Ancient Astrological May

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

Lewis Carrol, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

When I tell people I study the Tarot, the first question they ask me is, almost invariably, “why?”  It is understandable: the Tarot belongs to that twilit realm of esoteric stuff we don’t talk about.  We are, after all, more evolved in our thinking than our superstitious forebears who thought they could divine the future in the cracks of heated tortoise shells, the entrails of sacrificed animals, the flights of birds, flashes of lightning, the movements of the stars, the arrangement of yarrow stalks, patterns of smoke and ash, archetypal images printed on card stock, or ten thousand other things.  We are living in the age of science and the scientific method: systematic observation, measurement, experimentation, the formulation of hypotheses based upon the evidence, the testing of said hypotheses, all while “applying a rigorous skepticism.” [1]

The scientific method has allowed (most of) us to obtain a higher quality of life than people have ever before known: even historic kings did not live in such comfort as do people of our lower middle classes (let alone the wealthiest among us) who, despite living on the humble side of the economic scale, still have air conditioners and space heaters, televisions and smart phones, restaurants and indoor plumbing, cars, gyms, virtual friends, indoor and outdoor lighting, antibacterial soaps, mouthwash, and access to literally hundreds of flavors of ice cream; however, it has also come with a cost: a certain intellectual laziness supported by the widespread notion that if something cannot be seen, pinpointed, or properly quantified, it is not real and does not merit serious attention. 

“Les savants ne sont pas curieux,” Anatole France declared more than one hundred years ago; the scholars are not curious.  It was a bitter and disheartening proclamation that, unfortunately, continues to ring true.  Rigorous skepticism demands an open mind, a singular commitment to the truth, wherever we may find it, and a good faith dialogue with people who have opposing ideas. 

“You don’t really believe in that stuff?” is another comment I frequently hear.  I don’t know how to answer this, and I will admit to feeling self-conscious and somewhat defensive.  What is meant by “that stuff,” I suppose, is the prognosticative potential of the cards, and in this I am not really sure what I believe.  Science can lead us to an exploration of the stars or an equally wondrous exploration of our cells; however, for the moment at least, it has no lens through which to peer into the psychospiritual realm, leaving us with no objective criterion upon which to base our judgment: we are pretty much on our own.

“Newton” by William Blake

So many people declare all “that stuff” to be an elaborate scam with absolutely no basis in fact, as though such a categorical proclamation were so exceedingly self-evident no reasonably intelligent person could fail to reach the same conclusion and no further discussion upon the matter is merited.  Yet the world is full of reasonably intelligent, even extremely intelligent, people who do believe (or at least withhold judgment), and nothing is gained by calling such individuals “misguided” or worse and shutting off our minds to what they have to say.  As I write this, I grow increasingly depressed by the news of the day, which seems to consist of societal divisions and antagonistic groups of people lining up to shout each other down and chant slogans, as though some correlation exists between how loud they are and the righteousness of their cause.

Of course I am aware of the long history of con artists preying upon weak-minded or credulous individuals, spinning the most implausible tales and bilking their marks of every cent they possess.  Since I began this blog, I have been contacted by sites purporting to employ the most gifted clairvoyants; though I have not availed myself of their services, I cannot deny that I am intrigued, for if there is a teleological directedness underpinning all of creation, that is if we do, in fact, inhabit a cosmos rather than a chaos, would it not make sense that our minds be tuned to that universal harmonic?  And if an intelligible pattern arbitrates the multiverse, of which we are part, then would we not expect to divine reverberations all around us, even in wisps of smoke, potatoes resembling our favorite spiritual luminaries, or the disposition of Tarot cards?

It all hinges upon that critical word, which, though it consists of only two letters, opens our minds to infinite possibilities: ifIf we could find evidence of that supraordinal arrangement to satisfy the tenets of our scientific method, then no form of augury, even the most eccentric, could be perfunctorily dismissed.  Every idea would be worthy of discourse.

“Ancient of Days” by William Blake

However, if incontrovertible evidence were discovered refuting the presence of a ubiquitous design manifesting itself throughout creation, if, that is to say, the entire notion was merely a product of our over-active imaginations, this would still not be the end of the discussion, for then we would have to turn our thoughts to why people invested so much faith in something that never existed.  I am reminded of what Carl Jung wrote in his essay Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, in which, after years of study, he rendered the verdict: “Something is seen, but one doesn’t know what.”  It’s a little underwhelming; fortunately, he does not make us read through a hundred pages to reach this conclusion: he puts it up front, in the third paragraph, because this is the starting point, not the dénouement. Since Jung is unwilling to dismiss every sighting as either a fantasy or an outright lie, he realizes that the individuals who reported these encounters either saw something without or within.

We straddle two worlds, two realities, really: the physical and the ethereal.  One consists of the outward facts of our existence: it is the realm of physics and biology, geology and evolution, Isaac Newton’s apple, Schrodinger’s cat (after observation, of course), and Pavlov’s dogs; and the other includes all the aspects of our lives that occur internally, though we experience them as external to us: this is the realm of beliefs, superstitions, poetic thought, Schrodinger’s cat (prior to observation), potentialities, dreams, fantasies, projections, illusions, philosophy, psychology, purpose, and meaning.  We cannot be who we are without embracing both; unfortunately throughout our history, the collective ideology has swung back and forth between these poles, endorsing one at the expense of the other and always to the detriment of individuals who are not permitted to realize a unified potential. 

So here we are. 

I do believe in the existence of a guiding principle which invests our lives with order and indications of purpose.  What is not so clear is whether this is an extrinsic and universal consonance which permeates and reverberates through all of creation or a propensity that resides solely within us to “discover” patterns where none are present, a random mutation, perhaps, which occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago, giving our upright ancestors an additional evolutionary advantage, that allowed them to thrive in and eventually gain dominion over a hostile world.  It seems unlikely that we will ever know for certain one way or the other, but in this sense, it really does not matter: whether the patterns exist outside of us or not, we experience and react to them as peripheral compositions; they dictate how we interact with the exterior world; thus, they structure our reality, making it imperative that we seek to understand them, and in this tarot cards prove themselves more valuable than the scientific method, for we can invest them with archetypal projections and watch as the interior narrative plays itself out for us to decipher.

“The Star” Jacques Viéville Tarot 1650 (left) and Tarot de Paris 1600-1650 (right)

“Do you perform readings?” is probably the question in which people are most interested.  I suspect many of them hope I will fetch a deck at that moment and offer to read for them, but this is not something I do.  To be frank, I am not good at it.  Reading spreads is a skill like any other; of course, it necessitates anyone hoping to master it to dedicate sufficient time and effort, but it also requires a predisposition that I do not possess.  I suppose I am simply not very interested.  I view traditional spreads, like the Celtic Cross, as intriguing puzzles to be solved, but I do not have the patience or focus to remain on track and follow it through.  For me, the greatest benefit of the cards is they allow my mind to leap around in a rather undisciplined fashion, but this is my process for attaining greater insight into the workings of my psyche, for my conscious mind surrenders control to inspiration, and I am led along paths I never suspected of existing.

In this collection of posts I intend to demonstrate my method of interaction with the cards, perform a reading of sorts (or a series of readings, depending upon how successful the first attempt is).  I am not certain what will come of this, but one of the goals I had when I first began writing this blog was to demystify the imagery of the TdM minor arcana in particular as well as, hopefully, offer fresh insights into the trumps cards.  Rather than simply picking an image and offering all-purpose definitions, it is my hope that a more personal context will allow different facets of the cards to reveal themselves.

I do not do traditional spreads, as I mentioned above, nor do I read for other people (except in very rare instances).  Instead, I construct narratives based upon the “open reading” method developed by Yoav Ben-Dov and detailed in his book of that name,[2] which I have found to be indispensable in my study of the Tarot de Marseille.

I am not going to go over the open reading technique in detail here.  Ben-Dov lays everything out beautifully in his book, which I cannot recommend highly enough for students of the Tarot de Marseille, but a short introduction is necessary.

The open reading is, at the start, a simplified three-card spread.  This is the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, with whom Ben-Dov studied in the 1980s.  He writes that Jodorowsky originally used to create much more complex spreads, laying out so many cards, he often had to shuffle two or three decks together, but he soon realized that, theoretically, there was no end to this process, for, in most spreads, each position had a predetermined meaning; however, one card might not be enough to provide insight into such complicated matters as “the problem,” “external influences,” “the past,” “the future,” not to mention the querent himself!  One might create a series of mini-spreads within the overall spread to provide even more insight.  Of course the catch is that with all these spreads within spreads within spreads, both reader and querent are hopelessly overwhelmed, and eventually Jodorowsky came to the conclusion that less really is more, and three cards can generate profound insights as well.

So the querent poses a question or meditates on some issue he needs to resolve, shuffles the deck, and lays out three cards.  The signature characteristic of Ben-Dov’s approach is the unrestricted or “open” nature of the spread, which, he writes, differs from conventional spreads in three key ways: 1st, the cards have no fixed meanings that can be memorized in advance; 2nd, the positions in the open spread have no special significance such as indicating past, present, and future, etc.; 3rd, the cards are not read separately but are rather read within the context of the spread, often forming a narrative that illuminates some aspect of the situation or points toward a resolution. 

I will go through all these ideas as I unfold my own reading, but I have also made a few modifications to Ben-Dov’s system.  First, the sequence in which the cards are drawn is not necessarily the sequence in which they are read: though I read most open spreads from left to right, I sometimes encounter spreads in which it makes more sense to read from right to left or even from center outward; these situations are rare, but it is important to remain adaptable and allow the images to guide us through whatever currents they will.  In some ways this makes everything easier, but in other ways, it can make things even more confusing.  Second, I allow for the possibility (and probability) that my three-card spread can develop into something much more complex.  I begin with three cards, but sometimes I require more information, and I feel like the narrative is not complete, so I must add to it (and here I am approaching what Jodorowsky learned to get away from early in his work with the Tarot, but I trust myself to feel my way through, wherever that feeling leads me).  Each successive card not only guides me forward in the journey, but often also forces me to reevaluate the path I have already traveled.

This is not really so outlandish as it may initially sound: frequently I have found in my life that new experiences have obligated me to reinterpret past events or reexamine beliefs I had once thought indisputable.  The open journey demands I engage with my query through however many evolving articulations it may pass.  It also compels me to be unceasingly flexible in my approach, for no two journeys are the same, and each confronts me with a variety of challenges that force me to choose opposing courses.  Thus, I continually remind myself of the admonition, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” [3]   So when I begin, I have no idea how large the spread may grow, and I must also be prepared for the path to veer off unexpectedly, requiring me to gather all the cards for a reshuffling in order to draw a branching spread.  But I must commit myself to the path until I feel it has reached its conclusion.

[1]       The phraseology, which I will reference throughout this post, comes from the Wikipedia article: “The scientific method is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge that has characterized the development of science since at least the 17th century. It involves careful observation, applying rigorous skepticism about what is observed.”

[2]         Ben-Dov, Yoav.  Tarot: The Open Reading.  CreateSpace, 2011, 2013.

Tarot: The Open Reading, has since been reissued as The Marseille Tarot Revealed: A Complete Guide to Symbolism, Meaning & Methods.  Whether it was updated with new material or merely underwent a title change, I cannot say, as I did not purchase the reissue.  I also use the Conver Ben-Dov deck (CBD) as my default deck in all my posts unless otherwise indicated.

[3]       Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Self-Reliance” (1841).  Unfortunately, Emerson’s original phrasing does not seem to be so well-known as the misquote, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” which actually makes very little sense and tends to be trotted out as a pretentious grenade to end an argument that did not come to a satisfactory conclusion.