The Art Tells a Story – Where Great Tarot Readings Come from Part 3

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I have been seeing a lot conversations around how tarot readings work and how to best learn to read the cards lately. Often these conversations come with strong feelings on some peoples part that their way is the best way. Reading the cards for me encompasses many tools, techniques, skills, and abilities. I want to share this series as a non-dogmatic exploration of all the answers to the question “Where do great tarot readings come from?” All the posts in the series can be found here.

Deep Symbols Make for Great Readings

One of the great stories around tarot is that it is a collection of the secret wisdom of all ages. That mystics and gurus of old put these cards together using their knowledge of astrology, alchemy, mysticism, magic, psychic arts, qaballa, astronomy, and more to create a visual key to human understanding. Alas, the historical facts don’t really support this myth but that does not mean learning to understand tarot’s symbols is any less powerful.

The Pope is not someone you can just call up to have a beer with. Look at the art. It shows he is not easily approached.

The Pope is not someone you can just call up to have a beer with. Look at the art. It shows he is not easily approached.

One of the tools that I use a lot in reading the cards comes out of dusty old books but from spending 4 years studying art and post-modern theory in college. Do not worry I’ll spare you the jargon and cut to point of this story. In my final year I was in class with a very well known Canadian artist, who also happens to be one of the smartest people I have every met, when he posed the question “What is the difference between metaphor and reality?” Now the other students had ideas involving this philosopher, or that theory, but their answers did not satisfy this teacher. I finally said “Nothing. Metaphors are the way in which understand life.”

In this series at some point I will talk about learn traditional symbolism but not today. Today I want to talk about the art on the cards and how to read the visual story at play in each card.

Each and every card in the deck speaks to a specific kind of person or event. As an example, we have various fathers – The Pope, The Hermit, The Emperor, The Kings. All of these cards can reflect different aspects of the father figure metaphor or archetype. We do not need to be versed in the cards themselves to draw meaning from them. We can look at what is on the card and think about how we relate to those people, situations, or other elements shown in our daily life. The Pope is above his flock – the metaphor of above can be interpreted as inapproachable or formal. It is not like you can just go grab a beer with the man. The Hermit might be seen as the father who leaves to do his own thing. He is after all no longer at home but off in some wild place. The Emperor could be another absent father. Physically present but consumed by work so emotionally absent. Of course each of the Kings speaks to other variations in the story of fatherhood.

If you look at the art on a tarot card it will tell you the story.


If you look at the card you will notice I was only talking about the art that was showing. We can see a man being tormented by an animal.The art tells the story even if you don’t know what the traditional interpretation of these symbols are.

Every image on a card can also show us important parts of what is going in a persons life or psyche. I recently told a client that they needed to stop acting like the Fool and to start being more like the Fool. In the Noblet Marseille deck the Fool is being accosted by some kind of beast. He looks to be running away, unsuccessfully mind you, from this little monster. Yet in many decks it is a lovely little pet that follows the Fool while he wanders following the scent on the breeze towards awareness of his true nature. The difference between the two ways of showing an animal with the fool is all about the fools relationship with it. After a discussion of this symbol with the client I posed the question “Are you escaping or exploring life?” This question became a powerful mantra to carry with them into the world. Especially when backed by the metaphor of the Fool and the conversations we had the symbols in the card.

We can also bring in the clients personal relationship to the art on the card. A reaction like “That dog in the fool card looks just like the one I had as a child.” can be met with engagement by the reader and further questions instead of shutting down their input and sticking to tradition. Different cultures will also add other interpretations of the art. Snakes might be seen as evil in one culture and sacred in another. Using the power of questions to help unlock the clients relationship to the symbols on the cards can help take the archetypal story and turn it into a personally powerful metaphor.

Please let me know what you see in the art!
Andrew McGregor

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“Painting” image by Evan Blaser used under Creative Commons License.

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