Archetypes and Stereotypes


The project of creating a tarot deck presents many challenges, one of which is how to approach issues of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other categories that we as individuals (or our society as a whole) may use as markers of personal or group identity. To understand the special challenges presented by the tarot medium in this area, consider the different options available to the essayist and to the tarot artist. The essayist can describe people in gender-neutral language, and maintain a posture of neutrality when it comes to how readers will visualize them. The essayist can write "Doctors are trained professionals," for example, without asking the reader to imagine doctors as male or female, black or white, straight or gay. The tarot artist, though, when designing a card, must commit to a particular visual image, and ask the user of the deck to share it. Furthermore, a deck designer soon finds that tarot tradition reinforces certain choices over others. Few decks, for example, will fail to show the Empress as a woman and the Emperor as a man, and then go on to associate the Empress with nurturing, fertility, and creativity and the Emperor with structure, hierarchy, and command.

Is this stereotyping? Do tarot conventions reinforce all sorts of messages about which people are good at which things? Yes, to be fair, I think they do. Is that necessarily a bad thing? That's a deeper question. Unconsciously assigning roles to people based on categories of sex, age, race, social class, sexual orientation, and other such distinctions is anathema to many people today, tarot users included. Yet we still end up using cards that (inevitably) picture one type of person, associating that type indelibly with certain qualities of personality or character. Why does this deck or that show a black woman as Strength, or an elderly woman as justice, or two gay men on the Sun card? Is the deck designer caught in the mires of stereotyping, and determined to drag us down there too? Usually, I think, the answer is no. The cards of the tarot can be seen as windows onto archetypes, deeply rooted invariants of the psyche. How well a particular image evokes a particular archetype depends on many things -- personal experience, culture, personality factors, and much else. A designer can perhaps stretch the envelope of our culural and personal conceptions, but cannot just throw them to the wind. Images of maternal women, for example, will lead most of us toward the archetypal Empress much more readily than images of men, or horses, or transistor radios.

The faith of the tarot designer must be this: that users of the deck will find the images to be windows onto the archetypes, rather than static, imposed, stereotypes. We trust that the young male computer programmer can see himself in the Empress card if the reading leads him to do so; the teenage girl can become the Hermit, even without a white beard to make her fit the part. Tarot, in my experience, actually helps one avoid stereotyping, because it elevates the archetypes to a conscious level, where we can begin to become aware of their many guises.

The Intimacy Tarot raises some of the issues in an even more intense form. The Ace of Desires is a phallus, the Ace of Hearts is a vulva. Does this reinforce the stereotype that men are all about sex and women are all about love? The issue is no less present in the Ace of Wands and Ace of Cups of more traditional decks, but perhaps strikes us less viscerally, because we are looking at more abstracted depictions of the sex organs, and reading interpretations that don't point so relentlessly toward our own romantic and sexual identities. Why does a vulva not symbolize arousal? It can and does of course, but in the context of this particular project I have let it symbolize receptivity instead. I do so with the faith of the tarot designer: that women can see their own arousal in a phallic image, and men can see their own receptivity in a watery vulva. I can offer no more profound justification than to say that I have followed my authentic self, informed by an awareness of tarot tradition. I am not the first person to see a phallus in the ace of wands, nor the first person to associate this suit with the fires of sexual passion.

I've not done much in this deck with racial or ethnic categories. When there are two people in an image, I often use different skin tones, but I'm thinking of this as a reminder of our human diversity, rather than as a specific statement about race connected with the meaning of a particular card.

Sexual orientation issues also troubled me as I began this project. I'm a basically hetero male (around 1 or 2 on the Kinsey scale, for what it's worth), but am very comfortable with the range of human orientations and preferences, and I have a deep desire to honor that aspect of human diversity in my work on this deck. You will find images with lovers who are male and female, both male, both female, and a good helping of ambiguous images too. Was there some kind of scheme behind this, ensuring a preconceived ratio or a particular set of tarot correspondences? No. I just followed my vision. If I thought of a card and saw two women, that is what I drew. Again, I ask others to share my faith: that you will be able to see your own life and relationships through an image of people different than yourself.

It comes down to this: if my vision of the different facets of intimacy is so different from yours that the images don't work, then this project will not mean much to you.

But it is my faith (and also my hunch) that these images from my own mind are not so personal as to fail utterly for others. But, given, the subject matter of this deck, some images may give you pause. That's OK. But if you find yourself thinking "This image doesn't apply to me, because I'm a -----, and it shows a -----", you are going somewhere I didn't intend you to go. It is impossible to do a deck, especially a deck with this theme, without using imagery that says something about my personal identity. I have no choice but to ask you, for however briefly, to be me. And I trust that we are bonded together by shared humanity, so the leap will not seem too disorienting.