Whether one is familiar with the images of the Tarot or seeing the cards for the first time, Death stands out and demands attention. The word itself has power. The strange, whispering aspirate ‘th’ has an ominous feel. It is the last breath exhaled, suggesting that we dare not even speak Death’s name aloud for fear that it may bring on a direct, personal encounter with the Reaper.
In the modern world, so deeply consumed by the fear of death are we, that it has become strange and alien to us. We spend huge amounts of energy and money avoiding it, fixating on the idea of eternal youth with our potions and vitamins. With medical science so advanced, we can even hide a little from death even while it is happening to us.
Where once the bodies of the dead were laid out on the table in the parlour by a kindly neighbour or family member, the preparation for burial or cremation has now largely been given to professionals. Smiling actors on the television play in the park with pretend grandchildren to sell you funeral payment plans and packages while smart brochures are found at the funeral parlour and florist. Our corpses are filled with chemicals and refrigerated at vast cost while we wait weeks for an available twenty minute slot at the crematorium. Once our remains eventually wend their way to their resting place, even there we do our utmost to avoid the truth. Gone are long requiem masses and mourners; in instead is the ‘celebration of life’ with photo montages and pop songs.
Everything is so seemly. And we are terrified.
The Tarot’s power is to show us all of human experience in symbolic form. That includes Death, in all its iterations. In the Waite Smith deck, Death’s horse walks steadily, unhurried, through the landscape. The Black Knight leaves a king in his wake and is ready to take the souls of a child, a maiden and a priest. Neither riches, status, youth, innocence or virtue inures us to Death. We must all take his bony hand at some point on our journey through existence.
This avoidance of the inevitability of death is nothing new. In the seventeenth century, French baroque artist, Nicolas Poussin, painted the picture Et in Arcadia ego. The image (one version of which can be found in Chatsworth House here in Derbyshire) is of Ancient Greek shepherds gathered around a severe looking tomb, seemingly baffled at the evidence of death even in their beautiful, idyllic home. The Latin title translates roughly as ‘I am even in Arcadia’ and the picture is a form of memento mori. Literally ‘remember you will die’, memento mori was a medieval way of thought encouraging people to consider their immortal soul rather than the transient, and often very brief, life on earth. The prevalence of the memento mori in medieval art and architecture suggests that, even when the reality of death was less easily avoided than today, human beings still had the tendency to convince themselves that they might yet be passed over.
So what does it mean when we see the Death card in a reading? Modern books on the tarot will gently tell you that this is about metamorphosis and taking the next step on a path whilst leaving something behind. And this is true. Laying the Death card in a spread doesn’t necessarily mean we should be planning a wake in the village pub. But once again perhaps we are guilty of wrapping up the truth in something more comfortable, more palatable, for fear of meeting the Reaper abroad. But Card Thirteen is, just like Poussin’s painting, a memento mori. Sic transit gloria mundi, says Death on his steed. Thus passes the glory of the world.
This is both an exercise and a way of reading the cards. As an exercise it is a very powerful way to learn to think about connections between cards and the way that influences meaning. As a way of reading the cards, this is particularly useful for large, complex and fluid situations where the questions can sometimes feel nebulous. I haven’t called this a ‘spread’ because the way tarot spreads are usually presented in books is quite rigid and fixed – this position is about such-and-such, and this one is about this other aspect. Some people might find it difficult for this reason, but part of the learning with this technique is to shake off some of the expectations we can put on ourselves about precision and accuracy in a reading. It is an attempt to get past ‘this means this’ and ‘that means that’.
Think of a situation which is multi-layered and complex. For example, what can the cards tell me about my workplace? Or, what can I learn about the relationships in my extended family? The technique has also been very powerfully used as a way of extending a significant dream and as a way of allowing a tutelary spirit to speak.
As you begin to think about the matter in hand start laying the cards down. Larger format cards work well if you have them. After you have tried it a few times as described here, feel free to start in a different way but for now, lay ten cards down in two rows of five. Key to this method is to feel free to not ‘read’ every card.
Once there are ten cards in front of you allow your eye to roam a little. Get a sense of whether there is movement in these images – left to right, or right to left. Is there maybe a difference between the top and bottom row in some way? Do pairs or groups of four seem to band together at all? Is there any sense of narrative? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end to these cards? And as you survey the cards on the table in these terms, begin to think about how they might apply to the situation you are thinking about. Do not read every card. Do not feel obliged to include an interpretation of every card in your mind before you move on. Often you will have a sense of what there is to say without actually being able to formulate it, or you will know what is being said in a part of the cards but might not be able to articulate how that relates to the particular cards on the table. This does not matter.
Move on to the laying of more cards before you have a fixed idea about each of the first ten cards. Lay four more on top. We are now beginning to get depth. Laying four cards like this gives you triads as well as pairs and fours. You will see how cards which are now behind the new cards feed into the cards on top of them. Just one of the new cards has four cards underneath them and maybe that is an obvious group. Do the four new cards change any of the narratives you had previously begun when there were only ten on the table? Again, do not try and read every card, and certainly do not try to read every card on its own. In fact, don’t read any card in isolation. Allow your mind to wander over the situation at hand and the cards on the table. Do not be concerned if you cannot articulate what the cards say.
Again, move on to more cards before you have exhausted all the thinking about the first fourteen. At this point the symmetry begins to breakdown (though it can be maintained a little longer by things like four more cards at the corners). Use your sense of the groups of cards, now in three dimensions, to judge where to put new cards. Don’t try for exact symmetry but do try for balance across the cards. Keep going as long as you feel you are learning something about the situation and the cards.
This is both a way of reading and an exercise to help learn about the cards and their interactions. If you are using it primarily as a learning exercise, it is worth keeping a piece of paper to one side. Make a record of any interesting relationships and groups which come out of the layers. So, for example, you might find a card which you usually find very negative lays on top of two others which make you feel differently about it and, more importantly, begin to see how the three cards together have a meaning which transcends any one individually. It is hard enough to get a grip on 78 basic meanings and no one is suggesting that you try and learn what every possible combination of three or four or more cards might mean. The art here is to realise that groups of cards make pictures that may be very different to the meaning of any one of the constituent cards on their own.
A few weeks ago I was thrilled to spend an interesting hour or so chatting with Rick Palmer for his podcast series, Some Other Sphere. We covered all sorts of things about the tarot and I’m delighted to share the episode with you here. Do let us know what you think, and get in touch with Rick via Twitter @Spherical_Pod or listen to the other interviews.
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.
Some tarot decks really don’t get the attention they deserve. I absolutely love the Mystical Tarot, published by Lo Scarabeo in 2017, created by Giuliano Costa and think it warrants study and use. It’s a rich, detailed and absorbing deck with so many layers to peel back. I spent a bit of time with it this afternoon, looking at how the artist has interpreted the cards. They are absolutely crammed with symbolism and whilst being recognisably in the spirit of the Waite Smith deck, they have a unique quality which is at once artistically satisfying and magically potent.
The Devil was first out of the pack today. There are no titles on these cards and that led me to wonder about the name we give to card 15. Is this The Devil, the antichrist? Or is this one of infinite demons in hell tasked with tormenting souls? We might even discover that it is something else entirely, something of our own creation. Either way, the artist takes inspiration from medieval depictions of the devil, with multiple faces which serve to amplify the horror and underline the wages of sin.
This is an unpleasant and surreal card with a sickly quality to it. It nods to some of Dali’s landscapes, his use of colour and treatment of faces. I even spotted Dali’s own moustaches hiding in the eyebrows of the creature on the Devil’s sword. It’s not an off the wall idea that Dali might be referenced here as he created his own tarot deck and he and his contemporaries used the symbolism of the tarot to inform their own work. There’s a distinct flavour of the industrial hell of William Blake here as well, with smoking chimneys, factories and mills in the background. The creature’s ears are steaming too as though its very body is a place where horrors are created.
Down in the lower half of the card we see the Devil’s two acolytes. They are naked and exposed. Their lack of clothing means we have no clue as to their status in terms of class or wealth. Death, and indeed the wiles of the Devil, is the great leveler and we see that in card 13 with Death reaping the souls of the great and the humble alike. The figures in the Devil card are surrounded by symbols of their own infatuation. The oyster shell, the strawberry, the snake all indicate temptations of the flesh. There is a sense though that the people here are no longer really interested in those things, but have found that by chasing them they are now ensnared. They are like the alcoholic who finds no pleasure in drink, only a momentary distraction from the pain he is trying to numb. The woman on the right is consumed by serving her obsessions, but the male figure on the left looks as though he has just seen the reality of his situation. He has found himself in hell. By chasing his desires he discovers he is trapped by them with apparently no way out.
But the Devil has no physical grasp on this pair. His hands are occupied by taking the stance of the figure we see in card 1, the Magician, only reversed. His gaze is fixed on the viewer of the card, intense and hypnotic rather than confrontational. He draws us in through the vices which it is so easy for us to slip into, but, interestingly, he is shackled just as the figures are. There is no freedom here for the Devil. It is hard to know what this figure gains from the acolytes at his feet.
Modern ways of divination tend towards some sanitisation of this card. ‘Gentler’ decks rename the card ‘Temptation’, as though our greatest worry here is eating too many Kit-Kats one afternoon. I would say that the energy here though is of being utterly consumed by something to a point that you find yourself in a world light years away from where you wanted or intended to be. The Devil looks out at you from this card and asks a question. What is it that consumes you to the point of horror and madness? What little white rabbit have you chased so far down the hole that it has landed you on the plains of hell? You don’t have to stay there. The Devil doesn’t have you by the wrists. Your hands are free to unshackle yourself at any point.