Is the appearance of a word on a card a simple memory jogger? Is it a straightforward meaning of the thing the word names? Or could the word be a symbol — a shorthand representation of something, a placeholder or allusion, which triggers its own chain of thoughts and associations?

Knight of Cups – Lo Scarabeo Tarot

This post is inspired by my recent purchase of the Deck of Shadows.

One of the goals of this deck’s creator was to treat words as symbols. Each card features a main concept via a title. The title is in large text at the top of the card, such that it takes precedence. (You can see samples through the above link or here at my blog.) This emphasized title is the driving force behind the card.

Besides the title each card has three other words. These words are meant to be symbols that can spawn ideas and associations for the reader. They are related to the title in some fashion, although they might spark an entirely different association train in the reader’s mind.

For example, in the post linked above, Metamorphosis is a card title, and one of the additional words is Disruption. It’s easy to understand how disruption could stem from the process of change suggested by a metamorphosis; yet for me, disruption conveys a different feeling or set of ideas on its own. The title makes me think of change and transformation, which could be gradual, gentle or as natural as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. The latter word makes me think of electricity, abruptness and strong discomfort. This is two different ways of approaching the same card, with each leading my mind along a different channel.

Although each card includes an illustration — a black-and-white piece of classical artwork — the deck is intended to primarily be read by its keywords and in symbolic terms.

4 of Cups – Lo Scarabeo Tarot

This idea of words as symbols is underrated. Keywords aren’t new but many of us have viewed them as training wheels sometimes used while learning cards. Especially in the tarot world. Sibilla decks, those European oracles originally based on playing cards, feature a title for each card which is read as the meaning of the card. Yet this is not quite the same as the Deck of Shadows, as my understanding is that sibilla words are used to form sentences but tend to be literal rather than sparking associative trains.

Opinions abound on whether or not keywords are a good way to learn, and whether they become a crutch that holds the reader back. I can go pick books out of my collection and some will say writing on the cards is a great way to start cartomancy, while others state succinctly that it’s a waste of effort. However, these authors are all treating words as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

I have done a couple of powerful and memorable tarot readings for myself using the Thoth deck, which has a keyword on each card. I had suspected then that my readings turned out that way because I made use of these words as a base for my reading. I never thought that maybe I was using these words as symbols.

A friend has spoken often about a talented medium who used to work in New York. This woman was an old-school medium and tarot reader who always marked her cards with words, even though she thoroughly knew the meanings of the cards. Her readings were reputed to be quite good. I suspect that marking the symbols helped her because those words had become symbols, and their absence made the card feel it was missing an integral element. Words became an addition to the art, that just happened to be letters instead of pictures; and they helped her to make intuitive chains of association based on them. In short, I believe the words became symbols for this woman.

So maybe the humble words is as legitimate a symbol as a pictograph or an icon when added to a card.

Do you agree? Do you have experience using words this way? Do you mark up your cards? Let me know in the comments.