Runes v. Tarot, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Well, I think that’s fun, anyway.

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Runes v. Tarot, Part I

My last post focused on my new, self-made runes. They are incredibly cool, if I do say so myself, and I’ve put the cards aside for a couple weeks in order to really work closely with them. It has been enlightening and empowering in many ways.

And of course, since this is a Tarot blog, I made it a point to say in that post that I would not be writing about runes very often afterwards, if at all.

So what gives with this post?

Well, for one, I’m currently experiencing some writer’s block with my other Tarot posts. Perhaps it’s because I’ve temporarily put my cards away in favor of my stones, but I just can’t seem to get my words out (and truthfully, I can’t just blame this on the runes, since the dry spell began long before my stones even had letters on them, or were even my stones). I’ve got two WIPs in particular that I really want to share, but both of them have hit a wall, so they must wait until another time.

But I also made kind of a big deal about the runes in that last post, and then just sort of dropped it before it really felt finished. I think I ought to provide a follow up. But worry not, for this post is not strictly about the runes. It is a post about both the runes and the Tarot. This one belongs on my blog, and I hope it will provide some context that will make the previous post feel a little more at home here, as well.

~~~

One of the main points of my rune post was that, since they were crafted by my hand, I feel a very strong connection with my runestones, especially compared to the connections I feel with my cards. This statement might be misleading, because despite the fact that I like my runes so much, I have to admit that, as a system for introspection and divination, I find the Tarot to be superior.

So, in a nutshell, the point of my post today is to answer these questions: why do I think the Tarot is superior, and, despite its general superiority, are there some things for which the runes are better suited?

~~~

The short answer to the first question is that the Tarot is a better divinatory system than the runes because of its comparative depth. There are 78 cards and only 25 runes.*

Here is one website that I’ve found to be particularly helpful with learning to use the runes, and under the heading of runecasting is a brief discussion of divination in general followed by principles of runic divination. Divination works (it says), because the tools for divining represent the entire Universe on a symbolic level. The complete set of tools mirrors the total reality, and by randomly selecting some runes, your subconscious is gleaning what it needs from relevant aspects of a greater whole. I actually like this notion very much, that the divination tools are a model of the macrocosm; so, according to this website, my rune pouch is a tiny little universe. Pretty cool.

Except, there’s a lot missing from the universe of my rune pouch. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the Tarot, but the runes just are not that comprehensive. Sure, I can see how they could pretty well describe the worldview of a pre-modern, northern European pagan, but it still strikes me as incomplete, and anyway, that worldview isn’t exactly “universal”, is it?

The Tarot, on the other hand, is so much more versatile. I would say that the runes are more limited than the cards in meaning, and not just in number. Each rune has both a phonetic letter and a symbolic meaning attached to it. Since these ideograms are the pieces which make up a real written language, there isn’t much leeway when it comes to “intuitive interpretation”. Each rune means what it means, and that’s that. The cards were made originally for gaming, though, so in truth, there is no fixed deeper meaning aside from numerical value (no matter what the occultists say). Sure, there is a generally agreed-upon way to interpret the Tarot, but there is no law. According to one system, this card means this, but according to another, it means that. There’s much more room for the intuitive among us to make what we will of the cards. Add to that the fact that most cards today have pictures (and even the oldest had pictures on 22 of the 78 cards) that aid interpretation, while the runes may as well be abstract cuneiform, and you start to see what I mean. The cards are just more flexible and accessible.

I’ll grant that, despite the runes’ limits I mentioned above, there’s extrapolation of meaning, which frees things up a bit. For example, the rune called Ansuz literally means “mouth”, but for divination purposes, that meaning is expanded to include things like advice or wisdom or communication. So I suppose that, with enough contemplation, anything that could possibly happen in this world might be assigned a rune.

But it’s not really a question of the meanings of specific cards versus specific runes in my mind, anyway; it’s in the system.

The Tarot is constructed in such a way that it actually does align with my philosophical conception of the Universe. There are four “worldly” elements, and a fifth, “aethereal” element. There are four “mundane” suits in the Tarot, and a fifth “spiritual” one. Each of the five suits portrays a progression or a gradation (for the Minors, it’s a progression of 10, plus 4. For the Majors, it’s a progression of 20, plus 2. Very mathematically pleasing). You also have court cards to stand in for people. To me, the Tarot is a much better model of the Universe than anything else I’ve encountered.**

I guess it boils down to personal preference, but the Tarot just gives more nuance to a reading, and I really like that. However, depending on my mood, sometimes the runes are the better tools for finding what I’m searching for.

Well, this entry has turned out to be a bit longer than I thought it would be, so I think, rather than cram more in here and end with a mind-numbingly long post, I’m going to return later with yet another Tarot/rune post to wrap things up. Stay tuned.

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The Multiverse in my bedroom.

~~~

*My set of runestones numbers 25, although to be technical, only 24 of the stones actually have runes inscribed upon them. The 25th is blank, referred to in new-age runecasting circles as the Wyrd rune (and it is only in new-age runecasting that there is any reference to a blank rune). As I was slowly familiarizing myself with the runes over the last few months, I was constantly flip-flopping back and forth on the matter of the Wyrd. Some people find it very useful, and some people are vehemently against it. I was still unsure of the utility of the Wyrd when I was searching the Icelandic sand for my stones a few weeks ago, but I picked up 25 because I figured I’d kick myself if I went home with only 24 just to decide after all that I wanted to use that unmarked extra. Having made that decision, I’ve since found that I actually do really like the Wyrd, and though I’d like to explain my rationale, I think I’ve rambled far enough away from the point of this post that I’ll put an end to this footnote.

**I suppose the system of the runes could be similarly broken down: there are 25, so numerically, there’s enough for one of each element within each element. This isn’t the traditional breakdown of the runes, which is supposed to be three groups of 8 plus the Wyrd, but I guess it could still work. I’ll have to study my runes anew with this in mind.

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.

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This is the place.

Keeping watch over the beach a little ways off-shore were some massive, towering boulders, called the “troll-rocks” by the locals. I couldn’t have selected a better setting for my personal Odinic rune-quest if I lived in a fantasy novel.

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Admittedly not the best photo of the Troll Rocks, and I’m sorry to say that after snapping this one, I got so caught up in the moment of being at the beach in fucking Iceland that I forgot to take more, even though I’d meant to. You get the idea, though.

As I searched in the sand, I instructed one of my friends on the basic lore and what to look for so he, too, could fashion a set of runes (a fun Hierophant moment for me). Once we’d gathered the proper number of stones, my friends and I left the beach. Before we’d gone too far, though, we paused, and we gave thanks to the land for our runestones with pentacles and prayer.

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Just for fun, this is some of what was behind us while we were on the beach.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I sat down to inscribe my stones with the runic ideograms. Afterwards, I left them out to be imbued with the energy of Iceland’s “midnight sun” while I slept.

I must admit, part of my reason for relaying this story here is just so I can bask in the reminisces of my epic journey. But it’s also to illustrate that my new runes were hand-selected and hand-crafted by me, for me, under intentionally symbolic circumstances. Prior to my touch, they were shaped by nothing more or less than the four elements.

None of my many Tarot decks come close to this type of personalized (and elemental) connection, and while such a connection isn’t necessary for effective divinatory tools, it goes a long way. Don’t get me wrong; I do feel a connection with all of my cards. But not exactly this kind of connection.***

I had already been dabbling in runic divination for a few months before this trip. I even considered for a minute re-branding this site as a Tarot and rune blog, but decided against it. You see, the runes do have an intense hold on my imagination, very much like the Tarot. Unlike with the cards, however, my thoughts and feelings regarding the runes are not (for me) as easily put into words (or maybe I just don’t feel like trying). And, despite my occasional struggles elucidating abstractions on this blog, the cards simply offer far more raw material for word-smithing than do the runes.

As tools for divination, I believe the runes are intrinsically the same as the Tarot; yet they are their own entity – one that provides a fascinating counterpoint against which to compare and appreciate the cards as symbols and as systems. The two are as fundamentally different and as fundamentally related as the Earth and Sky.

Or that’s how I think about it, anyway.

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

~~~

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

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

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

Thoughts upon receiving my first professional reading.

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

True story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

The Wise Man and the Trickster.

It was very common throughout the history of the Tarot to believe that it was derived from an ancient Egyptian Book of Wisdom. Considering that the Egyptian god of Wisdom was Thoth, it is only natural that Tarot masters such as Etteilla and Crowley would associate their decks with the ibis-headed deity.

Of course, we know now that, however still technically possible, it is highly unlikely that the Tarot we know and love today was actually handed down to us by Egyptian mystics in an attempt to preserve the secrets of the Universe.

True or false, this legend does give us an interesting perspective on the nature of the Tarot. Many readers, myself included, do consider this deck of cards to be a Book of Wisdom. But what does that really mean?

One of the great defining characteristics of mankind is our capacity for complex language. Our ancient ancestors often told stories about how the language they spoke* was a gift from God. Well, a god. More specifically, the God of Wisdom, or Thoth, as he was called in Egypt. Other cultures had a name for this deity, too. The Sumerians called him Enki, and the Norse called him Odin. This god was responsible for bestowing language upon humanity, usually only after enduring a harrowing death and descent into the Underworld. Of course, in every case, the Wise One returned once again to the world of the living with his intellectual boon for mankind.

To illustrate with my favorite example, Odin, head of the Norse pantheon, was the patron of kings, battle, strife, poetry, magic, and yes, wisdom. He often went out into the world, disguised as a grey-bearded old man, obsessively searching for wisdom. He pitted himself against formidable giants in contests of wisdom, and summoned seers from beyond the grave to inquire about what they knew. He had a throne from which he could see everything in the nine worlds, and he had a pair of ravens who flew around these worlds every day, returning to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen. He even gave one of his eyes in exchange for a drink from a magic well which granted – you guessed it – wisdom. But perhaps the most extreme measure Odin took for the sake of wisdom was when he willingly hung from the world tree for nine days with a spear driven into his side. He died on the tree, and was resurrected with the magic runes – language – in his possession.

So the Tarot is, according to legend, akin to these runes, or rather, to the hieroglyphs similarly bequeathed by Thoth. Hence the designation “Book of Wisdom”. Pretty cool, huh? It’s not uncommon, after all, for ancient alphabets to hold an esoteric meaning other than simple phonetics. Take the runes, for example, which were more often used for their magical powers (like divination) than for writing. How many runestones in Scandinavia are inscribed with letters that spell utter nonsense? Surely they were put there with another purpose in mind. Or take the Hebrew alphabet, which is especially significant to the systems of the Tarot. These letters also have deeper meanings. The twenty-two Major Arcana could easily be conceived as a similar type of “alphabet” (the Minor Arcana are of a different class, but this will be discussed in a future post).

But the Tarot isn’t just attributed to Thoth; Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, messengers, and thieves, gets equal credit. The Book of Wisdom is as much his as it is Thoth’s. But why?

The Romans were probably the first to make a connection between Thoth and Mercury. In the days before Christianity, when the Romans conquered a people, they would allow them to continue worship of their native gods as they pleased. However, the Romans would attempt to assimilate these people by renaming their gods after Roman deities based on shared characteristics (which shows that, even though Jung was the first to theorize about mythic archetypes, the notion was around long before him). But while Minerva was considered the wisest of the Roman pantheon, the Egyptian god of wisdom was equated with Mercury (this must partially be because of the respective genders of Minerva and Thoth, but there are deeper connections which come into play here).

First of all, one must understand that Mercury is a very complex character. While his primary function is messenger of the gods, he is responsible for much more, like science and medicine. He is based on the Greek god Hermes (and while the two are very similar, they are not the same, although the Romans would have you think so). Another function of Hermes/Mercury was to guide recently deceased souls to the realms of the dead. This is where we see the primary connection with Thoth, who was present during the journeys of Egyptian souls to the underworld, and their subsequent judgements. When combined with his connections to science, we can begin to see why comparisons were made between these two gods.

Odin was also likened to Mercury by classical writers, and for the same reasons. He too had the ability to travel freely to the underworld. In fact, Odin spent a great deal of time just traveling around all of the realms of the Norse cosmos. Mercury, along with everything else he did, was patron of travelers and hospitality (I’d say Mercury was probably the busiest of the Roman gods). There are stories from both cultures about their respective god in which they traveled in disguise, searching for lodging. The humble were rewarded; the proud who did not open their doors to the gods were always punished, sometimes very brutally.

There is another trait which Odin and Mercury shared: they were both very mischievous fellows.

The Trickster is a very popular figure in world mythology. He is especially prevalent in Native American and tribal African myths (and in those myths, he is often associated with storytelling and language. Hmmmm….), but he can be found in some form or another in almost every culture. Through his conniving, others found themselves in dire circumstances, and through his wiles, they were usually saved again. He was often the spark that generated conflict within a myth, and he was usually as loved by humans as he was disliked by gods, because his tricks tended to result in their benefit (like Prometheus’ gift of fire). Mercury is very often considered the Roman Trickster. And while Loki is the official Trickster of Scandinavian myth, he and Odin are similar in more ways than not. It’s my theory that Loki is in fact nothing more than a shadow of Odin, or the darker aspects of Odin’s character personified as a separate character. This is a common way to analyze mythic characters (and when this is taken into consideration, it makes the Norse cycle of myths all the more tragic. Those who know the basic story arc and the parts played by Odin and Loki will understand why). I could write an essay on why I believe this, but a Tarot blog is not the place. Suffice it to say that the archetypes of the Wise Man and the Trickster are very closely intertwined.

Language, death, and magic appear to be the lowest common denominators of Wise Men and Tricksters across the board. Now, I’ve spent almost no time discussing magic, but it’s derived from the association with language, which is itself derived from the association with death. If anyone wishes for me to write a post elaborating on this, please leave a comment below; for now, I’ll continue on to the main point.

Now, there are many cards in the Tarot that deal with the themes mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are two in the Major Arcana, however, that exemplify the Wise Man and the Trickster especially well.

The Tarot card which best illustrates the Odinic search for wisdom is, in my opinion, the Hermit. In the RWS, the Hermit even looks reminiscent of Odin, with his grey beard and his hooded cloak. And in the CHT, the Hermit appears to have the head of an ibis, like the god the deck was named for (seriously, take a look at it and tell me he doesn’t).

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The Hermit is Thoth – CHT

His staff can represent the endless travels of the Wise Man, and the lantern shows his ability to shine light on dark secrets. The image of Cerberus in the CHT illustrates his connection to the underworld. With his robes, apparent age, and meditative visage, he is the very image of the archetype of the Wise Man, at least as he is popularly imagined in the West. The importance of the Hermit in the Book of Wisdom that is the Tarot cannot be understated; he is quite literally the personification of the legendary mythic figure that gave it to us. Or, at least, he is one of the personifications of that figure.

The other can be found in the card called the Magician or the Juggler. The Magician is very intelligent, more so than any other card in the pack. But he is not necessarily wise by definition of his character. His mental dexterity gives him the qualities found in the Trickster. He can talk his way into and back out of any situation, and he is not above using slight-of-hand tricks to fool unsuspecting onlookers into thinking he’s more powerful than he actually is. This is especially obvious in the TdM, where he is pictured as a lowly street performer (in other decks, he is pictured as a more respectable magician in ceremonial robes, and in the CHT, he is Mercury himself, but you can still spot the dubious smirk on his face). This isn’t to say he’s bad. He’s a neutral character by nature, who operates in the gray areas of life, but one should keep in mind that so is the Wise Man; wisdom in and of itself does not make a virtuous person.

I think the Hermit and the Magician – and, on a deeper level, the Wise Man and the Trickster – are two sides of the same figure. I’m not alone in this opinion: Crowley asserted as much in his Book of Thoth, calling them each a manifestation of Mercury (he never used Odin for an example, calling Norse myth a “debased” version of Classical and Egyptian myth. While I grudgingly admit that I see where he’s coming from, I think it’s too harsh a treatment for such a colorful mythos, and as I illustrated here, examples from Norse mythology can easily be applied to the Tarot, and to good effect. Or so I hope, anyway). So, the Magician and the Hermit represent two complimentary aspects of the multi-faceted Mercury, or Hermes, or Thoth, or Enki or Anansi. Or, if you prefer, the Magician is the Loki to the Hermit’s Odin. The list can go on.

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The Magician is Mercury – CHT

 

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The Juggler – TdM

No matter how you name it, the personalities inherent in these two cards are indicative of a dichotomy that I believe is integral to the successful use of the Tarot. I have a respect for every card in the Tarot, but the Hermit and the Magician together are representative of my personal approach to using the deck. The Hermit or Wise Man is passive, and stands for the study of the theory behind the Tarot. He seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The Magician or Trickster, on the other hand, is active, and stands for the practice and application of the Tarot (you’ll notice that the implements at his disposal are also the symbols of the four suits of the Minor Arcana). He seeks knowledge as a means to an end. Only together can the skills of the Magician and the Hermit lead to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the Tarot, just as any good Wise Man needs powers of illusion to be considered a wizard, or any good Trickster needs a modicum of prudence to maintain balance and not send the world around him into a blazing Ragnarok.

 ~~~

*To be technical, it was written language that was granted by the Wise One. During the times that these myths originated, writing was the privilege of a select learned few. This added to the mystique of writing. Manipulation of spoken language is more in the realm of the Trickster’s operation. It is very interesting to note that Odin was responsible for both: the runes, as a result of his death on the world tree, and poetry, or spoken language, as a result of his acquisition of the Mead of Poetry (which he obtained through trickery). This is just one of the many reasons why I believe Odin to be both the Trickster and the Wise One.