Andrea Vitali's Essays

Carl Gustav Jung and the Tarot

Synchronicity and divination

 

Edited by Gerardo Lonardoni

Translation from Italian by Michael S. Howard (April, 2017)

 

Everyone knows the deep interest that Carl Gustav Jung nurtured for oracular systems in general, and the most popular oriental oracle in particular: the millennial Chinese I Ching. Jung wrote a preface to the English edition of the most important translation of the work from Chinese, one published in the twenties of the last century by the German sinologist Richard Wilhelm. Wilhelm was a German Protestant pastor who went as a missionary to China at the beginning of the 1900s, and knew a Confucian master who initiated him into the mysteries of the I Ching. Wilhelm in turn introduced Carl Gustav Jung, who knew him personally and became his friend, to a deep understanding of the Chinese oracle. Jung had known and used the I Ching for many years already when he met Wilhelm, but the latter was to offer him a translation fitting the spirit of the text and philologically correct.




In the preface the aforementioned Jung expounded his theory of synchronicity, which has often been reported in the manuals on tarot. The Swiss psychoanalyst believed that causality, which is at the heart of contemporary science, in his time had been thrown into crisis by the discoveries of physics. Obviously echoing the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg; Jung pointed out that the laws of nature are invariant only when the experiments are reproduced in the confined space of a laboratory, thus inside a controlled causality. Outside of this protected environment, nature acts according to schemes in which untold numbers of external events interact, making it impossible to determine the result with certainty, and among these events is included also the observer himself, who always, albeit involuntarily, interferes with the causal processes. The result can be predicted according to a mere calculation of probability, not certainty, as C.G. Jung expressed: "We know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions" (Preface to the English translation of the I Ching in I King, Editions Astrolabe, Rome 1950, p. 12 [in Jung’s English, in The I  Ching, or Book of Changes: the Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Bolingen Series XIX, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1950, p. xxii]).

 

If causality substantially fails in its task of providing secure links between facts, according to Jung there exists another method of linking events: this system is defined as synchronicity. All events that happen at the same time are thereby connected by mysterious bonds of a non-causal nature: "The moment under actual observation appears to the ancient Chinese view more of a chance hit than a clearly defined result of concurrent causal chain processes" (op. cit. p. 13 [Eng. ed. p. xxiii]). So one who consults, for example, the tarot gets a reading that inevitably reflects what is happening at the same time. The divinatory action is reflected in the moment it is finished and provides a non-causal and non-rational interpretation; such action also, unlike laboratory experiment, takes into account the subjective aspect constituted by the observer-diviner, which enters fully into the operation. The oracular reading is then the sum of objective data, constituted by the signs, and of the subjective datum constituted by the diviner’s interpretation: "Synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a particular interdependence of objective events among themselves, as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers" (op. cit., p. 14 [Eng. ed. p. xxiv]).

 

However, if Jung's interest in the I Ching is well known, his interest in the tarot is not. A profound difference in assessment in fact divides the two oracular systems. While the east of the I Ching is surrounded by an age-old authentic veneration and is considered a holy book ("Ching" means precisely, in Chinese, holy book), in the West, on the contrary, the Tarot is completely discredited, and the most "informed" believe that they are simply allegorical cards useful for fortune tellers to do business. This unfortunate situation for the tarot is the inevitable result of the conditions in the West over two millennia: following the introduction of a religion of Middle Eastern origin that does not allow competitors on the terrain that it deems within its exclusive relevance, any tolerance in spiritual matters was banned for centuries, and thus it was necessary to conceal the wisdom under very thick veils. While in China as in India the sages of all religions wrote down their teachings, and they circulated in direct proportion to the fame of the author, in Europe the ancient doctrine of wisdom had to cover itself with veils: those of Christianity itself as much as of the sagas of the Grail, or of strange metallurgical techniques as in alchemy, or of incomprehensible symbols like the tarot. Elsewhere we will face the important issue of "vehicles" in the Western tradition, that is, the means by which the ancient Greek and Roman wisdom, enhanced by substantial eastern contributions several times since at least the Hellenistic era, could endure in full Christianity by donning the veil of symbols: for now we will dedicate ourselves exclusively to the theme of the rediscovery of the deep symbolic and archetypal value of the tarot.

 

No one but Carl Gustav Jung has managed so successfully in the West to spread interest in sacred symbolism; so it is natural to ask whether in the course of his decades-long studies he came to touch the variegated universe of the tarot, which, in his time, had not yet received the attention of historians. The answer, as we shall soon see, is yes; Jung, however, could not have the considerable historical, critical, and iconological apparatus that since the Second World War, with a progressive increase in the last decades, has shed new light on the origins and development of the cards. Thus he probably drew his knowledge of the subject from esotericists of the time, especially, as it seems, from Papus. On the subject of relations between the tarot and Carl G. Jung, very interesting points are raised by the American researcher Mary K. Greer on her blog at the link:

http://marygreer.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/carl-jung-and-tarot/.

 

Some of this material comes from the Jung Institute Library in New York. So let us leave the words to the American scholar, whom we thank for her permission to quote from the material we have translated here:





 Mary K. Greer


Although many tarot practitioners apply a Jungian psychological approach to their tarot work, there’s been a question as to whether Jung himself knew anything about tarot. In fact he did, and he would have liked to explore it more deeply but for a lack of hours in the day. Here are some of his references to the cards, although his tarot knowledge, especially of its history, was sorely lacking. 

 

On 16 September 1930, Jung wrote to a Mrs. Eckstein:

 

“Yes, I know of the Tarot. It is, as far as I know, the pack of cards originally used by the Spanish gypsies, the oldest cards historically known. They are still used for divinatory purposes.”

 

[Jung was not always right: Current historical research does not support an original use of the cards by gypsies, nor were tarot cards the oldest known. The ordinary playing card deck (with many variations) preceded tarot by approximately 50 to 75 years. Tarot appeared first in Northern Italy roughly around 1440.]

 

On 1 March 1933, Carl Jung spoke about the Tarot during a seminar he was conducting on active imagination, demonstrating that he was a little more familiar with these images than we would have thought from just the preceding letter. This is a transcript of his actual spoken words:

 

“Another strange field of occult experience in which the hermaphrodite appears is the Tarot. That is a set of playing cards, such as were originally used by the gypsies. There are Spanish specimens, if I remember rightly, as old as the fifteenth century. These cards are really the origin of our pack of cards, in which the red and the black symbolize the opposites, and the division of four—clubs, spades, diamonds, and hearts—also belongs to the individuation symbolism. They are psychological images, symbols with which one plays, as the unconscious seems to play with its contents. They combine in certain ways, and the different combinations correspond to the playful development of events in the history of mankind. The original cards of the Tarot consist of the ordinary cards, the king, the queen, the knight, the ace, etc.,—only the figures are somewhat different—and besides, there are twenty-one cards upon which are symbols, or pictures of symbolical situations. For example, the symbol of the sun, or the symbol of the man hung up by the feet, or the tower struck by lightning, or the wheel of fortune, and so on. Those are sort of archetypal ideas, of a differentiated nature, which mingle with the ordinary constituents of the flow of the unconscious, and therefore it is applicable for an intuitive method that has the purpose of understanding the flow of life, possibly even predicting future events, at all events lending itself to the reading of the conditions of the present moment. It is in that way analogous to the I Ching, the Chinese divination method that allows at least a reading of the present condition. You see, man always felt the need of finding an access through the unconscious to the meaning of an actual condition, because there is a sort of correspondence or a likeness between the prevailing condition and the condition of the collective unconscious.


“Now in the Tarot there is a hermaphroditic figure called the diable [the Devil card]. That would be in alchemy the gold. In other words, such an attempt as the union of opposites appears to the Christian mentality as devilish, something evil which is not allowed, something belonging to black magic.”

 

[from Visions: Notes of the Seminar given in 1930-1934 by C. G. Jung, edited by Claire Douglas. Vol. 2. (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XCIX, 1997), p. 923.]

 

In The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (CW, Vol. 9:1, para 81), Jung wrote:

 

“If one wants to form a picture of the symbolic process, the series of pictures found in alchemy are good examples. . . . It also seems as if the set of pictures in the Tarot cards were distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation, a view that has been confirmed for me in a very enlightening lecture by professor [Rudolph] Bernoulli. The symbolic process is an experience in images and of images. Its development usually shows an enantiodromian* structure like the text of the I Ching, and so presents a rhythm of negative and positive, loss and gain, dark and light.” [*a Greek term used by Jung to mean ‘things turning over into their own opposite.’]

 

Dierdre Bair recounts in Jung: A Biography (Little, Brown, 2003, p. 549) that in 1950 Jung assigned to each of the four members of his Psychology Club an ‘intuitive, synchronistic method’ to explore. Hanni Binder was to research the Tarot and teach him how to read the cards. They determined that Grimaud’s Ancien Tarot de Marseille “was the only deck that possessed the properties and fulfilled the requirements of metaphor that he gleaned from within the alchemical texts.” Hanni Binder’s work amounted to very little as can be seen from her report preserved at the Jung Institute in New York. The group disbanded around 1954.

 

What was behind Jung’s attempt to gather all this material? Marie-Louise von Franz recounts in Psyche and Matter (1988) that toward the end of his life:

 




 

“Jung suggested investigating cases where it could be supposed that the archetypal layer of the unconscious is constellated*—following a serious accident, for instance, or in the midst of a conflict or divorce situation—by having people engage in a divinatory procedure: throwing the I Ching, laying the Tarot cards, consulting the Mexican divination calendar, having a transit horoscope or a geomantic reading done. If Jung’s hypothesis is accurate, the results of all these procedures should converge. . . . [*a Jungian term meaning ‘the coming together of elements in the unconscious so that they form a consciously recognizable pattern of relationships.’ Christine Houde adds, “The constellated material is activated in the psyche of the individual where it attempts to erupt into the field of experience.”]

 

“[This investigation would consist of] studying an incident (accident) by the convergence . . . of a multitude of methods, with the help of which we could try to find out what the Self “thought” of this particular accident. . . . The generally rather vague formulations of divinatory techniques resemble these “clouds of cognition” that, according to Jung, constitute “absolute knowledge.”

 

Von Franz further explains that Jung’s “clouds of cognition” represents an awareness on the part of our conscious intelligence of a far vaster field of information, an “absolute knowledge,” within the collective unconscious. These images, on the part of a “more or less conscious ego,” lack precise focus and detail. Thus, the realization of meaning has to be “a living experience that touches the heart just as much as the mind.” She continues:

 

“Archetypal dream images and the images of the great myths and religions still have about them a little of the “cloudy” nature of absolute knowledge in that they always seem to contain more than we can assimilate consciously, even by means of elaborate interpretations. They always retain an ineffable and mysterious quality that seems to reveal to us more than we can really know.”*

 

On 9 February 1960, about a year before he died, Jung wrote Mr. A. D. Cornell about the disappointing end to his grand experiment:

 

“Under certain conditions it is possible to experiment with archetypes, as my ‘astrological experiment’ has shown. As a matter of fact we had begun such experiments at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, using the historically known intuitive, i.e., synchronistic methods (astrology, geomancy, Tarot cards, and the I Ching). But we had too few co-workers and too little means, so we could not go on and had to stop.”

 

The experiment proposed by Jung is discussed in the Journal of Parapsychology (March 1998): in an article titled: “The Rhine-Jung letters: distinguishing parapsychological from synchronistic events – J.B. Rhine; Carl Jung” by Victor Mansfield, Sally Rhine-Feather, James Hall. The authors conclude:

 

“Such an experiment fits our description of not being forced, controlling, or manipulating, but it presents its own difficulties. How, for example, can we convincingly show that the divinatory procedures in fact converge, that appropriate subjects were chosen when an archetype was actually constellated, that the data was taken without biasing the interpretation, and that other extraneous factors are not distorting the outcome? These problems are not insurmountable, but to do more than “preach to the converted,” this experiment or any other must be done with sufficient rigor that the larger scientific community would be satisfied with all aspects of the data taking, analysis of the data, and so forth.”

 






 

In 1984, Art Rosengarten (here shown with Tarot author, Eden Gray), as research for his doctoral dissertation, conducted an experiment very similar to the one described by Jung, in which he compared the tarot, TAT and dream interpretation. You can read about this experiment in his book, Tarot and Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility. I think Jung would have been pleased.

 

So what are we to make of all this?

 

Though not a direct focus of his energies, Carl Jung, nevertheless, recognized tarot as depicting archetypes of transformation like those he had found in myths, dreams and alchemy, and as having divinatory characteristics similar to the I-Ching and astrology. Most of all, Jung believed a person could use “an intuitive method” to understand—through tarot’s reflecting the collective unconscious into a “cloud of cognition”—the meaning in a present, prevailing condition.

 

ADDED: Here’s another statement by Jung on “clouds of cognition,” from the chapter, “On Life after Death,” in Memories Dream, Reflections, p 308. He states that in the “space-timelessness” surrounding an archetype there exists a diffuse cloud of cognition that contains “primorial images with many aspects” or “a “diffuse omniscience” but no discrete contents (that is, subjectless). For cognition to happen these potentialities [my word] have to be brought into space-time coordinates. Reading this entire chapter is absolutely essential to getting at what Jung saw as the source material for divinations.

 

“As I see it the three-dimensional world in time and space is like a system of co-ordinates, what is here separated into ordinates and abscissae may appear “there,” in space-timelessness, as a primordial image with many aspects, perhaps as a diffuse cloud of cognition surrounding an archetype. Yet a system of co-ordinates is necessary if any distinction of discrete contents is to be possible. Any such operation seems to us unthinkable in a state of diffuse omniscience, or, as the case may be, of subjectless consciousness, with no spatio-temporal demarcations. Cognition, like generation, presupposes an opposition, a here and there, an above and below, a before and after.”

 

For a different take, here is a bit of an interview with Jung on alchemy and predicting the future: “We can predict the future when we know how the present moment has evolved out of the past.”

 

I just received a paper from the Jung Institute library in New York. It contains brief notes Hanni Binder took of Jung’s descriptions, in German, when he spoke to her about the Tarot cards. A friend of hers made a literal translation into English, typing it onto large file cards. What follows is Jung’s verbal description of the Major Arcana. They are based on cards from the Grimaud Tarot de Marseille, which he felt most closely contained properties he recognized from his reading of alchemical texts. I have corrected obvious errors in language, but kept these changes to a minimum. My own comments are in brackets [ ].

 

If you are familiar with Jung’s core concepts you’ll find several of them referred to directly or indirectly: Self, Shadow, extraversion, intraversion, conscious, unconscious, fate, center, inflation, compensation, sacrifice, etc. Notice also his interest in what’s held in the right and left hands as indications of masculine/active or feminine/passive (I prefer ‘receptive’) energies. These notes are simplistic but were obviously only meant to be a starting place for further exploration.

 

ADDED: Japanese tarotist, Kenji, discovered that Jung’s descriptive text comes almost directly from Papus’ Tarot of the Bohemians (thank you, Kenji). However, Jung seems to have added several keywords from his own psychological lexicon as I noted above. Comparing these two texts will clarify what ideas Jung added.

 

1 The Magician

The Magician has, in the right hand, a golden ball, in the left a stick [wand]. The hat makes an eight [infinity sign]. The bearing of the hand shows right activity, left passivity. Sign of force, stability, self. He has all the symbols before him.

 

2 The High Priestess

Sitting Priestess. She wears a veil. On her knees is a book. This book is open. She stands in connection with the moon. Occult wisdom. Passive, eternal woman.

 

3 The Empress

Empress with wings. In the right hand she has an eagle, in the left a scepter. She has a crown with 12 stones. Eagle as a symbol of soul and life. Feminine activity. Fruitfulness, goddess.

 

4 The Emperor

Emperor sitting in profile. In the right hand he is holding the scepter. He wears a helmet with 12 stones. The legs are crossed. Will, force, reality, duty, brightness.

 

5 The Hierophant

The Hierophant leans on a three fax[sic – triple?] cross. The two columns are standing on the right as law, on the left liberty. Two men are kneeling before him: one is red, the other black. Will, religion, fate [faith?], Self, center.

 

6 The Lovers

The young man stands in a corner where two streets come together. The woman on the right has a golden garland on her head. The woman on the left is wreathed with a vine. Beauty, cross-road, way inward or outward.

 

7 The Chariot

Conqueror with coronet. He has three angle [right angles on his cuirass]. In his hand is a scepter. Arrow and weapon arm [right hand?]. Actively going toward his fate. He has a goal, achieving victory. Activity, extraversion. Inflation.

 

8 Justice

Sitting woman with a coronet. In the right hand she has a sword, in the left, a balance [scales]. Compensation between nature and the force of a man. Justice, compensation. Conflict with the law.

 

9 The Hermit

An old man walks with a stick [staff]. Wisdom as symbolized by the lamp. Protection with the overcoat. Cleverness, love, introversion. Wisdom.

 

10 Wheel of Fortune

Sphinx holding a sword. Wheel symbolizing endlessness. Finger as a sign of command. Human being as ball [circumference?] of the wheel of fortune. Luck/misfortune.

 

11 Strength

A young girl opens the mouth of a lion. The girl has the sign of vitality on her hat. Liberty, strength.

 

12 The Hanged Man

The hands of this man on in back. The eyes are open. The right leg is crossed. On the right and left a trunk of a tree. Turning back [enantiodromia?], powerless, sacrifice, test, proof. Face against the sky.

 

13 Death

A skeleton in a field with heads and fingers. Death and regeneration. The Ego should not take [the] place, the Self has to take [the] place. New standpoint, liberation, end.

 

14 Temperance

Young girl pours water from one jug in the other. The sun gives the liquid of life from a golden in[to] a silver jug. Movement, consciousness, natural growth.

 

15 The Devil

The right hand of the Devil is raised to the sky, the left points to the earth. Two persons are under him. He holds the torch as a sign of black magic. Fate, Shadow, emotion.

 

16 The Tower

Burning tower. Hospital, prison, struck by lightning. Sacrifice.

 

17 The Star

A naked woman spills water from two jugs. Around the girl are seven stars. The Self shines, stars of fate, night, dreams. Hope. The Self is born in the stars. Union with the eternal.

 

18 The Moon

In the middle of a field is a dog and a wolf. A crayfish comes out of the water. It is night. The door to the unconscious is open. The crayfish likes to go the shore. The light is indirect.

 

19 The Sun

Two naked girls. The sun shines on the children. Drops of gold fall on the earth. The Self is ruling the situation. Consciousness. Enlightenment.

 

20 Judgement

An angel with fiery wings, an open grave in the earth. Birth of the Self. Inspiration, liberation.

 

21 The World

Naked woman, her legs are crossed. In the four corners we have the angel, the lion, the bull and the eagle. Completion, finishing. In the world but not from the world.

 

0 The Fool

A man who doesn’t take care on his way. Beginning and end. The fool has no home in this world; the home is in heaven. Dreamer, mystic side.

 

Masculine cards:

Wands = Libido [sexual drive]
Swords = Spiritual force

 

Feminine cards:

Pentacles = Material
Cups = Feeling

 

Added note on the Four Suits: Jung obviously failed to link the four suits to his four psychological types or functions, based on the quaternity of elements and humors. However, with the “Feminine” suits he came close, calling Cups Feeling, while Pentacles as Material is close to Sensation. Most people link Intuition with Wands and Thinking with Swords.  Jung’s most succinct explanation of his psychological types can be found in Man and His Symbols (highly recommended reading for anyone interested in a Jungian approach to tarot):

 

  • Sensation tells you that something exists (through the senses).
  • Thinking tells you what it is (its definition).
  • Feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not (its value).
  • Intuition tells you whence it comes and where it is going (its possibilities).