Symbolic Inclusiveness vs. Singularity of Purpose

Symbolic inclusiveness: The idea that all symbols are interchangeable and can mean anything one wants them to mean; personal perception “in the moment” trumps the accumulated wisdom of the ages, so there is no need to learn the symbolic language of any particular system of thought in order to practice it. Throw enough symbols at the wall and some are bound to stick.

The main problem I have with symbolic inclusiveness in tarot interpretation – at least if it’s codified in a book and served up to an unwary public as gospel – is that it promotes dilution of meaning, until any card can mean anything (which in some instances may not be entirely untrue, but that’s a different debate). My main litmus test for such things is “Does it deepen the existing body of knowledge?” and if it doesn’t, does it offer compelling insights that broaden the boundaries of that knowledge in useful ways? Knowledge and practice (and more practice) are the twin anvils on which our skills are forged, and ore that has insoluble impurities is poor raw material for fashioning our tools. Innovation for its own sake is often rife with such flaws; it’s why we have the Scientific Method.

The comparative differences between Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck and its Waite-Smith counterpart create a stark contrast. To the average student of these subjects, the RWS deck is approachable right out of the box due to the prosaic familiarity of its minor-card images. On the other hand, in light of its creator’s stated singularity of purpose (“to reproduce the whole of his Magical Mind pictorially on the skeleton of the ancient Qabalistic tradition”), the Thoth can be all but impenetrable and certainly indigestible for the neophyte. So maybe if we just blur the hard edges a bit, dress it up in generally accepted usage (most of it RWS-based or perhaps Jungian), it will be easier to swallow. The Thoth is a tempting target for revisionists who want to leave their personal mark on the tarot landscape; it begs for deconstruction into more comprehensible intellectual “bites.”

When I started with the tarot, I jumped right off the cliff with the Book of Thoth and have been in blissful free-fall ever since. As long as we recognize a parachute for what it is, it can be a useful adjunct to learning. But we should pack the ‘chute ourselves. Relying on the debatable expertise of self-styled “envelope-pushers” to ensure a soft landing is unwise unless we scrutinize their offerings with a judicious eye for dubious assertions. At one point, the Amazon review process was a fairly reliable compass by which to judge the utility of new books aimed at augmenting old standbys, but the proliferation of “false positive” reviews to inflate sales has pretty much degraded that option. Short of simply buying everything in sight, on-line “word-of-mouth” recommendations from forum and Facebook participants whose integrity we at least have a shot at verifying is probably our best bet for steering a course through the bewildering maze of new titles.

Editorial Note:

I’m an interpreter, not an innovator. (I will ramify before I reinvent, and I firmly believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”) I put my personal stamp or “spin” on the cards through the use of metaphor and analogy. It serves my acute sense of non-Dickensian literary economy, saving me 90 out of every 100 words I might otherwise use to get my points across. (To clarify, I often say that Dickens – at least when writing for periodical publications that paid by the word – seldom missed an opportunity to use 100 words when 10 words would do.)

10 thoughts on “Symbolic Inclusiveness vs. Singularity of Purpose

  1. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the Tarot books altogether. A well read head, a dictionary of symbols and a couple of books on myth, art and semiotics maybe the best parachute afterall. Thank goodness the fall from a table top is not that high.

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  2. I’ve recommended the Chevalier and Gheerbrant Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin) quite frequently, as well as all manner of other relevant works. The serious student would be well advised to engage upon an individual course of research into iconography, myth, symbolism, divination, and the like as a serious counterweight to popular works on the subject. Keep extensive notes on the subject and reread them periodically, adding insights, relevant snippets from poetry or prose as inspiration occurs. This is the process I recommend to friends or acquaintances interested in the subject, or interested in “going beyond the LWB” at any rate. In any case, making one’s own notes is a very worthwhile exercise, if not outright necessary, in my experience.

    That said, Bon O’Neill’s essays on the iconology of tarot – available somewhere online – are a valuable mine of information.

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  3. Bob (or Robert, rather) O’Neill is the author of a classic but difficult to find book called “Tarot Symbolism.” This work has been somewhat superseded in recent years but remains very much a solid introduction to the subject. Many of O’Neill’s essays are also available here: Read the first part of the collection as a PDF here:

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  4. Ah, this would be the “Bunny Bob” O’Neill that Glenn Wright dismissed so brutally in his long rant on cartofeminism: “author of Tarot Symbolism, one of the most sought-after, boring, and certainly overrated Tarot books ever written.” It’s nice to have an alternative viewpoint.


  5. That gent’s style is quite pugnacious and provocative, without being quite as informative as say the late Michael Hurst. Elsewhere, he writes that: “O’Neill’s book is a quite useful overview of the myriad ideas and cultural influences which affected the creation and selection of the symbols used in the first tarocchi decks. His interest is in providing an alternative view to Dummett’s anti-ideological ‘it’s only a card-game’ analysis while at the same time he has little interest in (at least in this book) reviewing the validity or value of the later occultist speculations about tarot. This book is NOT likely going to interest the casual reader, nor especially those whose interests are embedded in pomo-isms of the new age, but for serious students of tarot (or those who would like to become one of those) ‘Tarot Symbolism’ is an important read, providing a nice balance against Dummett’s rather narrow take on the significance of early tarot history.” []

    His dismissal of so-called Cold Reading is rather silly given what Etteilla or Mlle Lenormand had said about them at the time (much the same reproaches as he makes towards Mary Greer), or if one considers that there is an entire section on same appended to Maxwell’s book, at least in its French edition. Many other classic works also made little or no distinction between information provided by the cards or by the interaction itself – in fact, the sum total of all these factors combined produces the ‘reading’ as such.

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    • “Cold reading” is a fascinating subject, mainly for what it has become in the eyes of those interested in discrediting divination. When I started back in the early ’70s, it simply meant that you had no prior knowledge of the querent’s circumstances; you didn’t consciously attempt to glean clues from them through ancillary means, you just focused on the cards. The Golden Dawn’s approach in the Opening of the Key method was to read the matter “cold,” without asking sitters in advance what their question was: (“Tell the querent why he has come; if wrong, abandon the divination.”) Now it seems to mean that you try to “cheat” by looking at everything about the querent except the cards on the table. I wrote a post about it a while back.


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