This is a deck that I strongly encourage every Tarot enthusiast to familiarize themselves with. Tarot de Marseille (TdM) is an umbrella term that applies to a style of decks produced in the French city of Marseille. The appearance of this style sometime in the late 1400s – early 1500s is the first time the Tarot, as we know it in its modern form, existed. Almost every deck of Tarot cards produced afterwards is based on the structure of the TdM. This is the closest we will get to a complete “original” Tarot.
Of course, there are several varieties of the TdM. The version in my collection is the Universal Tarot of Marseille based on Burdel’s rendition; this is not the only option, or even necessarily the best, but it works well enough and is easily recognizable as a Marseille deck. The use of colors and shading in this specific deck is atypical of a TdM, but I find it to be attractive and useful for quick sorting.
This type of deck has many advantages. It is the only deck in my collection designed without a specific method of interpretation in mind (or so we have to assume, considering we don’t know who really “invented” this deck). While I believe that a flexible approach is the best way to work with any deck of Tarot cards, all of the other decks certainly were designed around a specific method of interpretation by its creator. The CHT, for example, has a very complex system of correspondences and symbolism that is taken from many influences from around the world. While you don’t necessarily need to understand any of it to use the CHT, it definitely helps. The TdM is by comparison a blank slate. You have the pictures in front of you and whatever preconceptions you bring to the table. Now, there are popular meanings assigned to the cards by various Tarot masters over the years, but these aren’t by any means set in stone. For some, this makes for difficult reading, especially because the small cards are marked with nothing but pip symbols, a number, and some decorative plant-like scroll work. In this instance, some general knowledge of numerology and the elemental qualities of the suits goes a long way, although there are some schools of thought that suggest your initial emotional reaction to seeing a card is the best way to interpret it, regardless of any other meaning. This can sometimes be difficult to gauge when all you see is a group of wands or coins, but if that’s the way you wish to use your deck, it releases you from needing any outside knowledge. It’s as valid as any other method of reading the cards.
At first, I found the relative plainness and crude quality of the woodcuts compared to the artwork of some other decks a little off-putting, but I have long since gotten over that. This deck has become, after much use, one of my favorites. It is very often my go-to deck for readings, and when I’m studying another deck in my collection, the TdM is never far from reach, because I find using it as a base for comparisons to be very helpful.
I don’t know what more to say about it right now. This deck is historically a very important deck, and having used it many, many times with success, I am not surprised that the general structure of the Tarot has evolved relatively little since its first appearance several centuries ago. To sum up, this deck is the workhorse of my collection, totally untethered by outside influences, yet not unwilling to accept them, and is the progenitor of all my other decks. If I had to choose only one deck to use for the rest of my life (a decision I’m thankful to not have to actually act on), I’d choose the TdM.
The Book of Thoth, or Grande Etteilla III (GE), is the most recent addition to my Tarot collection. It is the version of the Tarot with which I am least familiar.
This deck is an odd one. The Minor Arcana is much as it is in any other deck: the small cards are pips, and the court cards show people of appropriate suit and rank. The Major Arcana, though, is very strange to me. For one, the archetypes pictured are in many cases totally different than what I’m used to. For another, the few that are the same or similar have been totally reordered. When I refer generally to the Major Arcana throughout this blog, it can be taken for granted that the exception lies in Etteilla’s deck.
I’m certain Etteilla had very good reasons for the changes he made from the typical Tarot deck, but as of now, I’m at a loss for understanding. There are no books that I can find (in English, anyway) that elaborate on his intended system.
My understanding, limited though it may be, is thus: Etteilla was a French cartomancer who operated in the latter half of the 18th century. He was familiar with the traditional Tarot deck and its potential for divination. The original Tarot, however, was not necessarily intended by its creators for that purpose, so Etteilla devised a system which was. The resulting deck, by which this deck was inspired, was the first Tarot deck created with the sole purpose of divination and occult uses in mind.
Historically speaking, this version of the Tarot is important. Even though most decks available today are not based on this system, but on the more traditional system found in the TdM, Etteilla’s work on the diviniatory meanings of the Major Arcana has influenced the way subsequent Tarot masters viewed their cards. Waite, who designed what would become the most popular Tarot deck over a century later, based many of his divinatory meanings on the GE.* While you can go through your entire Tarot journey without awareness of Etteilla’s contribution to its history and not lose anything really important, I believe that a better understanding of history is imperative to a fuller comprehension of the present in any matter, Tarot or otherwise.
As different as this deck is, study and divination is made easier by the inclusion of both upright and reversed meanings on the cards, including those of the Minor Arcana. These are, however, only in French, so to people such as myself, who do not read French, the meaning is still not obvious (I have enough of an understanding of Romantic languages to be able to glean the meanings from the cards, but they are not as straightforward to me as they would be in English. In a way, though, I actually like this, because it adds a certain mystique to the cards).
There is a discernible pattern to the ordering of the Major Arcana, although it is not the Fool’s Journey that is to be found in other decks. The first eight cards relay the story of the creation of the world, clearly inspired by the Bible, although the archetypes are applicable to most mythic systems. This has some interesting implications for the mythic content of the Tarot in general, because as I’ve discussed in a previous post, your typical Tarot deck contains within it the archetypes which comprise the Journey of the Hero (called the Fool’s Journey among the Tarot community – to be examined in the future). I’ve been taught that, at their most fundamental level, every myth falls into one of two categories: Creation myths (or myths that attempt to answer the subconscious question “Where did I come from?”), or Hero’s Journey myths (or myths that try to answer “Where am I going?”). Most Tarot decks deal with the latter; the GE, by contrast, deals with the former, and thus, it can be argued that the entirety of Mythology (in a very, very general and archetypal sense) is contained within my collection. Now, I suspect that there are some elements of the Hero’s Journey in the GE, and I suspect that there are some elements of the Creation in the others, but I’ve yet to study my decks in-depth with this in mind, so I don’t want to make any claims here. Expect a post or two about this later, though, because it is a question that I intend to answer.
Following the Creation cards are cards representing female personifications of the four virtues Justice, Temperance, Strength, and Prudence. The remaining ten cards of the Major Arcana depict various life situations, which should all be more or less familiar to users of the more well-known Tarot decks, although as stated above, most have different names, they’re all in a different order, and some have been assigned divinatory meanings that are completely foreign.
I will not call this deck “evil”, but I do get some discomforting vibes from it that are absent from my other decks (yes, this includes the wicked Mr. Crowley’s deck). This is probably the result of one or more of the following reasons: first and foremost, my relative unfamiliarity of the GE and its inherent differences compared to other decks is probably a contributing factor. The art, while beautiful in its own way, is somewhat disconcerting to my taste. This is more true in some cards than in others. I chalk that up to the antiquated style (I’m not art historian, but I saw another blogger refer to this style as “19th century Neo-Gothic”). Finally, I can’t help but notice the amount of negative meanings written on these cards. Many cards that are generally considered positive in other decks are completely depressing in this one (like the Magician, who, whether he’s upright or reversed, guarantees a physical or mental malady for the querent, or the Hermit, who predicts certain betrayal by a trusted friend). I can’t say for sure that there actually are more negative cards in this deck compared to any others, but it does seem to me that the GE is capable and willing to give some quite ominous readings.**
All that being said, though, I do like this deck a lot. It adds diversity and historical perspective to my collection of otherwise relatively similarly-structured decks. Furthermore, its inclusion of the creation myth absolutely fascinates me. All in all, it is an attractive deck (even with its sometimes unsettling pictures – there is a grotesque type of beauty about cards like the Devil in this deck) that is specifically geared towards divination, and I would especially recommend it to any collector or student whose aim is to trace the evolution of the Tarot.
*There is one specific example of this that is responsible for drawing my attention to Etteilla in the first place: the Hermit. Waite’s description of the Hermit in his Pictorial Key stressed “treason, corruption, dissimulation, and roguery”. I was very confused by this, because at first glance it seemed at odds with the typical meaning of the card. Etteilla called his Hermit “Traitor”, and presumably, this is why Waite described his Hermit the way he did. On a semi-related note, Led Zeppelin’s use of the RWS image of the Hermit for their song “Stairway to Heaven” and the subsequent criticism it garnered as a subliminal call to worship Satan by religious uptights suddenly begins to make sense. Maybe there’s something to those claims, after all. Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence.
**Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. After all, life is not fair, and terrible things do happen to good people for no apparent reason. Why should the Book of Wisdom coddle us? It seems to me that many modern decks try to do away with negativity altogether, renaming Death (to many, the scariest card in the deck) as something watered down like “Transformation”. While this is understandable and not technically an incorrect interpretation, it seems borderline inappropriate to whitewash Death in such a fashion, and I believe that people need to learn to take the good in life with the bad. If you are of weak constitution, though, a deck like the GE may not be for you. Approach it at your own (purely psychological) risk.
Addendum: Having written out my thoughts about this deck and then going back and looking through it again, I feel that I may have been too harsh when describing my overall impression of it. I hesitate to take it back, but I want to stress one more time: this is absolutely not an evil deck of cards, at least, no more so than any other deck of Tarot cards. Furthermore, these are only my impressions, and what is disturbing for one may very well be a comfort to another. Please take my thoughts with a grain of salt.
Also, if anyone can point me in the direction of any English sources on Etteilla’s Tarot, please do so in the comments. I’m eager to learn more!
The Tarot can be likened to a wheel: each card leads to the next, from the Fool to the Ten of Coins and back to the Fool again, and so on, until you eventually lose track of where it began and where it ends. Mr. Crowley especially felt this way about the Tarot, and he designed the CHT with the recommendation that it be studied with the wheel metaphor in mind. He’s not the only one to consider the Tarot in terms of wheels; the Wheel of the Year underlies the Wildwood Tarot, and if you look at the Wheel of Fortune card in the RWS, you will notice the word “TAROT” spelled out in a circle, with no distinction made between the first and the last “T”.
The wheel is a symbol for the infinite cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Variations of this symbol show up throughout the deck: the number 0 of the Fool, the Ouroboros serpent around the waist and the infinity sign or lemniscate above the head of the Magician in the RWS (there’s an implied lemniscate over the head of most Magicians, and it shows up again above the head of the maiden in some Strength cards, and again as part of the design of the 2 of Coins/Pentacles/Disks), the wreath in the World card, and of course the Wheel of Fortune card. The list could probably continue, but I think the point has been made. The Tarot is circular.
I like this way of thinking about the Tarot. It implies motion, and it implies continuity. Unlike other books of wisdom, the Tarot is fluid, constantly changing and evolving to meet the needs of the situation at hand, and yet no matter how thoroughly they are shuffled, the cards maintain their connections to each other. Different cards may come to the top at different times, like the spokes of a wheel, but they ultimately are all connected at the hub.
A circle also has no corners, or points, and I think this is important, because it illustrates that there is no part of the Tarot which is more important or better than any other part (like the seats of the Round Table). The same can be said of the variety of methods of working with the Tarot.
Indeed, there are many methods of studying and using the Tarot. Some are based on intuition and mood, while others adhere to a strict system of defined meanings and correspondences. Each method has its benefits, but there are none that I believe to be singularly the best.
The following quote from the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols epitomizes my philosophy on the study of the Tarot:
“Whatever validity these different points of view may possess, we should never forget that the Tarot never submits to any one attempt to systematize it, and it always retains something which escapes our grasp.” (p. 975)
I always keep this in mind when I wonder how best to interpret a spread of cards, or when I’m studying them in the deck and just pondering what they might mean. Thinking of the Tarot in terms of wheels is not a method, but a metaphor, and one that serves to remind of the infinite possible directions the Tarot can lead us.
The Wildwood Tarot (WWT) is the only deck I own that would not be considered either a “classic” or “historical” deck. It is the only deck that is directly inspired by another deck in my collection, namely the Rider-Waite-Smith. This is, however, the very reason I chose it. Well, sort of.
When assembling my collection of five decks, I was attempting to be as well-rounded as the number would allow, and touch as many bases of Tarot history as possible (why not just collect more, you ask? well, I would, but I try as best I can to live my life by the laws of moderation, and that includes the number of Tarot decks I own; five strikes me as more than too few, but less than too many, if that makes any sense*). So I acquired a Marseille, I obtained a Rider-Waite, I picked up a Thoth, and I even got myself an Etteilla (not quite in that order). But history only has meaning in the context of modernity,** so a recent deck was, I felt, a necessary addition to my collection. And since it is undeniable that the vast, vast majority of decks made available in the past few decades are just copies (albeit sometimes quite creative ones) of the RWS, it only made sense that I should round out my collection with one of them. But which one, out of the thousands out there, is the right one for me?
You read the title of this post. You know that I’m about to say the Wildwood Tarot.
While this deck is clearly in the tradition of the RWS, to label it a mere clone or a copy does not do it justice. It is much more. The basic RWS structure is implied in its design, but the creators had an alternate system, called the Wheel of the Year, in mind when they made the WWT as well. But before I delve deeper into all that, let me explain why I personally chose this deck over the multitudes of other options.
First and foremost, I really like the artwork. Like, really. It’s phenomenal. With the possible exception of Lady Harris’ work on the CHT, this is the most beautiful artwork in my Tarot collection. And my primary reason really is as superficial as that.
Secondly, the themes of this deck particularly appeal to me, such as a connection to nature and to ancient Celtic/European culture. I love walking in the woods and spending time among the trees, and this deck is ideal for a mental walk through the forests of the imagination. It calls for us to take better care of our natural environment before it’s too late, which is a cause I very much support. And if you’ve read some of my previous posts, it should come as no surprise that I am drawn to the European mythic symbols in these cards. I love all mythology, but the mythology of the Celts is the mythology of some of my ancient ancestors. Alright, I admit, pseudo-mythology might be a more appropriate term for the WWT. There is no mythology in the academic sense. But the feelings I get when I use these cards are reminiscent of the feelings I get when I read Celtic myths and legends. The creators called the theme they used a “pre-Celtic” mythos, which gives them plenty of artistic liberty, considering we have almost no written records of Celtic culture, let alone the stone-age cultures which preceded it. We know they existed, and that’s about it. And that leaves a lot of room for criticism about the authenticity of this theme (there are definitely some anachronisms), but to that I say, the Wildwood is not and never was a literal forest during a specific time in Europe. The Wildwood is a representation of the realm of Faerie, a timeless dimension imbued with magic that we can only reach through our imagination and our dreams, in which anything is really possible. The Celtic influences therefore serve only as inspiration here.
I said earlier that the RWS is the template that this deck is based on. This is certainly true, but a Tarot beginner would likely have a bit of difficulty seeing how these decks are connected. The Major Arcana do follow the same pattern (actually, the WWT has restored its equivalent cards for Strength and Justice to their pre-Waite order, which was something I was pleased to see), beginning with 0 the Wanderer (equivalent of the Fool) and ending with 21 the World Tree (equivalent of the World). Every single one of these cards, however, has been renamed, and the content and meanings of a few have been rather drastically altered. These changes work very well for some, but others are a little strange for my taste (not saying that’s a bad thing – there is not one card in the Majors that I truly dislike). The traditional numbering of the Major Arcana means that it is naturally set up in the order of the so-called Fool’s Journey, and this deck gives a very interesting and distinct version of that journey. However, the cards can also be arranged in a different order according to the Wheel of the Year, a system which follows the cyclical progression of the seasons on multiple levels of consciousness. If for no other reason, it can be said that the integration of the Wheel of the Year system into the Tarot is enough to justify this deck as independent from previous systems, regardless of its roots in the RWS (and the more I think about it, the more I realize that the WWT is really no more a copy of the RWS than the RWS is of the TdM).***
The small cards are illustrated with scenes depicting their meanings rather than simple pips. Many of these scenes are reminiscent of their counterparts in the RWS, but many are not, and this reflects differences in the intended divinatory meanings.
The suits have been renamed and reordered as Arrows (Swords – Air – Spring), Bows (Wands – Fire – Summer), Vessels (Cups – Water – Autumn), and Stones (Coins – Earth – Winter).
The court cards display the most noticeable difference between the WWT and the RWS, or any other deck, for that matter: rather than depicting people, they depict animals commonly found in a temperate forest. I’m fascinated by this, and take it to mean lessons to be learned based on the abstract qualities possessed by both the animal and the suit of which it is a part. Lots of room for interpretation here.
So that about wraps up my thoughts about this deck. It’s not my favorite, but it is one I’m very pleased to have as a part of my small collection. It provides a unique perspective on the possibilities of the Tarot, lifts my mind into the clouds while keeping my feet planted firmly in the living Earth, and being non-traditional, it reminds me that the Tarot is never beholden to any one method of interpretation.
*My definition of moderation is arguably the most subjective statement in this or any of my posts.
***I can’t stress this point enough. The Wildwood is actually not a RWS derivative. This post is one of the earliest of my blog (back when I only had five decks), and at the time, I simply did not understand much about the Tarot and its structure, at least compared to now. I’m adding this footnote now (it’s currently August 2017) rather than editing the post, though, because I like to go back through my old posts occasionally to see how I’ve learned and evolved over time (any after-the-fact editing on my part is usually a change of an awkward phrase or grammatical error, not a change of content). There are quite a few early posts that have similar issues as this one; someday, I may go ahead and just write new posts that re-examine old themes, but in the meantime, I wanted to make this addendum, in case anyone was reading this and was like, “how can this clown of a blogger seriously think the WWT is based on the RWS?”
The associations of the classical elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth with their respective suits Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins is generally agreed upon within the Tarot community. These associations ring true in my collection of decks; even when the titles of the suits change (the Coins seem to change the most often, having been renamed Pentacles in the RWS, Disks in the CHT, and Stones in the WWT), the elements remain the same. I don’t intend to discuss why these associations are as they are; I’ll take it for granted that if you’re reading this, you already understand and accept why these symbols were assigned to each element.
Instead, I am here to discuss the lesser-known but very important fifth element, and why I believe the “suit” associated with it should be the entire Major Arcana. There are some who already agree with me; this post is for the rest of you.
First of all, I suppose I should explain what I mean by the fifth element for those of you who may not be familiar with it. This element is called Aether, and was originally believed by classical and medieval philosophers to be the substance which made up the invisible spheres that held the planets in place around the Earth, and which had a direct influence on worldly affairs. There were supposedly eight of these spheres concentric around the Earth, each fitting inside of the other like nested dolls. Each sphere contained a “planet”, the closest of which was the Moon, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally the fixed stars, which included the belt of the Zodiac.
Of course, nowadays, we know that these heavenly bodies do not revolve around the Earth (with the exception of the Moon, of course), just as we know that Water, Earth, and Air are not elements themselves but compounds of chemical elements.* These ideas are rather philosophical in nature, and represent ideas about the states of matter. To reconcile these ideas with current scientific thought, we can broaden our definitions and associate Earth with solids, Water with liquids, Air with gases, Fire with energy, and Aether with the whole fabric of space-time.
Using the classical elements as denoting terms serves a double purpose: they describe the physical nature of literally everything of which we are aware, as well as the abstract qualities these things possess. The exception of course is Aether, which is entirely abstract by its nature. It’s common practice to call Aether “Spirit”, and on some level, I agree with this term. It means that which we cannot identify with any worldly element, nor even perceive with our five senses, but which exists nonetheless. So by this definition, it can be said that our very souls are comprised of the same abstract material – or lack thereof – which makes up space (please keep in mind this discussion is purely philosophical). There is nothing there, and yet we know it to exist.
Another important point about Aether to keep in mind is that it contains within itself the essence or potential for all four of the other elements, while remaining distinct from them. To illustrate this point, refer back to the geocentric model of the Universe, in which the Earth and all of the elements therein are contained within spheres of Aether (the Element Earth has certain characteristics in common with Aether, such as containing other elements within itself, which I intend on exploring in a separate post about the suit of Coins [linked above], but if you’re interested, the best explanation I’ve read is in DuQuette’s book on the CHT). In other words, Aether can theoretically exist separate from the other elements, but not vice-versa.
The alchemical term for Aether was Quintessence, and I think this term accurately describes the relationship between Aether and the other four elements. The idea was that, if you could somehow combine the pure essence of each of these elements, you would be able to synthesize Aether in a tangible form. This “new” element, Quintessence, would have within it all of the other elements, and yet, it would be something entirely different than any one of them.
Now, on to the matter at hand. It is my belief that a system such as the Tarot, which is a veritable model of the Universe (again, in a purely philosophical sense), ought to come complete with the element Aether. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, each suit representing one of the four “worldly” classical elements. It is fitting that Aether should be separate from these, yet contained in the same deck. This is why I think the Major Arcana represents the fifth element. Consider that the Minor Arcana contains the court cards and the small cards, which are generally taken to represent people and day-to-day situations. The Major Arcana, on the other hand, is usually interpreted as symbolizing either internal “spiritual” concepts, external Universal forces or “acts of God”, or things otherwise greater than the individual or the physical world in which he or she lives. Or, to put it more simply, the Minor Arcana represents the physical realm of the worldly elements, and the Major Arcana represents the higher realm of the spiritual element.
This would answer a question as old as the study of Tarot itself: why in the world is there an extra 22 seemingly arbitrary cards included with an otherwise normal deck of playing cards? It is an awareness of this fifth metaphysical element that sets this deck apart from its baser counterparts in gaming. And the people who lived during the time that the Tarot supposedly originated would have generally been more familiar with the classical conceptions of the elements, and therefore with the existence of Aether, than we are today. Assuming the original creators of the Tarot intended the four suits of the Minor Arcana to be associated with the elements, it follows that they should include the fifth element as well. This is all speculation of course, but I think it stands on a logical foundation.
I want to point out that the relative number of cards in the Major Arcana compared to the suits of the Minor Arcana is totally irrelevant. After all, there were eight Aethereal spheres to the one Earth. While I do believe in the significance of numbers in the Tarot, this is not an instance in which that should come into play. The asymmetry may bother some, but I honestly don’t believe it would be an accurate representation of the mystery of Aether if it were uniform with the rest.
As a final thought, I would like to draw your attention to the Aces of each suit. The Ace, being the first card, has pictured upon it the symbol of its suit, representing the element in its purest, most abstract form. The Ace is the essence of its element. Now compare these to the first (numbered) card of the Major Arcana: the Magician. The Magician embodies the essence of all that can be achieved through the path of the Majors, and he has laid out before him the four symbols of the Aces. Remember, Aether contains within it the essence for all four of the worldly elements. If it weren’t for the tools of the Magician, I would probably not even make the case for the Major Arcana as the suit of Aether. As it is, I’m pleased (almost relieved, even) to see them, because no system based on the division of the classical elements would truly be complete without Aether, least of all a tool of such dimension and universality as the Tarot.
*To be fair, the ancients did not actually fully accept the geocentric model of the Universe; they were aware of the heliocentric possibility, but for the sake of their philosophies (note: not science), held onto these erroneous ideas, because they were based on visible observation. Religious dogma caused the geocentric models to then be widely accepted as fact during the Middle Ages, but even then, it’s not as black and white as your typical high school history textbook appears to make it. But then again, nothing ever is.
It was very common throughout the history of the Tarot to believe that it was derived from an ancient Egyptian Book of Wisdom. Considering that the Egyptian god of Wisdom was Thoth, it is only natural that Tarot masters such as Etteilla and Crowley would associate their decks with the ibis-headed deity.
Of course, we know now that, however still technically possible, it is highly unlikely that the Tarot we know and love today was actually handed down to us by Egyptian mystics in an attempt to preserve the secrets of the Universe.
True or false, this legend does give us an interesting perspective on the nature of the Tarot. Many readers, myself included, do consider this deck of cards to be a Book of Wisdom. But what does that really mean?
One of the great defining characteristics of mankind is our capacity for complex language. Our ancient ancestors often told stories about how the language they spoke* was a gift from God. Well, a god. More specifically, the God of Wisdom, or Thoth, as he was called in Egypt. Other cultures had a name for this deity, too. The Sumerians called him Enki, and the Norse called him Odin. This god was responsible for bestowing language upon humanity, usually only after enduring a harrowing death and descent into the Underworld. Of course, in every case, the Wise One returned once again to the world of the living with his intellectual boon for mankind.
To illustrate with my favorite example, Odin, head of the Norse pantheon, was the patron of kings, battle, strife, poetry, magic, and yes, wisdom. He often went out into the world, disguised as a grey-bearded old man, obsessively searching for wisdom. He pitted himself against formidable giants in contests of wisdom, and summoned seers from beyond the grave to inquire about what they knew. He had a throne from which he could see everything in the nine worlds, and he had a pair of ravens who flew around these worlds every day, returning to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen. He even gave one of his eyes in exchange for a drink from a magic well which granted – you guessed it – wisdom. But perhaps the most extreme measure Odin took for the sake of wisdom was when he willingly hung from the world tree for nine days with a spear driven into his side. He died on the tree, and was resurrected with the magic runes – language – in his possession.
So the Tarot is, according to legend, akin to these runes, or rather, to the hieroglyphs similarly bequeathed by Thoth. Hence the designation “Book of Wisdom”. Pretty cool, huh? It’s not uncommon, after all, for ancient alphabets to hold an esoteric meaning other than simple phonetics. Take the runes, for example, which were more often used for their magical powers (like divination) than for writing. How many runestones in Scandinavia are inscribed with letters that spell utter nonsense? Surely they were put there with another purpose in mind. Or take the Hebrew alphabet, which is especially significant to the systems of the Tarot. These letters also have deeper meanings. The twenty-two Major Arcana could easily be conceived as a similar type of “alphabet” (the Minor Arcana are of a different class, but this will be discussed in a future post).
But the Tarot isn’t just attributed to Thoth; Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, messengers, and thieves, gets equal credit. The Book of Wisdom is as much his as it is Thoth’s. But why?
The Romans were the first to make a connection between Thoth and Mercury. In the days before Christianity, when the Romans conquered a people, they would allow them to continue worship of their native gods as they pleased. However, the Romans would attempt to assimilate these people by renaming their gods after Roman deities based on shared characteristics (which shows that, even though Jung was the first to theorize about mythic archetypes, the notion was around long before him). But while Minerva was considered the wisest of the Roman pantheon, the Egyptian god of wisdom was equated with Mercury (this must partially be because of the respective genders of Minerva and Thoth, but there are deeper connections which come into play here).
First of all, one must understand that Mercury is a very complex character. While his primary function is messenger of the gods, he is responsible for much more, like science and medicine. He is based on the Greek god Hermes (and while the two are very similar, they are not the same, although the Romans would have you think so). Another function of Hermes/Mercury was to guide recently deceased souls to the realms of the dead. This is where we see the primary connection with Thoth, who was present during the journeys of Egyptian souls to the underworld, and their subsequent judgements. When combined with his connections to science, we can begin to see why comparisons were made between these two gods.
Odin was also likened to Mercury by classical writers, and for the same reasons. He too had the ability to travel freely to the underworld. In fact, Odin spent a great deal of time just traveling around all of the realms of the Norse cosmos. Mercury, along with everything else he did, was patron of travelers and hospitality (I’d say Mercury was probably the busiest of the Roman gods). There are stories from both cultures about their respective god in which they traveled in disguise, searching for lodging. The humble were rewarded; the proud who did not open their doors to the gods were always punished, sometimes very brutally.
There is another trait which Odin and Mercury shared: they were both very mischievous fellows.
The Trickster is a very popular figure in world mythology. He is especially prevalent in Native American and tribal African myths (and in those myths, he is often associated with storytelling and language. Hmmmm….), but he can be found in some form or another in almost every culture. Through his conniving, others found themselves in dire circumstances, and through his wiles, they were usually saved again. He was often the spark that generated conflict within a myth, and he was usually as loved by humans as he was disliked by gods, because his tricks tended to result in their benefit (like Prometheus’ gift of fire). Mercury is very often considered the Roman Trickster. And while Loki is the official Trickster of Scandinavian myth, he and Odin are similar in more ways than not. It’s my theory that Loki is in fact nothing more than a shadow of Odin, or the darker aspects of Odin’s character personified as a separate character. This is a common way to analyze mythic characters (and when this is taken into consideration, it makes the Norse cycle of myths all the more tragic. Those who know the basic story arc and the parts played by Odin and Loki will understand why). I could write an essay on why I believe this, but a Tarot blog is not the place. Suffice it to say that the archetypes of the Wise Man and the Trickster are very closely intertwined.
Language, death, and magic appear to be the lowest common denominators of Wise Men and Tricksters across the board. Now, I’ve spent almost no time discussing magic, but it’s derived from the association with language, which is itself derived from the association with death. If anyone wishes for me to write a post elaborating on this, please leave a comment below; for now, I’ll continue on to the main point.
Now, there are many cards in the Tarot that deal with the themes mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are two in the Major Arcana, however, that exemplify the Wise Man and the Trickster especially well.
The Tarot card which best illustrates the Odinic search for wisdom is, in my opinion, the Hermit. In the RWS, the Hermit even looks reminiscent of Odin, with his grey beard and his hooded cloak. And in the CHT, the Hermit appears to have the head of an ibis, like the god the deck was named for (seriously, take a look at it and tell me he doesn’t).
His staff can represent the endless travels of the Wise Man, and the lantern shows his ability to shine light on dark secrets. The image of Cerberus in the CHT illustrates his connection to the underworld. With his robes, apparent age, and meditative visage, he is the very image of the archetype of the Wise Man, at least as he is popularly imagined in the West. The importance of the Hermit in the Book of Wisdom that is the Tarot cannot be understated; he is quite literally the personification of the legendary mythic figure that gave it to us. Or, at least, he is one of the personifications of that figure.
The other can be found in the card called the Magician or the Juggler. The Magician is very intelligent, more so than any other card in the pack. But he is not necessarily wise by definition of his character. His mental dexterity gives him the qualities found in the Trickster. He can talk his way into and back out of any situation, and he is not above using slight-of-hand tricks to fool unsuspecting onlookers into thinking he’s more powerful than he actually is. This is especially obvious in the TdM, where he is pictured as a lowly street performer (in other decks, he is pictured as a more respectable magician in ceremonial robes, and in the CHT, he is Mercury himself, but you can still spot the dubious smirk on his face). This isn’t to say he’s bad. He’s a neutral character by nature, who operates in the gray areas of life, but one should keep in mind that so is the Wise Man; wisdom in and of itself does not make a virtuous person.
I think the Hermit and the Magician – and, on a deeper level, the Wise Man and the Trickster – are two sides of the same figure. I’m not alone in this opinion: Crowley asserted as much in his Book of Thoth, calling them each a manifestation of Mercury (he never used Odin for an example, calling Norse myth a “debased” version of Classical and Egyptian myth. While I grudgingly admit that I see where he’s coming from, I think it’s too harsh a treatment for such a colorful mythos, and as I illustrated here, examples from Norse mythology can easily be applied to the Tarot, and to good effect. Or so I hope, anyway). So, the Magician and the Hermit represent two complimentary aspects of the multi-faceted Mercury, or Hermes, or Thoth, or Enki or Anansi. Or, if you prefer, the Magician is the Loki to the Hermit’s Odin. The list can go on.
No matter how you name it, the personalities inherent in these two cards are indicative of a dichotomy that I believe is integral to the successful use of the Tarot. I have a respect for every card in the Tarot, but the Hermit and the Magician together are representative of my personal approach to using the deck. The Hermit or Wise Man is passive, and stands for the study of the theory behind the Tarot. He seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The Magician or Trickster, on the other hand, is active, and stands for the practice and application of the Tarot (you’ll notice that the implements at his disposal are also the symbols of the four suits of the Minor Arcana). He seeks knowledge as a means to an end. Only together can the skills of the Magician and the Hermit lead to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the Tarot, just as any good Wise Man needs powers of illusion to be considered a wizard, or any good Trickster needs a modicum of prudence to maintain balance and not send the world around him into a blazing Ragnarok.
*To be technical, it was written language that was granted by the Wise One. During the times that these myths originated, writing was the privilege of a select learned few. This added to the mystique of writing. Manipulation of spoken language is more in the realm of the Trickster’s operation. It is very interesting to note that Odin was responsible for both: the runes, as a result of his death on the world tree, and poetry, or spoken language, as a result of his acquisition of the Mead of Poetry (which he obtained through trickery). This is just one of the many reasons why I believe Odin to be both the Trickster and the Wise One.
The Hermit is my personal favorite card, as well as the card which first attracted me to the Tarot (I listen to a lot of Led Zeppelin), so I thought he’d be a good subject for my first post about a specific card. This is always the first card I look for in a new deck, and the first chapter I flip to in a new book. I cannot learn enough about this mysterious character. For the time being, I think I’ll share only some general thoughts about the Hermit, and save deeper interpretations for future posts.
In [almost] every deck in my collection, he is depicted as a wise old man, always outside, wearing a cloak or robe, leaning on a staff or cane (this is represented by the Homunculus in the CHT; or rather, the Homunculus in the CHT is represented by the staff in the rest), and carrying a lantern. Mathers called this the Lantern of Occult Science; although I don’t like to limit the lantern to this designation, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the way “Lantern of Occult Science” sounds.
I think it’s fitting that I should have been drawn to the Tarot by this card. He is a man who travels off the beaten path, shunning society in favor of a more quiet wisdom, but he holds his lantern aloft as a beacon for any who may wish to follow.
I see the beacon, and I try to follow.
I identify very strongly with this card. I enjoy solitude, and I find myself often frustrated by societal norms. I enjoy silence, and find myself often irked by idle chatter from those who seem to need to hear themselves talk just to be assured of their significance, or perhaps even their very existence. Sometimes, we all need to take a step back and silently reflect. I think the world could learn a lot from the Hermit.
One thing I like to do with my multiple decks is take the same card from each and lay them side-by-side, comparing, contrasting, and contemplating. In some cases, I try to imagine each card is a scene from the life of the character portrayed within, and then arrange the cards into a sequence. It works as a great creative writing exercise, and it helps to gain a big-picture understanding of what the card can mean. Here is my sample result for the Hermit:
The Hermit had lived the devout life of a monk for many years. He was an intensely spiritual man, but was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the world around him. He longed for a serenity that he could not find in the society in which he lived. He was surrounded by corruption, and violence, and decadence. He even noticed it creeping in among his peers in the monastery, and it pained him. They no longer served the God he served, though they claimed otherwise.
He decided finally to turn his back on the monastery, and he packed his meager belongings, all of which fit within the folds of his cloak except his cane and his lantern, and he left. He was labelled an apostate, and was derided, and driven out of town, chased by dogs. That suited him fine, however. What he sought was inner peace, and as he walked away, he knew he was finally on the correct path to find it.
The Hermit made his home in the wilderness. Many years passed, and the Hermit was forgotten by all who he had left behind. He grew a beard, and made new robes, and fashioned a new staff. The one thing he kept from his years at the monastery was his lantern.
Every evening, as the sun sets, the Hermit lights his lantern, picks up his staff, and embarks on a journey to explore his surroundings and his psyche. Tonight, he eagerly sets out across a green field, eyes wide, towards a distant mountain. At first, his mind is occupied with nothing more than absorbing the scenery. The evening is beautiful, and he feels blessed to be experiencing it.
He continues on through fields and fields of grain, and his mind begins to wander as his feet do.
His thoughts soon turn inward. As he leans on his staff, he considers the potential of life, and ponders its secrets. In his mind, the lantern has become the sun of his soul, and though he tries to shine its light on the secrets of life, he cannot. The secrets remain frustratingly just beyond his sight, peering out through sheaves of wheat always a few steps ahead of him. He begins to lose his grip on his inner peace, and he questions the decisions he’d made in the past. Memories of dogs chasing him haunt like demons. But the Hermit continues on his journey.
As if awakening from a trance, the Hermit suddenly realizes that he stands at the peak of the mountain. He has gone as far as he will on this night. He draws his hood and closes his robes against the cold mountain air. His face looks tired, yet serene after his meditations. He looks down the other side of the mountain at the sleeping world below, and realizes the town he had shunned, and which had shunned him, is there. From the lofty heights of the mountain, the Hermit cannot see the decadence he’d left behind, only the peaceful beauty of a sleeping community, and he is struck with melancholy. He knows, of course, that nothing there has changed, or if it has, only for the worse. He pities the people below who will never know the peace and wisdom he has reached on the mountaintop. He lifts his lantern high like a star as a signal to anyone watching below: “Where I am, you also may be.”* For a moment, everything is clear. He truly understands the secrets for which he has been searching, if only for the moment. His internal anguish in the fields has been forgotten. The Hermit takes one final look below, and turns to begin his return journey.
A few months pass, and the fields are blanketed with snow. It is the winter solstice, a very special time for the Hermit. The dawn is about to break, bringing an end to the longest night of the year. The Hermit is just returning to his home in the heart of the forest after another long night of walking as he notices outside his door a small bird perched on a rock.
No deep philosophical musings cross his mind. Only the pure joy in the beauty that can always be found in life, no matter how cold or dark it may be. The Hermit extinguishes his lamp, enters his abode, hangs his cloak, and rests.
So there you have it: the Hermit as a symbol of inner peace and wisdom. He stands for intellect and individuality. And yes, he does also represent breaking a commitment to a faith or cause, as is shown in the GE deck. But for all the contempt he garners for that, no one else stands at the peak of spiritual enlightenment. And here’s the thing about the Hermit: he doesn’t care what society thinks of him, anyway.
*This is a quote used by Waite in regards to the Hermit in his Pictorial Key, p. 52.