Runes v. Tarot, Part I

My last post focused on my new, self-made runes. They are incredibly cool, if I do say so myself, and I’ve put the cards aside for a couple weeks in order to really work closely with them. It has been enlightening and empowering in many ways.

And of course, since this is a Tarot blog, I made it a point to say in that post that I would not be writing about runes very often afterwards, if at all.

So what gives with this post?

Well, for one, I’m currently experiencing some writer’s block with my other Tarot posts. Perhaps it’s because I’ve temporarily put my cards away in favor of my stones, but I just can’t seem to get my words out (and truthfully, I can’t just blame this on the runes, since the dry spell began long before my stones even had letters on them, or were even my stones). I’ve got two WIPs in particular that I really want to share, but both of them have hit a wall, so they must wait until another time.

But I also made kind of a big deal about the runes in that last post, and then just sort of dropped it before it really felt finished. I think I ought to provide a follow up. But worry not, for this post is not strictly about the runes. It is a post about both the runes and the Tarot. This one belongs on my blog, and I hope it will provide some context that will make the previous post feel a little more at home here, as well.

~~~

One of the main points of my rune post was that, since they were crafted by my hand, I feel a very strong connection with my runestones, especially compared to the connections I feel with my cards. This statement might be misleading, because despite the fact that I like my runes so much, I have to admit that, as a system for introspection and divination, I find the Tarot to be superior.

So, in a nutshell, the point of my post today is to answer these questions: why do I think the Tarot is superior, and, despite its general superiority, are there some things for which the runes are better suited?

~~~

The short answer to the first question is that the Tarot is a better divinatory system than the runes because of its comparative depth. There are 78 cards and only 25 runes.*

Here is one website that I’ve found to be particularly helpful with learning to use the runes, and under the heading of runecasting is a brief discussion of divination in general followed by principles of runic divination. Divination works (it says), because the tools for divining represent the entire Universe on a symbolic level. The complete set of tools mirrors the total reality, and by randomly selecting some runes, your subconscious is gleaning what it needs from relevant aspects of a greater whole. I actually like this notion very much, that the divination tools are a model of the macrocosm; so, according to this website, my rune pouch is a tiny little universe. Pretty cool.

Except, there’s a lot missing from the universe of my rune pouch. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Tarot, but the runes just are not that comprehensive. Sure, I can see how they could pretty well describe the worldview of a pre-modern, northern European pagan, but it still strikes me as incomplete, and anyway, that worldview isn’t exactly “universal”, is it?

The Tarot, on the other hand, is so much more versatile. I would say that the runes are more limited than the cards in meaning, and not just in number. Each rune has both a phonetic letter and a symbolic meaning attached to it. Since these ideograms are the pieces which make up a real written language, there isn’t much leeway when it comes to “intuitive interpretation”. Each rune means what it means, and that’s that. The cards were made originally for gaming, though, so in truth, there is no fixed deeper meaning aside from numerical value (no matter what the occultists say). Sure, there is a generally agreed-upon way to interpret the Tarot, but there is no law. According to one system, this card means this, but according to another, it means that. There’s much more room for the intuitive among us to make what we will of the cards. Add to that the fact that most cards today have pictures (and even the oldest had pictures on 22 of the 78 cards) that aid interpretation, while the runes may as well be abstract cuneiform, and you start to see what I mean. The cards are just more flexible and accessible.

I’ll grant that, despite the runes’ limits I mentioned above, there’s extrapolation of meaning, which frees things up a bit. For example, the rune called Ansuz literally means “mouth”, but for divination purposes, that meaning is expanded to include things like advice or wisdom or communication. So I suppose that, with enough contemplation, anything that could possibly happen in this world might be assigned a rune.

But it’s not really a question of the meanings of specific cards versus specific runes in my mind, anyway; it’s in the system.

The Tarot is constructed in such a way that it actually does align with my philosophical conception of the Universe. There are four “worldly” elements, and a fifth, “aethereal” element. There are four “mundane” suits in the Tarot, and a fifth “spiritual” one. Each of the five suits portrays a progression or a gradation (for the Minors, it’s a progression of 10, plus 4. For the Majors, it’s a progression of 20, plus 2. Very mathematically pleasing). You also have court cards to stand in for people. To me, the Tarot is a much better model of the Universe than anything else I’ve encountered.**

I guess it boils down to personal preference, but the Tarot just gives more nuance to a reading, and I really like that. However, depending on my mood, sometimes the runes are the better tools for finding what I’m searching for.

Well, this entry has turned out to be a bit longer than I thought it would be, so I think, rather than cram more in here and end with a mind-numbingly long post, I’m going to return later with yet another Tarot/rune post to wrap things up. Stay tuned.

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The Multiverse in my bedroom.

~~~

*My set of runestones numbers 25, although to be technical, only 24 of the stones actually have runes inscribed upon them. The 25th is blank, referred to in new-age runecasting circles as the Wyrd rune (and it is only in new-age runecasting that there is any reference to a blank rune). As I was slowly familiarizing myself with the runes over the last few months, I was constantly flip-flopping back and forth on the matter of the Wyrd. Some people find it very useful, and some people are vehemently against it. I was still unsure of the utility of the Wyrd when I was searching the Icelandic sand for my stones a few weeks ago, but I picked up 25 because I figured I’d kick myself if I went home with only 24 just to decide after all that I wanted to use that unmarked extra. Having made that decision, I’ve since found that I actually do really like the Wyrd, and though I’d like to explain my rationale, I think I’ve rambled far enough away from the point of this post that I’ll put an end to this footnote.

**I suppose the system of the runes could be similarly broken down: there are 25, so numerically, there’s enough for one of each element within each element. This isn’t the traditional breakdown of the runes, which is supposed to be three groups of 8 plus the Wyrd, but I guess it could still work. I’ll have to study my runes anew with this in mind.

Runes: That Other Way to Divine.

Divination. Such a strange, misunderstood concept. I’ve written a little bit about my thoughts on divination in general here, and believe it or not, I do actually intend to follow up that incomplete post with a conclusion someday.

But that’s not (directly) why I’m here today.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that there are myriad other ways aside from the revered Tarot to commune with oracular forces. By and large, though, I am fairly disinterested in these, with one notable exception:

The Runes.

This is a Tarot blog, and a Tarot blog it shall remain; but divination is a major theme throughout, and I feel compelled to dedicate at least one post to these other symbols of divination.*

~~~

I recently returned from a trip to Iceland, the land where my beloved Eddas were penned. And, my favorite cycle of mythic literature aside, I have never been to a country so starkly beautiful.

Now, the runes were not invented in Iceland, either in a mythic or an historic sense. However, because the only surviving versions of the myth in which Odin obtains the runes were written there, I say: close enough. The letters of the land may have first been gotten elsewhere, but they were used to their most lasting effect in Iceland.**

As a novice but eager runecaster, I fashioned my own runes while I was there. It seemed only fitting. I selected for my lots several small and smooth igneous stones from a beach of black sand on the southernmost coast of the island.

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This is the place.

Keeping watch over the beach a little ways off-shore were some massive, towering boulders, called the “troll-rocks” by the locals. I couldn’t have selected a better setting for my personal Odinic rune-quest if I lived in a fantasy novel.

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Admittedly not the best photo of the Troll Rocks, and I’m sorry to say that after snapping this one, I got so caught up in the moment of being at the beach in fucking Iceland that I forgot to take more, even though I’d meant to. You get the idea, though.

As I searched in the sand, I instructed one of my friends on the basic lore and what to look for so he, too, could fashion a set of runes (a fun Hierophant moment for me). Once we’d gathered the proper number of stones, my friends and I left the beach. Before we’d gone too far, though, we paused, and we gave thanks to the land for our runestones with pentacles and prayer.

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Just for fun, this is some of what was behind us while we were on the beach.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I sat down to inscribe my stones with the runic ideograms. Afterwards, I left them out to be imbued with the energy of Iceland’s “midnight sun” while I slept.

I must admit, part of my reason for relaying this story here is just so I can bask in the reminisces of my epic journey. But it’s also to illustrate that my new runes were hand-selected and hand-crafted by me, for me, under intentionally symbolic circumstances. Prior to my touch, they were shaped by nothing more or less than the four elements.

None of my many Tarot decks come close to this type of personalized (and elemental) connection, and while such a connection isn’t necessary for effective divinatory tools, it goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong; I do feel a connection with all of my cards. But not exactly this kind of connection.***

I had already been dabbling in runic divination for a few months before this trip. I even considered for a minute re-branding this site as a Tarot and rune blog, but decided against it. You see, the runes do have an intense hold on my imagination, very much like the Tarot. Unlike with the cards, however, my thoughts and feelings regarding the runes are not (for me) as easily put into words (or maybe I just don’t feel like trying). And, despite my occasional struggles elucidating abstractions on this blog, the cards simply offer far more raw material for word-smithing than do the runes.

As tools for divination, I believe the runes are intrinsically the same as the Tarot; yet they are their own entity – one that provides a fascinating counterpoint against which to compare and appreciate the cards as symbols and as systems. The two are as fundamentally different and as fundamentally related as the Earth and Sky.

Or that’s how I think about it, anyway.

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Wrought of Fire and Earth; sculpted by Sky and Sea.

~~~

*Like the Tarot, the runes are not confined only to divinatory uses. However, because divination is common to them both, and for the sake of simplicity, it is what I’ve decided to focus on for this post.

**I’m speaking metaphorically here, since the Eddas were not actually written in runes. To be technical, the runes Odin obtained numbered only eighteen, and are not the same literal runes as those most commonly used for writing and divination, which number 24. Odin’s runes are rather symbolic of all written language (and otherworldly magic), whether it be the ancient Norse with its runic scripts or the subsequent old Icelandic with its more or less Latin-ized alphabet, with which the Eddas were actually composed.

***Someday, I would like to design my own pack of Tarot cards. But that’s really nothing more than a lofty pipe-dream at present.

The Magician, Part IV.

Read Part III here.

 

The trickster can be considered the point of origin of the story because he generates the conflict which drives it. It follows that the tricksy Juggler is the appropriate card to kick off the chain of events that is the Major Arcana. But with the Magician, another way of looking at it becomes a bit more obvious (to me) than with the Juggler: he is at the start of the sequence, because he is the creator of the world.

Now, before I continue, I need to make mention of another card which received a wardrobe change and new name with the RWS: the High Priestess.

 

When the Magician was a Juggler, the High Priestess was called the Popess, the Female Pope, or Pope Joan, which essentially established her as the female counterpart to the Pope (the Hierophant in the RWS),* and leaving the Juggler to stand alone. The High Priestess introduces a certain level of ambiguity into these relationships – she can still be partnered with the Hierophant, or she can court another card (such as the Hermit), or she can stand alone as a symbol of unfettered femininity. Or, she can pair with the Magician, a pairing with some significance, as I shall attempt to explain.

In fact, I have already explained their relationship to some degree in my post about the High Priestess, and I urge any who are reading this post to please read that one, as well. It is a relationship of binary opposites, the fundamental relationship between the numbers One and Two.

Basically, One (the Magician) and Two (the Priestess) are the primordial creative forces of the Universe, progenitors of all that ever was and will be – everything boils down to them. From a psychological perspective, this makes total sense, because we experience consciousness only through constant subliminal comparison of hypothetical opposites. Certainly everything ultimately reduces to one, but one is meaningless without two as a point of reference. They complete each other, give meaning to each other, like the yin and the yang. It’s probably also partially rooted in biology: there can be no offspring without both a father and a mother. The Magician is the Cosmic Father, and the High Priestess is the Cosmic Mother.** They are the personifications of the purely abstract notions of male and female, which are themselves symbolic of all other binary opposites.

Now, all this is technically by virtue of their numbers, and not necessarily of the characters themselves, so it could be argued that the Juggler and Popess represent these very same concepts as the Magician and Priestess. From a numerology standpoint, they absolutely do; but I think the artistic differences between the old and new help to highlight certain ideas that would otherwise have remained obscure.

The Magician is generative, and the High Priestess is receptive. The Magician may be the initial spark, but the Priestess is the incubator. We tend to think the gift must precede the receipt, but in the grand scheme of things, it really comes down to the classic conundrum of the chicken or the egg. One simply does not exist without the other.

~~~

Having established that the Magician is actually an equal, though opposite, creative force as the Priestess, the question of his position as first is raised once again. From a purely symbolic perspective, as explained in the High Priestess post linked above, his very masculinity is the answer. One precedes two, and one is considered masculine while two is feminine. Men come first, unfair though it certainly is,*** and we have been conditioned to think that way for an age. Look at any of the three Abrahamic religions which prevail in the Western world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all bow to (the same) God the Father. They’re not the first. And whether you’re an adherent to any of these religions or not, your cultural heritage is imbued with the indelible imprint of at least one of them. Their message is not wrong; their specifics are not always right; but right or wrong, they are. It’s inescapable. We think the way we do in large part because of the people who thought before us.

It is only because the Tarot was conceived in this atmosphere that such a bias is reflected in the cards. This is true of the Marseilles just as it is of Waite’s cards. It could easily have been reversed along an alternate timeline, and it could easily be reversed now, without really upsetting the intrinsic meanings that either of these cards hold (symbolic attributions to the physical characteristics of genitalia aside, these associations of sex with numbers, or with any form of opposites for that matter, are totally arbitrary constructs). By all rights, they should both be in the first spot. But unfortunately our temporal limitations insist that one or the other has to be first, and the simple fact remains that the Magician just, well, is.

~~~

This is a perfect opportunity to make an essential point: “God” is not truly confined by gender or sex. Or rather, maybe “God”, as the Christians define him, is confined to his masculinity. But one of the reasons I continually find myself frustrated with this sort of religion is that “God” is used primarily as a name, a contrived denoting device with a capital “G”.**** This causes great confusion, because the word is not a proper noun in and of itself. There have been many gods and goddesses (lower-case “g”) since the dawn of time (that is, the awakening of consciousness). It becomes a question of whether or not any god by any name, be it God or Allah or Zeus, is really the top dog on the divine hierarchy.

When I say the Magician is God the Father, what I’m really saying is that the Magician is the demiurge. He does indeed create and manipulate the physical world, which is represented on the card by the aces upon the altar. He set up the table, he put the items in their places on it, and he moves them into their proper positions to effect the results he desires.

And yet, he still holds his wand above him, as if anything could be above him.

Your average demiurge refuses to acknowledge that he (or she) is not actually the supreme power in the Universe.***** Most of them probably honestly do not even realize it; it’s an awareness beyond their capacity, and indeed, beyond the capacity of many mortals far below them.

But the Magician knows. He knows that what he perceives as his own will is in truth the will of the Universe; that for every feat he accomplishes through his magic, he is merely a conduit for something greater; that desire and decision for him are ultimately illusions. He knows that, though earth-bound mortals may call him God, he is really only a hand of the supreme godhead.

The Magician is remarkably humble for his esteemed position. Most gods are jealous, and some are even vengeful, when their vaulted status is called into question. But though the Magician is receptive to divine influence, he is not receptive by temperament as the Priestess is. He is an active agent. It is why so many creator types do seem supreme. They harness divine energy, and they do stuff with it. The Magician may not be any more impressive than the Priestess is, but his actions certainly draw more attention than her meditations.

I liken it all to a pencil sketch: the Magician is the pencil, the Priestess is the paper, the drawing is Creation, and the artist is the higher power. Imagine for a moment that the drawing somehow developed consciousness. Doesn’t it make sense that, from its limited stance, it might view the pencil as its creator?

~~~

By himself, the Magician might remain a mere trickster, even with his new ritual attire (you didn’t really think the trickster only wears clown clothes, did you? That would be too obvious). It is only because of his relationship with the High Priestess – a relationship the Juggler does not openly share with the Popess – that he is able to ascend to the level of Creator, because man cannot become father without a mother to bear child. The potential is really there either way – the Magician does not have to be defined by the Priestess, any more than she is defined by him. But the concepts represented by her go a very long way in refining what exactly it is he stands for. It is a perfect illustration of the idea mentioned above, that One is incomprehensible without Two.

It is also a good example of the true nature of the demiurge: he may appear all-powerful, but he is not the sole power in the Universe. He just makes the flashiest show of it.

So, we can now view the first numbered card of the Major Arcana as the Trickster and the Demiurge. Could there possibly be more? You betcha.

~~~

*It’s interesting to note that the Empress and Emperor are side by side, and the Popess and Pope are on either side of them. I think that this was supposed to make a point about worldly authority versus spiritual authority during the Renaissance – the worldly being contained within the jurisdiction of the spiritual. By the time Waite was designing the RWS, this notion about the relationships between Emperors and Popes was outdated, or had at least lost much of its practical significance.

**Hajo Banzhaf refers to the Magician and the Priestess as the Heavenly Father and Mother in his book about the Tarot and the Hero’s Journey. They are not necessarily literal persons, just concepts, and they are followed by the Earthly Father and Mother, a.k.a. the Emperor and Empress.

***Institutionalized oppression is real, it takes on many forms including sexism, and it is unfair. I know this, so please don’t castrate me for stating my observations about the world around me. And, even in a patriarchal society, those who are enlightened know that true femininity cannot be extinguished. The High Priestess is a shining example of the sublime feminine power, even from her place among the shadows.

****In the NKJV Bible, any time the word “god” appears, it is actually written in the text as GOD, all caps, and it is really nothing more than a roughly-translated English placeholder for the unpronounceable tetragrammation, or true name of the Hebrew god. It is used interchangeably with LORD (if you’ve ever heard the names Yaweh or Jehovah, you’ve heard the most common attempts at phonetic verbalization of the tetragrammation). So, technically, the religious book does not actually claim that the Judeo-Christian deity’s name is God. However, its use of the word, combined with the crusade to demonize any and every other named god and goddess, has proven to be an effective way to impress the divine supremacy of this being into the minds of the masses over time. I don’t think the tetragrammation is very common knowledge to the the average self-professed Christian these days, so for all intents and purposes, their god’s name is God.

*****So, if not God, then what is the supreme power in the Universe? This post is not the place for such a discussion, so let it suffice to say that, whatever it is, it’s probably beyond our ability to define with our primitive languages. If there was a Tarot card to represent this supreme power, I would say it’s the World, although, truth be told, I don’t fully believe such a concept can be limited to a single card. If anything, the entire Tarot deck is itself the closest representation of this Universal force, and every single card is but a minute aspect of it, even the seemingly comprehensive World and the powerful demiurge Magician (and, I might add, the much maligned Devil).

 

The Juggler, Part III: The Magician.

Before there was the Magician, there was the Juggler. The Juggler was a character of potentially ill repute, yet simultaneously one which could delight onlookers with his tricks as he pleased. The dual nature of the Juggler’s character, combined with his divinitory associations with incredible mental dexterity – not to mention his almost clownish clothes – suggests the Trickster archetype of myth, which was the subject of the previous post in this series.

However, in the modern English-speaking Tarot community, the Juggler has effectively become the Magician, thanks largely to occultist Arthur Waite and the artist commissioned to illustrate his Tarot, Pamela Smith.

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TdM Juggler and RWS Magician*

The two versions of the card incorporate similar elements, especially the table upon which are set various implements, but there nonetheless appears to be some discrepancy between them. While the traditional Juggler** wears motley performance attire, the RWS Magician is dressed in the robes of a ceremonial magus. Especially striking is the Juggler’s hat; it is so conspicuous in its size and shape, that its absence gives the Magician an air of seriousness by comparison. We know the Juggler must possess a high degree of focus to carry out his whims, but a major part of his trickery is his ability to divert our attention from his true purpose, and his hat helps to disguise this purpose. The Magician cares not for such distractions, and instead an ethereal lemniscate, symbol of infinity, floats above his head. It is the same shape as the brim of the Jugglers hat.

The Juggler appears fluid and at ease as he performs. The Magician’s stance is poised and deliberate. He holds his wand to the sky in one hand, and with the other he points to the earth. This pose is a reference to the Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below.”*** This essentially states that what is true of the macrocosm is also true of the microcosm, an idea which is central to magic theory. The Magician works his will on earth and the greater Universe unerringly conforms. The pose also suggests that the Magician has the ability to take abstract or spiritual energies from the Universe “above”, and make them manifest on earth. Either way you look at it, micro to macro or macro to micro (in truth, it’s a constant back-and-forth rather than just one or the other), the Magician clearly wields awesome power.

Now we’ll turn our attention to the table. The Juggler plays with various objects that can usually be likened to the suit symbols of the Minor Arcana, although they can just as easily be random knick-knacks;**** but the items upon the Magician’s table can be mistaken for nothing else. There are four of them, and they are very clearly implements of the same sorts as are pictured on each of the aces. This implies that the Magician has the raw forces of the elements at his disposal. The combination of his Hermetic stance and the elemental aces on his table serves to underscore that his will is all powerful. He can manipulate the physical elements of this world with ease, but his true influence stretches far beyond the realms of crude matter.

In short: the Juggler performs tricks and illusions. The Magician performs magic.

~~~

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For this post, my aim was to examine the basic elements of the Magician card versus those of the Juggler. It is a digression from the overarching theme of mythic archetypes that is the purpose of this series, but I think it’s a necessary one to make in order to more fully appreciate what’s coming next as compared to what came previously. The Magician can still be associated with the Trickster, by virtue of his being a reincarnation of the Juggler (by the same token, the Juggler can be associated with all that I will claim for the Magician in the upcoming installments). But there is another archetype the Magician represents that is different than the Juggler’s trickster: God the Father, Creator of the Universe. It might seem like quite a leap, but I assure you, it’s all there in the cards.

~~~

*Interestingly, these two cards appear to be mirrors of each other. Is there significance in this? Perhaps, and I may or may not return to this thought in a future post.

**For the purposes of this post, “traditional Juggler” refers to the Marseille-pattern Juggler.

***Might not the Juggler also be considered to be making the same statement through his gesture? It can certainly be read that way. The Juggler may very well be hiding all manner of secret hermetic and occult wisdom, but if this is true, the many anonymous hands that contributed to his appearance left no indication that it was intentional. We just can’t know. One of the things that made Waite’s Tarot so revolutionary (aside from Smith’s Minor Arcana illustrations) was that he published a book detailing the cards and their symbolism. The Marseille Tarots are occult only because they were interpreted that way long after their creation; the RWS, on the other hand, is occult because its creator made it so, and we do know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

****The items on the Juggler’s table often vary from card to card. For example, the early versions, such as the Visconti and the source material for Huson’s Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot, show stock items of the street performer’s trade. While this might include a wand or a cup, it also might include balls or spinners or other random, non-Tarot-related items. Oswald Wirth’s Juggler, on the other hand, has objects on his table which very obviously correspond to the minor suit symbols (ironic, considering he never made a Minor Arcana). The Marseille Juggler typically falls somewhere in the middle: the items on his table appear to include a couple coins, a small cup or two, and a knife, and he holds a baton in his hand. These are very similar to the suit symbols, but they admittedly look nothing like any of their respective aces, so the similarities could therefore possibly be only coincidence.

The Juggler, Part II.

The last time I wrote about this card, I briefly discussed the evolution of the Juggler to the Magician. Today I am here to talk about the Juggler again, keeping that superficial distinction between him and the Magician in mind (I will follow up this post with one on the Magician).

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CBD-TdM

Despite prefacing the Major Arcana, the Juggler is a lowly character. He is a street performer, probably dishonest and operating in a seedy part of town. He amuses passersby with sleight of hand tricks, even possibly stealing from or cheating those who are not as intellectually sharp as he is (and he is very sharp).

Not to paint a picture of a bad guy; on the contrary, I find the Juggler to be very likeable. He represents focus and skill, excellent even if they are occasionally applied to dubious ends. I’ve equated the Juggler to the mythic Trickster a few times on this blog, and now is the time, I think, to explain why.

~~~

Tricksters are often associated with the myths of tribal cultures, especially African or Native American myths, but the trickster character exists everywhere. In the mythic realms of gods and demi-gods the world over, where might is right and magic generally abounds, the trickster relies on his wiles to get by. If the gods and giants are forces of nature, the trickster is mankind, at the mercy of and yet able to outsmart these forces. The trickster does not always come out on top, and oftentimes he must endure punishment even when he does. But his mind is his most powerful attribute, and he knows how to use it.

The questionable character of the trickster stems from his ability to outsmart. Even if he is not bad, he is almost always antagonistic in some way. Sometimes, this is necessary for his survival. Oftentimes, however, it seems like the trickster is just antagonizing for the sheer joy of generating conflict, or even just out of boredom. He certainly has some very human qualities, even if they aren’t always flattering ones.

With a few exceptions, though (Odysseus), the trickster as a character is not a mere mortal. He is often not quite a god, either. The trickster is usually in between, not quite mortal, not quite divine, not welcome here, not welcome there, but showing up anywhere he pleases all the same. One of the interesting qualities about the trickster is how generally disliked he is by the other characters in his stories, and yet how beloved he is by those who tell the stories.

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The Visconti and Medieval Scapini Tarots: two renditions of the earliest known Juggler.

The Juggler is no exception. Despite his seediness, there are few out there who don’t consider him to be a favorable card. But why is this so? The trickster is often identifiable as a “culture hero”, which basically means he is responsible, in a mythic sense, for somehow making life better for people through his trickery. Prometheus tricked the gods into allowing humans to eat the meat from sacrificial animals, and then he stole the fire for them to cook it, too.* Loki invented the fishing net and Hermes invented the lyre. Anansi the spider is responsible for all storytelling. Is Anansi a good guy? Not always, but it would be a bleak existence for mankind if it weren’t for his contribution to culture.

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From the Deviant Moon. Despite his title, this guy is certainly a Juggler type. Perhaps it’s the extra arms, but this Juggler in particular reminds me of Anansi more than any other.

In some versions of the Anansi myths, he is not only the god of stories, but of all wisdom, as well. Indeed, in much of the world’s mythology, the distinction between the trickster and the god of wisdom is a blurry one, although I’ve already written about that. The point is that there is much more to the trickster than meets the eye.

Such is the case with the Juggler. He appears to be nothing more than a performer with a comically floppy hat, but is he, really? Is he hiding something? Is he not also a conman, with more than just tricks for entertainment up his sleeve? He very well may be, but even that is just part of the whole picture. He’s the great manipulator personified, playing with gods and men as effortlessly as he plays with the implements on his table. His goofy hat symbolizes the vastness of his intellect, and his blonde curls and youthful countenance provide a seductive mask to hide a truly mischievous nature.

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Oswald Wirth

Just as the trickster is the spark that generates conflict in every story of which he is a part, so is the Juggler the spark that generates the progression of the Major Arcana. I don’t believe this is the only reason he stands at the front of the pack, though. I think his position also has something to do with that connection I spoke of earlier with the gods of wisdom – sky gods – – creator gods, even. You see, sometimes the Juggler is merely a trickster; sometimes, though, he transcends mischief and becomes something much greater.

That, however, will be the subject of another post.

Part III

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From Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot. The monkey is an interesting detail with some importance, but we won’t get to that for another post or so.

*The name “Prometheus” means fore-thought, which is an apt moniker for a trickster type.

The Hobbit Tarot.

I’ve always been hesitant to buy a themed Tarot deck. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a cool idea – on the contrary, I rather enjoy making connections between the cards and my favorite books and movies. The thing is though, I tend to think my own ideas are better than everything I’ve seen actually published,* and anyway, a themed Tarot just seems too narrow in scope to actually be effective as anything but an art collection.

On the other hand, though, there are so many themed decks out there, it’s almost as if they constitute a Tarot sub-genre all their own. Shouldn’t a well-rounded Tarot collection include one of them? Well, I thought so, but of all the options out there, which one should I choose?

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An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card from the Hobbit Tarot. I do not fully understand the significance of the pattern on the back.

I actually bought the Hobbit Tarot on a whim upon seeing it (priced ludicrously cheap) at the local metaphysical shop, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I couldn’t have made a better choice. For one, it is its own entity, not just a Hobbit-themed RWS ripoff. For another, J.R.R Tolkien is one of my favorite authors of all time, and among all his works, The Hobbit is probably the most timeless.** If I had to pick a single story to be represented in my Tarot collection, I can’t think of one better than The Hobbit.

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Rather than cards and companion book, in this instance, I think it’s more appropriate to say book and companion cards.

What remains to be seen, however, is how well the actual deck stacks up to its potential.

I think there are two criteria against which I will judge these cards: How well do they work as a Tarot deck in general? How well do they tell the story of The Hobbit?

This post will answer the former; as far as the latter goes, I have to admit it’s been a few years since I last read the book, and so I intend to reserve the greater part of my judgement in that regard until I have a moment to read it again. There are, however, a couple points I would like to make about its alignment with the story that caught my attention even without having recently read it, and I will address those shortly. First, the cards as Tarot.

I’ve already mentioned that this is not a RWS copy. This is a partial truth. It does place Strength at 8 and Justice at 11. It also maintains all the traditional Tarot titles rather than substitute them with Hobbit-based ones. Pentacles is Coins; the courts consist of Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings. Leafing through the instructions booklet, it seems as though the divinitory meanings of all the cards are more or less consistent with the RWS. So I suppose it’s safe to say that, if you are familiar with the standard RWS definitions, you can use these cards. The difference lies in the artwork. These are all scenes from the Hobbit, and virtually no attempt is made by the artist to make them look anything like P.C. Smith’s iconic drawings. If you are the type to read intuitively based on imagery – and not based on Waite’s book definitions – no amount of familiarity with the RWS will aid you with these cards.

It seems to me that the little booklet is required reading for this one. Each entry consists of a description of the scene depicted in relation to what’s going on at the corresponding place in the book, followed by suggested divinitory meanings. Just reading the descriptive first part, some of the scene-to-card transitions seem a bit of a stretch; reading the second part about the divinitory meanings usually clears it up quite nicely. Often my confusion (or skepticism) with the first part is replaced with an “Aha, that’s pretty clever” upon reading the second. The booklet itself is among the nicer ones I’ve got – it’s nice and fat (95 pages), with plenty of info. In the introduction, the author also heads off some of my doubts going into these cards, saying that “In bringing together the Tarot and The Hobbit, a kind of marriage has been achieved between these two very distinct mythical realms, and like all unions, this one also has its own contradictions and unities, its own ‘personae’.” That’s fair, I think, and I’m glad the author said something to that extent, because otherwise I’d probably have held onto some impossible expectations which ultimately would have led to disappointment.

The artwork is pretty good. I think the artist did a fine job of recreating the Middle Earth aesthetic without relying on the Peter Jackson movies to do the imaginative work for him. It looks like a pseudo-Northern European wilderness, which is what Tolkien was shooting for with the book. So well done, there. The problem is that some of these scenes look pretty generic, and without Hobbit-based titles to draw from, the LWB is absolutely necessary to understand what exactly they’re supposed to be showing us. The small cards almost never show their suit symbols, either, so without the suit names on the cards, you would never know what they were.*** I don’t really have any issue with this, but I think it merits pointing out all the same.

The court cards are somewhat odd in that they have no discernible pattern. Bilbo is represented in a few of them all by himself, and some of the other ones use totally generic characters (two of the Queens are nameless women of Laketown, for example). I should point out that there is an occasional card in the pack that depicts scenes or characters that actually exist outside of the storyline told in the book. The most notable examples of this are the four Queens, two of which, I already mentioned, are generic Laketown women, one of which is a mournful Warg bemoaning the fate of her kin after the Battle of Five Armies, and the final one is Goldberry bathing in a pond (with a man watching her in a way that would totally be creepy if I didn’t already know him to be Tom Bombadil). Goldberry and Tom are only mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, although they certainly existed during the time of the events told in the Hobbit. Luckily, I was actually elated to find Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, regardless of the fact that they don’t really belong among these cards (if you know anything about Tom Bombadil, though, you’d understand that he can do what he pleases).****

Another example is the Hierophant, which appears to be Gandalf the White (and he does look distinct from the other times Gandalf appears in these cards in his grey guise), complete with an apparition of Shadowfax, another bit that does not appear in the Hobbit. Temperance is even stranger, showing a high-ranking goblin rousing his fellows to fight the Battle of Five Armies after the events under the Misty Mountains. While that does happen in the timeline of the book, it’s not part of the narrative itself that I can remember; but what actually bothers me about this card is the very use of such a malevolent character for such a typically benevolent card. I think the point is that he is tempered by battle, but even among the other stretches I mentioned before, this one’s a bit much.

One thing I wondered about was how these cards would show the “feminine archetypes” of the Major Arcana when the book is lacking in strong feminine characters (one of the few shortcomings of Tolkien as an author*****). I was not disappointed – the High Priestess and the Empress show situations rather than characters, and I think, given the source material, that was a good decision.

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Three cards which would normally picture female archetypes.

All in all, as a Tarot, this is not the best, and as a recreation of the story, it’s not the best (further judgement on that matter to come), but as a Tarot depicting the story, it’s as good as I think could be reasonably expected. I like it, anyway, and I was surprised when I took it out to read with to find that, with the LWB close by for reference, it gave me pretty insightful results. So, I say, take the shortcomings with a grain of salt, because the Hobbit Tarot does ultimately succeed in what it sets out to do, namely give good readings using the fanciful imagery of Tolkien’s most accessible work.

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* I am aware of how snooty that sounds, but I’m just being frank. I mean, those Norse mythology Tarots out there? Please. It’s unfair of me to call them bad, but I think there’s certainly room for improvement.

**Alright, timeless is such a cop-out term to use here, especially when dealing with the mythos of Middle Earth. It’s all timeless, but even I, a self-professed Tolkien nerd, must admit that these books are not for everyone’s tastes. The Lord of the Rings is long as shit, requiring a commitment of at least a couple of months to read in its entirety, and The Silmarillion begins to cross over into super-nerd territory (although I was surprised to find that it actually wasn’t quite as dense as I’d expected). Mention anything beyond that, and you’ll get a blank stare from anyone less than a hard-core Tolkien-head. The Hobbit, by contrast, is meant to be a children’s book, operating just as well within its own little nucleus as it does within the greater context of Tolkien’s body of work. It is a rare example of a perfect standalone fantasy story. I had to pick a word other than favorite or best for this post, though, because it is not my favorite Tolkien book, so for lack of anything better, timeless it shall be.

***There are some exceptions, especially in the suit of Swords. Overall, however, the suit symbols are absent.

****Tom Bombadil is the Hermit in the Lord of the Rings Tarot (by the same artist), which is awesome (I don’t have that Tarot, nor do I particularly desire it, but I’ve seen pictures online). The Hermit in this Tarot is Beorn, which is also a pretty great choice, although the traditionalist in me really wishes he’d had a lantern. There’s no reason to assume Beorn wouldn’t have a lantern lying around somewhere in that great abode of his, and a Hermit without a lantern just doesn’t seem whole to me. I couldn’t help but notice that Tom Bombadil has a lantern in the LOTR version, so there’s no excuse for the omission. Out of all the non-traditional details of these cards, that one probably bugs me the most (with the possible exception of Temperance). But anyone who knows me knows how much I like the Hermit, so I’ll admit to some bias there.

*****Although to be fair, there are a couple great female characters in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Although, to be fair again, they are far outnumbered by the men.

A Choice of Lovers.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done what I used to enjoy so much on this blog: analyze a specific card of the Major Arcana. I don’t know why it’s been so long; either I’ve written about something else or I’ve written nothing at all. One of my eventual goals for this blog is to write about each of the Major Arcana at least once, and I think it’s high time I got back on that train.

I’ve chosen the Lovers as my subject today, because its changes over time are a little more apparent than many of the other cards, providing me with ample fodder for discussion. This card has a couple possible meanings depending on the deck used, and I’m going to focus on four particular versions of it in this post.

I’ll begin with the most straightforward version, which happens also to be the first, chronologically speaking. You can pretty much take the Visconti Lovers at face value.* It depicts a marriage, and can be interpreted to mean what it says: love, especially a romantic or everlasting love that joins two people. Pretty simple, right?

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Visconti-Sforza

Interestingly, this early version of the card is not what many would consider the most traditional – that distinction goes to the Marseilles Lovers, which is more correctly referred to as the singular “Lover.” The central figure is a young man. On either side of him is a woman, and hovering above them is a Cupid-like cherub. Rather than actual love, this card is typically interpreted to mean a choice, as the man must choose which woman to take as his lover. The choice of lovers pictured on the card is symbolic of choice in general – but not your run-of-the-mill, what-do-I-eat-for-breakfast sort of choice. This is the sort of choice that presents itself at pivotal moments in life, the sort of choice that defines who you are.

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CBD-TdM

There seems to be two prevailing ways to interpret the women. Probably the more common of the two is that one woman represents Virtue, and the other is Vice. The Lover must choose what sort of man he will be; will he live a righteous life, or will he succumb to baser temptations?

Alternatively, one woman can be the man’s mother, and the other is his, well, lover, and he must choose between them. You can get Freudian with that if you like, but what this generally symbolizes is the choice to grow up, essentially. Will the Lover choose to leave the past behind and face the future and its responsibilities head-on, or will he falter and regress back into the metaphorical arms of his mother?

Of course, this card can also be taken at face value, in which case it could be interpreted similarly to the love in the Visconti version (although the sole partnership implied in the Visconti is absent).

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The Golden Dawn tweaked much of the Major Arcana to better jive with their occult philosophies, and the Lovers are no exception. Now, I don’t know what the actual Golden Dawn Lovers looked like, but apparently they depicted it as the climactic scene of the Perseus myth, when Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster and Perseus flies in like Superman to save her.

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Hermetic Tarot

Why does this Tarot card deviate so much from its source? What reasons did the Golden Dawn have for using such an oddly specific story to illustrate this one card? Unfortunately, I don’t really know. Certainly Perseus took Andromeda as his lover after the rescue, but there are so many love stories out there from which to choose.

In a nutshell, the Perseus myth is a Hero’s Journey story, like so many other stories before and since. So far, we’ve seen the Lovers represent Love and Choice. Both of these are important themes in the great human drama, but only the latter is really a prerequisite of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero always must make the difficult decision to embark on his (or her) journey. It is a common trope for the Hero to find true love, for sure, but it’s not required, and anyway, if it does happen, it normally happens towards the end of the journey, not chapter six. When taken as a whole, the progression of the Major Arcana symbolically depicts the Hero’s Journey, and in this context, the Lovers card stands at that turning point, that choice, to embark.

And yet, this is not the moment of the Perseus story pictured on the Lovers card. Some traditions hold that the Lovers should neither be interpreted as love nor as choice, but rather as a test or trial to be surmounted, and this view is mentioned in a pamphlet written by Mathers, who was at the head of the Golden Dawn. Where and when this tradition originated, I do not know, but it seems likely that the Lovers Perseus and Andromeda against the sea monster are meant to be a representation of it.

In the very same pamphlet, though, Mathers wrote that he actually preferred to think of this card in Kabbalistic terms,** as the path descending from Binah to Tiphareth – or in layman’s words, divine-feminine energy descending towards balance, much like Perseus (guided in the story by Athena) flying down in Hermes’ sandals to restore the peace that reigned in Ethiopia before Andromeda’s parents pissed off Poseidon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am not a Kabbalist, and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the reasoning behind this. However, there is an element of the divine in every version of the Lovers that might attest to this idea, whether its a Cupid or an Angel (or a monster sent by an angry Lord of the Sea). This supernatural third party is a staple of the Lovers card (even the mundane Visconti-Sforza wedding shows a blindfolded angel), and I’m sure there are endless possibilities for interpreting it, although I won’t get into that here.

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Of course, for all the influence the Golden Dawn has had on the way we view the Tarot today, their version of the Lovers remains obscure. A.E. Waite, creator of the most popular Tarot deck ever published, was a member of the Golden Dawn, but he ultimately rejected their mythic version of the Lovers in favor of his own.

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Universal Waite

The RWS shows imagery taken from Genesis. Eve and Adam are standing beneath the Trees of Knowledge and Life, respectively. In Cupid’s place, an angel of God watches over them. These biblical motifs, whether intended by Waite or not, actually quite ingeniously combine all three traditional meanings covered above. Adam and Eve were literally created for each other, the epitome of Lovers.*** These lovers are then given the mother of all choices – whether to remain obedient and in Paradise, or to commit the original sin and be cast out. Now, we all know how these Lovers chose in the end, but they are pictured in the card as having not yet made this choice. And finally, the choice presented them is a temptation, a trial of faith.

The RWS Lovers is fascinating with all its subtle nuances, and it truly deserves its own post, which I will certainly write (someday). For now, I’m just going to leave it with the conclusion that it does manage to combine all three traditional interpretations.

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The fact that all three ideas can be combined in a single picture is significant, because it shows that, while divergent, they don’t have to be exclusive. Every significant choice in life is really a trial of sorts. And every trial is a result of a choice, and is probably a precursor to another choice. And the decision to take a lover can be among the most important choices one makes in life, and no love affair is without its trials and tribulations. So in a roundabout way, these different meanings are rooted in similar ideas. The main point here is that the Lovers, in some way, is essentially a metaphor for a crossroads. Think about it: a crossroads symbolizes both the convergence of two paths on a single point (a wedding), as well as the choice of which of those paths to follow. Also, consider the legend of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for sick guitar skillz. It’s the classic story of a test of character after the fashion of Dr. Faustus (Faust may have made the wrong decision, but I can’t begrudge Robert Johnson for his).

In every instance, the crossroads represents a pivotal moment, and it is on the querent to step up and do what’s right in that moment, whether that’s to be faithful to your partner, or faithful to the Creator that commands you not eat of the Tree. Regardless of how you choose, God or Devil, it’s your choice.

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Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. This card combines many traditional elements with Crowley’s own ideas about the Lovers.

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*Actually, since the Visconti Tarots were left untitled, some prefer to name it simply “Love,” and I kind of like that.

**One of the very few times that there is a hint of occult influence in Mather’s pamphlet – despite being Mister Golden Dawn, he evidently aimed this little book at the general populace rather than the select few who would have been familiar with such things as the Kabbalah.

***Yeah, I’ve conveniently forgotten to mention Lilith, but if you think about it, Adam choosing between Lilith and Eve is right on point with the meaning of the Lovers presented in the Marseilles pattern. In the Thoth, these two primordial women are pictured in the top corners of the card.