The Hero’s Journey and the symbolism of the Tarot

All of us are on a Hero’s Journey not just once but as many times as is needed in a lifetime. With each journey we go through a process of inner alchemy and major transformation in search of the answers to: What’s the meaning of my life? Who am I? What do I want? This journey is similarly mirrored in the symbolism of the Tarot.

Tarot - Life's journey & Inner alchemy

As an artist, I was drawn to symbols from day one. They are like a second language to me, a language that I am totally at ease with. If you revisit the video on my homepage, you will see how I use symbols in my art to unlock the door to that unconscious layer where my life occurs on another level altogether. And if you were to read here, you’ll hear more about my art and symbols. I guess you could say it all started way back when I was doing Drawing classes in Perth during my undergraduate days and it was the art that led me to Jung’s books on archetypes, symbols, collective unconscious, mandalas, dreams, and so on. I remember one day when I was carrying like 9 of his books to my car and someone quipped, ‘Doing some light reading, I see’. And I haven’t stopped. I am still reading Jung to this day.

The funny thing was I used to be afraid of the Tarot thinking it had everything to do with the black arts. But no, as I got to know the cards better, they are certainly not black art but a language of our sub- and un-conscious. The symbols and archetypes represented on the cards have been written about by Carl Jung who saw them as a shared language in humanity’s collective unconscious. Another book that has also made a huge impact is the Hero’s Journey. When I first read it, it hit me that this was exactly what the Tarot depicts, the journey of our life and the transformation we go through in the name of change and growth. That’s why change is always an uneasy thing. It’s full of anxiety and fear, not knowing what to do or what will happen. But with the use of symbols, we can at least have an inkling of what’s happening. They are like signposts and markers that show the way. Have a read below and see for yourself what I mean.

The story of our Life’s Journey and Inner Alchemy

Joseph Campbell Hero With A Thousand Faces

According to Joseph Campbell, every one of us will embark on the Hero’s Journey at some point in our lives, not just once but as many times as is needed. This quest is called the Hero’s Journey not just because it takes heroic courage to dig in deep or to embrace a much-needed change. It’s because we return from the journey a Hero(ine), the one-who-now-knows from the Fool who began the journey, the not-know. This journey is a metaphor that appears most in Greek mythology and is repeated so often in all stories and movies that Campbell coined it the Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is a story of every person, of you and me. Of Luke Skywalker and Frodo.

tarot spread

Which then brings me to the Tarot. The Tarot provides the most amazingly similar symbolism of the Hero’s Journey I have ever seen so far and while these esoteric cards originated in the Italian court in the 18th century, they are still as relevant today as it was then. True symbolism is eternal and some sources have discovered Egyptian influence in the Tarot. I guess, it is what Carl Jung calls the Collective Unconscious, a strata of knowledge that all humanity shares going deep into the past. Which explains why young children today as well as cavemen from eons back in the Paleolithic age would similarly represent the sun with a circle and radiating rays.

The Fool

In the Tarot, the Hero begins as the Fool, Card Number 0. Zero represents the state of a blank slate of not-knowing, well, really all that one might expect of a fool. In Chinese we would say he is Bai Zhi (白 知, ignorant or void of knowing), in Malay, cacat (mentally challenged) or politically more correct, Wu Zhi (无 知, as in the Ch’an Buddhism state of ‘original empty mind’. Wu as in ‘kong’ or ’empty’.

Therefore the Hero’s Journey, if you were to extrapolate, is really a spiritual journey where we are compelled to follow our soul path, an inner alchemy so intense that if ignorance was bliss, we would never have set off in the first place!

 

 

The Fool hanging off a precipiceThe fool that we are starts off on this inner quest searching for answers to some pretty deep questions, not really knowing how or where to go but go we must. Everyone around us calls us foolhardy, to please think again, but hey, what do they know! We need to do this! And so, the Wu Zhi that we are, we go. It could be temporarily taking a break from a relationship to create space for discernment. Or, we might be ‘foolhardy’, oops there’s that word again, enough to quit our jobs even though there’s no Plan B. We just need to do what we need to do, the call being so great we just can’t ignore.

 

 

Map and territory

Along the way, we discover that it’s been worth the risk. We come to know ourselves in a deep way that wouldn’t have been possible were we still stuck in our old lives surrounded by so many demands and distractions. We come to know things about ourselves we never knew before. Some of it is good which we keep. Some which we aren’t so proud about, we discard. Change is therefore a constant companion on this journey. Transformation is more like it when change often turns us inside out.

 

A guide shows the way

Along the way, too, we meet guides, teachers and helpers who appear in many guises, maybe sometimes just a book or a phrase or even a sign somewhere we see with the exact message we needed. We also find treasures, keepsakes, potions, and magical items that will help point the way that much clearer or to render us the assistance we need to overcome yet another obstacle and so to move along. There will be depths so deep and heights so high that the Fool is tempted to quit and return to his status quo. But if he persists, he would slay his nemesis, I’d rather he didn’t slay any dragons unless they are really evil, overcome his shadow self to emerge the Hero. At this point of total transformation just like a belly-crawling caterpillar to a winged butterfly, there is no more the Fool. Enlightenment is complete and the Hero returns home with his Holy Grail, the Prize or simply the answers he fought so hard to find.

bogeyman

In reality, the ego is probably his biggest bogeyman. This is the shadow that follows you everywhere but there’s no way you can catch it, bottle it and throw it into the sea. The ego can be a most troublesome thing if it has you in its hold and you are constantly having to do its bidding. Then one day along the journey, you realise that you could free yourself from its grip, tame it just like a dog, and now your ego is your best tool without which you won’t have the fire to conquer the world.

 

The hero returns as king

Becoming the Hero is to claim kingship over your domain. You are now master of your inner world as well as the outer. As within, so without. With self-knowledge comes wisdom. You are now in a better position to navigate your outer world compared to when you first started. Finding the missing piece of the puzzle helps you understand your place in the scheme of things. With you on the throne, you know what to do to make life better for your kingdom and subjects. You strive to rule wisely over self and to benefit others with your presence and contribution.

The World card

The Hero’s Journey ends with Card Number 21, The World. Indeed the whole world is now at your feet. Your world is yours to shape and organize as you wish. What would you do? And here we go again. The inner journey never really ends. This is truly the secret of all secrets. Life is a constant journeying until the day we leave this incarnation and still the journeys continue till we return to the Source. Life is an entire process of inner alchemy as we strive to become better versions of ourselves, to make life better for self and others. And at journey’s end, we, the tiny spark finally returns to the whole, to the great effulgent Sun that represents the Divine godhead in us.

In case you are interested, here is where you can find a Masters thesis written by someone who has framed his research question around the Tarot.

Find out more how I use the Tarot with counselling to help folks find their way through life: My mission – to shine the light for you.

~ ॐ ~

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