Symbolism and Synchronicity: The Art of the Tarot
  ~ by Suzanne Cremen Davidson

A first glance at a pack of Tarot cards reveals an array of fascinating and mysterious pictures. A young traveler with a bundle of personal belongings and a dog at his heels is about to walk straight off a cliff; a woman holds open the jaws of a lion; a maiden looks up to a star; people fall from a crumbling tower in a lightning storm. Each card has a special character, replete with deeply resonant and yet not completely comprehensible symbolism. According to Carl Jung, “What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning” (1968, p. 3). The Tarot is a colorful set of symbols sprung from the human imagination, depicting essential human experiences and patterns of development that are archetypal in their nature. Such archetypal images operate as bridges to the unconscious. Approached with awareness, they may facilitate psychological and spiritual growth. This paper will show how, like dreams, myth, art, and poetry, the Tarot provides a means of accessing the unconscious.

A Brief History

Like the mythologies of many cultures, it is difficult to trace exactly where and when the Tarot emerged. Just as Jung hypothesized about the origins of myth and religion, the symbolism and imagery of the Tarot appears to arise from the wellspring of the collective unconscious. Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack (1997, 1999) describes how the oldest deck of Tarot cards in existence, known as the Visconti—Sforza deck, comes from Italy and dates from the fifteenth century, though Tarot cards as such may have been invented before them. The imagery on the cards was European and Christian, and their purpose was ostensibly ornamental and for entertainment. By the sixteenth century they had quickly became popular and widespread as playing cards throughout Italy. Some of the Tarot images suggest a connection to Gnostic traditions.

Occultists have claimed secret sources for the cards, such as a grand conference of Kabbalists and other Masters in Morocco in 1300, and though compelling associations are made between the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 trumps of the Major Arcana, no one has ever produced clear historical evidence for such claims (1997, p. 5). The Tarot has been linked to a hermetic doctrine supposedly derived in Egypt, and was frequently associated with the wandering people of Romania, or gypsies, whose name derives from Egyptian. Some believe that the cards were remnants of a coded feminine wisdom, used by wise women healers to protect their teachings from the fires of the Inquisition (p. 21).

Cartomancy, or the use of Tarot cards for divinatory or occult purposes, only began in eighteenth—century France. It was the esoteric society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members included the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, which was initially responsible for the Tarot’s widespread association with occult practices, and this was then continued by successors such as the infamous Aleister Crowley (Pollack, 1999, p. 38). Although decried as satanic by some, Christian monk and philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman in his book Tarot: Talisman or Taboo? (2003) argues that the Tarot does not express an occult or evil force, but simply records the deeply dreaming mind. From the collective unconscious, the images bubble forth, none of them owned by any religious or philosophic group, but accessible and meaningful to all. Rejecting the notion of the Tarot as a fortune—telling device, Hederman describes the Tarot as a beautiful and attainable work of art, an aid to meditation, and a valuable source of spiritual growth (2003, p. 29). “The Major Arcana of the Tarot are visual aids to the unconscious” (p. 27). As they provide access to areas of ourselves (the unconscious) that can become a source of imbalance and even breakdown if handled carelessly, Hederman cautions against their use by the weak—minded, but suggests that, used wisely, the Tarot can provide a source of individual integration and personal autonomy.

The Major and Minor Arcana

The Tarot comprises 78 cards, 22 in the Major Arcana and 56 in the Minor Arcana. The word arcana comes from the Latin arcanum, meaning “secret or mystery”, originally “enclosed in a chest” (Klein, 1971, p. 47). Hederman suggests that arcana means “what is necessary to know in order to be fruitful in the domain of spiritual life” (2003, p. 28). The journey portrayed by the Major Arcana cards presents the main experiences, influences and dramas in our lives, and also parallels the inner journey of individuation. The ancient and evocative images of life experiences portrayed in the images of the Major Arcana belong to our human condition and our human destiny, and so the symbols connect the events of the external world with the inner world of the soul or psyche. What is happening outside is linked to what is happening inside us, and the cards mark rites of passage, stages or processes rather than final outcomes or static places which do not change. In this sense the images are archetypal. Roberts Avens summarized Jungian thought on archetypes as follows:


‘Archetype’ refers to a principle or agency which organizes and structures psychic imagery into specific patterns or motifs (mythologemes) and constellations of persons in action (mythemes). Our conscious images are archetypal when they possess an archaic content or when they are primarily derived from mythological motifs. Archetypes can also be described as ‘partial personalities’ appearing in myth, art, literature, and religion the world over, as well as in dreams, family roles, personal emotions and pathologies….In Jungian psychology archetypes are arranged under such names as shadow, persona, ego (hero), anima, animus, puer (eternal youth), senex (Old Wise Man), trickster, Great Mother, healer, Self. (Avens, 1980, p. 42)


We intuitively experience the presence of these archetypes in the image of each card in the Major Arcana: the Magician, the High Priestess, the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Lovers, Strength. In his dissertation on The Use of Tarot Cards as an Archetypal Projective Instrument (1983), Jonathon Kopp found that the presence of archetypes and themes determined by Jungian analysts to be associated with each card, such as the Fool, Hermit, and Devil, was confirmed by the ratings of 81 patients in a San Francisco clinic.

The Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards of four suits similar to standard playing cards, which unfold in greater detail and on a more personal, everyday level the archetypal journey portrayed in the Major Arcana. Each of the suits of the Minor Arcana can be considered as corresponding to one of the ancient four elements of Greek philosophy: wands with fire, symbolizing inspiration and creative energy; cups with water, symbolizing feelings and the unconscious; swords with air, symbolizing mental activity and conflict; and pentacles with earth, symbolizing security and the material world.

Until the 20th century, the Minor Arcana showed only schematic design without any suggestion of symbolism. To use the cards for divination required the reader to memorize meanings for each card, commonly derived from a combination of the symbolism of the suit and number of each card (the symbolism of numbers is described in detail by Theodore Abt in his Introduction to Picture Interpretation (2005)). In 1909 with the publication of the Rider—Waite deck, Pamela Coleman Smith revolutionized the Minor Arcana by painting an actual scene for every card. These scenes opened up the Minor Arcana to more complex interpretations, based upon the meanings and associations evoked in the reader by the images and little landscapes of experiences (Pollack, 1999, p. 12). This tradition of illustrating the Minor Arcana has today birthed a multiplicity of artists’ interpretations of the Tarot.

The World of Symbols

Rachel Pollack’s Illustrated Guide to the Tarot (1999) shows the wealth of rich and colorful imagery and symbolism that the many versions of the Tarot contain. Much of the standard imagery on Tarot cards resembles the alchemical drawings of the 17th century, for example, the hermaphrodite at the centre of The World card, circled by an uroborus, the serpent devouring its tail (pp. 26—27). The Tarot has emerged more prolifically in recent times as an art form, a medium of expression for many qualities and ideas. The popularity of the Tarot today has led to hundreds of variations, even in the shape of the cards themselves, with round decks rather than rectangular, like the Motherpeace Tarot, suggesting a more feminine form and the full moon (p. 14). Some Tarot decks incorporate plant symbolism to encode layers of meaning (pp. 62—63). The Tarot draws extensively upon ancient symbolism such as the medieval Wheel of Fortune, evoking cyclic and seasonal change as well as the capricious nature of fate. The Mythic Tarot, designed by Juliet Sharman—Burke and Liz Green (2002), has resurrected the gods and goddesses, myths and symbols of Ancient Greece to furnish another level of mythic imagery to the Tarot.

How to Read the Tarot

Jung wrote much about the importance of images: “It is as if we did not know or else continuously forgot, that everything of which we are conscious is an image and image is psyche” (cited in Abt, 2005, p. 15). Abt demonstrates how “pictures become a bridge to the unknown spirit of the psychic background” (2005, p. 30), and how patience is required in order to distill their meaning. To “read” the Tarot cards we can employ Abt’s techniques of examining things visually: their shape, color, position, proportionality, and symbolic weight. We can consider the associations that the images evoke, for the individual and amongst the repository of images of humankind. We also need to engage more a more ancient and mysterious attitude toward numbers, what Abt describes as a qualitative dimension (p. 109).

For example, the Ace of Cups is associated with the upsurge of emotions which can precipitate an individual entering into a relationship, such as a love relationship. Cups symbolize feeling and the Ace, representing the number one, symbolizes “the still undivided wholeness, the origin” as well as “union at a higher level” (Abt, 2005, pp. 118—119). “The one unites the paradox of uniqueness, and of being one among many” (Abt, p. 118). In the Mythic Tarot the singular image on the Ace of Cups depicts the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love, rising up out of the foamy ocean. We know the card points to a raw, vital, and overwhelming awakening of passion.

Pollack (1997) proposes another example of engaging the symbolism of numbers, this time using the structure of the Tarot deck. If we separate the Fool, whose number is zero, from the Major Arcana, the remaining 21 cards fall naturally into three groups of seven. Pollack suggests that this division of cards and their images corresponds to three distinct levels of experience: the conscious world, or outer concerns of life; the unconscious, or the inward search for authenticity; and what she calls superconsciousness (perhaps loosely correlating with Jung’s collective unconscious), being “the development of a spiritual awareness and release of archetypal energy” (p. 22). As Abt (2005) explains, the number seven has a long history in symbolism from the world’s spiritual traditions: “it is the number of evolutionary development of the cosmos” (p. 141). “The connection of the number seven is found all over the world, also in the description of inner growth and development to completion, to consciousness” (p. 143).

Reading the Tarot also involves an appreciation of the concept of synchronicity, which suggests how the Tarot, like other tools of divination such as the I Ching, “works” in a predictive sense as a kind of mirror of the psyche. Jung stated:

Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychological events, which scientific knowledge has so far been unable to reduce to a common principle. The term explains nothing, it simply formulates the occurrence of meaningful coincidences which, in themselves, are chance happenings, but are so improbable that we must assume them to be based on some kind of principle, or some property of the empirical world. No reciprocal causal connection can be shown….Synchronicity is a modern differentiation of the obsolete concept of correspondences.(Cited in Campbell, 1976, pp. 517—518)


The concept of synchronicity is implicit in understanding how the archetypal nature of the Tarot images strike hidden, unconscious chords in the reader, reflecting knowledge, insight or foresight in relation to the external world. “Synchronistic events, moreover, almost invariably accompany the crucial phases of the process of individuation” (Jung, 1968, p. 227). Perhaps this is the reason why people frequently find that consulting the Tarot, or meditating upon its symbols, offers insight or guidance at critical times in negotiating a passage through the inner and outer worlds.

The Art of Tarot

In Art as a Way of Knowing (1995), Pat B. Allen describes how the process of creating art can be a form of spiritual practice and means of connecting with the unconscious through which knowledge of ourselves can ripen into wisdom. Many artists, such as Monicka Sakki, have been inspired to create their own Tarot deck, as part of a journey of self—discovery. Sakki’s process was to use “found objects” from her visual library—a digitally organized source of her raw art—to instinctively add layers of elements and backgrounds to the existing symbols of the Tarot. Sakki observed that the creation of a complete Tarot deck is an artistic project like no other:


You get to deal with issues like love, pleasure, abundance and joy, but also difficulty, opposition, struggle or profound change. You also get to deal with issues you don’t completely understand, the kind that nevertheless leave you wondering….You get to touch familiar grounds and to explore some new or neglected parts of yourself… I made many discoveries that concern art, design, symbolism, and life in general and myself… No artist can work on a Tarot deck and be the same as when he / she started. This is a journey that promises self—discovery and change. (Sakki, 2004, p. 5)


For those who think they are not artistic, or who find art inaccessible, the Tarot cards may provide an easier and accessible way of working with images and an alternative route to the unconscious. Hederman (2003) suggests we can visit the cards as if they were an art gallery. The archetypal images act as projection holders or hooks to catch the imagination (p. 28). Playing with the Tarot is an exercise in the imagination, an invitation to connect with the unconscious. We are invited to embrace the symbolic possibilities inherent in the cards’ mysterious illustrations, to embark on a journey of deeper discovery of our inner and outer worlds.


Abt, T. (2005). Introduction to picture interpretation according to C. G. Jung. Zurich, Switzerland: Living Human Heritage.

Allen, P. (1995). Art is a way of knowing: A guide to self—knowledge and spiritual fulfillment through creativity. Boston: Shambhala.

Avens, R. (1980). Imagination is reality: Western nirvana in Jung, Hillman, Barfield and Cassirer. Putnam, CT: Spring.

Campbell, J. (Ed.). (1976). The portable Jung. New York: Penguin.

Hederman, M. P. (2003). Tarot: Talisman or taboo? Reading the world as symbol. Dublin: Currach Press.

Jung, C.G. (Ed.). (1968). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell.

Klein, E. (1971). A comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Kopp, J. B. (1983). The use of Tarot cards as an archetypal projective instrument. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 8326141)

Pollack, R. (1997). Seventy—eight degrees of wisdom: A book of Tarot. London: Element.

Pollack, R. (1999). Complete illustrated guide to Tarot. London: Element.

Sakki, M. C. (2004). Artistic symbolism and the journey of self—discovery: An artist’s Tarot deck. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 1423346)

Sharman—Burke, J., & Greene, L. (2002). The mythic Tarot. East Roseville, NSW, Australia: Simon & Schuster.


Suzanne Cremen Davidson holds an MA in Engaged Humanities from Pacifica Graduate Institute, CA, where she is currently a doctoral student in the Jungian and Archetypal Studies program. She is the President of the CG Jung Society of Queensland, Australia, where she lives, and co-founder of eContent Management, a scholarly publishing house (