Archetypes in Action
How Tarot Updates Itself
I feel as though I spend half my life waiting for updates to install on my many devices. I understand the need for this and try not to complain too much. Updates are necessary to respond to changes in security threats, user needs and machine capabilities. Recently, I have seen some social media conversations that suggest tarot needs to be updated, perhaps for metaphorically similar reasons.
Updates and revisions to sacred texts often cause acrimony. I remember in the 1970s that the Evangelical teachers at my private Christian high school hated the then-modern “Good News Bible” that my father, a fairly hip United Methodist Minister, revered.
As sacred texts go, tarot differs from the Bible in many ways, not the least of which being it is made of pictures instead of words. Another difference is that in tarot, multiple interpretations of the cards, both in art and divination, are welcome.
There are many tarot artists who seek to ‘update’ tarot by using modern images, and working to make the image more inclusive, and more reflective of our diverse society. There are many tarot authors and readers who do the same, finding within the cards interpretations that reflect our modern lives.
I submit that the reason it is relatively simple for an artist to create modern versions of our beloved tarot characters, and for readers and writers of tarot to find new, modern interpretations, is that archetypes are timeless.
I sometimes think that, as the world of tarot has grown exponentially, many new tarotists have focused more on tarot images than on tarot archetypes. This is reflected in much modern tarot art that takes significant liberties in the depictions of the tarot archetypes. It happens to the point that some tarotists worry this might encourage a potential loss of universal tarot understanding – that our beloved archetypes might slip away in the sands of time.
Our understanding of those archetypes has already changed over decades – that’s part of the ongoing living process of tarot. Yet, many of us don’t want there to be so much change that we lose cohesion to the point that tarot becomes any random oracle.
I vacillate between two moods here. Do I trust the process and trust that the truth of tarot will keep itself, nurtured by the tarot historians and scholars in each generation? Or, do I give in to a sense of unease that, in a sea of “Divine Child,” Ancestor,” and “Master of the Head” cards, we will lose the Hierophant. That’s ironic, of course, since “Hierophant” itself is a modern renaming of the original Major Arcana Five, the Pope.
Creative tarot depictions work to define the archetype even as they redefine it. Archetypal assignment tarot decks help us find the commonality between different depictions. The central energy we find as we compare depictions is the archetype in its present moment.
For example, the Magician in Kris Waldherr’s Goddess Tarot is Isis. In Lisa Hunt’s Animals Divine Tarot the Magician is Cerridwen. When we look at Isis and Cerridwen together, we can try to find the central themes that relate them to each other, and then connect that theme to more traditional associations like Hermes, the number one, the element of Air, Mercury, the path from Kether to Binah, and keywords like “tools, skills and abilities andtrickster”. If we are able to do that successfully, then our tarot knowledge, and tarot itself, is on a firm foundation.
My primary thesis here is that, regardless of imagery, tarot can stay relevant to a changing world without major overhaul, because of the way the archetypes speak in divination. For example, in our modern world, our automobiles are very important. While there were no cars during tarot’s inception, the Chariot has come to signify our vehicles, and our issues of transportation.
Computers and the internet easily appear in the Pages, and some of the Swords cards. Even the World can now speak of the World Wide Web. There is nothing in modern life that tarot can’t depict. The dating app Tinder looks to me like the Seven of Cups, while Bumble sometimes shows up as the Queen of Swords.
I’ve seen these spontaneous tarot updates happen relative to locale as well. I first started reading professionally in Putnam, Connecticut, right as the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casinos were becoming some of the largest casinos in the world. I started noticing that the Wheel of Fortune would appear for casino workers, those hoping to be employed by the casinos, and those who were developing gambling addictions.
The question is, how do we come to know modern meanings for ancient cards? The answer is, the cards tell us!
There are three important ways to consider modern meanings for your cards. One is through communication with other tarotists. As we share our stories, we share our oddball experiences with the cards and our offbeat card interpretations. When we keep these stories in mind, sometimes they pop up in our memories to inform a particular reading. When that happens in a way that is accurate and helpful, that new meaning will forever be a possibility whenever we see that card.
The second way is to look through your deck with an imaginative eye. Think about what cards might mean. Then, when you see those cards in action, you can see if those modern alternative interpretations might be pertinent.
These two methods for learning new card meanings illustrate a reason it is so important to have in your practice real-time readings for others; it’s a solid way to confirm the truth in the cards.
The third method of allowing tarot to update itself is simply to pay attention in readings. As you look at the cards, let your intuition lead you to what they might be saying. Over time in your practice you will remember the first time a particular card gave you a new type of message. After that, the possibility of that message with be present every time that card appears.
In this way we grow as tarotists, and tarot grows with us. When needed, each card has the ability to express its archetype in a new and relevant way.