The lush, verdant symbolism of tarot gardens
by Corrine Kenner
"Gardens always mean something else, man absolutely uses one thing to say another."
— Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces (1977)
The first person we meet in the tarot deck, the Magician, is usually in a garden, surrounded by roses and lilies in full bloom. Those flowers seem to suggest that he stands in sacred space, a place for contemplation and life-changing ritual. If that garden is his own, the Magician has clearly channeled energy and intention into his surroundings: he is a master gardener, in full control of his environment.
But the Magician's garden isn't the only patch of green in the tarot deck. There are at least a dozen cards that clearly depict gardens in the tarot ... and if you use a fairly loose definition of garden, you can probably spot twice that many gardening cards in the deck.
Gardens are literally landmarks of civilization, and they offer far more than a shady place for us to rest our eyes — both in the real world, and in the metaphoric universe of the cards. In fact, last week's meeting of the Tarot School's "Imagery and Intuition" series was a veritable garden party for the soul.
Wald and Ruth Ann Amberstone, the directors of The Tarot School, opened the session with a brief history of gardens.
In ancient Egypt, Wald said, gardens granted wealthy and powerful people relief and respite from the desert sun. In China, gardens were patterned after the Chinese worldview, with heaven above, earth below, and humans in between — to balance and harmonize the power of both realms. In Japan, contemplative Zen gardens were created from sand, gravel, and stone.
In Italy, gardens around the Mediterranean were cool retreats, built around grottos, caves, mountain hollows. Italian gardens actually became the model for formal English gardens during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were grandiose — and the English added esoteric and the symbolic touches in the form of mazes and labyrinths made of box hedges, pyramids, little temples, and statuary with suns, moons, and pillars. Meanwhile, in France, formal gardens grew even more elaborate than their English counterparts.
Ruth Ann described "Mary gardens," powerful plots of land that some Roman Catholics devote to the Virgin Mary. There, her story is told through the symbolic language of sacred flowers — especially lilies and roses, two flowers that also bloom throughout the tarot deck.
No matter what type of garden people plant, they all have several things in common:
Gardens are distinctly separate from nature. When you go into a garden, you cross from the ordinary world into an extraordinary landscape.
Gardeners give careful thought to every aspect of their plots: plants, water, rock, and soil are purposefully and artfully arranged to please the senses. As a result, gardens give us the chance to enjoy the beauty of nature in peace and comfort. Uncontrolled growth makes people nervous: in a garden, we get the sense that life is proceeding at an orderly pace.
Gardens are also safe and relatively private: we can relax in a garden, and spend our time in reverie, reflection, meditation, or prayer. That's a useful message during a tarot reading: many people need a visible reminder that it's okay to retreat from their real lives for a time.
Gardens represent the fact that people have the power not only to control nature, but also to improve it. A cultivated garden is better than an untamed wilderness, and a yard dotted with flowerbeds is much nicer than an empty lot or an expanse of uncut grass.
Gardens also symbolize order and control. No garden grows without a plan, and a gardener's ideas are often a reflection and enhancement of a higher, more divine order.
In a sense, gardens give us a chance to play God — not only with plants, but also with the creatures that live in our backyards. Gardeners are called upon to serve as stewards, and lend a helping hand to the natural world.
Most importantly, gardens are living metaphors of perfection. The word "paradise," in fact, comes from the Persian word "pardasa," which meant a walled or enclosed garden. Some Persian gardens even featured a central pool with four streams, running to four quadrants of garden, derived from description of the garden of Eden.
The Garden of Eden, of course, is the quintessential garden and the prototype for all gardens that followed. In the creation story at the foundation of three western religions, humanity itself was born in a garden — and for a time, people lived there in a state of innocence and perfect bliss.
Unfortunately, that ideal world didn't last long, because men and women sinned and were expelled. (Some might say we just wised up.) Still, we hope, someday, to return to a life in the garden.
That longing, Wald said, may be the ultimate religious, mystical, and esoteric goal — which makes gardens one of the most powerful symbols in civilization.
Four Major Arcana cards depict life in the Garden of Eden: the Empress, the Lovers, Temperance, and the Star. We get a glimpse of a perfect garden, too, in a few other cards, like the Ace of Pentacles. One key is water: in the original Garden of Eden, the water of life had its source in a single spring, which flowed into four separate streams. Trees are also a clue: the Garden of Eden was home to both the tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Once you understand the symbolism of a garden, you can use garden imagery to transform a routine reading into a meaningful revelation. Gardens inspire reverie, both in real life and in the cards. And if you're able to tap into the imagery with your whole heart, you might even be able to turn an ordinary reading into a life-changing event. Just ask yourself what you happen to be cultivating ... and then try to determine how close you are to your own personal Garden of Eden.
It's never too early to start planning for spring.
Note: To see a literal tarot garden, visit Niki de Saint Phalle's Tuscan tarot garden online at www.nikidesaintphalle.com.
Corrine Kenner is the author of the Epicurean Tarot deck, Tall Dark Stranger: Tarot for Love and Romance, and the forthcoming Tarot Journaling and Crystals for Beginners. She is currently working on a book about fortune-telling with tarot cards.
Visit Corrine's website at www.corrinekenner.com, and subscribe to her free newsletter.