I began this series about two years ago. It’s almost as old as the blog itself, and I have to say, it’s kind of odd to be wrapping it up after all this time. It is also a relief, because to be honest, this series presented more than its fair share of problems, and was incredibly tough to work through at times. The time has finally come to set it to rest.
At the start, my goal was to compare and contrast my pack of Etteilla cards (the Book of Thoth Etteilla Tarot from Lo Scarabeo) with the vastly more popular Rider-Waite-Smith pack. The reason was simple: I didn’t know a thing about Etteilla or his cards, which was a problem because the cards are very different from anything else I had used. This problem was compounded by the fact that I could not (and still can’t) find any written material that elaborated on the intended meanings or patterns of these cards. On the other hand, I knew much more about Waite’s cards, and I figured that I could perhaps suss out some underlying structural cohesion through comparison.
As I progressed, I realized that this method also had its problems. First of all, anything I came up with would not necessarily be true. Everything was based on my interpretations of the art, and nothing more. Now, I knew this going in, but it seemed that the further I went, the more I had to stretch, and at the end I have to admit that I still know almost nothing objectively about these cards, despite having come up with a neat story to tell with them.
That story is the mythic structure of Creation, Preservation, and Destruction (or the “Creation Myth” for brevity), which is a nice counterpoint to the Hero’s Journey myth of the RWS. I like this very much, but I have nothing in the way of written evidence supporting this theory.
The other problem didn’t become apparent to me until I learned a bit more about the deck itself. As I mentioned, this pack is called the Book of Thoth, and it is in fact quite far removed from Etteilla’s original cards. It is based on (how closely, I don’t know) what is known as the Grande Etteilla III, which was not created by Etteilla but by one of his students in 1800s, a few years after Etteilla’s death. The Grande Etteilla II remains an absolute enigma, while Etteilla’s own Tarot cards, the Grande Etteilla I, are available to purchase only by those with a larger purse than I currently possess. Pictures of this deck are hard to come by, so I can’t say one way or the other how faithful my cards are to Etteilla’s original plan (the Major Arcana especially; the Minors are different at least in that Etteilla’s had astrological symbolism on them, which these lack). So for all intents and purposes, my series did little, if anything, towards deciphering Etteilla’s mysteries; it was rather an exercise in familiarizing myself with an odd pack of cards that may or may not be much like his. I just don’t know.
During the course of composing this series, I did learn quite a bit about Waite’s cards and their historical context, but overall my personal interpretations (that is, the Hero’s Journey) remain more or less the same.* Waite’s ideas in this regard were never recorded, so insofar as the pictures of either deck depict mythic themes, I suppose my interpretations of Etteilla are as valid as Waite. In this sense, it doesn’t really matter what Etteilla intended for his cards.
I have learned a bit about Etteilla’s role in the history of the Tarot’s development, as well, but I think that may have to wait for its own post, because it ultimately has no bearing on this series.
Because it did take me so long to compose, this series probably seems disjointed in some places or redundant in others to a passing reader. I did my best to read through previous posts as I wrote new ones, but my thinking changed over time as I learned more, and sometimes it was difficult to keep things straight. When I started, I was only writing what I wished I could read when learning about these cards.** It evolved from basic comparison to a rather more in-depth look at what the pictures on these cards were telling me. I never lost sight of my goal for comparison, though, and every single card I examined came with a counterpart from another deck (usually the RWS, but not always). The counterparts were not always easy to select. In doing so, however, I made some interesting discoveries about many of the cards from traditional decks that I probably would not have encountered had I not tried to match them with Etteilla’s cards.
It is the unexpected revelations about traditional cards and the interesting story that I think the Etteilla cards tell that I found to be the most valuable things I took away from this series. The Book of Thoth Etteilla deck itself did not end up making much more sense to me in terms of divination, like I’d hoped. I do continue to find these cards fascinating, but they are more of a curiosity for my collection than anything I would regularly use.
I think that’s all I have to say in conclusion for the Etteilla v. Waite series. Before I sign off, though, I’ll put an index here for convenient navigation for anyone who’s interested in going back through. Despite the issues I’ve run into along the way, I hope this series was interesting and informative to anyone who, like me, is confounded by these strange cards.
And finally, for a real throwback, my initial thoughts upon first using these cards can be found here.
*These are largely based on Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, an excellent book by Hajo Banzhaf, and one I can’t recommend heartily enough to those whose interest in the Tarot stems from an interest in mythology or Jungian psychology.
**This is actually the motivation behind much of what I write on this blog.
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.
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 the previous installment of Etteilla v. Waite, I examined the first eight cards of each pack, and compared them to each other. We saw so far that the Grande Etteilla (GE) portrays the components that make up so-called Creation myths, while the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) portrays the Hero’s Journey myth. We also saw that, for the first few cards at least, there are similar themes in both of these types of myth. In this part, we will see the GE switch gears, dealing more with human society rather than nature, and the RWS will continue on its trajectory through the middle portion of the Hero’s Journey.
You might remember from the last post that the first eight cards from each pack can be interpreted in such a way as to draw parallels between their meanings and positions. That pretty much stops here. The decks have diverged, and at least for the seven cards here in question, they do not meet again.
Actually, you can almost disregard what I just said. Here we see Justice in the GE, and Strength in the RWS. However, the RWS’ placement of Strength is atypical of historical Tarot decks; most traditional decks place Justice right here. So, for example, if I were using a TdM for comparison here, the ninth card in both cases would be Justice. However, we are studying the RWS, so Strength it is.
Justice is the first card in the GE after the Creation (see previous post, linked above). The World has been made, and people have risen above their animal selves by eating the mythic Fruit of Knowledge. Now civilization can begin. Justice is also the first in a new pattern, comprised of the four virtues: Justice, Temperance, Force/Strength, and Prudence. Three of these virtues are also in the RWS. These four virtues have been around for ages (in a mythic sense, they’ve been around since the eating of the aforementioned Fruit). We can think of them as the pillars of civilized society. Civilization thrives when the populace accepts and attempts to live according to these four virtues (that’s the idea, anyway). So these four cards of the GE are fairly straightforward: after the Creation, we have a sort of moral framework to guide us along the path of Life.
Waite and the secret order to which he belonged had their reasons for switching Justice and Strength, namely astrological and numerological. There are compelling arguments for this change, but as far as the Hero’s Journey is concerned, I believe the traditional way is better.
We left the Hero when he was in the Chariot, symbolizing the beginning of his journey down his chosen path. The Chariot suggests triumph; or, in the Hero’s Journey, the confidence of the Hero in adolescence. He feels unstoppable, but he has not come into any serious trouble yet. Justice represents maturity. Before the Hero can advance, he has to learn the true nature of the world, that his actions have consequences. This transforms the Hero from the cocky adolescent into the responsible young adult. This is probably the point when he begins to really fathom the seriousness of the path he has chosen. He then goes on to the Hermit, perhaps in distress from what Justice has taught him. The Hermit appears in many myths in many forms, although he is usually wise and elderly. This archetype is called the ‘personal father’.* This figure does not have to be the Hero’s real father, although he can be. This figure rather teaches the Hero the most important lesson he will ever learn: the lesson of his true self, his true purpose, and the source of his true strength. He helps the Hero to light his internal Lamp of Wisdom, which the Hero will need to guide him later on.
The Hero feels safe in the presence of the Hermit. But in order to actually complete his task, he must move on. Consider Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Gandalf, or Dumbledore. These are all personal father Hermit figures to their respective Heroes, and each must die before the Hero can come into his own and fully realize the lessons learned from his Hermit. The Wheel of Fortune can represent this stage. The cycle turns, and the Hero is compelled to fulfill his destiny. This leads us to Strength, and the Hero must draw from his internal strength in order to survive what comes next.
Back to the GE, we see following the four virtues the Priest. This card is interesting, because it appears to combine the Lovers and the Hierophant from traditional decks. We see a Grand Priest presiding over a marriage. It evokes the Lovers of the TdM in that there are three figures, and the emotion of Love is clearly in play. However, the Lovers of Mr. Crowley’s CHT are much closer to the Priest of the GE. There is a man presiding over the marriage in the CHT, rather than choosing between two women as in the TdM. According to Crowley, the presiding minister is the Hermit. What makes this even more interesting is this: while I have never read anything confirming this, I believe that the Priest in card 13 is none other than the Hermit we will meet in card 18. They look almost identical.
What is the significance of this? I’m not really sure, but it is a fascinating coincidence, if nothing more. I do know that Crowley was attempting to illustrate the alchemical process (among other occult ideas) through the progression of his cards, and these two cards play significant roles. Etteilla’s deck looks much more tame on the surface than Crowley’s, but his Tarot was supposed to be the first ever deck created with the sole purpose of the occult in mind. Surely these similarities are not just accidents? But I digress.
The Grand Priest card perhaps represents a happily functioning society as the result of the previous four cards. The character of the Priest himself suggests the notion we saw in the Hierophant of the RWS: that of a connection between the divine and human realm, with the priest acting as intermediary. All of these cards so far bespeak happiness and harmony; this is interrupted by the next card: the Devil. However, this Devil does not seem quite so malevolent as other Devils. He’s colorful, smiling, and appears to be dancing. Furthermore, rather than existing in a dark abyss, this Devil is out in the bright of day, among nature. As I’ve discussed in a recent post, the Devil can represent our animal urges. While religion tends to suppress this aspect of ourselves, the occult tends to embrace it, figuring that enlightenment lies beyond. As an occult deck, the GE would naturally place the Devil in a lighter context. It is through the path of the occult that we can learn to embrace and control these desires. Hence the Magician as the next card.
By now, we’ve seen the creation of the world, witnessed the moral constraints that allow for a functioning civilization, and moved beyond everyday society and into the realm of the esoteric. This is where we will leave the GE until next time.
Now, back to the RWS.
In Strength, the Hero has controlled his animal desires and directed their energy towards his task. The Strength he’s gained will be necessary here at the next stage, the Hanged Man. Everything up until this point has been preparation; this is his first great trial. This is the trial of crossing the threshold of the Underworld. For all intents and purposes, the Hero has met Death. Now in the Underworld, the Hero must somehow navigate his way to that which he seeks. He is not without help at this point: the angel of Temperance acts as a spiritual guide, leading him and keeping him level as he works towards the most difficult task of all.
But more on that in the next installment of Etteilla v. Waite.
*This is the Hermit archetype in the context of the Hero’s Journey. As I have discussed in many previous posts, the Hermit fulfills many archetypes, most notably the Wise One. This is not incompatible with the personal father, however.
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!
The Hanged Man is one of the strangest cards in the Tarot deck. He is suspended by one foot from a wooden frame of some sort, with his arms behind his back. He is upside down in what is clearly a very uncomfortable situation, and yet his face appears to be at peace. In the RWS, he’s even crowned with a halo or some sort of light emanation.
The result is a somewhat confusing card that appears simultaneously negative and positive. I mean, every single card in the Tarot has positive and negative aspects, but only the Hanged Man appears on the surface to be both.
To be hanged upside down in such a fashion was supposedly a punishment for treason in the Middle Ages. This is bad on two levels: first, the guy’s a lawbreaker, and a pretty serious one at that; second, he’s being punished, which is good for the law, but bad for him. The punishment is presumably on public display, which leaves the Hanged Man vulnerable to the abuse of passersby. While the Middle Ages certainly had more brutal punishments to offer, being hanged upside down would be no fun, to say the least.
Of course, a crime like treason could have a positive light thrown on it. Perhaps the Hanged Man was a righteous man, rebelling against a corrupt and brutal government, and in such a case, even though he’s been caught, he would show no remorse. Perhaps this is why he has such a satisfied visage despite being tied upside down to a post. Perhaps he’s a martyr. It would explain the halo. In either case, it’s clear that the Hanged Man feels no regret for whatever it is he’s done, despite the fact that it ultimately resulted in what is surely his demise.
Another possibility is that the Hanged Man is up on his gibbet of his own volition. The general consensus of this view is one of spirituality. The Hanged Man has literally inverted his perspective of the world, allowing himself to let go of his preconceived notions about everything in favor of a new, perhaps unorthodox wisdom.
If we view the Major Arcana as a sequence, then the Hanged Man’s placement as the twelfth card can tell us a bit about his position. In the RWS, he follows Justice, which implies that perhaps he is being punished for some crime, although this is the same deck in which he wears a halo (martyr?). In the Marseille tradition, on the other hand, the Hanged Man follows Strength, which is sometimes called Fortitude. This is interesting, because it suggests that maybe he is up there of his own accord after all. To voluntarily suspend yourself between two perspectives in such a way would certainly require fortitude. Not necessarily for the physical act of hanging upside down, although that too would require some sort of physical and mental strength. Rather, fortitude would be a necessary preparation for the spiritual trials and tribulations that come from the metaphorical inversion of perspective represented by the Hanged Man. While the Marseille Hanged Man still looks like he’s enduring punishment, some other decks that use the Marseille ordering of the cards illustrate the Hanged Man as someone who is clearly using the upside down position for meditative or other spiritual reasons.
Regardless of the preceding card, however, the Hanged Man is always followed by Death. Whether this Death is a symbolic one as a result of intense meditation, or a literal one at the hands of an executioner, it is clear the the Hanged Man is about to reach an end of some sort.
Perhaps the Hanged Man is sacrificing himself for something greater. This is a voluntary spiritual quest of an extreme variety. I mentioned martyrdom twice already; this card seems to me to suggest that suffering in the name of faith is part of the experience of having faith. After all, the promise of the World card is not available to anyone who does not first traverse the depths of the Underworld, and in order to go there, you have to die. Is there a more worthy cause of death than to suffer for a righteous purpose, or to sacrifice yourself in the name of a faith in something higher than oneself?*
This idea brings to mind the so-called myths of the Dying God. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this myth today is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Strictly speaking, I don’t think that the Dying God and the Journey of the Hero are necessarily the same thing, although they do share many very important elements.The Dying God is a metaphor for the setting and rising Sun. The Hero’s Journey mirrors this pattern, but does not have to be a metaphor for the Sun. It usually represents a symbolic journey for the everyman to aspire to, and often incorporates other archetypal elements that might not be found in a Dying God myth. I suppose it could be argued that every Dying God myth is also a Hero’s Journey, but I would not feel comfortable saying the reverse is also true. For example, the Egyptian Sun god Ra supposedly died every night, passed through the Underworld on his boat, and returned to life the next morning. This is probably the most straightforward Dying God myth, but it also follows the basic template for the Hero’s Journey. On the other hand, the story of Perseus from Greek myth is a prime example of the Hero’s Journey, but it has no implication of any metaphors outside that of the individual psyche.**
The Hanged Man as an archetype provides the crux (pun intended) of these myths. I can’t think of any myth where the god or hero was hanged upside down, but there are several which involve hanging from a cross or tree. Again, the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection forms the basis of the Christian religion; Odin also hung from a tree before returning to life. But the hanging from a cross or gallows is symbolic of a more general struggle required of the hero or god prior to the actual Death. For Osiris, it was the battle against Set. For Gilgamesh, it was his long travels through the wilderness and his meeting with the Scorpion-men who guarded the entrance to the Underworld. The Hanged Man is at the threshold of the Underworld, suspended between life and death; the Death card is the crossing of that threshold.
From a psychological perspective, all this archetype stuff translates to some sort of dilemma. To be “hung up” on an issue, so to speak. This isn’t just a run-of-the-mill sort of problem. The Hanged Man represents an issue more akin to the existential crisis. There is probably some serious self-doubt and an inability to move forward. Again, Death is the answer. Remember, Death does not mean a literal death (although some people do remain stuck in their Hanged Man stage until the day they die for real). It means a total severance from the problem. Most people hate their Hanged Man dilemma, but fear to leave it behind, because they’ve grown used to having their hands tied. Death represents the unknown, and confronting this is terrifying to most, no matter how uncomfortable hanging upside down has become. Instead they regress back to that pivotal card, Strength. Strength is good to have, but it is meant to help you get through the stage of the Hanged Man so you can face Death with confidence.
If this card is turned up and it doesn’t suggest you are the Hanged Man stuck at the threshold, perhaps it is suggesting that you do as he has done, and suspend yourself upside down (figuratively speaking) so you can get a new perspective on things. In this case, the Hanged Man represents taking a step back from the problem, allowing for a fresh start, rather than the problem itself. Or maybe there isn’t a problem at all, and you just need to shake things up a bit. I believe the Hanged Man can also stand for stagnation in life, for example, or a sort of limbo. Basically, with a positive meaning, you get an intense spiritual experience (heaven); negatively, you get a very serious, almost inescapable quandary (hell); and in between is purgatory. I think these alternate possibilities are all contributing factors to the confusion of this card.
Finally, I think this card’s seemingly odd combination of an uncomfortable position with a comfortable facial expression can represent the strength of faith and a positive attitude. The Hanged Man is at peace despite his dire circumstances. Sometimes all you can do is make the best of a bad situation, and put your trust in whatever higher power you deem appropriate. I believe the Hanged Man is ultimately a card of faith, after all, and that’s what having faith is really all about.
*Unfortunately, many radical religious zealots take this idea literally, and use it as an excuse to cause violence in the name of something holy. It is more than a shame; it is a bastardization of the very values that religion of any denomination is supposed to stand for.
**It could be argued that the Hero’s Journey is just the microcosmic version of the macrocosmic story represented by the Dying God. I think this is a valid and interesting point, actually, but the fact remains that the basic function of each of these stories is essentially different. In other words, the Dying God myth generates faith in a higher power; the Hero’s Journey myth generates faith in ourselves to act in accordance with that higher power.
The Fool is the Universal Significator; everybody can see themselves in him.* It’s a special card for this and many other reasons (for one, he’s the only card of the Major Arcana to make it into modern decks of playing cards in the form of the Joker). Among the Major Arcana, the Fool is an anomaly. What is the significance behind this strange card that, on its surface, does not really seem very flattering?
The Fool is very often the first card in the deck, and so he is the one who introduces us to the Tarot. But he is not really a part of the deck, at least not in the sense the the rest of the 77 cards are. He’s only really placed up front because of his number, which isn’t really a number at all: Zero.
In the original Marseilles decks, there was no number on the Fool card, not even a 0 (these are the same decks that originally left card 13 without a title). This made it clear that he was not like the rest of the cards, as separate from the deck as the real Fool in the Middle Ages was separate from society. It also means that he can be comfortably placed anywhere within the deck without upsetting the prescribed numerical order. It’s as though he alone among the cards is able to travel from place to place, free from restraint. This gives way to the idea that the Fool is the central character in the narrative of the Tarot, progressing through the cards as if they were the chapters of his life.
Hence the “Fool’s Journey” method of interpretation, which is Tarot speak for what is more generally called the “Journey of the Hero”. The Hero’s Journey is a form of story that has been around for at least 4,000-some years. It is present in some form or another in every mythic tradition around the world and throughout the ages. It is also very common in modern (and otherwise not so modern) literature. Whether they’re aware of it or not, many authors use the Hero’s Journey structure when they write a story. This is especially true of fantasy and other genres of speculative literature, but you can find it pretty much everywhere.
In the Tarot, the Hero is the Fool. This might seem strange at first glance. After all, the Fool doesn’t fit today’s stereotype of the Hero. The Fool is an outcast, taken seriously by no one. His sole purpose, when he is considered to have one, is mere comic relief. To be called a Fool is to be insulted.
Some of this is certainly true of the Fool card. It may very well be a warning against potential foolish behavior. In the RWS and similarly inspired decks, the Fool appears to be unaware of the fact that he’s about to step right off a cliff. It could indicate that others are not taking you seriously, or that you are pushing social norms to their limits and might possibly consider reeling yourself in.
But the Fool also embodies a sense of pure innocence. He is unburdened by worldly concerns and possesses the simple capacity to see the beauty in everything. More than anything else, the Fool is free.
In many myths, legends, and stories, the Hero turns out to be the very person who seems the least qualified at the outset. A generic example: All of the macho knights have attempted to slay the terrorizing dragon with no success. The only remaining person willing to volunteer is the foolish youth. Nobody has faith that he can do it, but they let him go anyway. Of course, he slays the dragon, liberates the village, and is lauded as a hero.
The hero always begins his story with the end of his normal, every day life. Something occurs which jolts him out of his usual routine and sends him on his journey. The Fool card depicts the moment just before his story begins. The number 0 is indicative of this, as is his precarious position at the edge of a cliff. On a deeper level, these two aspects of the card represent the soul prior to worldly birth – still one with the Universe, within the protective womb-like enclosure of the Ouroboros. Once he steps off the precipice, he will descend into consciousness. This symbolism reminds me in particular of Hindu epic tradition. The heroes of these stories are usually mortal incarnations of gods. The deity exists in the bliss of heaven until the hero is born, and he falls to earth, landing in the hero’s body with little or no recollection of his divinity; he only gradually comes to recognize it, although his divinity still shines through in his virtuous character. The Fool is the pure soul, just before the inevitable fall from Paradise. The rest of the cards are just the quest to regain what was lost in the fall.
In a sense, the circular 0 also signifies completion. At the end of his journey, after the revelry of the World (card 21), the hero becomes the Fool once again, enlightened in his regained innocence (notice in the RWS, the Fool wears upon his head a wreath much like that which is pictured in the World).
It is therefore no surprise that the Fool works as a universal significator, because every person is the hero of his or her own life story. The Fool shows the child in all of us, and suggests that it’s not always a bad thing to embrace this aspect of ourselves, even at the risk of appearing foolish to others. In fact, we must embrace our inner Fool before we can ever hope to embark on the spiritual journey that ultimately leads to enlightenment. No other character has the capacity to simply begin. Every other character claims to know something, trying to make it seem like they know everything. But they don’t realize that everything includes the concept of nothing, and only the Fool is comfortable with knowing nothing. Only the Fool can say “I know one thing for certain, and that is I know nothing for certain” and truly mean it. This must be understood before the first step is taken on the path to Wisdom and Enlightenment.
*I call the Fool “him” only for simplicity’s sake. In many cards, the Fool is androgynous enough that he could easily be a she, and this is apt. At any rate, gender is a concept in the Tarot that, like just about everything else, is symbolic of an idea that transcends our worldly definitions, and is not necessarily meant to be taken literally.