The Pope and the Emperor walk into a bar…

It’s roughly towards the beginning of the 14th century. The Emperor says, “I’ll have Europe please.”

The Pope says, “I’ll have two of whatever he’s having.”

The Emperor, feeling this is a bit cheeky, knocks the Pope over the head and drags him off to Avignon. Thus begins the notorious Avignon Papacy.

Of course, medieval specialists will know that it wasn’t the Emperor who kidnapped the Pope but Phillip IV of France. It was one attempted solution to a problem that had bedevilled (or be-Devil-ed) Europe ever since a canny political operator forged a document supposedly bearing the signature of the Roman Emperor Constantine handing over most of Western Europe to the Pope. The result? Hundreds of years of war and bickering, during which the peasants always lost, no matter which side they were on.

What, if you’ve got this far, does this have to do with tarot? Well, you can’t escape the fact that Tarot originates as an early Renaissance artefact rooted in late medieval thinking and imagery.

The Pope and the Emperor. The best of friends. Not.

The Pope and the Emperor are both authoritarian figures representing two very different authorities. The Emperor wields secular, military and economic power. He’s good at it. But at his worst (and the archetypes of the Trumps can stand for any gender, remember)? Tyranny, strip-mining and the sociopathic wielding of power for its own sake. Joe Biden vs Donald Trump. The Pope wields religious power, though there’s no reason why this can’t be a secular expression of an essentially religious (but agnostic) impulse. At its best, the Pope stands for kind of spiritual authority developed through an ordered, disciplined live as part of a wider structure – the Dalai Lama or Bernie Saunders, say. At its worst, dogma and, yes, tyranny – Jerry Falwell and Iranian theocracy.

In a reading, expect to see these cards appear in the contexts of bosses, teachers, leaders, parents or powerful structured influences in your life. If they appear together? Tread carefully. Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, loathed the idea of the unity of church and state and large chunks of the Comedy are spent excoriating various emperors and popes. He was exiled from his native Florence under threat of being burned alive for his views and was never able to return.

And if you want a tarot reading to explore the influence of these and other interesting forces in your day to day life, you only have to ask.

That Old Devil Moon, Pt 1

The Moon is one of my favourite Tarot trumps but I’d be the first to admit that it isn’t the most comfortable of cards. For one thing, the Moon often shines a light on things we’d rather keep hidden. For another, there are all those classical associations with madness (lunacy!) and hysteria. And the imagery is plain weird, even by the standards of the Tarot. And yet, it’s also one of the most powerful ‘teaching’ cards, holding up a mirror to those neglected or repressed elements of ourselves and our strengths that the following card in the sequence, the brilliant Sun might might simply dazzle and outshine. Beneath the softer light of the Moon, all things can grow.  In this short series, I want to take a closer look at the history of this card in particular and tease out how the meanings associated with the comtemporary understand of the card have developed.

The Moon in the Marseilles and Visconti Tarot decks

The Visconti-Sforza group of Tarot decks form one of the earliest designs known and the first thing that strikes anyone used to modern decks is that the Moon is actually a character, a goddess to be precise. She stands amidst a lush, verdant landscape holding a sharp crescent moon at eye level with her right hand. Her left hand lightly holds two strange blue tendrils writhing out of her rope girdle. They form a shape that makes one think of two snakes. This is particularly interesting when one thinks of the associations of serpents and classical moon goddesses such as Hecate, queen of witches whom even Zeus honoured (according to Hesiod). Isis created the serpent out of her dust and spittle. There is also an echo of the snakes wrapped round the staffs of Mercury or Asclepius (though Asclepius classically only engaged with one snake). 

Luna is also barefoot, suggesting the intimate relationship of the Moon and earth, and standing on the edge of a cliff. This immediately reminds one of the Fool, though Luna makes no move towards the precipice’s lip.

This version of the Moon focuses more on change through fixed, rhythmical patterns like the tides, the regular shedding of skins by skins and the phases of the Moon There is little disturbing about it to the casual onlooker. But by the time we reach the cartoon-like Marseilles, the Goddess has been reduced to a face in the moon whilst the crayfish (why a crayfish and not a Cancerian crab? The two seem to be interchangeable and the crayfish is now general accepted as a synonym for the Crab in symbolic terms) rises menacingly through blue water. Two doglike creatures howl between two towers in the hills. Rays and droplets of light fill the sky as if the Moon is a shadow version of the sun. We are not in Kansas anymore, or Florence for that matter.

The face in the Moon is another major change in that it offers a Man *in* the Moon rather than a Goddess holding it. The feminine Moon has been changed into a masculine Moon (though its worth noting that to the Anglo-Saxons, the Moon was male and the “Sonne” was female). And yet there are still echoes of moon Goddess Artemis in the angry looking pair of hounds. The hunter Actaeon was torn to pieces by his own pack for the crime of seeing her bathing. Are the dogs here baying and barking because the Man in the Moon has committed a similar crime? 

The earliest version of the Tarot of Marseilles dates back to the mid 17th century and it is important to remember that it was still manufactured at this point for the purpose of playing card games, not as a tool for divination, esotericism and magic. It wasn’t until Court de Gébelin and Etteilla in late 18th century France that the notion of the cards as a repository for ancient wisdom began to be developed and popularised. We’ll skim through this in part two and then have a closer look the Moon’s development through the lenses of two great 20th esoteric decks – the Colman-Smith/Waite/Rider pack of 1910 and the later Thoth tarot of Crowley and Lady Freida Harris, created in the 30s and early 40s but not published until 1969 (though Crowley’s book on the Tarot, the Book of Thoth, came out in 1944 and contained the illustrations of the designs). If I get that far, Part 3 will look at the Moon in a number of modern decks and show how the Colman-Smith/Waite deck continues to dominate readings of the deck as a whole.Tarot history

The Star, Love and Tonglen

Tarot Reversals are scary and my simple little ‘Strength’ layout just handed out four of them. It was tempting to just turn them all the “right” way up but I gritted my teeth and set out to deal with yet more Tarot ‘tough love’.

The first card asks simply “What is my strength?” The 2 of Cups reversed suggests my strength is defined by its absence, by the suppression of ‘soft’ strengths like loving-kindness, giving and receiving joy and relationship building.

Four scary reversed cards!

The second card build on this by asking where my strength is to be found. The Queen of Swords suggests I find strength in the heights – in intellectual strength and providing decisive action and leadership. But reversed, the card suggests a slide into solecism and pride. Pride comes before a fall and the Queen of Swords, enthroned on high, has a long way to fall

What nurtures my strength? The third card, the 3 of Disks or Pentacles reversed offers an answer. Failure or the fear of failure. Reversed, the pyramid of the Thoth version of the 3 of risks is precariously balanced.  I nurture my strength by measuring its material impact or through unnerving myself for fear of the lack of it. And that is unlikely to end well.

Finally, the question “What do I use my strength for right now?” offers up the transcendence of the Star. Even reversed, the hopefulness of this card shines through. But it still has a tricky message – I’m using my strength against myself, blocking off the flow from a more numinous place. It’s striking that the ‘What’ card is the Two of Cups reversed – in this reading, I cannot help but see them as the cups The Star is holding. 

When I try and pull this together the theme that unites the Star and the 2 of Cups is love and the power of love. What are we without love? When we are separated – or separate ourselves – from love, the love of loved ones or perhaps the infinite love that powers our world and universe, we dry up. Our powers wither or turn inwards to bite and wound us. Our achievements feel transient and wobbly. At those times, the Star reversed asks us to just drop everything and pour out a little compassion for ourselves and for others.

In times when every channel on every device is telling us to separate, not to touch, to stay apart, this is a difficult message to hear. Perhaps one thread through this arid, invisible labyrinth can be provided by the Shambhala Buddhist practice of ‘tonglen’ . I first read about this in a book by Pema Chödrön. In this article https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/ she summarises the “sending and taking” of compassion:

“Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age-old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”

How arid, how blocked might we too easily be becoming without our realising it? At what point does all this isolation risk turning our strength into a kind of damaged immune system, one that eats itself? The Tarot is, as ever, a stern but compassionate teacher for me, reminding me that those forms of strength built for dealing with the outside world and its challenges need work and adjustment and perhaps a little humbling when we have to live alone with ourselves. 

Tarot for the Workplace

Tarot readings aren’t just for individuals. First thing yesterday, caught between a mountain of an in-tray and a myriad of little fires demanding to be put out, I set out a Tarot layout for my workplace. I placed them between my keyboard and my trying-too-hard laptop stand and spent the day  puzzling about them in between meetings. Four reversed cards for where my workplace is at – harsh! But not altogether unfair, given the times.

The layout is a simple diamond representing North, South, East and West. In an organisation, the element of Air is all about planning and conceptualisation, strategy and castles in the air. So if we start with the place of Air in the East we find the Knight of Swords (Reversed) dashing headlong after all or any of the ideas that he or anyone else has come up with. They’re all great! Let’s do all of them! 

Fire, in the South, has the 6 of Pentacles. For a workplace, Fire (wands)  is about the energy and creativity of your colleagues and team, their capacity to get things done. Perhaps too many of these ideas are being frittered away, the creative energy they demand being wasted. Perhaps the funds to deliver all or most of them aren’t there, however great the need for whatever product or service my (or your) organisation delivers. Or do hard choices need to be made whilst new sources of income are sorted out? It’s an uncomfortable experience for the dashing Knight to be a beggar but sometimes there isn’t a choice.

In the West, the place of feelings and emotions, the Page of Swords, reversed. Thing of the card in the West as speaking to the morale of a workplace. This workplace (the page suggests) is a young one and the kind of reversals and challenges being faced at the moment are particularly difficult to face. Again, this theme of ideas and adventurousness blocked by circumstance. It’s also facing the Knight of Swords in the West – is there tension or intimidation between different team members about the kind of ideas and directions being set promoted? Or are some people simply afraid and overwhelmed?

But there’s good news. The North, the place of Earth, holds the 8 of Swords reversed. The North is the spot where the proverbial rubber hits the road. The reversed 8 suggests a breakthrough. If the swords are the ‘idea’ card, then the 8 of swords reversed suggests that for all our organisational prevaricating and intellectual navel gazing, we’re starting to sense a way out of the thicket of over-thinking we’ve fenced ourselves into. And, in the place of actualisation and concrete foundations, those ideas have a real chance of coming to pass. Things will  come into focus. Healing – be it of damaged egos or knocked confidence, will take place. 

Another thought, looking at the majority of Swords, is to focus on the communications issue the layout might suggest with new, buzzy channels everywhere and too many ideas and messages “Zooming” to and fro to little immediate effect. The 8 of Swords reversed offers the hope that this confusion will settle down but that it won’t be achieved by closing your eyes (putting on a blindfold) and hoping it goes away. Look at the image. There’s a huge gap in the fence of swords behind the bound and blindfolded woman…

Stick to the plans and ideas with a bit of longevity. Be prepared to scrap the rest. Try not to get bitter about cuts in funding or diminished outcomes – treat them as necessary boundaries or messages about those ideas your ‘knights’ really should be dragged away from and give support to the nervous, overwhelmed pages. Keep yourself and your colleagues focused on the achievable long term. Look to the North.

The Tower

Earlier today, I Instagrammed about the Haindl Tarot’s version of the Tower, the Tarot Trump traditionally numbered 16. The usual Tower shows a quasi-medieval building at he moment lightning blasts off its roof. A man and woman are falling, presumably blown out of one of the upper floors.

The Tower, from the Handle Tarot

The Haindl version, on the other hand, is a lot sparser whilst presenting a far more dramatic, modern rendering. In fact, it looks like a skyscraper out of a sixties science fiction magazine. The Hebrew letter on the upper left of the Card is Peh, usually translated as ‘mouth‘. Many commentators (including Haindl’s collaborator, Rachel Pollack) see this as an ironic association on the Tower with the Biblical Tower of Babel, a tower built to reach to the heavens which Yahweh (easily affronted) demolished. At that time, the story says, mankind had one language. After the disaster of the Tower, everyone spoke with a different tongue – a babelogue.

I also see the Tower as an outpouring of energy, often repressed energy. The Handle version works well for this, showing the origin of the explosion as internal to the devastated skyscraper (perhaps some sort of nuclear fusion? Or a miniature singularity of the kind that drives starships in space operas?). Prior to the Tower, the sequence of the Major Arcana offers many warnings about repression of all kinds – intellectual, sexual -and the risks of failing to maintain a proper balance in one’s life. Think of the tension of the Chariot with its wheels heading in contrary directions. Or the Devil, notoriously presented in the Thoth deck as a rather phallic tower in its own right. And the phallic element of the Tower shouldn’t be ignored (though it equally shouldn’t be overstated).

Depending on the surrounding cards, the Tower is either a warning to deal with rising tensions or an indication that some sort of explosion is imminent and quite possibly unavoidable. It can also appear after the event, suggesting that a necessary (if drastic) release of energy has taken place and that the questioner now has no choice but deal with the consequences. The many colourful banners surrounding the explosion wrenching apart the Haindl’s version of the Tower also reinforce the idea that, hard though it may be to accept at the time, this kind of drastic upset in one’s life might be very much for the best in the long term. One should also contemplate the Star, the card that traditionally follows the Tower, a card of clarity, purity and optimism. And one unique aspect of the Haindl Tower is the suggestion that what is actually happening in the depths of the image is the birth of a star.

Note: I should say something about the rune lurking in the upper right of this card. Pollack identifies it as ‘Err’ and doesn’t provide a translation but instead relates it to the symbol used for the European Peace Movement (The Haindl Tarot Vol 1, 1990). Alternately, R.I. Page (An Introduction to English Runes, 1973, 1999), the great authority on English (or Anglo-Saxon) runes names it ‘kalc’ and relates it to the letter ‘k’. Calc most likely means chalk, he says. However, he provides two further alternatives in the Old English ‘loan word’ calic, translated as cup (chalice?) or slipper. One might make a case for relating the idea of a chalice to the tradition yoni/lingam imagery associated with the Grail but that would require a deeper dive into the Haindl and the possibility of its Wagnerian heritage than I have time or space for right now!