The Tarot. What is it exactly? Well, it’s basically a set of seventy-eight cards. But it’s also more than that. In her book Tarot for Writers, Corrine Kenner calls the tarot a “cosmic model of the universe” and a “map of the human psyche.”
If nothing else, the tarot, at the very least, can be considered a cosmic model of your story universe and a map of the psyche of your characters.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that if you were stuck somewhere on a desert island and you could only bring a few things with you and if, like me, you have an insatiable need to tell stories, all you would need to write your stories would be something to write with, something to write on and box of tarot cards.
But let me begin our journey of writing with the tarot by briefly explaining what the tarot is for anyone who is new it.
As I said before, the standard tarot deck is comprised of 78 cards, which are divided into three main segments.
- The Major Arcana
- The Minor Arcana
- The Court Cards
Major Arcana is Latin for “greater secrets. There are 22 cards in the Major Arcana, starting with 0 for The Fool and ending with 21 for the World.
The Major Arcana deal those big, dramatic, larger than life issues you want your characters to tackle through the course of your story. Love, death, temptation, justice, destiny, fate. The names of the cards reflect these themes and many of them carry such names as Death, Justice, and Strength or Lust as the card is sometimes called.
But the Major Arcana does not only deal with themes. It also deals with archetypes.
An archetype is a template. It’s an image or a symbol that has appeared over and over down through the history of humanity, It appears in dreams, myths, legends and it also appears in our current cultural landscape in movies, television, comic books and even TV ads.
It’s said that one person’s archetype is another’s stereotype, but I think that if you dismiss the idea of archetypes too easily you’ll be doing yourself and your reader a disservice. I’ll talk more about archetypes when I tackle using the tarot to create characters.
The Minor Arcana is comprised of 56 cards and, although it’s not as imbued with as much mystical significance as the Major Arcana, these cards are just as important. You could say that the Major Arcana deal with big issues and the Minor with those same issues but on a smaller scale. On a more day-to-day level.
There are four suits in the Minor Arcana. Coins or Pentacles, Cups, Swords and Wands. They’re similar to the suits in your standard deck, but instead of Cups, you’ll find Hearts. Spades replace Swords, Clubs become Wands and Coins are known as Diamonds. You’ll find a nice chart detailing the associations of the suits of the Minor Arcana here.
Each of the four suits has 10 cards or pips, ranging from 1 to 10. That gives you forty cards. The remaining 16 cards make up the Court Cards.
The Court Cards are known as the royal family of the Tarot because they are generally known as the King, Queen, Knight and Page. There are four court cards for each of the suits. So, for example, you’ll have a King of Cups, a King of Swords, a King of Wands and a King of Pentacles.
Court cards can be a little tricky, because they can represent people (which is probably the first thought you’ll have when you pull a court card), but they can also represent aspects of yourself, situations you may find yourself in, etc.
For the purpose of writing fiction, however, and to just make it easier, I’m going to use the Court Cards primarily for creating characters. And, once I get to that portion, you’ll see why.
To give you an idea as to why I think the court cards are perfect for character creating, I want to introduce you to the King, Queen, Knight and Page of Swords.
Oh, wait. I’m sorry.That’s those crazy, crafty, conniving members of House Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones.
But they’re also the King, Queen, Knight and Page of Swords.
In the tarot, the suit of Swords usually stands for the intellect, for politics, for intrigue, for the mind and its ability to divide and to conquer. Swords are double-edged and they can be used in defense of an idea as much as they can be used to hurt.
House Lannister is one of the richest houses in Westeros, the mythical land in which Game of Throne is set. and you might think I’d want to associate the Lannisters with Pentacles, which stand for money and wealth.
But, unlike those who use money in order to enjoy the pleasures of life, the Lannisters use money to advance their agendas and, trust me, everyone in this family has an agenda, a lot of which involves them stabbing each other in the back along with betraying and scheming against those who, as Cersei Lannister puts it, “is not us.” Not a Lannister.
The patriarch is Tywin Lannister (King of Swords), the father of Cersei, Jamie and Tyrion. Tywin is the darker side of the King of Swords. He’s ruthless, tyrannical and manipulative. He’s quite intelligent and uses that intelligence to advance his House and his family.
Cersei (Queen of Swords) is Tywin’s daughter, but she is also a Queen as she was married to Robert Baratheon, the late King of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei, like her father, also represents the darker aspect of the Queen of Swords. As her father tells her, she’s not as smart as she thinks she is but, except when it comes to her children, whom she truly loves, Cersei’s head rather than her heart rules her. She’s cold, unforgiving and vengeful and she has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to protect her children and advance her family.
Jamie (Knight of Swords) is Cersei’s twin brother and, alas, the father of her children. Jamie encompasses both the light and dark sides of the Knight of Swords. He tends to use his mind in order to get himself out of scrapes, of which he finds himself in quite a few. He’s also reckless and impetuous, but there are sides to him that are starting to manifest which suggest there’s more to him than meets the eye. We shall see.
Finally, there’s Tyrion (Page of Swords), the youngest of the Lannisters. Tyrion is a dwarf and not the apple of either his father or his sister’s eye. His brother loves him, but the rest of the Lannisters…they barely tolerate him. Tyrion is smart. He reads a lot and as he tells Jon Snow, “a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” He loves outsmarting others and, honestly, does it quite well.
Equating the court cards with people you know or with characters from movies, books or television can not only help you learn the court cards, but can also be useful when brainstorming characters. We’ll talk more about that later.
So, there you have it. A rather brief, but I hope useful introduction to tarot. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them in the comment section.
If you want a really excellent book on learning the tarot, I recommend the appropriately titled Learning the Tarot by Joan Bunning. It says it’s for beginners and it’s a great book if you are new to the tarot, but I’ve been studying tarot for years and I still use it.
Thursday, I’ll talk about spreads. What they are, how to use them and, especially, how to use them for writing fiction