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:
This is a Tarot blog, and a Tarot blog it shall remain; but divination is a major theme throughout, and I feel compelled to dedicate at least one post to these other symbols of divination.*
I recently returned from a trip to Iceland, the land where my beloved Eddas were penned. And, my favorite cycle of mythic literature aside, I have never been to a country so starkly beautiful.
Now, the runes were not invented in Iceland, either in a mythic or an historic sense. However, because the only surviving versions of the myth in which Odin obtains the runes were written there, I say: close enough. The letters of the land may have first been gotten elsewhere, but they were used to their most lasting effect in Iceland.**
As a novice but eager runecaster, I fashioned my own runes while I was there. It seemed only fitting. I selected for my lots several small and smooth igneous stones from a beach of black sand on the southernmost coast of the island.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
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 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.
*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). 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.
Believe it or not, before last night I’d never had my cards read.
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.
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.
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.
In my post about the suit of Coins, I discussed the inherent magical power of Earth. In short, Coins represent magic made tangible, the magic of the physical world around us, which is so often taken for granted. As a magic-wielder, I identify very strongly with Earth. But Earth isn’t the only magic. Not by a long shot.
Today, I’m going to take the discussion to the opposite end of the elemental spectrum: Fire. And while Fire is not necessarily a more powerful form of magic than Earth, it is certainly much flashier, and as such, much more easily associated with magic in general.
In the Tarot, Fire is symbolized by the suit of Wands, sometimes also called Batons or Scepters or Staves or something along those lines.
Where the Coins are connected to the material realm, the Wands are connected to the realm of passion, creativity, and spirituality. In other words, where the Coins represent the finished product, the Wands represent the initial spark which drives beginning. It is inspiration.
It is also energy when all other elements are matter (well not Aether, but that’s a different story). In fact, without Fire, there would be no Water or Air, only a cold, dead Earth (and as much as I like Earth, that’s just unappealing). It is the energy represented by Wands which transforms Earth into Water, and Water into Air. Energy is Fire. Transformative energy is Wands.
In many decks, the Wands are pictured as flowering or with growing leaves. This further demonstrates the notion of transformative power, especially in terms of growth. Out of all the suits, the Wands are the most productive, the suit with the highest concentration of pure potential.
Now, I don’t believe any one element is better or more important than any of the others. Existence as we know it wouldn’t be possible without the perfect blend of all four. But I do think that each is the most important in its own way (if that makes any sense), and this is perhaps most apparent when dealing with Wands. There would be no motion, no change, without the energy of Fire.
It’s no coincidence that Magicians and Wizards of fiction use a wand or staff to direct their magic. They point their wands at something, perhaps speak an incantation, and that something changes according to their intentions. The wand works as a conduit for their magic. It is symbolic of the Wizard’s ability to transform the world around him (or her) according to his (or her) will.
The Magician of the Major Arcana holds a wand over his head as means of focusing energy from above so he can work his magic on Earth. He is using the power of the wand in a deliberate, creative way. And then there is the Hermit, a figure also often associated with wizards, who leans on a wand for support as he climbs to the heights of spiritual enlightenment. His use of the wand is also deliberate, although he uses it for inward transformation, as opposed to the outward transformation exercised by the Magician. And then there is the Fool, who has a wand over his shoulder and is blissfully unaware of the possibilities it represents.
Yes, the Wands are a driving symbol throughout the entire Tarot, not just its own suit.
The Wands represent a zest for life, a love for what you do. Without the passion of the Wands, life would be as dull and cold as a world without fire. Be sure to feed the creative spark in your life, but be careful not to let your passions get the best of you. Fire burns. It is a life-saver, but there are few forces quite so destructive as fire when it gets out of control.
I am the Sentinel on the Council. It is my job to keep my eyes on the metaphysical horizons and to be aware of forces at work or play in the distance, to report to the Council so that we may learn from and adapt to the magical goings-on around us.
The following is a spread I devised myself for just that purpose.
This is a large and somewhat complex spread that uses up to 21 cards, including a significator. It will take some time to interpret. It’s purpose is to evaluate your current position in life, including potential strengths and weaknesses, as well as what may be off in the distance. It’s a spread for meditation on what’s current and preparation for what is to come. This spread is not meant to answer any specific question; it’s more of a general stock-taking type of thing. It is my spread, used for purposes of observing and interpreting external magical energy, and to be considered in consultation with the Council. However, I share it in hopes that it may be of use to anyone who wishes to gain a better vantage point in his or her life. Here it is:
Cards 1-3: The Watchtower. These cards are placed one on top of the other.
1: This card represents the foundation of the tower. It should be strong; if it is weak, immediate action should be taken to fortify it. In a magical sense, this card represents your innate understanding of the world and your place in it.
2: This card represents the body of the tower. How have you built upon your foundation of knowledge?
3: This card represents the platform upon which you stand. What is your current perspective? How clearly does this perspective allow you to see off into the distance? is there anything blocking your view?
Card 4: The Sentinel, placed on top of the Tower stack. This is where you place your significator. You can choose one prior to laying out the other cards, or you can choose one at random. If you choose the latter, what does this say about your current state of mind? Is the Sentinel alert? Does he/she maybe need glasses?
Cards 5-8: The Defenses, placed left to right in front of the tower. These cards can represent a couple things. They can be seen as the four walls of your fortress; they can be elements at your disposal, to use against whatever dangers may be approaching. You can place significators here to represent certain people who are close to you or part of your support system. If you choose to do this, perhaps it would be a good idea to place an additional card on top of each significator as a reading on how that person is doing in relation to the rest of the spread. Whatever these cards represent to you, they are in the vicinity of your tower, not far off in the distance like the next cards (watch out for dangers here which may have escaped your watch in the past).
I recommend briefly studying the first eight cards (your completed fortress) before laying out the next cards in order to have an idea of where you stand. This will help you to interpret what’s coming up.
Cards 9-12: the Cardinal Directions. Placed from left to right around the cards already laid, these cards represent the horizon.
9: East. Associated with the element of Air and the suit of Swords.
10: South. Element of Fire and suit of Wands.
11: West. Element of Water and suit of Cups.
12: North. Element of Earth and suit of Coins.
These are the cards that show what’s in the distance (metaphorically speaking); they may or may not correspond to cards 5-8. You’re the Sentinel; it’s your job to perceive if these are friendly, neutral, or hostile forces. Are they approaching? Retreating? Or are they just passing by? What do they indicate is on your horizon? Once you’ve placed cards 9-12, you can either consider yourself finished and move on to the final card, or you can add more cards to the horizon to help clarify the situation. I wouldn’t recommend more than a total of three cards in each direction, or a total of 12 cards on the horizon.
Should you decide to place more cards, they should be added one at a time to each spot, in the order that the directions were placed. In other words, cards 9, 13, and 17 go in the East; 10, 14, and 18 in the South; 11, 15, and 19 in the West; and 12, 16, and 20 in the North. You can then read each group as a progression of events, or as a whole. Whatever makes the most sense at the time of reading is what is recommended.
The Final Card: The Alarm. This card is placed directly behind the significator as a general conclusion to the whole spread. Given the state of your fortress and what you can see on the horizon, what is the best course of action to take? Is it all quiet on the front? Or should you sound the alarm? Should you muster the troops? Should you just keep silence until something more definitive can be reported? Should you call in the contractors for repairs? Or should you abandon your post altogether and scramble to find a safer vantage point? The message this card holds should be carefully considered both by itself and in conjunction with the entire spread.
Some other points to be considered: Is your tower a solitary fortress, or is it part of a vast system of defenses around a central point? Is it on the fringes of an empire, or part of the Citadel that houses the government? do you answer to a higher power? What is the surrounding landscape? Forests? Mountains? Plains? Or are you on an island, surrounded by waters? Are you an appointed Sentinel (like me), or are you just a common soldier summoned to keep watch for a shift? Is your tower guarding something specific, or is it just there for general security? Is it wartime, or peacetime? I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but these can all represent variables to keep in mind if you decide to use this spread to its fullest potential. What they really mean is up to you. Keep an open mind when using this spread. The basic idea is just that you’re standing on a platform elevated above your everyday life, and you’re keeping watch. Maybe you know what you’re looking for, like a signal from a Scout, or the return of a messenger or questing Knight Errant. Maybe you don’t know what you’re looking for, but you want to keep an eye out anyway for whatever the winds of fortune might be blowing your way.
One possibility is to use exclusively the Major Arcana, which would use all but one of the cards. This can show you where each of these archetypal energies are present in your life, how they are working for or against you, and what aspect you are currently missing.
So there you have it: the Sentinel’s Spread. As I said, this is a personal spread that I use for specific magical purposes. But any are encouraged to give it a try and let me know how it works out. I’ll post a sample reading with pictures using this spread next time. In the meantime, happy watching.
Here are other examples of readings with the Sentinel’s Spread:
The names change, but they all still mean the same: Earth.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.
For those of you who read my previous post on significators and didn’t snort in derision at my mentioning of magic and wizards, I thank you. This post is intended first to clarify exactly what I mean by those two terms, and second to show how these ideas connect to the Tarot.
First of all, what am I talking about when I say magic? I’ll keep this relatively short; I assure you, I could write pages and pages about my theories and never once mention the Tarot, but I’ll spare you that noise.
I like how Mr. Crowley defined magic: “…the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with Will”. I have only recently stumbled upon this, but it is a remarkably accurate definition of my personal view, or at least part of it. I couldn’t have phrased it any better than that.
Many people totally underestimate the power of their own minds. Perspective is reality, and your thoughts have a very real power to change your life. To me, that’s the essence of magical thinking.
There is one thing to keep in mind: some things are just out of your control. This leads me to what I call the Magical Paradox.
The Wizard simultaneously has complete control and no control. This needs to be understood and accepted before any magic can happen.
Let me explain using the words I’ve written previously: We are all powerless in the midst of a vast and seemingly uncaring Universe. By the same token, however, we are a part of that Universe, made of the same stuff, and therefore have all the potential that comes with it. We are each the masters of our own Universes, but can only truly be in control of the Micro by relinquishing our futile attempts at controlling the Macro… in order to successfully use [magic], one must accept that he or she is simultaneously in and without control.
When I say the Universe, I am simply using a convenient term to refer to the un-referrable: that Greater Whole that is all of us, all of our world, everything we know, have known, and ever will know, and never will know, in all dimensions, together as one unified, undefinable thing. We are stuck in time – we can only perceive reality on a moment by moment basis. Everything we perceive, including ourselves, is just one minuscule aspect of the Universe at one point in time. Ultimately, though, we are all one with everything around us – we are the Universe.
I believe that, as humans, our magic stems from our ability to use language.* Our limit is only as far we can use it to put abstractions into words. If you can conceive it in your mind, then, in theory, you can make it real in the world.
Of course, none of this happens overnight. I liken the wizard to the performing musician who has spent countless hours practicing a piece. The audience only hears the final result, and to them, it is magic. This is why I like Crowley’s use of the words science and art. To the wizard, magic is a science. To everyone else, it is an art.**
I also believe that there is a natural magic inherent in the world around us. In order to really use magic, you also have to appreciate what has always been there, because that’s the energy that you’re really tapping into when you use language to express your desires. Language is, after all, just our way of comprehending what is around us and communicating that to others; it isn’t necessarily a force in and of itself, but rather our way of connecting to and manipulating our surroundings. In other words, magic as an energy exists with or without us. Magic as an art and science, on the other hand, depends on how we can use that energy, which I believe ultimately depends on our use of language.
“Wizard” is just a word that the Council and I really like. Sorcerer or magician or anything else will work just as well. It only means a user of magic. I like the term wizard, though, because it implies a little more than using magic. It’s etymology is derived from the same source as “wisdom”, and to me, that is significant. It means letting the Universe work through you as much as you are working the Universe. It’s a blending of passivity and activity – the achievement of the reconciliation of the Paradox.
I’ve mentioned the Council a couple of times throughout this blog. The Council is a group of five wizards and friends who discovered magic at roughly the same time. Our ideas about magic and our friendship united us as the Council. Any individual can be a wizard, but the Council allows us to keep open discussions on theory, ethics, and practical application. We evolve together. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for them.
I should point out that I’d been developing theories and practicing magic for years before I ever discovered the Tarot. I never followed a specific magic system; my fellows on the Council and I were spontaneously struck with the realization of magic, and only as we fine-tuned our ideas over time did we come to discover that many of them coincided with magical ideas had by others through the ages (Coincidence? Maybe). Historically, magic has generally been divided into two categories: esoteric magic and natural magic. Our philosophy blends these categories.
I won’t go further into magical specifics here. This is not the place for it. I think I’ve done a good enough job at distilling the essence of magical philosophy as understood by the Council to move on to how the Tarot relates.
I’ll start with the deck of cards as an object. There is a branch of magical practice we call “Item Magic”. This involves selecting a particular object, imbuing it with magical energy, and using it as a tool or point of focus for magical activity. The Tarot already has a natural energy to it, both in the individual cards and the deck as a whole. This makes it ideal for Item Magic. A wizard can use it as a tool for divination, meditation (two forms of passive magic), ritual magic, or for creative uses like “writing your own story” (two forms of active magic). The Tarot is very much a magical item.
The classical elements play a significant role in helping us to understand the Universe. All magic falls under the domain of Aether, but any magic can also be attributed to another element depending on its nature. Or you can draw from an elemental energy to power and shape your magic, so to speak. Each of us on the Council has a specific element with which we identify (Earth for me, hence the use of the suit of Coins for my significators dealing with magic). The four suits of the Minor Arcana (with the Major Arcana representing the fifth element) makes the Tarot perfect for working with elemental energies. In fact, it was possibly designed with this in mind. Virtually any established magic system in the West agrees with this notion of the importance of the elements.
Then there are the archetypal energies found in the Major Arcana, specifically those of the Trickster and the Wise One. I mention these two in particular, because every true wizard is a combination of them, or so I believe. Others are applicable to the study of magic, like the High Priestess and the World, but they all represent energies that can be tapped into. At the very least, they should all be studied and understood, because they each represent a signpost along the path of the magical journey towards enlightenment.
Many magical orders have made use of the structure of the Tarot by assigning it various correspondences, most notably astrological, alchemical, and Kabbalistic correspondences. This makes the Tarot an excellent textbook for occult studies in general. Combine this with its uses as a spiritual guide (magic has its roots in spirituality), and you have a very handy manual for magical practices that works on many levels.
Finally (for this post, anyway; a complete list of possible magical uses of the Tarot would be practically endless), the Tarot works as a metaphor for the aforementioned Paradox. Using the deck requires both a relinquishing of and an assuming of control. You’re hands shuffle the deck; in this way, you are responsible for which cards come up. However, shuffling is a randomizing activity, so the final outcome is based on chance, or the Will of the Universe. This is symbolic of the paradox of magic. The purpose of the wizard is to work to somehow reconcile these opposing forces (to be simultaneously passive and active). This is illustrated throughout the Major Arcana with a concept called binary opposites. There are several pairs of cards that represent this idea: the Magician and the High Priestess, the Emperor and the Empress, the Hierophant and the Devil, the Moon and the Sun, etc. There are several individual cards that also show this idea, like the Lovers, or the black and white columns situated behind the High Priestess.
In the card commonly called Temperance, we see an angel mixing liquids from two vessels. This is symbolic of the reconciliation of binary opposites that results in the Golden Mean. This is the unity of the Universe, and it is our jobs as wizards to gain a more comprehensive understanding every day to achieve the same. This requires letting go of facts, in order to be open to truths. Once this is accomplished, we cease to be mere mortals, and reach divine status. If this could somehow be done not only by the individual, but by the entirety of humanity, we would reach a new level of collective consciousness. I assert that this is the New Aeon to which Crowley referred in his CHT.
I should probably point out that “magic” and “wizard” are just words. I like these words because they conjure certain ideas in my mind. I like to consider myself a wizard; it makes my daily life feel more interesting, and it’s really as simple as that. But you can think magically, with just as much success, without using these terms if that suits you.
In the end, it boils down to perspective. All you need is an open mind and active imagination. Magic only exists if you believe in it – that’s the catch, and that’s why so many people who require some sort of objective proof will never get it.
*Incidentally, I believe storytelling (and I mean the ability to really weave a yarn) to be among the most powerful forms of magic. The only wizard with magic more potent is, in my opinion, the Musician. Each of these folks uses a language to plant images, ideas, emotions and thoughts in your head (and thoughts are indeed the root of all action; I do not kid when I stress the connection between thought and magic). Only the musician, though, can do it through a language otherwise lost to us mere mortals: the language of the Muses. The Bard, then, is the most powerful Magician of them all, combining words we consciously understand with music we don’t into a cohesive song, within which we find ourselves entranced.
**Science and art – what two great, misunderstood words. Every artist has to some degree the mind of a scientist, and every scientist has to some degree the mind of an artist. It’s all about perspective! Always!