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