Although Tarot images are visual and speak directly to us as pictures, working with words can also help us decipher their messages. The exercise in this article uses free association to investigate the meaning of Tarot images. Free association was first developed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung for use in exploring the meaning of dreams and other unconscious symbols. They asked their patients to think of a dream symbol and say whatever came to mind, no matter how strange or unrelated it seemed to be.
Free association in response to Tarot involves writing down (or tape-recording) any words that come to mind when we look at a particular card or spread of cards. Because these associations will differ from day to day, depending on our mood, our memory, and the degree to which we are in touch with the collective unconscious, this exercise can be done more than once with any one card. The responses to the card will vary over time, both because the free associations will be different and because the symbols that attract our attention may also vary.
Here are six steps for a written Tarot exercise using free association. An example follows. You may wish to perform the exercise yourself first before looking at the example.
Free Association with Tarot
Step 1. Shuffle a deck of your choice any way you wish and draw a card from the deck. Write a simple description of what you see on the card. You don't need to describe everything--only what jumps out at you now. It is best if you limit the number of sentences to two or three so that the exercise does not become too tedious.
Step 2. Circle the nouns and underline the verbs in the sentences you have written. Put a rectangle around any adjectives or adverbs that attract you. You need not mark all of the adverbs and adjectives.
Step 3. On a separate piece of paper, make a list of the nouns, a list of the verbs, and a list of the adjectives you have marked.
Step 4. Cover up the card and your written sentences or put them in a place where you cannot see them. Now write your associations to the words on your list. Write whatever comes to your mind when you say each word on the list. It may help you to imagine that you are trying to define the word for a stranger from another planet.
Step 5. Return to your sentences and rewrite them, replacing each of the words with your associations. You may need to rearrange or reword things slightly to make the new sentences flow more smoothly.
Step 6. Read the new paragraphs you have written. Then read them again and underline what seems most important to you. Write a few new sentences that summarize the card's message.
Example: The Star
Ask a question
To develop the example for this exercise, I shuffled the cards while I asked the question, "What card shall I use for this article?". Then I spread the cards facedown and drew a card. It was the Star.
Write a description
Here are the three sentences I wrote to describe the card:
1. A naked woman kneels before a pool of water.
2. She is pouring water from two clay pitchers into the pool and onto the ground.
3. A red bird watches from the top of a tree.
Pick out words that attract
I picked out the nouns (shown below in boldface), the verbs (underlined), and any adjectives or adverbs that attracted me (italic).
A naked woman kneels before a pool of water.
She is pouring water from two clay pitchers into the pool and onto the ground beside the pool. A red bird watches from the top of a tree.
List selected words
Then I listed the nouns (woman, pool, water, pitchers, ground, bird, top, tree), verbs (kneels, is pouring, watches), adjectives and adverbs (naked two, clay, beside, red).
Without referring to the card or to my sentences, I wrote the following free associations:
- woman: an adult female, mature, experienced in the ways of the world
- pool: a hole in the ground where water collects, can be stagnant if it is not refreshed or full of life if replenished
- water: a natural substance that falls from the sky to nourish and replenish life
- pitcher: a container that lets you transport fluids
- ground: a place to walk on, build on, and grow food-it connects us to the earth
- bird: an animal that flies, that can see things from a high perspective, that can soar freely and effortlessly, and sometimes sing
- top: the highest point of something
- tree: a strong, large plant that has its roots deep in the earth but reaches up to the sky. It gives shade to the people and things under it and protection to the things that live in it. It is flexible and bends with the wind.
- kneels: reaches down to get closer to the earth, or to get something, or to acknowledge a higher power
- is pouring: tips a container to spill out its liquid, to cause it to flow
- watches: looks at what is happening outside the self
- naked: without a covering, just as it was made, without pretence, in a natural state
- two: a pair, a couple
- clay: a natural substance from the earth that can be molded by people and baked by fire or the sun to create objects that are useful and/or artistic.
- beside: next to, on an equal level with
- red: fiery, powerful, strong, angry, violent
When I inserted my associations into the original sentences, the following paragraphs emerged:
- An adult female, who is mature and experienced in the ways of the world, but who is without a covering, just as she was made, without pretence, in her natural state, reaches down to get closer to the earth, or to get something, or to acknowledge a higher power before a hole in the ground where water collects, a place that can be stagnant if it is not refreshed or full of life if replenished. The water it holds is a natural substance that falls from the sky to nourish and replenish life.
- She is tipping a pair of containers to spill out their liquid, to cause it to flow. The containers let you transport things, especially fluids. They are made of a natural substance from the earth that can be molded by people and baked by fire or the sun to create objects that are useful and/or artistic. She is tipping the water into the pool and onto a place to walk on, build on, and grow food that connects her to the earth.
- A fiery, powerful, strong, angry, violent bird--an animal that flies, that can see things from a high perspective, that can soar freely and effortlessly, and that can sometimes sing--looks at what is happening outside its self from the highest point of a strong, large plant that has its roots deep in the earth but reaches up to the sky. Trees give shade to the people and things under them and protection to the things that live in them. They are flexible and bend with the wind.
Write a summary
After I read these paragraphs and underlined the important points, I wrote the following summary:
The Star reminds me today that I have wisdom and experience but that I need to get closer to my natural state. I need to replenish the things that are important to my life today. I need to keep things flowing so I don't stagnate. I need to find a way to renew my connection to the earth that grounds me.
My associations to the red bird remind me that my anger can be powerful and must be treated carefully. I may need to fly above it today and look down from a higher perspective before I act on it. The tree suggests that I can be a source of shade and protection for others, but that I also need to develop some flexibility. I may need to bend with the winds that are blowing through my life right now.
Notice that the Star itself did not appear in my sentences or associations. Instead the focus in this exercise was on the woman, the pool and the red bird in the tree--a symbol I had never given much attention to before. By calling my attention to new symbols, the exercise helps me look at the cards in a fresh new way and relate them to past and present experiences in my life.