One of the highlights of my week are my Friday evenings, where I co-facilitate a Tarot study group. Our format is very free and open to all levels of experience, and as such we get a lot of new ways of seeing cards I’d never imagined before.
Going over the Death card with the group, a member who is going through the cards for the first time (So exciting!), made a good point. He said he was having trouble with the words on the cards. The first set of cards, we talked a lot about ‘being’ the figure in the card; How might it feel to be the High Priestess, or stand like the Magician? Some cards had names which didn’t fit the formula of a figure, but up through The Hanged Man, there was always clearly people to identify with in the cards.
“Am I supposed to be Death, like the Grim Reaper? Or be the idea of Death in general? How am I supposed to do that?” All are great exercises, but for someone just trying to get a handle on the card the differences in approach represented an interesting question, which he posited: “What are the Major arcana really for? Are they archetypes of people, are they supposed to represent qualities, or what? On the one hand I have this Emperor guy and the Magician, and on the other I have cards like Death and Strength. I’m not feeling any consistency here.”
Exploring the differences between the literal categories of the cards immediately seemed like an interesting idea. Death in particular fits more than one category; Death can be an event or a mythical figure, among many other options. The simplest approach is the definition: The action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of a person or organism. So it is the process of dying, or the instance of the death itself.
But what cards have clear categories, and what happens when you try to express a card like the Magician with a quality, more like Strength? What words would you choose? Would you also alter the image, or leave it the same?
Looking at other decks is a great way to see what some of the options are. In the classic RWS Tarot deck Temperance might best be categorized as a quality one may seek or improve in oneself. In the Thoth deck the card is called Art, which is a creative process or the product of such a process, more like Death. Instantly the card has been reimagined as a process or product, rather than an obtainable quality such as Strength.
The Osho Tarot deck does this many times; Renaming a card within its categories, switching categories, and even inventing some new categories for major arcana while its at it. Instead of Death, Osho gives the more general process of ‘Transformation’. Rather than The Chariot, an object, we get the quality of ‘Awareness’. The Devil has been changed to ‘Conditioning’, which might be another process, or might be considered a quality to be uncovered and questioned in ourselves. The High Priestess has been changed to ‘Inner Voice’, something altogether new for major arcana – a literal part of our mental experience. We all have an inner voice, regardless of its character or our tendency to listen. Taken rather literally, this could be like renaming The Fool something like ‘Opposable Thumbs’.
The possibilities are endless, and each avenue of discovery reveals more faces of the cards and asks new, interesting questions.
Below are the simplest categories I could divide the Rider Waite Smith deck into, with the cards which fit those categories filled in. Some were ambiguous in my mind, so I just picked one – such as Justice and Death. If you simply fill in the blanks, I you just might see some of your old friends spark with new life. If you don’t agree with the categories, or simply see some interesting alternatives, I recommend making your own table and exploring the possibilities!
|2||The High Priestess|
|10||The Wheel of Fortune|
|12||The Hanged Man|
Some other ideas for categories might be separating Specific Figures (The Devil) from General Archetypes (The Emperor). Another interesting one is Man-made objects (The Tower, The Chariot) and Natural objects (The Moon, The World). Allegorical allusions and even grammatical parts of speech are all fair game, the finer distinctions you make, the more interesting the game can become!