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.

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. 

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!

The Hermit

The figure of the Hermit has fascinated me for a very long time, from years before I encountered Tarot, in fact. My first encounter would have been the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV (aka Four Symbols), where a tiny figure at the very bottom of a steep, rocky crag is struggling to reach a bearded and hooded sage holding a lantern whose glow forms the shape of a six-pointed star. At the age of 13, I’d yet to encounter the Tarot or Pamela Colman Smith or Aleister Crowley but I was pretty sure that something was going on here. 

The Hermit crops up in all manner of iconography. There’s a definite echo in Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ or Dumbledore in his tower, Gandalf wrapped in his grey cloak, Yeats in his Martello ready to “crack his wits” night after night, Caspar David Friedrich and his ‘The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog‘. Or even Yoda!

It has to be said, though, that it’s a very male archetype, the sorcerer secluded in a high img_9619place with his books and lofty insights. Women of power tend to gravitate to one another. Witchcraft, after all, is a much more social business than the solitary necromancer and his browning parchments. But a key part of the Hermit’s power is that sense that he is coming from a high place with hard-won gifts of insight and knowledge. 

The original could be seen as Moses who certainly operated from a place apart from the rest of the Israelites. From his birth to his death, he lived on a curious boundary between the secular and the divine. He was undoubtedly a wizard of some kind, able to turn his staff to a serpent and back again. And, of course, he spoke in a high place with the God of the Israelites, the challenging, intemperate Yahweh of the Old Testament. 

The Tarot Trumps’ Hermit has the number nine and is the tenth card in the sequence. If the traditional arrangement of the Major Arcana is a kind of life’s journey from birth through material success to a deeper kind of spiritual travelling, then the Hermit is on the cusp of that change, situated just before the life change indicated (recommended?) by the Wheel of Fortune. The Hermit isn’t about speculation – his is a path of learned insight into one’s situation. His message is to step back and ask “What now?” When the Hermit appears in a spread, I look for evidence of a lesson that someone either needs to learn or finally has time to take on board. The card is also often seen as heralding the appearance of a teacher or some other provider of wisdom. Reversed, it could mean the wrong teacher or a delay in the right teacher appearing or, more simply, “Not yet.”  If the questioner is looking at a change of career, the Hermit could suggestion a period of solitariness as an inevitable part of that. But the Hermit is also a promise. The lantern he carries is a spark of the divine, of your or my immortal spirit. It’s shaped like a star to remind us that we are indeed star-stuff – of the stars – and will eventually, albeit as part of a cycle of billions of years, return to the stars. 

The I Ching – coins vs sticks

Some weeks ago I finally sat down to learn how to consult the I Ching (or the Ji Ying if you prefer) using yarrow stalks. Or rather, yarrow stalk substitutes. Turns out it’s the wrong time of year; nothing resembling yarrow grows in my garden and even if there, I’m not really patient enough to wait for the stalks to dry out. So, this being a Time Before The Virus Came, I trudged around Hammersmith High Street until I found boxes of wooden pick-up sticks on sale in a branch of Tiger. Two boxes = fifty fake yarrow stalks and a bunch of spares.*

I’ve been a devotee of the Richard Wilhelm version for a long time but I recently stumbled across the giant red brick that is “The Original I Ching Oracle” published by the Eranos Foundation which, aside from positively vibrating with scholarship, has a beautifully clear explanation of the mechanics of consulting the I Ching with fifty sticks as opposed to three coins. 

With coins, the querent tosses three coins assigning a value of three to each coin that lands heads up and two to tails. A score of 7 (or 9) generates a ‘yang’ or unbroken line.  A total of 8 (or 6) refers to a broken (yin) line. The first line is the bottom of a hexagram. The ideograph is then built up from the ‘ground’ with the process repeated a further five times, generating one of 64 possible variations.  Forgive me for not going into any greater detail – there are any number of ‘how to’s scattered across the web

With sticks, the principle is still the same – carry out a consistent process to deliver a more or less random output of the number 6, 7, 8 or 9. By repeating six times, a hexagram is built up from line one at the bottom to line six at the top. One of the translators of the Eranos I Ching has put the full description of the process online.

What difference does it make? For one thing, it slows the whole process of consulting this enchanting book down. Establishing a question, holding it in one’s mind, generating a hexagram to look up – it all becomes a precise, dance-like ritual. It stills the busy mind, clarifies and deepens whatever enquiry I might intend to ask and puts me in the kind of space where I’m prepared to listen carefully. It generates an opening.

Is there an equivalent for the tarot? One analogue might be the complex series of shuffles, cuts, counts and deals that MacGregor Mathers set out for the Golden Dawn.

But there’s a key difference. In building an I Ching hexagram line by line, you are literally constructing an image of the universe at a specific moment in time and space from the most fundamental materials imaginable – light and dark, ones and zeros, positive and negative. I feel that the reverse is true of some methods of Tarot card selection and patterning, that single, infinitely rich sets of heterogenous symbols are broken down and simplified. 

However, both tools – or books – demand seriousness. They might be playful but they never play games (unless one is foolish enough to play games with them). The main lesson of the question of sticks versus disks (as it were) is the need for stillness, slowness and to take advantage of whatever method might generate the silvery clarity of the scryer’s mirror**. 

*I could have bought some on Etsy but that really felt like I would have been cheating.

**Though if you sometimes have to get up in a rush and pull a single card for a clue or thread to follow through the day – that’s something the Tarot is  fairly forgiving of. Within reason.)