Tarot is first and foremost a tool for self-awareness and self-empowerment, allowing observation of yourself, your life, your strengths and those areas causing you difficulty. Identifying the patterns and underlying trends from your past and present can highlight ways in which you can break out of those patterns which do not serve you anymore. Simply to recognise that you are following a pattern of behaviour can be pivotal. The Tarot is a gateway to our subconscious, where we store away our hopes and fears, our memories and our true self. All our problems and blockages in life are rooted within our subconscious. By tapping into it, through the use of Tarot, we can find solutions and seek guidance. When you lay out a spread of cards, the unique story of a life appears before you in picture form, with its own individual patterns made up of universal experiences and emotions, a powerful tool for understanding and influencing a life’s pattern.
Over the years that I have been working with the tarot I have developed my own way of interpreting the cards that follows closely the theories of A E Waite, but also encompasses the idea of ancestral knowledge and ancestral working. It is my personal preference to think of the system of Tarot as having three interlinked aspect of the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana and the Court Families. No one aspect is more important than another as they are so interlinked and intertwined. I also like to think of the Tarot in terms of the symbolism of the spiral. The spiral is undoubtedly the oldest symbol of human spirituality. It has been found on every continent in the world scratched into rocks, burial tombs and sacred sites as well as the many naturally occurring examples in nature (think of snail shells, hurricanes, fern shoots etc). It is suggestive of a cycle of rebirth or resurrection, as well as being an ancient symbol of the goddess, the womb, fertility and the evolution of the universe.
Image credit: Curran Kelleher/Wikimedia Commons
So how does it fit with Tarot?
A popular teaching method for Tarot is to lay the entire 78 cards out on a circle, representing the circle of life, working through the Minor Arcana (with Court cards) and then the Major Arcana. This would suggest though that the Tarot (and the journey through life it is representing) comes back to the same point and is static which we know is really not true. I prefer to think in terms of the spiral where once you reach the end of the cycle that you are on, you continue onwards (or regress backwards) on your path taking with you the knowledge and experience as you continue. I also prefer to journey through the Tarot, for teaching and development purposes, starting with the Minor Arcana (through the suits of Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles), then in to the transitional and archetypal themes of the 22 cards of the Major Arcana, finishing with the Court Families of the four suits. I have very specific reasons for this.
The Major Arcana and the Spiral
On the surface, the Minor Arcana may appear to deal with mundane everyday issues, but scratch the surface and they are a gateway to your psychological, spiritual and physical realities. They offer guidance on our chosen path, showing us the patterns at play within our lives and point towards their origin, mapping out the entanglements. They animate the patterns and allow them to come to life. I am not going to include an in depth discussion on their themes as that would be another book in and of itself, instead I shall highlight the patterns inherent to the Major Arcana and Court Families and illustrate the blueprint to the patterns of life that they hold within.
Where the Minor Arcana is concerned with animating everyday life; the Major Arcana deals with traditional archetypes, universal influences and our family roots. These cards shed light on our spiritual and ancestral journey and illustrate turning points in our life, events that will happen or have happened that change our lives. Our attitude to these changes and phases in our life is the key. The situation and changes can work to our advantage or disadvantage depending on our outlook and what we are willing to acknowledge.
I see the Major Arcana as having three distinct aspects or realms within the spiral (the realm of the family, the ancestors and the dead) with the Fool card acting as our guide through each aspect. I have provided some description on particular Major cards, but this is just a very basic start.
The Fool is the naive and innocent child and can be placed anywhere within the Major Arcana as he acts as a guide; think of him as walking you through your family lines. The Fool stands at the start of the journey and represents infinite possibilities and infinite potentials viewing life through the eyes of your inner self, sometimes the inner child.
The Realm of the Family
The first aspect of the Major Arcana spiral is made up of the first seven numbered cards from the Magician through to the Chariot. It is the aspect that is concerned with who we are in the present situation and the influence our family and ancestry is having on us in the immediate moment. It is mainly concerned with personal, emotional, communication and interaction with others, as we create bonds and forge ties with those around us.
The first two cards are the Magician and the High Priestess, they act as gatekeepers to the masculine and feminine ancestral lines. The High Priestess and the Magician belong together; they represent masculine and feminine duality of inner power. Whilst the Magician is more representative of being active in the material world, the High Priestess is much more passive. She represents hidden knowledge from the ancestors, intuition and the unconscious mind. A balance between the Magician’s control and the High Priestess’ passivity is needed.
The next two cards are the representatives of our parents and are the Empress and the Emperor. It is our relationship with the Empress and the Emperor (our Mother and Father) that determines our journey through the rest of the Major Arcana spiral and indeed through the spiral of our own life. Should we choose to distance ourselves and disassociate from them, then we find the transitions through the spiral much harder.
When we reach the Hierophant and we do not have the support of the Mother and Father, or, if we have rejected them, then we find ourselves blocked and unable to move. The influence or lack thereof becomes even more telling as we move into the realm of the Lovers, with the patterns laid in place for how we communicate emotionally with those around us. When we come to the Chariot, we have the choice to take control, accept our roots and move forward, or to flee further from whom we are as we seek out another path.
The rejection of the parents in some form or another is at the root of many individuals’ personal issues. By holding on to the belief that your parents weren’t good enough, weren’t there for you enough or by wishing that you had a different Mother or Father, you are in effect rejecting or belittling your own life by rejecting and belittling them. In saying this I am not suggesting that hardships or trauma experienced as a child are justifiable or insignificant; I am saying simply that there is a choice about the future. An acceptance that your Mother/Father is the only Mother/Father for you, that they gifted you your life in spite of what it cost both them and you, and an acknowledgement of their place as your Mother/Father, and your place as their child, is far more freeing than holding on to the energy of the past and any mistakes that might have been made. To say “I wanted more” or “they weren’t good enough” or “I reject you as my Mother/Father” is in effect rejecting your own life and creates a very difficult path forward for your life.
The Realm of the Ancestors
The next phase of the Major Arcana is represented by the next seven numbered cards from Strength to Temperance, and is the aspect that brings up the patterns from the family generations that influenced your formative years. This aspect really highlights the struggle to come to terms with your place in your family system. The first two cards in this realm are Strength and the Hermit and they represent the changing relationship between parent and child as the child (or the individual looking back on their childhood). When the child is able to accept their parents as they are, then they move forward to a place of strength and inner knowing. Strength in particular is a need to confront and release feelings and desires that have been locked away. It is indicative of a period of self-development with an honest appraisal of you and those around you.
If however, there is a rejection of the parents then the “child” sets off on a journey or path looking for what is missing, namely the relationship with the parent! This journey is often at the sacrifice of their own family/personal relationships and in that instance, the Hermit becomes a very self-serving place to be. This is because the energy of the Hermit highlights a need for a period of withdrawal to assess the family system and how you feel about it. The Hermit and the lamp he holds represent inner wisdom, inner guidance and knowledge from the ancestors.
Lingering too long in the indulgence of the Strength and Hermit can lead to events in life taking over as the patterns and fates from the past come to the fore to be repeated, or to re-present themselves again. It is how these events are handled that is the key. If the family support and openness is there with the positive acceptance of the Child aspect, then the Wheel of Fortune and Justice are a simple transition. If however, there is still rejection of the family, parental roots and the ancestral lineage, then they are indicative of a difficult period of “why me?” type thinking.
The Wheel of Fortune is based on the ancient belief that our fortunes change in a cyclic manner and embodies the mythology of “The three fates”; one who spins the thread of life, one who measures the length, and one who cuts the length for each individual’s life. The wheel represents the mysteries of fate and also embodies the laws of karma and ancestral knowledge.
Whereas Justice indicates a lesson that has to be learned. Looking honestly at where you are, do you deserve to be here? Did your actions lead to this? What can you learn from those that have gone before you? What needs to be honoured and acknowledged or allowed to lay at rest?
Again, the period represented by the next three cards within the cycle is either extremely freeing as the individual sees and accepts their place within their family system in respect to the entanglements that are present within both their Mother and Father’s family lines, or extremely self-indulgent as the individual further disconnects from their roots and goes off on various personal/spiritual quests to find themselves. This behaviour is especially evident in the Hanged Man where from one angle the hanged man is suspended in space, viewed upside down he is quite happily dancing. He epitomises the martyr who blindly carries the burden of the fates that have gone before or the sacrifice of the self for the sake of the victims in the realm of the dead, which is often unwarranted and unwelcome.
The Death card often symbolises a need to shed and let go of old patterns, and if these patterns are held on to in can lead to physical/emotional illnesses. Signifying a time of change, coming to the end of a cycle and a need to let go of what was in order to move on. This can be a painful process if there is a fear of change and letting go with the temptation to stick to old habits where the individual can often have an inflated sense of self-importance as they place themselves within the centre of their family patterns.
Temperance however heralds a sense of peace and freedom with a blessing from the ancestors in the realm of the dead to the realm of the living, and also indicates the point of balance and resolution between the male and female ancestral lines. The word “temperance” is derived from the Latin word “temperare” which means “to mix” or “combine properly”. This card represents the ability to combine all parts of the self to be true and accepting of who you really are, and where your place truly lies.
The Realm of the Dead
The final aspect of the Major Arcana uncovers some of the deeper ancestral patterns that have been passed down through the generations that become an inherent part of who we are. It can be more difficult to release and clear the energy associated with this aspect of the Major Arcana as the patterns are often old or entrenched. The ancestral energy that is influent from the Realm of the Dead is from those ancestors that are not at peace, who have been excluded or who have not been acknowledged. Of course those that we refuse to let go of and be at peace also influence from this realm, both in the symbolic world of the Tarot as well as our own reality. It is represented by the final seven numerical cards of the Major Arcana, from the Devil through to the World.
The quests started in the family and ancestral realms of the Major Arcana can often involve intense but one-sided relationships with other individuals that are similarly disconnected from their family, this is highlighted by the ancestral aspect of the cycle in particular with the Devil and the Tower. The Devil especially highlights the self-destructive patterns of addictive behaviours such as alcoholism, drug and even food addiction. These addictions again link back to the rejection of the parental influences of the Empress and the Emperor and reflect the communication issues of the Lovers although the patterns held may be older than the current or previous generation.
The Devil links back to the Lovers with the theme of choices and shows an individual feeling trapped in a situation but unwilling to make the choice to change. The card can also indicate that the individual is letting their desires overpower their judgment and that they are not basing their decisions on the full facts. There is a need here to break free from a negative situation or negative behaviour pattern that really belongs to another. Again as mentioned previously the theme of the Devil is strongly linked to addictions and substance abuse. This in effect is a long-term suicide bid and often is because someone in missing from the family field. In most cases it is the Father that is missing or a member of the male line and this links back in with the first aspect or realm of the family and the relationship with the Emperor and the Hierophant. The link to the Lovers and emotional communication can result in very destructive relationship patterns as women with alcoholism in the male line of their family become entangled in relationship with a similar destructive masculine element.
See Barabara Moore’s guest post, An Unlikely Relationship for further exploration of the Devil and the Lovers.
The Tower represents difficult experiences and violent upheaval that is repeated throughout the family lines. Occurrences of abuse, suicide, violence as well as fertility/birth issues are very often the hallmarks of this type of ancestral pattern that is left unchecked. Often arises when a family has attempted to erase the past by moving away from their roots, in most cases the energy of the past will still worm its way back in to future generations regardless of the location as one or more of the descendants resonates and unconsciously seeks to absolve the past.
We loop back and have a chance to revisit our roots and essentially ‘“come home’”, take our place and accept our true fate with the final phase of the aspect or realm of the dead as we have another opportunity to reintegrate in to our place as see with honest eyes where our place is… This is possible with the peace, healing and recovery of the Star, an acknowledgement of the mysteries of the family system or of that which has been hidden with the Moon and aided by the freedom, letting go and liberation of the Sun. After the night comes the dawn and this card represents strong success and break through with support from the ancestors on your journey.
Judgement is associated with Karmic balance, you will reap what you have sown, so indicative of act responsibly and acknowledge your place as well as whom and what have gone before you.
We finish with the World, you are in your place, you are self- aware and life is harmonious and balanced. Pause, enjoy what you have accomplished, then continue the spiral of life.
There is a distinct connection here with 3 x 7 Theory, otherwise known as the Fool’s Journey. As an aside to this post, be sure to also explore guest poster, Bonnie Cehovet’s presentation of this theory in Journey Through the Major Arcana.
The Court Families
This brings us onto the Court Families. In my opinion the Court Families are the people that have journeyed through the spiral of life and have the scars to prove it. They carry with them the knowledge of the element of their particular suit as well as the archetypal knowledge of the Major Arcana. They represent you, your family members and your ancestors and when you connect to them they become you, your family members and ancestors and tell the tales of your life, your family life and the patterns therein. They can show you how these patterns are being acted out by the people surrounding you and the different situations occurring in your life.
The four suits of the Minor Arcana Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles) all have elemental associations which represent the essence of the suit and its purpose.
We start with the suit of Pentacles. It is concerned with the physical world, our ancestral line, our family and our place in it. The function of this suit is to help us to ground ourselves in order to progress and literally “find our feet” in who we are and where we come from.
We then move on to the suit of Swords which is the element of air. Swords have the reputation, unjustifiably of being very negative. They can signify pain, anger and destruction however being the element of air is very often the perception of something rather than a physical reality. They signify a need to cut through illusion and pain. Their main function is to give clarity on where we are in the present moment, to show us any patterns or blocks and what needs to be done to clear them so we can move on and heal. So, in essence they highlight the burdens or fates from the ancestors that we are carrying forward.
Next is the suit of Cups. Cups are related to the element of water which is concerned with emotion and emotional communication, connections with others and our intuitive sense of self. The Cups indicate and suggest where the healing of the past karma needs to occur. They also link in to the female ancestral line.
The suit of Wands relates to the element of fire, which embodies connection to spirit, transformation, change, clearing, and the drive to move forward. The Wands also provide a connection to the male ancestral line.
They each bring different messages:
- Messages of karmic influences with ancestral rooting in the earthy Pentacles to the male ancestral line
- Messages of clarity of where you are now with the air suit of Swords to the female ancestral line
- Knowledge of how to heal past karma with the watery Cups to the female ancestral line
- The energy of transformation with the fire and the Wands to the male ancestral line
To further explore the connection between the raw elements and the minor arcana suits, please see my post, The Four Elements and the Tarot Aces.
Below is a guide to the Court Families, with their masculine and feminine aspects. The feminine line is carried by the Page (Princess in some decks) and the Queen the masculine line is carried by the Knight/Prince and the King.
The Wand Family
The Wand Family helps us to understand where we are being blocked, where change needs to occur and what needs to be cleared through their element of Fire with strong male ancestral energy.
- The Female Line
The female line of the Wand family in youth (Page/Princess) is not rooted; there is a need to look to the other siblings, or for missing siblings within the family in order to help her find her place. She quickly loses interest and moves on amassing a pile of unfinished tasks and relationships.
The older female Wand (the Queen), with the patterns left unchecked, will have amassed many responsibilities through her inability to say no to her passions. She is open to emotional blackmail and her interaction with the male line is often destructive upon her, she is ruled by her passion and guilt. It would be wise to look to the former partners of this lady to see the path that lies behind her.
- The Male Line
- The young male Wand (Knight/Prince) has an unquenchable desire to prove himself to family and those close to him often losing sight of why he has started something. He seeks to be seen and is often overlooked. As he grows older (King) he becomes strong minded, dominating and assertive and often appears as a ‘block’ for individuals to overcome as he has little awareness of others on their own path as he expects everyone else to follow him to the fates that he himself is bound to follow.
The Sword Family
The Sword family brings us the honest clarity of where we are in the present and what influences or patterns from the past are affecting us in the present. They show us, in their own particular style, what we need to cut from our lives or what thought patterns we need to release. There is strong female ancestral energy with the Swords.
- The Female Line
The young female Sword is hesitant to put herself back out there and have the same pattern repeat itself (this can be a perception rather than a learned behaviour as she strongly carries the ancestral line). Guarded and detached in emotional relationships and communication, she can seem cold to outsiders.
The sense of detachment continues as she grows older, she is excellent at seeing others as they really other but cannot apply this emotional logic to herself. She feels isolated from her masculine counterparts.
- The Male Line
In youth he is completely reactionary. Everything is in his head and is intellectualised and he finds emotional communication uncomfortable. He is constantly on the defensive as he is not rooted in who he is, he feels trapped between the masculine and feminine lines.
With age he becomes calm, calculating with a tendency for narrow-mindedness. He ‘remembers’ the burdens from the past and carries them with him unconsciously which leads him to detach. He finds emotional communication difficult and feels disconnected from the influence of the Feminine line. He often has a string of broken relationships behind him to match with the Queen of Wands. His detachment leads him to feel little for others though he can appear very charming.
The Cup Family
The Cup Family carries the knowledge of how and where to heal Karma from the past down the lines and also strongly carries the energy of the female ancestors.
- The Female Line
In youth the female cup is ruled by her emotions and intuition and holds on to other people’s emotions like a sponge. She has the energy of being stuck between the family lines but feels extreme loyalty to the female line as there is often a pattern of trauma perpetuated by the masculine line.
As she ages she is still ruled by emotion but instead of focusing on her own emotions (like the page) she finds it more comfortable to work with other people’s emotions in order to move them forward, staying firmly stuck herself. She has an intuitive knowledge of past karma but refuses to acknowledge or clear her own. Here you will find many a social worker, carer or therapist unconsciously trying to free themselves by helping others.
- Male Line
So obsessed is the young male with his own emotions and his own perfection that he is oblivious to others. Is constantly trying to live up to an ideal that he has set for himself (in reality it has been set before him in his family line but he has no awareness of this).
He grows up with far more awareness and guilt. He is linked more to his family’s feminine line than the masculine and feels unexplained guilt because of this; he will put family and responsibility to family before himself and is often mistreated within this role.
The Pentacle Family
The Pentacle family brings the karmic influences from our ancestral rooting in to our physical reality as well as carrying a strong masculine link to the ancestors.
- The Female Line
The young female pentacle is overly influenced by what is expected of her and has a tendency to veer towards the masculine line in the family and doesn’t hold respect for the feminine line. She will shoulder the responsibility for old guilt and needs to release it.
As she matures she can often find herself placed in a role as she carries forward the responsibilities that belong to others. She is the grown up version of the young page that hasn’t realised that she is living her life for someone else. Often the Father or a significant member of the masculine line will be missing from the family system.
- The Male Line
In youth he is someone who sticks to his path as he sees it and will take the road that is right for him even if it is the road less travelled. He is determined, strong-willed and sticks to his guns. He is unconsciously finishing what those before him have started and has a stronger family link with the older generations rather than his peers.
He becomes a self made man from the school of hard knocks who strives to be a provider so that the past does not catch up with him. He often has no awareness of why he strives so hard and can lose sight of the family he has created himself as he is driven by the past. Releasing the past will free him from this, there is a positive relationship with the Mother but the Father is often detached (e.g. masculine line of the Sword family).
It should be noted that the practice of divination and using the Tarot as a tool for working with individuals on their ancestral and family patterns requires a different approach to working with the spiral for your own development. The Tarot spiral is then used as a tool for the reader to place the individual within the spiral and to uncover the trends or patterns inherent in the present moment and to allow them to be traced back through the spiral to their root, thus offering the individual an opportunity to clear and move forward. You do not have to use the cards in the traditional manner for divination when you want to work for yourself.
Meditation Exercise for Connection to Your Own Court Families
Accessing the energy of the Tarot through a visualisation meditation is a very effective way of highlighting some of the patterns that are currently at play in your own life. If you have a Tarot deck that you currently work with you may want to lay out the four Court Families and spend some time familiarising yourself with them for the next exercise. Do not worry if you do not have a Tarot deck you can still try to the following exercise. It would be useful to either read through the exercise a few times before you try it, to record it (leaving sufficient space for your own personal exploration) or to have a friend read it aloud for you. The family members that come to you during the exercise may be actual members of your own family or they may be symbolic representations.
- It’s probably best to be lying down for this meditation, make sure that you are comfortable and warm before you start. You may need a blanket as your body temperature may drop when you are relaxed.
- Close your eyes and relax down your body. Imagine water flowing over the front of your body washing away any tension or stress from your face your neck and chest, your legs, all washed away through the soles of your feet into the earth. Now imagine water flowing down over the back of your body, washing any tension and stress from the back of your head, your neck, your shoulders, back and legs. All this is washed into the earth through the soles of your feet. Now imagine water flowing through your crown chakra, flowing through your entire body, cleansing you of any stressful thoughts or emotions, taking away any stress and tension, all this flowing away through the soles of your feet leaving you completely relaxed.
- Now visualise yourself lying down in the middle of a clearing. You are lying down on a blanket; the sun is shining and warming you. There is a light breeze ruffling the grass and trees surrounding your clearing. You are completely at peace.
- Now it is time to invite in the Fool from the Major Arcana. He is going to be your guide for this journey. Notice how he looks, how he makes you feel. Spend some time connecting with his energy and listen to what he has to say.
- Once you have connected with the Fool it is time to ask him to bring to you the members of the wand family who bring the element of Fire. Notice how they look, how they makes you feel. Spend some time connecting with their energy and listen to what they have to say. When you are ready ask them “What is my fear?” listen and feel the message they bring to you. Thank them and allow them to leave.
- It is now time to ask the Fool to bring to you the members of the Sword family who bring the element of Air. Notice how they look, how they makes you feel. Spend some time connecting with their energy and listen to what they have to say. When you are ready ask them “What do I need to release and let go of?” listen and feel the message they bring to you. Thank them and allow them to leave.
- It is now time to ask the Fool to bring to you the members of the Cup family who bring the element of Water. Notice how they look, how they makes you feel. Spend some time connecting with their energy and listen to what they have to say. When you are ready ask them “What do I need to heal?” listen and feel the message they bring to you. When you feel ready thank them and allow them to move onwards.
- It is now time to ask the Fool to bring to you the members of the Pentacle family forward who bring the element of Earth. Again notice how they look, how they makes you feel. Spend some time connecting with their energy and listen to what they have to say. When you are ready ask them “What is my purpose?” listen and feel the message they bring to you. Thank them and allow them to leave.
- Spend some time again alone with the Fool, you can ask him if he has any further guidance for you. When you are ready gradually bring your awareness back to the room you are sitting in, become more aware of your physical body, wriggle your fingers and toes. When you are ready open up your eyes.
You may want to spend some time recording your experience so that you do not forget it, what seems vivid and unforgettable at the time does have a tendency to slip away and you will be doing further work with this experience.
Ancestral Patterns Tarot Spread
I have designed a simple nine-card spiral Tarot spread specifically for focusing on ancestral patterns which you can use for your own development. It is also an excellent tool if you are already familiar with the Tarot and would like to incorporate ancestral patterns in to your work with others. The layout is illustrated below Ancestors Spiral Spread.
- The Root Cause
- Earth Influences – message from the Pentacle Family
- Air Influences – message from the Sword Family
- Fire Influences – message from the Wand family
- Water Influences – message from the Cup Family
- Current Situation
- Immediate Future
- Guidance for moving forward
- Final Outcome