Jungian Readings of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land


For a treatment of Carl Jung's archetypes and basic philosophies, see: Carl Jung


The Tarot


18th Century Tarot Deck
18th Century Tarot Deck

Although tarot cards originated as playing cards used in "trick-taking" games in 15th century, they eventually became used as a divinatory tool. A typical deck contains 78 cards, and features pictures of Western archetypes, along with a corresponding suit, usually Pentacles, Cups, Wands (or Staves) and Swords. Each card also contains some sort of numerical value, reinforcing a hierarchy of cards.

Tarot cards have also been used as means of telling stories, whereby cards are flipped over and the narrative-in-progress must then incorporate the newly shown card into the story.

In Eliot's The Waste Land, Madam Sosostris is a fortune-teller who reads the tarot cards for a speaker. Her prophecy is at the center of the poem: the cards she pulls and does not pull foretell the rest of the narrative action. The person having his fortune read is the Drowned Phoenician, and Mme. Sosostris pulls the Wheel, and the One-Eyed Merchant and warns the speaker to fear "death by water." She does not pull The Hanged Man, a character who is noted later as the absent third in "What the Thunder Said." Also see: Cartomancy

Many cards of the tarot can be seen as manifestations of Jung's archetypes, common characters and motifs that are culturally inherited through the collective unconscious of the species. Jung argued that not only are these archetypes universal, they are adaptable and malleable.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tarot and Fortune-telling offers some correlations between the traditional tarot deck and Jungian archetypes:

#
Tarot
Jungian Archetype
#
Tarot
Jungian Archetype
0
Fool
Divine Child
11
Justice
Lessons and Rewards
1
Magician
Trickster
12
Hanged Man
Release from Material/Mundane
2
High Priestess
Wise Woman
13
Death
Death; Transition
3
Empress
Anima
14
Temperance
Moderation; Tolerance
4
Emperor
Animus
15
Devil
Obsession; Doubt; Shallow Thinking
5
Hierophant
Persona
16
Tower
Sudden Change
6
Lovers
Romeo/Juliet; Tristan/Isolde
17
Star
Hope; Inspiration
7
Chariot
Struggle between Light & Shadow
18
Moon
Imagination; Illusion
8
Strength
Hero or Heroine
19
Sun
Revitalizing Light
9
Hermit
Wise Old Man
20
Judgment
Resurrection
10
Wheel of Fortune
Destiny
21
World
Wholeness; Achievement
(qtd. in Funk 5)

The tarot cards can be seen as a way to explore the individual or collective unconscious. By implementing standard tropes of Jungian archetypes in the form of tarot cards, Eliot's The Waste Land evokes what are seen as the most basic building blocks of human culture and social structures. The mythologies, mysticism and decentralized religions of The Waste Land (Buddhist sermons, Hindi Upanishads, Hanged Man as a Christian resurrection figure) serve to reinforce the trend of Primitivistic ideas that run through the poem. (Eliot claims in his notes that J.G. Frazier's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion was incredibly influential in shaping his symbolism and Holy Grail motif.)


Jungian Symbols in The Waste Land
Tibetan Mandala
Tibetan Mandala


Jungian scholar Gustavo Barcellos postulates that Eliot's The Waste Land is full of Jungian symbols and archetypes, even going so far as to claim that the poem itself as a whole is its own kind of symbol: "The Waste Land is a poem of poems: it is a game, a labyrinth, a cul de sac, but deep down a mandala" (45). The complicated and insulated form of the mandala is one adopted by Jung as an archetype that surfaces through history and represents the Self. The mandala is used traditionally as a focus to meditate upon in order to achieve enlightenment.

The archetypal tropes of death, resurrection, and new life are over and over again throughout the poem. With the evocation of Easter (new life and redemptive resurrection) at the beginning of the poem, to the Buddhist advice to escape the cycle of life and death in "Fire Sermon," "Death by Water," references to the Man with Three Staves (which Eliot admits to fashioning into a sort of Fisher King figure), as well as the barrenness of the Waste Land itself and the absence of life-giving water and rain. This preoccupation with in/fertility is also a common signifier of "Primitive" texts.



Sources


Barcellos, Gustavo. "The Waste Land at Century's End." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 18.1 (1999): 41-54. Web. 1 June 2011.

Funk, Natalie. "The Waste Land Tarot". MA thesis. Georgia Institute of Technology, 2006. JSTOR. Web. 1 June 2011.