Unlike many Tarot and oracle decks, the imagery for the Between Worlds deck was not made by one individual. It was made–in many ways–by all of us.
A Hall of Mirrors
The deck was created with what’s called a Generative AI model, wherein a dataset of millions upon millions of images are collected into a sort of neural network. The model encodes the features and patterns found in each of these images making it possible to generate new images (via text prompts) that were never contained in the original dataset.
This parsing of imagery into a neural network can be loosely thought of like the work Isaac Newton did with light. Famously, Newton directed a beam of white light through a prism, which bent the light into a full spectrum of colors. That rainbow is like the nebulous diffusion space of the AI dataset—the space between the collected images and the invented ones.
Newton then added a second prism to his equation and saw the colors recombine back into white light. In this metaphor, the second prism is like the text prompt given to the AI. It’s the second refraction or refocusing; and the resulting light, or image, while made of the same stuff, is composed anew.
I started to understand these image results as a gigantic mirror—as a unique way of looking at ourselves through the patterns of millions of images that we’ve put into the world. What the AI does is show us a focused reflection (or perhaps a refraction) of ourselves.
So what exactly are the patterns that the AI has found? How does it visualize the intangible? For example, what are the colors of compassion? Or the shapes of contempt? What deeper myths and symbologies might exist beyond what we’ve already been told? Beyond what’s obvious? With datasets so big, could the tool be tapping into a sort of collective unconscious?
A Jungian Perspective
Interestingly, this sort of mass image-gathering was also done almost a hundred years ago by a group of Jungian thinkers. They collected thousands of cross-cultural, mythological, and symbolic imagery into what became The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS). On today’s ARAS website, they say the collection “probes the universality of archetypal themes and provides a testament to the deep and abiding connections that unite the disparate factions of the human family.”
Jung thought the concept of the collective unconscious could help explain why similar themes show up in mythologies around the world. These patterns and archetypes are revealed in what he outlined as primal symbols like the Great Mother, the Trickster, Water, the Tree of Life, and so forth. Identifying and working with these patterns, which are infinitely shape-shifting according to Jung, allows us to work with the complexity of our lived experiences.
No archetype can be reduced to a simple formula. It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill. It has a potential existence only, and when it takes shape in matter it is no longer what it was. It persists throughout the ages and requires interpreting ever anew. The archetypes are the imperishable elements of the unconscious, but they change their shape continually.”
– C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
To be clear, not every AI-generated output is an automatic archetypal force. The technology is flawed by a selection bias, and images can often be reflective of a dominant culture who’s grip on power permeates visual aesthetics. There is also the molding of images through increasingly complex modes of prompting and iterating. Still, a veil is being pulled back, and many image results have the potential to act as windows into our personal and collective unconscious.
Working With the Unconscious
According to Jung, patterns and symbols act as a bridge from the realm of the unconscious mind to the conscious one. The imagery of an oracle deck (and traditional Tarot alike) can act as a rendering of that bridge.
When shuffled, laid out, and interpreted, the cards establish a space where universal unconscious archetypes and the personal mind come together. Jung calls this bridging the transcendent function. In a reading, the ego poses a question, and the oracle acts as a bridge to reveal unconscious material to the ego.
In the space of meaning-making, or uniting the unconscious and the conscious, rational thinking is softened, and more dream-like faculties are opened up. It’s here that the oracle can expose the stuff we don’t easily access on our own, even revealing the secrets we keep from ourselves. It’s this link to our deeper realms, and the meaning we make from that, that gives the oracle its healing and transformative potential.
The creation of Between Worlds was an experiment in how invisible qualities such as healing, power, and justice would rendered with a tool that synthesizes images from what feels like a bigger, more modern ARAS collection. The result is a deck that both challenges and embraces new ways of seeing and understanding universal archetypes.