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.
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.
A very fine lady turned up today. The Nine of Pentacles is one of my favourite cards, displaying a smart, independent, and skilled woman. She is the mistress of all she surveys, having created a world and a life for herself. Calm and organised, this woman would appear to be the opposite of the Fool and his risk taking. But no-one gets anywhere without taking a few risks at some point on the journey, do they?
A local heroine of mine, Bess of Hardwick who was born in 1527, shows herself to me in this card. A shrewd, clever and business-minded woman, she took risks a-plenty and navigated her way through legal wrangles and the politics of the Tudor court keeping both her wealth, her position and perhaps most impressively for the time, her head.
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.
Going back to the tarot though, we’re back with the nines again. There is something missing for this lady, as perhaps there was for Bess of Hardwick. There is a sense in the card of ‘almost there, but not quite’. This element of the card is often interpreted as loneliness or a sense of isolation and I wonder if for Bess we might see in this card her many personal losses. She was widowed four times and lost two children in infancy and we might also mention the execution of Queen Mary, someone with whom she had a complex relationship.
As I write this, I am around five minutes walk from the tomb of Bess of Hardwick which is now in Derby Cathedral. As I have done on many occasions, I shall light a candle for her immortal soul and pray that I might have as much determination as she did in her life. It might also do to keep in mind that the Nine of Pentacles shows us that having ‘made it’ by achieving the material trappings of a successful life is most certainly not the end of the story.
If you’d like to learn more about the tarot, remember there is a beginners course in Belper on 29th September. All are welcome!
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!