The Psychology of Tarot Cards
Carl Jung, psychics, and a psychological history of human nature.
I once paid for a reading by a “certified” Tarot card reader. I was at a mental health event, of all places. He claimed that his method was not meant to replace traditional psychotherapy but instead was only an alternative for those who prefer a cheaper and quicker access to universal truths.
“We’re not really reading the future,” he told me. “We are using familiar symbols that have been used for centuries. These symbols are meant to untangle thoughts that you already have and that will help clarify your best options moving forward.” He looked clean and educated: he didn’t seem like a quack. The way he explained it sounded logical. It was still amusing, though, that he claimed to be a “holistic” practitioner — he called himself an “intuitive therapist”, not a “psychic”. According to him, psychic power is just heightened intuition.
As he laid out his superhero-themed cards before me and began to “read” them, I was surprised by how relevant his interpretations were to my private, personal concerns. I’m not saying he was able to magically read my mind; I just think his accuracy was helped by my openness to his method. In other words, I was interpreting the cards with him. His success in reading me was assisted by the obvious physical reactions I was expressing — nodding and widening eyes or crossing arms and knotting my eyebrows. Sometimes, he explicitly asked what the card reminded me of.
His method was not meant to replace psychotherapy but instead was an alternative for those who prefer a cheaper and quicker access to universal truths.
The psychologist Carl Jung was able to identify basic, elemental symbols shared by different societies across the world. Jung was known to have dabbled in old magic and alchemy as a way to explore the symbols of what he called the collective unconscious. He studied the mysterious inner mental space we all shared, which is accessible through familiar cultural symbols. These symbols evoke connections to the ancient qualities of our primal mind, such as the nurturing mother, wise father, and terrifying shadow. The commonness of these symbols can be seen in myths and fairy tales, where there is always a hero battling a clear villain (who often represents a personality flaw that the hero must overcome). The hero is usually assisted by a vague parental figure. We know instinctively that these stories, despite being fictitious, are rooted in truth. Maybe it’s not about the details themselves but about how these details are arranged to form a coherent (but not necessarily factual) history of human nature. That being said, maybe the easiest way to understand a society’s collective dreams and fears is through the mythological characters that persist in literature, films, and urban legends. In “Jung and Tarot”, Sallie Nichols noted how the Tarot deck (especially the trump cards) have many obvious elements that are aligned with Jung’s study on psychological archetypes. They represent elements that are common in the stories we all share — whether personal or mythological. Nichols says that our systems of thought are attempts to create logic out of the chaotic imagery of the unconscious. Through philosophy, religion, and other personal belief systems, we attempt to systematize the inner nonverbal world. By working with archetypes, we are able to go directly to this world of images and face our buried frustrations, traumas, and childhood dreams. Tarot cards may help us there.
This isn’t so different from seeing bats and bears in Rorschach inkblots, or being able to tell stories from the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). By using the images of the external world as a reflection of our inner world, we are able to understand our deeper self. When we study our reactions to these primal psychological symbols, we can free ourselves from whatever is unconsciously manipulating our conscious attitudes and behaviors.
Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc.