Wednesday, September 26, 2012

september song

The reading's only trump card, in the middle of the bottom row, reminds me of I Ching hexagram 51, whose judgment reads in part, "First laughing words -- ha ha; then shock comes -- ah ah!" So it was with us, beginning with laughter and infatuation, then quickly moving into a process dominated by fear and resentment. 

It was the two queens, standing like protectresses on either side of the tower, who enabled us to get through that time. Hers, the pensive queen of spades, whose spiritual nature was formed out of pain and loss, and my queen of clubs. Even though she wears the habit and has taken the vow, she's more about knowledge and learning for its own sake than spiritual matters.

The lady's eight of hearts is indicative of "considerable emotional power, charm, and personal magnetism," according to Robert Camp*, and these qualities have enabled her to completely subdue the heart presently entwined with her own. The jack of clubs is the current unfolding of an ongoing theme, and the enthused young student is the most intense of all learners, cooking up spectacular results in his mind's oven when his subject is fresh, new, and exciting.

The ace of hearts usually means a new love relationship, or the desire for one. In this case it might mean an established relationship becoming new once more, like a flowering annual. The five of hearts next to it usually means a divorce, a breakup, or leaving one's family home. In this case, it more likely forecasts a significant change of residence which will occur November 1.

The nine of clubs tells us that whatever the jack is working so hard on will be completed in the near future. Robert Camp says of this card "it will signal a time when some ideas, ways of thinking or communicating, or some personal plans...are ready to end." This implies a new stage in one's thinking as well, possibly a synthesis of new material and old learning, with profitable results.

In the middle of it all, dominating the reading and drawing all the sequential lines of the spread's narratives into himself, sits the large, mute, and inscrutable ace of spades, the great keeper of secrets. He intervenes between the shock of recognition and the move across the water, pointing the way. He links the sadness of the mater dolorosa,, queen of spades, and the necessity of giving up familiar but obsolete ways of thinking. He also connects the queen of learning with the renewal of romantic love, and yokes the charisma of the center-left card with scholarly absorption on the right.

The ace of spades makes a cloudy lens, but it's through that we need to view these cards.

*All quotes from Robert Camp are from: Destiny Cards, (Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, IL), 1998.

Click on the image for a larger view. Photo and designs on cards ©2001, 2012 by Dave B, a.k.a. catboxer.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

fancy and the ace of spades

Paul Christian was a 19th-century French journalist, historian, and occultist whose real name was Pitois. Cynthia Giles's "The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore," with its compact but comprehensive history section, includes a couple of pages on M. Christian and his work. Although Gile's discussion is intelligent and informed, she doesn't mention that it was this fellow Christian who originated the terms "major arcana" and "minor arcana."

Those names for the two divisions of the tarot deck, with their aura of mystery and mossy old age, go back to...1870? And they were just the point of departure for an elaborate, beautiful, over-the-top Oriental fantasy that culminated with initiation, underneath the pyramids, into an ancient Egyptian "mystery" religion, where neophytes were led into the circle composed of "78 gold leaves" which had once been housed in an extremely ancient temple in Memphis.

And so forth. "No factual basis was offered for the tale," Cynthia Giles notes, "but it swiftly became a part of the burgeoning background to the occult movment," along with the similar work of the American Ignatius Donnelly with his theory of the lost city of Atlantis. Even the golden plates found in a cave by another American, Joe Smith, who founded a new religion, were a similar sort of 19th-century fancy. Whether any of them actually believed what they wrote out of their exuberant imaginations is open to debate.

Christian was a scholar who got appointed to a position in the Ministry of Public Education at 28. His job was to sort through thousands of old books the revolutionary government had seized from monasteries in 1790, and a lot of them dealt with magic and alchemy. This was weird stuff for the modern age and, I imagine, pushed the young writer in occultic directions.

The thing about occultism is, it's the basis for an awful lot of contemporary approaches to tarot. If we don't have it, what have we got?

To start, we have a deck of cards, or rather two decks of cards, or to be very precise, a deck of 52 cards to which were added 4 court cards and 22 picture cards.

When I designed my own tarot, I decided to keep the 52-card deck and eliminate the 4th-ranked court card, and keep the queens and the usual 22 picture cards, making a deck of 74. Why there are usually four court cards in a tarot suit I don't know; it might have something to do with scoring the game, for the invention of the tarot pack as a gaming device which only later came to be used for divination, is beyond dispute.

There's a beauty and balance to the regular 52-card pack that I wanted to incorporate into my own. It mostly has to do with the 13-card suits, 13 being such a deliciously mysterious and immaculately prime number, compared to the clunky 14. Also, I grew up with the French suit signs, or the International deck as it's called nowadays, so adding the trumps to it seemed natural, just as adding them to a playing deck with suits of cups, sticks, coins, and swords would have seemed natural to a 15th-century Italian designer of games.

While they may seem plain as vanilla to aficionados of fanciful or occult tarots, some of the playing cards, even with their minimal imagery, resonate deeply in our culture: who doesn't understand the meaning of the queen of hearts, for example?

The Ace of spades is one of these. An ominous card, one of three associated with death (the others are the nine spades and, of course, trump XIII), the ace of spades conceals a secret. It was the center card in our reading this past weekend, and it sat there huge in the middle of the read, mute and secretive.

It was so big and so secretive I find it very disturbing.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

reaching the end

In the misty days of long ago, a group called Moody Blues had a song about "Knights in white satin, never reaching the end."

But that's ridiculous. We all reach the end sooner or later, and that's what this card is about. Today we call him the Hermit, and he carries a lantern which shines the light of knowledge which he has acquired in his solitude.

Originally, however, the lantern was an hourglass, and the various names the card was known by -- Time, the Old Man, and the Hunchback -- all point to the deterioration  everybody who doesn't die young experiences. The age and condition of the figure on all versions of this card are reminiscent of the god Cronos (Saturn), from whom the symbolic content of the image derives.

 The Old Man (Il Vecchio) is also the penultimate image of the first half of the trumps, which include the stations of rank and status in society (trumps I through V), then love and war (VI and VII), two eternal conditions young people everywhere and in all times deal with, and finally the Old Man/Hermit, a difficult situation that is, ironically, the best possible outcome.

The hourglass in the Visconti-Sforza version of Time, shown here, didn't last long, and by 1500, tarot's Old Man was carrying an object in his right hand which can't be identified, but which he holds up like a lantern. In my version, which is a portrait of the Swiss psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, from a photograph taken a few days before his death, I've retained the posture, but brought back the hourglass, nearly spent in this version, which is also a light source.

Click on images for a larger view; photo and tarot card "The Old Man" ©2001, 2012 by Dave B, a.k.a. catboxer.


Monday, September 03, 2012

the trump sequence

The main thing to keep in mind about the sequence of tarot trumps is that there really isn't one. This is not to say that there is no sequence that seems right to us (i.e., the one we're used to).

For most who are familiar with the cards, "the sequence" means the trump order of the Tarot de Marseilles. That was the sequence inherited by French occultists of the 19th century, and bequeathed by them to their English brethren of the early 20th, although Edward Waite tweaked the order slightly in his Rider-Waite-Smith pack, switching the places of VIII-Justice and XI-Strength. To this day, you can stumble into heated debates on tarot discussion boards in which participants either point with approval or view with alarm Edward Waite's determination of which card goes where.

It's actually a natural topic, since the Rider-Waite-Smith is easily the most popular deck in English-speaking countries, while the Tarot de Marseilles remains the favorite all over continental Europe. However, Waite's tinkering, and the strong objections of occultic "purists" to it, pales to insignificance when we consider that from the beginning there were regional variations in the trump sequence that render the notion of a "correct" order moot.

This is complicated by the fact that in the earliest tarot decks made for the nobility, the trumps weren't numbered; players at Tarocchi were expected to know how many points each trump was worth. Fortunately, there are still existing some tarot decks made for commoners, dating from roughly the same period as the luxurious, hand-painted items used by the crowned heads. These consist of several uncut sheets from two different crude and ugly woodcut decks. The trumps in both these decks are numbered, and the numbers show that they conformed to the trump sequence that prevailed in the tarot hotbed of Ferrarra in the early days.

The illustration shows 3-1/2 cards from one of these uncut sheets, this one housed at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. At left is a fragment of the Emperor card, identifiable only by the double-headed eagle on his shield, and his number (IIII) in the upper right corner of the card. Next to him is the Pope, identifiable from the crossed keys of St. Peter's and numeral V in the upper left corner. Next is the Empress, the upper part of whose image and number (II) are nearly eradicated, but who is identifiable by the double eagle on her shield. Lastly we have the Female Pope, wearing the papal tiara and holding the crozier, and sporting the number we moderns usually associate with the Empress (III), for to our eyes they have switched places.

That's not the only wrinkle in the Ferrarese order that "seems wrong" to modern tarot enthusiasts. There are numerous trumps which seem out of place, most notably Justice, which in this sequence is moved to the 20th spot. Maybe Waite was on to something, for I've found that in studying the various historical trump orders, there is more variety in the placement of the three   virtues represented as females (Justice, Strength, and Temperance) than any of the other trumps.

Click on the image for a larger view.