Tarot, Geomancy, Astrology

Symbolic Charge in the Tarot

I have long held onto the notion that Tarot cards are neither “positive” or “negative,” and that every card has aspects of both. Many disagree, however, and when reading about other peoples’ interpretations of the cards, I see a lot of talk about positive and negative cards, and I’ve seen spreads whose interpretation is based on whether a card in a certain spot is “positive” or “negative” (most obviously in the “Yes/No” spread, where a positive card indicates a Yes and a negative card a No; I really dislike this spread, if it can even be called that, for several reasons I won’t go into here). Naturally, this way of thinking is antithetical to my own conception of the Tarot and of life; there is good and bad, Yin and Yang, and positive and negative in everything. I can, however, understand the appeal and utility of thinking of cards as positive or negative. Naturally, there is no codebook or set of formalized guidelines for what makes a card “positive” or “negative,” and it all comes down to an individual’s reactions to a card. In fact, I would argue, whether or not a card is positive or negative can change depending on the situation. That, I think, is the beauty of the Tarot.

However, a discussion with a friend entering the world of Tarot got me thinking about positive and negative cards. While I don’t ascribe to the belief that certain cards have inherently positive or negative energies, I do think that I tend to view some cards as negative more often than others, and some cards definitely strike fear into my heart when I see them pop up in a spread. As such, I do think there is something to this notion of positive vs. negative cards, even if it’s not particularly clear-cut.

In many esoteric situations in which symbols are put into one of two opposite categories, I would call this “polarity” (such as in Geomancy). In this case, I don’t think this term is appropriate, though, because polarity implies two complete opposites with no middle ground. If a card was either entirely positive or entirely negative, then perhaps the term “polarity” would work, but in this case I think the less-loaded term “charge” can better describe how I view the cards. Cards have a tendency to be positive or negative, but mix both charges, so they are negative or positive to different degrees.

As I said before, this is all just my own opinion, and what follows are my own personal thoughts on the charges of the Tarot cards, based on the Thoth deck. I have grouped them into strong negative, negative, neutral, positive, and strong positive. However, even the strong negative cards have positive in them, and vice versa. The strong positive and negative cards are cards that instantly give me a negative feeling, just on sight, and usually color my reading of other cards in the spread. The negative and positive cards usually give me a negative vibe, but are more likely to be influenced by context than the strong negative and positive cards. The neutral cards are entirely context-dependent, and I either attach no charge to them on sight or else there are equal amounts of positive and negative charges that war in my mind when I see them. The cards are ordered according to their number.

Strong Negative
Three of Swords (Sorrow)
Five of Wands (Strife)
Five of Cups (Disappointment)
Five of Swords (Defeat)
Five of Disks (Worry)
Seven of Swords (Futility)
Seven of Disks (Failure)
Nine of Swords (Cruelty)
Ten of Swords (Ruin)
Ten of Wands (Oppression)
The Tower (XVI)
The Moon (XVIII)

Negative
Seven of Wands (Valor)
Seven of Cups (Debauch)
Eight of Cups (Indolence)
Eight of Swords (Interference)
Ten of Cups (Satiety)
Fortune (X)
Lust (XI)
Death (XIII)
The Devil (XV)

Neutral
All Court Cards
Eight of Wands (Swiftness)
Four of Cups (Luxury)
Four of Swords (Truce)
The Priestess (II)
The Emperor (IV)
The Hierophant (V)
The Chariot (VII)
The Hermit (IX)
The Aeon (XX)

Positive
Ace of Disks
Two of Wands (Dominion)
Two of Disks (Change)
Three of Cups (Abundance)
Four of Disks (Power)
Six of Cups (Pleasure)
Six of Disks (Success)
Eight of Disks (Prudence)
Nine of Disks (Gain)
Ten of Disks (Wealth)
The Fool (O)
The Magus (I)
The Empress (III)
The Lovers (VI)
Adjustment (VIII)
The Hanged Man (XII)
Art (XIV)
The Star (XVII)
The Sun (XIX)

Strong Positive
Ace of Wands
Ace of Cups
Ace of Swords
Two of Swords (Peace)
Two of Cups (Love)
Three of Wands (Virtue)
Three of Disks (Works)
Four of Wands (Completion)
Six of Wands (Victory)
Six of Swords (Science)
Nine of Wands (Strength)
Nine of Cups (Happiness)
The Universe (XXI)

A few interesting patterns emerged when I sorted the cards this way. Most obviously, I truly believe all of the court cards are neutral and don’t lean in any direction; they all have about equal amounts of negative and positive. Furthermore, I have about the same number of very negative as very positive. However, I tend to view most of the cards in the deck as positive, as there are many more “positive” cards than “negative” cards. Also, most of the numbered cards I do consider either mostly positive or mostly negative, while a good chunk of the Major Arcana (especially near the beginning) I consider neutral and dependent entirely on context. Most of the Majors, however, I consider positive, save for most of those relating to larger forces outside of an individual’s control (hence why Fortune is a negative for me, instead of a neutral).

The Devil is also a strange outlier; most interpret his presence as negative, but I usually tend to view it as a card urging you to reinterpret the situation, and flip around the good guys and the bad guys. The Devil, for me, is usually a card of moral relativism, and can represent either ignorance and blindness or else a need to shift one’s perspective, and realize that the villain is the hero. As such, my interpretation of the Devil tends to be torn between two poles, and hence its placement in the Neutral category.

Another card in which people might disagree with my placement is the Seven of Wands. The name Valor usually evokes positive feelings, but for me, that interpretation is colored by my view of the Seven of Wands as a card representing breaking off from one’s friends and foolishly galloping off into danger alone. It is individual courage, which is less powerful than the Victory that comes from the Six of Wands before it (which I inevitably compare the Seven to), and more divisive and foolish. So, to me, the Seven of Wands is a negative card.

The distribution of suits is also interesting. The Cups cards are fairly evenly distributed, with a slight preference for the positive. The Wands and Disks have a strong preference for the positive. On the other hand, half – five cards out of ten – of the Suit of Swords I consider strongly negative. Three more of them are negative, and only two are (strongly) positive. My pessimism really shows here, as the Swords are the suit I identify the most with and are also by far the most negative. So, I consider Cups neutral, Wands and Disks positive, and Swords negative. This is also interesting because I dislike the materialism of the Suit of Disks as a whole (hence why the Ace of Disks is the only Ace not strongly positive), and yet think positively of the individual cards of that suit. Similarly, the abstractness of Swords appeals to me, yet I don’t think positively of most of the individual cards.

Even more telling is the distribution of numbers, but this is not surprising given the design of the Thoth deck. Each number corresponds to a Sefirot on the Tree of Life, and these have positive and negative connotations that influence the card’s meaning. This is why all of the Aces are some form of positive , as well as the Twos and the Sixes. Three of the Threes and Nines (Swords being the exception to the rule) are also some form of positive. Half of the fours are neutral, and the other two are some form of positive. All of the fives are strongly negative (seeing as they are associated with the Sefirot Geburah, which I associate with instability), and all of the Sevens are negative to some degree as well. The Eights are more evenly distributed, similar to the Fours, with two negative, one neutral, and one positive. Three of the tens are some form of negative, and only one is negative.

What does this mean, overall, for my interpretation of the Tarot? Namely, that I view the deck as largely positive, and that the good in the cards comes out before the bad does. Usually, in life, I see the bad before the good, however. Furthermore, the Suit I dislike the most I view the most positively, and vice-versa. The Tarot seem to reflect my life as in a mirror, with everything reversed. Perhaps that is why I find the Tarot so calming.

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2 responses

  1. I can see why people may want to look at the cards with a symbolic charge, but in my opinion, attributing a positive or negative view to a card lessens its possible meanings and implications. I think I more ascribe to what you said at the beginning as to why you don’t do this: “it all comes down to an individual’s reactions to a card.”

    I know that’s taking it slightly out of context as you were really talking about the potential charges of each card. But ultimately, I think that in each spread, not even each deck, any card can take a positive, negative, or neutral charge. I’ve even had the three of swords come up positively (Talking about a break-up that was hard, but positive and necessary).

    While people can do as they choose for the sake of interpretation, I think asking the universe for a yes or no, is limiting the form of guidance the reader can take from the cards. I think they have too much symbolism to boil them down in that way. I think by asking for a yes or no, the reader is also trying to see into a future that is not fully set in stone.

    On a different note, this is my first entry that I’ve read of yours. You said that you weren’t crazy about the charges on the cards either, so you may have spoken about that in another post. I was actually searching your blog’s title, hoping that it would be an original one for a blog, I want to start. I’ll be checking out some of your other entries as well. Thanks for getting me thinking!

    September 8, 2014 at 1:13 am

    • Hi! Glad to get you thinking! 🙂

      I absolutely agree that cards can take on different charges and meanings with each reading, even if they’re in the same position for different questions, or even for the same question but at different times! The cards just help you to think about the possibilities. That being said, while (as you pointed out) I don’t myself assign the cards inherent charges it was an interesting thought experiment that exposed my own, (largely) unadulterated perceptions of all of the cards. If anything, I found that just thinking through my own associations with each card helped me understand them (and myself) a lot better.

      I also am completely with you on the yes/no thing. I NEVER do Yes/No readings for precisely those reasons you state.

      I hope you enjoy whatever else you read here!

      September 8, 2014 at 3:46 am

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