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Tarot and Symbolism

May 31, 2010

In a recent Tarot Webinar I was teaching, we briefly got on to the subject of what a wolf symbolizes.  A couple of the things we talked about involved the fact that it is a pack animal, which can indicate sociability and group loyalty.  There are, of course, a great many other symbolic associations with this animal, and I’ll get to a few of them in a minute. However, first I want to talk a bit about symbolism and Tarot.

Symbols on a Tarot card can help you interpret its message, especially when you “draw a blank.” So the next time you’re doing a reading, consider what symbol on the card catches your eye.  Was the bag at the end of the Fools stick the first thing you noticed when you looked at that card? Maybe this says that you are carrying some excess baggage in your life.  What if your eye was drawn to the sunflowers on the Sun card?  Since sunflowers always face the sun, they can symbolize either optimism or a tendency to look at the sunny side of things while ignoring the shadow issues.  On the Nine of Pentacles, what might the falcon symbolize?  This bird is sometimes seen as a symbol of triumph over our sensual nature since it hunts the “ever lustful” hare.  Also, the fact that in this image the falcon is hooded can indicate a restraint of power.

. . My recoloring of the RWS Fool card . . My recoloring of the RWS Sun card . . My recoloring of the RWS Nine of Pentacles

There is great value in understanding symbolism, so I would like to recommend a few references that may come in handy.  First, there are a couple of symbolism dictionaries that I can recommend.  One is A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot and another is Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann.  The former is perhaps more detailed, but the latter is more accessible to the layman. An online resource worth note, Symbolism Wiki, is a wiki-based guide to symbolism in literature.

If you want books that are specifically aimed at the symbolism of the Tarot, here are three options:

Tarot Symbolism by Robert O’Neill.  This is probably the best book on this subject, but it is out of print.  However, I’ve heard rumors that it may be republished.  If anyone has any information on that, please let me know.

The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert Place.  This is an excellent book about the Tarot, and it discusses Tarot symbolism, but (as evidenced by the title) that is not the only focus of this book.

The Secret Language of Tarot by Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone.  This book is explores the symbols found in the Waite-Smith tarot deck.

WolfSo now, what about that wolf I mentioned?  Here are a few thoughts about what a wolf may symbolize (besides the meanings I mentioned above).

Since wolves are predatory animals, they can indicate dangerous situations as well as vicious, rapacious, or unscrupulous behavior. And in many cultures these animals have historically been seen as a symbol of greed and cruelty. They may also indicate our wild, animalistic nature, especially when we consider their association with lycanthropy. And although the fox is typically associated with cunning, the wolf may be also, but its association is traditionally tinged with treachery. In some mythologies, however, a wolf can assume the guise of a powerful protector of the weak, as in the case of the wolf that raised Romulus and Remus and in the Irish myth of Cormac mac Airt, the Irish king who was raised by wolves.

Most of these negative connotations for a wolf are probably due to the menace this animal presented to people in pre-industrial times.  But wolves are rarely a threat to people anymore, so their symbolism in our modern view tends much more toward a benign, even romantic view of them.

Killed wolfIn a more sympathetic vein, then, the howl of a wolf can be a mournful sound that may suggest the loss of a loved one or a longing for companionship.  Also, in our modern world, wolves are not just predators.  They are often the victims of vicious attacks, such as aerial hunting, so they have come to symbolize our wild, instinctive nature that is endangered in a modern society obsessed with control and the suppression of individuality. In short, they symbolize the nobility of nature under attack from the cold cruelty of modern society.

I also found the following valuable comments on the “Sandplay Therapists of America” website

“In the book, The Wisdom of Wolves: Nature’s Way to Organizational Success, the author … suggests that there are twelve characteristics of wolves that relate to organizational principles. They are: teamwork, patience, unity through uniqueness, curiosity, attitude, failure, communication, perseverance, strategy, play, death & survival, loyalty, and change.”

Also from that website:

“Wolves … by nature are relational, inquiring, and possess great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack.”

In these comments we find some very positive associations for wolves, such as teamwork, patience, curiosity, loyalty, survival instincts, and intuition.

In the Waite-Smith Tarot deck, the only card that features a wolf is the Moon card, but wolves appear now and then in the cards of some other decks. But the above commentary about their symbolism also provides an example of how a deep examination of the symbolism of any item on a Tarot card can enhance our understanding and interpretation of it.

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14 Comments
  1. Fascinating subject, James — and I loved your discussion of the symbolism of the wolf, one of my favorite animals — a “totem” animal for me, if you will.

    I also appreciate your suggestion to “consider what symbol on the card catches your eye.” It’s important to realize that as readers, we don’t have to go into every detail (or symbol) on every card. This can actually confuse clients (information overload) and can make us (as readers) sound like we don’t have any special insight into a situation.

  2. Often times it is “what catches our eye” (if you believe in guides that assist us)shows us the main point we need to look at in the reading per card. Like Zanna mentioned, sometimes the “wolf”, or “hawk”, “Falcon”, “Dog”, “Fish” can also be just that: support from our power animals and drawing from the strength they have to offer us at that time. First, of course we have to acertain that this would be a suggested power animal to the person, then give them a short synopsis of what that animal’s strength and weaknesses are. If that is the detail that is shining out from the cards. Sometimes it can be the herbage that is usually there: the flowers, the herbs (literally), the trees, or plants. Getting to know a little about these added features to tarot can also be helpful: Bach Remedies (reading about emotions and herbs) or just a general understanding of the greens on the card: sunflowers: can reflect the need for the person to be outside in the sun, (sunflowers heads follow the sun all day)or the need to be with others: sunflowers tend to grow in groups and pollinate plant to plant. Supprt of others might be indicated. Or could be the need to get out of a depressive situation: sunflowers are also seen as a “happy” plant…etc.

    Just my .001! have a good one everyone!
    Hugs, Mary

  3. It’s also helpful with a deck like the Waite-Smith to understand the symbolism that Waite infused the cards with from his background in Christian hermeticism. Marcia Masino’s “Easy Tarot Guide” goes into some of that. I can’t get through Waite’s own book. :/

    Bob O’Neill’s book is dense and packed with info. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a copy from Bob years ago when he was giving them away on the TarotL list. I sure miss his presence there.

    • Digital Dame —
      Yes, there are some other books that get into the symbolism of a particular deck, such as Masino’s for the Waite-Smith and Robin Wood’s book for her deck. Those are always very good sources.
      As for Waite’s own book, he is so arrogant and the book is so intentionally obscure as to verge on being useless to the modern reader. My favorite quote from that book is from his discussion of the Strength card where he “explains” why he switched the numbering for it and Justice. Here it is:
      “For reasons which satisfy myself, this card has been interchanged with that of Justice, which is usually eight. As the variation carries nothing with it which will signify to the reader, there is no cause for explanation.”
      Best,
      James

  4. Celeste Cornelia permalink

    Wolf is also an animal of the night and he will travel with you through your moonscape. As you mentioned in your blog when you first hear him howling at the moon it is pretty scary but after a time it becomes a soulful and almost comforting calling.
    We all need the instincts of the night animals to help us through the unknown of the moon. Human animals have the logic but we must trust our inner animal for the instinct.
    Great class James. I won’t be able to attend part 2 (can you hear the woeful moaning). That is Omega weekend. Do you think you may be repeating the class?

    • Celeste —
      I like this quote: “We all need the instincts of the night animals to help us through the unknown of the moon.” Thanks!
      As for the webinar on June 12, yes, I’ll eventually be cycling back through all of my webinars.
      Best,
      James

  5. Zanna and Mary —
    Thanks for those comments. Seeing an animal in those terms (as representing a totem animal for the seeker) is an interesting way to work too.
    Best,
    James

  6. I really enjoyed reading this! Since the class, i must admit, i had been wondering about the various things a wolf represents. It’s nice to see it all brought together in the blog :).

    I also like the insight into how to look for symbolism when drawing a blank. Although in my case, it is the meaning of some cards that i fail to remember, but for my own use, sometimes the results begin to show and make sense.

    great blog!

    James

    • Thanks James.
      It’s my hope that learning how to look for symbolism in the card as well as learning more about symbolism in general will help people in their readings.
      Best,
      James

  7. I was going to post this to face book but saw this link and enjoyed the blog… I read a lot like you decribed above “things catch my eye or trigger an image” …but like in runes you have to understand your symbology..or the meaning my be lost or obsured…

    I was looking at the grouping of your latest re-coloring work and noticing similar back grounds in your cards… Was that done on purpose or possible completely subliminally… (or maybe just following the Rider-Waite orginal color scheme?)

    Fool, Magician, Strength (bright yellow)
    Lovers (yellow and blue)..similar with Judgment
    Hangman, Hermit (brilliant blue)
    Wheel & World other pastels

    Either way I enjoyed them all and look forward to seeing what you do wtih the minor arcana…

    Shale

  8. Shane permalink

    Hi james, i love your blog post on all of the Tarot subjects. I recently just got into tarot about a month ago, and i was drawn to an Afro Cuban/brazilian deck. The images in the deck are quite different from traditional imagery found on most decks. My intuition is really excellent and what i got out of this blog is for example the Wolf symbol. As people have stated above the Wolf can have so many different meanings to it as well as any other symbol really. When a card is drawn would u not rely on your intuition at that moment and express what your feeling about the certain symbol although it can mean many things?.

  9. Hi Shane,
    First, welcome to the world of Tarot, and thank you for your nice comments about my blog.
    As for your question: If a symbol caught my eye I would certainly consider what my intuition tells me that symbol indicates within the context of this reading. Of course, a symbol can mean many things, so that can be confusing until you learn to hear and trust your intuition.
    Best,
    James

  10. These cards symbolically represent the enormous creativity that the human soul is capable of. There are a massive collection of decks, all with their varied depictions, but with the same sounding meaning. The human race is capable of much more. 🙂

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