Working with the archetypes in tarot: What, How and Why?

Editor’s Note: If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

Today, I’m inviting you to work with an archetype from the tarot deck.

Ace of Wands from the Camoin-Jodorowsky Tarot, a restored version of the Marseille Tarot.

This might bring up a few questions along the lines of ‘What is an archetype?’, ‘Where do archetypes fit with the tarot?’, ‘Why would I want to work with an archetype, and how?’ — all valuable things to ask, and all of which I’ll be addressing in this article. Or, I’ll be addressing them as much as I can. You see, on our evolutionary journey through life, archetypes walk hand-in-hand with the unconscious: Both can only be known in part, and indirectly through our own specific filters. Clear as mud? Let me try to explain.

In an article in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, Timothy Chouinard (1970) describes an archetype in this way:

“[An] archetype is not a specific content unless realized consciously; it is otherwise a pure form — unspecifiable of its very nature. … [And he goes on to quote Jung:]

‘The symbols it [i.e. the collective unconscious] creates are always grounded in the unconscious archetype, but their manifest forms are moulded by the ideas acquired by the conscious mind. The archetypes are the numinous, structural elements of the psyche and possess a certain autonomy and specific energy which enables them to attract, out of the conscious mind, those contents which are best suited to themselves. The symbols act as transformers, their functions being to convert libido from a “lower” to a “higher” form. This function is so important that feeling accords it the highest values. The symbol works by suggestion; that is to say, it carries conviction and at the same time expresses the content of that conviction.’ [Jung (1956)]

“… So we can never experience an archetype first-hand; it must always be consciously filtered — or in-formed — through some sort of symbol.”

In other words, archetypes are:

  • A blueprint for a feeling, behaviour, state of being
  • Universally recognisable, transcending gender, culture, race, religion, region
  • Pure potential until we ourselves bring meaning to them; they ask for meaning through us, we derive greater meaningfulness through them

How does this fit with tarot? A typical tarot deck is made up of 78 cards, 22 of which comprise the major arcana, and 56 the minor arcana. The minor arcana are what I’d refer to as ‘slice of life’ cards: They depict a moment in time, or a character trait that is lived out in our quotidian lives. Twelve of these are the court cards, which have a qualitatively different feel to them, often representing a specific person or a state that the querent (for whom you are doing the reading) is living out, or has encountered/will encounter. They are, more often than not, human- rather than event-based.

The major arcana, on the other hand, tend to refer to an expression of the soul’s evolution. They transcend the everyday, cutting through space and time. This is emphasised in the progression of the cards themselves, from Zero (The Fool) through to 21 (The World), which is in and of itself an archetypal journey through life (although we would tend to experience this journey as one that doesn’t run strictly in sequence, with several concurrent threads that might interweave and/or double-back on themselves).

And so we enter our lives as Fools — untapped potential, unaware of what we are stepping into.

We forge our identities as individuals from The Magician to the Hierophant.

With The Lovers, we see ourselves for the first time in the mirror of another.

We move out into the world with this new knowledge and we attempt to balance what we now hold (The Chariot and Strength).

We take what we have gathered and we move within to integrate it (The Hermit), while preparing ourselves for change that comes on integration’s heels (The Wheel of Fortune).

We meet with reckoning (Justice); we sacrifice, or are sacrificed, for the decisions we make (The Hanged Man); we die to ourselves in order to be born again (Death).

We are given the opportunity to understand what it is to walk between spiritual and physical, sacred and profane (Temperance), before descending into the shadows to bring our darkness into the light (The Devil).

Through this experience, structures that can no longer support us are destroyed (The Tower); we re-connect with something greater than ourselves (The Star), and we learn to hear the shadowy whisperings of the soul (The Moon).

Through illumination (The Sun), disowned, disembodied parts of our psyche are reunited (Judgement); and as one door closes, so another opens.

It is at this juncture of closing-opening that we embody The World.

(From The World — A door closes; a door opens)

So, when we work with the tarot, we are working with archetypal locations (geographical and internal), situations, characteristics and people — both others and ourselves. These archetypes are, as Chouinard writes, in their “pure form,” their “specific content” needing to be “realized consciously.”

For example, one of the cards I identify with as a tarot reader is that of The High Priestess. As a tarot reader, I tend to inhabit the world of ‘the between’ when I am doing a reading: I am not fully of this world, but feel rather like an intermediary whose responsibility is to bring something to light (i.e. into consciousness) in a way that helps a client to relate to it personally. When I see The High Priestess, there is a part of me that identifies with her at a visceral level: It works beyond words; there is an intuitive recognition. In this way, the archetype of The High Priestess comes alive — is imbued with earthly life — because of the meaning I bring to it, and it in turn brings a greater insight and meaning to who I am and what I do. In this moment, I am not only aware of the conscious archetype that I embody, but I also hold myself open to the potential for recognising the shadow archetype of The High Priestess:

She may lack a belief in her own abilities, never comfortably inhabiting her role as intermediary and therefore never giving full expression to her gifts. Or she may lose her bearings and believe that she holds a sense of truth when her message in fact does not come from spirit: she confuses the earthly with the spiritual — an oracle who instead looks at her own reflection and mistakenly draws ‘truth’ from there. (The High Priestess and The Empress: Inner and outer worlds.)

And so the archetype has drawn into my sphere of awareness the possibility of what can happen when I do not bring to consciousness all of who she is — and all of who I am.

This is why it can be helpful and empowering to work with an archetype consciously. We are using myth and symbol to understand ourselves and our lives more fully, and to situate them in something larger than we are. We are simultaneously embodiment and explorer. We become the Hero in our own narratives — and the experience of meaning can be a powerful force — one that feeds ourselves and the gods.

Here is one way that you can start to work with archetypes in tarot:

Choose your card

If you have tarot cards that you can work with, take a moment to un-busy your thoughts (this, as opposed to trying to ‘clear your mind’ which I believe is often an exercise in futility), take your deck, and start to thumb through it. When you come to a card that draws your attention to in a way that feels different from the others — whether attraction or repulsion (though you might want to work with attraction initially) — take it out of the pack and put it in front of you so you can study it.

If you don’t have tarot cards, a second-best option is to visit the following site and work with cards there:

Explore your card

Without applying too much thought right now, get an impression of your card. Look at it in terms of colour, visual elements, parallels and things that stand out as different. Find the tiniest of detail. Everything is there for a reason, even if the reason is the one created by you as the observer.

Make associations

What does each element mean for you? How can they be explained in terms of your own character, experiences, outlook? How do the colours make you feel? What is that tiniest detail indicating about you? You have a personal relation to everything that you see, and this is your chance to explore it. If your intuition guides you somewhere that doesn’t seem to make sense, why not follow it anyway? Write it down. Perhaps it will begin to make sense later.

Feel the connection to something greater

Finally, close your eyes and sense the card from this perspective of inner sight. Might it perhaps seem that there is a part of the card that knows you, and yet why should it? When I pull a card that I identify with in a way that is both immediate and profound, I feel a connection to something that is simultaneously me/not me. In this moment of experiencing being known and seen at some other level than that of my own thinking about myself, is this where I am looking indirectly at the unconscious?

And, when I am, do I perhaps sense the unconscious looking back at me?

What each must seek in his life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else. — Joseph Campbell

[If archetypes] are mere images whose numinosity [or “sacred otherness”] you have never experienced, it will be as if you were talking in a dream, for you will not know what you are talking about … their names mean very little, whereas the way they are related to you is all-important. — C G Jung

4 thoughts on “Working with the archetypes in tarot: What, How and Why?

  1. Thank you, Green-Star-Gazer, for your generous contribution! I’m hoping to work more closely with archetypes when I get my Jungian Analyst qualification in several years’ time – they are indeed powerful gods. And I love your suggestion about transforming and integrating parts of ourselves through a conscious selection of cards. I, too, find the Thoth Tarot potent in this regard; it has helped me and some of the people for whom I have done readings. It has a very direct feel to it. It doesn’t pussy-foot around — which means you have to have a willingness to see what it is that it is pointing out to you: It’s not a deck that colludes with denial.

    I also want to say thank you to Rob44, whose comment in the reading that included The Tower a few weeks back in part inspired this article: “[T]he archetypes want desperately to evolve with us, but can only do so if we write new stories for them to live in.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. We must meet them halfway.

  2. Sarah,
    Thank you for this very well-crafted Mini-workshop in working with Archetypes. I wholly support and endorse this process as a way to get to know various aspects of one’s hidden self.
    Another exercise that I was taught by my Astrology/Tarot teacher when I was first cutting my teeth on all this knowledge is sort of a reverse polarity of the method you have outlined in your article. In this more unusual approach one takes cards which are associated with aspects of the self that one may self-assess to be in “conflict” with one another and actually put the cards together in a Sacred space and manner, on a personal altar for instance. (this also works for “hard” transits between planets, pick the cards representing the plants and have them “sit together”) This announces to the deep-conscious self that we want these aspects to learn how to get comfortable with one another, and possibly even learn how to be more harmonious together…in other words, using the cards themselves as proxies for inner growth that we want to achieve. Sounds like “magic”? You bet it is!! and, it works! 🙂

    I use the Crowley deck and I find that the Court cards are also very powerful to use along with the major arcana since the Court cards can also hint at the development scale of a particular element(suit) that is in progress. For instance, if I really want to support some dietary changes, or anything to do with the physical body which promotes health and well-being, I like to bring in both the Princess and the Queen of Discs since they are so masterful at supporting the body (and since I am in a female body). If I want to start a new adventure, the Prince of Fire and the Chariot play well together and love to run with the wind in their Chariots! Working with the symbol language of images is a powerful way to access, support and inform the deep-conscious self of intentional changes we want to manifest and the Tarot cards are an excellent resource for that.

    As an aside for working with Archetypes in general, your article is very timely as I have just discovered that an ancient Archetype has been at work in me for most of my adult life and it is one that I was not able to name or know about until I recently uncovered the mythological reference. Now that I have her “story” and understand the pattern, I am deeply curious to see if it might be possible to “heal” this tragic character (in me) and then possibly there may be a “healing” of sorts that can happen in the morphic field of this entity/Archetype. I have seen this happen before… when one does healing work on the inner realms, then suddenly we may find a “new” story or movie or book comes onto the collective/popular/public scene and it will contain a character that in every way is like the old archetype only now it has a new angle/edge that embodies the healing work that one has helped activate. This is truly a mysterious process and is one that most people are not very aware of or even interested in….but story-tellers know of this phenomenon…as do anyone working Shamanic paths. I find it utterly fascinating.

    Thank you for your excellent article, like Len, I’m going to keep a copy in my archives… fabulous work, as always!

    cheers! 🙂

  3. Sarah: Thank you, brilliant, this is a keeper for me to refer to in the future. Please, may i quote (or paraphrase) you?

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