Bookings are now open for our next tarot reading workshop which takes place in the beautiful Darley Dale just north of Matlock. I’d love to see some of you there, so do register your place now.
This is a short note to open up a thought about how we tell the story of the four suits in the Tarot. The Major Arcana are often described as The Fool’s Journey. It is a narrative which we can tell from the Fool setting off unheeding and joyful into the world, then having a series of archetypal encounters which lead, finally, to The World and a sense of completion and accomplishment.
Each suit also has a narrative. It might not be as explicit as The Fool’s Journey but it underlies a lot of our thinking about the suits. From Ace to Ten, there is a sense of movement which tells a kind of story of its own.
The tarot as we know it today in the form of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck comes from a very specific milieu. All three of those names associated with the deck were members of The Golden Dawn and the teachings of that Order on the Tarot were derived from the work of other late 19th century occultists, nearly all of whom learned their magic within the quasi-masonic, initiatory orders so popular at the time.
Within that context, much work was being done on ‘correspondences’, there was a feeling that all esoteric knowledge, religion and magic, could be syncretised, made into one system. Crowley’s book 777 is a the classic example of this where Indian and Egyptian and Celtic pantheons of gods are simply set next to one another and next to crystals, herbs, incenses, and every other manner of thing. And central to this endeavour in the worldview of the 19th century occult orders was the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is a diagram which shows 10 spheres from 1 at the top to 10 at the bottom and represents a ‘emanatory’ theology. That is, the Kabbalists believed that creation rested upon emanations from the godhead. So very basically, at the top of the tree, the sphere of Kether (the Crown) represents the white light of divinity and as the lightning of god’s creative impulse surges downwards, it travels through the other ten spheres becoming heavier and coarser all the way until it ends up in Malkuth (the Earth). This top to bottom model was then mapped onto the Tarot among many other things. It is this emanatory model which has shaped the story we tell of the suits and possibly, has done so a little too much.
One of the purest and most explicit attempts at incorporating the Kabbalistic tree and its philosophy into a tarot deck was that made by Aleister Crowley in the creation of this Thoth deck. We only need to look at the names that Crowley gave to the 10s in his deck to see how the emanatory model of the Tree of Life has added a layer of value judgement to the story of the suits. Whilst the Aces are all represented as the purest and best expression of the energy of the suit, as we move through the numbers from ace to ten, we see a slow degrading of that elemental energy until we have the tens of cups, disks, swords and wands named Satiety, Wealth, Ruin and Oppression respectively. All lofty ideals have scattered, all sense of purity and clarity has vanished in the murky depths of Malkuth, the earth. Even away from Crowley’s Thoth deck it is commonplace to read the story of the suits as a slow falling away from the purity (good) of the ace to the embodied murk of the tens (bad). The duality of spirit-good and matter-bad has been with us for centuries and is hardly confined to the Tarot, but the roots of the RWS and decks since in the world of the Kabbalah and quasi-masonic orders has left it with some strong value judgements.
Many occultists today are questioning hard the methods of these Victorian magicians. Their syncretism seems far too close to an unthinking appropriation these days, certainly it roams through cultures and religions with an Imperial glee that simply picks up what it finds and decides to use it, often deaf to its original context and subtleties. The overlaying of the Tree of Life symbolism on the Tarot is an interesting thought experiment but many would argue it should perhaps have stayed at that level. Now, it colours every reading, even imprinting backwards that ‘descent into matter’ approach on cards which were in use long before RWS and its followers. It would be an interesting experiment to read the cards being aware of this context, to look for ways to overthrowing its influence. Instead of seeing the movement from ace to ten as a kind of falling away from grace, from spiritual refinement to earthy coarseness, perhaps it might be more appropriate to see in the ace a seed. Meditating on an acorn seems a slightly fay thing to do perhaps, but once you do it in the shadow of a fifty-foot oak tree and begin to understand at a visceral level that all that mass of tree once resided in the acorn in your hand, suddenly the insight takes on power. The ace can be our acorn for the spirit of each suit. And instead of a falling away, perhaps the increasing complexity is something to be celebrated, like the growth of a detailed and intricate flower from the simple shape of its bud. These are only beginning thoughts but there is a sense that 19th century magicians didn’t do the Tarot a straightforward favour by overlaying it on the Tree of Life.
We talk about altered states of consciousness a lot in the magical community and there is a tendency to assume that these are deep trances in which one is unassailable by outside world, or wild psychedelic trips brought about by heroic doses of psilocybin. The phrase ‘altered state of consciousness’ is, in fact, rather problematic: altered from what? And by how much? And what exactly is a ‘state’ when it comes to describing consciousness anyway?
Largely we talk about altered states when we are looking for ways to get the mind to interact more intensely with the realm of the spiritual, the spirits, the imaginal, the archetypal. The tarot, being a system based on the power of archetypes, is particularly susceptible to being approached in this realm.
This exercise is designed to help us approach the cards, the pip cards in particular, in a different state of consciousness and so make a more intense contact with the archetypes behind them. Archetypes have an existence and an agency which is independent of any single human mind, thus they are ‘persons’ which we can interact with if we can find a way to ‘be in the room’ with them. The aim here is to provoke a form of light trance which most people are already familiar with through doodling!
This exercise is to help understand the tarot and to help us add to our personal library of how we express each card and what each card communicates. It is particularly useful used with cards which we find elusive. We all have them, the cards we find hard to remember for no particular reason, and those which we never quite seem to pin down.
In essence it is very simple. Decide on a card you would like to understand better and have a pen and paper to hand. Spend a few moments just staring into space, look around the room but have no particular objective in mind. There will quickly come a point at which you realise you have become distracted from the notion of a tarot exercise. Without allowing this to snap you back completely, this is the point at which to begin doodling.
You shouldn’t have the card in front of you and, if at all possible, don’t give any thought to what the card looks like. You are absolutely not trying to draw a copy of the image. Begin with doodling the right number of the right kinds of pips (swords, cups etc). They do not have to resemble the pips on the RWS deck, nor do they need to be in the same arrangement, though sometimes this will just happen. Once you have the pips you will find that other decoration will come, thoughts will begin which lead to a line or a shape here or there; you might enclose them or draw a patterned frame around them, or scribble all over them, in other words you will be doodling. If nothing further comes than drawing say, ten round disks, then don’t force it, simply go over what you have and eventually, something more will nudge at you.
Obviously, this can be well done in exactly those situations in which we normally doodle, on public transport, sitting on the phone on hold, in a doctor’s waiting room. But it can be done equally well simply sitting quietly at a desk. The time to stop will almost certainly suggest itself.
This is only half of the exercise. The next and most important step is to now, in a more conscious way, re-run the thought processes that led to the image in front of you. Terms are difficult, maybe it is helpful to think of it as the ‘stream of consciousness’ that led to the doodle. It is easier to demonstrate than describe.
In the doodle based on the five of pentacles, for example, the process went something like this…
“drawing five circles… each has spokes… oh, they are like wheels… they seem to be arranged like a Christian cross… the central dot in the top one went a bit wrong… ah, it’s an eye… I realise now of course there is the imagery of a church window in the RWS card… an all seeing eye… a symbol of power and God and also very much a part of people’s fears… Godlike power… Big Brother… surveillance… Empire… the lines between the circles come fast now… vigorous… I feel quite angry drawing them… they make it clear I was wrong, this is an equilateral cross… this is an image of exclusion… the anger I feel is for those times I have been on the wrong side of these lines… power excludes people…”
What I am left with is a new (to me) really strong sense of the political as well as the personal nature of the five of pentacles. Of course, there are people in poverty there on the RWS card but I had never before understood clearly the wider dimension of the card, the story of poverty causing exclusion from warmth and light and power, that people are poor and excluded because of other people who exercise power. And the fact that this is, in some way baked into the world that is described by this card.
My insights are unimportant here except that they show the process. In short:
- Doodle the pips.
- Doodle around the pips.
- If nothing else comes draw over the pips until it does.
- When finished write out or run through the thoughts and (very importantly) the feelings that came whilst doodling and,
- in a more present frame of mind consider if that teaches you anything new.
I am so thrilled to be able to welcome you all to Derbyshire Tarot Circle! We meet for the first time on October 11th at 7:30pm and everyone is welcome.
I have set up the Circle for tarot readers, collectors and those interested in learning more about the cards to meet up in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
Our venue is the warm and welcoming Hop Inn in Openwoodgate, Belper DE56 0SD. The family owned pub has open fires, a huge range of beverages including over 30 gins, fresh Illy coffee and snacks. There is step free access and dogs are welcome so do bring your canine familiar too!
All are welcome, whether you’re a beginner reading the cards, want to meet up with readers and find out what it’s all about or are a seasoned pro. It’s free to attend but you will want to buy something to drink, I’m sure!
Yesterday I took one of my regular trips to London to refill the magical well and restock the bookshelves. There is a downside to such days out in that they can be horribly expensive. A poetry book fair and only two book shops yesterday and I came home with half a dozen volumes and two new tarot decks.
In an effort to help us all save a bit of money and make good use of what’s available for free, I started working through Derbyshire Libraries’ collection of tarot books this summer. There is rather more than you’d expect and first up was The Back In Time Tarot Book by Janet Boyer.
The method Janet uses involves choosing cards and overlaying them onto stories and in doing so, gaining deeper insight or understanding of both the cards and events. She demonstrates the method with personal stories from other tarot readers, significant political or cultural moments and popular films and stories as examples.
In connecting cards to life events, the reader builds up a collection of very personal associations with the images and characters represented. The Back In Time method has the valuable assets of hindsight and choice attached to it. Everything is, of course, always so much clearer when we see it from some distance and choosing the cards gives us a level of control that we might not always have had at the time we were sick or lost our job or a relationship ended.
What the tarot offers is a new window to look through. When we receive a tarot reading, we are shown what is, what was or what could be. There is a risk with this method we reinforce the stories we tell ourselves even if they are not objectively true.Though there is always interpretation of course, by creating our own very particular meanings for the cards based on a subjective vision of our history, we run the risk of not allowing the cards themselves to speak their truths.
I find the method of translating significant public or political events into tarot is very helpful for seeing bigger patterns and I think this might be where the strength of the approach lies. I was a little fed up by rather stodgy retellings of film plots, it has to be said, but I could see the value in such a thing as a workshop exercise.
You can find Janet and her many tarot creations at her website http://www.janetboyer.com/Boyer-Creations.html
Back in Time Tarot is now back in the stacks so do take time to borrow it and let me know how you get on.
Derbyshire is spoilt for choice when it comes to impressive stately homes and houses and a fair number were either owned, built or lived in by by Bess and her family, including the resplendent Chatsworth House. For most of last year I worked in a church just a stone’s throw from Hardwick Hall. An incredible Elizabethan pile now owned by the National Trust, it was built by Bess next to the now ruined Old Hardwick Hall where she was born. Now owned by the National Trust, Hardwick Hall is filled with the most immense and intricate tapestries and textiles, an art form that Bess herself was skilled in.
Bess was incredibly wealthy. With four husbands and many children, Bess had built for herself not only a vast coffer and a reputation that she was not to be messed with, but also a lasting legacy. Highly respected by Queen Elizabeth, Bess and her fourth husband, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury were entrusted with the care and imprisonment under House arrest of Mary, Queen of Scots. Bess and Mary were companions for many years and worked on tapestries and textiles together, many of which are on display in Hardwick Hall. They are carefully kept after Bess instructed that they be looked after in perpetuity as a historical collection. As much as her great buildings and business acumen is impressive then, if we’re looking for Bess’s creative heart, I think we’re likely to find it in the threads and fabrics which hang on her walls.
I’m so excited to meet those of you who’ve booked onto the Beginners Workshop on 29th September! But it looks like the Magician might be up to some tricks for one or two of you. If you’ve struggled to use the website to book, and been in touch via the contact page, please be sure to check that you gave me the right email address! Jennifer, I’m looking at you if you’re reading!! You can always drop me a note on Twitter too @DerbyshireTarot.
Spaces are still available, so if you haven’t booked already, click here and get yourself on the list. For those of you in a Bake Off mood, I might add that cake is provided on the day!
The Magician, for those of you wondering, is ruled by Mercury, a trickster who delights in hoodwinking potential punters and twisting technology into tangles and knots. I’ve found him to be fairly benign though, so if you’re trying to make contact, give it another go – the Magician might be in a less mischievous mood!
Woodland, whichever bit of it you happen to be in, is a magical place. This week I have been to Idsworth and the very ancient Markwells Wood. I went with a seasoned traveller of that strange place who led me through the yew, beech and pine to places which were so far off the beaten track that I arrived feeling like I had crossed into another dimension. What magic took place amid those trees is private, but it took a whole chunk of sorcery for me to get there in the first place.
I used to be a confident walker, but injuries and falls during my youth made me cautious for many years to take any step that might lead to another mishap. There’s nothing quite like a dislocated knee to discourage bold leaps across crags or even a walk down a gentle slope. All told, the walk through Markwells was about four miles of flinty, chalky and uneven woodland floor and brambly paths. Following on from a lot of private magical work, and some help from a splendid physiotherapist, I am beginning to make strides – pretty grand ones – into new territory. The ground I’m covering both physically and spiritually is very much the Fool’s energy. I am no longer afraid and instead trust my body to hold me up and take me where I need to go. There is a splendid fearlessness which goes with this card that appears to belong to the start of the deck, but in truth belongs everywhere and nowhere. Nowhere is off limits for the Fool.
Markwells Wood is so very clearly its own entity and so my stepping between the trees and across the strewn rocks could be seen as taking rather a liberty. In fact, with the Fool as your guide or perhaps inhabiting you, the very idea that anyone could own the land or the woods or the river strikes one as ludicrous. The Fool walks lightly across the ground, with a holy hope that he will be held and supported and welcomed by the spirits of place whose earth he treads on. The Fool believes that he won’t so much as turn his ankle even on the rockiest of surfaces.
Incidentally, it occurs to me that there is a conversation to be had about how the Fool might speak the words of Psalm 91 (echoed in Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Christ):
For he will command his angels, concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
But that, as they say, is probably another story!