Tarot and Symbolism
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.
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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.
So 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.
In 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.