How I Use Tarot, Part 3: Form Without Content

This is Part 3 of what is intended to be a three-part post on my personal take on Tarot. And this is the big one. The whopper. The doozie. The great, big, messy, complicated, never-in-my-life-could-explain-it version of what I do in a Tarot reading. Fasten your seatbelt, gentle reader, because I fear it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

As with Part 1 and Part 2, I’m going to start this post by talking about something completely unrelated to Tarot, and then trying to tie it back in to our central cartomantic thread. And this time around, I’m going to do so with the aid of the beloved anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

What an adorable man.

Lévi-Strauss was a part of the (now long dead) structuralist school of anthropology, where he looked at patterns in human society based on–you guessed it!–the basic structures that people use to organize social life. He’s probably best known for his work on the structure of the family, where he posited that all family units in the world are organized around two basic principles: the gendered division of labor and the prohibition of incest. (Anthropologists who know him better than I, please feel free to correct me if I speak wrongly, but this is what I know of him, at least.)

Now, the important thing here, and with the structuralist school in general, is that the form is what matters, not the content. Every family in the world may be marked by the prohibition of incest (the gendered division of labor is more a matter of debate in the modern world), but the definition of incest changes from society to society. In Victorian England, it was perfectly acceptable to marry a first cousin, even though the thought feels skeevy and inbred to us now. And Lévi-Strauss points to various societies that distinguish between the acceptability of marrying maternal and paternal relatives, between male and female cousins on different sides of the family tree, and so on and so forth. The ban on incest is a universal form that structures all societies, but the content (the definition of incest) is far from universal.

Phew. That was a basic (and probably egregiously simplified) introduction to the methodological school of Lévi-Strauss. Real interesting guy. If you have spare time and are looking to do some reading, I highly recommend him.

But–as I asked in both Part 1 and Part 2–how does this relate to Tarot?

Well, one of my favorite works by Claude Lévi-Strauss is a short paper titled “The Structural Study of Myth“. In this paper, he takes the same structuralist methodology–analyzing form devoid of content–and applies it to the myths of “primitive religions”. He suggests that myth has a fundamentally dual nature:

On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages–anyway, long ago. But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future … When the historian refers to the French Revolution it is always as a sequence of past happenings, a non-revertible series of events the remote consequences of which may still be felt at present. But to the French politician, as well as to his followers, the French Revolution is both a sequence belonging to the past–as to the historian–and an everlasting pattern which can be detected in the present French social structure and which provides a clue for its interpretation, a lead from which to infer the future developments.

In other words, a myth simultaneously exists within time and without it. Myths tell stories which must naturally take on some kind of temporal narrative structure, but there’s also some element of those stories that would speak to us even if the narrative content of the myth were changed. The official names that Lévi-Strauss gives to these two components of myth are the diachronic (temporal) and synchronic (extra-temporal), but we’ve seen the same fundamental idea expressed through all three parts of this blog post of mine. Story and theme. Personal and transpersonal. Content and form.

Now, here’s the interesting (and Tarot-related) part. Lévi-Strauss suggests that in order to really understand the value of a myth, we have to move past the diachronic content and examine the synchronic form. A myth is not about who kills what monster when, but rather about the underlying themes of the killing of the beast–themes that shed light on the fundamental tensions in the society that produced the myth.

He takes the example of the Oedipus myth. Reading this story diachronically, we understand that you should not:

-Commit infanticide
-Accost strangers on a highway
-Kill your father
-Marry your mother
-Scratch out your eyes

And all together, it’s very straightforward. But there’s more to it than that. Lévi-Strauss arranges the elements of the story thematically, rather than chronologically, and he comes up with four fundamental themes:

-familial relations that are overly close or incestuous
-familial relations that are overly distant or combative
-monsters/inhuman forces
-disfigurement, disability, and lameness

This differs drastically from the surface-level content of the myth. Structurally, this story is not simply telling people not to commit incest; it’s inviting personal reflection on these four impersonal themes. And in this way, different myths from across the world can be diachronically different but fundamentally the same on the synchronic level, if they examine the same themes but tell the story differently. (If, for example, there was a myth where the king slew one of his relatives, married another, and lived happily ever after. I can’t think of any such myth off the top of my head, but it could theoretically exist.) The value of the myth is in its form, not its content.

Now, if you’ve followed the first two parts of this post, it should be pretty clear by now how I relate this idea back to Tarot. A Tarot reading is a story, and looking at the cards, you can match them to a querent’s life (major characters, events, and so on). It takes a little finagling–and, for me, at least, it requires input from the querent’s end–but it can be done. But in my opinion, the real value of a Tarot reading is when you move beyond the simple diachronic story and try to look at the underlying, structural, synchronic elements of a Tarot reading.

Let’s expand on the Celtic Cross example from Part 2 (the Emperor crossed by the Two of Cups) and add in cards for the recent past and immediate future: the Eight of Cups and the Two of Wands, respectively. Now, you can look at this spread and tell it diachronically, as a story: the querent recently got out of a long relationship and is currently suffering from severe insecurities in her romantic life, so she will have to work on rebuilding her confidence and self image in the near future before she can try dating again.*

That’s the diachronic part. Now let’s look at the synchronic part–the themes that recur in the cards and that are significant beyond the simple diachronic narrative. First, we have a predominance of Cups in the reading. A slight predominance, but hey, we only have four cards to work with, so it’s significant when two are from the same suit. The Cups here suggest a theme of emotional well-being (or a lack thereof), and, with our querent’s specific context, we can narrow that focus to emotional well-being in romantic relationships.

Secondly, we have two Twos. The Twos are about balance, duality, and a sort of general give-and-take relationship, so their presence in this reading raises that theme. Connecting this to the Cups, we can invite our querent to think about how she finds balance in her emotional life (and where she might lack it).

Thirdly, the Two of Wands and the Emperor are both astrologically connected to Aries. So now we have a theme of creativity, impulsiveness–and maybe a smattering of sexuality–appearing. And we ask the querent how this area of her life affects her ability to find the aforementioned emotional balance. (It’s worth noting here that the fire cards and the water cards in the reading are ill-dignified, so we’re likely to be looking for conflict rather than harmony here.)

And finally, look at the Eight of Cups and the Two of Wands as bookends. One is about endings, the other is (sort of, in this context) about beginnings. So there’s a larger idea of something needing to pass away in order for something else to be created or to grow.

This is the thematic, synchronic element of my Tarot reading practice. And what I’d like to emphasize is that I think these themes can apply to any querent. Once again, I don’t see any supernatural force behind the Tarot, so I don’t think that the cards that come up magically represent the most relevant themes in a querent’s life. Rather, they represent themes relevant to anyone’s life, but a Tarot reading pulls up certain themes and invites the querent to consider her situation in the light of those themes.

In other words, the synchronic form is still relevant even if the diachronic content changes. Take a look at the alternative spread interpretations I provided in the footnote. Do you see how our four synchronic themes could also apply to those situations? No matter what the content of a querent’s story is, the form of a Tarot reading can–in my humble opinion–raise relevant themes and help the querent reconsider that story in a new and helpful way.

So this is where I leave you, dear reader. If you’ve managed to bear with me through the entirety of this post, hats off to you; Part 3 is about as long as Parts 1 and 2 combined. But hopefully, I was clear enough in what I said, and interesting enough in how I said it. If you have thoughts, feel free to share them in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll talk to you soon.

*Damn it, I thought I was going to get all the way through this post without using a footnote, but it looks like I’m not. Two things: first off, my take on the Two of Wands in this particular example is rather non-traditional. I did this simply because it fit better into my hypothetical querent’s story, but of course the Two of Wands most often represents the need to plan for the future, yadda yadda yadda.

Secondly, I want to impress upon you here that I think there are multiple ways this group of cards could be read. This is the interpretation I came up with off the top of my head, and since I don’t have a real querent to tell me how accurate it is, I’m rolling with it for the sake of the example. But in a real reading, I would offer multiple interpretations for each card and work with the querent to see how those interlocking themes fit most appropriately to her situation. An alternative narrative would be that she recently changed her career path, is too busy with work to think about love, and is going to need to learn to budget her time more wisely. Or maybe that nothing has changed recently, but she’s been feeling dissatisfied with her life, is in conflict with her unsupportive best friend, and will need to branch out and meet new people in order to find happiness again. You get the idea. The biggest thing I want you, my reader, to take away from this gargantuan three-part post is that I don’t think Tarot cards carry a specific personal message for any querent. Rather, they show the interaction of impersonal themes, which become valuable when that querent interprets them and applies them to her personal context.

5 thoughts on “How I Use Tarot, Part 3: Form Without Content

  1. Thank you for posting this series! It’s quite a different approach to my fledgling ideas about how Tarot works and I like it all the more for that! You’ve given me a great deal to think about 🙂


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