Grammar Lesson 2: Gender
Like other aspects of life such as age, job, status, and species, gender is used in tarot as a symbolic construct. We will get into this in more detail in Week Four when we look at the court cards in the Minor Arcana, but for now let’s look at how gender is used in the Majors.
I want to note before we go any further that these cards and the symbolic constructs that they employ are not meant to be interpreted literally or projected onto another person without their consent. Whether you personally identify as male, female, or non-binary, in the eyes of the tarot you contain aspects of every card, every figure, and every theme in the deck. The full spectrum of human experience exists within all of us, and the purpose of isolating certain aspects into a tarot card is for us to identify which aspects of self we wish to call forward in any given circumstance. Some situations may call for the softness of your inner Empress, while others may require the iron fist of the Emperor. Regardless of your gender, age, personality, or history, you contain the potential for all of these archetypes simply by being human.
Furthermore, depending on what deck you use, any of the figures that are traditionally drawn as male or female-bodied figures may be depicted differently. Your deck may feature all-female bodies as we see in the Motherpeace deck, or you may have a deck with non-binary or gender-fluid figures as we see in the Next World Tarot, pictured below. Whatever genders are shown in your deck, it's important to understand this characteristic as a symbolic aspect of the card which will carry a specific purpose and meaning to you.
Generally speaking, when we see gender in the Major Arcana, we are dealing with an expression of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine. If we consider the spirit as containing the potential for every possible human archetype, the masculine and feminine can be seen as two parts which are necessary to create balance and give birth to new life. Thus, binary gender represents two aspects of self that are required for transcendence and meaningful creation, the duality of yin and yang which we all strive to bring into harmony.
The Divine Feminine or yin aspect refers to introspection, intuition, empathy, nurture, community, sensuality, and collaboration. She is seen as being focused inward, as opposed to outward. The expression of this aspect is most notably seen in the High Priestess, the Empress, and Strength.
The Divine Masculine or yang aspect refers to structure, action, analysis, decisiveness, protectiveness, and purpose. He is focused outward on external results in the outside world. The expression of this aspect is most notably seen in the Magician, the Emperor, and the Hierophant.
It is notable that angels in the tarot are typically androgynous, representing the highest and purest expression of spirit, which transcends the human construct of gender. In the Lovers card, for example, we see the naked male and female figures visited by an angel, representing the harmonious balance of masculine and feminine energy which leads to a transcendence of the earthly plane. The Chariot also speaks to balance and transcendence. Although evidently male, the figure is decorated with symbols of the masculine and feminine working together, his clothing echoing the imagery of the High Priestess and Empress. He is the intentional embodiment of the wisdom of the Priestess (Divine Feminine), taking her spiritual guidance and putting it into action in the outer world (Divine Masculine).
I will not pretend to be an authority on ancient scriptures, nor would I insist that reading tarot requires one to subscribe to any particular concept of the gender binary. However, I do believe it’s important to acknowledge the intention behind these figures as they are depicted in the traditional system and understand what is intended by them being assigned their respective gender roles, as this can help to find contrast between the cards to develop a complex and nuanced interpretation.
For example, if a reading strongly suggests a need for the Divine Feminine, I might interpret that as a situation which requires less force and action, and more receptivity and introspection. If a spread indicates a need for the Masculine, I might interpret that as an invitation to take willful action and stand up for oneself. One way of being is not innately male-like or female-like, the tarot simply uses gender as the symbolic representation of that spectrum of inner versus outer, hard versus soft, and yin versus yang.