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.
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!
The suit of Wands is turning up a lot at the moment, and with this stifling, energy sapping heat, it’s not surprising. Wild fires and hot tempers crop up in equal measure and we crave the coolness and blessed relief of shady trees and streams. We can’t be far away from the weather breaking and when it does, the Nine of Wands here isn’t offering us sweet breezes, but a powerful climax.
With the Nine,the suit of Wands is starting to burn out its energy, reaching the end of a cycle, and yet it still has one last hurrah. Nines are cards where we ask ‘are we done yet?’ and the answer is ‘just about’. The nine offers strength, power, completion, and yet there is a circumspect energy about the chap we see. He is contemplating what this ending means, because each ending heralds the beginning of something new, or a restarting of the cycle. Are things going to play out as we planned? We’re asked to be cautious here. There is a lot of energy out there and though this is a time to be optimistic, we’re asked to direct our power carefully lest we inadvertently set fire to the parched land around us.