How I Use Tarot, Part 2: A Man Writ Small

This is part 2 of my intended three-part post on how I use and think about Tarot. In Part 1, I talked about how the themes present in Tarot can cause us to change our perspective on the world around us, in much the same way that art does. Here, I’m going to take a bit of a different tack: I want to talk about Tarot as a near-complete symbolic categorization of the human psyche.

I’ve always loved the comparison that Plato made* in his Republic between the workings of an individual mind and the workings of a society–the idea that “a city is a man** writ large”. There’s this idea that by looking at politics, by understanding the large-scale forces that drive people in their macroscopic interactions, we can gain some fundamental insight into how those same forces operate on the small scale–that is to say, the individual. (Here we see again the interplay between the personal and impersonal, which featured so prominently in Part 1.)

This idea is what got me interested in social science in the first place, and I think Plato’s contention has a lot of truth to it. All of the concerns that dominate city politics (or even national politics) are, on some level, the same ones that control our individual actions. And by looking at the way people interact in a group, we can better understand the basic nature of a single person on his own.

Now, I think about Tarot as going the other way. If a city is a man writ large, a Tarot deck is a man writ small. It’s a microcosm of symbols that represent the macrocosm of psychological elements in the human mind. And there’s a parallel between the two, so that observing one can provide valuable insight as to the nature of the other; evaluating a Tarot spread can help us understand the psyche in the same way that analyzing political or economic issues does.

The idea here is once again that no matter which cards come up in a reading, there’s going to be some way that they relate to the querent, because the Tarot deck is packed full of the themes that matter most to the human psyche. And–personal opinion here–analyzing how those themes interact in a Tarot reading can shed some light on how those same parts of oneself interact.

Let’s take an example. Say you’re doing a Celtic cross reading (the question you asked doesn’t really matter for the sake of this little hypothetical) and to kick the reading off, you draw the Emperor crossed by the Two of Cups. The positional relationship of these two cards in the spread is one of conflict and obstruction, so you start to think about how those two cards might interact negatively. The Emperor is about power, authority, and confidence, whereas the Two of Cups is about partnerships and interpersonal connections. Perhaps these two cards together suggest a lack of confidence in romantic relationships? Or maybe the Emperor, far from lacking confidence, is too swaggeringly arrogant, and that makes it difficult for him to find success in love? Think about how these cards might block each other in the microcosm of your ten-card reading.

And then extrapolate.

How might the Emperor crossed by the Two of Cups manifest in day-to-day life? Even if it’s not in a romantic relationship, the interplay between self-confidence and the ability to form relationships with other people is an important facet of the human psyche, and there will surely be a meaningful way to extrapolate the microcosmic Tarot reading to the macrocosm of personal experience. Here once again, we see the idea that popped up in Part 1: that anyone can relate to any card. But now, I’m upping the ante, and going so far as to claim that anyone can relate to any combination of cards. (This is a bit of a bolder statement, but I do think it holds true.)

This is a two-way process. On the one hand, any combination of cards can be interpreted in a way that relates to the fundamental human experience (e.g. our Emperor/Two of Cups combo). But on the other hand, I would say that any aspect of the human experience can be expressed using a Tarot card or combination of cards (and quite possibly in a variety of different ways). Now, this latter statement is probably a matter of personal opinion more than anything else, and I’m sure there are many people out there who feel that their experiences are not sufficiently captured by a deck of mass-produced cards with pictures printed on them. That’s fine. But as for me, and my take on Tarot, I really do think that Tarot does an excellent job of capturing the entirety of what it is to be human.

So this is the second facet of what I use Tarot for. I lay out the cards and look at the story they tell–not necessarily about me as a person, but about person. A nameless, faceless human who shares the foundations of lifetime experience with myself and everyone else on the planet. And then, having understood that story, I try to see how that fragment of what is quintessentially human might apply to myself and my specific circumstances. No matter which cards come up, and in which combination, I know that I’ll be able to see something of myself writ small when I perform my readings.

*Ugh. Get a load of this guy, going on and on about Plato. He’s probably just trying to make himself look good. I bet you he actually doesn’t even like Plato–who can stomach all those boring dead Greek guys? Gawd, he’s so pretentious.

**All right, folks. Apologies for having two footnotes in the first paragraph of this post (I promise, I really do try to keep the footnotes to a minimum, even though I’m not terribly good at this whole linear-thinking thing), but we need to have a brief discussion about the use of the default male. I know that there is distinct sexism in the continued and unabashed use of men in hypothetical examples, where I’m talking about a nonexistent or archetypal person who could quite easily be not-a-man. But the thing is, whenever I create hypothetical scenarios in discourse like this, I imagine myself in the shoes of the potential man-or-not-a-man. And I happen to be male, so the pronouns I use are most often male ones. I’ve always sort of assumed that an author will use his (or her) own gender in any hypothetical examples given in writing; for that, I’m always surprised when I see something written by a woman who uses the default male. Sometimes, I’m self-aware enough to break out of the habit of using maleness in every example, but if I slip and end up talking about “a man”, please don’t take it personally. I only do so because I’m imagining myself as the “man” in discussion, and I kindly invite you to remove the gendered nouns and pronouns and insert replacements that correspond with you.


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