“I Yam What I Yam . . .”

“. . . and dat’s all what I yam!” (In the immortal words of Popeye the Sailor Man.)

I came across a neat bit of wisdom on Andy Boroveshengra’s blog Fortuna’s Picturebook that I’m going to borrow for the theme of this post: “Cards are never something else before they are themselves.”


Andy was writing about Lenormand cards, and his point was that we should draw our initial impressions entirely from the picture on the card and its literal definition, not from what our overactive imagination suggests it might mean. He elaborated by adding: “What does it look like? That is the core from which you work.” The antithesis of this approach is unbridled free-association, through which we allow (nay, encourage) our intuition to move us in directions that may be completely at odds with the accepted understanding of the card’s image.

I believe that this caveat applies equally to the cards of the tarot, and the medieval directness of the Tarot de Marseille may be its most reliable asset for the purpose of divination. For example, the Emperor is a paragon of law-and-order; he makes the rules and enforces them by imperial decree backed with the certainty of force. He was often considered divinely enfranchised to do so, hence the phrase “the Divine Right of Kings.” The Emperor’s motives were almost axiomatically assumed to be above reproach; unfortunately, he often arrogated to himself the infallible virtues of his heavenly superior, behavior that could foment palace revolt or, at the very least, incite intrigue aimed at his removal. The Emperor who answers to no-one is dangerous indeed, and it certainly seems auspicious that the Empress and the Hieorphant restrain him from opposite flanks in the sequence of trumps. In  a modern psychological sense he could very well represent the abusive father in a dysfunctional family, but – no matter what we may think of the subject of “male toxicity” – this shouldn’t automatically be assumed to describe the querent’s present circumstances. First and foremost, the Emperor is about formal “structure,” without which our experience of reality can quickly dissolve into chaos. It’s only when that structure becomes hide-bound and stifling in an autocratic “Father knows best” way that it takes on a negative connotation.

Another good example is the Tower (also an expression of Mars energy, but a decidedly less constructive one). A modern interpretation is that it represents an opportunity to rebuild after the wreckage of a catastrophic failure has been cleared away. This is all well and good, but the trauma has to be experienced fully before the healing can begin. (To those who would argue that knowing a likely disaster is coming will allow one to dodge the worst of it, I will say only that trump cards represent major external influences that can be neither avoided nor fully deflected, which leaves adapting or adjusting to their impact as the only feasible option.) Given the image of deposed monarchy on the TdM card, it can also be seen as the ultimate remedy for the excesses and indiscretions of the Emperor.  Authority that exists only to perpetuate its own sovereignty is an affront to “the greater good” and may soon invite overthrow by a higher power.

A third iteration of the Mars energy occurs in the 9 of Swords, which purports to be nothing other than what you see in the image: the Thoth version with its blood-dripping swords is titled “Cruelty,” and the RWS card shows the “Dark Night of the Soul.” There is very little leeway for apologetic extemporizing with this card, and few people try. It is what it is: mental anguish writ large. I interpret the TdM card (which I don’t read with astrological correspondences) as showing the daunting need to “stave off oppression,” since it shows a single sword ensnared within a closely confining web of eight others. Try as we might, none of these examples will fit the “It’s all good” paradigm.

My opinion on all of this is that we don’t need to draw elegant (and convoluted) inferences from the images; they will speak plainly enough if we only let them and don’t try to get too creative with our intuitive insights. Cards like the TdM “pips” that lack scenic illustrations and can therefore bypass the pitfalls of “canned” narrative content are at less risk of over-blown hypothesizing based on their apparent story-lines. Their simplicity is instructive for other modes of inquiry, such that a person in a boat may after all depict only a voyage by water and not some exalted vision quest or salvation through exercising one’s urge to escape.

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