This is the first post in the Looking Within’s series. Looking Within explores the symbols and meanings associated with tarot cards and how they can be used as tools for growing and evolving. Read the whole series here!
To understand the roots of oneself is to understand the roots of the world – and to tend to the roots is to tend to our growth.
Looking back, I see how my backstory is closely weaved in stories. Myths and fairy tales always fascinated me. If I think about my own life-changing moments, it’s clear how often they were prompted by a story I read or watched, and if they weren’t, I can still recall what I was reading at that particular time. Weaving stories was also my first mode of expression as a child. I would play with dolls everywhere, or draw small comics on recycled papers; writing came later, first as snippets of poetry and then as stories. I used to tell lies a lot, too; later, at night, I used to retell the events of the day as if it were a movie and imagining different endings.
But it was only after I discovered the concept of a “collective unconscious” that I tapped into the healing power of stories.
Once, stories were tools. They were used as medicines, warnings, records. At a time when life was mostly a fight for survival, human beings still felt the urge to give a sense to their experiences, and so stories helped weave meaning into the world and their lives. Those first universal experiences and understanding formed the substratum upon which human civilization evolved – and thus, the collective unconscious was born.
“And the essential thing, psychologically, is that in dreams, fantasies, and other exceptional states of mind the most far-fetched mythological motifs and symbols can appear autochthonously at any time, often, apparently, as the result of particular influences, traditions, and excitations working on the individual, but more often without any sign of them. These “primordial images” or “archetypes,” as I have called them, belong to the basic stock of the unconscious psyche and cannot be explained as personal acquisitions. Together they make up that psychic stratum which has been called the collective unconscious.” – C.G. Jung
Archetypes derive from the experience of universal events, such as birth and death. But they can also be universal figures (the parent, the wise one, the hero, the shadow) or themes (the creation, the journey to the underworld). As children, we are deeply immersed in those archetypes, because they offer a first understanding of an otherwise unknown world. Then, as we live – make our own experiences, and come in contact with the culture of our birthplace and birthfamily –, we build upon those first foundations and colour them with our own personal images and symbols. When a story or an image resonates, it’s because it has touched upon an archetype particularly important for our life.
As I learnt more and more about this, I started looking for stories and myths that could give me the words to understand and explain certain experiences I was going through. I closely identified with Artemis in my childhood as I rebelled against female stereotypes, both in my family and in my culture. During the two years spent in psychotherapy, I often saw my life through the lenses of the Lady of Shalott. Later on, during my spiritual journey, I looked back and saw instead how I had undergone a journey much similar to that of Persephone.
At the same time, I got closer and closer to the world of tarot cards. They too, like stories, were deeply immersed in the collective unconscious and its archetypes. The Shadowscape tarot, which I bought as a gift for myself the same Christmas I was in psychotherapy, allowed me to understand and explore my experiences in a much more familiar language that the one my therapist used. (Or didn’t.) But above all else, it gave me hope – hope that I wasn’t alone, that I was connected to something greater, something wiser and older that was walking alongside me. Both the High Priestess and the Star popped up a lot during those months. Now I understand why.
Symbols, we have been told in psychosynthethic counseling, work as a magnet for psychic energy. Since they concentrate many concepts and possible emotions in one image, they possess a specific “weight” that can work as a catalyst for our energy once we absorb and reflect on it. Visualizing the act of shooting an arrow, for example, can feel like gathering all of our mental and emotional energy into achieving one objective. Imagining a lighthouse in the middle of a storm can help us feel grounded and calmer. In these instances, we are using symbols to evoke a quality or state of mind we want to develop right now. But in other cases, our reaction to a symbol can also reveal our current attitude towards what that symbol represents; visualizing a rose that fails to open can tell us that we feel suffocated and unable to express our potential at its fullest, for example.
We all have developed filters to hide and survive, but symbols bypass this filter. Our reaction to them is visceral. They are the language of the unconscious aspects of our self, and thus cannot be actively controlled once they emerge. They are the voices we need to hear to grow. Moreover, if we meditate or observe or write about them daily, symbols can become seeds within us and contribute to the well-being of our inner ecosystem.
If our inner world is a landscape, we can use tarot as a tool to chart it into our atlas – and transform it into a thriving earth.
In this column, we’ll use the symbolism behind the tarot to understand specific aspects and experiences of our self, and how they influence our growth. We’ll see how and why the Magician and the High Priestess must be the ones opening the journey of self-discovery; we’ll discover the healing power of Justice and the hidden gifts of the Devil and the Tower. But we will also look within the card itself, to see how we can actively use them to learn and make their message and qualities our own. At the bottom of each post, you will find some journalling prompts to explore how these symbols resonate with you and your experience.
You don’t need to have a tarot deck at home to follow this column, but if you want to deepen your study, you can look for images on the Internet – or buy your first tarot deck! For this series I’ll use decks inspired by the Smith-Waite tradition, which is also a good starting place for beginners. Decks following this tradition will often recover all the original meanings of a card while at the same time focusing on one specific aspect, so feel free to look for the one that speaks most to you. Moreover, for a long time decks in this tradition have been built on a white, able-bodied, heteronormative vision of the world. Now, fortunately, many artists and tarot readers are working on decolonizing the tarot, so that everyone can see their own experiences reflected in them. Beth’s Little Red Tarot blog has written many wonderful posts about these decks, so I heartily suggest you visit her website to discover them all!
This series will be updated once a month, starting from today with the first tarot – the Magician! (The Fool, who traditionally is numbered as “0”, will be analyzed at the end of this column.) I hope that you will find this analysis useful and nurturing for your personal growth.
The decks featured in this post are the Shadowscape Tarot by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law and The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans.
Do you have thoughts or doubts bothering you? Do you just want to vent? Ask Box is the place where you can drop your questions about life, the universe and everything. My inbox is always open – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.