The Tarot Memory Deck

Working with Giordano Bruno’s memory alphabet and wheel system opens up interesting possibilities. I’ve written before about using tarot with the Art of Memory. Now let’s look at using the Taro with Bruno’s memory system. If you have used Tarot for meditation or pathworking, then you already have experience with visualizing the cards and also changing or manipulating the imagery. Using the cards in a memory system will imprint their symbolism even more firmly in your mind.

For this exercise, I will be using the Major Arcana of the Waite-Smith Tarot,1 primarily because it’s a common ground that almost every Tarot user is familiar with, but also because the card images for the 1909 deck are in the public domain.2 Which reminds me, I’m going to be including some chopped-up images in this post, and I ask you to please forgive my poor image editing skills.

In this description of the memory deck, we will use the term subject to refer to the background of the card, which would be called the locus in a traditional memory palace. The term adject will refer to the image placed in the subject. You should be familiar with the basics of a memory palace before tackling this exercise.

Creating the Subjects (or Loci)

The Fool card without its main character makes a suitable subject or locus.

The Fool card without its main character makes a suitable subject or locus.

Before using our memory deck to store information, we need to create it. This is done by memorizing each of the 22 trumps of the Major Arcana in order, without their primary characters. For instance, the Fool card without the Fool in it is a treacherous mountain path with a small yappy dog. With some of the Major Arcana, it might be difficult to decide which is the main character and which is part of the background. Later on in this article, there is a table that can help you make the decision.

Your goal with this part of the exercise is to have the background cards firmly fixed in your memory, in order. You should be able to move through them in your mind quickly and accurately. It will probably take some practice to accomplish this. Bruno suggests that it can take about four weeks of daily practice to fix a set of subjects in your memory, but if you are using a familiar Tarot deck, this will probably happen much faster.

The Fool as an adject to the High Priestess subject highlights a problem with contrast.

The Fool as an adject to the High Priestess subject highlights a problem with contrast.

There are a few cards you will want to watch out for. For instance, one of the big rules is that you need to have contrast between the background of the subject and the adject you place on top of it. In particular, the High Priestess, the Empress, and the Sun have busy backgrounds that might interfere with this. For example, look at what happens when you place an adject of the Fool onto the subject of the High Priestess. The Fool’s tunic is lost in the pomegranate-filled background. This can be solved by changing the background in your memory deck. Try using a solid color or hiding the pomegranates in shadow while keeping the foreground brightly lit.

It’s also important to make sure that the subject is brightly lit. Pay attention to the Hermit, the Devil, and the Tower, all of which might be too dim without their adjects to keep them lit. You need the adjects to be easy to see and observe once you place them.

Note that several cards also have very similar backgrounds which aren’t very distinct. Strength and the Hermit might be easily confused. Note also that the Wheel of Fortune and the World have very similar backgrounds. Find a way to distinguish them as you memorize the subjects so that you don’t mix up the order of your adjects later on.

Creating the Adjects (or imagenes)

Bruno’s adjects follow a Person-Action-Object system. This mean that each adject consists of a primary actor, with a distinctive possession, doing a distinctive action. Each of these three elements of the adject symbolizes the same number, sound, or letter in the adject system. In the table below, I have broken up each of the adjects for the 22 trumps into a Person, Object, and Action, and then indicated the number, Hebrew letter, and phonetic sound they represent. As with the subjects, it is important for every adject to be distinct in each of its three parts. I have noted in the table where this might be a problem, but you will need to play with the system to figure out what works for you.

Since the Major Arcana only provides 22 subjects and adjects, it is not going to be the best for remembering English words verbatim. You can still use it to remember things phonetically. However, it is particularly well-suited to memorizing Hebrew. As a bonus, the act of committing the adjects to memory is good practice for memorizing the Hebrew alphabet and their order.

No. אב AB Card Object Action Notes
0 א A The Fool Bindle Skipping  
I ב B The Magician Wand Pointing or Disco Dancing  
II ג G The High Priestess Scroll Reading  
III ד D The Empress Starry crown Lounging  
IV ה H The Emperor Scepter and orb Commanding  
V ו V The Hierophant Pope hat Blessing  
VI ז Z The Lovers Cloud Touching  
VII ח Ch The Chariot Armor Driving  
VIII ט Th Strength Lion Wrestling  
IX י Y The Hermit Lantern Wandering  
X כ Q Wheel of Fortune Wheel Spinning Try using the devil or sphinx as the adject.
XI ל L Justice Scales Balancing  
XII מ M The Hanged Man Halo Hanging upside-down  
XIII נ N Death Black flag Posing Experiment with different actions to differentiate him from the Sun.
XIV ס S Temperance Chalices Pouring  
XV ע E The Devil Torch Glowering  
XVI פ P The Tower Lightning bolt Falling Use the people falling from the tower, and not the tower itself.
XVII צ Ts The Star Jugs Pouring onto the ground Differentiate from Temperance by where the pouring happens.
XVIII ק K The Moon Lobster Howling Use the dogs as the adject.
XIX ר  R The Sun Banner Rejoicing See note on Death card.
XX ש Sh Judgement Trumpet Trumpeting  
XXI ת T The World Sash Spinning  

Let’s look at an example. We will create compound adjects to recall the first line of Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. We will remember words by just memorizing the first three letters of them, which should be enough to get started.

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

  1. And: The Fool – black flag – lounging
  2. the: (skip)
  3. whole: The Emperor – scales
  4. earth: The Devil – banner – wrestling

In the first subject, which would be the blank Fool card, you would place the Fool. However, instead of skipping along with his bindle, he will be lounging with Death’s black flag. This will remind you that the Fool is “A”; the black flag belongs to Death, or “N”; and finally lounging belongs to the Empress, or “D”. Together, that spells “AND”.

Skipping the article “the”, the next image goes with the blank Magician card. Here, you will place the Emperor holding the scales. The Emperor belongs to “H” and the scales are those of Justice, or “L”. This might be confusing, because “HL” doesn’t spell anything. However, phonetically it should remind you of the word “whole”.3

Finally, the last word in this example goes onto the blank High Priestess card. The adject will consist of the Devil (“E”) carrying the long, flowing banner of the Sun (“R”), and then wrestling with it (“Th”).

The images are intended to be ridiculous or to otherwise really incite the imagination. Because of this, you might need to shift things around a little bit. For example, instead of having the Emperor just holding the scales, he could be actually in the scales being weighed. Again, you will have to play around with the system to see what works best.

Expanding the System

Once this system is used a little bit, you will run out of subjects. Luckily, there are 56 other cards in the Tarot deck to work through! Here are a few ideas to get you going.

  • Use other distinctive cards, such as the Kings or Aces, to fill out the table of adjects to fully represent the Latin alphabet.
  • Use other suits in order to add to the library of subjects. Be careful to make sure they are distinct and well-lit.
  • Expand the adject system to handle more letters in a word by adding additional characteristics, such as the snail in the 9 of Pentacles, the Fool’s yapping dog, or the High Priestess’s crescent moon.

After using every subject available in the deck, remember that there are hundreds of other decks out there to pick from! With experimentation, multiple memory decks can be created. This tool should be well-suited for memorizing esoteric information, such as tables of correspondences, magical alphabets, or even the meanings of different divinatory systems.

  1. This deck used to be referred to as the Rider-Waite Tarot, but the artist, Pamela Colman Smith, deserves more credit than the publisher. 

  2. You can download your own public-domain images from the Waite-Smith deck from Wikipedia

  3. Like I said, this system is going to be better for memorizing Hebrew words or phrases that can be easily recognized through phonetics. 

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