“Truth” and “truth” in Tarot

People use Tarot to try to find truth, in one form or another. But that search is problematic, because there’s a definitional* issue with the use of the word “truth”. What is it? Are we talking about some great, divine, objective reality that, once understood, will guide the way we live our lives forevermore? Is it a Platonic form, a capital-T Truth, the one and only?

Or is it something more subjective, more personal? A lowercase-T truth, just one among many, unique to each individual querent and her path?

This dichotomy, between objective and subjective truth, is an old and messy one. Perhaps the most (deservedly) famous example of it is in Plato’s allegory of the cave** from The Republic. But later, Neoplatonic philosophers adopted the concept a little bit differently. They kept Plato’s original image of Truth as the scorching illumination of the sun, but rather than abandoned the image of the shadow-filled cave as a representation of subjectivity. Rather, they said the opposite of the sun’s constant light was the fluctuating, cyclical, sometimes entirely absent illumination provided by the moon.

Being Platonists, they took the dichotomy one step farther: the sun, as “real” Truth, was rational and masculine, whereas the moon, as “false” subjective truth, was emotional and feminine.

Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

I often give the Moon a bad rap in my Tarot readings (in the sense of a rap sheet; I don’t go all Snoop Dogg in my Tarot practice), because I first learned it through this Neoplatonic dichotomy: it is deception and illusion, the counterpart to the honesty and clarity of the Sun. The qualities that many readers see as fundamental to the interpretation of this card–intuition, emotional awareness, fantasy–were secondary in my Tarot education, and so are rarely the first to leap to my mind when this card turns up. I’m still working on that.

But using a Neoplatonic lens to interpret these cards can also be very helpful, especially when both cards come up during the same reading. They offer a distinction between perception and reality: the Moon is what things look like, and the Sun is what they actually are. It’s the difference between truth and Truth.

Both forms of truth exist in Tarot, and in human experience. And sometimes one is more important than the other. (For example, if I have in some way upset a friend, it doesn’t matter if I didn’t objectively intend to do so; what matters is the Moon-based subjective reality that I did.) There are other cards in the deck to convey both concepts (the Seven of Cups in particular springs to mind), but coming from the Major Arcana, these two feel the most powerful to me.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be a shorter one. I don’t have internet access at home right now, and my computer is about to die (guess which idiot forgot to bring the charger!), so I’m going to wrap this up early and go ahead and post it. Do any of you work with this dichotomy in the Sun and moon, or a similar one? I’d welcome any thoughts you care to share.


*I reserve the right to invent words wherever I see fit.

**Okay, well, not exactly. Truth be told (oh, the irony), the allegory of the cave is pretty much just about how the five senses are inadequate as a means of determining Truth. This idea of personal, subjectively valid truth isn’t really big with Plato. He had no question about the existence of objective Truth, just about its accessibility. But still. You get the point. The allegory of the cave opposes Truth with subjective experience, and with a little bit of imagination-yoga, we get to the dichotomy between two kinds of truth.

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5 thoughts on ““Truth” and “truth” in Tarot

  1. The beauty of Tarot is that it is fluid, flexible, always changing. The Moon, as it waxes and wanes, changes—and so do Tarot meanings. Depending on the spread, the location, and question asked, the Moon will hide or reveal it’s nature always altering its meaning—it’s truth. Fine exploration and exposition…I look forward to more. Cheers!

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  2. Is not the Major Arcana nothing but dichotomy? Or perhaps polarity would be a better word? In any case, the cards are often like bookends this way, one and then the Other side. But these two cards certainly do hint at perception and reality. Neat.

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    1. I completely agree with you. Tarot is structured around duality, in one form or another. And each card can be seen to have many opposites. For instance, the stability of the Hierophant is in contrast with the change represented by Death, but at the same time, the Hierophant is a “masculine” complement to the “feminine” spirituality of the High Priestess. (This is just an example offhand, but you get what I mean.)

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  3. I like the Moon as a card to study. I get uncomfortable if it comes up in a reading. I’m not very familiar with Plato or neo-Platonic philosophy. My discomfort stems from what the archetype of the Moon represents on a psychological-mythological level: the Hero is almost out of the dark, having defeated his foe, but he’s still got to escape to the realm of the living. If he’s going to fail, this is usually the place where it happens.

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