Sunday, September 2, 2012

Archetypes And the Tarot

An archetype is defined by Merriam-Webster as "An inherited idea or mode of thought....that is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual." The idea was originally credited to psychologist Carl Jung, who believed there was a collective unconscious- we all subconsciously have the same mind, in other words, and can recognize symbols and make associations based on this collective unconscious, which may or may not have a biological or genetic basis. However, taking the idea of archetypes a step further, there are, obviously, symbols, roles and characteristics we all as people and social animals encounter. Whether or not this points to a common biologically based memory is beside the point- it could well be. But what it indicates more definitely is that we all have common experiences. If I were to say "Mom" to a number of different people, we would find two things- those people would have common characteristics to their associations of this word, as well as individual, subjective aspects. So what we find here is that though the ways in which we view the world and associate with it are different, there are also common factors in our experiences.
Being common across even as far as cultures and times, these archetypes are somewhat vague- the specific details are filled in by individuals, and will vary from person to person. Yet at the same time there are the same general characteristics present that allow us to identify these archetypes as such.
As the Tarot represents and tries to encompass the whole of human experience, there are likewise archetypes in the Tarot- the Major Arcana represent these archetypes in terms of the more abstract forces we find coming to bear on a situation, whereas the Minor Arcana represent the common situations and events in life we encounter. To draw an example, let's begin with the Fool:
The exact card is less important in understanding its archetype than what that image conveys- here, potential, innocence and inexperience. The Fool represents beginnings of a journey, setting out and moving, not knowing exactly what we'll find but at the same time hoping for the best. And of course there's the dog, representing intuition and common sense- we don't walk into this journey completely empty-headed. Rather, we have experience and understanding to help us along.
It's interesting to note that in the Tarot, like life, as well as literature, the archetypes are often fluid and the people, places or things that embody that archetype often change and flow. Think of an archetype as the group of characteristics that define that symbol. There are some common archetypes, again, defined by their characteristics. Some examples are the Hero, the Martyr, the Knight, the Devil, or Corrupter, the Rebel, the Wise Man and Wise Woman. Rarely will you find one person in the world who consistently embodies one archetype- people tend to have characteristics of several, varying by what roles they play in our lives, and how we percieve that person. In literature, an archetype is usually defined by their relationship to the main character of the story, or what role they play in the story.
Even with this, we can see that archetypes are not necessarily 'real people', but rather aspects of a person, as people tend to be more complicated than the somewhat narrow set of characteristics an archetype creates.
In terms of the Tarot, we see that the Major Arcana fit this description fairly well- they do not define a more complex person, or a more complex relationship, but rather characteristics and the ways in which these forces manifest in the world and in our own lives. When the Major Arcana appear in a reading, it's usually an indication to look for that influence or force, and where it may be leading you at the present, or in the life of whomever you're reading for.
The Minor Arcana is a little bit different, but again, as it is meant to encompass human experience (in this case, more everyday and mundane experiences), it also makes use of archetypes. In the case of both Major and Minor Arcana, these archetypes may be more or less abstract. Swords, for example, cover ideas and thoughts- let's take the Two of Swords.

The Two represents a balance between two ideas, a vacillation between two possibilities or a choice. Yet both seem equally attractive, or equally frightening in terms of consequences. So what do you do? The blindfold the figure wears in the picture above warns that clear sight is needed, and a clear perspective on the situation is called for, and that this may be lacking in the present. This represents a common situation- again, the specific characteristics of the situation, as well as what decision the person may be facing, will vary from instance to instance, yet at the same time this is a common situation we may encounter. Considering each Tarot card (which would make for a very long post!) we can see how each one has its own particular area of influence, and covers its own particular situation- it's our own lives that fill in the details and assign depth and color to that particular instance. The fact that we as a culture and a race of beings have literature, and more specifically universally recognized themes in literature, points also to a commonality in human experience. Though the exact ways this common experience is reflected varies across time and place, still the core ideas and core message remain the same- and so we find ourselves able to relate to one another, and relate to the world.

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