The meaning of Built Structures On Tarot Card Images
Houses/Castles – Castles appear on many RW cards, and they are symbols of civilization, security, self-determination (appearing on the Ace of Wands, for instance), and stability. It is interesting how few actual houses appear, mostly on those cards that have a slightly more humble status, such as the Six of Cups and the Ten of Wands. Perhaps this is because these cards were drawn in England, where castles abound and more of the houses look like castles. A ruined castle appears in the background of the Eight of Wands, suggesting that change comes to all things and the passing of time.
Towns – Larger towns appear in a few cards, such as the King of Pentacles and 4 of Pentacles. These are the cards most directly associated with commerce and money. There is also an entrance to a town in the Eight of Pentacles, suggesting an opportunity for trade and sale of one’s work.
Inside Spaces – Only a very few cards depict interior scenes – again these are all Pentacles, such as the Three and the Eight. There are the cards most associated with productive work.
Walls – Walls are another symbol of safety and security, appearing in the Sun, Six of Pentacles, King of Pentacles, and 2 of Wands. In some of these cases, the walls are protective and I have often thought that in the Six of Pentacles they may hide something in the past that is walled off so that the past is seen in rose-colored nostalgia. In the 2 of Wands, the person is standing behind their protective wall, safe and secure with what they already have. Their big decision is whether to leave these protective walls and adventure out into the world, not knowing what they will find there – the choice between safety and risk. In other decks, the man in the Four of Pentacles is walled in (Robin Wood) or even in a prison (Spiral deck).
Church – There are churches in a few cards – notably the Five of Pentacles, Four of Swords, and a church is implied in the Hierophant. These are all cards about spiritual renewal – in the case of the Five of Pentacles it is the way out of the physical deprivation being endured. Interestingly, the Three of Pentacles also appears to show a man working in a church – perhaps a message that spirituality can be found even in mundane, everyday tasks.
Tents – The tents in the Seven of Swords are the only ones in the deck, and to me they have always suggested a temporary habitation, probably related to a battlefield. This provides the moral ambiguity of the card – is the person stealing, or simply legitimately making life difficult for his enemies/oppressors – or perhaps he is only making off with the spoils of war, belonging to nobody.
Towers – Many towers appear in the deck. Most notable are the twin towers depicted in Death and the Moon. These are both gateways – and these twin towers have the same symbolism as the twin mountains on other cards. In Death, the towers are far in the background, but as you look through them, the sun is rising and it appears to actually be a different world. When you step through these towers, you will never be the same and there is no returning whence you came. Also, a stream flows to the towers and fills the space between them – the only path to these towers is to lose your ego in the subconscious and follow the collective stream where it takes you. The Towers of the Moon are somewhat different – there are not so far off and there is a path that leads to them, however, the path is very long and winding, and leads into a dark land that is more shadowed than the foreground. There are tiny windows in the tower – and you wonder if someone may be watching. These are almost like the eyes of the conscious mind, walled off – and we are walking in the subconscious, well below the towers and the thoughts going on above. Lastly, of course, there is the single tower depicted in the Tower card. This tower represents our ego, our material and intellectual constructs, our protective devices, and our arrogance – note its similarity to the Tower of Babel. It has a large golden crown on top, which is the first to be blasted away, symbolizing the loss of our pride and the humility that comes with this card.
Pillars – Closely related are the symbolism of the pillars that appear in three major arcana cards – the High Priestess, the Hierophant, and Justice. Of these, two appear to be concrete (Hierophant and Justice) representing that these entities act in the physical or material world. The High Priestess has more esoteric black and white pillars with lotus blossoms, linking her to the qabalah, Freemasonry, and an existence on a more spiritual plane. The High Priestess and Justice both have veils between their pillars, symbolizing their guardianship of hidden knowledge – the veil of the High Priestess contains references to the Empress (pomegranates), showing that even though she may be a virgin priestess, she contains the potential of all fertility and womanhood within her. Behind this veil is a vast sea, a reference to her realm of the subconscious and memory. The veil of Justice is purple, for her psychic ability to see with the third eye and her guardianship of universal karmic forces, which are not always apparent to our senses and knowledge. This is one reason the Justice of the Universe may be mysterious to us, since we cannot see all that is known to her. The pillars of the Hierophant appear to be walled in with concrete, suggesting that either there is nothing behind them or what is there is not accessible to mere mortals (at least one author has a rather cynical take on this). The Hierophant holds the keys to heaven and earth, and perhaps there is a hidden keyhole behind his throne that we cannot see.
Thrones – The Kings and Queens, Emperor and Empress all have thrones, which is one reason I associate the Kings and Queens with these two trump cards. Of course in these cases the thrones represent maturity and dominion over their chosen realm. There are often interesting details to be noted on the thrones, such as references to the elemental and astrological symbols of the cards, and other things, such as the King of Cups’ throne being out in the middle of the water, yet floating easily, showing that he is perfectly at home in the element of water and emotions, and can create his own dry land at will.
Chariot – In this card, the charioteer has his own kind of throne, which is also made of concrete but moves through an act of will. Without this will and a perfect understanding of his tools, the chariot would go nowhere. The four pillars of the chariot represent the four elements. The symbol on the front is quite amusing – a round peg in a round hole – everything in its proper place. Notice that the charioteer is actually encased within the concrete – he is part and parcel of this chariot and it is not separable from him.
Ships – Several cards have ships sailing – the Three of Wands, 2 of Pentacles, 6 of Swords, sometimes, though not in this deck, the Page of Cups. In the 2 of Pentacles and Page of Cups, the ships are tossed on a stormy sea, suggesting that in the background of what is being decided, there are changes ahead and emotional turbulence. In the Six of Swords, a more orderly and positive journey is being made away from the troubles of the past, on a sea of calmer emotions. In the Three of Wands we see a perfectly calm and glowing sea, with ships traveling in apparent prosperity and adventure. Yet we know that the travels that have led up to this positive juncture have not always been trouble-free, and that this is the reward for long hard work.
Bridges – Only one card has an obvious bridge – the Five of Cups. In this card, the man is cut off from his home and is brooding on his spilled cups. One imagines he has journeyed way out here just for the purpose of brooding – possibly he does not want others to see him doing this. The river represents the emotions of the past, which are hard to cross. Yet there is a bridge, which implies that there is a path, even if it is not visible in the card. This person could choose to leave these spilled cups here, pick up the other two golden cups, find the path and cross the bridge, and return home.
Tombs – And last but not least, two cards depict tombs – the Four of Swords and Judgment. While these cards do not have that much to do with each other, they are both cards of spirituality – one depicts a temporary but peaceful rest and opportunity for renewal, while the other represents a more permanent and joyful rebirth of the soul.
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Teresa Michelsen is a well known and highly respected tarot reader and instructor, and also the original creator of Tarot Moon.
Theresa has over 25 years experience in reading tarot.
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