The essay What is an Archetype?, touches briefly on the notion of universality concerning archetypes, and the signs, symbols and icons that people use to anthropomorphize the transcendental. The essay Content + Context = Meaning, brings up the idea that signs and symbols represent varying degrees of definition, which... come from varying degrees of explanation. The idea of varying degrees of explanation brings up another important topic that relates to the notion of just how universal signs, symbols and icons really are throughout any "Socially Constructed Reality"...
People who think that the images seen on the surface of their tarot cards are the actual archetypes of humanity will occasionally put forth the argument that those archetypes - and the signs, symbols and icons used to define them - are universal symbols extracted from a collective unconscious of universally understood imagery, seen across all cultures and times. At the same time... those same people will just as often argue against defining symbols in any universal way, because of how the act of defining anything destroys the creative malleability of subjective interpretation. The nature of this conflict can be traced to the dichotomy of purpose that exists between private personalization vs. public revelation. This conflict, as it pertains to private personalization vs. public revelation, can be examined in detail within the essay Content + Context = Meaning and its comparison of signs vs. symbols. People interpreting for the purpose of private personalization will not want to define anything... ever... because of how that would limit their imagination and conditional interpretations. While people seeking to know the message that an author put into each card, will appreciate how definition helps to establish a public record of intended meaning, relative to the needs of a "Socially Constructed Reality" in progress.
Ultimately, this study of tarot and consciousness says that there is no such thing as universal symbols. Calling a symbol universal is an oxymoron. Symbols by definition have multiple meanings and are open to even further interpretation through the personalization techniques of any individual's imagination - no matter how many people agree on what any particular symbol represents at any moment in time, or time in history. Even if everyone were to agree on the meaning of a symbol... to the point of turning a symbol into a sign... still, it is NOT the symbol or sign that is universal - it is the underlying (archetypal) concept or idea that the symbol or sign points to that is universal. A Hero indeed has 1,000 faces, but only ONE abstract, conceptual essence that can be considered a true timeless, trans-cultural archetype.
So... there are no universal symbols, but there are such things as universal concepts, or universal ideas, or universal patterns. Hence, the study of tarot and consciousness being presented everywhere on this site uses the phrase Universal Consciousness to reference the underlying structure of its form and how it allegedly utilizes universal concepts and patterns as the root of its anthropomorphized icons and symbols. Some of the imagery used to symbolically represent or illustrate these universal concepts might, over time, become very popular and well known by scores of people throughout centuries of time - but that does NOT make them universal. Those symbols, however popular and well understood, can still be interpreted by those outside their popular usage (however few they may be) in many many different ways. However, the underlying concepts or patterns that symbols and signs point to, whether they be widely popular symbols or privately esoteric symbols, could very well be universal. In the opinion of this study of tarot and consciousness, that universality makes the underlying concepts, ideas and patterns of any tarot deck worthy of exhaustive study.
The KEYS of Understanding
People talk about how universal some symbols are, and in the same breath they will also talk about initiates within occult societies having to prove themselves worthy before they are given the keys to understand the esoteric meaning of the supposedly universal symbols. The nature of this conflict can be traced to the problem of denial vs. reality. The fact being, that people tend to forget, or underestimate, or ignore, or flat out deny just how many words get spoken before they come to understand the authored meaning of a symbol... that is, in places where knowledge of a particular authored meaning is desired. No words are necessary when extracting personal meaning from a symbol for personal use and/or psychotherapeutic exploration. In fact, ignoring, or denying the existence of accumulated verbal knowledge, and ignoring the intended message of an author is how many people come to think that their intuition is all they need to understand symbolism, and thereby conclude that symbols are indeed a universal language. Likewise, people also come to think that because everyone "gets" something from signs and symbols, that symbols are indeed universally understood. The fact is, a person will always "get" something from the experience of a symbol, no matter what - that, and that alone is what is universal about symbols. But whether that person "gets" what the author of the symbol wanted them to "get" is not always so universal, and often requires words (a.k.a. keys) to unlock the meaning, and convey the knowledge... to derive understanding, and thereby speak the symbolic language being presented.
People think that symbols are universal, but in the same breath they will also point out how symbols can conceal just as much as they reveal. Meaning... that symbols can be - and many believe were - used to present information in a disguised form that people who have not had intended meanings explained to them (with words) would never understand... thereby avoiding the threat of death from heresy that threatened many occult societies of the distant past. Many occult societies have been known to use symbolism to disguise meaning - rather than make it universal, thus requiring extensive education, before someone could ever "read" the symbolic language. To the uninitiated, the curious, cryptic symbols of an occult society were meant to be meaningless and beyond understanding. Unexplained symbolism was used to obfuscate. Explained symbols were used to educate. Thus... the key concept here is the words "explained to them." Explanation is key. Explanation IS the KEY - the key that unlocks the mysteries. Without that "key" of "explanation," symbolic images are all too often seen as inscrutable, cryptic nonsense. At least that is what those using them for disguise would like to think. But like any coded language, there are levels of inscrutability, depending on how esoteric the symbolism is, and how educated the people viewing the symbolism are.
WORDS are the KEYS that unlock The Mysteries.
Without any verbal explanation, a symbolic code of images might be cracked, or it might not. If the code is not so esoteric, then the symbolic message might actually be noticed and understood by people who have not been given the keys of explanation. If someone has enough working knowledge of symbolic usage of the past, they might be able to crack the symbolic code of an esoteric image and understand it - in other words, their "key" of "explanation" might fit another person's lock! However, if extremely esoteric, the symbolic message may not be understood by those who have not been given the keys of explanation. Without such keys, such esoteric images might never be understood, or they might be misunderstood by people "interpreting" them to mean things they were not meant to mean. Without the proper keys of understanding, improper interpretations could lead to erroneous conclusions, especially in cases where deliberate misinformation is included that can only be know by way of proprietary explanation of carefully held secrets. Without the specific keys of knowledge with which to navigate around such blinds, the secret nature of the precious knowledge is preserved. This is how the occult world works.
As mentioned, the level of intelligence being brought to bear by those attempting to understand a symbolic message should also be considered. A symbolic message that is not very esoteric might still be inscrutable to someone of low intelligence, or someone who is extremely literal of mind and can't "see" the conceptual connections or visual analogies and metaphors being made. At the same time, a symbolic message that is extremely esoteric, might still be understood by someone with high intelligence, or a visual, metaphorical mind that "sees" conceptual connections easily. This is how the tarot world works. And when a person thinks they understand the extremely esoteric meaning that was put into an image by an author, they will often use WORDS to tell other people what they found. Indeed, there have been a LOT of books published for this specific purpose; telling people - with the use of WORDS - what the symbolic imagery of a tarot deck means... that is... OUTSIDE of any personal interpretation by an individual applying their imagination for purposes of personalization and internalization.
Words are Key
People greatly underestimate just how many words have entered their brain on behalf of explaining symbolic meaning. The aforementioned people of high intelligence and/or those who are adept at making conceptual connections to visual images might think that they are understanding something intuitively, without explanation from anyone, while completely ignoring the years and years of verbal knowledge that has been fed into their head about the meaning of various symbolic imagery. In occult societies that are trying to be inscrutable to the general public, the keys of explanation that unlock the mysteries are handed over during elaborate rituals, that themselves, no doubt, in some cases anyway, have to be explained (with words) - and maybe even rehearsed, or at least observed - before they can be performed. Outside occult societies, in the casual conversations between individuals about anything and everything, the meaning of symbols are often explained with such little fanfare, that people absorb words of explanation like so much ambient noise around them. Then, through something called retroactive learning, they recall these explanations later in life and thereby come to THINK that they have intuitively understood a symbolic message without any help from anyone. Upon the realization of this miracle, they then declare those symbols (or symbols in general) to be universally understandable. They are not. Symbols are usually either A) extremely or moderately esoteric (requiring words of explanation by an author who wants you to know what is being said - as discussed in the essay Content + Context = Meaning elsewhere in this site), or they are B) completely open to interpretation (meaning, they are "interpreted" according to individual needs of people internalizing and personalizing meaning for themselves, often for purposes of creative or psychotherapeutic exploration). In both cases... not universal.
People personalizing and internalizing meaning for creative or psychotherapeutic exploration will typically believe that whatever meaning they derive from a tarot image is the meaning that was meant to be derived. On their own personal level, that is true. But on a public level, it is not always true. In most cases symbolic images have meanings attached to them that were intended by an author. People arbitrarily intuiting meaning may or may not hit upon that message. If personal USE of tarot is the focus, there will be no concern about missing any intended message. If public STUDY of tarot is the focus, missing intended meaning might be of some concern. No "Keys of Understanding" are necessary when we are making up meanings for ourself. But "Keys of Understanding" are often required when we are attempting to know the mind of the person or persons who put the various images onto the cards in the first place. Thus we make an important distinction between USE of tarot vs. STUDY of tarot. By USE of tarot, we mean acquiring information from a source that is ONLY YOU. By STUDY we mean acquiring information from a source that is NOT YOU.
Some people come to tarot and claim that the images immediately "spoke" to them, and that they immediately understood their meaning. While in fact ignoring whatever knowledge and education they might have receive in the past about the symbolic meaning of the various things they are seeing within each tarot image, not to mention, also ignoring the fact that the message that "spoke" to them might not be the message that was intended by the author of the image. One does not need to have the images of tarot explained to them, if they come to tarot armed with a symbolic education, derived from verbal explanations obtained in their past. And they don't need to have the images of tarot explained to them, if they don't care what the intended message of an image is, or what an author wants them to get. But often enough, they DO need to have the images of tarot explained to them, IF they want to know what the creator of a particular deck wants them to see. The images of each card are different for a reason. Someone - the creator of the deck - is speaking. What are they saying? We don't need "Keys of Understanding" to make up our own personal meanings. We do need "Keys of Understanding" if we want to understand the author's public meanings.
Hundreds of years have passed since the earliest known tarot decks appeared. Because the original "words of explanation" about their meaning and purpose have been lost, or perhaps never existed, we endlessly debate what their intended meaning - if any - might be. Along this road, occultists came along and decided that they knew the intended meaning of those original authors, and set about writing down (with words) thoughts opinions and dogma concerning these intended meanings. Often, they would publish decks with additional symbolic content above and beyond that of any early tarot. Often they would include blinds to throw the uninitiated off track, so that only those initiated into their specific secret cult would know the actual meaning of the blind. I'm no expert on occult societies, but I'll bet there were at least a few times when the actual meaning of a symbolic image would be conveyed to someone with the use of words... words of explanation. Because... words are Key.
We talk to ourselves. In talking to ourselves, and others, we build a lexicon of knowledge that is based on every moment of life we experience. Words are important to expressing what we know to others, and those same words are important to expressing what we know to ourselves, in the privacy of our own head. We pull the unconscious and the subconscious into the conscious with the help of words and language. We plumb the depths of our psyche, and then tell ourselves what we find (see Dreams and Dreaming elsewhere on this site). Or... if we are in therapy, we tell a therapist what we've found. Or... if we are not so insightful, a therapist tells us what they think was found. All that happens with words.
We don't have to talk to ourselves. We can plumb the depths of our psyche and never ask what it all means. If we don't care what is being said, and we don't care if anyone understands us, we can ignore or eliminate words and language completely. LIkewise, if we want people to make up their own meanings we can ignore or eliminate words. But... if we DO want to know what our unconscious and subconscious are saying to us, or what someone else is saying to us, words will more than likely be spoken. We clothe the unknown with words. Every life experience adds to our lexicon of possible meanings. All these words count, when it comes to acknowledging what "Keys of Understanding" we already have available to us when encountering a symbol, and declaring how universal we think it may or may not be.
Again, people forget (or deny) how much verbal explanation they have picked up over the years of their life concerning the meaning of various imagery seen in tarot decks of old and new... and thereby come to think that they have figured out the meaning of tarot images on their own, intuitively, without any explanation from anyone. Thus, they erroneously conclude, the images must be universally understandable. They are not. The only thing that is universal are the invisible concepts and patterns that are infinitely drawn nowhere. So... the question each and every person - each and every Mind - faces, is how to "see" those universal patterns that are in fact infinitely drawn nowhere. Some choose to anthropomorphize invisible concepts, and kneel down before an iconic "God" in hopes of pleasing "Him" into favoring their life with goodness. Others look to the patterns of nature. Others pursue psychotherapy. Others just claim to "know" without ever confronting the obligation of explanation. There are many ways to "clothe" the "Invisible Man" of ideas that are infinitely drawn nowhere (that is... if we choose to do more than just "know"). The theoretical model of existence being presented everywhere on this site is one way of clothing the "Invisible Man" that lies beneath the clothing of every tarot icon. As an outgrowth of the model, the icons of The Numerical Tarot, and the Isomorphic Tarot - and any other deck I might draw in the future - are all Anthropomorphized Representational Characterizations of Human Existence and Transcendental Yantras of Personified Essence (see What is an Archetype? elsewhere on this site). They are not archetypes, but they play them in a tarot deck!
!For more on the use of words, as it pertains to tarot, read the essay Why Use Words? elsewhere on this site.