The Hermeneutical Card Definition Repertoire: A Discussion of Method


I still seem to be confusing people with my verbiage. Case in point, folks still get confused by my use of the term “hermeneutics.” And, because we’re talking about a subject—the tarot—which is itself in the realm of esotericism, people often immediately confuse what I’m saying and think that I’m talking about Hermeticism.  Nope…completely different topic.


The most basic definition of hermeneutics is that it is a fancy way of saying “interpretation.” But I’m trying to go further than that when I’m discussing it in the context of my tarot research studies. Hermeneutics is also a branch of literary theory, sometimes closely associated with phenomenology, and my goal is to attempt to discuss not just how our modern minds are inspired to interpret the images we observe, but more importantly how Medieval and Renaissance individuals were inspired to interpret the images that they were presented with (because there is a rich history of symbolism and art with which those historical populations were presented).


Hermeneutics—in the literary theory sense—aims to interpret literature or art based on how previous known factors have influenced our thinking. As a way of “illustrating” what I mean, a simplified example might be found in…margarine. In the 1970s and 1980s, margarine was marketed as a healthy alternative to butter because saturated fats were deemed the enemy of good heart health during that time period. Not only the U.S. Surgeon General got on board with this food concept, but the information was pumped into American consciousness by all kinds of health magazines, advertising, and public service programs. In 1984 a famous runner—James F. Fixx—who was deemed to be at the height of health suddenly died while exercising and the culprit was assigned to saturated fats clogging his arteries.1  It wasn’t only a public service campaign, it could’ve almost been classified as a campaign of terror, scaring Americans away from unhealthy saturated fats and shunning butter products. Americans in the 1970s and 1980 therefore turned to margarine as their preferred oil-based spread. The perception of butter had negative perceptions, and margarine was widely considered the healthy alternative.


Butter versus Margarine


Fast forward to the early 2000s when scientific case studies started showing that transfats—the principle ingredient in margarine—had even worse long-term effects on the human body than saturated fats. Suddenly margarine was enemy number one and a tidal wave of medical opinion swayed in the opposite direction on the opinion of margarine. Soon the FDA and even legislative bodies would start taking up the cause, creating laws that would over time eliminate the ability of companies to use transfats in their products. Butter, it was noted, as least had trace minerals and proteins that, used in moderation, were a much healthier alternative to transfats (margarine).


So here we have two different successive generations who were influenced by the commercial campaign environment, the news, and public service announcements to have completely different opinions about two food products. Those raised in the 1970s and 1980s held the opinion—because of environmental and social influence—that margarine was a healthy product…and another generation after the turn of the millennium who associated margarine with bad eating habits and poor long-term health.


Hermeneutics isn’t so much interested in butter or margarine; rather, it is a realm of study interested in those influences that provided people of those two eras with their mind-set and opinions about margarine and about butter. Hermeneutics is the “why”—the historicity—of how people come to the conclusions and interpretations to which they come.


Applying this approach to the tarot is to try to come to reasonable theories about what inspired people during the Renaissance to interpret images the way that they might have based on popular notions and stories of the time period. From a literary perspective, our conjecture is highly theoretical, not just because we’re trying to find what those social influences on individual ideas might have been so long ago, but also because it is actually impossible to know what triggers ideas inside people’s heads…unless they leave detailed writings or other records to tell us. So far, no historical researchers have found any records detailing the purposes or inspirations of the specific images found in the tarot. Some of those inspirations are more easily conjectured than others… For instance, the Wheel of Fortune was a highly popular image and philosophy that saturated thought in medieval times and the Renaissance. So were the personification of the Virtues and the Vices as standards of moral teaching and philosophy.


The Wheel of Fortune from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy

A miniatures from the Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius, illuminated by the Coëtivy Master (attributed) c. 1450 -1460. ‘Lady Luck/Dame Fortune’ turns a symbolic wheel of fortune, with a king temporarily riding high. (J Paul Getty Museum) The “rota fortuna” or “wheel of fortune” was an ancient understanding of fate brought into contact with the emerging medieval worldview in Boethius’s book. 


The tarot contains both the Wheel of Fortune (card X) and several of the personified Virtues (cards VIII; XI; and XIV). But other images from the tarot have been elusive to modern researchers. Certainly those images have been assigned standardized definitions at certain points in time (by the likes of esotericists such as Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite) and which have proven useful to modern day tarot readers for the purpose of interpreting meaning in our contemporary day and age. But what did people in the Renaissance think when they saw images of the Chariot (card VII) or of la Papessa (card II) when they played their trick-taking games of tarocchi or when they were gambling in the taverns?


This is what the tool of hermeneutics seeks to help us determine—the stories, and popular notions of the period—as illustrated by images of the tarot—and what those popular notions might have inspired people to contemplate or think about spurred by their ocular observations. It’s a big task for hermeneutics!  It’s almost like an archeological dig for ethereal brain activity!! How can we know what people in the middles ages and the Renaissance were thinking? The conjecture is part of the excitement… the research is part of the fun… the scholarship in learning more about the social environment of a historic population is fascinating! The debate might be fierce. Mockery of my theories and postulations is highly probable. Yet the fascination exceeds the potential of shame. What riches might have been found and lost to humanity if the Charioteer didn’t use his swift transport to explore the farthest reaches of the known world?


The end result, if nothing more, is the potential to expand our tarot image interpretation repertoire…We’ll not only have our contemporary Golden Dawn, numerology, astrological, Kabbalah, and multiple other esoteric methods of interpreting our decks…we’ll have the new (to us) applications of Renaissance-era moral philosophies to be able to apply to our readings! There’s no need to be intimidated by complex literary theory terminology…let’s explore!


Painting: Tarot reading in the Parlour





[1] (last accessed 1/20/2018)





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