Scarves and veils fluttering; bright colors warring with one another for visual dominance; the old gypsy woman leaning over the table, her eyes narrowed. With a flick of her hand she overturns the card before her and the young woman waiting anxiously draws back with a gasp. It is the card of Death!
Tarot has been around for centuries. From traveling gypsies to the high priests of the Hermetic Order, mystics from every avenue of life have found tarot to be an effective tool of the occult. This practice offers limitless possibilities for research and not even all the literature currently written on these cards can cover the many branches that spread from this particular tree. What will be examined here is the use of the memory theater in the tarot cards following the classic traditions described by Yates in the Art of Memory. In particular the four Major Arcana or Trumps cards from the Universal Waite Tarot Deck: VIII Strength, IX The Hermit, XI Justice and XIV Temperance, which will be examined in their relationship to the Four Cardinal Virtues set forth by Plato and reiterated through the ages by various practitioners of the memory arts.
Image is everything in tarot. While the Trump cards are named, it is the images upon the card that hold the most strength. After all, which is stronger: the simple word Death or the black-armored skeleton upon a white horse with red eyes, cutting down all in his way, sparing no one, not children, beautiful maidens, church clergy or even powerful kings. While some decks have become quite complex in their illustrations, adding in more than is perhaps needed to make the point, the Waite deck is clear and not overly-crowded. Each symbol has its place and fits in neatly and coherently with the next, no one overshadowing the other, so that every smallest detail can be seen. For example: in the Trumps card XI, Justice, there is a woman in red robes, seated upon a marble bench, which appears to be raised by nature of the step at her feet. Her right hand is raised, clasping a sword, and her left hand holds the Scales of Justice. A crown is upon her head and she sits between two pillars with a purple cloth behind her. The lighting in the picture is golden and none of the colors used are brilliant or blinding though they certainly make their presence known. The objects pictured are nicely spaced, allowing the eyes to be drawn in to the center figure of the woman, than shift out to the objects around her. The card is filled, yet the objects are simple enough that the overall card conforms to all of Yates’ rules about the lighting, spacing, etc. of a memory theater.
In interpreting a tarot card during a reading, one pulls out of their repertoire of knowledge, the meaning of the card based on the symbols seen and the memories they invoke. In the Justice card the first and most striking image is that of the woman herself. The way she holds the Scales of Justice can bring to mind the Egyptian goddess Maat. A translation of Maat’s name does in fact mean Justice and she stands at the door of the underworld holding her scales with which to weigh the newly-dead soul against a feather. Of course the penalty for having one’s soul heavier than the feather was to have it eaten by the crocodile-headed god, and indeed in the card, Justice’s other hand holds a sword to enforce her judgments. However, most tarot historians, including Author Waite the designer of the Waite deck, do not associate Justice with Maat but with instead with the goddess Astrea. Astrea is a Greek goddess, another daughter of Zeus and is found in ancient star charts to be what is currently known as the constellation of Virgo. Long ago she was the Goddess of Justice and Truth for the Golden Race of men in a Golden Age without war or violence. Then came the Silver Race of men and while she disliked them, Astrea stayed to judge and punish them. But when the state of things deteriorated enough to produce the Men of Bronze, Astrea left in disgust and rose up to become part of the heavens until the Golden Age comes again.
Remaining in the card are the scales, standing for balance, fairness, equality, and having an open mind to a situation, the double-edged Sword of Truth, and the two pillars on either side of Justice. The pillars are also seen in Trump card III, the High Priestess. In both cards these pillars represent doorways; they are the thresholds between one world and another, higher realm beyond. The High Priestess’ pillars are the doorway to a vast store of higher occult knowledge and learning; for Justice this doorway shows that Law is indeed connected to a higher power and that her authority comes from a place of absolutes.
While these are basic meanings for basic symbols, there are many more symbols that can be interpreted, from the number of the card, the lighting, whether it is day or night, indoors or out, the number of figures represented, and then the corresponding zodiac sign, and the Kabalistic interpretation and relationship to the paths on the Tree of Life. Depending on a person’s own repertoire of occult symbols, they can pull forth any number of meanings and readings based on only a few simple pictures that call forth the corresponding memories and understanding.
Virtues and Vices are constant players in the theaters of ancient memory practitioners. And as the tarot deck has a strong European background, it is no surprise that Virtues would be represented with such force. There are seven virtues and seven deadly sins, but of those seven virtues, four are the original, cardinal virtues that Plato named. The Cardinal Virtues are Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and Prudence, matching up with the Trumps cards of Justice VIII, Strength VIII, Temperance XIV, and The Hermit IX. But this is not the only place these virtues are seen; in fact they are a major force throughout the entire deck for each virtue corresponds with a Minor Arcana suit. Justice with her sword can be seen represented in each card of the Swords Suit; Fortitude or Strength is the staff of support for the Wands Suit; Temperance is watering down the wine, pouring from cup to cup, a clear sign of the Cups Suit and finally there is Prudence, the only virtue that does not have a Trumps card carrying it’s name but which can be deduced to be The Hermit. This virtue rules over the Coin or Pentacle Suit which represents wealth of all sorts in which it is always useful to have Prudence.
Tarot offers an inexhaustible fount of images and myths from all centuries. Its examination can uncover occult mysteries, historical revelations and personal psychology. It is also a reflection of the Western psyche, for tarot cards mirror the soul, reminding it of archetypal truths. This is in interesting contrast with the Eastern form of divination, I Ching, which is a series of geometrical symbols in divination versus the colorful worldly pictures that the Western mind can more easily relate to. However, tarot does work for the Western consciousness in bringing up mysteries long lost in the mists of time and the great sea of the collective unconscious.
Abadie, M.J. The Everything Tarot Book. Holbrook, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corporation, 1999.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origin of the Tarot. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004
Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Stamford, CT: US Games Systems, Inc, 1971
Yates, Frances A. The Art of Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966