Learning Tarot with the Art of Memory

Photo credit to joe-white on flickr

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.

Striking Images

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.

More Resources

The following books are great resources on the Art of Memory and its history and use.

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.

  1. I won’t discuss the technique fully here. The Wikipedia entry on the Art of Memory is a great starting point, however. 

  2. That’s a fancy word for “memory techniques.” 

  3. Literacy rates in Europe skyrocketed after the adoption of the printing press. See Our World in Data’s page on Literacy for some interesting charts. 

  4. See his fascinating Credo Tarot on Flickr


Arnemancy : The Tarot Memory Deck

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Freeman Presson

I first heard about the memory palace when I was maybe 19 (from Professor Lettvin at MIT). I put it aside because “I suck at visualizing.” I think it might be time to fix that. Also, Jonathan Foer wrote a book on memory, Moonwalking with Einstein. I’m debating whether to get the Yates book or just jump to the Foer.

Reverend Erik

There’s supposedly a disorder called aphantasia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphantasia) that has to do with an inability to visualize. But usually, I think good visualization just takes practice. I was lucky enough to get started with the technique in high school, and encouraged to practice even more when I worked through DMK’s “Modern Magick” in 1999/2000. It gets easier with time and makes everything much more amazing. Everything.


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