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.
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.