Tarot, ‘Tough Love’ and scary questions

Once upon a time, Oedipus heard a rumour that his mother and father weren’t actually his real parents. He went to see the Delphic Oracle who, ignoring his question, told him that he would sleep with his mother and murder his father. Unsurprisingly devastated, he left home, assuming that this would keep his parents safe. Leaving his hometown of Corinth and travelling to Thebes, he met an old man in a chariot blocking the road. Neither Oedipus nor the angry old man waving a royal sceptre would give way and, in one of the earliest reported examples of fatal road rage, Oedipus threw the angry pensioner out of his chariot, resulting in the old man’s death. A few days and one dead Sphinx later (are you seeing a trend here?), Oedipus accepted the hand in marriage of the beautiful dowager queen, Jocasta. Guess who Queen Jocasta and the angry old man would eventually turn out to be?

Was Oedipus really fated to travel this road? Or would he have done better to contemplate what the Oracle was trying to tell him about the consequences of – say –  poor impulse control?

Imagine a sixty year old man who comes to me and asks “Will my life-long habit of sixty cigarettes a day kill me?” The first card I pull is Death. The man decides, no matter what I say, that this means he is going to die. To me, the Tarot is saying something very different – it’s laying down a challenge for him to change his life, take the chance Death offers for a kind of rebirth. After all, Death virtually never refers to physical death except as part of the natural rhythm of all forms of life. A little while later, the same man comes back. This term, he draws the indulgent, solipsistic King of Cups reversed, flanked by the Queen of Swords on his left and the bleak 10 of Swords on his right. Curtains? No – tough love. The Queen of Swords could be seen as a stern warning of consequences (think of the savage Thoth Tarot image of the Queen with a sword in one hand and a head in the other) and the Ten of Swords in this context needs very little commentary. The message? Change now or pay the piper. 

Example of Tarot tough love

But to return to Oedipus…

The Oracle’s words (according to Robert Graves) were “Away with you, wretch! You will kill your father and marry your mother!”. This was not an answer he was ready to hear, or even a question he was ready to ask, and his immediate response was to run away from it.  

If Oedipus had been consulting a Tarot reader (me, for example), he might have been better advised to take a step back and think about the outcome he was looking for rather than asking a closed ‘yes/no’ question and expecting everything to be laid out in a neat, cut and dried way. Outcomes are interesting – they literally describe how things are going to turn out. This, rather than an exact date* for the questions like “When will I be famous”, is what the Tarot is good at. The Tarot counsels, advises, suggests, points out ways not taken that still could be – but if you don’t like the answer, you’re either asking the wrong question or missing the big picture. Sometimes, the scary answers the Tarot offers in response to the most seemingly innocuous  question are about what the question is that you really should be asking. Or even (and I think this is the key to the road not taken by poor Oedipus) whether you should be asking some questions at all.

PS While prowling around the net doing a little research and factchecking, I ran across this rather beautiful artefact by Eileen Hogan.

*I know – there are many methods for answering just this query. I don’t and won’t. 

Tarot dualities – the Lovers and the Devil

Most mornings – I try for ’every’ but am happy with ‘most’ – I get up before seven and pull a single Tarot card. The focus is always the same – what lesson is this day going to teach me? Sometimes, I meditate for fifteen minutes before I draw a card. Other times, I draw the card, prop it up on my altar and wrestle with it the way a Rinzai monk might wrestle with a tricky koan. Earlier this week, I drew the Lovers and on the following day, I pulled the Devil.

The Lovers in the Major Arcana

The Lovers is numbered six (VI) and has the not unexpected traditional meaning of new relationships or choices. The Marseille version dates back to the 17th century and shows us a youthful man caught between two women seemingly vying for his attention. Above, Cupid aims his ‘poison arrow’. Whom the arrow will strike is unclear. The image echoes myths like that of the Judgement of Paris, where Paris had to choose who was the fairest amongst the Greek Goddesses Hera, Athene, Aphrodite and the mortal Helen. Notoriously, he chose Helen. Choices, the myth reminds us, have consequences. 

The Marseilles and the Rider versions of The Lovers

The Lovers is also, however, a card which has acquired many esoteric meanings. Occultist A.E. Waite was very specific in his instructions for Pamela Colman-Smith’s designs for the Rider deck. Here we have an angel overseeing a naked couple. It could be a marriage scene or a depiction of Adam and Eve in the process of being warned about the terrible consequences of eating the wrong fruit. Waites explicitly relates it to the Old Testament story. The tree behind Eve is that of Knowledge of Good and Evil – note the serpent already curled around its trunk. Behind Adam is the twelve branched Tree of Knowledge. It is, says Waites, “the card of human love” before it is “contaminated by human desire”. To which I can’t help but feel ‘Ugh’.

The Devil in the Major Arcana

The Devil is the card numbered fifteen (XV). In numerology, fifteen reduces (1 + 5) to six. Waites’ revision of the imagery is relatively close to the Marseille and goes all in on the evils of the chains of materialism. This really is a card of consequences. It’s worth contrasting this with the other major Tarot strand of the 20th – Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris’ Thoth deck. Their version of the Lovers hews relatively close to Waites’ vision whilst more clearly emphasising the alchemical element only hinted at by Waites.  Their Devil, however, is about sex and is endearingly upfront about this. A whole book could be written about any one of the Thoth deck’s major arcana – here, let’s just note that the couple in Waites’ card have probably had sex and their consequences  seem to be limited to the faun-like horns and curly red hair and their attractive new tails*. The couple also wear their chains very lightly. Their hands are free – at any point, they could lift the chains of their necks. 

The Rider and the Marseilles versions of The Devil

In line with this imagery, the most common meanings given for this card carry themes of addiction and indulgence. I’ve found this to be true enough in many contexts but taken in relationship to its holier-than-thou twin, I wonder what the Devil has to say about the acceptance of limitations in a relationship and the unavoidable fact of the physical. Have the couple chained to the Devil’s altar devolved to a more animal state? Or have they simply accepted that the animal part of our nature is entitled to be given its due? And is the material really any less ‘real’ than the lofty but slightly preachy realm of the Lovers? And Rachel Pollack notes that many people see the Devil as the ‘party card’. 

As ever, look at the cards

Look at the Devil again. He looks straight out of the card, directly at you. His hand is raised in an unmistakable ‘Vulcan salute’. 

No-one knew about Vulcans or Spock in the early twentieth century but Leonard Nimoy once revealed that the gesture is actually a Jewish blessing and is in the shape of the Hebrew character Shin (‘tooth’), which is the first letter of words like Shaddai and Shekinah – the male and female natures of God**. Qabalah and the use that Western occultists and hermeticists from medieval times onwards made of Jewish mysticism is beyond the scope of this piece but the gesture forms part of a blessing in Jewish services where the light of God shines through the gap in the fingers of the officiant. 

To elaborate – the Devil is holding up his hand in a gesture that lets the illuminating light of God filter through to us without instantly blasting us into dust. Think about that.  

What does all this mean?

 Tarot is a relative phenomenon – it depends where you’re standing. For me, early in the morning two or three days ago, it was an admonishment to pay attention to the needs of my body and to what I can control. And perhaps to take the very material struggles I was going through and use them to light a bit of a fire on my tail. What might it mean to you? I have no idea – you’ll have to ask the Devil, who may well be a holier and more helpful individual than his appearance suggests.

*Look closely. Pamela ‘Pixie’ Colman-Smith was a bit of a trickster and the Devil appears to have set the man’s tail on fire. I wonder what she means!

**I really recommend watching the whole video. Nimoy first used the gesture in the wonderful Star Trek Classic episode ‘Amok Time’

Tarot decision making

Tarot cards are fantastic decision making tools if you apply a bit of self-discipline.
D, my yoga-teaching partner, was wrestling with two options for scheduling the start date for a new yoga class she was planning. It came down to a ‘this date’ or ‘that date’ choice and she couldn’t make up her mind. Could we do a reading to see what the ‘right’ answer was?
Yes, I said, we could.

How to ask the question?

One of the most crucial parts of a Tarot reading is getting the question right. A poor question (“Will I die?”) will get the answer it deserves (“YES!”) but the shape of the question also helps shape the reading. After some discussion, D settled on “What is the best date for the class to start – this Monday or the following week?”

This narrowed the question down to two possibilities. D shuffled the cards, cut, handed them back and I started by reading one card for each of the two dates.

Reversed cards! Aargh!

The Five of Wands and the Two of Wands, both reversed. L thought it looked ominous for both dates. At first glance, you can see why. But life seldom works in black and white and a reversed Tarot card is no different. Wands, the Fire suit, traditionally refers to the kind of energy that surrounds work and creativity. Upright, the Five suggests a blustery, competitive environment. Reversed, that energy is damped down (though in combination with other cards this could be very different). Meanwhile, the Two of Wands could relate to a decision made but when reversed still suggests uncertainty.

“What will happen if you put off starting until the later date?”
“I’ll probably worry and dither all week and be back where I’ve started.”
“Then you should go for the earlier date.”

Don’t be afraid to state the obvious!

“But what if no-one comes?”
I pulled another card. The Hermit, reversed.
“It’s the Hermit! No-one will come!” D wailed*.

The Hermit, like all the Major Arcana, is full of occult symbolism and mystery. But sometimes, the Tarot can be refreshingly blunt. There are occasions when a reversed card has a completely different meaning, occasions when it simply refers to more of the same but every now and then, it simply means what it says. The reversed Hermit? You won’t be alone.

Read the pictures

But L was unconvinced – would it really be worth the effort. She drew one more card for a result – the Seven of Swords. Swords relates to thinking and (to some extent) conflict or exchange of ideas. Traditionally, the seven might be a breakthrough of some kind. But the image caught my attention. In the Colman-Smith-Waite deck, we see a man sneaking away with an armful of stolen swords. When in doubt, read the pictures.
“I think the person in the card is you, stealing a march on yourself,” I said. “You just need to stop prevaricating and move forward”

The last word

Nonetheless, L wanted to check on the outcome of the second date. We pulled the Nine of Wands. I saw that as her, not having lost anything, but tired after a long week of worrying and L agreed.

Closing thoughts

Tarot requires you to put the work in. A lot of the time, it’s about clarifying and facing up to something you’re avoiding. On this occasion, there was little to choose between either start date in reality, beyond minimising the wasted effort in time spent worrying. Interestingly, the longer term concrete outcome – would the class be a success? Would there be lots of people? – didn’t surface as an issue. On this occasion, the Tarot wasn’t delivering world-shattering insights and prophecies. It was playing the role of the friend who says, “Look, you know what you need to do – just get on with it.”

*She didn’t actually wail. It was of an eye-roll and a “Oh typical!” sort of shrug.

Tarot is my secret weapon

I’ve been a manager in a suit for decades. I’ve been reading Tarot cards for rather longer.

In the pagan and witchy communities, there’s a hoary old joke about coming out of the broom closet. And then there’s the reality that senior managers who can read Tarot and recite the thirty two paths of the Tree of Life are better off keeping those party pieces behind closed doors if they want to stay senior.

Visconti Fool and, ah, the Matchstick Man Fool.

But Tarot has been the secret weapon of my personal and professional life for a very long time. I’ve read cards for people from all walks of life on market stalls, on blankets at festivals, in private members clubs, via email and at primary school mums’ Wellness evenings.

Sadly, my day job and Tarot can never be seen in public together.

I’ve tried. There was an ice-breaker exercise at an all-staff day that asked everyone to wear a sticker stating a fact that nobody knew about you. I wrote ‘I can read Tarot cards. And I’m worried about you’ on mine and stuck it on my jacket. I don’t think anyone believed me. It was probably just as well – people (other than people who already read for themselves or others) react unpredictably to this odd, antique combination of colours, symbols, numbers and pasteboard. At the very least, they have questions.

One question people ask a lot is, how does Tarot work? Like Deep Thought, I usually say that I’ll have to think about it. Okay, I’ve thought. Here’s what I’ve got.

Tarot helps bridge the gap between the intuitive and the rational self. It’s like a third party forcing you to take a compassionate, thoughtful, truthful look at yourself and your circumstances. Think of it as a friend or stranger that says the right thing at the right time and provides that nudge that lets you move forward. I personally prefer to read with a clear question in mind but the Tarot is also useful for framing the kind of question that you need to ask. My aim is always to bring clarity to a situation which might be confusing or even troubling. I suspect you and I both know everything we need to know to solve most problems. But often the challenge is putting a set of confusing and contradictory information together in a coherent, useful way. 

In other words, Tarot helps you tell your story. And in telling your own story for yourself, you take ownership of and responsibility for that story and your own future. No-one knows what the future can bring but we all can develop an understanding of what it is we carry into the future and how that baggage weighs us down or carries us forward. Perhaps you can think of the Tarot (amongst many other things) as an expert decluttering consultant (I don’t know if anyone’s created a Marie Kondo Oracle yet but it’s surely only a matter of time).