Runes: That Other Way to Divine.

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

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

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

The Runes.

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


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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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


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

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

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

The Magician, Part IV.

Read Part III here.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


The Juggler, Part II.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oswald Wirth

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

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

Part III

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

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

Etteilla v. Waite: Part VII

Last time on Etteilla v. Waite, I discussed the GE cards the Sky, Man and Beast, and the Stars, as well as the various cards from the RWS that I think match best with them. I had to make quite a few far reaches to come up with correspondences between the two traditions, and unfortunately, the next card in line is the most difficult card from Etteilla yet to equate in any way with Waite’s cards.

Still kinda bummed about the color on this

Birds and Fish: Yeah. I have no idea. The card makes sense enough in the context of Etteilla’s progression. It’s the penultimate card in the section of the Major Arcana that deals with the Creation of the world. At this point in the game, the world is more or less complete; there is earth and sky, celestial bodies populating the latter and plants, humans and beasts populating the former. This card places birds and fish into the mix as a finishing touch. Creation itself is now finished – all that’s left to do is awaken humankind to its divine potential (see the next card).

This may very well be the only card for which I cannot come up with even a remote connection to the RWS. I’m stumped. The best I can offer is the Lovers, which, as I pointed out in part II of this series, also shows a completed Creation, although it has nothing to do with birds or fish, and actually fits far better with the following card, as we shall see.

Interesting coincidence: Look at the similarities between the Devil and the Lovers, both of which apply to Rest.

Rest: This is the eighth card of the GE, representing the seventh day of the Biblical creation, and God’s Day of Rest. What the picture actually shows, though, is the temptation of Eve by the Serpent to eat of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – to commit the original sin. Considering the fact that the Devil is the card of temptation and sin, I think he is a sensible match for Rest; indeed, the Serpent pictured in the card is supposed to be none other than the Devil himself.

So far in this portion of the project, I could easily have substituted other versions for the RWS cards with which I’ve been matching the GE (I did picture the CHT Fool next to the GE Chaos). Sure, there are certain nuances of certain RWS cards that I think translate best to the overarching theme of “myth in the Tarot” (the High Priestess in particular is a good example of this), but they are still more or less interchangeable with other versions of the Major Arcana.

In this instance, however, only the RWS version of the Lovers will do. Like Rest, the RWS Lovers pictures Eve and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The serpent is wrapped around the Tree as in the GE. The Lovers also, however, includes Adam and the Tree of Life in the image, as well as an angel (is it supposed to be Raphael? I don’t remember…). This card is dripping with interpretive possibilities, but I’ll delve into that in a proper post about the Lovers; here, I think it’s necessary only to focus on the fact that this card signifies a definitive choice to be made, much like the choice made by Eve in Rest to bite from the fruit.

Come to think of it, given that the traditional divinatory meaning of the TdM Lover is essentially a choice between a life of vice versus a life of virtue, I suppose any version of this card can be matched with Rest. I still favor the RWS in this instance, though, because of the Biblical imagery that the two share.

Rest is labelled “Etteilla” after the fashion of Chaos, which means this card is also a significator (this one is intended for the female querent). In that case, the Fool can be paired with Rest as well as Chaos, and this isn’t actually a senseless match. The Fool is on the brink of descending into consciousness, about to depart from the Great Round. Another metaphor for the Great Round is, you guessed it, the Garden of Eden, and Eve is just about to fall from her blissful paradise.

One final thought: this isn’t a match so much as it is a point of interest, but I’d like to call to mind the fact that Rest occupies the same spot in the progression of the Major Arcana as the Chariot (see part II, linked above). If it wasn’t for this coincidence, I’d say nothing about it, but consider this: the Charioteer, with his pair of Dark and Light sphinxes, has made his choice (again, the choice itself is the Lovers just prior), eaten from the mythic fruit, become aware of the nature of Good and Evil, and is now tethered to them as he makes his way through his mortal life.


That wraps up what I like to call the “Creation” portion of the Etteilla-pattern Major Arcana. Next time on Etteilla v. Waite, I will begin to study the portion of “Preservation”, followed finally by “Destruction”.

Etteilla v. Waite: Part VI

In the previous installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I compared the first three cards of the GE (Chaos, the Sun, and the Plants) with various cards from the RWS. I shall continue the progression here.



Sky: This card is an odd one, in that there is no obvious counterpart in the RWS. The closest I can come up with is perhaps the Empress. While she is typically associated with nature and the earth, she is pictured wearing a crown of stars representing the heavens. So in reality, she is Queen of both Heaven and Earth, like Innana of the ancient Fertile Crescent. This card is as much in her realm of operation as the Plants card before it.

The Sky could alternatively be associated with the Emperor. If we consider the Empress to be the archetype of the Earth Mother, her consort the Emperor can be viewed as the Sky Father, a figure often associated in myth with imposing the law on mankind. It’s an interesting line of thought, but ultimately both the Emperor and the Empress share only a tenuous connection with this card.


Man and Beast: Because of its distinctive imagery, this card brings to mind the World. The central figure is enclosed in an ouroboros reminiscent of the World-dancer’s wreath, and there are four animals arranged in the corners of both cards. Aside from this, and the fact both cards may suggest a journey when used in divination, there doesn’t seem (to me) to be much else that these two cards really have in common.

The Man and Beast card seems to imply mankind’s mastery over the beasts and by extension nature. If we take this view of the card, the Emperor again seems to fit; perhaps also Strength, with the lion subdued by the maiden, can be applied here. The man is the center of the universe in this card; the world and its resources exist for him to use. It’s a very Biblical way of viewing man’s place in this world, and in that way almost reminds me of the Magician with the elements spread out on his table for him to manipulate, or the Chariot with its victorious occupant harnessing raw animal energy to get where he wants to go. Like the Sky card above, I have to stretch a little here to come up with something, but connections can be made with a little contemplation.


Stars: This card looks very similar to the Sky, with the belt of the zodiac being the only real addition. Of course the Star from the RWS would match here, but that match is as superficial as that of the Moon with the Plants from the previous post. The Empress can go here as well, based on the logic with which I’d matched her with the Sky (there are twelve stars in her crown, just as there are twelve signs of the zodiac). I suppose any RWS card with an astrological attribution could be considered a component of this card, seeing as the zodiac seems to be the point. It’s interesting to note that the occupant of the Chariot is said to be wearing the belt of the zodiac around his waist, and he does stand under a canopy of stars. Are these elements enough to match these cards together, though?

The notion that astrology corresponds with earthly matters is a popular application of the “as above, so below” principle. It suggests that, to some degree at least, we are at the mercy of the whims of the rotating heavenly bodies, out of our control and inescapable, sort of like the relationship between mankind and the ever-turning Wheel of Fortune. The Wheel is very similar in shape to the “wheel” of the Stars, and the four animals in the corners are sometimes associated with the four fixed signs of the zodiac.


The thing about these early cards in the GE progression is that they depict elemental concepts like Earth and Sky that are only hinted at to varying degrees in the RWS. It makes it very tough at this stage to come up with clear matches between the two decks (the somewhat superficial connections between the Stars and Moons and such notwithstanding). With that being said, however, the early cards in both traditions do follow a similar theme of exploring binary opposition, even if the cards themselves don’t illustrate the same story.

There are couple more odd ones coming up in the next few posts, but there will also be quite a few that are much more easily paired, so stay tuned for another installment of Etteilla v. Waite.

The Serpent and the World.

The concept of the Ouroboros is central to much of the world’s mythology. This universal symbol denotes the paradox of our existence.

Although not, strictly speaking, the World, this card uses similar imagery, complete with an Ouroboros serpent around the man in the center – GE

Also called the Pleroma, the Great Round, the Cosmic Egg, or any number of related things, the Ouroboros is most often pictured as a snake or dragon biting or eating its own tail, thus sustaining itself through its own destruction. It first appeared (I think) in ancient Egypt, and has been integral to various mythic, religious, and esoteric traditions ever since.

Its meaning is twofold: on one hand, its devouring of itself symbolizes the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth; the snake thrives on its own demise. In order for there to be life, there must also be death, and vice-versa. On the other hand, the circular enclosure created by the snake symbolizes one-ness. A perfect unity with and of the Universe. On a collective level, this most often represents the Universe prior to Creation by splitting of binary opposites. If you imagine the dualistic Yin-Yang symbol to be our world now, the Ouroboros would be a uniformly grey circle. On an individual level, it usually represents the time after death and before birth. Together, these two aspects of the Ouroboros can be combined in an attempt to explain the nature of the singular and cyclical Universe.

Creation occurred when the Ouroboros opened up and split in half (when the Egg hatched, if you will). From a cosmic, fifth-dimension sort of perspective, though, the Ouroboros is still intact. The opposites through which we perceive our existence are just an illusion that is a result of our inability to experience the world on anything other than a moment-by-moment basis.

The World – TdM

I’ve written before about how the Tarot itself is akin to a wheel, making it a veritable model of the Ouroboros. Each card represents a single point upon the wheel, but together they make a unified whole. This is representative of how we experience the Tarot and life in general. There are several cards which specifically evoke the Ouroboros; there are two which, to me, are direct representations of it, and fittingly enough, they are located at either end of the Major Arcana. I’ve already written about the Fool. He is like the soul which has not yet departed from the enclosure of the Ouroboros. The woman dancing in the center of the World card is like the soul which has rejoined it (apotheosis is the term). More than showing the enlightened soul, though, the World (or Universe, as Mr. Crowley dubbed it – which pleases me very much) shows the Great Round itself. This card shows the entire universe as we understand it on a symbolic level. The Ouroboros itself is represented here by a huge wreath (which also shows up on the head of the Fool in the RWS – ahem). The wreath is held together by ribbons that remind one of the infinity sign.* Inside, we see the eternal soul of mankind. She is a woman, but she embraces her male aspect by holding a wand in either hand. Only a person who has embraced his or her entire self, including the anima/animus, and his or her shadow self (the Devil), can reach this state of being in life. Outside, we see the four worldly elements symbolized as four animals. These are outside of the circle because within we would not recognize them as separate from each other.

The Universe. Notice that the woman dances with a snake, and that their form is that of the infinity sign – CHT

If any single card contained within itself all of the other cards, it would be the World. The dancer is the Fool as he completes his journey. Everything he’s learned can be boiled down to four elements (the suits of the Minor Arcana), but ultimately he must reconcile their differences and incorporate them all in his life. That the figure is a dancer is not accidental. The World illustrates a fluid state of being. The correct mixture of the four elements is ever-changing. This is the nature of the Universe. Stasis is an illusion of the human condition, just as opposition is.

The Wheel of Fortune (card 10) is similar to the World. Located about half way through the Majors, the Wheel is the Ouroboros as the Fool gazes upon it from the outside. Having been taught by the Hermit, he begins to understand the true nature of the world. But he has more tests to complete. When he finally reaches the World, he is no longer on the outside looking in. He is on the inside, or rather, he is one with the Great Round. There are ups and downs, but he understands that rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of Lady Fortune, these ups and downs are equal and eternal. The serpent lives as it dies.

This is such a cool version of this card – SaM

From the World springs the Fool, and the cycle begins again. Myths and stories would have us believe that, after one tumultuous journey through the symbolic Underworld, we are complete, and remain forever in the state of ecstasy that is the World. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true in real life. After successfully undergoing trials and tribulations, we do indeed feel like the World Dancer. But what good would the lessons learned during our own personal “Hero’s Journey” be if we didn’t get a chance to incorporate them into the next chapter? So we emerge from our revelry, more experienced but newly Foolish, to begin again and learn how to better ourselves even further. In this way, the Tarot is more like a spiral than a wheel, always circling around, but ever-rising. And so we continue, on and on, until we eventually die and rejoin the Great Round for real. Until you’re born again, that is, and the World keeps on spinning.


The World Serpent, biting its own tail – DMT

*You could imagine the wreath to be the cycle of the Major Arcana, and these two infinity ribbons that tie the wreath together represent two specific cards. They could be the Fool and the World itself, as the two points at which the circle is joined together. Or, they could be the Magician and Strength, cards 1 and 11, respectively, located at the start and midpoint of the cycle. Each of the figures in these cards usually has an implied infinity sign over his or her head. These infinities are especially apparent in the RWS, but of course in that deck, the position of Strength is no longer at the midpoint.





Etteilla v. Waite: Part II

In Part 1, I established that I intend to study the Grande Etteilla (GE) in comparison with the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS).

For this part, I’ve chosen to focus on the first eight cards of the Major Arcana. There is a reason for this. The first eight cards of the Etteilla deck are the cards that portray Creation, and the RWS splits very nicely into three groups of seven. Add the Fool to the first group of seven, and you get an even eight, just perfect to match the GE. The Fool in the RWS is numbered zero, so it makes sense to put it at the beginning. The Fool in the GE, on the other hand, is numbered 78, which is very interesting in its implications, but we’ll wait until we get there to examine them in detail. The next two posts after this one will deal with seven cards each.

Before I get started on the cards, I want to briefly discuss the mythic themes which underlie each of these two decks. I have been taught that at their core, all myths can be classified as either Creation myths, or Hero’s Journey myths.* Put in the simplest terms, Creation myths attempt to answer the basic question “Where did we come from?”, while Hero’s Journey myths attempt to answer “Where are we going?”, or even more basic, “Who am I?”. Creation stories try to explain the nature of the world and how it became the place it is today, and Hero’s Journey stories try to explain the nature of humanity. It shouldn’t be assumed that all creation myths just deal with the literal creation of the world. There are many Greek myths that explain how specific trees and flowers came into existence, for example. Also included in this category are stories that explain why certain aspects of society are as they are – it’s not just limited to nature. They are all considered creation myths; there are many, many different variations of this type of myth. Hero’s Journey myths, on the other hand, all follow a basic formula. There are variations from story to story, but they all can be reduced to a common structure. Aspects of this structure have already been discussed in various posts on this blog about the Major Arcana (and I will continue to do so as I write about other cards), and we’ll see a general outline of this structure laid out throughout this study.

In short, the typical Tarot deck, represented here by the RWS, encompasses the Hero’s Journey, while the GE provides a very basic outline of the Creation. There is some crossover, especially within the first eight cards, which will be made clear shortly. Overall, though, it seems to me that the RWS and other more traditional Tarot decks are generally more concerned with the human condition, while the GE appears to concern itself more with the nature of our world.

The first four cards of the GE (top) and the RWS (bottom).

The first thing to notice when looking at these cards together is that, for the first four cards at least, there are no people in the GE while the RWS is dominated by them. For the first three cards, though, that difference is only superficial, and we will actually see that there are a lot of similar ideas conveyed in each respective card. It becomes clear, however, that the GE shows these ideas as they relate to the macrocosm, and the RWS as they relate to the microcosm.

  1. (I will be using the GE numbering throughout this study. This may get confusing, because when I say “card 1”, most people think of the Magician for the RWS, while in this instance, I’m actually referring to the Fool. It’s something to keep in mind as you read on.) Here we see Chaos in the GE, or the time before the World was created. This idea is mirrored in microcosm in the Fool: the time before consciousness awakens. The Fool is the pure, un-tethered soul of the Hero, the moment before he steps off the cliff (symbolic of its descent into consciousness, or the departure of the Hero from the Ouroboros,** and the beginning of his story). Chaos is the Ouroboros, where everything is one. The trademark characteristic of the Ouroboros is its roundness: Chaos is surrounded by circles in the card (and the Fool’s number 0 is symbolic of the same).
  2. The first thing that usually happens to break up the Ouroboros is the split between light and dark. Here we see light, in the form of the Sun. Light is often considered a male characteristic, and the dark female. So in the RWS, we see the Magician, a man who embodies the masculine principle of activity.
  3. Here we see a couple of things going on. First of all, we see the Moon, compliment of the Sun in the previous card. We also see that another binary opposition has occurred: the separation of Earth and Sky. Considering the High Priestess’ significance as the card of binary opposites in general, as well as the female principle of passivity opposite the active Magician, these two cards do indeed match up.
  4. Though the last card showed that the Earth and Sky are both now in existence, it’s focus was on the feminine Earth. Now our attention is turned back towards the masculine side of opposites in the Sky. In other words, the course of the cards after Chaos so far has gone thus: Light – Dark/Earth – Sky, illustrating two pairs of opposites across the space of three cards. This is where the RWS begins to diverge from the GE in its symbolism. The Empress represents the natural world. This includes the sky, as symbolized by the twelve stars of her crown, but the focus remains on the living Earth. After the Fool (unconsciousness) so far we have: Male – Female – Nature.
Cards 5-8***

5. Back down to Earth, we see that it is now being populated with people and animals. The man’s place in the center of everything else makes it clear that humans are thought to rule over the other animals. In a sense, the Emperor of the RWS illustrates a similar idea. It is the masculine compliment to the feminine Empress, and is symbolic for the structure of civilization in contrast to the wildness of nature.

6. And back again to the Sky, we see that it is now populated with the celestial bodies. Notice the astrological signs; this suggests the belief that the Heavens rule the Earth. In the RWS, we have the Hierophant, who acts as an intermediary between the two realms, reinforcing the notion that there is a higher power than us humans.

7. True to form, we are back again to Earth. Here, birds and fish have joined man and beast upon the earth. Land, air, and water are full of life, and the world is now complete. To be honest, I’m having trouble drawing a connection between the Lovers of the RWS and the Birds and Fish of the GE. The irony here is that, of all the RWS cards, this single card is the closest to actually depicting the Creation, the whole process of which has been drawn out over the last seven cards of the GE. The image of the Lovers shows Adam and Eve, the first people, together in the Garden of Eden. They’re naked, which suggests they have not yet eaten from the Tree of Knowledge (behind Eve). I suppose this card might show completed Creation, and in that way can be associated with the Birds and Fish. But the Birds and Fish themselves are not the completed creation; they’re just the last step the GE shows us to completion. Typically, the Lovers suggests a defining choice in a person’s life. The choice to eat the fruit of the Tree was a defining moment in the mythical history of all mankind. This is the card where the difference between the macrocosm of the GE and the microcosm of the RWS becomes clear. They do not match up anymore. A different story is now being told.

8. Here, the GE shows us a picture that is reminiscent of the Lovers from the previous pair of cards. Eve, the first woman, is naked in the Garden of Eden, while the Serpent tempts her to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This card is called Rest, and it shows the end of Creation. The world is complete, and all is good. At this point, at least symbolically, people are no more than animals. While they are supposed to rule over the animals, they are not really any different from them. It is when Eve, followed by Adam, eats the forbidden fruit that they separate themselves from the animals. The fruit gives them knowledge and wisdom to know what is right and what is wrong. This myth is trying to tell us that the ability to learn and build upon what we learn is what sets us apart from nature. The Chariot of the RWS builds upon the choice made by the Lover in the previous card. The Hero is now on a distinct path; he is growing into the Heroic role. So here we see the path of all mankind laid out in the choice of Eve in the GE, and the path of the individual is now actively being traveled in the RWS as a result of the choice made in the previous card.

To sum up:

In the GE, the progression is thus:

Chaos – Light – Dark/Earth – Sky – Population of the World – Population of the Heavens – Population of the Sea and Sky – Finish/Choice

This is a general pattern for the Creation myth. First is Chaos, or the Ouroboros. The next cards deal with the splitting of binary opposites, followed by the entrance of living beings into the world. The order of these events might be different in other mythic systems, but typically they all would contain the basic elements introduced here. These cards are very general. In some cases, entire myths would be assigned to a single card. For example, all of the Greek myths about trees and flowers would go to the 3rd card (called Plants – this is tied to the Earth nature of the card); the myths about constellations would go to the 6th card; etc. Myths about the awakening of mankind to greater knowledge or understanding would be linked to the 8th card. The mythic content of these eight cards can thus be interpreted in two ways: together, they form a progression that accounts for the literal creation of the world; separately, they each account for any number of individual myths that focus on specific aspects of creation.

In the RWS, the progression is thus:

Unconsciousness – Male principle – Female principle – Nature – Civilization – Religion – Choice – Development of choice

Here we see the beginning stages of the Hero myth. First is the Fool, or the soul of the Hero himself. Again, we see the splitting of binary opposites, but in this case it revolves around the developing consciousness of the individual rather than the World. However, we can look at the Magician through the Hierophant as personifications symbolizing the collective experience of mankind. On the individual level, the High Priestess and the Magician symbolize the awakening of the person to binary opposites, or the awakening of conscious thought. The Empress is the nurturing Mother figure, and the Emperor the law-giving Father figure. The Hierophant serves as the education of the Hero, both on a spiritual and mundane level (in older times, when myths were much more prevalent, there was not much of a distinction between these two levels, hence the Hierophant’s association with them both). On the collective level, the Magician and Priestess symbolize the breaking of opposites almost identical to that portrayed in the GE. This is an entirely unconscious process. The Empress is Nature, the Emperor is Civilization, and the Hierophant is Religion. The Lovers is the transition from collective or individual to strictly individual (although the experiences in the rest of the pack are still shared by everyone, they occur on an individual level, in contrast to the previous cards). The Hero has been raised and educated, now he must make the choice of what the purpose of his life really is. The Chariot shows him setting off down his chosen path to actually become the Hero.


In the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I will discuss the next seven cards of each deck.



*Or sometimes both. For example, Dying Gods myths tend to fit into both categories. The Egyptian myth of the Sun god Ra’s daily journey by boat illustrates this nicely. It is a Creation myth, in that it attempts to explain what happens to the sun each night. It is also a Hero’s Journey, because it follows the basic formula of symbolic death and rebirth that is central to this type of myth.

**The Ouroboros is a very important concept in myth. I have not written about it yet, aside from perhaps a mention here or there. I am saving my in-depth discussion of the Ouroboros for my write up of the World card. If you’re not already familiar with this concept, all you need to know for now is that the Ouroboros is basically the entire Universe before it split into binary opposites, often associated with the womb. It also signifies the endless cycle of death and rebirth that makes the world go ’round. It’s an entirely abstract concept, but you’ve probably seen it represented by pictures of a serpent that is biting or eating its own tail. In fact, you’ve seen it twice in this very post: once in the 5th card of the GE, surrounding the Man, and once in the 2nd card of the RWS, as the Magician’s belt.

***I’m slightly disappointed that cards 6 and 7 in my deck are not colored. I suspect they were supposed to be. The pictures are very beautiful; I wish I could see them in color. Alas!