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.

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Magic Wands.

In my post about the suit of Coins, I discussed the inherent magical power of Earth. In short, Coins represent magic made tangible, the magic of the physical world around us, which is so often taken for granted. As a magic-wielder, I identify very strongly with Earth. But Earth isn’t the only magic. Not by a long shot.

Today, I’m going to take the discussion to the opposite end of the elemental spectrum: Fire. And while Fire is not necessarily a more powerful form of magic than Earth, it is certainly much flashier, and as such, much more easily associated with magic in general.

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Ten of Wands – TdM

In the Tarot, Fire is symbolized by the suit of Wands, sometimes also called Batons or Scepters or Staves or something along those lines.

Where the Coins are connected to the material realm, the Wands are connected to the realm of passion, creativity, and spirituality. In other words, where the Coins represent the finished product, the Wands represent the initial spark which drives beginning. It is inspiration.

It is also energy when all other elements are matter (well not Aether, but that’s a different story). In fact, without Fire, there would be no Water or Air, only a cold, dead Earth (and as much as I like Earth, that’s just unappealing). It is the energy represented by Wands which transforms Earth into Water, and Water into Air. Energy is Fire. Transformative energy is Wands.

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Ace of Wands – RWS

In many decks, the Wands are pictured as flowering or with growing leaves. This further demonstrates the notion of transformative power, especially in terms of growth. Out of all the suits, the Wands are the most productive, the suit with the highest concentration of pure potential.

Now, I don’t believe any one element is better or more important than any of the others. Existence as we know it wouldn’t be possible without the perfect blend of all four. But I do think that each is the most important in its own way (if that makes any sense), and this is perhaps most apparent when dealing with Wands. There would be no motion, no change, without the energy of Fire.

It’s no coincidence that Magicians and Wizards of fiction use a wand or staff to direct their magic. They point their wands at something, perhaps speak an incantation, and that something changes according to their intentions. The wand works as a conduit for their magic. It is symbolic of the Wizard’s ability to transform the world around him (or her) according to his (or her) will.

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Three characters who use the Magic Wand, all in different ways – RWS

The Magician of the Major Arcana holds a wand over his head as means of focusing energy from above so he can work his magic on Earth. He is using the power of the wand in a deliberate, creative way. And then there is the Hermit, a figure also often associated with wizards, who leans on a wand for support as he climbs to the heights of spiritual enlightenment. His use of the wand is also deliberate, although he uses it for inward transformation, as opposed to the outward transformation exercised by the Magician. And then there is the Fool, who has a wand over his shoulder and is blissfully unaware of the possibilities it represents.

Yes, the Wands are a driving symbol throughout the entire Tarot, not just its own suit.

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The Knight (King) of Wands, showing the Fiery nature of the suit – CHT

The Wands represent a zest for life, a love for what you do. Without the passion of the Wands, life would be as dull and cold as a world without fire. Be sure to feed the creative spark in your life, but be careful not to let your passions get the best of you. Fire burns. It is a life-saver, but there are few forces quite so destructive as fire when it gets out of control.

~~~

 

 

Coins, Disks, Pentacles, Stones…

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

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

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

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

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

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Ace of Coins – TdM

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

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

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From the Aether – RWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ace of Stones – The Foundation of Life – WWT

~~~

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

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

The Suits and their Elements.

The associations of the classical elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth with their respective suits Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins is generally agreed upon within the Tarot community. These associations ring true in my collection of decks; even when the titles of the suits change (the Coins seem to change the most often, having been renamed Pentacles in the RWS, Disks in the CHT, and Stones in the WWT), the elements remain the same. I don’t intend to discuss why these associations are as they are; I’ll take it for granted that if you’re reading this, you already understand and accept why these symbols were assigned to each element.

Instead, I am here to discuss the lesser-known but very important fifth element, and why I believe the “suit” associated with it should be the entire Major Arcana. There are some who already agree with me; this post is for the rest of you.

First of all, I suppose I should explain what I mean by the fifth element for those of you who may not be familiar with it. This element is called Aether, and was originally believed by classical and medieval philosophers to be the substance which made up the invisible spheres that held the planets in place around the Earth, and which had a direct influence on worldly affairs. There were supposedly eight of these spheres concentric around the Earth, each fitting inside of the other like nested dolls. Each sphere contained a “planet”, the closest of which was the Moon, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally the fixed stars, which included the belt of the Zodiac.

Of course, nowadays, we know that these heavenly bodies do not revolve around the Earth (with the exception of the Moon, of course), just as we know that Water, Earth, and Air are not elements themselves but compounds of chemical elements.* These ideas are rather philosophical in nature, and represent ideas about the states of matter. To reconcile these ideas with current scientific thought, we can broaden our definitions and associate Earth with solids, Water with liquids, Air with gases, Fire with energy, and Aether with the whole fabric of space-time.

Using the classical elements as denoting terms serves a double purpose: they describe the physical nature of literally everything of which we are aware, as well as the abstract qualities these things possess. The exception of course is Aether, which is entirely abstract by its nature. It’s common practice to call Aether “Spirit”, and on some level, I agree with this term. It means that which we cannot identify with any worldly element, nor even perceive with our five senses, but which exists nonetheless. So by this definition, it can be said that our very souls are comprised of the same abstract material – or lack thereof – which makes up space (please keep in mind this discussion is purely philosophical). There is nothing there, and yet we know it to exist.

Another important point about Aether to keep in mind is that it contains within itself the essence or potential for all four of the other elements, while remaining distinct from them. To illustrate this point, refer back to the geocentric model of the Universe, in which the Earth and all of the elements therein are contained within spheres of Aether (the Element Earth has certain characteristics in common with Aether, such as containing other elements within itself, which I intend on exploring in a separate post about the suit of Coins, but if you’re interested, the best explanation I’ve read is in DuQuette’s book on the CHT). In other words, Aether can theoretically exist separate from the other elements, but not vice-versa.

The alchemical term for Aether was Quintessence, and I think this term accurately describes the relationship between Aether and the other four elements. The idea was that, if you could somehow combine the pure essence of each of these elements, you would be able to synthesize Aether in a tangible form. This “new” element, Quintessence, would have within it all of the other elements, and yet, it would be something entirely different than any one of them.

Now, on to the matter at hand. It is my belief that a system such as the Tarot, which is a veritable model of the Universe (again, in a purely philosophical sense), ought to come complete with the element Aether. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, each suit representing one of the four “worldly” classical elements. It is fitting that Aether should be separate from these, yet contained in the same deck. This is why I think the Major Arcana represents the fifth element. Consider that the Minor Arcana contains the court cards and the small cards, which are generally taken to represent people and day-to-day situations. The Major Arcana, on the other hand, is usually interpreted as symbolizing either internal “spiritual” concepts, external Universal forces or “acts of God”, or things otherwise greater than the individual or the physical world in which he or she lives. Or, to put it more simply, the Minor Arcana represents the physical realm of the worldly elements, and the Major Arcana represents the higher realm of the spiritual element.

This would answer a question as old as the study of Tarot itself: why in the world is there an extra 22 seemingly arbitrary cards included with an otherwise normal deck of playing cards? It is an awareness of this fifth metaphysical element that sets this deck apart from its baser counterparts in gaming. And the people who lived during the time that the Tarot supposedly originated would have generally been more familiar with the classical conceptions of the elements, and therefore with the existence of Aether, than we are today. Assuming the original creators of the Tarot intended the four suits of the Minor Arcana to be associated with the elements, it follows that they should include the fifth element as well. This is all speculation of course, but I think it stands on a logical foundation.

I want to point out that the relative number of cards in the Major Arcana compared to the suits of the Minor Arcana is totally irrelevant. After all, there were eight Aethereal spheres to the one Earth. While I do believe in the significance of numbers in the Tarot, this is not an instance in which that should come into play. The asymmetry may bother some, but I honestly don’t believe it would be an accurate representation of the mystery of Aether if it were uniform with the rest.

As a final thought, I would like to draw your attention to the Aces of each suit. The Ace, being the first card, has pictured upon it the symbol of its suit, representing the element in its purest, most abstract form. The Ace is theĀ essence of its element. Now compare these to the first (numbered) card of the Major Arcana: the Magician. The Magician embodies the essence of all that can be achieved through the path of the Majors, and he has laid out before him the four symbols of the Aces. Remember, Aether contains within it the essence for all four of the worldly elements. If it weren’t for the tools of the Magician, I would probably not even make the case for the Major Arcana as the suit of Aether. As it is, I’m pleased (almost relieved, even) to see them, because no system based on the division of the classical elements would truly be complete without Aether, least of all a tool of such dimension and universality as the Tarot.

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Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Aether – RWS

 

*To be fair, the ancients did not actually fully accept the geocentric model of the Universe; they were aware of the heliocentric possibility, but for the sake of their philosophies (note: not science), held onto these erroneous ideas, because they were based on visible observation. Religious dogma caused the geocentric models to then be widely accepted as fact during the Middle Ages, but even then, it’s not as black and white as your typical high school history textbook appears to make it. But then again, nothing ever is.