Mysteries of the Tarot

Course Description and Syllabus

     The deck of cards known as the Tarot was, according to the research of philosopher Michael Dummett, invented in northern Italy in the 15th century and designed to play games such as tarot and tarocchini. The forerunner of today’s playing cards, the deck contains 78 cards in two suits known as the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. In the late 18th century, the Tarot started to be used for the purposes of divination in the form of cartomancy, and the Major Arcana in particular came to be associated with magic and mysticism.

As a form of creative inspiration, the Tarot has been taken seriously by such major artists, writers, and thinkers as Salvador Dali, W.B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, Carl Jung, and Andre Breton, among others. In this course, we will consider this mysterious deck of cards as both a historical repository of images, themes, and motifs useful to anyone engaged in creative pursuits, and a mirror reflecting the archetypes of the human unconscious. As a system of relating to the world and making sense of our experience, it is intuitive, irrational, and outside the official structures of power. It embodies the narrative threads of human consciousness as they reveal themselves in recurrent symbols, images, and motifs. The psychologist Carl Jung regarded the Tarot as “an alchemical game,” which attempts “the union of opposites” by “presenting a rhythm of negative and positive, loss and gain, dark and light.”

As we shuffle, deal, and lay the cards in front of us, we will explore the history of the Tarot and its connections to alchemy, the Zodiac, and the Kabbalah. We will study the symbolism of wands, cups, swords, and pentacles, using the Tarot as a style of projective test to understand our emotional functioning, and to analyze our dreams. We will investigate the differences in various Tarot decks and the way their use of obviously Christian imagery has changed over time, in response to historical events.

We will focus mostly on the Marsailles, Rider-Waite, and Thoth tarot decks, although a wide variety will be used for discussion and comparison. Students will need their own Tarot deck for the course. Our main text will be The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911) by A.E. Waite, designer of the most widely known Tarot deck and distinguished scholar of the Kabbalah, but we will also use The Way of Tarot by artist and filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (Llewelyn Publications, 2016), along with Jessa Crispin’s The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life (Atria Books, 2016).

REQUIRED: Jessa Crispin, The Creative Tarot- A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life, Touchstone Books, NY, 2016 (hard copy). Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa, The Way of the Tarot, Destiny Books, 2004. A Tarot Deck (Rider-Waite recommended)


Stith Thompson. Motif-index of Folk-Literature
D. L. Asliman, Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts
Foamy Custard (Folklore, Myth, & Cultural Studies)

Tarot Correspondence Tables
Tarot Color Scales


Week One: The Fool (Tale type: J2749: The Fool and other unwise persons)
Crispin, 33-35, Jodorowsky, 121-125
Isaac Bashavis Singer, “Gimpel the Fool” (1953)
Introductory Lecture

Week Two: The Magician (Tale Type: D1700–D2199. Magic Powers and Manifestations)
Crispin, 36-39, Jodorowsky 127-131
Wu Ming-Yi, “The Magician on the Footbridge” (2017)

Week Three: The Empress (Tale Type: V200. Sacred Persons).
Toni Cade Bambara, “My Man Bovanne” (1972)

Week Four: The Lovers (Tale Type: T90. Love – miscellaneous motifs)
Crispin, 51-53, Jodorowsky, “The Lover”
John Cheever, “The Geometry of Love” (1966)

Week Five: The Charioteer (Tale Type: P410. Laborers)
Reading: Edith Perlman, “Gaffer’s Delights,” Antioch Review 56.4, 1998.

Week Six: The Wheel of Fortune (Tale Type: N100. Nature of luck and fate)
Crispin, 63-65, Jodorowsky, “The Wheel of Fortune”
Julie Otsuka, “Diem Perdidi” (2011)

Week Seven: Lady Strength (Tale Type: W0–W99. Favorable traits of character)
Reading: Helen Garner, “The Insults of Age” (2015)

Week Eight: The Hanged Man (Tale Type: H220. Ordeals).
Reading: George Orwell, “A Hanging” (1931)

Week Nine: Death (Tale Type: U250. Shortness of life)
Crispin, 73-75, Jodorowsky, “Death”
Patricia Highsmith, “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” (1967)

Week Ten: The Tower (Tale Type: U0.–U99. Life’s inequalities)
Crispin, 82-84, Jodorowsky, “The Tower”
Angela Carter, The Fall River Ax Murders” (1974)

Week Eleven: The Moon (Tale Type: V1.4.3. Worship of moon).
Crispin, 88-90, Jodorowsky, “The Moon”
Kenneth Anger, “Rabbit’s Moon (1950)
Vladimir Nabokov, “The Vane Sisters” (1951)


Week Twelve: Lady Temperance (Tale Type: J550. Zeal—temperate and intemperate).
Reading: Kristi Coulter, “Hatchetation Time,” Columbia 56 (2018)


Week Thirteen: The Devil (Tale Type: C10. Tabu: profanely calling up spirit, devil, etc.)
Reading: W.W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902)


Week Fourteen: Four of Coins
Crispin 147-149, Jodorowsky, “Four of Coins”
For this class, read: Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever” (1934)

Week Fifteen: Seven of Cups
Crispin, 177-183, Jodorowsky, “Seven of Cups”
Saki, “Sredni Vashtar” (1911)
Hjalmar Boyeson, “The Number Seven,” Maine Journal of Education, 1873

Week Sixteen: Nine of Swords
Crispin, 203-205, Jodorowsky, “Nine of Swords”
H.G. Wells, “Pollock and the Porrah Man” (1895)