Pictures from the Heart: A Tarot Dictionary by Sandra Thomson
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

When The Tarot Companion by Tracy Porter came out, it was billed as an "essential reference guide." I loved the concept, hated the actual product. If one only saw the title Pictures from the Heart, one might not realize that the work is more encompassing, as its subtitle, A Tarot Dictionary, indicates.

This book is an essential reference guide.  Sandra Thomson has created an invaluable manual for the beginning tarotist that will also serve as an indispensable resource for more advanced readers.  The range of information in this 400+-page book is so wide that I cannot imagine one person in the tarot community who would not learn something from it.

The subject matter includes tarot symbols, pioneers and innovators, associated gods and goddesses, astrological attributions, myths, and specific sections of the tarot, such as the Major and Minor Arcana and the Court Cards. Not only that, Thomson offers an interpretation of each of the 78 cards in the tarot. A Jungian therapist, Thomson's approach is often psychological in nature, but I never get the feeling she is stretching the cards to fit a proscribed agenda. I was particularly delighted with her entry on "Clarifying Cards," wherein she explains their use as an additional card for providing "clarification" on a card in a spread, but also states that some readers suggest vigilance in using such clarifiers, because overuse can imply a laxity in considering already drawn cards. Giving both points of view offers the new reader the option of clarifying cards, as well as the important caveat named above.

On the other hand, her emphasis on the psychological/mythological approaches sometimes overpowers more traditional correspondences.  The Hebrew letter correspondences, for example, are given short shrift.  None of them are listed and they appear intermittently in descriptions of the Majors. Ironically, the entry for "camel" alludes to the High Priestess, but doesn't mention Gimel, the Hebrew letter that means just that.

Thomson was clearly reliant on Elizabeth Hazel for her astrological entries.  Hazel is a brilliant and knowledgeable astrologer, and the planetary information is accurate, as far as it goes.  However, the Major Arcana card attributed by the Golden Dawn to the planet is usually not mentioned.  So, for example, the entry for the Hanged Man doesn't mention Neptune, nor does the entry for Neptune mention the Hanged Man. A beginner would be at a loss to understand why Neptune is mentioned at all. More disturbing to me is that that same beginner would read (under the entry of Neptune) "An ill-dignified or reversed Neptune card may mean... possible suicidal tendencies if indicated by neighboring cards."  The poor novice doesn't even know what the Neptune card is! No doubt seeing the image on the Hanged Man could offer a clue, but then the neighboring cards are still a mystery.  I question the inclusion of this information in light of the many beginners who will be encountering it. The Golden Dawn astrological correspondences really provide tremendous insights in understanding the Major Arcana, so when only the horned goat dimension of Capricorn is alluded to in the Devil card entry, and the laser focus on obtaining material goals aspect is not, the reader misses an important connection. 

The range of this book is monumental, and I understand that Thomson could not possibly include everything. However, if the author could include entries for Hyacinthus (who only makes an appearance in the Renaissance Sun card) and Daphne (who was turned into Apollo's personal laurel wreath), I think that the astrological and Hebrew letter correspondences should also have been more fully incorporated.

And, while I am finding fault, I wish that Thomson cross-referenced the symbolism to individual cards.  While the author has an entry for boats, she doesn't mention the Three of Wands, nor does she cross-reference the Three of Wands to boats. Her entry for the Six of Cups does not include the information for the cross of St. Andrew and the lilies and roses motif, which are mentioned individually.  Most people will look at the entry for the Six of Cups, and not for individual symbols. However, I hasten to mention that the specific card entries are wonderful and rich, especially for those readers who use a psychological approach.

I learned some captivating things as I read this book.  For example, as a lover of felines, I was delighted with the concept of the cat as "seer" because it sees in the dark. I was fascinated by the myths, even when they were not all that relevant to most tarot decks. Thomson's entries on the various kinds of trees were enlightening, even if they mostly applied to the Robin Wood deck. The material on mermaid legends and how they relate to the suit of Cups was mesmerizing. I could go on and on, but I would rather you go buy the book and discover some fascinating gems for yourself.

Thomson chose 25 decks to focus on, and she mentions individual cards from each of them. I remember when she polled a tarot e-list for suggestions (I even contributed to it!), and for the most part, I think she chose well. Such a selection is, by its very nature, highly subjective. However, not mentioning Motherpeace in her section on feminist decks seemed an odd omission, though I certainly understand why she would choose to use the far more attractive Daughters of the Moon deck in her designated 25.

One last cavil I have concerns Thomson's inclusion of various tarot figures in history (Case, Crowley, Waite, Etteilla, etc.). Thomson dedicates the book to Mary Greer, and there are countless entries devoted to the many innovations Greer has pioneered, yet she does not rate a biographical entry. History will bear out the importance of Greer's influence on modern tarot, but this book is part of that history, and as such, I feel this is a serious omission.

In a book like this, endnotes are essential, and Thomson does not stint on them nor her bibliography, which is unfortunately all-too-excellent; it entices me to spend far too much money on new books with which I was unfamiliar.  The book also includes Internet Resources and their links-- and yes, Tarot Passages is listed. The section is divided into Organizations, Courses, Workshops/Conferences, Reviews and Articles, Free Tarot Readings, Resources and History, e-zines, and Bookstore/Reference.

Even though I have minor quibbles with this book, they are as nothing in comparison to my admiration for Thomson's Pictures From the Heart, which is a staggering achievement and should be in any serious tarot student's library. I can see myself using it frequently, especially in conjunction with my teaching. I also recommend it highly to beginners as a resource without compare.

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

Excerpt:

Feather(s)

The quintessential symbol of lightness, the feather as a headdress or part of a headdress is, nevertheless, related to power, the sun, and high aspirations.  Feathers are also related to the symbolism and attributes of the bird from which they came, if identifiable.  They represent spiritual flight and the shamanic ability to change shape.  Their color ads to the symbolism.  Related to flying, air, and the heavens, a feather can symbolize spirit, and is linked to Creator/creation deities.  In Egyptian mythology, the feather is an attribute of Ma'at, goddess of correct ordering.  Her feather was weighed against the heart-souls of the dead to determine if they were in the right balance (as light as a feather) to enter the afterlife.

A red feather appears in the headband of RWS and Morgan-Greer Fool and Sun figures and on the hat of the RWS Page of Wands.  Some tarotists suggest that the Fool's feather is from the Phoenix, and symbolizes the rebirth to come (see phoenix).(2) A white feather, symbolizing peace, sticks in the ground on the Haindl Four of Swords.  The feathers in the Alchemical Tarot Fool's cap are red and white, the alchemical colors of opposites which ultimately have to be reconciled.  The most gloriously feathered wings of any Tarot figure are borne by the World Spirit deck's Temperance Angel.


Text cited 2003 St. Martin's Press
Review and page 2003 Diane Wilkes