Mr. Crowley had a thing about “aeons”. Humankind progresses through them, said he, at a rate of an aeon per every couple millennia, give or take a few years off the ends. So far our kind has known three: the Aeon of the Mother, the Aeon of the Father, and the Aeon of the Child. We are currently experiencing the latter; in fact, we have only very recently entered into it. The aeon is young.
The names of these aeons echo the primal archetypes of Mother and Father, with the Child, or self, being a product of some magical fusion of the two. This has psychoanalysis written all over it, and insofar as myths are considered projections of humanity’s collective subconscious, they portray an almost infinite number of interpretations on just what exactly it means to be the Child.
More often than not, creation myths equated the Father archetype with the sun and sky and the Mother archetype with the moon and earth. Prehistoric peoples told stories about how their environments came to be the way they were through variations of these archetypes and their interactions.
The world is split in two. There is the Earth beneath, and there is the Sky above. We exist on a thin margin where these two vast entities meet.
But we do exist.
Which means that there are three entities, not two! There is the sky and the earth, and there is us to perceive them as separate from each other. This revelation raises two questions:
Could there be more?
What are we?
From one springs two, from two springs three, and from three springs everything. Certainly there is more; it’s only a matter of awakening consciousness. But that magic number three, what makes it so generative?
Not only does three hold the key to unlocking the multitudes, without it there is nothing to recognize one and two as separate from each other. Without the perspective of three, neither of them can truly be said to exist.
It appears that, whatever we are, we are in a very delicate place between oblivion and infinity. Whatever we are, we instinctively try to escape the former and run toward the latter. Our species does this on the material plane, because we reproduce.
Like the world apparently consists of both Earth and Sky, humanity physically consists of woman and man. It takes two to make three. Mother and Father come together to make Child. Of course, the Child grows and can possibly become either a mother or a father, thus renewing the cycle, but as an individual, he or she is an entity unto itself, separate from all else. The Child is therefore symbolic of the self, the individual. We are each and all of us the Child.
The Magician is one, the Priestess is two, and the Empress is three. Taken as a creation myth, this makes plenty of sense. The Magician is the Sun or Sky Father, the Priestess is the Lunar or Earth Mother, and the Empress is the Child. She is life itself, and her card usually features a combination of heavenly and earthly symbols of fruitfulness. Sometimes she is pregnant. But the Tarot is primarily concerned with humanity’s dilemmas, not its origins. The cards are made by humans for humans – whether for games or divination, it matters not – to help alleviate for a moment the burden of conscious existence. In this context, the Empress is certainly not the Child, even if she might be a child of the High Priestess and Magician.
The Child is not card number three, but the third card. The Priestess is actually the third card in the progression, after the Fool and the Magician, but because the Fool doesn’t have a numerical designation, he falls in place as the card separate from One and Two. The Fool, then, is the Child.
Eden Gray wrote that the Fool “represents the soul of everyman, which, after it is clothed in a body, appears on earth and goes through the life experiences depicted in the 21 cards of the Major Arcana, sometimes thought of as archetypes of the unconscious.”* She called this the “Fool’s Journey,” which mirrors the Hero’s Journey myths.
Hero’s Journey myths are not about the beginnings of the world or the conception of the Child. They follow instead the Child’s development. The core Mother and Father archetypes manifest in these myths as various people (including biological or adoptive parents), creatures, gods, or forces, benevolent or otherwise. When these are benevolent, they help or guide the Hero in some way, often giving a gift or crucial piece of advice to be used during times of serious crisis. Such times arise when the Hero must face the malevolent manifestations of the archetypal parents. The Hero’s success depends on how well he uses the help of the former to overcome the obstacles presented by the latter.
These are stories of nature versus nurture. We are the products of our environments and societies, nurtured by our educations and upbringings, and yes, our parents. Each and every one of us is the biological product of a father and a mother. There is no escaping this fact of life. But we blaze our own trails. We live our own lives, and we make our own choices. It is our nature to strive for better. We yearn for apotheosis.
In Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom Rachel Pollack prefaced her chapters on the Major Arcana with a discussion of the four cards pictured above.** The Fool, number 0, and the World, number 21, represent the before and after shots of the Hero. The Fool exists in the bliss of unconsciousness, and the World dancer exists in the bliss of enlightened consciousness. In between is the journey of life. To get from 0 to 21, the Hero must be born into the imperfect world of opposites, the realms of the Magician (1) and the Priestess (2), and work through stages towards reconciling those opposites in his or her psyche, to integrate the disparate elements of his or her own self, to become “whole” – separate from Mother and Father, yet made of them both. Opposition is only an illusion, and it is the Fool’s purpose to remove the veil of segregation from over his eyes. The path of the individual is paradoxically the path to realizing unity with all, and it is this path that is depicted by the Major Arcana, as walked by the Fool. The key to understanding the cards in this light is to recognize the three fundamental archetypes that they present. From three springs everything else, after all.
*From page 228 of Gray’s A Complete Guide to the Tarot, published in 1970. Gray may or may not have been the one to coin the term “Fool’s Journey”; either way, it’s the earliest use of the term in my library.
**She used the RWS to illustrate, not the OWT. Page 13.
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.
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).
In the previous three installments of this series, I lined up the Major Arcana of the Grande Etteilla III (GE)* against the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS). The first of these installments (Part II of the series) saw me compare the first eight cards of each deck, one at a time. The nature of these cards made this feasible; for the next two parts (Parts III and IV), however, I did them in groups of seven each, because the nature of these cards shifted, and the parallels we saw in the first part between the two decks were no longer applicable. I interpreted these cards, as progressions rather than as individuals, from an angle of mythology. The RWS was fairly straightforward, illustrating the so-called “Hero’s Journey” type of myth. The GE, on the other hand, posed some difficulties. I believe it can be boiled down to the basic structure of beginning-middle-end, much like the Hero’s Journey and the RWS. However, while the RWS dealt on the level of individual development, the GE appears to deal with that of the collective. Therefore, the beginning-middle-end structure becomes Creation, Preservation, and Destruction of the world (one can easily see a parallel with the Hindu trinity of Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva). Broadly speaking, this pattern evokes another type of myth, referred to collectively as Creation myths.
Having established a basic framework through which to understand the cards as a series, I will now shift my attention to the cards as individuals. What I will be doing for the foreseeable future is matching up cards from the GE with appropriate counterparts from the RWS (or other decks as I see fit). Some cards are fairly obvious, such as Death or the Devil, both of which appear in both decks. Some cards do not have an equivalent, such as the Hanged Man from the RWS or the Birds and Fish from the GE. And some cards from the GE match with more than one from the RWS, such as the High Priest, which has elements of both the Lovers and the Hierophant.
Chaos: This card was matched with the Fool in part II of this series, and while the two look nothing alike, I think there is something to that connection. In fact, the Fool is Chaos personified. Chaos does not mean destruction, nor anything inherently negative (or positive, for that matter); rather, it represents formlessness, like the potential of the Fool. It is everything and nothing, beginning and end, existing outside of time.
Additionally, Chaos is labelled “Etteilla,” which means that this card is intended to serve as a significator for the querent. As the Fool is also an “universal significator,” these two cards both serve as the connection between the cards and the person consulting them.
Sun or Light: The obvious match for this card is the Sun. However, because the Magician represents the active “male” principle, he matches here as well. This attribution makes more sense, I think, with the addition of the following card to the sequence.
Plants: Despite the title of the card, the moon seems to be the main focus of the image, and as such, I think the Moon can be matched with it, same as the Suns from both decks were paired above. This is sort of a superficial match, though, and there is another card latent with lunar symbolism which I think fits better. The High Priestess is the compliment of the Magician, or the passive or “female” principle. Not only does the Priestess represent the principle opposite the Magician, she represents the principle of opposites itself, or “binary opposition”. In the case of the Plants card, this simultaneous display of principles is made clear by the combination of Earth and Sky in a single image, which we did not see in the Sun.
For the titular Plants, the best card I can think to match is the Empress. She signifies Nature; she is Mother Earth.
Together, the Sun and Plants illustrate the moment of the creation of the world out of the Chaos that reigned before. The Cosmic Egg has hatched to reveal a primal distinction of opposites: Light and Dark; Sky and Earth; or, in the case of the RWS, Male and Female.
In the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I will continue to match Etteilla’s Major Arcana cards with counterparts from Waite’s deck.
*It should be understood that the actual deck in use here is called the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot, and is supposed to be based on the pattern of the Grande Etteilla III. I’ve never seen a genuine Etteilla deck of any pattern, so I cannot say how true to the source these cards are, although they are admittedly quite a bit removed from Etteilla himself.
In the previous installment of Etteilla v. Waite, we saw the two decks diverge and take different directions. While the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) follows the path of the individual, the Grande Etteilla (GE) sets up a framework for a morally functioning society.
The RWS so far has shown us the early stages and maturation of the Hero on his personal mythic journey, followed by the shedding of his Personal Father and his crossing of the threshold of Death. When we left him, he was being guided through the Underworld towards his greatest test. We will meet this obstacle shortly.
The GE, on the other hand, has a much broader scope, beginning with nothing less than the very creation of our entire world. Once the world has been created and mankind has eaten the mythic Fruit of Knowledge, thereby separating themselves from lowly animals, four pillars of a moral society are established in the form of the female personifications of the four virtues of Justice, Temperance, Strength, and Prudence. The sign of this successful society is the Great Priest, connecting man and woman in marriage, and on a greater level, mankind with the Divine. Despite all this, mankind is still plagued by the Devil, and now, back on the individual level (because society generally rejects it), the Magician signifies the pathway of the occult and the enlightenment that can be obtained through it (or does he?). To get to this point, one must still obey the laws of society and of God, which is why (I suspect) the Magician is found so far down the line, past all of the religious imagery (much of occult philosophy appears to have its origin in religious thought). We will see here what becomes of the occult initiate, which will not be entirely unlike what becomes of the Hero in the RWS.
In this part, we will study the last seven cards of the Major Arcana from each deck, beginning with the GE. You will notice the general trend of both decks move from the worldly concerns we have seen previously towards more spiritual concerns. While this has already begun (starting with the Hanged Man in the RWS and with the Devil in the GE), we will see it swing into full force in the last cards.
The next several cards of the GE are somewhat disturbing, beginning with Judgement. While the concept behind this card is familiar, the imagery is much different. Rather than an angel raising the dead from their graves with a blast from a trumpet, we see an angel brandishing a sword and descending on a group of people. There are seven people in the picture. Only one of them seems to notice the angel, with arms raised in praise or fear. This card is followed by Death. After Death is the monk, who appears to be the same person as the high priest performing the marriage we saw earlier. This time, the monk is labelled a traitor, a false devotee, and is pictured leaving the monastery. The next card is the monastery or temple collapsing to the ground in a fiery blaze. The fire seems to be coming down from the sky. Is this the end of the world? It certainly seems so, and it would balance the Creation shown in the first eight cards. Why do these cards follow the Magician? Is he being punished for his occult ways, or is there some other explanation? Is the priest the Magician, leaving the monastery after having a vision of the end to come? We’ll come back to these questions with the next three cards and I’ll see if I can’t work something out that makes some sort of sense.
The RWS also begins this round in a bleak spot. The Devil symbolizes the great obstacle or antagonist the Hero must face before he can complete his task. This is the most difficult test for him. Once he vanquishes the Devil, he must make his escape amidst the crumbling situation around him (the Tower). If we liken the Hero’s Journey to Jungian psychology, the Devil usually represents the Hero’s own dark side, which he must confront. If he does so successfully, the worldview he would have held up until this point will come crashing down. This can be traumatic, but it is for the best. The Star comes next, and stands for the purpose of the Hero’s quest. In some myths, it’s a magic, life-giving plant, in others, it’s a princess. The variations are virtually endless, but the general archetype is symbolized in this card. It is also a moment of rest after the ordeal with the Devil, although the Hero is still in the Underworld at this point. After obtaining what he’s come for, he must make his final escape, which is pictured in the Moon. This part of the journey is very dangerous, but if the Hero remembers the teachings of his personal father (the Hermit), he will succeed.
Following the destruction of the Temple card in the GE is the Wheel of Fortune. Here we see Lady Fortune balancing upon her wheel. We can take it to mean that the world exists in cycles of creation and destruction, the entire process of which has been drawn out for us in the preceding cards. Next comes the African Despot. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of this card or its placement here at the end. It combines the imagery of the Emperor and the Chariot from traditional decks. The despot himself looks very much like the Magician we saw pictured in card 15. Does this mean that, through his occult means, the Magician has survived the trial by fire, allowing him to become king of a new order? Perhaps, but what’s with the term ‘despot’? Not a very flattering designation in my experience. And why he is African makes even less sense. Could this refer to the supposedly Egyptian origin of the Tarot? If so, then we have a story before us of a man who, through his magic (and use of the secrets represented in the Tarot), has removed himself from the ever-spinning cycle of life and death represented by the Wheel, much like the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.
This leaves me with the question of the Priest/monk. Is he also the Magician, who received the Angel of Judgement with open arms, and therefore knew to leave the monastery before the wrath of God brought it down? Or is he rather a different man, a symbol of the failing morals of mankind? It would make sense if we consider the Priest card to be a sign of the epitome of the divine connection to society. This same man has now betrayed his faith, which might symbolize society’s descent into corruption and sin. I think I like the latter interpretation better, because the Priest does look like the Monk, and the Magician does look like the Despot, but they do not look like each other. In that case, this chronicle of the World would have two central characters, who respond to the Devil in different ways. First is the Priest, who symbolizes traditional morality. He meets the Devil and becomes an apostate, and is swallowed in the flames of God’s wrath along with everyone else. Then we have the Magician, who is seen by the likes of the Priest as at odds with his sense of morality. But the Magician doesn’t succumb to the temptations of the Devil as the Priest does, and when God rains down sulfur, he is the one who is not only spared, but made king.
Back to the RWS, the Hero has successfully navigated his way back to the world of the living. He has accomplished his task. The Sun is his moment of triumph and relief. In Judgement (very different than that in the GE), the Hero bestows his boon on fellow man, thus truly fulfilling his role as Hero. The World card sees the Hero, once the Fool, return enlightened back to the Ouroboros, completing the cycle.
There is one card left: the GE’s Fool, called the Fool or Alchemist. This card is separate from the rest of the Major Arcana. He is numbered 78, which places him not only at the end of the Majors, but of the entire deck. As the Alchemist, he has successfully integrated all of the elements represented by the Minor Arcana into himself. Like the Fool of the RWS, society probably does not take him seriously. But he alone is truly enlightened. In this sense, he is like the RWS’ World, which, with its four animals in each corner, also suggests a unity of the elements.
So here we come to the end of the interpretations of each progression of cards. Before I sign off on this installment, I would like to say one thing: I don’t know anything about Etteilla’s deck. Everything that I’ve put forth in the past few posts have been based upon my knowledge of mythology, my knowledge of traditional Tarot, and my interpretations of the pictures. So, because I have found no sources on Etteilla’s intended system to draw from, I have synthesized my results entirely from my own knowledge. As such, I cannot claim that anything I said in regards to the GE has any serious merit (my treatment of the RWS, on the other hand, can be corroborated with any number of sources). In general, I have left out Etteilla’s divinatory keywords from my descriptions, because, while they do connect with each card on an individual level, I found almost no significance towards a cohesive scheme of the entire Arcana, which is what I was trying to construct. Those who are familiar with Waite’s suggested divinatory meanings will notice that I left them out, as well. Sometimes these meanings coincide with the mythic archetype represented by the card; other times, they do not.
In the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I will move away from the established progressions and rearrange all of the cards from both decks in an attempt to establish parallels between specific cards. My goal is to create some associations (as well as establish where there is absolutely no correlation) between the GE and the RWS, which will (hopefully) help me to more fully understand what Etteilla might have intended with his strange cards.
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 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.
(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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
More than anything else, the High Priestess is the card of binary opposites. This term “binary opposites” has appeared a couple of times before on this blog. But what does it really mean?
To really understand this concept, we have to go alllll the way back to the beginning of time, back to the Creation of the World.
According to more mythic traditions than I care to list, before there was the World, there was nothing, or everything, all mashed up together in an undefinable mess that was neither light nor dark nor up nor down, often called simply “Chaos” or something to that extent.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, Chaos began to fall apart.* Everything split in two. First was the split between Light and Dark, followed by Earth and Sky, etc. etc., all the way down to the emergence of animals and humans, which were split between male and female.
The halves of these splits are called binary opposites. It’s like any other opposite, except they are the most extreme, most fundamental opposites we can think of. Light and Dark, Earth and Sky, Male and Female. The list can go on, but I think you get the picture. The World was created through binary opposition, or so the myths would have us believe.
These myths of creation and the binary opposites they present us hint at an interesting aspect of our collective psychology: we can only understand our reality based on comparisons of opposites. For example, if the weather is particularly hot one day, you can only perceive it to be so because you can imagine what a cold day would feel like in comparison, and vice-versa. The night is only dark because you know the day is light. The extreme ends of the spectrum do not really exist except as concepts in our minds. No human has ever experienced pure, absolute Darkness. Everything we perceive on a daily basis falls somewhere in between the two poles of the binary opposites. It’s like the Yin-Yang symbol; everything dark has within it a kernel of light, and everything light has within it a kernel of dark. This is a reminder that the duality created by binary oppositions is really just an illusion. Everything is all just an aspect of a greater whole.
This brings me back to the High Priestess.** The binary opposites are pictured on the card as the two pillars behind her. This isn’t the only time two pillars are pictured on a Tarot card, but it is the first time, and because one is white and one black, it is clearer here than anywhere else that they represent binary opposites. But the letters on each pillar are not where they ought to be. The letter on the white pillar signifies darkness, and the letter on the black pillar signifies light. This again calls to mind the Yin-Yang. The High Priestess’ position between the two pillars suggests that she understands the mystery of the binary opposites; she has succeeded in reconciling them in her mind. She has a true understanding of the Universe. In order to join her in this understanding, you must traverse the entirety of the Major Arcana. She can only hint at this wisdom; she will not tell you outright.
The High Priestess represents binary opposites as a concept; she is also one in a pair of opposites herself. She represents the Feminine principle of receptivity, which is the other half to the Magician’s Masculine principle of activity.
If the Fool symbolizes the unconscious mind, the Magician and the High Priestess together symbolize the awakening of consciousness through the recognition of binary opposites. By himself, the Magician is nothing but an idea. The moment this idea crystallizes in the mind of a person, it’s opposite or negation is immediately generated as well. Thus, the moment the Magician comes into existence, so too does the Priestess. The number one is immediately followed by the number two. In fact, without two as a reference point, one is meaningless. It is essentially indistinguishable from zero. The Priestess’ place as the second (numbered) card in the Major Arcana is thus very significant, further illustrating the concept of binary opposites.
So, paradoxically, the High Priestess simultaneously represents binary opposition as a whole concept, as well as one half of a single binary opposition. In her role as half, she signifies the Female principle of receptivity, as was stated above. While traditional and outdated gender roles suggest that women are supposed to be passive and men active, the Tarot’s gender roles are based on concepts that transcend earthly reality. In today’s society, it is largely accepted that men and women can possess the traits that used to be reserved for just one or the other. Women can be tough, and men sensitive, to use a generic example. The Tarot does not play the game of gender politics. It’s uses of male and female are symbolic, and not necessarily to be taken literally. As far as the Tarot is concerned, the opposites of light and activity are associated with male, and dark and passivity with female, only because it makes the most sense to do so. Humans, being creatures that can only understand the world through opposites, naturally are keenly aware of the fact that within their own species there exists a duality similar to that which they perceived in the world at large. Light was giving in nature, while dark was receiving. Or the Sky was giving with its rain and rays and sunshine, while the Earth was receiving of those things. Based on the functions of their reproductive organs and nothing else, men were associated with the former, and women with the latter.*** It was only through generations upon generations of social constructs based upon this idea that traditional gender roles came to be.
This is why the Magician is pictured as a man, and the High Priestess a woman. It’s as simple as that. The point of the progression of the Major Arcana is to ultimately reconcile these opposites, to bring back the unity that supposedly existed prior to binary opposition. It implies that even if you are the manliest of men, in order to be whole you have to incorporate so-called female characteristics, or your anima, into your personality, and vice-versa. We see this in the Hermit. He is a man, but he has harnessed the energy of the High Priestess. He is passive and meditative, despite being a man. Or look at Strength. We see a woman embodying the principles of action.
The High Priestess has connections with many other cards. The Hermit was already mentioned; she shines with the inner light of the Moon, and the Hermit has captured that aspect with his lantern. His wisdom doesn’t run as deep as hers, but he’s closer by far than any other card. If we consider the Hermit to be Odin, the Scandinavian god of Wisdom, the High Priestess can be his wife, Frigg. Odin was said to obsessively search for wisdom, often disguising himself as an old man wandering about the wilderness. He was the wisest of all. It was said in the Edda,**** however, that his wife Frigg was wiser still. She knew everything in the world, past, present, and future, but she would not divulge this information, even to her husband. Sound familiar? The Hermit might represent the archetype of the Wise One, but the High Priestess is Wisdom itself.
Her relationship with the Magician has also been discussed; together they literally represent two halves of what makes a human personality. She is the passivity to his activity. The passive/active dichotomy is the most fundamental of the binary opposites.***** Every other opposite we can think of boils down to this, hence the Magician’s and Priestess’ places as one and two of the Major Arcana. She has a similarly binary relationship with the Hierophant. She represents the secret inner, individual spirituality, while he represents the external, shared spirituality of the masses. In fact, in many decks, the High Priestess appears to be more closely related to the Hierophant than to the Magician (in the TdM, for example, she is called the Popess, and the Hierophant is the Pope).
Alternatively, we could look at the Female aspect, and subdivide it in two. Then we get the Empress and the High Priestess, or the light and dark aspects of Woman. If you are familiar with Sumerian myth, you’d recognize the Empress in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, and the Priestess in her sister Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Perhaps more familiar are Isis and Nephthys of Egyptian myth.
This brings to the surface a rather scary aspect of the High Priestess: a Goddess of the Underworld. Many people don’t associate her with this type of darkness, but it is an aspect of her nonetheless. Darkness is darkness, after all. It might hide you from what may be hunting you, but it also hides the hunter. She protects you and terrifies you, all at once. Which brings me to the final correlation I’ll make in this post: the Moon. This is a natural association, considering all of the lunar symbolism of the Priestess card and her astrological association with the moon, but it deserves some thought beyond the obvious. Behind the Priestess, hanging between the pillars of light and dark, is a veil. What is behind that veil? We can’t see for sure, but we catch a glimpse of the waters of the subconscious. Well, that card of confusion and terror, the landscape of the Moon, is what waits behind the Priestess. For all the peacefulness we see on the surface, there is the pure darkness of uncertainty underneath; this is the other side of the coin of passivity represented by the Priestess. As I’ve discussed in my post about the Moon, it’s not hopeless, and it is a necessary part of the journey. But that doesn’t make it any less scary, and while the Priestess is generally considered to be benevolent, if somewhat stoic and mysterious, she hides a much darker aspect than we might realize at first glance. This is precisely why she withholds her wisdom from us until we’ve experienced the rest of the cards. If we gazed behind her veil and saw the landscape of the Moon so early in our journey, it would destroy our sanity, like a Lovecraftian horror materializing before our eyes. We are just not prepared for that yet.
Luckily, in her infinite wisdom, the High Priestess does spare us from such a nightmare. She puts up the veil, and diverts our attention from it with her secret scroll. We’re meant to think that the scroll holds all of the secrets. She knows better, just as she knows that we’ll see the real secrets behind the veil in due time.
When I go to the Tarot for divinatory purposes, I believe it is with the High Priestess that I am communicating. The cards are the mediators, moved by the invisible hands of the archetypes represented in the pack by the Hermit and the Magician. But they only move the cards according the the Priestess’ direction. And I am but the Fool, sitting on the other side of the spiritual divide, awaiting her cryptic advice.
*The driving force behind the dissolution of Chaos into Order is one of the great mysteries of all time. Most myths and religions give credit to some kind of deity for the creation of the world, but no one can seem to figure out what created the deity (or the deities that created it, or the forces that birthed them, etc. etc….). Creation myths are early mankind’s attempt to figure out where we came from, and how the world got to be the place it is today. Of course, there are no answers to these questions, only an endless regression – a chicken or the egg type of conundrum, if you will.
**The imagery described in this post is almost entirely based on the RWS version of the High Priestess. This card is not the most extreme departure from tradition to be found in the RWS, but it is different. I chose it because, while the basic symbolism is the same in most versions, the RWS Priestess is the most vivid in its depiction.
***While this was generally true of the ancient world, it was by no means universal. For example, ancient Egyptians believed the Sky was a female, and the Earth male.
****The Edda by Icelandic poet and politician Snorri Sturluson was written in the 1200s, a couple hundred years or so after the majority of Scandinavia had converted to Christianity, as a textbook on poetic form and subject matter. It is commonly called the Prose Edda to distinguish it from the so-called Elder or Poetic Edda, which is an anonymously compiled collection of mythic poetry. Many of the stories relayed in the two works coincide with each other, and together they contain the majority of the known Norse canon of myths.
*****Actually, the active/passive dichotomy can be further reduced to positive/negative. There is nothing more basic than this pair of opposites. However, I refrain from using them here because they have certain connotations, especially the word ‘negative’. Most people assume negative means bad. Of course this isn’t true, but I don’t use them anyway, because the last thing I need is some clown giving me crap for calling all women negative.