If you journal regularly, you know the sweetness the private appointment you keep with yourself delivers: a chance to hear (and see) yourself think as you cast back over the day to consider the situations and personalities encountered. Maybe you’ve also tracked night-time dreams, travel adventures, and recorded favorite lines of poetry or plots of favorite spy novels. Keeping a journal ultimately creates a map of your thoughts as you move through time. When you add the lens of the tarot to your journaling practice, you enter an inspirational landscape of symbols and images designed to help explore how we travel through life from innocent beginner (The Fool card) to mature community contributor on the world stage (The World card).
Though tarot readers and enthusiasts often use the deck for divination, hoping to ask and answer questions regarding a particular predicament, as a writer, you can use the tarot as 1) a visual cue for journaling, 2) inspiration for new poems, essays, and to create plot points, 3) a way to learn about a particular theme, time in history, or culture depending on the tarot deck you choose to study. In this post we will look at the first option: using the tarot as a visual cue for journaling. Subsequent posts will look at options two and three.
Tarot as a Visual Representation of Your Physical and Spiritual Journey through Life
The sheer number of creators publishing new tarot decks during our present era combined with decks of prior centuries gives us an incredible array of visual cues to explore in writing. Tarot dates back roughly to the 13th century and while tarot scholars still debate its origins, what has persisted is the structure consistently employed across decks: Seventy-eight cards with colorful artwork and imagery broken into three major sections called Major Arcana, Minor Arcana, and People cards.
Major Arcana: Arcana means secrets or mysteries, so these cards depict the major, or big secrets and mysteries surrounding the potential stages of our spiritual journey as we move from 0, the innocent Fool, passing through the arc of Empress, Emperor, and Lovers to encounter cards like Death (letting go), and the Sun (joyfully giving off our own special light) all the way to the World card, XXI, where we at last understand our gifts and share them with our community. We see this image in the Rider Waite Smith World card, where a woman floats in the center of a green garland. Publishing their deck years later in the mid 80s and adding an aspect of celebrating the richness and diversity of cultures, Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble chose their Motherpeace World card to feature a woman of color dancing with a tambourine in her hand at the very center of a circle made up of people from every imaginable part of the globe.
Minor Arcana: These are the minor, or little daily secrets depicting our physical journey through situations with others and the environment. You’ll find forty of these cards organized by the four elements we all encounter: earth (materials and money), air (breath and thoughts), fire (will and inspiration), water (heart and emotions). You can lay these four sets of ten cards out from very first impulse of the Ace, or zero, all the way to number ten to see a progression from initiating encounter to final culmination. For example, let’s consider the Rider Waite Smith Ace of Cups (Rider publishing company, A.E. Waite creator, Pamela Colman Smith artist). We see a hand emerging from the clouds with a chalice resting in the palm and overflowing with water. It traditionally represents an offer of love to the self from deep within. The rest of the suit of cups from three to nine show other situations we pass through as we are challenged and invited to love in various situations until we arrive at the Ten of Cups. Here in the Ten we see a development of that Ace of Cups inner form of love moving outward to include love for a partner (happy couple with arms linked and raised to the sky in jubilation), love for children (siblings holding hands while dancing), and love for home (cheerful red roof in background, vibrant trees and even a river on the property).
People cards: These are often called court cards and represent parts of ourselves or other personalities crossing our paths. These sixteen cards in decks like the Rider Waite Smith follow the archaic structure of depicting Pages (just beginning to learn), Knights (maturing, have earned their horses), Kings and Queens (leading, have earned the throne). More recent decks use different labels to show the stages of maturation depending on the whim or culture and background of the deck maker. James Wanless, creator of the Voyager Tarot (collage deck), uses the terms child, woman, man, and sage to show the arc of human development. What stays the same deck to deck is the idea that we grow from green self, like a seed or acorn, to fully mature and mighty oak, giving shade and shelter. Some decks give astrological attribution corresponding to the four elements not only to the people cards, but the rest of the Minor Arcana as well.
In summary, in every tarot deck you can expect to encounter daily life cards (Minor Arcana), soul cards (Major Arcana), and people cards (sometimes referred to as court cards, though as discussed above, deck makers will use their own growth and power structures to show the stages of maturation). You’ll also see the four elements of earth, air, fire and water running through the Minor Arcana cards and the people cards, though how deck makers choose to signify those elements varies. For example, while the Rider Waite Smith deck calls the suit of earth Pentacles, the Inner Child Cards by Isha Lerner and Mark Lerner correlate crystals with the suit of earth. Across decks, numerology also plays a role; every deck gives you a progression of life situations through the Minor Arcana from zero to ten, meant again to signify stages in a process towards culmination. The Major Arcana gives you a progression of potential soul growth through its both challenging and inspiring arc of twenty-two cards.
Choosing a Tarot Deck
Given the plethora of decks to choose from, I often recommend that newcomers to tarot start with the Rider Waite Smith deck because of the pictorial depictions of situations through the Minor Arcana (and its place in tarot history dating back to the turn of the century). Some decks only display numerical replications of the suit on each card (earth), swords (air), wands (fire), and cups (water). By that I mean you will see two cups on the Two of Cups card—much more neutral and less inspiring as a visual cue when compared to the image found in the Rider Waite Smith Two of Cups: two lovers of equal height, holding their golden chalices even with their hearts as they face one another. One lover wears a blue tunic, the other dons yellow stockings; one lover wears red slippers, the other, golden boots. Such a card invites us in and fires the imagination. Once you become familiar with the structure of the tarot, it is delightful to peruse other decks for artwork you love with an eye towards adding to your “tarot library of decks.”
Begin by selecting one card from your deck to use as inspiration for free-writing in your tarot journal (fan the cards out face down if you want to be surprised, or choose from the deck fanned out and face up if you prefer). I like to hold off on reading the deck maker’s interpretation until I’ve had a chance to do at least one free-write of the card. This allows you to enter the card with curiosity and to follow the image-based promptings to where they take you in connection with your own life and circumstances. Then I recommend reading the interpretative notes or accompanying guidebook to see what your deck maker intended. Do a second round of free-writing to see what comes up now that you know more about the symbolism of the card. There is no right or wrong direction to follow when tarot journaling and free-writing. The goal is to enjoy the imagery as you strike up a tarot conversation that can last a lifetime across multiple decks.
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Tania Pryputniewicz is a heart-centered writing teacher, poet, and tarot muse passionate about cross-pollination and hybrid forms from poetry movies to tarot haiku. Once trapped in a loveless romance in her early twenties as an undergraduate English Major, Tania found a tarot deck in a bookshelf that saved her soul and set her feet firmly on the Royal Road. She brings over twenty-five years as a writing teacher and practicing tarot reader to her tarot-inspired writing classes.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tania is the author of the poetry collection, November Butterfly (Saddle Road Press, 2014). Recent poems appeared in America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2018), NILVX: A Book of Magic (Tarot Series), The Rockvale Review and at SWWIM online. Tania’s Heart’s Compass Tarot Workbook is forthcoming from Two Fine Crows Books in 2021. She teaches poetry and tarot journaling at San Diego Writers, Ink and lives in Coronado with her husband, three children, one blue-eyed Siberian Husky and a formerly feral feline named Luna. Her on-line home is: www.taniapryputniewicz.com.