On Polyvalent Meaning and Magic

I’m here to tell you something you already know: symbols mean more than one thing. No, that’s not the whole post! Come back! In the practice of magic, mysticism, and the occult, a pattern is played out that is far broader than those admittedly broad fields. Humans have a tendency to think symbols are simpler than they are. So, for example, you might think the 7 of Pentacles means “be patient,” while your friend thinks it means “suffer.” And it means both! And we know that, really. But it gets lost in practice a lot of the time. So this post is specifically about importing theory and techniques from the formal study of symbols and art – my actual specialty, for once – into occult studies generally.

Theory: Polyvalent Meaning

“Polyvalent meaning” is a ten dollar phrase for, basically, “symbols mean more than one thing.” I like it, though, because it brings to mind the valence shell of an atom: if the top “layer” of an atom is removed, through a chemical reaction perhaps, then the atom will behave differently, as another layer is exposed. That layer will cause the atom to react differently because it has a different number of electrons. But that layer was always present.

In a similar way – not the same – meaning from a text will always be meanings, plural. No work of art or symbol means only one thing unless you narrow its field of function down. So, for example, the word “modern” means something very explicit in the history of literary studies, and it is not “right now.” It’s “the period between the end of the medieval period and the mid twentieth century” in some histories, “the beginning of the twentieth century” in others, and so on, so forth. That’s just to say that even something as relatively simple as a single world we can find a variety of meanings. If you get up to something even more complicated, like a painting, it can mean dozens or hundreds of things. You could argue, easily, that a painting will have at least as many meanings as people who have viewed it. Even then, a single viewer could come up with two different meanings at the same time.

Here’s one last example, that’s sort of explicitly coded into a text: there’s a novel titled The Beautiful Changes, and it can be read as noun + verb or as adjective + noun. There’s no way, in isolation, to figure out “which one is right.” And of course, the thing is that they are both right. That leads me to my next topic.

Overdetermined Meaning

Now, if a sign or symbol can have multiple meanings, or be polyvalent, it can also have too many meanings, or be overdetermined. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or in some way messed up. It just means, either culturally or intentionally, it refers to so many things that we can’t pick out anything to isolate.

The most famous example in literature is probably the red letter A in The Scarlet Letter. Everyone thinks it means “adultery,” but it doesn’t, or it doesn’t just mean that. My favorite fun fact about this novel is that the word adultery never appears in the text. Not one time. It’s even unclear if the townspeople know Hester is married. Her husband comes back after her public shaming, but never reveals who he is. The A becomes more and more important. Hester’s child, Pearl, refuses to have anything to do with her mother unless her mother wears the A. Dimmesdale reveals he has a lesion on his chest in the shape of an A, matching Hester’s. One night, an enormous A made of fire appears in the sky. None of this is ever explained. The letter becomes so important to us precisely because it is impossible to say what it means, and it is impossible to say what it means because it means too much, not because it means too little.

As an aside, I’ve written more about The Scarlet Letter over here.

You may see some of where I’m going now.

Overdetermined Meaning and You

There’s one thing I have to add before we can get practical. The thing about meaning is that it happens between the art and the viewer, not inside the art. The typical model we have of meaning is that it’s somehow inside the art, that we have to dig into it, removing layers of obfuscation, like metaphor or paralepsis, and discover the meaning underneath it all. This isn’t how it works. The meaning is more like a thing that’s created in your mind, with the art as a catalyst for it. Anthony C. Thiselton put it like this: meaning is always potential in terms of the text, but actual in relation to the reader. No meaning is already ‘there’ in some objectivist sense, apart from a horizon of expectations brought to a text by the reader (…) the reader’s response is not to the meaning; it is the meaning” (qtd. in Boudreault).

I’m extremely fond of the model that Brian Upton develops in The Aesthetic of Play, in which the meaning is created by the player’s experience of the game’s permissions and restrictions: as we navigate the ways that the game, or art, or text, challenges us, and change our way of seeing and behaving or thinking, the meaning is created. It’s a product of the process of “reading,” not of the writing.

I like Upton’s model specifically because it clarifies an issue some people have with the overall point that meaning is in the reader, not the writer or the text. The issue is that some people think it means that “the text can mean anything,” that the reader can “just make things up.” No, they can’t.

Upton is a game designer as well as a theorist, and so his model comes from his experience with games. So think about a game. Think about basketball. You can win a game in any number of ways: you can get really good at passing, or three point shots, or running the court, or lay ups. But you cannot win the game by pitching the ball into the crowd and saying it means you got 50 points.

You can “do whatever you want” within the confines of the game rules. With other works of art, it’s harder to think of the “rules,” but they are there. The text itself is the “rules” of the game. So you can say Frodo’s passage into the west is a “death” because the imagery of Heaven and of leaving the mortal world are attached to it. You can say it’s a commentary on the ways that war scars people for life, and only when we leave life do we leave war behind, because that’s encoded in Frodo’s life story. But you cannot say that, when Frodo leaves for the west, it’s somehow about the stock market, because that’s not in the rules.

Symbols and signs can mean many things, but they still have “rules.”


This of course applies to any and all symbols you wish to use in your work. The Sun means many, many things, but it doesn’t mean “cold.” Let’s take a particular symbol and work with it, given the model we’ve developed above. Probably one of the most overdetermined symbols in the Waite-Smith tarot is the white bird on the Ace of Cups.

You’ll also note this method is basically identical to the pragmatic post I wrote for Arnemancy.com about webbing. The bird means many things. Birds, on their own, mean things like freedom, grace, height. White birds, particularly doves, mean peace. Doves are associated with Venus. White doves are associated with the Virgin Mary. Many birds are associated with divinity generally, and with the Christian God specifically.

So, people have argued that this bird is an image of the grace of God entering the world, perhaps via the Virgin Mary, because of the M on the cup. But I imagine you see the issue. It’s not an M, it’s a W. It’s only an M if you turn it upside down, thus dumping the water out. So it can mean that it’s the Virgin Mary receiving the Holy Spirit, but you have to look at it kind of sideways, and then the bird is going up instead of down. What’s the bird holding? A communion wafer? Why does the water go up and then back down? What sort of chalice is this thing? Is the hand in a mudra? What about the drops of water that intermingle with down-drifting yods? And the Golden Dawn had a meaning behind the way the aces’ hands point and emerge from clouds, too. The single card is an overdetermined sign: each individual element can be pinned down – or, almost – but the card itself can’t.

Understanding overdetermination and polyvalent meaning is essential to working with tarot cards. They never mean just one thing, something you most likely already know from practice. But this is the theory, the undergirding model demonstrating why the practice goes the way it goes. You’re making the meaning as you react to the images, working within the confines that they set up.

A tarot reading itself works by the same process: each card limits your options for interpretation further, until all the cards are laid bare. To keep borrowing terminology from Brian Upton, you navigate a horizon that you put together yourself, and as each card appears, your horizon changes. To put it another way, you expect things, and as the cards appear you change the expectation slightly. You may not have been thinking of money, but the Devil or the 4 of Pentacles changes your mind. And so your expectation is slightly different. Then the next card shifts it further. The almost dream-like state of moving from one card to the next, having them force your perspective to change constantly, helps to reach that deep oracular state where you are seeing multiple overdetermined symbols and creating a meaning that links them all. We’re meaning-making creatures. The cards create the rules, like the text of a novel or the field of view of a painting, but at the same time they are overdetermined signs, nearly glowing with possibilities, and therefore we can make many moves inside the rules.

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One thought on “On Polyvalent Meaning and Magic

  1. Pingback: Review: The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn (Aeon Books 2022) – G Conley: Magic Arts

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