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What does this card mean?

November 8, 2010

“What does this card mean?” is a question that I’ve been asked over and over. Students ask it about a card that came up in a reading they did in the past, and all sorts of people ask me this kind of question when they find out that I do Tarot readings.  The problem is that this question, as generally intended, implicitly puts undue limits on a card.  After all, how much can I say about a card in the course of a finite conversation?

Often people want a pithy statement of meaning for a card, a cozy little cubbyhole into which they can put it. Perhaps it’s a security thing or a control issue. That way, whenever they see the card, they know exactly what it is saying. However, a better way to state the question is, “What does this card mean to you within the context of this situation?”

Every Tarot reader has their own dictionary (so to speak) for the cards that works for them, and within that dictionary, the appropriate meaning (from among many) comes through based on many factors including the Seeker’s question, the position in the spread, etc. Also, we can consider a card as the proverbial finger pointing at the Moon.[1] Each Tarot “finger” points at a vast “Moon” of meaning.

If you want to explore the range of meaning possible for a given card, you have to spend time studying it. Read what various authors say about it. (Rachel Pollack’s classic Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is a good place to start.) Listen to what Tarot teachers / experts say about it. Consider what impressions you get from it as you work with it in readings, visualizations, affirmations, etc.

But even then, realize that all of that is just the beginning because no amount of definition can contain the fullness of a card’s meaning. Truly, even now, after many years of Tarot study and practice, the cards still surprise me occasionally with new meanings and insights that I’d never before associated with them.  And it’s important to realize that having such openness is important for the sake of our ability to do Tarot readings.

RWS 2.0 WorldRecently I did a reading for someone where the World card revealed that the problem for her in her current situation was that she felt like she had all the pieces of the puzzle, but that she just couldn’t make them fit together.  This is not something I’d ever associated with that card before, but it’s the message that I got very clearly from it then, and it does seem to fit the sense of that card. After I said that, the client’s eyes opened wide, and she asked how I got that message from the World card. (She knew a bit about the Tarot, and that meaning didn’t fit with her knowledge of this card.) I said that’s just what came to me, and her reply was: “Well, I’m amazed that you said that because I just said that exact same thing to my husband earlier today.”

Score one for being open to new meanings from the cards.

[1] There is a tale about a student who asked his teacher “What is the Moon?” The teacher pointed up at the Moon, and the student mistook the finger for the Moon.

From → Card meanings

  1. I really love that concept James! I can totally resonate with having all the pieces, but not being able to fit them together when there is a problem — or not being able to connect the dots in a clearly defined way.

    Thank you for sharing a new piece of the puzzle in the world of Tarot 🙂

  2. Raising my glass to being open to new meanings to a card. I think sometimes people are just curious as to what cards can mean, I often talk about the basic accepted meaning for a card but add that one’s intuition opens up an Aladdin’s cave of meanings to each card depending on what surrounds them and what the question is.

    I love the idea of the World Card representing all of the pieces but somehow not quite figuring out how to fit them together yet.

  3. Yes James you touch on two points I feel are crucial for understanding how reader’s read. First is that each reader is always learning new twists of meaning by just doing readings for different people. Some of these unique turns of significance may well become part of the reader’s habits of association.

    I always love to hear how other readers read differently from me. They teach me more about the cards. I hope more readers are willing to share their experience with novel readings.

    Next is the context, positional, mandalic array of cards for a particular reading slant to some ways of interpretation than others.

    The visual images, colors, symbolic connotations, emblematic denotations, archetypical complexes, and psychic and life-force energetic aspects of the cards’ significance, often lumped together as intuition, also contributes to multifarious readings and the endless variety of possible meanings.

    It shows that Tarot reading is a strong exercise is creativity, which in practice far extends the blend and specifics of meanings beyond the foreseen intensions of the tarot card creators or keyword mnemonics.

  4. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” 🙂

    BTW The Osho Zen Tarot version of the World card is a jigsaw puzzle of a face with someone adding the final piece and it has the keyword Completion on it.

  5. Celeste Cornelia permalink

    So true James. This concept can be clearly seen with the vast amount of different decks that are out there. Everyone sees a card in a different light. The Client sees the card differently than we do. I will usually tell a Client I can tell you what a card might mean but it is up to you to tell me what it is saying to you so that we can figure this out together…Celeste

  6. Thank you all for your comments on this subject. I enjoy hearing your thoughts about it!

  7. James, wonderful post with great comments. I’m always intriqued by all the insight that can be taken from one of your posts. I love your new insight on the World card.

    I’ve tried to create my own dictionary on paper, but the cards seem to speak differently with each reading.

    What would you suggest as to creating your own dictionary. Do you just jot things down about each different card as you move forward in you tarot journey? Or do you just keep it all in your head?

    • Hi Cher,
      Thanks for the compliment.
      As for creating my own tarot dictionary … I started a document on my computer for that over a decade ago that I still update now and then. It’s quite voluminous now. I’m sure it’s all in my head too somewhere, and when I do a reading, something (my intuition or whatever you want to call it) pulls out one (or more) of those meanings … or comes up with a new one.

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