As soon as we begin assigning meanings to the cards and redesigning the images to reflect those preconceived meanings, we run the risk of merely reading abstractions into the cards rather than allowing them to point beyond the realm of discursive thought to the living reality which they might otherwise reveal. As such, we must take care not to confuse the map with the territory—nor the word water with the substance that quenches our thirst. Otherwise, we will see no farther than our preconceptions and will continue to mistake perceptions for realty. We can help guard against this by making a somewhat arbitrary but nevertheless helpful distinction between an emblem and a symbol.
Emblems vs. Symbols: “Although the words emblem and symbol are often used interchangeably, an emblem is a pattern that is used to represent an idea or an individual. An emblem crystallizes in concrete, visual terms some abstraction: a deity, a tribe or nation, or a virtue or vice” (Wikipedia on emblems).
Let us think of an emblem, then, as an image which is meant, by design, to represent either an abstract idea or some concrete entity (e.g. a bit of conventional wisdom, an organizational emblem, or a corporate logo). We may think of a symbol, on the other hand, as being more intuitive and potentially transformative—pointing beyond that which we may think or believe it means, to a vibrant, living reality (however mysterious or ineffable it may be).
Having said that, however, we should also note that it is not always easy to distinguish between the two. Sometimes conventional wisdom and very common images can move us in very profound ways. Moreover, it seems to me that we need not be too hard on ourselves for occasionally assigning meanings to symbols, as well. For while we should avoid “the error of wanting to ‘explain’ a symbol by reducing it to a few general abstract ideas” (as the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot counsels us), perhaps we may, nevertheless, assign such meanings without error if we do so in a provisional way— i.e. simply as a point of departure — keeping in mind that “concepts and abstract ideas can become icons or ‘sacred images’ when one considers them not as the end, but rather as the beginning of the way of knowledge of spiritual reality” (Letter VIII, “Justice”, page 175).
Symbols vs. Signs—quoting the Academy of Ideas video on Jungian Archetypes:
Having made the foregoing distinction between emblems and symbols, it seems, nevertheless, that there is also some overlap between the two and that what we call emblems may also (sometimes) function as symbols:
“But if someone asks me what Emblemata really are? I will reply to him, that they are mute images, and nevertheless speaking: insignificant matters, and none the less of importance: ridiculous things, and nonetheless not without wisdom…” — Jacob Cats [1577-1660, “A Dutch poet, humorist, jurist and politician who is most famous for his emblem books” (Wikipedia on Emblem books).]
In any event, let us think of Arcana as Authentic Symbols:
Quoting our anonymous author, “The Major Arcana of the Tarot are authentic symbols. They conceal and reveal their sense at one and the same time according to the depth of meditation. That which they reveal are not secrets, i.e. things hidden by human will, but are arcana, which is something quite different. An arcanum is that which it is necessary to “know” in order to be fruitful in a given domain of spiritual life. It is that which must be actively present in our consciousness —or even in our subconscious —in order to render us capable of making discoveries, engendering new ideas, conceiving of new artistic subjects. In a word, it makes us fertile in our creative pursuits, in whatever domain of spiritual life. An arcanum is a “ferment” or an “enzyme” whose presence stimulates the spiritual and the psychic life of man. And it is symbols which are the bearers of these “ferments” or “enzymes” and which communicate them —if the mentality and morality of the recipient is ready…” (“Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism”, Letter I, “The Magician”, page 4).
On a related note, in Letter VIII, our anonymous author also writes:
“One of the meanings of the first commandment—”Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus xx, 3) — is that one should not substitute an intellectual abstraction of God for the spiritual reality of God. One therefore sins against the first commandment when one substitutes for the fiery, luminous and vibrant Being of life the abstractions of a “principle” or “idea”— be it the “First Cause”, or the “Absolute”— which are, truth to tell, only mentally “graven images” or mental idols created by the human intellect.
“Therefore, let us not sin against the first commandment and let us not substitute mentally graven images or abstract ideas for the reality of Justice. But, on the other hand, let us also not embrace the cause of intellectual iconoclasts who want to see only idols in every concept and abstract idea. For all concepts and abstract ideas can become icons or “sacred images” when one considers them not as the end, but rather as the beginning of the way of knowledge of spiritual reality. In the domain of the intellectual life, hypotheses do not play the role of idols, but rather that of sacred images. Because no one accepts a hypothesis as absolute truth, just as no one worships a sacred image as absolute reality. Yet hypotheses are fruitful in that they lead us to the truth, in guiding us to it within the totality of our experience—just as icons or sacred images are also fruitful in leading us to experience the spiritual reality that they represent. An icon is the beginning of the way to spiritual reality; it does not replace it— as in idolatry —but gives an impulse and direction towards it. Similarly, a concept or abstract idea does not replace spiritual reality, but rather gives an impulse and direction towards it. Therefore, let us avoid the Scylla of idolatry and the Charybdis of the intellectual iconoclastic attitude, and let us take abstract ideas as hypotheses leading to the truth, and images or symbols as our guides to reality. Let us therefore not commit the error of wanting to “explain” a symbol by reducing it to a few general abstract ideas. Let us also avoid the error of wanting to “concretise” an abstract idea by clothing it in the form of an allegory. Rather, let us seek practical spiritual experience of reality and the truth by means of concrete images as well as abstract ideas. For the Tarot is a system or organism of spiritual exercises; in the first place it is practical’. If this were not so, it would be hardly worthwhile to occupy oneself with it.” (Letter VIII, Justice, pages 174-175).
Editor’s Note: See also the related posts, below, pertaining to Jungian psychology: