The Art of Memory, or ars memoriæ, is a mnemonic technique dating from classical Greece. The technique improves upon our natural memory through discipline, planning, and visualization skills. One of its core methods involves a memory palace, in which memorized architectural details are used to store striking images that aid recall.1 The memory palace technique has been popularized in popular fiction by characters such as Hannibal Lecter and BBC’s latest Sherlock Holmes.
Let’s look at how the Art of Memory relates to the study and use of Tarot.
One of the techniques of the Art uses visually stimulating images to aid recall. Using imagery to store and recall information was common in Europe before the general availability of paper and the rise of the printing press. An example that has managed to survive until modern times is the iconography of the Greek and Roman churches, in which color, position, and setting have become encoded over the years into a distinct visual language.
Tarot’s origins are also rooted in the availability of affordable paper and printing near the end of the Medieval period. Its striking images serve as mnemonic guides to Tarot readers, leaving it as a still-useful relic of the transitional period between the widespread use of mnemotechnics2 and the increase in literacy.3
“Tarot can be seen as a memory palace, a system of ordering all knowledge,” writes Anders Sandberg.4 While it’s ambitious to say that Tarot can be used to order all knowledge, the vivid, uncommon imagery of the cards definitely makes an amazing collection of mnemotechnic devices. The imagery of each card evokes its meaning. A Tarot reader may have stories, legends, and parables tied to each card.
Memorizing the Tarot
In Learn the Tarot through Meditation, I wrote about building an exact replica of the card’s imagery in your mind. This is the same technique used to encode memory images. When you can build the card in your mind, you can keep it available for recall always.
If you understand the emotions that the card inspires in you, tie them to the image of the card in your mind. Find visual cues that serve to remind you of the meaning of the card and tie them to other things in your memory. These will cement the image of the card into your memory.
Keeping the cards in order means that you’ll need a memory palace of your own. Begin with the Major Arcana, which means your memory palace will need 22 loci, or locations. Building a memory palace requires dedication and practice, but it pays off. You’ll be able to use it and reuse it over and over. The Memory Techniques Wiki has a sparse page about building a memory palace that should serve as a good start. Hackerspace has a pretty good article about using Tarot in particular to build a memory palace.
Imagination and Power
To the Tarotist, this technique is about more than mere memorization. By fixing the images of the Tarot in your memory, you integrate the lessons and imagery of the cards in a new way. In fact, the imagery is vital to interpretation. Mere rote memorization of the cards just gets you numbers and keywords, while using the Art of Memory gets you the entire experience of seeing, recalling, and using the card.
Her Sixth Circle writes about teaching her husband Tarot with a memory palace. She claims that in just a few hours, he was able to recall the interpretations of both the Major and Minor Arcana. In fact, not only could he recall the meanings, but he could give good Tarot readings quickly. “What I find really encouraging is that his intuition is playing a larger role in the whole thing than I think he realizes,” she writes.
In actively using our imagination, we have the power to change the way our mind uses symbols and images.
The following books are great resources on the Art of Memory and its history and use.
- The Art of Memory by Frances Yates
- The Medieval Craft of Memory by Mary Carruthers
- Eros and Magic in the Renaissance by Iouan P. Culianu
If you would like to learn more about the Art of Memory and its applications in the modern world, check out Joshua Foer’s TED talk on the subject.
That’s a fancy word for “memory techniques.” ↩