Category Archives: Card Interpretations

Contemplating Strength

strengthAll of the trumps are complex cards. There are so many stories we could tell, and so many systems of esoteric knowledge that we could draw upon for interpretation. There’s really no way to know everything about any one card—the connections are infinite and highly individual, and we build them as we work with the cards. Strength, though, is one of those cards that I think a lot of people feel like they have a handle on. It’s easy for a novice reader to draw this card and conclude, simply, that a querent should “use a different kind of strength” or some such. She wouldn’t be wrong, of course. But, as in all things tarot related, there’s a lot more going on.

Lately, I’m really struck by the gender dichotomy that exists in this card. It’s not really about strength or overcoming for me. It’s more about the relationship between masculinity and femininity. Gender is a human construct. We have particular cultural ideas about what constitutes maleness and femaleness beyond just biology, and these assumptions inform our religious models. We use masculinity and femininity as (imperfect) metaphors to describe esoteric truths. If we were going to resort to reductionism, we could think only in terms of men and women, but this usually shortchanges the deeper metaphor and causes us to miss a bigger point.

It’s not really a woman and a lion (well, of course it is, but it’s also more than that). It’s an entanglement of these two sides: the gender metaphor in action. The woman isn’t just a woman, she’s the embodiment of a particular kind of extreme femininity: the white dress of a virgin, the long hair we culturally associate with beauty, the light coloration we tie to gentility, and the placid features that indicate that desirable, distinctly female serenity. Her body is literally a garden, with flowers waiting to be plucked. She’s not just a woman; she’s the idealized (Western, Victorian) woman.

And the lion? The ultimate symbol for male sexuality. Historically, lions have been tied to virility, conquest, lust, and passion. They are fierce and predatory. They’re also—to use a human category—polygynists. Males rule over a pride of females, killing the cubs of any predecessors as well as any males that may try to copulate with any of his harem. The lion isn’t just a lion; he’s an extreme kind of human masculinity.

Both of these extremes are disturbing for most of us, I hope. And here they are, intertwined. It’s weirdly beautiful, but also dangerous. The woman appears to be subduing the lion, but is she? Some tarotists point to the lion’s tail curled between his legs in submission, but this is a dog trait. Cats have no such body language. Still, it’s as though the two figures need each other, and, of course, they do. Masculinity and femininity are relative constructs. Without one, we cannot conceive of the other, and we certainly can’t measure extremes.

So while the traditional interpretation certainly isn’t wrong, more and more I see extreme dichotomies in this card. There’s struggle here, especially relational struggle. Balance, and the calamity that results from imbalance.  There is no overcoming, here.  No subdual. Rather, there is coexistence.  There is entanglement.  There is the struggle to exist in a place of extremes.  There is no triumph—only coping.

Contemplating the High Priestess

Sorry for being MIA these past few weeks.  March has proven to be a big month, with a new job, new projects, and some super big blog-related news that I’ll be blowing up the Internet with in just the next week or so (EEEEEEEE!!!!1!).  I’m still a bit swamped, but in the meantime, please enjoy the following essay from, circa September 27, 2013.  It’s written for Wald Amberstone and not a general readership, but I think the points still stand.  Fair warning: I’d been spending a lot of time reading Judith Butler (whom I don’t even pretend to understand most of the time).  Also, for those of you who don’t know, I’m working exclusively with the Rider-Waite tarot illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Most other decks are simply reinterpretations of her work, so it stands to reason that, in a thorough study of tarot, we should cut out some of the middlemen.  At least for now.

So onward:

Before our last conversation, I would likely have delved into my contemplation of The High Priestess saddled with associations developed through my role as a high priestess.  You pointed out that when I’m functioning as such in a coven setting, what I’m really doing is more akin to the work of The Hierophant, and this was a profound realization for me.  This card, more than any so far, has posed a great challenge, because I have so much invested in what I think it means even before I really begin to study it.  I have to consciously let a lot go in order to engage in contemplation.

When I do, the central meaning comes to be about boundaries.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, not just between the twin pillars or between the world and the abyss, but at all boundaries.  And just as the melting point of ice is simultaneously the freezing point, boundaries are simultaneously a point of uniting and a point of division.  Boundaries sometimes feel harsh to us—they keep us out or keep us in—but without them we lose the ability to engage the world in meaningful ways.  We lose language, and, as a result, we lose identity and selfness.  As you said to me over the phone, there is no distinction without contrast.  Duality may be arbitrary, but it is necessary.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, beyond which lies the Holy of Holies, the Mystery, the Abyss.  To gaze upon these is to be destroyed.  Without boundaries, there is no self.  I is no longer an I.

Still in contemplation, having had the above realization, I initially thought of the figure of the witch.  The witch is sometimes described as a “hedgerider”—a boundary-crosser.  She passes out of the town and into the wild places, produces unguents that separate soul from body so that it might travel to unseen places, and uses otherworldly magic to alter reality.  But that’s too easy, I think.  Boundaries like that allow her to retain her self-ness.  By engage in these activities, she actually reinforces her identity as a witch.  Paradoxically, by crossing boundaries, she reinforces them.  The Mystery guarded by The High Priestess is beyond that.

In the Archetypal Description, you state that, “She answers the questions that cannot be asked in words.”  Further, the Transcendent Interpretation reiterates this theme of silence.  The High Priestess is beyond words because there literally are no words.  Beyond the boundary, there can be no language.  Not only does the category of “witch” cease to exist, but so too do all categories: woman, human, self.  The question was, “Who is The High Priestess when The High Priestess is you?”  The answer is that The High Priestess is at the root of everything that makes me a self.  Every identity category that I occupy (student, woman, American, witch, daughter, coffee drinker, cat lover, on and on) only exists because it stands in contrast to something else.  I become The High Priestess every time I make distinctions, think of myself as an individual, use language, or otherwise exist in a world defined by duality.  Paradoxically, I am also The High Priestess when I don’t do those things (at which point I cease to be). photo-4

Tarot Contemplations: The Magician

IMG_6143Here’s an oldie pulled from the massive Archive of Things Written by Thorn.  The following essay was written in September of 2013 and specifically for my own tarot teacher, Wald Amberstone, as part of the Tarot School’s correspondence course.  I make a couple of references to course material, but I think it’s clear enough for a general readership. Enjoy!

The following section on The Magician was written after a long evening spent reading and considering social theorist Pierre Bourdieu.

It’s relatively easy to assert that the central meaning of The Magician is will.  Anyone who has been involved in any kind of magical practice or community for any length of time has heard that magic is change occurring in conformity to will, that one must possess will to work magic, that magic is only as strong as the magician’s will, etcetera ad nauseum.  These sometimes come to sound like platitudes.  They are true, of course, but I don’t think that many of the people making such statements (often casually and in the format of New Age self-help) are aware of just how profound a thing Will is.  In contemplating The Magician, I think about the role that Will plays (or doesn’t) in my own life.

When I was an undergraduate music major, I was involved in countless conversations about talent.  Brilliant musicians are often described by laymen as “talented” or “gifted,” and treated as though they possess something supernatural.  And, indeed, some people seem to possess inborn aptitudes that feel almost magical.  But in music school, we saw things very differently than the people sitting in our audiences or listening to our recordings.  Behind practically every “talented” musician are thousands of hours spent practicing, listening, and analyzing.  Students who were more “gifted” than others—prodigies—almost always came from musical families, where their training began sooner or was carried out in greater depth.  If not, they simply spent more hours sealed away in practice rooms than the rest of us.  Those who would chock things up to “talent” were often excusing themselves from working as hard (in the case of jealous classmates), creating theologies that justified their innate specialness (in the case of the prodigies themselves), or simply mystified and engaging in magical thinking (in the case of nonmusicians).  Usually, none of this is conscious—most of us believe in talent, even if intellectually we can explain it away.

I tell this anecdote because for me The Magician is that Will that creates the prodigy.  The prodigy makes it look effortless and mystifies his audience, even though intellectually we understand that, obviously, he practices a lot.  We would describe him as talented or gifted, but that’s never the whole story (and maybe not part of the story at all).  In the Transcendent Interpretation, you describe him as “the embodiment of surrender,” and this to me is most apt.  Keeping with my musician analogy, the prodigy is a prodigy at the expense of a great many other things.  I was no prodigy, but there were days when even I didn’t see sunlight because I was buried in a basement practice room all day.   Our Will drives us to be great at whatever our Craft is, but at great personal sacrifice.  We surrender much of what we would call “ourselves” in order to be great.

And most people, of course, are not prodigies.  Very few of us—an almost insignificant few—were graced with the social locations, time, and resources to pursue greatness.  But I believe (and a number of scholars in the fields of education, psychology, and cognitive science would agree with me) that we all possess that potential.  We are not all The Magician, but we all could be or could have been given the proper circumstances.

The Magician for me is the unshakable impulse to keep pushing myself to achieve.  Every time I lose the day, forget to eat, and finish whatever academic project I’m working on, and do so with joy, I am The Magician.  My work is not effortless, but it feels effortless and often looks effortless to outsiders.  My best friend thinks that I’m smarter than her, but the reality is just that I spend more time practicing the sorts of things that we associate with smart people: reading, writing, making connections, retaining information, etc.  I had to be taught how to do those things, and I had to practice them for countless hours.  And it is Will that drives me to continue doing them.  It no longer even feels like a decision that I make every day—it’s just what I do now.

So the central meaning of The Magician is Will, but for me it’s more profound than just the decision to do something.  It’s heavier than the simple act of setting a goal and deciding to work towards it.  The Will of The Magician occurs at the point where what was initially a simple decision (“I’m going to play the violin.”) becomes so much a part of what you are that you almost forget ever having made that decision (“I am a musician.”).

The 5 of Cups: Facebook and the Public Display of Suffering

photo-2For the past several months, I’ve caught myself sort of involuntarily rolling my eyes whenever the 5 of Cups comes up in a reading. It’s taken some contemplation, but it finally hit me: the 5 of Cups reminds me of everything I hate about online social networking sites.

Hang with me for a second.

Typical interpretations of the 5 of Cups include statements about suffering, focusing on the negative, failing to appreciate what’s right within your reach, mourning loss, etc., etc. The ensuing advice is usually something about shifting your focus to the good stuff that’s right there for the taking (if only you would turn around!). You’ve got to suck it up, move on, and start rebuilding, blah blah blah. It’s time to heal. Those things are true and important, I think, but there’s something more about this card that really hits me lately: this guys isn’t just suffering, he’s suffering in public.

On some level, this is totally understandable and expected. As social animals, we’re dependent on others witnessing our losses and helping us to cope. Sharing our problems with a community not only enables us to receive the support we require in order to both survive and to be emotionally healthy, but it also enforces social norms and expectations. It helps us to remember what is right and wrong, how we should behave, and what we can fairly expect from others. Like all of our other experiences, suffering allows us to construct our identities. We can use it to define ourselves and even gain a kind of status, just as we would use our accomplishments or our good fortune (which is not to glorify or romanticize suffering, only to point out that we often use it to define ourselves). We construct identities like survivor and warrior around experiences of suffering. Suffering often gives us context. Like everything else that happens to us, for good or ill, suffering makes us who we are.

Weirdly, suffering—both our own and that of others—can bolster the ego by creating a place for ourselves in the community that we may not have otherwise. For some people, public suffering becomes an act of vanity. I immediately think of the passive-aggressive status updates that many of us encounter on Facebook and other social networking sites.  Facebook makes it easy to overshare. Facebook makes it easy to wallow.

You know the person I’m talking about. We’ve all met that person. The one for whom every little thing is a tragedy. And not only is it a tragedy, but it’s a worse tragedy than anything you could possibly have going on in your own life.   You know that guy who has to one-up you at everything, even shitty stuff? The one you tell about an injury or financial loss or heartbreak and he has to tell you about how he’s got it even worse? That guy.

Every break-up is a “betrayal” and every lost job is “persecution.” One fight with a friend and it’s, “I just can’t trust anyone!” Life is one big crisis after another. And not only is the world out to get them and them alone, but it’s all over their Facebook wall in cryptic posts. Life is just so hard.

The guy in the 5 of Cups isn’t just coping with shit, he’s donned his black cape and strolled out into open space so that we can all see his shit, too. And from the observer’s position, his shit doesn’t look particularly remarkable. He’s got two perfectly good cups behind him, and there’s a fully functional bridge over all that troubled water.  My sympathy only stretches so far.

Everyone suffers, and while I would never presume to tell someone that their suffering was insignificant, I do think that we can fairly declare that some people suffer more than others. Some wounds require clean water and a bandage—others an ambulance, surgery, and months of physical therapy. Pain and suffering are relative. What wounds one person might kill another, and it’s impossible to make the distinction sometimes. The best course of action is usually compassion and, with the one-upping guy on Facebook who’s so obsessed with betrayal, the best response is probably silence (he’s not posting for comfort or practical solutions, after all).

But I think the 5 of Cups might have something to say about where we draw the line with regard to the process of public mourning and suffering in general. What limits do we place on the expression of pain? The 5 of Cups is a reminder that everyone suffers and that, socially, we have ideas about good and bad ways to do so (whether or not this is fair is up for question, naturally).