Australian General Semantics Society               .

AGS Sunday Seminar August, 2004


(Presented by Messrs laurie Cox and Robert James)


“Correct Symbolism to Fact”


"The Map is Not the Territory”.





Chaos and the Psychological Symbolism of the Tarot





The Tarot deck contains archetypal symbols that can be related to the analytical psychology of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung. The Tarot deck, especially the major arcana or trump cards, can be used effectively in therapy. The client, with the assistance of the therapist, conducts a reading or uses several cards to tell a story and then discusses possible meanings of the symbols in his or her own words. The therapist then relates the symbolic meanings given by the client to the client's problem in much the same manner as in Jungian dream analysis. This therapeutic process can be explained by using a chaos model. Using a chaos model of therapy, a period of psychic instability is deliberately induced by the therapist through stimulation of the imagination via the Tarot symbols. Concentration on the Tarot symbols induces bifurcation points that the therapist then uses to direct change toward desired attractors. This is similar to the well-known techniques of paradoxical communication, paradoxical intervention

, and prescribing the symptom, all of which induce a temporary condition of psychic instability that is required for a bifurcation.




Loye and Eisler (1987) see the roots of modern chaos theory, as it pertains to social science, extending all the way back to the ancient Chinese Book of Changes or I Ching. The I Ching, the oldest oracle still in use today, (Bannister, 1988) was used to make predictions by casting stalks, straws, or sticks. Today, this is usually done by throwing coins (Cleary, 1986). In the West, the oldest oracle still in use today is the Tarot card deck.


The Tarot is a deck of cards which can be used for meditation, psychic stimulation, or divination. It also can be used as a psychological tool to look inside the unconscious (Bannister, 1988; Nichols, 1984). The Tarot is medieval man's equivalent of today's highly respected Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests (Schueler & Schueler, 1994). Wang (1978) describes the Tarot as "a system accepted by many respectable sources such as the school of Carl Jung, which views the Tarot images as agreeing perfectly with the archetypes of the collective unconsciousness" (p. 8).


The Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, saw all of the Tarot images as "descended from the archetypes of transformation" (Jung, 1959/1990, p. 38). These archetypes include several of the primary archetypes that are encountered during Jung's individuation process, a process of psychological maturation similar in nature to the aging of the physical body (Jacobi, 1942/1973). These include the shadow, the anima and animus, and the wise old man. The Tarot also contains symbols representing other important archetypes of transformative processes such as the hero, the sacrifice, rebirth, the mother, and the Self. In Jung's analytical psychology, these archetypes comprise the major dynamical components of the unconscious which affect the human psyche in many different ways.


Modern chaos theory addresses complex systems, which are systems with a large number of interrelated parts. It also addresses dynamic systems. Every complex system, and especially every living system (living systems are usually referred to as self-organizing systems), is also a dissipative structure. Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977 for his work on dissipative structures, which he defined as any structure that takes on and dissipates energy as it interacts with its environment. A dissipative system, unlike one that conserves energy, gives rise to irreversible processes such as the growth of organisms (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989). All systems that exhibit disequilibrium and self-organization are dissipative and have a dissipative structure (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 138). Dissipative systems are those which are able to maintain identity only because they are open to flows of energy, matter, or information from their environments (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984).


Not only is our body a dissipative system, but our psyche as well. Jung designated the ego as an ego-complex, because of the numerous components and processes with which it is comprised, and taught that the ego was one of many complexes that exist in the psyche. "The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does" (Jung, 1954/1985, p. 152). Designating the psyche to be a self-regulating system, Jung (1968) states that "Dreams are the natural reaction of the self-regulating psychic system" ( p. 124). By assuming the psyche to be a complex dynamic system, as well as a dissipative system, we can look at it through the lens of modern chaos theory.


Chaos, as an archetype, is well known in the Tarot where it is depicted fully in card 16, a trump card titled the Lightening Struck Tower. According to Wanless (1986), this card represents transformation. Jung taught that we can become conscious of the unconscious contents in our psyche by examining the symbols that come to us in our dreams. He details many of these archetypal symbols in his Symbols of Transformation (1956).


The Tarot


The traditional Tarot is a deck of 78 cards which are divided into two main sections: a major arcana and a minor arcana. The major arcana is a set of 22 picture cards which are also called the greater arcana, trumps, atouts (from the Egyptian atennu (Wallis Budge, 1920) meaning a book or part of a book), or triumphs. These cards are pictorial representations of various cosmic forces such as Death, Justice, Strength, and so on, and contain archetypal symbolism. Fifty-six cards of the minor arcana are divided into court and suit cards. The sixteen court cards are comprised of a King, a Queen, a Knight, and a Knave (or Page) for each of the four suits of the deck. The remaining forty cards are divided into the four suits called: Pentacles (also known as deniers, coins, or disks), Cups (coupes), Swords (epees), and Wands (batons or scepters). The French terminology stems from the famous Marseilles deck which originated in the late fifteenth century (Giles, 1992). The suit cards are numbered from 1 (ace) to 10 for

 each of the four suits. The suit cards represent specific opportunities and lessons (Wanless, 1986). The minor arcana cards are used to represent people, relationships, finances, action, energies, and forces (Schueler & Schueler, 1987).


The Tarot has been called the oldest book known to man (Papus, 1970). According to legend, (Schueler & Schueler, 1994) the original cards comprised "chapters" in a book known as The Book of Thoth. Thoth was the ibis-headed god of wisdom and knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. At the founding of Egypt, unknown centuries ago, he is said to have given man the knowledge of medicine, astrology, language, art, and various sciences such as mathematics and engineering. The original chapters of The Book of the Dead are said to have been written by Thoth.


After several thousands of years, the Egyptian empire began to crumble. As things began to fall apart, the god Thoth again intervened. He desired to keep alive the knowledge and wisdom that he had provided his people. To save his contribution to mankind, he summarized all of the accumulated wisdom of the Egyptian empire onto a series of 22 tablets. He did this by using symbols and pictures instead of words. These tablets became known as The Book of Thoth. As the empire decayed into ignorance, the tablets found their way into a band of roving people later known as gypsies. The gypsies copied the symbols of the tablets onto cards which became the major arcana of the Tarot deck (Crowley, 1944; Papus, 1970; Schueler & Schueler, 1989).


Although several colorful theories exist today, there is no historical evidence to support any of them, and the true history of the Tarot is largely unknown. Whatever the actual origin of the Tarot deck may be, it is known that a deck of fortune telling cards were mentioned by a Swiss monk in 1377 AD (Giles, 1992). It is also known that Girilamo Gargagli wrote in 1572 about tarochhi cards being used to designate psychological types (Giles, 1992).


The Tarot later found its way into the Hebrew Kabbalah, probably because the 22 cards of the major arcana could be shown to correspond with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. During the nineteenth century, many occultists tried to demonstrate a higher use for the cards than divination (Papus, 1970; Levi, 1896). Eliphas Levi (1896) tried to show that the cards of the major arcana were connected to the Qabalistic Tree of Life. This idea was further carried out by a secret occult group in England known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Wang, 1978; Crowley, 1944; Regardie, 1937).


Aleister Crowley was initiated as a member of the Golden Dawn in 1898. He left it in 1907 to form his own magical organization. In 1944 his Tarot deck, illustrated by Frieda Harris, together with his explanatory book titled The Book of Thoth were published.


According to Wanless, (1986) a well-known expert on the Tarot deck, "The Thoth Deck by Aleister Crowley is a classic tarot symbology ... Its symbolism is Egyptian, Greek, Christian, and Eastern. It is more useful than many contemporary decks which represent a particular cultural or philosophical point of view" (p. 1). He also points out the multi-dimensionality of the deck's symbolism, which has associations with the Hebrew Kabbalah as well as astrology, and credits the 22 major arcana or trump cards as representing "universal principles of life and 'archetypal' personality types" (p. 2). Giles (1994) says that the Thoth deck has "swirling backgrounds and haunting images" which "create a unique impression; those drawn to the deck find it a very powerful reading instrument" (p. 191). She points out that while many decks exist, with a myriad of minor variations, the Tarot has "core images" that are part of a "mental structure" that is fairly consistent across the different deck designs. Wanless (1986) notes tha

t "The strength of tarot is that its symbolism is subject to constant redefinition and evolution" (p. 1). In short, the Tarot images can change or evolve over time, but otherwise they are quite consistent. This is in agreement with Jung's (1959/1990) concept of the archetypes of the collective unconscious which are consistent across humanity while slowly evolving with the body over time.


Jungian Dream Analysis


Jung (1956/1976) taught that dream images must be understood symbolically. Furthermore, the instinctual basis of these symbols are "primitive or archaic thought-forms" (p. 28). Jung differentiated a sign from a symbol. A true symbol can never be fully explained, while a sign can be fully explained insofar as the conscious ego is concerned. Symbols themselves are archetypal, and they are expressed verbally in terms of signs. We can say, then, that a sign is an individual's interpretation of an archetypal symbol.


"Symbols are the language of dreams. In dreams, the unconscious is revealed in symbols, and the key to understanding a dream is knowledge of the symbol" (Boa, 1992, p. 42). The color of a symbol is also important. Jung believed that the correlation between colors and functions varies between cultures and even between individuals. With Europeans, for example, blue is the color of thought, while red is the color of emotion, green is the color of sensation, and yellow is the color of the intuition (Jacobi, 1942/1973). Von Frantz notes that "dreams generally point to our blind spot" (Boa, 1992, p. 15). They seldom tell us what we already know. To understand a dream, she divides the dream content into thirds:


We compare the dream to a drama and examine it under three structural headings: first, the introduction or exposition -- the setting of the dream and the naming of the problem; second, the peripeteia--that would be the ups and downs of the story; and finally, the lysis--the end solution or, perhaps catastrophe. (Boa, 1992, pp. 33-34)


Jung (1968) states that "In our dreams we are just as many-sided as in our daily life, and just as you cannot form a theory about those many aspects of the conscious personality, you cannot make a general theory of dreams" (p. 124). He then points out that while personal dream symbolism varies with the dreamer, universal dream symbolism is possible of interpretation. "On the collective level of dreams, there is practically no difference in human beings, while there is all the difference on the personal level" (Jung, 1968, p. 124). When analyzing a dream, Jung (1954/1985) suggests that we "renounce all preconceived opinions, however knowing they make us feel, and try to discover what things mean for the patient" (p. 157). We must take into consideration the patient's personal philosophy, religion, and moral convictions whenever we discuss dream symbolism.


Jung (1953/1977) treats dream symbolism on two separate levels: the objective level and the subjective level. The first level is analytic. On this level, the dream content can be broken up into memory-complexes that refer to external situations. The second level is synthetic. In these situations, the dream contents are detached from external causes and must be treated in terms of archetypal symbols.


Nichols (1984) says that "The pictures on the Tarot Trumps tell a symbolic story. Like our dreams, they come to us from a level beyond the reach of consciousness and far removed from our intellectual understanding" (p. 7). According to this view, the Tarot Trump cards can be interpreted in the same manner as Jungian dream analysis.


A Chaotic Systems Model of Therapy


Therapy can be defined as "a systematic and intentional attempt, using a specific cluster of interpersonal skills, to assist another person to make self-determined improvements in behavior, affect, and/or cognitions" (Kottler & Brown, 1985, p. 44). Egan (1975/1990) describes a Helping Model of the therapeutic process which emphasizes action that leads to valued outcomes through a nine-stage process.


Goals must be the client's goals, strategies must be the client's strategies, and action plans must be the client's plans. The helper's job is to stimulate the client's imagination and to help him or her in the search for incentives. (p. 49)


A chaotic systems model is one that uses the findings of modern chaos theory. Such a model can be used to describe the therapeutic process. The chaos theory of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, for example, describes how small stimuli can evoke massive responses. This finding has been used to explain the functioning of the olfactory system wherein a very small amount of stimuli, received by the olfactory bulb, is detected and magnified until it can be interpreted by the brain as a distinct smell (Freeman, 1991). Furthermore, testing food smells on rabbits has demonstrated that undergoing new experiences can actually change memory of older experiences. These two findings have led to a new understanding of the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment (Flint, 1994).


The methodology used in EMDR is straightforward and relatively simplistic. The patient holds his or her attention on a particular trauma or bodily sensation while watching the therapist's fingers moving in a back-and-forth motion. About 20 to 40 back-and-forth motions constitute one repetition of the technique. After several repetitions, the pain of a trauma or sensation is often lessened dramatically. Theoretically, the memory of a painful traumatic experience causes a unique pattern of neurological activity in the brain. Watching a moving finger, while in the relative safety of a therapeutic environment changes, or modifies the pattern, producing a lessening of the associated pain in many cases.


In chaos theory, the behavior of a complex system can be shown graphically on a plot called phase space. Each point on this plot represents the state space or specific condition of the system using primary system parameters (the main parameters that describe a system's behavior). When a time history is used (when time is plotted along the x-axis), each point along the y-axis represents the state of the system at a given time. These plots are called trajectories and their shapes can tell us a lot about the behavior of the system. Sometimes several possible trajectories of a system will converge toward a point or region. Such points and regions are called attractors because they appear to attract a systems's trajectory. The surrounding region of an attractor is called a basin.


Using the chaos theory of attractors, we can define neurological responses in the brain as attractors which give rise to particular behaviors (Flint, 1994). In a complex system such as the psyche, many attractors can be found, some in series with each other, and some giving rise to bifurcations (changes in one's world view following periods of indecision). In a theraputic environment, these can be observed by the therapist in terms of their evoked sensory and motor responses.


In this model, we can define motivation, for example, as the state space of the psyche that exists within a specific environmental situation, in which the brain is destablized enough to evoke the low-level background activity of its neural networks or basins which correspond to previously learned activity that is meaningful in the current situation. In this state space, or phase space of the psyche, a small stimulus can generate a massive response resulting in information going out to all regions of the brain. In turn, this usually results in some kind of corresponding behavioral response. When the behavior results in beneficial situations (e.g., those that enhance survivability or that lead to pleasant or desired situations), the strength of the attractors is proportionally increased.


In this model, the client would describe one or more specific behavioral problems to the therapist who, in turn, would work with the client to form specific goals to work toward and measurable plans to reach those goals. These goals would become the desire attractors, and intermediate goals would be agreed upon as basins. The task of the therapist would then be to help guide the client from existing attractors to the desired ones through suitable bifurcations.


One of the tools that could be used in this process is the symbol. Tarot symbols, for example, can be used to stimulate the imagination of the client. During the short periods of instability (points of possible bifurcation) due to imaginative stimulation, small suggestions by the therapist would help drive the client toward the desired attractors. This is similar to the well-known therapeutic techniques used in family counseling described by Goldenberg & Goldenberg (1980/1991) of paradoxical communication, paradoxical intervention, and prescribing the symptom. All of these techniques use the paradox to induce periods of psychic instability in the client. However, the intended outcome of these interventions is not to create periods of uncertainty, but rather to allow for win-win outcomes for the client. Using the chaos model, the uncertainty can be used to perturb the patient's psyche into the basin of the desired attractor.


Tarot Symbolism


The primary symbolism within the major arcana were discussed briefly.






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