Jung and Tarot

July 4, 2009

Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961) was born in Switzerland and worked as a theoretical psychologist and practicing clinician and is today considered to be the founder and ‘father of modern analytical psychology‘. His most notable contributions include his concept of the psychological archetype, the collective unconscious, and his theory of synchronicity. Jung, was originally a student of Freud, but moved away from Freud’s psycho-analytical approach to develop a rich system of symbols entirely his own.

Jung noted an alignment between the imagery of the Tarot with the archetypes of the collective unconsciousness. An archetype is difficult to explain simply, but can be best pictured as ‘an inherent tendency to experience things in a certain way’,  it’s like a pre-existing memory residing in everyone that predisposes your reaction to a given state (or situation). In Jung’s approach to analytical psychology, these archetypes define the core elements of the unconscious which underlie and motivate our thoughts, feelings, and ultimately our actions.

It should be noted that the Jung associations to tarot card imagery is not universal, with various underlying themes and interpretations applied to different tarot decks.

Jung believed that the “collective unconsciousness” is the foundation of what the ancients called ‘the sympathy of all things'”. For Jung, the human psyche lived in three separate parts: the conscious , the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Archetypes, powerful universal figures and symbols live in the personal and collective unconscious, shaping our perceptions and experiences.

These archetypes also appear over and over again in myths, legends and stories. Joseph Campbell, a popular anthropologist and writer whose work explores universal archetypes has documented them and their place in every world culture.

These symbols occur again in the Major Arcana, in the pictures representing the Tarot cards. The Empress, symbolic for the fruitful mother while the Emperor is a stern, authoritarian father are just some of the archetypes present in the Major Arcana. Jungians believe that the universal and dream-like feelings of these images work on an unconscious level and allow greater knowledge to come to the conscious mind.

In a Tarot reading, these powerful archetypes work together to create a pattern or a message that allows the questioner to understand and sort out their difficulties. Like many other oracles, their powerful symbols can also demonstrate to the reader the feelings or ideas that are lurking just below the surface of their conscious mind. The symbolism of the Tarot can be a gentler way to bring the questioner in touch with feelings they may be refusing to acknowledge.

Studying the image and meaning of these archetypes can be therapeutic for the Tarot reader as well as the questioner and help them understand all the powerful symbols present in their lives. For those who are unhappy with who they are, working with archetypes can help them to realize the strength of their current archetype and also how everyone is made up from multiple symbols. We all have the ability to be a Warrior, Magician or Mother- archetypes evolve as we do.

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung described several archetypes that are based in the observation of differing but repeating patterns of thought and action that re-appear time and again across people, countries and continents.

Jung’s main archetypes are not ‘types’ in the way that each person may be classified as one or the other. Rather, we each have all basic archetypes within us. He listed four main forms of archetypes:

  • The Shadow
  • The Anima
  • The Animus
  • The Self

The Shadow

The Shadow is a very common archetype that reflects deeper elements of our psyche, where ‘latent dispositions‘ which are common to us all arise. It also reflects something that was once split from us in early management of the objects in our lives.

It is, by its name, dark, shadowy, unknown and potentially troubling. It embodies chaos and wildness of character. The shadow thus tends not to obey rules, and in doing so may discover new lands or plunge things into chaos and battle. It has a sense of the exotic and can be disturbingly fascinating. In myth, it appears as the wild man, spider-people, mysterious fighters and dark enemies.

We may see the shadow in others and, if we dare, know it in ourselves. Mostly, however, we deny it in ourselves and project it onto others. It can also have a life of its own, as the Other. A powerful goal that some undertake is to re-integrate the shadow, the dark side, and the light of the ‘real’ self. If this can be done effectively, then we can become ‘whole’ once again, bringing together that which was once split from us.

Our shadow may appear in dreams, hallucinations and musings, often as something or someone who is bad, fearsome or despicable in some way. It may seduce through false friendship or threaten with callous disregard. Encounters with it, as an aspect of the subconscious, may reveal deeper thoughts and fears. It may also take over direct physical action when the person is confused, dazed or drugged.

The Anima and Animus

The second most prevalent pattern is that of the Anima (male), Animus (female), or, more simply, the Soul, and is the route to communication with the collective unconscious. The anima/animus represents our true self, as opposed to the masks we wear every day and is the source of our creativity.

The anima/animus may appear as someone exotic or unusual in some way, perhaps with amazing skills and powers. In fiction, heroes, super-heroes and gods may represent these powerful beings and awaken in us the sense of omnipotence that we knew in that very early neonatal phase.

Anima and animus are male and female principles that represent this deep difference. Whilst men have an fundamental anima and women an animus, each may also have the other, just as men have a feminine side and women a masculine. Jung saw men as having one dominant anima, contributed to by female members of his family, whilst women have a more complex, variable animus, perhaps made of several parts.

Jung theorized the development of the anima/animus as beginning with infant projection onto the mother, then projecting onto prospective partners until a lasting relationship can be found.

The Syzygy (the divine couple)

In combination, the anima and animus are known as syzygy (a word also used to denote alignment of planets), representing wholeness and completion. This combining brings great power and can be found in religious combinations such as the Christian Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy ghost).

A perfect partnership between man and woman can occur when not only are our physical forms compatible but also the anima and animus. Thus you might find your soul-mate. Finding our matching other half is a lifetime of search for many of us, and few of us succeed in this quest. Love of another indicates an actual, perceived or hoped-for close match.

The Self

For Jung, the self is not just ‘me’ but God. It is the spirit that connects and is part of the universe. It is the coherent whole that unifies both consciousness and unconsciousness. It may be found elsewhere in such principles as nirvana and ecstatic harmony. It is perhaps what Jaques Lacan called ‘the real’.

Jung described creation of the self as a process of individuation, where all aspects are brought together as one. Thus ‘re-birth’ is returning to the wholeness of birth, before we start to split our selves into many parts.

Other archetypes

Jung said that there are a large number of archetypes. These are often linked to the main archetypes and may represent aspects of them. They also overlap and many can appear in the same person. For example:

  • Family archetypes
    • The father: Stern, powerful, controlling
    • The mother: Feeding, nurturing, soothing
    • The child: Birth, beginnings, salvation
  • Story archetypes
    • The hero: Rescuer, champion
    • The maiden: Purity, desire
    • The wise old man: Knowledge, guidance
    • The magician: Mysterious, powerful
    • The earth mother: Nature
    • The witch or sorceress: Dangerous
    • The trickster: Deceiving, hidden
  • Animal archetypes
    • The faithful dog: Unquestioning loyalty
    • The enduring horse: Never giving up
    • The devious cat: Self-serving

Deep origins

A notable characteristic of Jung’s archetypes is that we recognize them in image and emotion. This gives a profound effects on us and implies that they have deep and primitive origins. They thus have a particular potential for significance and may be feared or revered as mysterious signifier of things beyond our complete understanding.

In earlier work, Jung linked the archetypes to heredity and considered them as instinctual. Yet wherever he looked across cultures, he found the same archetypes and thus came to conceptualize them as fundamental forces that somehow exist beyond us. They have existed in ancient myths as elemental spirits and Jung sought to link with this deep and old experience.

Complete List of Tarot Archetypes

See also

Jung, C.G. (1964). Man and His Symbols, New York; Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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