I know that it’s been a while since I’ve written when the last post I published was the previous installment of the Wheel of the Year. Has it really been seven (eight?) weeks since the solstice already? Damn.
And yes, I know I’m lagging more than a few days behind on this one, too, since Imbolc is supposed to be the first of this month.
It is winter, after all, and I certainly tend towards sluggishness this time of year. Still, I don’t like it when I go an entire month and more without posting on here. I’ll try to write a bit more in the next few weeks.
Anyway, on to business.
Imbolc is a festival marking the transition from the time of Stones to the time of Arrows – that is, from Winter to Spring. Of course, this seems like nonsense to me, because it is still very much winter ’round these parts. But I suppose I can’t deny it: even though the ice continues to form, it melts away almost as quickly. The sky remains the color of slate, but the sun is rising earlier and setting later. The White Witch’s iron grip on the land falters ever so slightly as Aslan makes his way closer each day.
The Wildwood left us last time with the Hooded Man and the Great Bear. These are cards of rest and hibernation, as well as facing difficult truths as the year comes to a close. Now it’s a new year, and it’s time to wake up. The Horn of Judgement has sounded. It’s a new day. Great, I’m ready to get going. Let’s do this!
Wait, do what? Where do we go from here?
The Ancestor (the Hierophant) greets us at the edge of this transitory time. Though she has the body of a woman, her head is that of a stag. She is the mythical link between man and animal, remembering things long forgotten by us. After the ordeal of the Great Bear, it’s time to return to our roots; it’s time to start anew. She pounds out a rhythm with her little drum, the pulse of life, gently awakening things that lie dormant in our nature. The pulsing never really stops, but now, with hearts quiet after winter reflections, we can most easily hear it. With nowhere else to go, we follow the Ancestor as she leads us back into the forest to begin a new year.
But a return to roots is not the only thing we need. Now is an uncertain time for many, and though the sun shines longer, darkness and cold still reign. The Ancestor may be a comfort with her intuitive knowledge of the forest and our place within it. But the Wildwood is vast and overgrown, and we can easily lose our way. If we lose sight of her, if we stray far enough away that even the beat of her drum disappears from our ears, then it is easy to despair. We need more than a return to roots. We need unfailing guidance, and for this we must turn our gaze upward towards the sky. This is where to find the Pole Star (the Star), that ancient compass which has helped navigate since time immemorial. This card indicates not only guidance, but a larger perspective. The Pole Star helps to find the way through the woods, but it also reminds us how small we are in this Universe; and how we – and everything we know – are made of the same stardust. Sometimes a new perspective is all one needs to fight the darkness.
I know that star-gazing has helped diminish many of my perceived problems in the past.
Finally, with the transition into a new season, we get a new “element” card. The Wanderer passes the baton to the Shaman (Magician). He will oversee the spring. But I think I’ll talk more about him some other time.
Anyways. Enough of Imbolc and the Wheel of the Year for one day. Hopefully as the ice continues to melt, I’ll feel inspired to write a little more often than I have lately. In the meantime, happy February.
Last time, I elaborated a bit on the Magus’ baboon. It’s the first time we see a creature besides the Magus himself in the card. It’s odd, too, because the first card is supposed to represent singularity. But because we know that the Magus is Mercury and the baboon is Thoth, and Mercury is Thoth, we can surmise that the baboon is an aspect of the Magus. More accurately, the baboon is the Magus’ shadow, or his Devil. The Devil is essentially the trickster gone bad, or the Juggler at his most extreme. The baboon suggests the pitfalls of language, how it pulls us further from the divine, not closer to it. It also hints at the brutal reality of a wild animal just beneath our fragile constructions.
In part four, I discussed the demiurge, or the creator of the world. The demiurge is not the supreme power in the Universe, although he is not necessarily conscious of forces beyond his sphere of influence.
In mythology, the demiurge typically manifests as a masculine sky god. This includes figures like Zeus and Odin, as well as Jehovah. The stories say he created order from chaos, and that the world was shaped by his actions or his commands, and can be altered according to his will. The Magcian similarly manipulates the worldly elements on his table.
In some myths, the Sky Father subsequently assumed control of Creation and all its occupants by ostensibly declaring himself King Of The Castle. Zeus and Odin are each the pater familias of his respective pantheon, and while the Biblical God has no divine peers, He descended from heaven to Mt. Sinai to pass his Commandments along to Moses and his people. Thus the demiurge becomes the Lawgiver. We can easily recognize this development in the Emperor.
Even more rudimentary than the law is the language in which it is written. The myths that tell about the invention of language and stories often involve death and magic. The god of wisdom journeys to the underworld to obtain the letters, and then returns with his boon for mankind. This is Thoth, and Odin. With the aid of monkey-Thoth and the quill and scroll, the Magus can ascend to the heights represented by the Hermit, who is this god of wisdom. And with storytellers such as Anansi, we see again the ties to the trickster.
The trickster, the demiurge, and the wise man. The Devil, the Emperor, and the Hermit. What do all of these have in common? I pondered this for some time before the obvious hit me over the head one evening: they are all men, like the prototypical Man that is the Magus.
It is often said that three is a magic number. What’s that occult saying? From One comes Two, from Two comes Three, and from Three comes everything…? Something like that. The idea is that consciousness boils down to recognition of three (not two, as I asserted in part four to make a point about the Magus and the Priestess). The archetypes are the Father, the Mother, and the Child. Man, Woman, and the integrated Individual. One, Two, and Three. Each of our many perceptions are unconsciously constructed from a pair of binary opposites, and the self stuck somewhere in between them.
I’ve read that the corresponding Tarot cards are the Magus, the Priestess, and the Empress, because of their respective numbers. This makes enough sense, but I believe that the archetypes actually match up like this: The Father-Magus, the Mother-Priestess, and the Child-Fool. After some playing around with the Major Arcana, I found a way to divide the cards into categories based on these three. Each card depicts either a Father figure, a Mother Figure, or the Hero at some point along his quest for individuation. I will eventually write more about this; but for now, back to the Magus.
Aside from the Magus, the male cards are the Emperor, the Hierophant, the Hermit, and the Devil.* Three of these were mentioned at the start of this post; the fourth – the Hierophant – also has a connection to the Magus, which I discussed here. Each of these characters is only a possible manifestation of the Male archetype, which is mythically associated with the sun and sky; the Magus is this archetype in its purest form (in the Tarot). And like Mercury, he has a suit for every occasion, able to perform with skill any role he takes on.
I think it’s interesting that the lemniscate, whether overt or implied, is one of the only constants in all three versions of this card that I’ve covered so far. This is what I’ll be exploring next time, and I believe it is the key to understanding the Magus, no matter which version you’re dealing with.
*I’ve just named four Tarot cards, coinciding with the number of elements or suit symbols on the Magician’s table. This tickles me. Off the top of my head, I’d associate the Emperor with the Pentacle, the Hierophant with the Cup, the Hermit with the Sword, and the Devil with the Wand.
I was playing with my new Hermetic Tarot when I noticed something interesting.
Every single card of the HT bears a subtitle originally given by the Golden Dawn, usually beginning with “Lord of…” or “Daughter of…” or something like that. There are three cards in the Major Arcana that are designated “Magi”: the Magus of Power, the Magus of the Eternal Gods, and the Magus of the Voice of Light. These cards are more commonly referred to as the Magician, the Hierophant, and the Hermit, respectively.
This reminded me of something interesting I once read: the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit represent the three magi or wise men mentioned in the Bible.*
Despite becoming a staple of modern Nativity scenes, the magi are only vaguely referenced in one of the four Gospels of the New Testament – they aren’t even specified as numbering three, they were only said to have arrived bearing three gifts for the infant Christ. They came from the East, the land of mysticism and decadence, and were of a class of magician-priests, probably Zoroastrian (which is one ancient religious sect that I know next to nothing about, and I am interested in finding more information). The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
There are a few ways of interpreting the gifts of the magi; because of the scant mention of them, though, it’s all really just speculation. Probably the most common theory is that the gold symbolizes earthly kingship, the frankincense (a type of incense used in religious ritual) symbolizes divinity, and the myrrh (an anointing oil often associated with funerary practices) symbolizes death. If we take this to be the case, the magi are metaphorically revealing Jesus’ destiny by giving him these things. That they come from Zoroastrian priests from “the East” is important, because it suggests that all religions (including what, at the time, would have been among the greatest rivals to the burgeoning church) and all peoples, no matter how exotic, were subservient to the Christ child.
So, this begs the question: which card is which gift? We can associate the Magician with gold, the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit with myrrh, which maintains the order of both cards and gifts (that is, the order in which they were listed in the Bible). I can’t think of better matches than these, anyway; the Magician isn’t a king, but he does exhibit earthly power (he’s literally pictured manipulating the four earthly elements in most decks). It’s no great stretch to connect the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit often includes symbolism relating to death.
As if to drive the connection between these three cards home, they are spaced evenly apart within the Major Arcana, with three cards between them each. Of course, this could easily be coincidence, but it got me thinking: which card is three away from the Hermit?
Of course, the answer is Death, followed by the Star, followed by the World.
I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of complimentary cards before on this blog; the idea is that any two Major Arcana cards whose numbers add up to 22 (the total number of the Major Arcana) share a connection with each other. And it just so happens that the compliment of the Magician is the World; the compliment of the Hierophant is the Star; and the compliment of the Hermit is Death. The complimentary relationship between the Hermit and Death seems to confirm that it was indeed the Hermit who brought the myrrh. Following this train of association, it’s not a far leap from the Star to the Hierophant and the notion of the divine (and it’s not lost on me that these astrologer-priests were led to Jesus by a divinely-placed star), and the World could absolutely signify earthly kingship. These three cards, though inversely ordered from their compliments, even fall into line with the story of Jesus’ eventual destiny as predicted by the wise men: he died, ascended to heaven, and was thereafter lauded by Christians as “King of Kings,” ruler of Heaven and of Earth.
The Hermit and the Magician are the two cards in the Tarot with which I most strongly identify, and, as I am wont to point out, are actually two aspects of the same archetypal figure. This idea of the three magi has led me to wonder: is the Hierophant yet another aspect of this character that I’d not considered?
There is a detail on these cards that leads me to suspect that the Golden Dawn (or at the very least Godfrey Dowson, the artist behind the HT) was aware of the connection between them. At the top of the Hermit card is an oil lantern with three wicks, in the implied shape of an upwards-pointing triangle, or the alchemical symbol for Fire. The top of the Magician card depicts the caduceus, in the implied shape of a downwards-pointing triangle, symbol for Water. Between them sits the Hierophant, and at the top of his card is the “monogram of Hermetic Truth” (in the words of the LWB). This glyph implies the shape of the six-pointed star, or the two triangles of Fire and Water superimposed on each other, representing the reconciliation of elemental opposites to create the essence of life.
So perhaps the Magician and the Hermit are two opposing (yet not mutually exclusive) aspects of the same figure; and perhaps, the Hierophant isn’t a third aspect at all, but an incarnation that combines these aspects into that singular figure. Indeed, the traditional image of the Hierophant is the Pope, whose position is that of a bridge between Man and God, matter and spirit.**
The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an important concept in the Christian faith. The idea of a trinity is not peculiar to Christianity, though, and I often find myself comparing their trinity to that of the Hindus: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, respectively. Beginning, Middle, and End. God the Father is the Creator of the world; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of Mankind stands for the Preservation of the world (Vishnu, by the way, has a tendency to incarnate himself within a mortal frame so he can better serve mankind, not unlike the Christ); and ultimately, everything dissolves and becomes one with the Holy Spirit – Destruction of the world.
I think the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit can be seen as another example of the Trinity. The Magician with his earthly power creates, the Hierophant with his connection to both the human and the divine preserves, and the Hermit, whose compliment is Death, destroys (the Hermit can also be associated with Kronos, also known as Father Time, or “the Devourer of Things”). Of course, destruction only paves the way for creation, and the cycle continues.
This, I believe, is the true significance of the Three Magi.
*For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this. If I ever stumble across the passage again, I’ll be sure to cite it here.
**Or a bridge between the macrocosm and microcosm, represented by the six- and five-pointed stars on the Hierophant card (that is, the Crowley and Hermetic Hierophants – I don’t think they’re on any others in my collection). Normally, when the six-pointed star makes an appearance on this blog, I take it to mean the blending of elemental opposites, but the macrocosm is a viable alternative (if the macro contains everything, though, are these two interpretations of the symbol really all that different?). This thought makes me reconsider the implications of the Hermit’s lantern, which is often pictured as containing this symbol. Can the Hermit really exist outside of the macrocosm? One possible way to view these three cards that I haven’t explored above is that the Magician is the microcosm, the Hermit the macrocosm, and the Hierophant is the bridge between them. Wow. This is a long digression that might have been better included in the proper post. Oh well.
Now that the Sentinel has been selected, it is time to begin the spread proper. I like to call this portion of the spread the Watchtower. In addition to the Sentinel, which signifies the querent him or herself, the Watchtower describes the present perspective and mindset of the querent.
This part of the spread is about the self, and will require looking inward to fully understand. There will come a point in the divination where we’ll turn up cards that should describe the world around us, external circumstances and how we react to them, but for now we are focusing only on the first-person.
Having consciously selected the Knight of Coins as my sentinel, I will now draw the remainder of the spread at random, as if I were performing an actual reading for someone.
Foundation. The first card is analogous to the foundations of a tower. It is firmly planted in the earth, and should provide stable ground for the bulk of the tower. It generally represents the querent’s body or material existence. For this exercise, I drew the Hierophant for the foundation. This card in the position of my physical situation reflects my purpose here, which is to instruct or educate. The attendant acolytes might even be an audience – is anyone out there reading this?
Tower. The second card builds upon the first and is the main body of the watchtower. It provides the height necessary for a clear view of the horizons. It can be interpreted as the querent’s mind or abstract awareness. And what am I teaching? I’m trying to break down my spread into its constituent parts so others can try it, and the Emperor here stands for rules or guidelines to be followed.
Crenelations. The third card crowns the watchtower and is the actual viewing platform for the sentinel (I chose the word crenelations for this position because it evokes medieval stone fortifications in my mind, which is how I personally like to envision my sentinel’s keep). Continuing the pattern of the first two cards, this one represents the querent’s spirit or ability to transcend worldly concerns.* I’ve completed my watchtower with Strength. I suppose the act of explaining my process is a good way of strengthening my own understanding of it, and that’s what I’m really doing here. The Hierophant should benefit from his teachings as much as the acolytes.
If there is a preponderance of a particular suit or number at this point, that can be an indication of the nature of the issue at hand. A watchtower constructed from Cups, for example, would suggest that the querent is feeling very emotional; multiple sixes might suggest balance, etc. In this part of the spread, it is much more likely for court cards to represent an aspect of the querent, rather than someone else.
It is interesting to note that my watchtower is constructed entirely from the Major Arcana (and this actually happens for me more often than you might think). To me, this seems to underscore that this particular reading is, well, meta. I mean, the issue for this spread is the spread itself; I’m doing a reading with the Sentinel Spread about doing readings with the Sentinel Spread. What other suit but the Major Arcana could relay that? In general, though, I usually take something like this to mean spiritual matters, or matters for which I must tap into the collective unconscious to really grasp, or something which is altogether above my daily, worldly existence. The specifics are always colored by the particular cards which show up, of course – I remember one time for my tower I pulled the Seer (High Priestess), the Mirror (Hanged Man), and the Wheel (Wheel of Fortune) from the Wildwood Tarot, all of which are heavily associated with inward reflection. I would not have interpreted, say, the Archer (Chariot), the Wanderer (Fool), and the Sun of Life (Sun) in the same way, despite also being of the Major Arcana.
Before I continue with the next part of the spread, I like to spend some time and reflect on what the Watchtower is telling me about my current perspectives. I don’t get too hung up if it doesn’t immediately make sense, though, and oftentimes I find that things start really coming together once the rest of the cards are drawn. But I like to at least take a moment to think anyway, because these cards are meant to check myself before I ascend the tower, so to speak, and gaze out at the world that surrounds me.
This is the time to take the significator and place it on top of the watchtower. Once up there, the sentinel must take stock of the immediate environment, to make sure the perimeter of his outpost is secure. This step will be the subject of the next post.
*In Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom Rachel Pollack uses the terms subconscious, conscious, and super-conscious to refer to the three respective septenaries of the Major Arcana. I think these words can also describe the first three positions of this spread, as an alternative to the body, mind, and spirit interpretation presented above.
I was reading Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom the other day, when I came across a statement about tradition in the chapter on the Hierophant.
A statement about tradition in the chapter about the Hierophant?! This should be absolutely no surprise, because the Hierophant is the card of tradition, of education, of orthodox religion, in a word, of institution. There are lots of statements about tradition in any writing about the Hierophant. But this was a specific statement that I’d never read before, asserting an idea I’d never thought about, and it shook me to my core.
The statement was preceded by a discussion about the modern trend of spirituality without religion. That many people in recent years have forsaken a specific religion in favor of a personalized brand of spirituality that accepts all religions, cobbling together aspects from many as they suit the individual. This sounded familiar to me; indeed, this is how I’ve been approaching spirituality for years now.
There are benefits to this, Pollack writes. People who base their spirituality on many systems tend to be more accepting, more open-minded, and generally more understanding of the human condition on a global level. This is all well and good, but there is a trade-off.
It becomes a question of focus. Faith based on many traditions can be superficial. Faith based on a single tradition, regardless of which tradition that is, has the capacity to run very deep. The statement made by Pollack that really drove this home for me was this: “While this idea opens great possibilities, many people have noted its potential for shallowness. The fact is, throughout the centuries, the great mystics have always spoken from deep within a tradition.” (Pollack, p. 56).
I didn’t like reading that. But I could not deny it. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that my own spirituality has been suffering for lack of structure.
I’ve gone through many phases of spirituality throughout my life so far. With the exception of the brief stint I had with Atheism, I’ve always thought faith was very important, and an admirable quality in any person. But I’ve also always been distressed by the problems caused throughout history by people who took their faith too far at the expense of others who held a different faith. This seemed inevitable to me, however, so long as we believed that one name for God was more correct than any other. In other words, so long as we take the Hierophant’s teachings as absolute law, which many people seem to do.
My solution to this dilemma was of course to put my faith in the impersonal Universe – the All that has manifested in the minds of people over time as various gods. To name this power was to limit it, and I thought this was part of the problem. I would study the religions to see what they had to contribute, but to follow a religion itself was to suffocate the indefinable truth. To attempt to name that which cannot be named only led to failure. As I’ve said before, language is our greatest power, but also our greatest limit. Some things just cannot be put into words.
The problem is that faith is an incredibly personal thing, different from one person to the next, even if they follow the same religion. An unnamed, all-encompassing monism is just too difficult to identify with on a personal level, no matter how true it may be compared to a synthetic religious tradition. It’s hard to put your faith in a higher power if you don’t even know how to address it. Our tiny minds just can’t fathom it. For me, it worked for a while, but as the years go on, I’m finding my faith growing thinner and thinner, despite the fact that I think it’s the best way.
I do believe faith is very important. Even if it turns out that the atheists are right, and there is no higher power, faith allows us to feel like there is a purpose to this life, a reason to keep going. It’s a question we all ask, a dilemma we all face at some point in our lives. Kierkegaard, considered by many to be the father of existentialism, solved his existential crisis with the paradox of faith. And it is a paradox. It takes strength to have faith, especially when things are difficult, and especially in this day and age when it has become fashionable to believe in nothing. I feel the existential dread growing daily in my heart, and I wonder if perhaps I wouldn’t find some relief if I just relented and went back to church.
But is church the answer? I still live a virtuous and spiritual life without it, don’t I? At least I try. And what about the other religions? If they’re all true, which one’s the best for me? How could I possibly decide now, knowing what I’ve come to learn through years of building my own spiritual beliefs? Can tradition really be the foundation of a true and deep faith?
It’s not that I think I’ve been wrong to build my own brand of spirituality. It’s just that, without an established tradition to draw from, I am finding it more and more difficult to answer the questions I have. I thought for a moment that I’d just build my own, new tradition. But for it to really fit the definition of tradition, it would have to be much longer in the making than a couple of years. Well, doesn’t everything have to start somewhere? But let’s just say, a hundred or so years after I die, that by some miracle I will have finally succeeded in establishing a new spiritual tradition. With all the benefits of tradition come all the pitfalls that have plagued religions since the dawn on time. It will become subject to dogma, and fail just as every other religion seems to have failed. I don’t want that.
For now, I will remain floating between traditions, keeping my personal faith as best I can. I will continue to study the religions; perhaps one day something will click, and I will have found my religious niche. Until then, I will keep the tradition of the Tarot, such as it is, as my guide through these murky waters of spirituality. And if any card represents this aspect of the Tarot, it is the Hierophant.
These days, the Hierophant seems to get a bad rap. Nobody wants to be associated with the stuffy traditions of our forebears. But he does have a lesson for us: traditions have only been in place for so long because they serve a purpose. Yes, it is possible for a tradition to outlive its purpose, but to trash religion solely because it is an old-fashioned institution is unwise. We are lost, and until recently, religion has been all we had to keep us on some sort of path towards enlightenment. The Hierophant keeps the old secrets that underlie traditions, and we would do well not to forget them. He wants to share his wisdom with us; why can’t we be gracious and accept his advice? We hold the power to decide what to do with it, but we first have to listen.* If we accept the Tarot is a viable spiritual guide, we can only do so because the Hierophant has had a hand in remembering where we came from, so we can figure out where to go. He stands at an integral point along the pathway to enlightenment.
I don’t think tradition and institutionalization is the final answer to my spiritual conundrum – far from it**- but I do think that it is something I must somehow accept and understand before I can move on past it to a greater understanding of the mystery of faith. It’s like the old writer’s maxim: you must understand the rules before you’re allowed to break them. The Hierophant is there right near the beginning to teach you those rules. You can’t hope to move very far past him on the path of the Tarot without heeding his advice.
Now, Mr. Crowley thought that the Hierophant was a symbol of the old age, and that we are on the brink of a new one, with a new spirituality. I believe that he was right, and that this all-inclusive “eclectic” brand of spirituality that Pollack has noted is gaining momentum is quite possibly the beginning phases of Crowley’s New Aeon. But it all means nothing without remembering what the Hierophant stands for. If we forget the traditions of our ancestors, then no matter how accepting of others we have become, it will all be superficial, and our faith will not serve us in our darkest moments, when we need it the most. I believe that we can internalize the lessons of tradition in our personal lives while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions of others.
With all of his knowledge of the Old, the Hierophant has the unique capacity to direct us towards the New with confidence, because he knows the present only has meaning in the context of the past. If we want to make true progress, we have to remember where we came from, otherwise we’ll just slip up and fall back to where we started anyway. If we want to build our own nontraditional brand of spirituality, we first have to listen to what the Hierophant tells us about the meaning of faith within tradition. After all, he knows more than you do about this sort of thing. He’s been doing it for a long, long time.
*I just realized, oddly enough, that I suggest this exact approach in my post about another card that is normally considered to be the polar opposite of the Hierophant, at least as far as morality is concerned – the Devil. It just goes to show that morality is not set in stone, nor should it be, which is one more reason why I struggle with traditional religion. Context is key.
**My soul will not be institutionalized. I have both consciously and unconsciously rebelled against the Institution my entire life (often to my detriment, I’ve realized in retrospect, but I cannot be barred from who I am). This is largely why Pollack’s comment about the Hierophant was so difficult for me to digest.