Often tarot teaching focuses on specific symbols in the cards and what they mean. Certainly, the particulars of historical usage of a common symbol in religious iconography, alchemical woodcuts, Renaissance art, or other divination symbol systems can enlighten us to the depth of meaning of the tarot cards. But when it comes to doing practical readings about everyday life, this academic approach might take us too far afield to give us a simple answer to a simple question.
I do an exercise called Three Symbols in my beginning tarot class in which I start by passing out apples for everyone. What does the apple mean? To some it is temptation and sin, to some it is pleasure and abundance, to some it is food, to some it holds the seeds of life. And some are repelled by the apple, either because this particular apple is bruised or tasteless, or because in general they don’t like apples. Each answer is dependent on each student’s background, their personal feelings about apples, symbolism they have previously studied, experiences they have had or are now having, and none without a moderate to healthy dose of trying to guess what I might have been thinking when I chose the apple for the exercise!
One of my precepts for learning tarot is that the cards have no meaning outside of the context of a questioner, a question, and any other cards laid out.
When working to develop your tarot vocabulary, I suggest reading the symbols in a way that is personal and practical. This is something that we focus on particularly in my Quirky Questions class, but I introduce the concept early on with my Three Symbols exercise. The more students get hung up on some “right” answer being out there, the less they will be able to work with the cards in a flexible enough way to answer any question that is posed.
One student once asked what was the meaning of the fish coming out of the cup in the Page of Cups. She had taken a number of classes with me, so I was disappointed that she had not yet learned my most basic premise about the cards having no meaning without context. I asked her what it meant to her and she huffed in exasperation. (I have a reputation for being the teacher who won’t answer questions!)
At home that night I was sitting in bed wondering if I had given the best answer. Maybe I had been too hard on her. I remembered an experience I had sitting at a pond and discovering, as I tuned my awareness progressively deeper into the action of this natural scene, a little fish watching me. I pictured the card and wondered, what does that fish mean? At that moment the cat jumped up onto the bed and climbed up onto me and licked me on the face with a quick little dart of his tongue. Yes, that’s what the fish means. It’s a cat’s tongue licking you affectionately. Today. Tomorrow? I don’t know.
We were reviewing an exercise in my beginning tarot class last week. I had used the Fool card to represent my walking home on a day the buses were severely delayed. I had run some errands and picked up cat food. The Fool seemed to be a good representation of that walk home: feeling the urge to go, not wanting to wait for the bus, mountains looming always in the background in Denver, and carrying a bag, in my case a bag of cat food. So I joked to the class that the Fool carries cat food in his bag.
I used this opportunity to drive home my point about symbols. A student told me once that the Fool carried his memories in the bag. She had read it in a book and clearly that was the correct answer. But not today, today he carries cat food and his bouncy little companion animal is very happy to be getting fed soon.
What if the question is about moving to another state and you notice the Fool’s bag? I ask the class. He’s carrying only a small amount of stuff—the card says to rent out or leave behind your current place and pack only the bare necessities to move on. You can come back for the rest later, or maybe you don’t need it.
What if the question is about how to live a more sustainable lifestyle in balance with the environment? The Fool says bring your own bags to the grocery store.
One of the things that I think is most important about reading tarot is to look at the individual image and find those details and recognize how those details play out in the story you are telling. What if the Fool wasn’t carrying a bag? Maybe you have a deck where he is driving a trailer—that changes the meaning of the card. Some parts are still the same—the sense of starting out, being a vagabond, going on an adventure, but other details will differ and vary the story you are telling. If the question were about how to help the earth, the answer would no longer be bring your bags, but live in a smaller space.
If you’d like to practice this technique, find three “symbols” in your immediate surroundings. I like to focus on something tangible and sensory, something visual or aesthetic, and something auditory. Now, look through your deck and, focusing on the details in the imagery of the cards, select a card to represent each symbol. What cards did you choose? What qualities determined your choice? Does each card you selected now give you insight into how you perceive the original object? Does the exercise give you insight into how you use the cards? By translating these real-life objects into cards, you might find that your personal approach to symbolism unfolds unexpected and universal meaning.