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
Crispin, 33-35, Jodorowsky, 121-125
Isaac Bashavis Singer, “Gimpel the Fool” (1953)

Week Two: The Magician
Crispin, 36-39, Jodorowsky 127-131
Wu Ming-Yi, “The Magician on the Footbridge” (2017)

Week Three: The Lovers
Crispin, 51-53, Jodorowsky, “The Lover”
John Cheever, “The Geometry of Love” (1966)
This Week’s Lecture

Week Four: The Wheel of Fortune
Crispin, 63-65, Jodorowsky, “The Wheel of Fortune”
Julie Otsuka, “Diem Perdidi” (2011)

Week Five: Death
Crispin, 73-75, Jodorowsky, “Death”
Patricia Highsmith, “The Quest for Blank Claveringi” (1967)

Week Six: The Tower
Crispin, 82-84, Jodorowsky, “The Tower”
Angela Carter, The Fall River Ax Murders” (1974)
This Week’s Lecture

Week Seven: The Moon
Crispin, 88-90, Jodorowsky, “The Moon”
Kenneth Anger, “Rabbit’s Moon
Vladimir Nabokov, “The VaneSisters” (1951)


Week Eight: Three of Cups
Crispin, 124-136. Jodorowsky 284-6, 314-15.
Emory Lease, “The Number Three,” Classical Philology (January 1919)

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

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

Week Thirteen: Queen of Wands
Crispin, 261-263. Jodorowsky, “Queen of Wands”
Angela Carter, “The Company Of Wolves” (1974)