The Gordian knot

Often a Holy Thing is living hidden in a dark creature;

And like an eye which is born covered by its lids,

A pure spirit is growing strong under the bark of stone.

Gérard de Nerval (trans. R. Bly)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Gordian knot recently.  Sometime in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., a poor farmer from Macedonia named Gordius drove his ox cart into a Phrygian city where he was proclaimed king, in accordance with a prophesy from the oracle at Telmissus.   (They did things a little differently back then.)  Out of gratitude, Gordius dedicated his cart to the Phrygian sky father Sabazios and tied it to the acropolis at Gordium, the city he founded, with a knot so complex in its structure, being made up of dozens of smaller knots so intricately interwoven together, as to make it impossible for anyone to unravel it.  It was a kind of ancient world Rubik’s Cube.  A legend grew up around the Gordian knot that only a man destined to rule all of Asia would be able to solve it.  We can imagine that over the centuries, the knot did not lack for attention, as ambitious men, fired by visions of grandeur, sat before that rotting peasant’s wagon, working first one frayed strand of cornel bark then another, only tightening and further entangling the lesser constituent knots, so that over time the already irreparably convoluted cipher became ever more impenetrable.

The past two weeks, I have been puzzling about how to begin this, my inaugural entry (excluding my introduction) for this blog.  I have made dozens of starts, all appearing, at the time of their conception, to be promising; then upon further reflection, I consigned them to the virtual void of my computer’s “drafts” folder and began afresh.  My objective is to write about the Tarot de Marseille (TdM), focusing primarily upon the minor suits which, as I noted in my introduction, have been depressingly overlooked in the books I have read on the subject.  Many ignore them altogether, as though they are nothing but addendums to the Major Arcana, relics from a centuries-old card game that were never jettisoned despite having out-survived their relevance; others address them in the most perfunctory fashion, rendering commentaries only slightly more impressive than what we can find in the little white booklet included with each new deck (to which no one of any caliber refers).  However, since it avails me nothing to keep silent and be disappointed, I decided to try and bring the subject into focus myself, and though I have an abundance of ideas for future entries, I am still left with the problem of choosing a suitable launching point to get me to them. 

Many of the books I have read start out with some words of introduction followed by an overview of the Tarot deck and a section expounding upon the origins of the cards and their uses through history.  I confess I tend to blank out through much of this: I would never say that it is unimportant, though I do not think it matters – that is, perhaps, a distinction without a difference, but it is how I feel nonetheless.  What if, for instance, the origins of the Tarot were discovered to be nothing more mysterious than decks commissioned by aristocratic families in order to commemorate themselves and for playing a card game somewhat similar to bridge?  What if Bonifacio Bembo, the Italian Renaissance artist contracted by Bianca Visconti Sforza in the mid-15th century to paint one the oldest surviving decks of tarot cards were to be brought into the modern day and see for himself what his work had helped spawn?  Would his reaction be any different than ours were we to find ourselves suddenly thrust forward 700 years where communities of mystics were divining the future by reading patterns in the blinking red, blue, green, and yellow lights of a 28th century descendant of Hasbro’s Simon?  Would this “truth” discredit all the insights and discoveries that people have made through the years consulting the Tarot or would it invalidate nothing?

We have an incredible, perhaps infinite, capacity to imbue objects and events with a teleological significance.  For those who aspire to realize the ideals of scientific objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge, this means only that we have an incredible, perhaps infinite, capacity for fooling ourselves in the quest to imbue our lives with meaning and escape the greater truth that our existence is really the result of a highly improbable chain of random occurrences.  I think my brother would say that, but then our respective system of values parted ways long ago.

Whatever the genuine origins of the Tarot (and particularly the Minor Arcana) are, the cards have evolved to mean something more.  They are loadstars among the inner firmament which enable us to navigate our way into self-realization, and if we have invested them with the only substance to be found therein; if when we consult them, we are merely talking to ourselves, even that does not diminish the integrity of the dialogue.

The vast majority books offer a card-by-card commentary, either beginning with The Fool or The Magician and working their way systematically through the trumps sometimes with material from readings mixed in to illustrate how interpretations of the images are subtly influenced by their position in a spread, by a querent’s question or life-experiences or the cards surrounding them.  Some books find their way through a loose narrative, following the hero path of the Fool, for instances, from the innocent he is at the outset of the journey to the fulfillment of its end, symbolized in The World.  The primary benefit of this organization is that it makes for a reader-friendly reference, but there are drawbacks as well.

We tend to think along well-established routes, just as for centuries people tended to create and then almost exclusively use well-worn footpaths: we travel along lines of least resistance, and we allow ourselves to be channeled so effortlessly, we do not even realize that it is occurring.  When an organizational structure becomes so familiar that it seems inevitable, we cease to question it; we cease to consider other possibilities; we cease to notice how it influences the way we think.

In 333 B.C.E., Alexander the Great led his army into Gordium (in what is today Turkey) and came upon Gordius’ ancient wagon.  He might have tried to unravel the knot, as so many others before him had, but Alexander was not a patient man: he was twenty-three years old, on his way to making himself ruler of the known world, but he would live for only another ten years.  Perhaps he had some sense of this within him, that he could not squander what little precious time he had for, according to mythical accounts, he drew his blade and sliced the knot open. 

More than 2300 years have passed, and now it is my turn to sit before Gordius’ cart.  Unlike Alexander, I do not have the luxury of simply slicing through the interwoven complexity of the Tarot de Marseille and being done with it.  Rather, I have to settle down and work at it, somehow finding a way to separate all the individual threads, so I can then go about the task of weaving them together again into a more coherent pattern; and that still leaves me with the problem of how to begin.

So I finally did what I ought to have done at the start: I began shuffling my cards.  I did not have a specific question in mind, but I was thinking about this blog, about who I am at this moment, as we approach the end of 2019, and I drew the Six of Swords RX.  I don’t know what it means, and it is not an obvious beginning, but this will be the launching point to take me, hopefully, far from the beaten path in pursuit of a greater understanding of the cards.

Conver-Ben-Dov (CBD) deck

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