Chasing the Black Swan

Father of Cups. The Wild Unknown Tarot


These last few days, I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s wonderful book Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, in which the author argues how impredictable events, as measured by common scientific methods can make a deeper mark in the course of human society and how our own reality-tunnels can make us blind to the occurrence of these type of events, exactly because we cannot predict them.

For those of you who don’t know, the expression “Black Swan” designates an impossibility that is latter proven to be wrong. The story goes that up until the 16th century, a black swan was considered an impossibility since, until then, there was no historical record of such an animal. This all changed, however, when such beings were encountered in Australia at the end of the 17th century. According to Taleb, a Black Swan is an event

  • Highly improbable
  • Highly consequential
  • That can be rationalized in retrospective;

For practical examples, think about the impact of such things as Facebook, the French Revolution; the iPhone; the 9/11 and others. We can find such events in the course of history; in finances; in science and art; and in our own private lives. Random events that take on a bigger scale than what we initially thought they could take. The random beating of a butterfly’s wings powerful enough to cause a tornado on the other side of the world. Chaos and Order. A closer examination might reveal that these events are more common than what we first deem possible. That they can occur at any instance. A decision, which we trivially make but that has the power to profoundly change our lives. A decision like a certain kind of job. Or turning left when we should have turned right. Or selecting a companion. Following an interest. Any type of decision has, in theory, the potential to become a Black Swan.

As tarotists, we keep hearing about narratives. About stories. A succession of events perfectly lined up in a reading. We do a spread and we’re looking for causes and effects and build these “perfect” little stories about our lives and the lives of others. We acknowledge change in our readings. However, we focus mainly on trackable changes. So, how about those random events that just pop out of nowhere? How do we incorporate them into our readings and how can we accurately measure its significance? Are we really alert to the possibility of the occurrence of a Black Swan in our readings and can we really accurately measure its significance in our lives?

Those were the questions that kept popping up when I was going through the book. Looking back, I can only remember a single reading when I was confronted with a Black Swan event. It was a reading I made a few months after I started reading Tarot, for a friend of mine at the end of 2002. I was trying to see how the following year would be like for him and this card popped up, the Empress. Without any bases whatsoever, I read that card as “family” and told him he was going to get married. At the time, my understanding of the cards was rather limited and I took it at face value. Which is to say that I didn’t even consider how events had been unfolding until that time. Had I done that, I would think probably think it would be difficult for someone who didn’t had a significant relationship for about 10 years to not only he would start a new relationship, but that it would evolve into something that would last. Of course he didn’t believe me. Nothing in his recent history would support it. But the fact was he did find a companion and they remained together ever since.

Looking back, I get the feeling that as my expertise of the cards increased, so did my dependence on the structure of a narrative. And as such, my ability to spot these Black Swan events diminished. Now, one can argue that a tarot reading contains a part that comes from inspiration, that isn’t subject to these types of constrains. And they would be right. As tarotists we have developed techniques to allow our unconscious to speak up. And to weight out any rational analysis with insight and imagination. However, it seems that even so, the reading process tends to become so formalized, so rigid in our own ways, that we often loose sight of the randomness of life when searching for patterns.

With this in mind, I went to the tarot. My question, “How can we be alert to a Black Swan event in a reading and how can we evaluate it correctly”. I then picked up the RW deck and laid out three cards.


I found it amusing that the first card was the Magician. It seems to say, with all the letters, to recognize its existence and its power in driving forth our lives. The Magician is the experimentalist. The creator. The one who is open to new things, new possibilities and isn’t afraid to try out new things. The next card, The Sun, with a naked child with open arms, seems to say that we should simply embrace it and have a positive (even care-free) attitude with the Black Swans. To not make a big deal out of it and treat it as any other event that presents itself. And then, we have the King of Wands. The Wand we found raised in the Magician’s Hand is now bigger and touches the ground. We can even see little sprouts coming out of it. As we’re dealing with wands, we’re dealing with the force of creation. The very force of life. In the King of Wands, we’re actually seeing the consequences of the Black Swan taking place. The event had importance and its consequences are lasting. But it’s a King that helds the wand. A man of power. Someone who knows how to deal with it and is open to new areas of experience. In a way, these cards are confirming the importance of the Black Swan events in our lives.

However, remembering the question, “how can we be alert of a Black Swan in our readings and how can we evaluate it correctly”, we go back to the wands in the first and third card. We should now see the wands not only as Life’s force but also as a projection of our wills. It is significant that the remaining weapons (cups, swords and disks are resting on a table in the first card). Only our willingness to see these types of events can be of use here. The change of the human figure, from a young man to child to adult is also very significant. We need to see the Black Swans not with the formalization of the adult, but with the eyes of a child, for whom every single event is possible. We should embrace every single possibility and go with the flow, rules or no rules. It is significant that The Sun is the only card that has movement. The previously standing magician is now riding a horse with its hands in the air!!! All Rules be damned!!! You want to spot a Black Swan, just go with the flow and don’t bother that it doesn’t make sense!!! Remember, the logic will come latter. And latter it comes, as the child grows up to be an adult and the horse is transformed into a throne. The event took roots and we can now fully analyze it. We can apply our rules, our structure, our own way of thinking. No longer do we need the freedom of thought. We’ve already changed the reading, so now it’s a matter of seeing where it goes. The child grows up to be an adult again and looks back at what happened, with its rules and structure (notice how the King of Wands is looking at the previous cards). The reading should go both ways then, from beginning to end and then from end to beginning, and it’s the reverse reading that should make sense. It’s the reverse reading, as done by the King, not the Magician, that should tell the story.

It has recently been pointed out by Paulinnhhoo. that when writing these posts it seems that the Universe does put into our path the specific image to conclude a certain post. Well, this also happened here. I wanted a tarot card with a representation of a Black Swan, and I found it as the Father of Cups in the wonderful The Wild Unknown Tarot deck, which opened this post. I did, however, also found another card with Black Swans, and what’s even better, with Black and White Swans in the same card. It’s the Page of Swords from the Shadowscapes Tarot, by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, and what I find wonderful in this card is the transformation from Black Swan to White Swan and vice-versa. A transformation catalyzed by the Page of Swords, thereby stressing out how our way of reading the cards can indeed make a difference in the way we perceive these events.



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