Essays, Poetry

Queering the Archetypes of Tarot

From “The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

We find ourselves walking down a path that our ancestors laid
____A spiral
________Up or down depending on which way you bend your neck
____________We’re in lockstep
________________Passing the same points of interest again and again
____________________The same but different
____________________We loop round
____________We loop again
________The prison industrial complex
____Back again and again until we’re numb,
I get dizzy and reach for a way out

My hands find my well-worn deck of tarot cards and
I pull at them hoping for answers
I pull

The Emperor 

The oppressive chokehold, the knee on our necks,
the invisible puppeteer that we fight against
Oh how this world would love us if he were gone,
or if he were like a redwood instead of a ram

The Star

The first glance of light after a lifetime of darkness
A way out of this dizzying madness

10 of Pentacles

A question
What will I leave behind and for whom?

I walk the path that my Ancestors laid and suddenly I see it fork
I see a way to break the cycle and transmute our pain into something different

A new Eden for my descendants to rest,
____ for them to dream,
________ for them to breathe
____________ Finally, a place for us to catch our breath
________________ Breathe with me,
____________ don’t it feel good to breathe

. . .

The first time I saw a Tarot1 deck I was five. I was rifling through my mother’s things and found her deck in the back of the dresser under some clothes. They had been deliberately hidden, but somehow, they called to me. I remember splaying them out on the floor, bewitched by their imagery; I remember the way they pulled me in. I also remember my mother finding me, a flash of fear across her face, growling at me to put them away. “These are too powerful for you to be playing with them,” she half-yelled. In that moment, I knew that these cards held secrets that I wanted to uncover, that their images contained lessons and new ways of seeing the world. For the last five years I have been using the Tarot as a tool to dive deep, heal my trauma, and integrate my shadow.2 However, as a Black, queer, fat femme, it was crucial for me to think critically about the traditional interpretations of the cards and expand them to reflect my world; over the years I’ve queered their archetypes to make them more accessible to all people.

Traditional interpretations of the Tarot are rooted in patriarchy and the gender binary. Cards were divided into feminine and masculine energies that go in hand with the gendered images on them. In this system, knights and kings always represent men, namely new suitors, your father or the patriarchy itself. There are many card interpretations that focus on finding love, having children, and getting married. These old-school interpretations always fell flat for me, seeming hyper-focused on the external world and on predicting the future. Tarot, throughout its history, has been used for divination, but I have found it is most useful for looking within. I read the cards in a way that reflects their inner truth, my definitions evolving with my relationship to each card. I think of the cards as friends: As you get to know them, they show new aspects of themselves. In my experience, these aspects have never been gendered or patriarchal; instead they have been aligned with universal experiences that we all can have in life, regardless of identity.

The Tarot was originally designed as a set of playing cards for a wealthy Italian family in the fifteenth century. As they traveled, and introduced the cards to nobility, the cards began to spread all over Europe. Eventually, it became a popular card game known to many. As a card game, the set of twenty-two Major Arcana cards were dropped and our modern playing cards were born. But for some, the Major Arcana became a key component, and the cards were suited for more than just playing. Little is known about the exact moment the cards officially tipped over into being a full-time divinatory tool, but by the mid-nineteenth century, the deck had been given clear occult meanings and had been redesigned by both Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite, in the Thoth and Rider-Waite-Smith decks, respectively.3

The deck I first fell in love with was the Rider-Waite-Smith deck; this is the deck that most likely comes to mind when you think about Tarot. It was designed by Waite and illustrated by a woman named Pamela Coleman-Smith, or Pixie. This deck is deeply layered in imagery and symbolism, with every detail key to its interpretation. Smith utilized numerology, astrology, color theory, archetypal images, and more to give each card depth and nuance. I was drawn to Tarot specifically because of all of its layers. For Tarot, it helps to know a little bit about everything; for me it was an excuse to devour books and podcasts, trying to soak up everything. Because of the clear imagery on the cards, I was also finding its symbols and mirrors in my everyday life. Sitting in a meadow brought me closer to the core truth of Temperance; laughing with friends over drinks evoked Three of Cups; tending my garden and biting into the first tomato of summer mirrored Nine of Pentacles. Tarot is just a mirror for life itself. It helps us identify patterns and get to the root of our woes. It has infused itself into my life, and now everything reflects the cards back to me. Finding the cards that correspond to a moment or a feeling helps us understand why something may be happening, but more importantly, it can give us a way to move through the event and eventually out of it.

The onset of COVID-19, as well as the subsequent protests followed by lockdowns, have forced me to lean on the Tarot even more heavily to help me make sense of and navigate this time when I can’t see the path clearly on my own. Almost daily we are bombarded with new videos of Black trauma. This country is stuck in a cycle of trauma, looping again and again, but never learning the lesson. If America never fully exorcizes this evil, it is doomed to loop again. To heal collective trauma, there must be a reckoning. You need to painfully re-open the original festering wound and clean it. Even before any of that work can begin, the first step is to admit you have been wounded.4 This country refuses to do that on a collective level. It refuses to look at the deep wound slavery has left on every institution, every black face, every white heart. In the Tarot this kind of wounding is most closely represented by Three of Swords, the image of a heart with three swords sticking out of it. It represents the kind of wound you think will never heal, such a deep pain you think the only way to survive it is to surrender to it, but it also offers a way out. It shows us that, if we look at the pain, and accept it, it can dissolve and fuel our healing.

So where do we start? How do we look directly at this wound, and how do we make sense of it? I chose three cards to act as our guides through this: The Emperor, The Star, and Ten of Pentacles.

Each calendar year has a corresponding Major Arcana Tarot card that illustrates the energies that will be heightened and possible lessons to be learned in that time period.5 To calculate this card, you add the digits of the year and reduce them down until you have a number between one and twenty-two. For example, for 2018, you add two, one, and eight, giving you 11, Justice. You can reduce these numbers further by adding one and one together to give two, The High Priestess. In 2018 we clearly saw the energy of Justice in the emergence of the #MeToo movement, while The High Priestess allowed for deep inner truths to come to the surface. For some years, there is only one card, a singular energetic focus for the year. In 2020, that focus is The Emperor.

“The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

The Emperor is the archetype of the father, patriarchy, societal hierarchies, and laws of society.6 Archetypal energy from each card can be expressed along an axis from unevolved to evolved. An unevolved expression of energy is often restrictive, reactionary, and concerned only with base survival at the cost of others. An evolved expression of energy is expansive, rooted in abundance, and beneficial to the collective. The unevolved Emperor is interested in conquests, colonialism, and snuffing out dissenting voices. The U.S. government embodies this energy fully and it manifests in the over-policing of black and brown bodies, the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the systemic marginalization of trans people, among other things. This energy oppresses us; this is the energy that we have to fight against. As with all Tarot cards, you can also personally harness this archetype for good. The evolved Emperor is like a redwood tree, or like Rihanna. The evolved Emperor takes up all the space they need, growing to new heights, without pushing others to the margins. The evolved Emperor doesn’t subscribe to a scarcity mindset; this Emperor knows there is room enough for everyone to share their gifts and for everyone to feel seen. Picture a world where we can all feel safe to share ourselves: The Emperor tells us this world is possible.

“The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

The Star gives us the first glimpse of this world. The Star is the first moment of calm after the storm, when one is not yet quite sure if the chaos has truly passed. The archetype of The Star represents the rain that cools the fire, deep emotional healing, and the first glimmer of hope after profound pain. The Star only appears after a period of suffering; therefore, this energy ushers us out of this pain into a new light. However, the light is so faint that it may disappear if we lose sight of it. We must hold that light. Keep it in our hearts so that it can guide our actions, allowing us to help ourselves and others through this sorrow. How would the world shift if we were the generation that broke these ancestral cycles of suffering? How would we shift if we decided to walk into the light of a new day, a new era, a new cycle of healing and peace? I like to picture The Star as a germinating seed, not yet bursting forth into the world but full of potential. It is time to put in the work, to look at our wounds and reckon with them, fully knowing that if we complete that work we will be born anew, able to bask in the light of celebration and love.

“The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

Finally, Ten of Pentacles shows us the fruits of our labor. The archetype of Ten of Pentacles represents completion of a cycle, healing generational lines, and abundant harvest. This card shows us the gifts we can hope to pass down to our descendants. The Pentacles are all about living soulfully in the material world, accepting our purpose in life while we plant the seeds of intention through our actions. The Pentacles urge us to lead our lives in a way that spreads blessings to others. We can do that by finding the intersection between our gifts and the needs of the collective and giving abundantly in those spaces. However, it takes commitment and patience to reach the harvest of Ten of Pentacles. We are planting a garden. There will be days where the work of tending it will feel endless; it may even seem like the seeds we planted will never sprout, but like any good gardener, we must stay the course. If we keep watering, and weeding, soon enough we will start to see the garden flourish. This garden of love, acceptance, safety, and resilience will nourish generations after us.

The Emperor, The Star, and Ten of Pentacles show us a path to a different world. Confronting the trauma of The Emperor and shifting its energy into something that is abundant and safe for all requires the hope of The Star and the determination and discipline of Ten of Pentacles. The Tarot is only a mirror to our lives, reflecting back to us what we already know so that we can see it more clearly. Healing generational wounds is gentle work; it won’t occur in one swift movement. It takes the accumulation of many small decisions to be present in the reality of this moment; only then can we begin healing. I am deciding to be present. I am deciding to sit with this pain, to honor its truth, and to look for ways to transform it. I am deciding to have hope that if we all decide to heal this wound together, one day we will open our eyes and see a world that has room enough for all of us to breathe.

Mason Dana was born and raised in California’s Bay Area. She attended Spelman College for undergraduate studies. Her experiences attending an HBCU deeply shaped her understanding of systems of oppression and influenced her desire to make healing modalities more accessible to marginalized groups. She has been reading Tarot for 5 years, utilizing its insights to explore and untangle the inner conflicts for those she reads for. She is currently a master’s candidate in mental health counseling at NYU.

Artwork from “The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

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  1. “The Tarot of today is a Western occult psychological and philosophical system, as well as a card game. It consists of 78 cards divided into what has come to be called the Major and Minor Arcana. The 22 cards of the Major Arcana represent archetypal symbols wo/man’s journey through life, a journey that Carl Jung envisioned as the process of individuation. The remaining 56 cards consist of 16 Court Cards and 40 “pip” or number cards. They are divided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, which equate to a standard playing card deck as Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds respectively. Each suit has four Court Cards—King, Queen, Knight, and Page (or Princess), and cards numbered Ace through 10.” From: Mary K. Greer, Tarot for Your Self: A Workbook for Personal Transformation (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2002).
  2. The Shadow, a term coined by psychologist Carl Jung, refers to an unconscious aspect of personality that the conscious aspect does not recognize.
  3. Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot (San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2007), 6–9.
  4. Malcom X famously said “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
  5. Mary K. Greer, Tarot for Your Self: A Workbook for Personal Transformation (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2002).
  6. Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot (San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2007), 49–53.