Tarot as a Tool for Personal Mythology

I’m re-reading a book by Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis, called Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up. While the title might make it sound like a disposable self-helpy tome, the 260-page volume is absolutely brimming over with insights about how we can get closer to the essence of our soul’s purpose in this existence. It examines how historical methods of spiritual sustenance have become eroded in our modern Western culture, replacing fundamental knowing of the divine with quick-fix bandaids like consumerism, addictions, and external promises of fulfillment.

A culture without living mythological access to the mysteries is a culture in trouble.

—James Hollis, Ph.D.

While we might view ancient cultures as childish or naive for having offered sacrifices to appease “offended” gods, Hollis suggests that much of modern psychopathology is due to the loss of a spiritual life and namely, loss of a symbolic way to connect our personal experiences to something larger and more transcendent.

In a way, the ancient “offended gods” can be metaphorically viewed in our modern lives as offended or neglected parts of ourselves that, if continually ignored and disregarded, will rise up demanding attention through outward symptoms or signs.

When the gods are not experienced inwardly, they will be projected outwardly.

—James Hollis, Ph.D.

In my practice of looking at cards to address different situations my clients are facing in their lives, what I’m really trying to do is to help them gain meaning and purpose from their experiences by accepting the symbolic truths inherent in those experiences.

In a sense, working with the images on tarot cards is simply one way of creating a modern-day personal mythological system, in the absence of more traditional and ancient ways of doing so that used to rest with a tribe, or a culturally-ascribed way of connecting universal mythological symbols (gods – which simply represent the different qualities of being and urges and needs and desires inherent in each of our souls) to our individual experience.

Without this larger sense of meaning, our experiences, and especially our suffering, become devoid of worth and thus devoid of the potential for spiritual growth.

Tarot cards are an effective way to reconnect with this symbolic, myth-based system that has guided human beings for centuries in making sense of life and their individual places within the larger world.

As Hollis says in his book about ancient “animists,” (those who saw a living spirit in all things, even inanimate objects like trees and rivers):

He or she understood that survival, and meaning, depended on the capacity to read the signature of the invisible at work in the visible world. 

Not only did the animist need to read the signs of nature in order to survive physically, but he or she also had to align his or her choices with subservience to the perceived spirit powers.

Tarot is one way to “read the signature of the invisible world at work in the visible world.” The ability to read the cards is open to each and every one of us, because we all have the innate capacity to identify with images and symbols as ways to create meaning for and bring understanding to our personal experiences.

The key passage in the above excerpt is the part that notes how he or she “aligns his or her choices with subservience to the perceived spirit powers.”

How does this occur in a tarot reading?

The cards will often show you something that you may know intuitively or on a “gut” level, but your ego and head are repressing, denying, or avoiding.

When you see these images represented in response to your situation and question, and they are interpreted by you or for you by someone who has experience working with them in different contexts and different situations, this is the first step: seeing the signature of the invisible world in the visible world.

Tarot then opens a unique possibility to you, giving you the chance to do as the ancients did when they aligned their choices in subservience to the perceived spirit powers.

That may sound terribly un-empowering—no one likes the word subservience. But the bottom line is that until we become aware of unconscious energies at play in our circumstances, situations, and choice-making, we are absolutely un-empowered to work together to co-create our lives. And therein lies the paradox: we must become subservient, or at least conscious and respectful—not to a malicious god, but to the underlying and often unconscious impulses of our spiritual selves, our souls, which are guiding us to a more mature and fuller expression of our beings.

When we are able to take the message of a tarot reading and incorporate it into our lives, we are in essence submitting to these inner gods and inner truths, and deciding consciously to work together with them in order to align ourselves with the more spiritual side of ourselves.

This is a tall order, because it requires that we take full responsibility for our lives and for our choices and circumstances. It also asks that we stop resisting suffering, challenges, and fearful experiences in favor of welcoming what their presence in our lives has to teach us and show us.

If you wish to embark on this type of tarot reading, you can do it yourself. Get a deck of 78 cards and shuffle them, cut them and then draw one card to answer each of the following questions:

  1. What mythology is currently driving my experiences? (This is another way of saying “What god wants to come forward for recognition in my life at this time?” In other words: what essence or type of experience am I being called to embody at this time through the experiences in my current reality?)
  2. What is the best way for me to proceed in honoring this experience?
  3. What is the ultimate learning to be had here?

Even if you don’t necessarily know “how” to read the cards, you must trust that your soul (“psyche” if you prefer) already has the innate ability to identify with symbols. When you look at the images on the cards that emerge, and you connect those images and the feelings that they evoke inside of you with the context of the questions, you are already well on your way to reading their messages.

If you’d like a guided example, I perform the reading for myself below, first interpreting the card, and then in brackets relating it to my current personal experience:


  1. What mythology is currently driving my experiences? (This is another way of saying “What god wants to come forward for recognition in my life at this time?” In other words: what essence or type of experience am I being called to embody at this time through the experiences in my current reality?)

In the first card we see Trump IV, The Emperor, who I have referred to as The CEO of the Tarot. This card is telling me that there is a powerful leadership energy trying to make itself known at this time. The Emperor represents the type of energy and experience of one who commands through wisdom, past experience, unshakable confidence, and—perhaps surprisingly to many who might first encounter this archetype—humility. A truly successful leader has the ability to make strong decisions and take action without walking all over people or ignoring their needs. At the same time, as the one vested with the most power in the situation, he or she ultimately makes the decisions that he or she feels are most effective and necessary. It’s a fine line to walk, but make no mistake: The Emperor is in charge, and he or she fully accepts the responsibility that “the buck stops here”.

[Recently I’ve felt quite overwhelmed by an old “god” that has pursued me for many years relentlessly: that of the desire to become a “helping professional” in the world. I have felt called to and drawn to social service for a long time, and even completed two years of an MSW degree before I left the degree program due to an international move. Yet the pull and call has never left me, and recent encounters have only highlighted it more and more. This has recently brought me a lot of turmoil and confusion, not knowing quite how to channel the energy I feel I need to express in this way. In this context, The Emperor is confirming for me that I am being called to use my voice and my power in a confident way, with leadership and fearlessness. In fact, the mere act of typing that sentence brings out a whole host of ambiguity within—a sure sign that it is a neglected “god” calling for expression. While I wouldn’t say the Emperor represents social justice, per se, I would certainly say that the card is about effectiveness, decisiveness, leadership, power, and speaking with hard-won authority and confidence.]

The second card, the 9 of Cups, is one that I feel a lot of ambiguity about. Many tarot readers will tell you this is the “wish card” — a card that is given a lot of positive connotation and imbued with unlimited good fortune. I, on the other hand, in my tarot practice, have seen a much subtler side of this card emerge, one which makes me slightly uncomfortable. This card has often emerged in readings in a way that is almost self-serving. Joan Bunning says this card reminds her of “the cat that ate the canary.” I really understand what she means here. I’ve seen this card come up in readings when someone easily gets what they want, without much effort at all, and then almost gloats about it, as if they’ve stuffed themselves at a banquet and feel quite self-satisfied about the whole thing. While this card does often indicate “you can now get what you wish for,” it also has subtle undertones of “be careful what you wish for” as well as “don’t take advantage of other people simply because you can” and “be quite conscious that you’re taking what you want in an equitable way, without harming or exploiting others.”

[How then, does this energy tell me the best way to proceed in honoring the experience and Emperor-like desire to charge forth and be a leader in helping others and being a catalyst in a social service role? In fact, something that’s been pulling at me desperately in the past few weeks is an idea and plan I’ve abandoned several times before, of attempting to finally acquire a social work degree, even now that I’m back in Italy and would have to do so through the Italian public university system and then serve in the Italian bureaucracy to provide services. One way of interpreting this card is to acknowledge that “fortune favors the bold” and clarify exactly how I feel I would best be able to serve, and then simply “wish” it into being: ie, take steps to make it happen with the confidence that it’s possible. Another interpretation would be, learn to channel the catalyst-driven, leadership-oriented, hard-charging Emperor style without making the “service to others” desire transform and warp into a self-serving exercise in feeling useful and gaining approval. One thing I was told while studying social work is that many people who go into the helping professions do so in order to heal themselves. This is one way the 9 of Cups is highlighting that double-edged sword: certainly you can help others, but make sure your desire to do so is as authentic as possible, rather than a way to fill up a void within—ie, the cat eating the canary and feeling quite self-satisfied about his accomplishment. How’s that for honest inner examination? No one is going to readily admit that their desire to help might also have undertones of self-aggrandizement! Yet this card might suggest that as something to be aware of, while also giving an encouraging green light to pursuing the drive to be a leader and make change, if that’s my wish.]

The ultimate learning to be had here is shown by the 8 of Cups. This card is one of walking away. The person in the card is walking away from something they’ve invested their heart and soul in, because no matter how hard they tried to make it work, there was always an essential piece missing and they finally came to the realization that there would always be an essential piece missing. This card comes up a lot in relationship inquiries, when a person is debating whether or not to leave a relationship or let something go, but they keep trying and trying. It points to the decision to finally cut your losses and move on, for nothing you can do will make the project/relationship/situation “work” the way you desire. It’s a dark night of the soul, an act of maturity to move on in the knowledge that you’ve offered all you can offer and there is no longer anything useful you can give.

[At a first glance, I’d be tempted to venture that this card is showing me that I might need to abandon my desire to pursue a career in social work, because there’s something essential missing that I can’t bring to bear on the situation. It would be as if the card is telling me that I must be realistic about the situation and the possibilities and move on from what I once thought could be. Since this card is “ultimate learning” it might be saying that I don’t necessarily have to get a degree in order to serve—it might be the degree project that I’m being called to leave behind. When this card comes up in a reading, it’s always good for the querent to ask themselves what they feel called to leave behind, and then see if this card resonates. Right now I am feeling like I need to distance myself a bit from some situations where I might have unjustly tried to wrest control from people who were already trying to help. In that sense, this card speaks clearly to me. However, and especially as “ultimate learning,” as often happens with a final card in a reading, its meaning will be revealed more fully over time and through further reflection. That’s why it’s essential to keep a journal record of all of your readings and your reflections on them.]

This is just one way you can play with the cards to activate energies and symbols from within. If you don’t want to use all 78 cards because it feels too intimidating, absolutely start with just the 22 major arcana cards (trumps). Their energies are much more direct and archetypal, which should make it easier to identify with their messages.

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