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.)

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.