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. Update: I’ve added brief notes by Jung on the Major Arcana here, and on “clouds of cognition” at the end of this article.
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.
See Jung’s own comments on the Major Arcana here.
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.”