The Thoth Tarot: A Follow-Up.

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The Star, the Moon, and the Prince of Cups.

I first wrote about Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot here, and considering the fact that this post is an example of one of my earliest entries on this blog, I’m actually still quite pleased with it (this is probably because I’d read Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot prior to writing the post, so for once I actually kind of knew what I was talking about).

The Thoth represents the third major “Tarot Tradition” – the classics that form the bedrock of my collection alongside the RWS and TdM. However, because the criteria for what fits the Thoth-pattern are comparatively nit-picky, I can’t really say that I have anything other than the Thoth itself in my collection that truly fits it.

I’m going to leave out all the parts that have to do with Mr. Crowley being an abominable character – you can go ahead and take that for granted. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me one bit, at least, not insofar as my appreciation for his cards and their companion text The Book of Thoth are concerned. They stand on their own merits, and these are actually quite compelling. Truthfully, I find the Thoth to be more powerful than either the RWS or the TdM, and that is a result of both Crowley’s intellectual genius and encyclopedic knowledge of all things esoteric (like him or not, he was what he was) and the downright mind-melting quality of the artwork, courtesy of Freida Harris (my abbreviation for this deck is CHT, by the way, for Crowley-Harris-Thoth).

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First published in 1969 (after the deaths of both Crowley and Harris) the Thoth Tarot was born from a creative process that took five years, from 1938 to 1943. It is a treasure trove of occultism condensed into a neat deck of 78 very colorful cards. Like Waite and Smith, Crowley was a member of the Golden Dawn (and not a very popular one – his promotion through the ranks of the order was the cause of such contention that it was a major contributing factor to the order’s eventual dissolution), and the influence of their teachings is unashamedly blatant in the cards (as opposed to Waite’s comparatively veiled symbolism). The flamboyant Crowley obviously did not take his oaths as seriously as his fellows.

Aside from the astonishing artwork, the most visible change Mr. Crowley and Lady Harris made to the Tarot were some title changes to the Major Arcana. As I discussed in the above-linked post about the Thoth, this is largely an attempt to adapt his cards to the changing times (the Procession of the Equinoxes, to put it in astrology-speak) and usher in a new era, or aeon, for humankind, of which the Beast himself was supposedly the prophet (in a way, he did prefigure what we call today the New-Age movement, although new-agers tend to hold somewhat of a watered-down (to put it mildly) view of things compared to Crowley – although, really, who doesn’t). He maintained the astrological attributions that led Waite and the Golden Dawn to switch the order of Justice and Strength, but in the deck he reverted them back to their original numerical order (that is, Justice as 8 and Strength as 11). He did switch the Kabbalistic attributions for two cards from that which were held by the Golden Dawn, but again, he did not let this affect the numerical order of the cards. This switch is a subtle, below-the-surface change, but it is one of the defining characteristics of the Thoth, and is often one of the criteria that prevents a would-be Thoth derivative from truly fitting the Thoth pattern (because his Tarot is so overtly occult, a higher significance is placed on such attributions than it would be on, say, a RWS deck, meaning there is greater leeway in what counts as a RWS compared to what counts as a CHT). But I’ll discuss the change a little more in-depth later. For now, onto the more apparent differences.

It is, I should hardly have to say, a given that the visual design of each card is often very different from its precursors in the TdM tradition (although most of the original symbolism that defines each trump remains relatively intact).

I – The Juggler/Magician becomes the Magus
II – The Popess/High Priestess becomes simply the Priestess
V – retains the title of Hierophant (not really a change from the RWS, but it’s worth noting that the card did not revert to its TdM designation)
VI – retains the title of Lovers, although the imagery recalls the TdM much more closely than does Waite’s
VIII – Justice regains her original position and is renamed Adjustment
X – The Wheel of Fortune is simply called Fortune
XI – Force/Strength becomes Lust
XIV – Temperance becomes Art
XX – Judgement becomes the Aeon, and the imagery is radically changed (this is often the other major criteria that isn’t met with would-be CHT derivatives – the card is usually called the Aeon, but does not include the required image update)
XIX – The World becomes the Universe

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Art with its new alchemical symbolism.

Some of these title changes seem to me to be simply based on Crowley’s preference, such as the Magus and the Priestess. Most of them, however, are the result of Crowley’s aforementioned “updates,” made in preparation for the new aeon. Contributing factors include alchemical and Kabbalistic correspondences, which were evidently not clear enough for Crowley in the more traditional models. These changes are fascinating, but I believe they each deserve their own posts (and someday when I’m further along in my study of The Book of Thoth, I’ll be sure to write them).

Now before I move on to the Minor Arcana, I’ll describe the Kabbalistic change mentioned earlier, as promised.

Each trump is assigned a Hebrew letter, which gives it Kabbalistic significance. The English schools of occultism place the letters in their proper order, beginning with the Fool as Aleph (this is different from the French schools, which start the sequence with the Juggler – who they never got around to renaming). This means that the Emperor receives Heh as his letter, and the Star receives Tzaddi as hers. Mr. Crowley, at the behest of his Holy Guardian Angel (a subject for yet another post – in the meantime, just suspend your disbelief as best you can), switched them.

I’ll admit, for a very long time, I neither understood nor cared about such esoteric minutae. It was only very recently that it started to make some semblance of sense to me. Mr. Crowley gives his own explanation in the book, but to me, it’s actually quite simple: Heh is the letter of the Divine Feminine element of the Tetragrammation – why on earth should this letter be assigned to the most masculine of the cards? The Star, on the other hand, seems a much better fit. This in and of itself might not mean much, but in the first few pages of the Book of Thoth, Crowley provides a nifty little diagram of the belt of the zodiac along with the Hebrew correspondences. Previously there was a loop around Virgo (the Hermit and the letter Yod) where Justice and Strength were placed, which left the circle unbalanced and led the Golden Dawn to switch the cards around. With Crowley’s new attributions, there is an additional loop around Pisces (the Moon and letter Qoph), on either side of which are placed Aries (the Emperor) and Aquarius (the Star). It brings a pleasing symmetry back to the belt (and, might I add, draws new attention to the connection between the Hermit and the Moon, which delights me but otherwise seems unimportant). The cards can be left in their traditional Marseille order, and these loops just implied.

This is all a bit on the technical side, I suppose, but it is an important part of what sets the Thoth Tarot apart from the rest.

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Anyways. On to the Minor Arcana.

The small cards are basically just jazzed-up versions of pips, with stylized suit symbols set in vibrantly symbolic color and geometric schemes and adorned with the appropriate astrological signs. They did get suggestive titles (these based on the Golden Dawn’s titles), such as “Peace” (Two of Swords) and “Ruin” (Ten of Swords). Like Waite, Crowley opted to change the name of the suit of Coins, calling them Disks. Wands, Cups and Swords are still Wands, Cups and Swords.

The court cards are where things really get interesting again (and confusing, so bear with me). Instead of the traditional King, Queen, Knight, and Page, what we have here are the Knight (elemental equivalent of the King, but, as Duquette put it, much sexier on his horse and therefore better suited to seduce his Queen*), Queen on her throne, Prince (elemental equivalent of the traditional Knight) in his chariot, and Princess (equivalent of the Page). These elemental equivalencies are again based on the Golden Dawn, and are actually also reflected in the RWS, although Waite chose to keep the traditional titles derived from the TdM. This will be the subject of yet another post, I think, so suffice it to say that, in the CHT, Knights=Kings and Princes=Knights, and yes, it is a headache.

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The King of Wands from the Radiant RWS and the Knight of Wands from the Thoth. Despite all appearances to the contrary, these two are essentially the same card.

So, I think that might be it for the basic pattern of the Thoth Tarot. In some ways, this is the most radical departure from the tradition of the Marseille Tarots yet; in others, though, the Thoth remains truer to the tradition than the Rider does (especially in the order of the Major Arcana and the small cards reminiscent of pips). Again, I really don’t have any Thoth clones in my collection. The closest thing is probably the Sun and Moon Tarot by Vanessa Decort or the Hermetic Tarot by Godfrey Dowson, although these cards fail to meet both of the aforementioned criteria (that is, Tzaddi as the Emperor and the redefined imagery for the Aeon).

Because this deck is such a distinctive powerhouse in the world of Tarot, I think I’ll slowly chip away at it with a post for each card (which will undoubtedly take an extremely long time to accomplish, so let it be said now that I’m not going to try to rush myself through it).

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*DuQuette, Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot, chapter 11.

How about that? Only one footnote in this one (of course, I did make quite liberal use of the parenthetical this time around – what can I say? I love me a good digression. Thanks for reading).

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New Beginnings.

Before I commence with any new reviews, I think I’ll provide a bit of backstory. Aside from the tenuous internet connection and business I mentioned yesterday, I also began with a rather hefty undertaking, and subsequently back-pedaled a bit.

You see, about the same time as I was experiencing the severe self-doubt mentioned previously, I was planning a move, and was faced with the fact that it would be very, very impractical to move my entire library.

All of my other beloved books aside, this means that I will need to cull my selection of Tarot books. After much deliberation, I decided on bringing a handful of the more esoteric books in my possession, figuring that, if I only have (let’s say) five books to read for (let’s say) a year, these five books had better keep me occupied for the duration. What better than the incredibly dense stuff? You know, the sort of book that contains within each chapter (in some cases, each paragraph) material requiring a week’s worth of pondering and meditation to digest.

Ok, I might be exaggerating, but perhaps not as much as you’d think. In any case, three books in particular came to mind: the anonymously composed Meditations on the Tarot, Oswald Wirth’s The Tarot of the Magicians, and Mr. Crowley’s Book of Thoth.* The latter two are (to my mind) representative of the French and English schools of Tarot-related occultism, respectively, and the Meditations are, well, something else entirely.**

As I was putting myself back together in the wake of my aforementioned little breakdown, I decided that there is no better time than the present to begin reading the heavy stuff, despite the fact that the move is still a couple months off.

So I picked up the Book of Thoth and began reading.

And what a book it is. in the following week or so, I read and re-read all the sections that make up “Part One: The Theory of the Tarot.” I even understood some of it. It was a rewarding experience in itself, but it left me pondering some grander things that Crowley took for granted. I decided to search my library for what other resources I had on, in particular, the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. As such an integral part of Crowley’s brand of occultism, I figured I ought to get to know it a little better. It’s a subject I’ve always found too daunting up until now.

First I read the relevant material (and a little more besides) from Duquette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. Fascinating and informative, as usual. Then I decided to read Magic: An Occult Primer by David Conway. This book has little (nothing, really, aside from two mentions and a footnote) to say about the Tarot. As a primer, it only glosses over much of the theory that I was interested in, although it was nonetheless very informative. Magic is, above all else, a guide for those who aspire to be practicing ritual magicians.

Well, I figured, maybe that is for me, after all, but it’s something of a digression from my original intent in reading these things. At any rate, interesting though it all is, I don’t have the time, space, or resources to put into the undertaking of ceremonial magic as set forth by Conway.

I have yet another book that briefly discusses the Tree of Life, and this one is also in the context of both the Tarot and ritual magic.*** Portable Magic by Donald Tyson is hence what I am currently reading (as of this writing, I’m about halfway through it).

So that’s where I’m at right now. In the coming weeks, I plan on working with some of the exercises set forth in both Tyson’s and Conway’s books to train my mind for a more active approach to magic and the Tarot. Once I’ve finished with Portable Magic and worked with its methods a bit, I will review it here.

I will then get to work again on the Book of Thoth.

So, again, if it takes a while for me to write about my progress in my occult Tarot studies, this is why. Well, this, my busy schedule, and my irregular internet connection.

Happy studies!

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*In addition to the above-mentioned three, I also chose Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot, because it is both a fascinating and comparatively reliable history as well as a thorough manual for Tarot cartomancy, and Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero because it is a wonderful study on the more mythical aspects of the Major Arcana, which is a subject near and dear to my heart. Both of these books are fairly dense themselves, but compared to Crowley, Wirth, and the Dear Unknown Friend, they are leisurely strolls in the park.

**I’m still unsure how to characterize this book, because in the years I’ve owned it, I’ve only read the first chapter. I’ve re-read it again once or twice, but have not yet moved on. Suffice it to say it is a deeply religious and mystical text. Not exactly light reading.

***There are several other books in my Tarot library that touch on the Tree of Life, but I do hope to move on with the Book of Thoth sooner rather than later.

The Magus, Part VII: the Juggler.

Part VI

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The infinity symbol is hidden in the Juggler’s hat, is floating above the Magician’s head, and is evoked by the snakes twisting around the Magus’ staff. It is the ouroboros, symbol of eternity, of endless ebb and flow, of oneness with all. And it is always in the vicinity of his head, indicating a state of mind.

It is a paradoxical state of mind, of making one out of multiplicity. From one thing, know a thousand things, and vice versa. Understand that the Macrocosm is the Microcosm, that above is below, and live simultaneously in both. It requires constant fluidity. It needs to be so natural as to become second nature, even automatic, like breathing. It is “concentration without effort,” as our Unknown Friend points out in his first letter from his Meditations on the Tarot. Yet it must be directed towards a purpose, or else it is naught. Mindful mindlessness, it is the focus required to walk a tightrope, or to juggle.

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The Juggler

The Magus is juggling, isn’t he? Lady Harris painted an energetic Magus, a Mercury in motion. He is the maestro creator and the questing wise man and the resourceful trickster all at once, because he is the principle of action personified. He is thought, that nebulous spark in your brain that runs wild for a moment before solidifying into memory.

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I’ll conclude this series next time with a quick look into some of my favorite versions of the Magician.

Runes v. Tarot, Part II

As a system, the Tarot is more complex, comprehensive, flexible, accessible, and nuanced than the runes. In a word, I find the system of the Tarot to be generally superior to that of the runes.

However, I still like the runes very much, and lately I find myself gravitating toward them. Of course, this town is big enough for the both of them, so I could just leave it at that. But why have a blog about the Tarot if I’m not going to use it as a platform to examine the cards against my other tools for divination? And, despite the favoritism I show the cards, there are certain situations for which I find the runes to be better suited.

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There are many folks out there (especially users of the TdM, it seems) who totally disregard the Minor Arcana when reading with the Tarot, calling them superfluous. That seems to me to defeat the purpose of the Tarot, but I’m not one to deal in absolutes (like a Sith), and I’ve found that there sometimes are circumstances that do require only a portion of the deck.* Either they are simple questions that don’t call for the detail of a large reading with the whole deck to choose from, or they are matters which are of a purely spiritual nature and therefore do not need the Minors, but in any case, the runes have largely negated the issue. I don’t want to make the claim that the runes and the Major Arcana are interchangeable, because that is far from the case (although comparisons of them are great mental exercises). However, I would say that any issue which can be adequately answered with only a set of the Majors can just as well be answered by the runes.**

But it’s not so much the nature of the question that determines which system I use; it’s the nature of the reading I use to answer the question. To break it down into binary terms, there are either simple readings, or there are complex readings. The more complex the reading, the more likely I am to use Tarot cards. The simpler the reading, on the other hand, the more likely I am now to resort to my stones. This is not universally the case, but as a rule of thumb, you can more or less count on it. My runecasts these days tend to range from one to five runes; while I do still enjoy the classic three-card-draw, my Tarot cards won’t likely be removed from their box or bag unless I plan on laying down a serious spread (or if I just feel like flipping through them, but that’s neither here nor there).

The complexity of the reading isn’t always the deciding factor, either, now that I’m really thinking about it. Another variable is how much time I have to spend on the reading. I’ll likely use the runes for more on-the-fly, I’m-almost-out-the-door-but-I-want-some-quick-advice sorts of queries. If I’m reading with cards, I want to have the time to really sit with them and ruminate on what they’re trying to say to me.

The daily draw? Not with cards anymore (at least for the moment). I pull a rune.

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Of course, divination is not the sole use for the Tarot, as I’ve discussed a few times before on this blog, and the same is true of the runes. To think of either of these systems as only divinatory tools is to miss out on the many other things they have to offer.

When it comes to in-depth divination, the Tarot is generally better, and the same can be said (at least in my opinion) as prompts for intellectual musing. What I mean by that should be made evident by the very existence of this blog: I can write forever on the Tarot and never run out of subject matter; the runes, on the other hand, are not as giving with inspiration. They are silent and stoic by comparison, which is fine – refreshing, even – but not conducive to the rambling and musing that I like to do here. The relative simplicity of the runes is a hindrance in these cases, at least when compared to the Tarot.

When it comes to things like meditation and spiritual development, I think the argument could go either way, although I will say that the pictures on the cards (as well as their willingness to be adapted to fit any number of themes) do make for an accessibility that the runes lack. And I think it goes without saying that the runes do not have the artistic merit of the cards.

In theory, Tarot cards can also be used as charms or talismans or for similar types of magic. I wouldn’t know how well they actually work for these things, though, because no cardstock can withstand a day in my pocket or wallet, and no magic is worth sacrificing my precious favorite cards. I know I could keep them tucked in a small notebook, but that’s just awkward. This is the primary instance for which runes are better suited. Having a stone or two (or three) in a small pouch in my pocket is a tangible reminder of the energies I wish to harness. This is why I use the runes now for my daily draw (aside from just getting to know them). It is far easier to internalize the message of a daily draw when you physically carry it with you. I tend to pull out my rune several times a day, when I’m stressed or bored, and the stone on which it is inscribed has a tactile advantage that any card, no matter how pretty the picture, lacks. I can feel it in my hands, play illusionist tricks with it, and slide it covertly into my pocket again when my attention is required elsewhere. It’s like a magician’s fidget spinner.

I believe that magic is the power of the mind, and things like charms are not absolutely necessary for it to work. They are tools for the wizard, and nothing more, but they do help if you appreciate them for what they are. And, to share a personal example of the magical utility of the runes, I recently found myself in a trying, white-knuckle situation of temptation, a test I’ve failed again and again in the past. This time, though, I had Uruz, the rune for the aurochs, symbolizing strength, clamped tight in my hand, and I made it through. It worked much better than all the times previously when I had only a mental image of the Strength Tarot card to cling to. They both have the same essential message for me, but the medium of communication is different; and sometimes, the medium makes all the difference in the world.

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If I’m being truthful, though, whether I use runes or cards for any purpose often depends entirely on my mood, and I therefore can’t fully explain myself in rational terms. Just having a set of runestones around as an alternative to the cards has proven at the very least to be fun for me, and it’s added a depth to my divinatory and magic practice that would otherwise have been absent. The runes act like a counterbalance to my cards, and my appreciation for the latter has grown immensely just by possessing a set of the former.

It doesn’t have to be runes. The possibilities for divinatory and magical means are virtually endless. It just so happened that the runes clicked for me.

As a conclusion to these posts about the runes versus the Tarot, I want to talk a little bit about some of the binary oppositions – the black and white columns of the High Priestess – that are formed in my mind by the presence of these two systems side-by-side on my table.

Navigation of the metaphysical realms is made all the easier when one has two points of reference with which to work, after all. Spiritual triangulation, if you will.

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I ended the first post about my runes by referring to them as the Earth, compared to the Sky of the Tarot. This is incredibly abstract, and it may not line up with the elemental understanding of others, but there are few oppositions more primal than this pair. I don’t know how to really clarify the “Earth : Sky :: Runes : Tarot” analogy, but it makes so much sense to me that I hardly feel the need to.

Of course, there is the simple/complex dichotomy that formed the basis of many of my comparisons above, and while I find the complexity of the Tarot tends to garner my interest in most situations, sometimes less really is more, and so the runes do come out on top from time to time.

An interest in linguistics leads me to point out that the Tarot is Romantic in origin and early dissemination, while the runes are Germanic. As a native English-speaker, it’s only fitting that both are represented in my divination practice.

Then, there is the historical, non-“woo” uses for these systems. Number-based gameplay for the Tarot, and phonetic letters for the runes. This one’s a double-whammy of an opposition, because you have the plebeian frivolity of gaming against patrician literacy, as well as the numbers against the letters. Perhaps the latter isn’t technically an opposition, but the fundamentals of all communication can probably be broken down into numbers and letters.***

These are only some examples of the sorts of things that go through my mind when thinking about runes and cards, and I assure you, I could continue on if I put a little more thought into it, but I’ll spare you that. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read enough. The point has been made, and the dead horse has been brutally beaten.

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Well, that about wraps it up for the runes. This one also ended up quite a bit longer than I thought it would be at the outset, but I figured enough was enough – no need to keep milking this series by further breaking it down into even more installments. I’ll try my best to keep the next few posts all about the Tarot, although I can’t promise that I won’t return eventually with another post combining the cards and the runes, especially if I strike the writer’s block again. After all, as I briefly alluded to above, comparisons of the Major Arcana and the runes can be a great way to break a mental sweat. I think it might be fun to explore those possibilities someday.

One final note: this entire post (and the one before it) was all about the runes versus the Tarot, for the sake of comparison. However, I’ve found that using them in tandem is a great way to go. Who says you have to choose? What this usually means for me is that I’ll lay out a spread with the Tarot, and then pull a rune(s) for conclusion or clarification. Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity, call it the hands of the gods, call it natural overlap of comparable systems – call it whatever you will – but they often support or illuminate each other in uncanny ways. Food for thought for those of you out there who use multiple sorts of tools for divination.

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*In my experience, that portion of the deck does not necessarily have to be the Majors. It could be only the Minors, or only a single suit, or the courts. But for the purposes of this post, I don’t need to get into all of that.

**I was once involved in a debate on the Aeclectic forums (R.I.P.) about the necessity of the Minors in a deck of Tarot cards, and at one point I said that, if I was only going to read with Majors, I may as well just use runes or some system with a comparable amount of lots from which to choose. Now, this might sound a little disparaging, which wasn’t my intention, but I maintain the point all the same. The Majors are flashier and more fun to talk about, but the Minors are what sets the Tarot apart from simple sortilege. If the Tarot gives more nuanced readings than the runes, it’s largely because of the Minors. And, as I said above, I do find value in Majors-only readings, but that’s beside the point. These folks were saying the Minors are unnecessary across the board – a waste of cardstock, you might say – and I find issue with that stance. But I’ll get off my soapbox, now.

***And here is one thing the runes can be used for that the Tarot cannot: writing (at least, not unless you can write in Hebrew and subscribe to a Tarot-Kabbalah system of correspondences, and even in such a case, you’re still really only using Hebrew, and not Tarot). I for one get a kick out of writing my to-do lists and other, similarly mundane things in runes. It makes my grocery list look like it should be chiselled into the walls of the Mines of Moria.

Well, I think that’s fun, anyway.

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.*

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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 Three Magi.

I was playing with my new Hermetic Tarot when I noticed something interesting.

Every single card of the HT bears a subtitle originally given by the Golden Dawn, usually beginning with “Lord of…” or “Daughter of…” or something like that. There are three cards in the Major Arcana that are designated “Magi”: the Magus of Power, the Magus of the Eternal Gods, and the Magus of the Voice of Light. These cards are more commonly referred to as the Magician, the Hierophant, and the Hermit, respectively.

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I always thought these were some pretty awesome depictions of these three figures.

This reminded me of something interesting I once read: the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit represent the three magi or wise men mentioned in the Bible.*

Despite becoming a staple of modern Nativity scenes, the magi are only vaguely referenced in one of the four Gospels of the New Testament – they aren’t even specified as numbering three, they were only said to have arrived bearing three gifts for the infant Christ. They came from the East, the land of mysticism and decadence, and were of a class of magician-priests, probably Zoroastrian (which is one ancient religious sect that I know next to nothing about, and I am interested in finding more information). The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There are a few ways of interpreting the gifts of the magi; because of the scant mention of them, though, it’s all really just speculation. Probably the most common theory is that the gold symbolizes earthly kingship, the frankincense (a type of incense used in religious ritual) symbolizes divinity, and the myrrh (an anointing oil often associated with funerary practices) symbolizes death. If we take this to be the case, the magi are metaphorically revealing Jesus’ destiny by giving him these things. That they come from Zoroastrian priests from “the East” is important, because it suggests that all religions (including what, at the time, would have been among the greatest rivals to the burgeoning church) and all peoples, no matter how exotic, were subservient to the Christ child.

So, this begs the question: which card is which gift? We can associate the Magician with gold, the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit with myrrh, which maintains the order of both cards and gifts (that is, the order in which they were listed in the Bible). I can’t think of better matches than these, anyway; the Magician isn’t a king, but he does exhibit earthly power (he’s literally pictured manipulating the four earthly elements in most decks). It’s no great stretch to connect the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit often includes symbolism relating to death.

As if to drive the connection between these three cards home, they are spaced evenly apart within the Major Arcana, with three cards between them each. Of course, this could easily be coincidence, but it got me thinking: which card is three away from the Hermit?

Of course, the answer is Death, followed by the Star, followed by the World.

I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of complimentary cards before on this blog; the idea is that any two Major Arcana cards whose numbers add up to 22 (the total number of the Major Arcana) share a connection with each other. And it just so happens that the compliment of the Magician is the World; the compliment of the Hierophant is the Star; and the compliment of the Hermit is Death. The complimentary relationship between the Hermit and Death seems to confirm that it was indeed the Hermit who brought the myrrh. Following this train of association, it’s not a far leap from the Star to the Hierophant and the notion of the divine (and it’s not lost on me that these astrologer-priests were led to Jesus by a divinely-placed star), and the World could absolutely signify earthly kingship. These three cards, though inversely ordered from their compliments, even fall into line with the story of Jesus’ eventual destiny as predicted by the wise men: he died, ascended to heaven, and was thereafter lauded by Christians as “King of Kings,” ruler of Heaven and of Earth.

~~~

The Hermit and the Magician are the two cards in the Tarot with which I most strongly identify, and, as I am wont to point out, are actually two aspects of the same archetypal figure. This idea of the three magi has led me to wonder: is the Hierophant yet another aspect of this character that I’d not considered?

There is a detail on these cards that leads me to suspect that the Golden Dawn (or at the very least Godfrey Dowson, the artist behind the HT) was aware of the connection between them. At the top of the Hermit card is an oil lantern with three wicks, in the implied shape of an upwards-pointing triangle, or the alchemical symbol for Fire. The top of the Magician card depicts the caduceus, in the implied shape of a downwards-pointing triangle, symbol for Water. Between them sits the Hierophant, and at the top of his card is the “monogram of Hermetic Truth” (in the words of the LWB). This glyph implies the shape of the six-pointed star, or the two triangles of Fire and Water superimposed on each other, representing the reconciliation of elemental opposites to create the essence of life.

So perhaps the Magician and the Hermit are two opposing (yet not mutually exclusive) aspects of the same figure; and perhaps, the Hierophant isn’t a third aspect at all, but an incarnation that combines these aspects into that singular figure. Indeed, the traditional image of the Hierophant is the Pope, whose position is that of a bridge between Man and God, matter and spirit.**

~~~

The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an important concept in the Christian faith. The idea of a trinity is not peculiar to Christianity, though, and I often find myself comparing their trinity to that of the Hindus: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, respectively. Beginning, Middle, and End. God the Father is the Creator of the world; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of Mankind stands for the Preservation of the world (Vishnu, by the way, has a tendency to incarnate himself within a mortal frame so he can better serve mankind, not unlike the Christ); and ultimately, everything dissolves and becomes one with the Holy Spirit – Destruction of the world.

I think the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit can be seen as another example of the Trinity. The Magician with his earthly power creates, the Hierophant with his connection to both the human and the divine preserves, and the Hermit, whose compliment is Death, destroys (the Hermit can also be associated with Kronos, also known as Father Time, or “the Devourer of Things”). Of course, destruction only paves the way for creation, and the cycle continues.

This, I believe, is the true significance of the Three Magi.

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The Three Magi, as painted by Lady Frieda Harris.

*For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this. If I ever stumble across the passage again, I’ll be sure to cite it here.

**Or a bridge between the macrocosm and microcosm, represented by the six- and five-pointed stars on the Hierophant card (that is, the Crowley and Hermetic Hierophants – I don’t think they’re on any others in my collection). Normally, when the six-pointed star makes an appearance on this blog, I take it to mean the blending of elemental opposites, but the macrocosm is a viable alternative (if the macro contains everything, though, are these two interpretations of the symbol really all that different?). This thought makes me reconsider the implications of the Hermit’s lantern, which is often pictured as containing this symbol. Can the Hermit really exist outside of the macrocosm? One possible way to view these three cards that I haven’t explored above is that the Magician is the microcosm, the Hermit the macrocosm, and the Hierophant is the bridge between them. Wow. This is a long digression that might have been better included in the proper post. Oh well.

Thoughts upon receiving my first professional reading.

Believe it or not, before last night I’d never had my cards read.

True story.

But, considering my ongoing interest in the Tarot, I decided a while ago that it’s something I should do, if for no other reason, just to see how it’s done. Last night I decided to actually go for it.

First, I stopped in the shop after work to get a feel for the place and ask a few preliminary questions. I left, promising to come back later, which of course, I did…

Before I begin to spin my yarn, though, I want to make a little side-note:

I recently purchased some runes for myself.* Despite my longtime fascination with Norse mythology, I’ve always been hesitant to actually use the runes for divinatory purposes. Last week, however, my hesitation inexplicably vanished, and I picked up a slim volume of runic definitions and a set of translucent purple stones etched with gilded symbols. They look like they fell right out of Dumbledore’s pocket.

Now, I really want to talk more about runes here, but I will refrain, because this remains a Tarot blog. Suffice it to say, I’ve branched out a bit when it comes to divination.

The runes do figure into my story, though, because I did a precursory reading with them before I left to get my Tarot reading. I wanted to know whether or not it really was a good idea to get the reading at this time. I cast three runes, and got something of a mixed message.

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Amethyst, I think the tag said, but I don’t really know because I’m not a geologist.

The first two runes suggested a successful endeavor, but the last rune, which was in its reversed position, seemed to tell me that someone who I would otherwise have trusted was going to give me advice rooted in bias, or try to deceive me for personal gain.

Obviously, I took this to mean that the Tarot reader I spoke with earlier might not have my best interests in mind.

I was confused by the juxtaposition of this rune with the two others, and pulled one more for clarification about whether or not I should go. This rune was another positive one, suggesting fertility, and by extension, birth of new ideas (as a novice rune-caster, all of my interpretations for last night’s cast came directly from the little book I bought**). I came to the conclusion that I would take away constructive lessons from the experience, if not the reading itself, so long as I was wary of the source.

Fair enough. As a student of history, I’m no stranger to skeptical analysis of biased sources. So I poured myself a coffee mug of Irish cream as a barrier against the cold (and admittedly for a bit of liquid pseudo-courage – as I said, I’ve never done this kind of thing before, and didn’t know what to expect), drank it down, and set out on my return to the shop. As I walked, I worked on refining a question to ask the reader, something that would be real enough to give her something to work with, and would genuinely help me in the event of a good reading; in the back of my mind, though, I remembered that I was going into this for primarily academic purposes, and I braced myself for the potential drawbacks suggested by my runes.

I settled on asking about an emotional issue I’d approached my own cards with the night prior – a serious blockage that has been affecting my day-to-day mood. I failed to gain any genuine insight from my cards, though, and walked away none the wiser. What better question to pose to this strange third party I was on my way to meet than this?

~~~

I was surprised upon entering the shop to be greeted by a different woman than the one I’d consulted earlier. For a split moment, I considered asking for the woman I’d already met, but ultimately did not. I followed this new woman to the reading room, and we began.

The first thing she did (after trying to sell me psychic services that I was not interested in) was ask me if I’d ever had my cards read before. I said I hadn’t, but added that I am familiar with the cards, which was my way of subtly suggesting that I am not to be taken for a dupe. I don’t think she registered my message, though.

She told me to think of a wish and to keep it to myself. A red flag went up in my mind right there, because it suggested to me that her goal was to dazzle me with how much she could intuit from the cards, rather than actually help me to answer any questions I had brought. She then proceeded to lay out the cards in a variation of the Celtic Cross spread, telling me about myself and my troubles as she did so. She worked incredibly fast, and I could not process what the cards on the table were before she’d covered them up with new ones.

She was clearly very skilled at reading. She only had to glance at the cards to tell me what they meant. But she did not walk me through each card, and because I hardly had the chance to look at them myself, I cannot guess at how she came to these conclusions.

And she was correct about a great many things, in some cases hitting the nail right on the head. But she did not tell me anything about myself that I didn’t already know, and most things she predicted for my future were pretty generic. And because she didn’t show me how she came to these conclusions, I don’t know how much she actually drew from the cards. She claimed to be a psychic, telling me a little about my aura before I even sat down, and she asked for my birth date, so she had the information she needed for a general astrological blueprint. How do I know she wasn’t making generalizations about me from these methods? (assuming of course that these methods are even valid – which I cannot say one way or the other)

Sure, she told me that I struggle with addiction and depression, for example, but did the cards communicate that to her, or did she maybe just smell that whiskey on my breath? I’ve read enough Sherlock Holmes stories to know that you don’t need Tarot cards or supernatural abilities to tell people about themselves if you’re observant enough.

She presented me with so much information so quickly, that I had a hard time retaining it. Even now, as I write this, I’m having difficulty remembering a lot of what she told me.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I remember quite a few things she said, but my memory of the experience is a jumbled mess overall.*** Sure, I was impressed with how much she could tell me with very little information to go on, but again, she said nothing I couldn’t have just told her myself, and I got very little in the way of advice towards solving my issues.

That is, until she gave me the advice of pissing away more of my money to get more advice.

She told me I had some serious negativity that needed immediate attention, and that the best thing I could do was drop a hundred dollars right then and there so she could meditate for me. Seriously, lady? Thanks, but no thanks. I politely declined, handed her the money I owed her for the reading, thanked her, and moved to leave the shop. Before I was out the door, though, she offered me a small, polished black stone that “absorbs negativity,” free of charge. It was a nice gesture on her part. I pocketed it and left.****

~~~

There are three things from this experience that really stuck with me afterwards. The first was what the reader had told me about my aura before she had even laid out the cards: apparently, my aura is a bright, white light, which is a sign of great inner strength and purity. Now, this made me smile, and if she wasn’t just pulling my leg, I take great comfort in it. Of course, I’m not 100% sure she wasn’t pulling my leg to flatter me and suck me in, but either way, those words remained with me.

The second was something she said to me during the reading: having faith is very important, my capacity for faith is very strong, and because of it I am able to build strong connections with other people; but I really need to figure out exactly what it is I put my faith in. I’ve written about this dilemma before; its something that I wonder about fairly often. I was thinking more about this than anything else the reader had said to me afterward (although it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of my mind beforehand – and the issue that was on my mind was left unaddressed save for some vague comments about inner turmoil). If nothing else, this reading confirmed my tentative faith in the runes, and by extension divination in general. I thought to myself, perhaps this is what I have faith in, but I immediately corrected my thoughts – I may have faith in the cards and the runes as tools, but that is all they are. No, there is something on the other side of the spiritual divide with which I am using these tools to communicate  – that is what I truly put my faith in, what I allow to guide my spiritual life. So, I go right back to my original question: what is it? Perhaps it really is beyond me to name it, and rather than distracting myself with constrictive definitions, I should just have faith. And if the “other side of the spiritual divide” ends up just being my own subconscious reflected back at me, well, what of it? Am I not also divine, by virtue of my belief in the Paradox of Magic?

The third was a particular card she laid down: the Magician (she used a Rider pack). This was one of the first cards she drew, and it was one of the very few that did not get covered by other cards as the reading progressed, almost as if he was there to watch over the reading. I don’t know what this card contributed to her interpretation – I couldn’t tell based on what she was saying to me. However, as a reader myself, I found great significance in the appearance of this card, and it went both ways. The Magician was warning both myself and the reader about the Trickster sitting directly across the table.

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He pointed at the both of us, as if to say to each, “Watch out for that one…”

In other words, I saw that this card was telling me about the snake-oil salesman on the other side of the table. I also saw that he was telling the reader, if she would listen, that I wasn’t exactly what I appeared to be, either – that I may have looked like I was two steps behind, when I was actually one step ahead. Why, the Magician represents the very force that put the warning rune in my hands earlier that evening. He is a close ally of mine, my patron, and I think she was too busy trying to butter me up so I’d spend more money that she missed that (not that she should have gotten that from the card, because it was a reading for me, but whatever psychic ability she possessed might have shown her, if only she had looked).

~~~

I didn’t go there to get proof that the cards work – I already know that. If I doubted, I wouldn’t spend my money, and I don’t understand the people who do. Of course, I understand that many Tarot readers have to deal with skeptics, but I don’t think that’s a reason to treat everyone who comes through the door as one. And I suppose I was a skeptic, although certainly not the skeptic she’d apparently assumed I was. I was skeptical about her, not her cards. And I was right to be.

I went there to gain a new perspective on the cards, and hopefully get some questions answered about my emotional troubles in the process, and I learned nothing about either.

In the end, however, I feel like the experience was a positive one, although I will not be going back to that shop to get my cards read again. In fact, because I study the cards myself, I don’t feel much of a desire to have someone else read them for me at all. There is one other shop in my town that does Tarot readings, though, and I think I’ll be paying them a visit in the future, just to see. Hopefully I will be able to actually learn something there.

~~~

*At some point, I intend to craft my own set of runes, but I figured I’d learn how to read with these for the time being.

**A Practical Guide to the Runes: Their Uses in Divination and Magick by Lisa Peschel, published in 1989 by Llewellyn Worldwide. That extra “K” in the word “Magick” always makes me cringe, but I let it slide this time.

***And I don’t think this is a result of the Irish cream, because my memory from both before and after the reading is very clear.

****Maybe it’s because I’m an Earth Wizard, but I tend to attract stones like that. I’ve got a small collection of them in my apartment, and I’ve never had to pay for one (not counting my new runes, of course). I call some of these “Sentinel Stones” and use them for a very specific type of magic, but like the runes, I will refrain from really going into that here.