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The Language of Tarot
Written by Paul   
Friday, 04 January 2008
Article Index
"Holistic vs. Atomistic Interpretation"
"Relational vs. Independent Interpretation"
"Semiotic Terms"
"Image Language"
"Index points"
"Symbol language"
"Map or Diagram"
"Metaphor and Metonymy"
"Context as Paramount"

Semiotic & Rhetorical Devices of Tarot



Semiotics of Tarot examines how the Tarot de Marseille or Marseilles Tarot (English) “speaks” to the reader through a language of icons, symbols, and so forth. TaoOnce this language is discovered, the Poetry of the Tarot is revealed and one understands the Language of the Birds.

The Tao or Way of Tarot offers the diviner guidelines, rather than rules, for reading the cards. A card may mean this or that. We may read a spread this way or that way.



Language ReadingSemiotics or Semiology is the study of communication, signs, symbols, and how we give Language of Birdslanguage meaning. Rhetoric is the analysis of written and visual texts. Applied to the Marseilles Tarot, we are analyzing the language with which the Tarot speaks to us.

The Tarot de Marseille offers multiple layers of visual meanings. These meanings can seem arbitrary for the novice. But, upon careful examination, the layers of meaning of interpretation may be classified according to semiotic principles.

Indeed, the “language” of the Tarot de Marseille is like any language or communication system. See the article The Poetry of Tarot the Language of the Birds wherein the is explored.


Metro SignBorrowing from the constructs of Semiotics, we identify the Sign as a linguistic device. Its subdivisions are:
• Icon
• Image
• Index
• Symbol
• Map
• Metaphor
• Metonymy
• Synecdoche

Confused? Hang in there, and we will discover how the language of the Tarot de Marseille reveals itself in a reading. There is truly a Tao of Tarot.


Tarot Star


Reading the Tarot de Marseille is not an exact science. When interpreting signs, the diviner attends to guidelines, not rules. The card may mean This or That; we may read a spread This Way or That Way.

By the same token, we need a Way of reading the Tarot where we don’t see Jesus Face in a Tortilla, so to speak! Thus, we offer the following guidelines to help the reader determine the most salient meaning. Salient comes from the Latin salients, meaning “to leap”. Thus, the meaning that is most salient “leaps out” at us, and is less so an exercise in cerebral study. As one reads the Tarot, one’s intuition develops.


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Holistic PicassoHolistic vs. Atomistic Interpretation

Before exploring the Tarot de Marseille in regards to Semiotics and Rhetoric, it is first necessary to point out that any Tarot card may be interpreted holistically or atomistically:

Holistic: The card is interpreted as an entire picture

Atomistic Picasso Atomistic: one or more elements of the card may be significant (atomistically) without attention to the whole picture.

This is no different than a Picasso painting, for example, that might be interpreted as a whole or dissected as to its parts.



Holistic Le Mat & Le Bateleur




Holistic interpretation considers the overall card meanings of Le Mat moving to the overall card meanings of Le Bateleur. The cards’ entire images or entire meanings are considered.

Example: A querent asks about the development of a project. Le Mat holistically signifies novelty, liberty, energy, and (upright) the creative Chaos. I-Le Bateleur signifies holistically commencement and potentialities.  






Atomistic Le Mat & Le Bateleur


Atomistically, we may examine Le Mat’s bag as a singular symbol that has meaning. If next to Le Bateleur, we are interested in how Le Mat’s bag opens and reveals its contents in Le Bateleur, as a meaningful Optical Analogy.

Example: The querent’s “bag” opens and the goods are laid out on the table. The querent will obtain a hearing of his project, but the solidification of the project will require more time. It is in the creative presentation phase.  


Relational vs. Independent Interpretation

Relational ReadingThe cards may be read relationally or independently; for example, three cards next to each other may each stand for a separate or independent idea (Past, Present, Future); or, the three cards may relate in some way.

For example, III L’Imperatrice and IIII L’Empereur looking at each other may relationally mean something that is greater than if one were to only examine each card separately.

King & Queen


In this case, they form a natural couple, which may have relevant meaning given the Context of the Question.

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Semiotic Terms

SignA Sign is that which signifies something else. Signs are pictures, events or things that inherently direct attention to something else.

The Sign is might be the whole card (holistic interpretation) or an element on the card (atomistic interpretation). The Sign may be a group of cards relating to each other (relational), or a solo card (independent).

First, we will examine the basic subdivisions of Semiotic signs and Rhetorical devices, and then we apply them to interpreting the Tarot de Marseille.


La Maison DieuFolder IconThe Icon is the first type of Sign. The Icon has a semblance to that which is signified. On our computers, the “folder icon” actually looks like a real folder and signifies the concept of a “folder” on our computer. There is an evident likeness between an Icon and that which it signifies.

In the Tarot de Marseille, the tower on XVI-La Maison Dieu is an icon of a building. In a tarot reading, it may iconically signify a building, an apartment, even a hospital.

Icons have varying degrees of similitude (likeness) to that which is signified. For example, the “balls” of XVI-La Maison Dieu look like (or have similitude to) coins; thus, may signify money or an index of abundance.

The degrees of similitude of the Icon and that which it represents is always fluid. For example, the balls of color on XVI-La Maison Dieu have varying degrees of similitude to coins, weather phenomena, confetti, etc.



La Papesse & Newspaper

When an Icon veers far enough from that which it signifies, it becomes an Image.

The Image has an aspect of similarity of to that which it signifies. It has a broader similarity to that which it signifies.

For example, the book in II-La Papesse’s lap may also be an image of a newspaper or a report.

In a tarot reading, II-La Papesse may therefore signify “a report,” due to the image that is similar to a report.




Le SoleilThe Index points to something, much like our index finger points to something in a connective, sequential or causative way. Indices show us some element of a wider sequence.

SmokeFor example, smoke is an index of fire. An Index doesn’t look particularly like that which it signifies—just like smoke doesn’t look like fire, but indicates a fire—yet, it indicates something in sequential order.

Smiley FaceFor instance, the concept of “happiness” is broad and abstract; yet, the “smiley face” has become a universal Index of happiness, because generally a smile occurs sequentially in the expression of the emotion of happiness.

ConstructionIn the Tarot de Marseille, the wall of XVIIII-Le Soleil may be an Index of the literal building of a house.

The “confetti” on XVI-La Maison Dieu (also an Image of confetti) may be an Index to signify a party, joy, celebration.

Tower & Confetti






major04The Symbol represents a concept but does not necessarily look like the concept (such as with an Icon, Image or Map), or point to the concept (such as with an Index), but represents a concept.

What does a symbol actually represent? Indeed, rules or codes of convention tell us what the symbol represents.

Which rules or codes of convention? Certainly, we can analyze the rules or codes of symbolism at the time that the Tarot was created; or, we can interpret the symbols by means of modern symbolism.Eagle Coat of Arms

Understanding symbols occurs in context, because symbols are understood in the eye of the beholder and in the context of the beholder’s culture, time, nation, etc.

For example, the eagle on III-L’Empereur may symbolize projects of the querent, focused-thoughts about projects, to be specific. Obviously, eagles do not look like thoughts or projects, but represent them.

The eagle has also been a symbol of ownership or right to rule, such as on a coat of arms. Perhaps in a reading, the eagle symbolizes a company or a boss.


Flag American EagleOf course, in modern contexts, the eagle has become emblematic of the USA. If the querent were asking about the advisability of pursuing an association with an American company—and “eagles” repeated amongst cards within the spread—perhaps this would confirm the association.

We may also understand Symbols in their historical context.




Gemini & Le Soleil



For example, the children of Le Soleil are also much like the children typically pictured on art for the Astrological Sign Gemini.





Feet of Le Bateleur



The feet of I-Le Bateleur may be symbols of action. The fact that I-Le Bateleur’s feet point both ways may symbolize action that is taken with finesse, dexterity.

Holistically, the card pictures a man standing at a table with items upon the table and a wand in his hand. Are they organized or scattered? What is he doing?

Atomistically, we may examine any element in the card for significance. Relationally, I-Le Bateleur is looking somewhere (gazing to the left). To whom or at what is he looking? If a card fell to his left (if upright) or to his right (if reversed), what might this symbolize?




major21Le Chariot & 7The entire card of XXI Le Monde may symbolize a certificate for any achievement.

Colors, numbers, or other images may symbolize certain concepts. Examining the Tarot de Marseille in its historical context may reveal that particular symbols have traditionally retained certain symbolic associations:

For example, the scene on VII Le Chariot has traditionally retained particular numerological symbolic associations.
The number VII has traditionally been associated with particular Pythagorean number symbols.




The Symbol is the most prevalent Semiotic device in the Tarot tradition, but the other interpretive devices (like icon, image, and index) should not be neglected.


A Map or Diagram is an icon of its territory. Le Toile & MapJust as a map is not actually the territory
(a map of Paris does not capture every detail of Paris), a map or diagram signified by a tarot card or group of cards captures only the most salient aspects of the territory.



For example, the green, lush, and watery terrain of XVII-Le Toile may signify a map or diagram of the place to where the tarot querent (the person asking the question) wishes to move.





Or, the sun in XVIIII-Le Soleil may function as a map or diagram of the sunny Provence, France.





Metaphor and Metonymy are both figures of speech and work by associating two things.

Metaphor • Metaphor works by the similarity of two things.
• Metonymy (Me-to’-ny-mee) works by the linking of two things that are not related in quality, but occur together, sequentially or conjointly. Metonymy does not require that two things share a quality, but Metaphor doesMetonymy.

In both cases, what is said is not meant be taken literally, but signifies a relationship of meaning.




Rock of Gibraltar


Metaphor matches two things that share some similarity. “He is a rock of Gilbraltar,” associates a flesh-and-blood person with a geographic phenomenon, both sharing the quality of largesse, strength, immovability.



But, this is all mumbo jumbo unless we associate the ideas with Tarot reading.



For example, the “give and take” pictured by XIIII-Le Tempérance may signify a Metaphor for the querent’s need to take a give and take approach towards his employer, as a topic of the reading.

Conversely, to “take the bull by its horns,” may be aptly pictured by the Metaphor on XI La Force, wherein the woman takes the lion by its mouth. She is metaphorically signifying taking control of the situation.




major05major18Another example of Metaphor may be signified by the V-Le Pape. For example, if the topic of the reading were, “Do I have the boss’ blessing to start this project?” Le Pape would signify the metaphor of “blessing”. The boss is not literally blessing the employee, as if the employer is the Pope (although this may seem the case!) but it is a figure of speech, especially within the context of the question. The blessing taking place on the card is similar to the blessing taking place on the project.

A final example of Metaphor may be XVIII-La Lune. Perhaps the querent is trying to choose between a mate who is of emotional depth and one who is more casual and superficial but fun. This situation shares the quality of the crab on XVIII-La Lune poised between two dogs, as if watching and choosing.


White HouseAs an example of Metonymy, when we say, “The White House reported today” this refers to not simply a building in Washington, as if a building could speak, but to the USA president and the administration. Both occur together—they are linked—in other words they are contiguous, because the message comes from the President’s administration who resides in the White House.

However, there is nothing about the White House that is qualitatively associated with “reporting,” it is a figure of speech. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” refers not to a literal pen (which is a tiny instrument), but to writing, because writing and an instrument (a pen) occur together.

The Tarot cards may occur together, signifying this Metonymically. The querent may remark “Still waters run deep, you know?” This looks metaphorically like La Lune as contrasted with the more flowing water of L'étolle.

If the difference between Metonymy and Metaphor is lost on you, don’t worry! Simply appreciate that the Tarot may display figures of speech.

Optical AnalogyThe main point is that the Tarot de Marseille offers the reader Optical Analogies. Through individual cards, particular elements of the cards, and relationships between the cards, the Tarot de Marseille speaks through analogy.

The other main point, which is hopefully obvious by now, is that the Tarot de Marseille—for all of its supposed paucity of imagery and primitive art—is rich with analogical possibilities. The misapprehension that the Tarot de Marseille does not offer enough imagery “to grab a hold of” is misplaced. In fact, the simplicity of the Tarot de Marseille makes those analogies more clear because they aren’t buried or masked in the “cacophony” of other art images. See Enrique Enriquez’s article The Excellence of the Tarot de Marseille.




Synecdoche (Si-nek’-do-kee). A whole concept is represented by one of its parts.

wheels car“Check out my wheels!” refers to a car not wheels, as referencing a part of a car.

From Shakespeare, “Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears” is another example, or “All hands on deck!” says the captain Pirate.



major07Obviously, VII-Le Chariot uses Synecdoche to signify an automobile or travel.

major14As distinguished from Metonymy, in the case of Synecdoche, “wheels…ears…hands” are all partially involved in what is signified. But, the difference can be so subtle that, again, the ability of the Tarot de Marseille to use figures of speech may be the more salient point


In the example of XIIII-Temperance, the figure of speech “going back and forth on the issues” may be neatly signified, as the water goes back and forth in the jugs.




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Context as Paramount



The context of the question provides the means to determine the analogy. In fact, the particular wording of the querent used in the reading may provide synchronicity to the reading.

In the Metaphor example, the fact that the querent used the word “blessing” in the question was a powerful synchronicity that made the appearance of V Le Pape more cogent.




In order to appreciate the differences in all of the Semiotic and Rhetorical devices of the Tarot de Marseille, it helps to examine one card employing all of the semiotic and rhetorical devices.

major20 Let’s examine XX-Le Jugement of the Tarot de Marseille.

As mentioned, any card may be interpreted holistically or atomistically —as a whole image or looking at one or more images within the card.

As well, the card may be examined independently (the card by itself signifies something) or relationally (the card in relation to other cards signifies something).

Icon {Signifies what it looks like}: The trumpet is an icon of a musical instrument and this signifies “music”.

Image {Signifies what it resembles}: The “family” is an image of a gathering, and this signifies an important meeting. The entire card may look like a Tanning Booth—perhaps the querent is determining whether to open a Tanning business! Or, perhaps, the hands of the supplicants are actually applause, thus they signify (or a Map of) public places and are an Index of publicity.

Index {Signifies something in sequences}: The cross on the flag is an index of medical intervention.

Symbol {Signifies a representational concept}: The entire card symbolizes resurrection, release, liberation, good news. The rules or codes of symbolism regarding this interpretation come from a long line of symbolic associations in Medieval literature and art.

Map or Diagram {Resembles the territory}: The graveyard is a map or diagram signifying a place of death and corpses. In the context of this example question, a Hospital Morgue. This medical student says he is deciding whether to go into Forensic Pathology or not. In this example, the Map or Diagram of the Morgue is then an Index of Forensic Pathology, because a Hospital Morgue occurs within the occupation of a forensic pathologist. (A more simple example of index as regards Le Judgement would be a place of cloudiness or mountains.)

Metaphor {Links two similar ideas; figures of speech}: The praying of the characters with the intervention of the angel is a metaphor of “she’ll succeed on a wing and a prayer.” Let’s pretend that the card occurs in the future position in a spread; in this example case, she will succeed, especially given the querent’s idiosyncratic figure of speech which has a synchronicity with Le Jugement! Looking at the cards relationally, certainly the XII- L’Arcane san nom and XX-Le Jugement metaphorically signify a death and resurrection, as a figure of speech.

Metonymy {Links two ideas related in sequence}: Judgment of any matter happens after it has been delivered. This card (upright) signifies a good review, a good report, and favourable response.

Synecdoche {A piece of the image signifies a whole concept}: The angel is a symbol of an airplane and this signifies air travel, because the “wings” of the angel are often referred to as the “wings” of an airplane.

As you may have discerned, the use of SYMBOL is the most common in Tarot reading. SYMBOL reading has dominated the Tarot field for decades. However, thanks to the European tradition of the Tarot de Marseille, the use of other semiotic and rhetorical devices are possible. This is also what makes the Tarot de Marseille tradition befuddling to those unfamiliar with these additional ways of interpretation.

The primitive imagery of the Tarot de Marseille actually makes it ideal for realizing all of the Semiotic and Rhetorical devices of its Language.


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Copyright © 2008 by Paul B. Williams
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