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 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).
Before there was the Magician, there was the Juggler. The Juggler was a character of potentially ill repute, yet simultaneously one which could delight onlookers with his tricks as he pleased. The dual nature of the Juggler’s character, combined with his divinitory associations with incredible mental dexterity – not to mention his almost clownish clothes – suggests the Trickster archetype of myth, which was the subject of the previous post in this series.
However, in the modern English-speaking Tarot community, the Juggler has effectively become the Magician, thanks largely to occultist Arthur Waite and the artist commissioned to illustrate his Tarot, Pamela Smith.
The two versions of the card incorporate similar elements, especially the table upon which are set various implements, but there nonetheless appears to be some discrepancy between them. While the traditional Juggler** wears motley performance attire, the RWS Magician is dressed in the robes of a ceremonial magus. Especially striking is the Juggler’s hat; it is so conspicuous in its size and shape, that its absence gives the Magician an air of seriousness by comparison. We know the Juggler must possess a high degree of focus to carry out his whims, but a major part of his trickery is his ability to divert our attention from his true purpose, and his hat helps to disguise this purpose. The Magician cares not for such distractions, and instead an ethereal lemniscate, symbol of infinity, floats above his head. It is the same shape as the brim of the Jugglers hat.
The Juggler appears fluid and at ease as he performs. The Magician’s stance is poised and deliberate. He holds his wand to the sky in one hand, and with the other he points to the earth. This pose is a reference to the Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below.”*** This essentially states that what is true of the macrocosm is also true of the microcosm, an idea which is central to magic theory. The Magician works his will on earth and the greater Universe unerringly conforms. The pose also suggests that the Magician has the ability to take abstract or spiritual energies from the Universe “above”, and make them manifest on earth. Either way you look at it, micro to macro or macro to micro (in truth, it’s a constant back-and-forth rather than just one or the other), the Magician clearly wields awesome power.
Now we’ll turn our attention to the table. The Juggler plays with various objects that can usually be likened to the suit symbols of the Minor Arcana, although they can just as easily be random knick-knacks;**** but the items upon the Magician’s table can be mistaken for nothing else. There are four of them, and they are very clearly implements of the same sorts as are pictured on each of the aces. This implies that the Magician has the raw forces of the elements at his disposal. The combination of his Hermetic stance and the elemental aces on his table serves to underscore that his will is all powerful. He can manipulate the physical elements of this world with ease, but his true influence stretches far beyond the realms of crude matter.
In short: the Juggler performs tricks and illusions. The Magician performs magic.
For this post, my aim was to examine the basic elements of the Magician card versus those of the Juggler. It is a digression from the overarching theme of mythic archetypes that is the purpose of this series, but I think it’s a necessary one to make in order to more fully appreciate what’s coming next as compared to what came previously. The Magician can still be associated with the Trickster, by virtue of his being a reincarnation of the Juggler (by the same token, the Juggler can be associated with all that I will claim for the Magician in the upcoming installments). But there is another archetype the Magician represents that is different than the Juggler’s trickster: God the Father, Creator of the Universe. It might seem like quite a leap, but I assure you, it’s all there in the cards.
*Interestingly, these two cards appear to be mirrors of each other. Is there significance in this? Perhaps, and I may or may not return to this thought in a future post.
**For the purposes of this post, “traditional Juggler” refers to the Marseille-pattern Juggler.
***Might not the Juggler also be considered to be making the same statement through his gesture? It can certainly be read that way. The Juggler may very well be hiding all manner of secret hermetic and occult wisdom, but if this is true, the many anonymous hands that contributed to his appearance left no indication that it was intentional. We just can’t know. One of the things that made Waite’s Tarot so revolutionary (aside from Smith’s Minor Arcana illustrations) was that he published a book detailing the cards and their symbolism. The Marseille Tarots are occult only because they were interpreted that way long after their creation; the RWS, on the other hand, is occult because its creator made it so, and we do know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
****The items on the Juggler’s table often vary from card to card. For example, the early versions, such as the Visconti and the source material for Huson’s Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot, show stock items of the street performer’s trade. While this might include a wand or a cup, it also might include balls or spinners or other random, non-Tarot-related items. Oswald Wirth’s Juggler, on the other hand, has objects on his table which very obviously correspond to the minor suit symbols (ironic, considering he never made a Minor Arcana). The Marseille Juggler typically falls somewhere in the middle: the items on his table appear to include a couple coins, a small cup or two, and a knife, and he holds a baton in his hand. These are very similar to the suit symbols, but they admittedly look nothing like any of their respective aces, so the similarities could therefore possibly be only coincidence.
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.
Well, I never said the Tarot was alive. I said the Tarot was living. Surely, they mean the same thing? Well, nine times out of ten, yeah, I’d give you that. But consider phrases like “living languages”. A language is not alive. But a living language is a language that is still actively spoken by living people, and therefore continues to evolve as the culture in which it is spoken does. New words are added, old words get new definitions or are forgotten, and the rules of grammar shift ever so slightly over time (a dead language like Latin, by contrast, is a language no longer spoken, and will therefore never again change). After enough time, you may not even recognize a language anymore. Take English, for example. Old English is closer in grammatical structure to German than what we would call English today. The words are almost unrecognizable. Many native English speakers today need a translation of texts like Beowulf to understand it, even though Beowulf is written in English.
The Tarot is living in a similar sense. Since the TdM, it has changed relatively little in structure, but it has undoubtedly evolved (give it time; when the Tarot has been around as long as Beowulf has, it will certainly look different). Every deck available today is as much a true Tarot as the Marseille variety, no matter how radical the differences may seem on the surface. And this is appropriate: after all, would we really be able to consider the Tarot a viable model of the Universe (from the human perspective) if it didn’t have the capacity to reflect the changes of humanity over time?
But the Tarot can be considered living in another sense. Every deck has a “personality,” as does every card within the deck. Many Tarot readers recognize this and respect their cards as if they were another being.
It is generally true that people in ancient times felt much more connected on a spiritual level to the world around them. Nature-based religions were common for much of our species’ history. Each rock and each tree and each stream was believed to be the house of a spirit. Then there were greater spirits or deities that ruled over all trees or rocks or bodies of water. Every object, no matter how small or insignificant, could potentially house a spirit and was therefore once considered as living as you and me (some still hold onto this belief).
It is true that the cards themselves are inanimate. But what about the archetypes and ideas represented by the pictures on these cards? While they don’t exist in the physical realm (the exception being people represented by significators), I believe that these archetypes are personifications of very real energies in the spiritual realm. These are like the human equivalents of the nature spirits that were once believed to inhabit the objects mentioned above. People have personified and given names to these energies throughout the ages, because that is the only way our feeble minds can comprehend their existence. Some of these archetypes exist within our own souls; others are greater than any individual. In many cases, an archetype exists in both forms. Take for example the Devil. Each and every one of us, no matter how virtuous, has a devil, or a dark side, that we hide from the world. In a grander sense, the Devil represents the general forces of temptation, and the enslavement (or liberation) of mankind at the hands of our shared animal desires.
Many of us who read and work with the Tarot feel as though the cards are really just a tool for communicating with these metaphysical energies. Each card houses or is able to tap into a specific energy that is really just one aspect of a Greater Whole. This means that while a specific deck may not be considered living, the Tarot as a concept is alive indeed. The connection one feels with the spiritual energies behind the Tarot is incredibly personal; no two people are likely to feel the same thing when they contact this “higher power” through a reading.
I for one feel a personal connection with three specific cards from the Major Arcana when I use the Tarot. The first two, the Magician and the Hermit, are both aspects of Mercury/Thoth, the deity of Wisdom. Because the Tarot is a Book of Wisdom, I feel that these two figures are invoked every time I hold it. I am using a tool symbolically handed down to me by them; as a student of the Tarot, I am channeling their energies each time I use it.
The other card represents the spirit with whom I believe to be communicating when I use Mercury’s cards; she knows the unknowable, fully comprehending that Greater Whole mentioned above, though she can’t divulge it, because doing so would destroy us. But she can give me hints and guidance towards that knowledge through the cards. It’s like the cards are a barrier between dimensions; I’m on one side, and she’s on the other (or rather, I’m on one side, she’s on the other, and the Magician-Hermit lives in the cards, acting as a go-between, which of course is fitting considering Mercury’s role as messenger). I’m talking about the High Priestess, and I will surely compose a post exploring this card more in-depth soon (either she or Death is next on my list – I haven’t decided yet).
As I said, these are very personal connections, and while I’m sure they are fairly common given each of their personalities, I don’t expect everyone to share my feelings about them. But the spiritual among you will undoubtedly perceive these energies of which I speak, regardless of which ones you identify personally with.
At the end of the day, perhaps the Tarot really is nothing more than a deck of cards. It can be argued that all of this business about archetypes and metaphysical energies are just human creations, and therefore don’t really exist at all. But just because something does not exist here on Earth as a tangible object, does that make its existence a lie? Regardless of so-called ‘reality’, don’t all of these things still exist in our minds? Is our perception our reality? What does it really mean to exist? I think the answer lies in the difference between fact and truth. What that means is entirely up to you.