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The first thing we notice is all three cards, from our perspective, appear to be reversed, and this was what most troubled the querent, as she did not know what to make of it; she is not alone in her consternation.  Reversals present a problem for a lot of people within the tarot community, and it does not help that the name by which we refer to these cards is negatively loaded: when we employ terms such as “reversed,” “inverted,” and “upside down,” as well as “upright,” we are subscribing to a mindset which divides this multi-faceted world in which we live into such categories as right and wrong, normal and abnormal, black and white; it is a mindset characterized by the belief that there is only one truth, one correct perception of things, one acceptable orientation.  (It goes without saying that people who hold to this mentality believe that the single valid viewpoint is their own, and anyone who does not agree with them is at best mistaken and at worst an enemy to be vanquished.)  It is for this reason that I have sought ways to describe these cards without all the negative assumptions.  My search has not yet yielded a satisfactory alternative, so I designate “reversed cards” as RX only and interpret them as offering an alternative perspective that I need to consider to move forward; in other words, they do not need to change their orientation, I need to change mine.  I still use the term “upright” for non-RX cards because I simply cannot think of any better way to specify them.

I believe that in order to better understand the spread above, we should contrast it with the cards as they would have appeared were they drawn in alignment with our viewpoint as opposed to an RX orientation:

The spread starts out fresh and positive with a golden-haired boy [1] at the beginning of an adventure filled with potential; his arms are flung wide, as though to embrace a world of abundance and seemingly endless delight.   “We are born in a state of inflation,” Edward F. Edinger writes, “with the a priori assumption of deity,” [2] or, as Wordsworth put it more poetically, we come into this world “trailing clouds of glory.” [3] 

The sun fills the boy’s world with light and vitality, and a crown of sunflowers encircles his head as he issues forth mounted upon his mare.[4]  Rising up behind him are four larger sunflowers.  Four is a number signifying stability, order, and completion; the sunflowers are not turned toward the sun, which fuels their existence, but toward the sun-child as he sets out, bearing a dynamic red standard.  He is innocent, idealistic, and convinced he is prepared to take on the world.

At the other end of the spread is the Hermit, who is nearing the conclusion of his own journey; he is alone, head bowed and eyes closed.  The garden wall, sunflowers, and horse are gone, replaced by snow and the vast empty firmament, devoid even of stars; the magnificent standard the boy carries is also gone, reduced to a bare staff, and the brilliant midmorning sun has dwindled to an ember enclosed within a lantern, but this seeming diminishment does not appear to concern the Hermit in the least.  He has devoted himself to the passage inward; his life is a meditation; he resides in the abundance not of things but of spiritual awareness.

The two are separated, not only by years – a lifetime of them – but in this spread an image of conflict, the Five of Wands, in which we see five youths engaged in what A. E. Waite refers to as “mimic warfare”[5]; it might be mere roughhousing such as is common among friends, but the staffs they wield are real and capable of inflicting severe wounds.  Such play is meant to prepare young men for “the strenuous competition and struggle of the search after riches and fortune,” [6] as they will encounter in the adult world, and should the splendid boy enter into the fray, he will undoubtedly be battered as well, risking serious injury.

Of course, the illustrations are not meant to be interpreted literally: the staffs the youths wield may inflict physical or psychological wounds; the five young men themselves represent the outside world, particularly the collective social environment.  The splendid boy may be of any age or gender; the card depicts him not as he is but as he views himself, a child of the sun, arrayed in Helios’s divine radiance, issuing forth from the protective garden in which his resplendent self-image has been cultivated.  However, this state of inflation cannot be maintained; the world rightly rejects his grandiose pretentions, and in the center of the melee, he will discover that others are not nearly as impressed with him as he expects.  His way will not be strewn with rose petals; nor will anyone step aside for him.  In this reality, he will need to dismount from his exalted position (before he is knocked to the ground), pick up a staff, and commit himself to the engagement.

The Five of Wands seems to me to be the anti-ruler of the spread.  I am not exactly certain what I mean by the term “anti-ruler”; however, as I wrote the words, a Gnostic tale flashed through my mind.  I don’t know when I first read the story, but I had not thought of it in many years; it is called “The Hymn of the Pearl” and was recorded in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas.

The hymn is about a boy, much, I imagine, like the child at the beginning of the spread.  He was the son of a King, delighting in his father’s kingdom, bedecked in a purple mantel and robe of glory, when he was sent to Egypt, entrusted with the task of retrieving the One Pearl that lies in the sea, guarded by a great serpent.  The boy set off determined to succeed in this paramount responsibility, but in Egypt, he became distracted and seduced by the worldly appetites introduced to him by the Egyptians.

 With their wiles they made my acquaintance;
Yea, they gave me their victuals to eat.

I forgot that I was a King’s son,
And became a slave to their king.

I forgot all concerning the Pearl
For which my Parents had sent me;

And from the weight of their victuals
I sank down into a deep sleep. [7]

This is the way I read the Five of Wands in the current spread.  It is difficult to be idealistic and to keep one’s eyes on the distant horizon in the midst of this ruckus; dodging staffs has a wonderful way of refocusing an individual in the moment.  It may be that the five youths represent the five senses which bound us and bind us to the immediacy of the world.  We are beguiled by minutia, and we may lose our lives to this state; years, even decades, may pass without our notice.

In the “Hymn,” the boy’s parents grow concerned.  They write their son a letter, remind him of his duty and his exalted position.  When the boy reads it, he remembers his former life, his mission to find the One Pearl, the robe of glory and precious purple mantle that await him when he returns.

And [thereon] I snatched up the Pearl,
And turned to the House of my Father.

Their filthy and unclean garments
I stripped off and left in their country.

To the way that I came I betook me,
To the Light of our Home, to the Dawn-land.

On the road I found [there] before me,
My Letter that had aroused me –

As with its voice it had roused me,
So now with its light it did lead me [8]

It is in this role I see the Hermit; he has passed through the realm of the senses and all their distractions.  He waits on the other side, holding his lantern out as a beacon to guide the hero through.  He is the positive Senex, the wise old man who will function as guide and mentor.  He does not enter the fray himself; he does not call out.  He knows the young man he awaits might never break free of the chaotic flurry – most don’t – yet he also knows the young man must choose to awaken and join him.

Were this upright sequence of cards the one drawn, I would suggest that the querent is at a kind of crossroads.  Of course everything depends upon where she is at the time of the reading.  If she at the beginning of the spread, she must choose to enter the chaos represented by the Five of Wands.  This may not appear to be an attractive alternative to the radiant Sun card, but it is necessary.  In the “Hymn of the Pearl,” the King’s son loves being in his father’s realm, and probably would never have chosen to leave it, but he had to enter Egypt to reclaim the One Pearl, the treasure hard to attain, which in Jungian terms might be Self-realization, gained through the process of individuation. 

In Genesis, we read that our mythological primordial parents were banished from their paradisial garden existence due to an act of disobedience, which the Church characterized (and continues to characterize) as a Fall.  But a Fall from where?

Masaccio “The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” 1425.  
Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. (Before and after restoration.)

Adam and Eve lived in a state of innocence.  We may wonder what they did with their days in Eden; my guess is they probably spent them the same way my cat spends his: sleeping in a patch of sunlight, for he too lives a life of instinctual unconsciousness.  There are times I envy him, for he seems mostly to be happy: his meals are provided for him (he never has to work); his litter pans are cleaned out daily; he has a few toys to play with.  It is a good life for a cat, but it is not such a good life for people.

The serpent has gotten a lot of bad press over the millennia, for he has been portrayed as an agent of evil.  It is a projection of course, but it has stuck, and it will not be going away any time soon.  “We tend to assume the world is as we see it,” Carl Jung wrote; “we … suppose that people are as we imagine them to be….  All the contents of our unconscious are constantly being projected into our surroundings.” [9]  Projection is one of those terms Jung coined that has entered into popular usage to such an extent that everyone understands it to some degree (though few use it just as Jung meant it).  However, in order for a projection to work, the object upon which it is fastened must provide a “hook,” must attract it in some way.  Snakes are cold-blooded; they have flickering tongues; many are poisonous, so they make excellent scapegoats.  It would be far more difficult to project with any conviction such an image of deviousness and evil onto a dandelion puff.

The serpent is widely regarded as the antagonist of the story, but he is a very interesting sort of villain, for we are not told of his motivations.  He might be acting on behalf of the devil; he might be the devil.  All we really know from our translations of the Bible is, depending upon which version you have, the serpent was the most “crafty,” most “subtle,” or “the shrewdest” of all the animals in the garden, and the passage is written/translated in such a way as it leaves open the possibility that God did not create the serpent, begging the question, “How did he then come to be in Eden?”  It is a fascinating discourse that has been addressed through the centuries, but not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is the Gnostic idea that the serpent has been completely misunderstood: he is not the villain of the story but the savior, for he is the one who introduces Eve (and Adam through her) to the possibility that they can be more, that they can live meaningful lives, if they just have the courage to disobey the one provision God set forth: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [10]

And die they did.  Not at once, not from a bolt of lightning signaling God’s displeasure, striking them down, reducing them to ash; but they died to their former state of unconscious innocence.  God banished them from Eden, though they had already left it behind with the first bite of the apple.

“I believe with the Ophites,” writes Edward F. Edinger, “that it is one-sided to depict Adam and Eve just as shameful orchard thieves.  Their action could equally be described as an heroic one.  They sacrifice the passive comfort of obedience for greater consciousness.  The serpent does indeed prove to be a benefactor in the long run if we grant consciousness a greater value than comfort.” [11]

Edinger proposes the remarkable idea that this initial disobedience does not belong to Adam and Eve alone: it is a transgression that we must all must reenact if we are ever to grow and develop and come into our own lives.  We must steal into the garden over and over throughout our lives and take the forbidden fruits, willingly incur the cost of the sin.  “One must repeatedly accept the temptation of the serpent, repeatedly eat the fruit of knowledge and in that way eat his way through to the tree of life.  In other words, the recovery of our lost wholeness can only be achieved by tasting and assimilating the fruits of consciousness to the full.” [12]

What happens when we do not “repeatedly accept the temptation of the serpent?”  The answer, of course, is we remain just where we are: we never leave the garden, and this is what I think we see in the spread that led our querent to ask for help on Reddit.


[1]        We cannot tell from the image whether the child is a boy or girl; however, in his commentary, A. E. Waite identifies him with the masculine pronoun “he” twice, though he never says “boy,” probably in an attempt to keep the figure as gender-neutral, thus as inclusive, as possible.

[2]     Edinger, Edward F.  Ego & Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche.  Shambhala: Boston & London, 1992, p. 7.

[3]      Wordsworth, William.  “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” line 64.

[4]       Waite writes, “The naked child mounted on a white horse.”  He does not state the gender, and there is no way to be certain from the image; however, given the animal’s docile appearance, we can probably rule out the possibility that it is a stallion.  It might still be a gelding, a castrated male, but that would tend to undermine the masculine energy originating in the sun and flowing through the illustration.

[5]       Waite, Arthur Edward. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition Under the Veil of Divination.  Weiser Books: Boston, MA/York Beach, ME, 2004, p. 188.

[6]        Ibid.

[7]        Section VII of the poem translated by G. R. S. Mead.

[8]       Ibid. Section XIII

[9]       “General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” par. 507.

[10]       Gen. 2:16-17 NIV.

[11]     Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche.  Shambhala: Boston & London, 1992.

[12]       Ibid.

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