind certain cards we can more easily apply those concepts in a divinatory sense. In fact, that’s why keywords are better, in general, than long descriptions. Once you’re clear about some of those basic concepts then the Free Association Exercise can be used to create your own unique vocabulary.

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8 comments… Let's discuss

Chris May 28, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Fascinating stuff

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Douglas May 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Thanks Chris, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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Ginger September 17, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I skimmed over this post a while back and then “lost it” among all the posts here…I’m glad I found it again…the part about the Hierophant was very helpful because I have never really understood this card. The Hermit one…hmmm….”does not seek relationships…people seek relationships with them.” So could it also represent and aloof individual?

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Douglas September 17, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Hi Ginger,

Thank you for your kind words :)

Yes, the Hermit can signify, in certain situations, an aloof individual.

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Donnaleigh July 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

Great blog, and very insightful! And of course, it begs the question, “Is there a right/wrong way to read tarot?” Will people see what they are meant to see? If the Heirophant means mentor to you but to me it is Hermit…would we each get the card we are supposed to see? Or if I see Magician as adept, would he come up reversed for me to share the meaning you see as him being a trickster? There are so many layers to a card that they can be difficult to pin down by logic, and yet what seems to come through, somehow, is truth.

Delightful blog as always, Doug. I am forever intrigued by your teachings and learn every time I come. Please keep them coming. I’m waiting for the book to be published.

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Douglas Gibb July 15, 2010 at 12:15 am

Hi Donnaleigh,

Thank you for your kind words. Lol, I’m to lazy to write a book :)

You’re right, it does beg the question. Is there a right way to read a Tarot card?

My answer would be no. There is no one right way. I never used to hold this position. In fact it has only recently changed. What I now think is that the real key is understanding why you think X-Card means such an such. Without knowing why, it’s to easy to get confused. The trick is in having clarity.

Thank you for the great comment and adding to this conversation.

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ravenstorm February 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I think that you are off on your depiction in one way. Perception is belief in the eye of the beholder! After all the tarot cards are mostly on what will happen in the future. In your perceptions I notice that most of them have a relatively negative spin, which I should mention I am an empath so I can feel the weight of your words. Laugh if you don’t believe or if you know what an empath is then you know that I am likely right when I say you have had some bad experience that has left you with a heavy spirit. I try to add a positive spin and tell the truth in each reading. And I have not once yet done a reading where people have now been in aw of the understanding of their path. My apologies if I sound like I am bashing your method, but I read exactly opposite and have great results! Brightest Blessings!!

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Douglas Gibb March 3, 2013 at 3:04 am

Hi Ravenstorm,

Good comment.

Yes, I can accept that my interpretations in this post are approaching the negative. Perhaps you’re right to mention my past as a potential cause, however, another factor that leads me to interpret the cards in the way that I do is influenced by the context in which I read. A large part of my earnings come form working for a psychic phone line company. The methods required to be successful via this medium have in no small way shaped my perceptions.

As a side note, you may be interested in a post that I wrote on perception and how understanding the mechanics behind perception can help with readings. But the real reason I mention this post is two-fold. Firstly, this post on Tarot Card Confusion was one of the first articles I wrote. My approach has changed since then. Secondly, and more importantly, I mention it to validate your comment.

Thanks for the feedback :)

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