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Tarot Literalisms

December 18, 2010

The Empress -- Tarot of the MastersYesterday my card for the day was The Empress, which puzzled me for a while.  I considered many of its esoteric and symbolic meanings such as creativity, nurturing, abundance, luxury, nature, a passionate approach to life.  None of those really rang a bell for me in terms of what’s going on in my life.  Then I remembered a most obvious and basic meaning for this card, which is Motherhood, and I realized that it was a reminder that I needed to deal with some issues relating to my aged mother.  In trying to be too clever, too “deep” with my interpretation of this card, I almost missed something that’s quite basic. It’s like that famous quote attributed to Freud: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”[1]

This also reminded me of something that I discuss in my book Tarot Reading Explained, which is a concept I call “Tarot Literalisms.”  The following is from that book:

Something else to watch out for in a reading is a peculiar phenomenon that I call a “literalism.”  This is an image on a card that bears a strikingly literal resemblance to something about the querent, his/her situation, or the question for the reading.  …

BOTA Tower

Although at first glance it may seem that a literalism is merely a curiosity, I often find such an occurrence to be particularly useful in a reading.  It may make or illustrate an important point, as it does in the reading for Hamlet, wherein the Tower card vividly makes the point that Hamlet’s mother, as well as Hamlet himself, was traumatically affected by his father’s death. …

The image of a crown blasted from the top of the tower was an obvious symbol for regicide, and the two figures falling from the tower were clearly indicative of Hamlet and his mother. [This] would have been a clear illustration corroborating the allegation set forth by the ghost of Hamlet’s father that he had been murdered.  In addition, [it] makes an important point that Hamlet had not heeded when his father’s ghost made it.

Hamlet faulted his mother for having married his uncle, and so his emotional distress at the time of this reading was complicated by his anger toward her.  Had he taken his father’s advice to realize that she was … a victim [too], then perhaps the unfortunate Prince of Denmark would have been able to think more clearly and act more decisively.

I’ve encountered “Tarot Literalisms” frequently, and it’s something that I encourage my Tarot students to keep in mind when doing a Tarot reading.

I would be interested to hear similar accounts from any of you.


From → Card meanings

  1. Yes I agree Tarot can be not only literal but punful.
    Recently the central card for a reading was the tower. I knew the woman was about to become consumed building her home. All the surrounding cards seemed supportive and optimistic to her intension. So should I read a warning into the lightning struck tower? I told her that usually the Tower came with a warning but I saw that here it just might mean home, especially the nuts and bolts of building. So far her building project has developed without undue mishap or delays in construction.

    At a party I was doing rapid one card readings. For one woman I pulled the 6 of Cups, which I read as some harmonious reconciliation, even reignited intensity in a family relationship. A few minutes later she developed a rather intense bout of hiccups. Six of Cups! Go figure.

  2. Leonardo Dias permalink

    I remember asking the cards about the academic field of a new friend I was getting to know at the time, and the answer was The Hermit. Turns out the was a Philosophy student, lol.

  3. My 2year old pulled out the Tower from a stack of cards I had left on the table by coincidence – that child was the biggest accident in the world, he really drew his own card there! :o) Amazing.

  4. Kate permalink

    1) When I lost my dog (one day he just went away, I live in a forest and it’s not unusual for dogs to be on the loose here) I asked tarot twice about if I see him again. And twice I pulled 2 of swords plus 8 of swords. On both cards the lady is blindfolded. I never saw my dog again.

    2) My daughter once asked my Bright Idea Deck (by Mark McElroy) “what should my mum do to improve her cooking skills?”. She pulled 7 of wands, which in this deck depicts a fireman rescuing a child from burning flat (for great valour of course). Blazes are all over the background of this card. We laughed our heads off because I usually burn food!

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