The Hanged Man.

The Hanged Man is one of the strangest cards in the Tarot deck. He is suspended by one foot from a wooden frame of some sort, with his arms behind his back. He is upside down in what is clearly a very uncomfortable situation, and yet his face appears to be at peace. In the RWS, he’s even crowned with a halo or some sort of light emanation.

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The Hanged Man – TdM

The result is a somewhat confusing card that appears simultaneously negative and positive. I mean, every single card in the Tarot has positive and negative aspects, but only the Hanged Man appears on the surface to be both.

To be hanged upside down in such a fashion was supposedly a punishment for treason in the Middle Ages. This is bad on two levels: first, the guy’s a lawbreaker, and a pretty serious one at that; second, he’s being punished, which is good for the law, but bad for him. The punishment is presumably on public display, which leaves the Hanged Man vulnerable to the abuse of passersby. While the Middle Ages certainly had more brutal punishments to offer, being hanged upside down would be no fun, to say the least.

Of course, a crime like treason could have a positive light thrown on it. Perhaps the Hanged Man was a righteous man, rebelling against a corrupt and brutal government, and in such a case, even though he’s been caught, he would show no remorse. Perhaps this is why he has such a satisfied visage despite being tied upside down to a post. Perhaps he’s a martyr. It would explain the halo. In either case, it’s clear that the Hanged Man feels no regret for whatever it is he’s done, despite the fact that it ultimately resulted in what is surely his demise.

Another possibility is that the Hanged Man is up on his gibbet of his own volition. The general consensus of this view is one of spirituality. The Hanged Man has literally inverted his perspective of the world, allowing himself to let go of his preconceived notions about everything in favor of a new, perhaps unorthodox wisdom.

If we view the Major Arcana as a sequence, then the Hanged Man’s placement as the twelfth card can tell us a bit about his position. In the RWS, he follows Justice, which implies that perhaps he is being punished for some crime, although this is the same deck in which he wears a halo (martyr?). In the Marseille tradition, on the other hand, the Hanged Man follows Strength, which is sometimes called Fortitude. This is interesting, because it suggests that maybe he is up there of his own accord after all. To voluntarily suspend yourself between two perspectives in such a way would certainly require fortitude. Not necessarily for the physical act of hanging upside down, although that too would require some sort of physical and mental strength. Rather, fortitude would be a necessary preparation for the spiritual trials and tribulations that come from the metaphorical inversion of perspective represented by the Hanged Man. While the Marseille Hanged Man still looks like he’s enduring punishment, some other decks that use the Marseille ordering of the cards illustrate the Hanged Man as someone who is clearly using the upside down position for meditative or other spiritual reasons.

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The Hanged Man Meditates – SaM

Regardless of the preceding card, however, the Hanged Man is always followed by Death. Whether this Death is a symbolic one as a result of intense meditation, or a literal one at the hands of an executioner, it is clear the the Hanged Man is about to reach an end of some sort.

Perhaps the Hanged Man is sacrificing himself for something greater. This is a voluntary spiritual quest of an extreme variety. I mentioned martyrdom twice already; this card seems to me to suggest that suffering in the name of faith is part of the experience of having faith. After all, the promise of the World card is not available to anyone who does not first traverse the depths of the Underworld, and in order to go there, you have to die. Is there a more worthy cause of death than to suffer for a righteous purpose, or to sacrifice yourself in the name of a faith in something higher than oneself?*

This idea brings to mind the so-called myths of the Dying God. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this myth today is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Strictly speaking, I don’t think that the Dying God and the Journey of the Hero are necessarily the same thing, although they do share many very important elements.The Dying God is a metaphor for the setting and rising Sun. The Hero’s Journey mirrors this pattern, but does not have to be a metaphor for the Sun. It usually represents a symbolic journey for the everyman to aspire to, and often incorporates other archetypal elements that might not be found in a Dying God myth. I suppose it could be argued that every Dying God myth is also a Hero’s Journey, but I would not feel comfortable saying the reverse is also true. For example, the Egyptian Sun god Ra supposedly died every night, passed through the Underworld on his boat, and returned to life the next morning. This is probably the most straightforward Dying God myth, but it also follows the basic template for the Hero’s Journey. On the other hand, the story of Perseus from Greek myth is a prime example of the Hero’s Journey, but it has no implication of any metaphors outside that of the individual psyche.**

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The Dying God, or the Setting Sun – RWS

The Hanged Man as an archetype provides the crux (pun intended) of these myths. I can’t think of any myth where the god or hero was hanged upside down, but there are several which involve hanging from a cross or tree. Again, the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection forms the basis of the Christian religion; Odin also hung from a tree before returning to life. But the hanging from a cross or gallows is symbolic of a more general struggle required of the hero or god prior to the actual Death. For Osiris, it was the battle against Set. For Gilgamesh, it was his long travels through the wilderness and his meeting with the Scorpion-men who guarded the entrance to the Underworld. The Hanged Man is at the threshold of the Underworld, suspended between life and death; the Death card is the crossing of that threshold.

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Perhaps the most unsettling of the Hanged Men, and yet oddly soothing – CHT

From a psychological perspective, all this archetype stuff translates to some sort of dilemma. To be “hung up” on an issue, so to speak. This isn’t just a run-of-the-mill sort of problem. The Hanged Man represents an issue more akin to the existential crisis. There is probably some serious self-doubt and an inability to move forward. Again, Death is the answer. Remember, Death does not mean a literal death (although some people do remain stuck in their Hanged Man stage until the day they die for real). It means a total severance from the problem. Most people hate their Hanged Man dilemma, but fear to leave it behind, because they’ve grown used to having their hands tied. Death represents the unknown, and confronting this is terrifying to most, no matter how uncomfortable hanging upside down has become. Instead they regress back to that pivotal card, Strength. Strength is good to have, but it is meant to help you get through the stage of the Hanged Man so you can face Death with confidence.

If this card is turned up and it doesn’t suggest you are the Hanged Man stuck at the threshold, perhaps it is suggesting that you do as he has done, and suspend yourself upside down (figuratively speaking) so you can get a new perspective on things. In this case, the Hanged Man represents taking a step back from the problem, allowing for a fresh start, rather than the problem itself. Or maybe there isn’t a problem at all, and you just need to shake things up a bit. I believe the Hanged Man can also stand for stagnation in life, for example, or a sort of limbo. Basically, with a positive meaning, you get an intense spiritual experience (heaven); negatively, you get a very serious, almost inescapable quandary (hell); and in between is purgatory. I think these alternate possibilities are all contributing factors to the confusion of this card.

Finally, I think this card’s seemingly odd combination of an uncomfortable position with a comfortable facial expression can represent the strength of faith and a positive attitude. The Hanged Man is at peace despite his dire circumstances. Sometimes all you can do is make the best of a bad situation, and put your trust in whatever higher power you deem appropriate. I believe the Hanged Man is ultimately a card of faith, after all, and that’s what having faith is really all about.

 

*Unfortunately, many radical religious zealots take this idea literally, and use it as an excuse to cause violence in the name of something holy. It is more than a shame; it is a bastardization of the very values that religion of any denomination is supposed to stand for.

**It could be argued that the Hero’s Journey is just the microcosmic version of the macrocosmic story represented by the Dying God. I think this is a valid and interesting point, actually, but the fact remains that the basic function of each of these stories is essentially different. In other words, the Dying God myth generates faith in a higher power; the Hero’s Journey myth generates faith in ourselves to act in accordance with that higher power.

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Stairway to Heaven: or, How I was Introduced to the Tarot.

I think I’ll share a little anecdote today. This isn’t typical of this blog; I don’t normally share personal stories, and focus strictly on my thoughts about the Tarot. But some of you may be wondering,* why does this guy who calls himself the Sentinel use the Tarot? How did it all begin? Well, I’m feeling more open today than usual, so here it is: how I was introduced to the Tarot.

One thing you should probably know about me to appreciate this story: I was born on Halloween. It is my favorite holiday. I like everything about it: the decorations, the stories, the other-worldliness of it all. Even as I grow older, I still really enjoy the costumes. I like to get creative with them. It’s one evening where everyone dresses up as someone else. I like pretending to be someone else, and I like interacting with others who do the same. It really is a night of mischief, and I fit right in.

A little less than two years ago (as of this writing), Halloween was approaching, and I was suddenly struck with a great idea for a costume that I’d never seen anyone do before…

Another thing you should probably know about me to appreciate this story: I really enjoy kick-ass rock n’ roll. One of my favorite classic rock bands is Led Zeppelin (many classic rock fans feel the same way). They are like the alchemy of the rock music world, with the four individual members coming together to create something that is all of them, yet distinct from any one of them. Led Zeppelin is the Quintessence of Rock Music.

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They were wizards.

The liner notes of the CD for Led Zeppelin IV contain the lyrics to only one song from the album – “Stairway to Heaven” – which are accompanied by a drawing of a strange old man standing on the peak of a mountain, leaning on a staff in one hand, holding a lantern aloft in the other, and dressed in a hooded robe. You’ve probably seen him on the grungy t-shirts and posters of your stoned classmates in high school.

I was going to be the “Stairway to Heaven Guy” for Halloween.

It was such a subtle, simple costume, too. All I would need was a staff, lantern, and robe. But it would seem so much more elaborate than it really was because of the props (by the way, my lantern was real, with a candle in it, and I attached a hook to my staff from which to hang the lamp, so I wouldn’t be forced to have my hands full all night).

But I was curious. What the hell was this mysterious character, anyway?

Some brief internet research led me to discover the existence of Card number IX of the Rider Tarot, the Hermit (thanks again to aeclectic.net). I read a little bit about him, and was like, “Yeah, that sounds about right. This is my guy.” I really identified with him.

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That’s me.

That Halloween was great. Only two people recognized me as the Stairway Guy (one of whom came up to me, singing the song in an impressive impersonation of Robert Plant). But the guesses other people came up with were fantastic, even though they were not what I’d intended. I was not surprised to hear Gandalf; I did not expect – and was disappointed – to hear Dumbledore. I mean, really? I guess he is a wizard, and I looked like a wizard. I was called a wizard many times that night.**

I was impressed to hear another Lord of the Rings reference from far out of left field: The Gatekeeper of Bree who let the hobbits in and was later trampled by the Black Riders. I heard Death, and the Grim Reaper, and my personal favorite, Charon the ferryman across the River Styx.

This is why it was such a great costume. It was meant to be something specific, but it looks mysteriously generic enough to be any number of things, and it left an impression on everyone. I could learn a tiny bit about a person’s interests just from their guess of my costume. And if anyone automatically got the Zeppelin reference, they were the winners of the night (like I said, there were only two). Not to mention, the lantern was a big hit with everyone, especially when I would offer to light peoples’ smokes with it.

Not a single person guessed the Hermit. But at that time, even though I was aware of the Hermit’s existence, I was the Stairway to Heaven Guy, not the Hermit.

It took me more than a year to revisit my initial research on the Stairway Guy. I never forgot the Tarot, and was certainly curious to learn more about it. I suppose that everyone has to come to really connect with it on their own terms and in their own time, though. When I did, I was floored. I soon picked up on the mythic archetypes latent in the cards, which was and still is a major area of interest to me. It wasn’t long after I made that vital connection that I finally picked up my first deck of Tarot cards (a Radiant RWS) in a local metaphysical shop.

So in a roundabout sort of way, it was the Hermit, working through Led Zeppelin, who originally attracted me to the Tarot. His beacon lit my path. The rest, as they say, is history.

*Some of you might be wondering. Most of you probably are not. That’s fine, but I thought this story was worth sharing, anyway. Just a little tidbit about who I am.

**Fitting, since I am one.

Coins, Disks, Pentacles, Stones…

The names change, but they all still mean the same: Earth.

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The Ace of Pentacles, beautiful in all its Earthiness – SaM

When referring to the classical elements for occult purposes, Earth often seems to get the short end of the stick. It’s the lowest of the low.

And how come Fire, Water and Air each get a Major Arcana card (Judgement, Hanged Man, and the Fool, respectively)? What makes them so special, while Earth is excluded (yes, I know, Crowley and some others attributed Earth to the World card, but that’s an afterthought, and its double-dipping, because the World is already associated with Saturn)?

Something should probably be explained about the traditional conceptions of the classical elements. I’ve discussed previously that the classical elements are more a philosophical way of understanding the world than scientific.That’s important to keep in mind, because things are about to get abstract.

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Ace of Coins – TdM

The idea was that the elements of Water, Air, and Fire existed in their pure forms in layers above the Earth. Water was closest, being the heaviest or least energetic, followed by Air, and finally Fire on top, just before we reach the first sphere of Aether (occupied by the Moon). Earth, being the heaviest of all, sinks right to the bottom. You can’t see these elemental layers; they are the pure essences of the elements, invisible and intangible. Earth, on the other hand, is solid and material by its very nature – its essence, in other words, is as it is. This means that what we perceive as water or air or fire on earth are really debased forms of themselves. They are the elements manifested upon the Earth, and we only perceive them as components of the Earth element. Does that mean that you should be calling your drinking water Earth? Well, no, it’s still water. But it is not the essence of Water; pure Water does not exist as a physical thing that can be touched or drank. Consider the suits of the Minor Arcana: They all deal with abstract human experiences. Only the Coins deal in the physical realm.

So, when we consider the Major Arcana in terms of their astrological/occult associations, in descending order, we get the twelve Zodiacal cards, the seven planetary cards, and the three elemental cards. The lowest layer is the Earth, which in this context, consists of all four suits of the Minor Arcana. This means that if we consider the Fool to be the pure Elemental Air, the suit of Swords becomes the earthly element of air, or the stuff that we breathe.

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From the Aether – RWS

In a sense, the lowest of the low (Earth) shares a characteristic with the highest of the high (Aether). In the post linked above, I discussed how Aether carries within itself the potential for all of the other elements. This refers to the essences of the elements. Earth, on the other hand, contains within itself the potential of all of the other elements in their tangible form, except for Aether. Just as the Earth only exists in a tangible form, so does Aether exist only in an abstract form. The other three elements exist in both forms, to varying degrees (water being more tangible, fire being least), giving us a sort of gradation scale of the elements.

The Earth does not contain Aether, but because the Aether does contain Earth, a loop of sorts is created. Energy descends into matter, and when it falls finally to Earth, the lowest point, it is transferred automatically back into Aether, beginning the process again. To put it in Kabbalistic terms (which you will hear a lot if you study occult Tarot, especially of the Golden Dawn tradition), Aether is the highest Sephirah, called Kether. Energy descends down the Tree of Life, through each of the next eight Sephirot, until it reaches the last one, which is pure Earth, called Malkuth. What is Malkuth on the first Tree is Kether on the next one, thus ever-renewing the cycle. Or rather, Malkuth leads to Kether. The Ten of Wands is not the same thing as the Ace of Cups, after all. In the Tarot, each suit is its own Tree of Life, all connected to each other as described above, beginning with the Ace of Wands and ending with the Ten of Coins. Of course, the Ten of Coins isn’t really the end. It’s associated with Mercury, which you may remember is also associated with the Magician, or the first card in the Major Arcana, which I like to think of as the Suit of Aether. At the bottom and back up to the top, in an ever-turning wheel. The 22 Major Arcana represent the paths between the ten Sephirot, rather than the Sephirot themselves, so in this sense, the Suit of Aether is not like the others of the Minor Arcana. Rather than having its own Tree, paths of Aether are present in all of them. However, the Magician is on a path leading directly from Kether, so the principle of the bottom-to-top still applies by virtue of his connection with the Ten of Coins.

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The Ten of Disks, arranged in the form of the Tree of Life – CHT

This is complex stuff, and I’m sure I’m doing a perfect job of mangling it.* The main point I’m trying to get at, though, is that Earth may very well be the lowest of the low, but that very aspect of it makes it special. At first glance, it might seem like it’s less important than the others, but in reality, the others would not exist if not for Earth. All of the lofty ideals represented in the Tarot can only be made a reality through the power of Earth. Earth might be muddy, dirty, and dark, but it’s only so because it combines everything else into one. Like when you mix all of the bright colors while painting, eventually everything turns brown. In short, Earth is everything, made tangible.

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“As above, so below” – The Magician points to the Earth to manifest his thoughts as reality – RWS

When I think of the suit of Coins (or Pentacles or Disks or Stones), I naturally think about the material world and money, the two things typically associated with the suit. But I also think of the inherent power of Earth as an element. It is tangibility when everything else is an abstraction. I always thought it was unfair that the Court of Coins is often associated with boring or otherwise lackluster personality traits (there are reasons, but still). There is a depth and a strength to Earth that is difficult for many to fathom. Invisible as a grain of sand, or imposing as a mountain, the Earth is always there with firm resolve. As the Ace of Stones from the Wildwood suggests, it is the Foundation of Life.

~~~

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Ace of Stones – The Foundation of Life – WWT

*For those of you interested, I got most of my information on this Kabbalah stuff from Tyson’s book on Tarot Magic, and Duquette’s book on Crowley’s Thoth deck (and to a lesser degree, Crowley’s own book). In fact, I recommend reading these sources for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that I was working totally from memory while writing this, so I very likely didn’t get everything straight. I believe I got the gist right, though, and because this was a post meant to explore the suit of Coins and the element of Earth, and not a Kabbalah study, that’s all I was really aiming for. I’m not qualified to talk Kabbalah seriously, anyway.

Addendum: Happy Earth Day, everybody! This was a happy accident.

The Structure of the Minors.

The Minor Arcana are interesting. Most people are immediately attracted to the Major Arcana when they come to the Tarot, and this is understandable. The pictures are captivating, and they hold all manner of symbols and secrets. Even in the RWS and similar decks, where the Minor Arcana cards are illustrated, they tend to get brushed to the side in favor of the Majors. I’m often guilty of this, I admit. But the Minor Arcana deserves to be studied, as well.

The Minor Arcana consists of two different kinds of cards: Court cards and small cards, also sometimes called pips. We’ll deal with the small cards first.

If the Major Arcana is considered like an alphabet (an esoteric hieroglyphic alphabet, perhaps, but it can be considered an alphabet nonetheless), then the Minor Arcana small cards are like numbers. Two concepts we learn in grade school today, and the two fundamental building blocks of communication. The small cards consist of numbers one through ten, a complete numeric cycle. The full deck of Tarot cards therefore becomes a sort of code of letters and numbers, almost like its own language.

Of course, there are four suits in the Minor Arcana, with ten small cards per suit, making a total of forty small cards. The number four is significant for many reasons. It represents stability, it represents the four elements (with which the four suits identify), the four Hebrew letters that spell the unpronounceable name of God, and finally, it represents the physical world (as opposed to the number three, which represents the spiritual – this is why seven is such a holy number, being the sum of the worldly and spiritual). I think this last reason fits best with why there should be four suits to the Minors. After all, the Minor Arcana is supposed to represent the mundane physical world, in contrast to the spiritual realm of the Majors. The four elements are the stuff of which this world is made, which is why each element is assigned to a suit.

These suits represent abstractions related to the elements as well as the elements themselves. These are usually associated with realms of human experience. Wands are associated with Fire, which is associated with spirituality, creativity, and passion, Cups with Water, which is love, emotions, and social interactions, Swords with Air, which is intellect, conflict, and sorrow, and Coins with Earth, which is the material world, money, and work.

In this way, with the numbers representing levels of gradation or concentration of the appropriate element, the entirety of worldly human experience is theoretically contained within the small cards. Each number is significant in itself, as is each element, and these two factors are combined in each small card to give a distinct meaning. In many cases, this meaning is further refined with the addition of astrological or other esoteric correspondences.

The cards of the Major Arcana symbolize various aspects of the spiritual realm; the small cards symbolize various aspects of the worldly realm; the court cards, then, bridge the gap by symbolizing the only thing that has ever made such a connection between these realms: human beings.

There are sixteen court cards – four to each suit (there’s that number again). They are pictured as different ranks of medieval society: usually a page, knight, queen, and king, although almost as common is to call the page and knight princess and prince. Each of these is often given an elemental association aside from their suit, namely: king – fire; queen – water; knight – air; and page – earth. Thus, the Knight of Coins would be associated with Air and Earth, by virtue of his rank and suit, respectively. Astrological associations are often applied to court cards as well, which is a popular method of selecting significators.

Using astrological and elemental qualities as a basis, personality traits are assigned to each court card. This allows them to signify real people should they turn up in a spread; alternatively, they could signify something about the querent’s personality that may be influencing a given situation. Each card has positive and negative traits attached to it, illustrating that no one is perfect, and any good quality in an extreme measure can turn bad.

There are many other possible ways to interpret court cards, and as such, they are often the most difficult cards for beginners to understand. I won’t go any further into detail about the myriad of possibilities represented by the court cards here, though. Another time, perhaps.

~~~

Most people recognize in the Minor Arcana a pack of regular playing cards (the main difference being the addition of the Knight among the court cards). The Tarot as a full deck or as a partial deck can indeed be used for gaming – there is even a trick-taking game that was specifically designed for this deck.

A lot of Tarot enthusiasts forget this frivolous function of the deck amidst all of the occult and esoteric hullabaloo that has come to be associated with it. As far as we can reasonably tell, though, it was for gaming purposes that this deck was originally created, and nothing more. That might seem disappointing, but I find a certain comfort in it. After all, just because all the symbolism came as an afterthought doesn’t make it any less real or true. If anything, it makes it all the more potent that it occurred naturally over time, or so I believe.

The humble beginnings of this magical deck as a mere game serves as a reminder to never take things too seriously. It’s a lesson that I think a lot of people in this age of Information and all the stress that comes with it would do well to remember. Tarot is a metaphor for life, and life is a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as long as you’re this side of the grave, you’ll be dealt a new hand at the end of each turn. It’s all for fun if you let it be. That might just be the most important lesson the Tarot has to offer, and it’s not even taught by the haughty Major Arcana, but rather by the lowly Minors. They deserve a little more credit.

 

 

New Deck: the Sun and Moon Tarot

Well. I finally broke from my five-deck mentality. I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t wish to amass a huge collection of Tarot decks. As of now, though, all of my decks still fit within a small box, but there is room for no more.

I had no intention of getting any more decks, but I stumbled across a picture from the Sun and Moon Tarot (SaM) by Vanessa Decort (published by U.S. Games, 2010). I was mesmerized by the artwork. I wanted it. I’ve been mesmerized by Tarot art before, but I’ve never been compelled to buy a deck because of it. There’s something different about this deck that I can’t quite put words to yet.

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An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card – SaM

This deck is a hybrid of CHT and RWS symbolism, with the creator’s own twists here and there. It is the only deck I have that was clearly influenced by Mr. Crowley (aside from his own deck, of course). Decort’s artistic experience comes from illustrating children’s books. With this in mind, it can be easy to think of this deck as childish, but I don’t think it really is at all. Almost all of the figures pictured within appear to be pretty young (the only exception that immediately comes to my mind being the Hermit), and while I do feel like this gives the deck a youthful energy, I do not think it works to alienate older people (but then again, I’m still pretty young myself, so what do I know).

I feel as though this deck has a stronger feminine energy than most, with an emphasis on the Moon in “Sun and Moon”, but I think both genders are fairly equally represented among the human figures. Also significant about the people are their skin tones. This deck is openly multi-cultural, both with its symbolism and with its depictions of people. As much as I like my European heritage, I find this very refreshing. They are mostly dressed in contemporary styles of clothing, which, when combined with everything else about these people, results in a very modern vibe. All that being said, however, the SaM never loses sight of its traditional Tarot roots.

The last thing I have to say about the people is that they do not have faces. Some find this odd, but it actually appeals to me, although I can’t say why. The body language is sufficient to evoke the necessary emotions in these cards, and the blank faces leave some room for interpretation.

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This is arguably my favorite rendition of the Star yet – SaM

These figures are small. In most Tarot decks, the people take up the majority of the space in a card, but that is not the case here. These cards are dominated by open, almost surreal landscapes. It makes me feel like I’m looking into a dream. I love it.

I’m not sure how I’ll be using this deck yet. I tried a couple of readings last night, and kept turning up the 8 of Swords, called “Interference” (keywords from the CHT are used on the small cards, and illustrations are inspired by the RWS). It seems to be sensitive to my inner turmoil. I get the feeling this deck is best used in a relaxed, calm, almost meditative state. That is the energy the cards exude, at any rate, and I think they may work best when that energy is reciprocated. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there at the moment.

Overall, I really, really like the SaM, and while I feel uneasy about expanding my collection,* I feel like this one is here for a reason. It seems comfortable in its spot among my other Tarot decks.

 

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Left to right, top to bottom: RWS, TdM, rws, GE, WWT, CHT, SaM.

 

*Actually, if I consider the mini rws, I have a total of seven decks. That is a number that pleases me, as it is significant in many spiritual systems around the world. I realize that my occupation with the number of decks in my collection is strange. I don’t care. As I explained in my discussion of the WWT, I do not want too many Tarot decks. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

New Books.

I went on an amazon spree recently. I purchased three new books (and a new deck, but that will be dealt with in another post).

The first of these new books is called Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads by Teresa Michelson, and was published by Llewellyn in 2003 as part of their special topics in Tarot series. I keep a collection of spreads in my Tarot Journal, which come from books, LWBs, or various websites (most notably aeclectic). The number of spreads continues to grow, but for my personal readings, I often find them lacking. I decided to purchase this book so I could learn on a fundamental level what goes into a Tarot spread, with the goal of customizing my readings to elicit better success. So far, I am finding the book helpful.

The second is called Tarot and Astrology by Corrine Kenner (published by Llewellyn in 2011) and is intended as an introduction to astrological principles for students of the Tarot. I’ve never personally put much stock in astrology, but the deeper I go down the rabbit hole of the Tarot, the more I find that astrology plays a significant role in many decks. Because my current understanding is less than elementary, I figured I should learn more about it, and what better way than with a book that discusses it in the context of the Tarot.

The last book is considered a classic in the field, and after reading many glowing reviews, I caved and finally ordered myself a copy of 78 Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack (published by Weiser in 2007; originally published in two volumes in 1980). I’ve only read a couple of chapters so far, but I am not disappointed. This book is intended as a guide to the Tarot in general, and is specifically geared towards the RWS. Every card in the deck is examined in-depth. I was pleased to find many of my own ideas reflected back at me in the opening chapters of this book, such as mythic archetypes and binary opposites, and I look forward to reading more.

My Tarot Library will be updated soon to accommodate these new additions. I haven’t yet read more than a couple of chapters from any of these new books, but so far I am pleased to add them to my collection (I admit, I always like getting new books, no matter what the subject matter is). They are promising to be helpful and informative.

The Fool.

The Fool is the Universal Significator; everybody can see themselves in him.* It’s a special card for this and many other reasons (for one, he’s the only card of the Major Arcana to make it into modern decks of playing cards in the form of the Joker). Among the Major Arcana, the Fool is an anomaly. What is the significance behind this strange card that, on its surface, does not really seem very flattering?

The Fool is very often the first card in the deck, and so he is the one who introduces us to the Tarot. But he is not really a part of the deck, at least not in the sense the the rest of the 77 cards are. He’s only really placed up front because of his number, which isn’t really a number at all: Zero.

In the original Marseilles decks, there was no number on the Fool card, not even a 0 (these are the same decks that originally left card 13 without a title). This made it clear that he was not like the rest of the cards, as separate from the deck as the real Fool in the Middle Ages was separate from society. It also means that he can be comfortably placed anywhere within the deck without upsetting the prescribed numerical order. It’s as though he alone among the cards is able to travel from place to place, free from restraint. This gives way to the idea that the Fool is the central character in the narrative of the Tarot, progressing through the cards as if they were the chapters of his life.

Hence the “Fool’s Journey” method of interpretation, which is Tarot speak for what is more generally called the “Journey of the Hero”. The Hero’s Journey is a form of story that has been around for at least 4,000-some years. It is present in some form or another in every mythic tradition around the world and throughout the ages. It is also very common in modern (and otherwise not so modern) literature. Whether they’re aware of it or not, many authors use the Hero’s Journey structure when they write a story. This is especially true of fantasy and other genres of speculative literature, but you can find it pretty much everywhere.

In the Tarot, the Hero is the Fool. This might seem strange at first glance. After all, the Fool doesn’t fit today’s stereotype of the Hero. The Fool is an outcast, taken seriously by no one. His sole purpose, when he is considered to have one, is mere comic relief. To be called a Fool is to be insulted.

Some of this is certainly true of the Fool card. It may very well be a warning against potential foolish behavior. In the RWS and similarly inspired decks, the Fool appears to be unaware of the fact that he’s about to step right off a cliff. It could indicate that others are not taking you seriously, or that you are pushing social norms to their limits and might possibly consider reeling yourself in.

But the Fool also embodies a sense of pure innocence. He is unburdened by worldly concerns and possesses the simple capacity to see the beauty in everything. More than anything else, the Fool is free.

In many myths, legends, and stories, the Hero turns out to be the very person who seems the least qualified at the outset. A generic example: All of the macho knights have attempted to slay the terrorizing dragon with no success. The only remaining person willing to volunteer is the foolish youth. Nobody has faith that he can do it, but they let him go anyway. Of course, he slays the dragon, liberates the village, and is lauded as a hero.

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The Fool (here called the Wanderer) about to step into the mythical Wildwood – WWT

The hero always begins his story with the end of his normal, every day life. Something occurs which jolts him out of his usual routine and sends him on his journey. The Fool card depicts the moment just before his story begins. The number 0 is indicative of this, as is his precarious position at the edge of a cliff. On a deeper level, these two aspects of the card represent the soul prior to worldly birth – still one with the Universe, within the protective womb-like enclosure of the Ouroboros. Once he steps off the precipice, he will descend into consciousness. This symbolism reminds me in particular of Hindu epic tradition. The heroes of these stories are usually mortal incarnations of gods. The deity exists in the bliss of heaven until the hero is born, and he falls to earth, landing in the hero’s body with little or no recollection of his divinity; he only gradually comes to recognize it, although his divinity still shines through in his virtuous character. The Fool is the pure soul, just before the inevitable fall from Paradise. The rest of the cards are just the quest to regain what was lost in the fall.

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The Fool – RWS

In a sense, the circular 0 also signifies completion. At the end of his journey, after the revelry of the World (card 21), the hero becomes the Fool once again, enlightened in his regained innocence (notice in the RWS, the Fool wears upon his head a wreath much like that which is pictured in the World).

It is therefore no surprise that the Fool works as a universal significator, because every person is the hero of his or her own life story. The Fool shows the child in all of us, and suggests that it’s not always a bad thing to embrace this aspect of ourselves, even at the risk of appearing foolish to others. In fact, we must embrace our inner Fool before we can ever hope to embark on the spiritual journey that ultimately leads to enlightenment. No other character has the capacity to simply begin. Every other character claims to know something, trying to make it seem like they know everything. But they don’t realize that everything includes the concept of nothing, and only the Fool is comfortable with knowing nothing. Only the Fool can say “I know one thing for certain, and that is I know nothing for certain” and truly mean it. This must be understood before the first step is taken on the path to Wisdom and Enlightenment.

 

*I call the Fool “him” only for simplicity’s sake. In many cards, the Fool is androgynous enough that he could easily be a she, and this is apt. At any rate, gender is a concept in the Tarot that, like just about everything else, is symbolic of an idea that transcends our worldly definitions, and is not necessarily meant to be taken literally.