In The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), Manly P. Hall suggests that Tarot cards must be considered in three ways: “(1) as separate and complete hieroglyphs, each representing a distinct principle, law, power, or element in Nature; (2) in relation to each other as the effect of one agent operating upon another; and (3) as vowels and consonants of a philosophic alphabet.” Whether as pictographs or basic elements of language, Hall is proposing that Tarot cards form distinct units of meaning. One card may indeed establish a word, two cards may construct a compound word or phrase, and three or more cards may constitute a sentence or sentences according to their own grammar.
While any one card is easy enough to “translate” in isolation, the challenge is to make sense of the “deep structure” (to use the terminology of linguistics) that organizes the several cards of the spread. A secondary system of icons can provide vital clues as to how individual cards relate. That system is our treasury of punctuation marks. Granted, punctuation is often considered perplexing and even mystical by laymen. We suggest that the punctuation’s arcane aura is less attributable to confusing rules and more ascribable to the symbols themselves. Symbols presuppose hidden meanings; punctuation’s metaphorical mystique is simply inevitable. Let’s not dispel it, since punctuation’s occult atmosphere befits the Tarot. Yet we can establish a firmer handle on the symbols even as we honor their mystique.
Just as traditional Tarot imagery distills the archetypes of our quest for wholeness, the standard marks and signs of punctuation clarify meaning as our story unfolds. “All our lives are punctuated, just as our books are punctuated with their commas, periods, semi-colons, exclamation points and other things, wondering how the next sentence will begin” (The Universalist Leader, Vol. 28, 1925). Indeed, our lives are punctuated by transformational events, great and small:
- choices and consequences
- chance encounters
- joys and fears
- crises and crossings
- gains and losses
- absences, presences, and reconnections
- unexpected and unexplainable occurrences
- victories and disappointments
- psychological terrors and actual disasters
- deadlines and extensions
- remembrance and forgetting
- rituals and celebrations
- interpersonal conflicts
- gifts and sacrifices
- shifts in attitudes
- physical challenges
- privileged moments
The Latin root of “punctuation” means to “point out” and to “bring to a point.” Punctuation marks help us to pinpoint the precise structure of the sentences that constitute our life story. Punctuation helps to organize and emphasize the themes at play. It assists us to comprehend the relationships that exist between nouns (the people, places, and things in our lives) and verbs (actions and occurrences). Punctuation can connect, isolate, confirm, limit, regulate, contrast, motivate and animate the flow of information—our intelligence. In other words, punctuation offers cues on how to understand the course of our experiences.
Ultimately, punctuation is emphatic about pauses, whether brief or prolonged. Pauses invite us to linger on meaning, to reflect, to reevaluate. A pause gifts us with time to think twice. A pause offers a place to stand and to withstand. “These pauses are not neutral hollow spaces with identical qualities,” notes Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz. “They themselves are divided into complex and independent categories,” all of which are central to our comprehension of messages that emerge, deliver their substance, and return to their fountainhead (Reading Mystical Lyric, 2001).
Poet and veteran punctuation artist Gary Barwin considers punctuation marks to be “the secret operatives of language.” That’s because “punctuation makes no sound but affects what is around it.” He evocatively calls punctuation “the hidden breathing” and “the ghosts in the machine.”
Barwin studies the pictographic nature of punctuation marks the way a paleographer might study petroglyphs. He explains: “I’m interested in the figure/ground relationship between punctuation and letters, but also the punctuation as pre-eminently non-vocal, iconic glyphs which are rich in association, graphic interest, and exist in the liminal space between writing and drawing, reading and looking at.” Anything liminal exudes a mystical aura, and Barwin naturally recognizes punctuation marks as magical symbols. He deems punctuation “a Kabbalah of the unspeakable, the pararational, the unknowable. . . . And each mark has a certain conceptual and associational weight. They are like character actors in the drama of language. They are visual icons removed from sound or lexical meaning, but they shape semantics, grammar, breathing. They are physical yet not physical. Language from another textual world. If the letters are on one plane, punctuation appears in another, but from the surface of the page, they appear to be part of the same constellation.”
Barwin, too, relates punctuation marks to the Tarot: “We have a deep connection to these little dark marks. Each of them is like a tiny tarot-card, the reading of which depends on the reader. There are many ways to read their miniscule portraits.”
Placing Punctuation Into a Tarot Spread
A punctuation icon may be drawn randomly from a deck and placed between any two Tarot cards whose relationship is in question. Alternately, one or more punctuation icons may be placed between cards according to the reader’s intuition. With the placement of punctuation, the cards may be read as whole sentences rather than fragments.
Let’s explore the concept. Consider, for example, that Tarot Card A lies next to Tarot Card B, and an Em Dash (signifying an interruption) is placed between them:
Now a sentence has been formed: “The substance of Card A has been interrupted by the substance of Card B.”
If Tarot Cards A and B are separated by the Right Guillemet (a “fast forward” symbol), then the sentence might read:
“Card A will speedily advance toward Card B.”
If Tarot Cards A and B are separated by a Semicolon (a mark of interdependency), then the sentence might read:
“Card A relies on Card B, and vice versa.”
If Tarot Cards A and B are separated by a Degree (a mark denoting extent), then the sentence might read:
“Card A is, to a degree, associated with Card B.”
If Tarot Cards A and B are separated by the Ellipsis (signifying a trailing off), then the sentence might read:
“Card A will hit the skids and leave Card B in its wake.”
A look at each punctuation icon in a Tarot context will help to take these concepts out of abstraction. See our Divination By Punctuation for the full study.
—Craig Conley is author of The Young Wizard's Hexopedia, the Tarot of Portmeirion, HarperCollins' One-Letter Words: A Dictionary, Pomegranate's One Letter Words Knowledge Cards Deck, and Weiser Books' Magic Words: A Dictionary. He is co-author of New Star Books' Franzlations: A Guide to the Imaginary Parables. He has published dozens of articles in such magazines as Verbatim, Pentacle, Mothering, and Magic. His work has been profiled in the New York Times, the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, Publishers Weekly, The Associated Press, and dozens of others.