The Elemental Roulette

[Being the fifth part in our four-part special series on the nature of the tarot card suits For the previous parts, do check out Isabel’s Much at Stake: Vampires on Fire, Paulinnhhoo’s On Coins, Miguel’s To a Queen of Swords and Shelley’s The Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot Suit of Cups.]

It happens. You’re reading a book on the tarot. Or just going through some threads on some online tarot forum. Or maybe you pick this up in a course on tarot. Sooner or later, there comes a time where you will find a mention on how the four elements correspond to the four suits of the minor arcana. If you’re like me, the first time you read anything about the subject, this will seem like a huuuuge breakthrough, as it will open the door to a new understanding on the blasted minors and, perhaps, an easier way to deal with the damn cards. This will open the door to all kinds of esoteric subjects: kaballah, alchemy, mysticism, philosophy, and everything but the kitchen sink. Out of nowhere, there are huge amounts of knowledge that needs to be studied, perceived and assimilated in order to read the cards. Or at least to understand what the hell everyone is talking about.

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As if that wasn’t enough, not everyone seems to follow the same system. Cups are the easy ones. Everyone more or less agrees that they are associated with Water. The other suits, however are mined field. Are batons Fire or Air or Earth? And what about spades and coins? And why can’t anyone agree on something like this? Are we to follow the western esoteric tradition and assign Fire to batons, Earth to coins and Air to spades? Or should we take the cunning folk tradition and see Fire associated with coins, spades associated with the Earth and batons associated with the element of Air? Or maybe some other combination?

And, again, why don’t people agree just with any of this???

Well, you can blame the ancient Greeks for this whole mess. They’re the ones that had the idea that the whole Universe could be explained as a combination of four elements, namely Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Granted, other cultures has similar concepts. The number of elements might vary, or even the substances considered elemental, but older civilizations like the Egyptian, the Babylonians, the Hindu or the Japanese all had similar concepts. More recently, science has taken a spin on the concept, with the notion of states of matter. According to scientists, matter can not be described by a particular combination of the four elements — since there are some things called atoms (about 120 different kinds of atoms, just to complicate things) —, but they can appear in one of the following states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These scientists then entertained themselves with trying to find other possible states of matter, most of which occur at extreme conditions of temperature or pressure. Still, for the most part, under normal conditions the only observable states are solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These states are due to similar behavior of different types of matter at similar energy levels, and not due to having a certain type of some substance.

Or, to put it in another way, the states were assigned by observation. Just like in the old days, the elements were defined by observation. Aristotle, for example, related each element to two of four possible qualities. Fire is both dry and hot; Water is both wet and cold; Air is both wet and hot; Earth, both dry and cold. However, there were people who would not agree. For Proclius, a neoplatonist,  Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile, while Earth is blunt, dense and immobile. Air is blunt, subtle and mobile, and Water is blunt, dense, and mobile.

So, as you can see, right there at the beginning, people also didn’t see eye to eye with this. And things really haven’t gotten better since.

As most of the western culture comes from ancient Greece — with Plato and Aristotle being the two main pillars on which everything else got build, if these two currents can’t agree, we’re in for some deep trouble. And again, if the correspondence is to make any sense, there should be something in both the element and the suit that can be related. Which means, that we need to observe the same qualities in both the material element and the object that lends its name to the suit in question.

Since the last four posts have been devoted to the suits, we will start with the elements. So let’s take a look at all of this and see where it gets us.

FIRE
Fire is warm and bright. When controlled it can be used as a source of heat and energy as well as a transformation tool, enabling us to cook thinks and manipulate matter, whether it be glass making or metal crafting, amongst other; however, when uncontrolled, it can easily destroy everything in its path. Fire is then a source of creation and destruction. But the most interesting thing about the element is that it is both the strongest and the weakest element, due to a very interesting characteristic: it is the only element that cannot sustain itself. It constantly needs feeding in order to survive. Take out the source of nourishment and it will easily be put out. But can just as easily be brought back or rekindled with the right spark. This gives fire something that no other element has: the capacity of regeneration. In a sense, it lives to consume and be consumed, only to rise again from its ashes when the time is right. It is also the only element that is constantly changing, its flames constantly dancing in accordance to its own volition.

Associating Fire with the batons is easy enough: not only does wood burn, but if you rub two sticks together, you will create fire. Wood (and thus batons) can then be seen as a seed of fire but also as the carrier of fire. Which is why most people make this association. But that is not the only one.

For coins warm our palms just like fire. Also like fire, money doesn’t like to be still, but instead to spread as fast as possible. In a way, money is just as nervous as fire. And just as restless.

As for the suit of Spades, Swords are quick and destructive. In fact, they’re the most destructive suit of the pips, just like fire is the most destructive of the elements. As Proclius also pointed out, fire can sting, just like a sharp needle, which again brings it closer to Spades.

AIR
Air doesn’t have a particular shape or a definite volume. It can freely flow and expand or contract according to need. It’s main quality is thus movement. It contains oxygen, which is vital to human needs, but also carbon dioxide, which can be poisonous. It is what we breath in and what we breath out, so in a way, what connects us to the outside world; a bridge if you like. But at the same time, and much like Fire, it is a vital force. Even though we can not see it, we can feel its effects. With the breaths we take, but also in the wind and hurricanes and how it seems to bend things to its will, sometimes going as far as ripping them off the ground and just carry them away. As a carrier, there really isn’t a better medium, since air can carry both physical things as well as sound. It carries words, thoughts, ideas and it is what allows us to communicate with one another, no matter how far we are. In a nutshell, it is the element of interaction.

Esoterically speaking, the element of Air is attributed to Swords. This might seem like a strange attribution, but just think of the previous sentence: it is how words and ideas travel from one place to the other. How rational thoughts get spread. If you want a more down-to-earth approach, cold air cuts just like a sword does. Which, granted, is not the most elegant idea, but practical enough.

The attribution to coins isn’t a better one. It requires that we see money as a spirit, as fickle as air. Money comes, money goes. Like air, money is both a way to carry things forward and something as insubstantial as air.

As for batons, trees grow upwards. They take what they need from air and give it the oxygen other living beings require for sustenance. Batons are related to air because wood was once alive as trees. But not only that. As the suit of batons are related to the concept of will, it is also easy to relate  them to air. Just think of how the same breath that can nurture a flame can also extinguish it if we so will it. We just put our intention on the act, and just like magic! — well, there is also a scientific explanation to this, but onwards — the flame either puffs up or blows out.

WATER
Water is fluid. It doesn’t have a particular shape, even though it has a definite volume. It can flow from place to place. Sometimes it is crystal clear; other times, murky, thick and opaque. It can be still and peaceful, as the water in a pond or fierce and strong as in a tempest. And beware of undercurrents. They’re always there, even when they are not felt. An interesting property of water is that it will hit you back with the same strength that you hit it with. If you want, try this as an exercise. fill a bowl big enough to fit your hand with water. First, place your hand as softly as you can and gently push it underwater. You will find that it offers no resistance. Next, take the hand out and repeat the exercise, but faster. If you don’t feel any pain, gradually increase the speed you hit the water with until it does. You will find that the faster you hit the water with your hand, the harder it will hit you back. Physicists know this as the Law of Action/Reaction, which basically states that the higher the force you apply in an object, the higher the force that object will apply on you.

But that is not all about water, as water is at the root of life. Our whole bodies are made of water. Every cell that exists is made of water. And water is necessary for most of the chemical processes that occur in our bodies. Simply put, without water, there’s no life. Water was there at the beginning when life first appeared and not only provided the base material for life, it also provided shelter from the harsh conditions outside — the sea becoming a barrier from all the nastiness that was happening, while supporting and nurturing the life within.

From all the four suits, Cups seems the most obvious. Cups are a container, a vessel and that’s what we need to hold water (as otherwise it will flow away). If we look at how water and cups are related in the same way as blood and the heart, things become even more obvious. And more obvious still if we replace the word water with feelings, which traditionally are related to the heart. So much so, that the other suits aren’t even considered. And yet… water can hit just as hard as a baton and ice can cut just as sharply as a sword, so maybe there is something here?

EARTH
Earth has a definite form and volume. It is the most stable and inert of all the four elements. It is hard and cold and at first sight doesn’t seem to be of much use. After all, it is just there. But appearances can be deceiving. Everything that we get comes from the earth. All our food; all our metals and shiny things; all the materials we need to build and create stuff come from the earth. In a way, it is at the root of everything we do. It is the base material for things like glass, concrete, clay, and others. It is where trees and plants root themselves and the provider of all the minerals and nutrients they need to be able to grow. It is also where things break down and become available to re-enter the cycle of life. Or, perhaps just remain there until they are extracted for fuel. So where all the riches come from. Like water, it can also provide shelter from the elements, and even though we stopped using caves, we still build our own particular holes to live in.

From what was said, the Element of Earth could be attributed to the suit of coins. It is a place of riches after all. It could also be attributed to spades. The metal thing won’t helps us here, as it is also a reason to associate this element with coins (coins being made of gold or silver or some other metal). But because it is the place where things get broken down; divided into such tiny pieces they can then be of use to other living beings. And cutting things down is what swords are known to do; cutting things to the bone. Just like the earth.

So what do we make of all of this?

Well, the first thing we make is that logic can’t really help us here, as there’s always a logical reason for every attribution that we can think of. As we just saw, for each set of attributions, there are some very strong reasons. And again, for each set, some very weak ones. In a way, as Robert Anton Wilson said, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”. So if there’s a way to make this happen, it will happen. (For more on R.A.W. and the tarot, see our previous post here).

So if logic won’t help us, it all comes down to how we see each element: how do we perceive it; what functions does it serve and how can we best fit it with the way we perceive each of the suits. And the truth is, for most readings you won’t even need to bring the elements into play. Again, just go back to out previous posts on the suits and see how, even though they’re slightly mentioned, for the most part we didn’t even mentioned it.

Does this mean that they aren’t useful, then?

Not exactly. They do serve a function. Specially in health readings and to describe personalities, as the elements can be associated with temperaments and health functions. But that’s it. So the best thing to do is to find the set of correspondences you relate the most and work with it. Just stick to a system. This way, the cards will always communicate with you in the same language.

As for what system to use, well, I personally tend to favor the esoteric system, simply because that’s the one closest to heart for me — meaning the one that best worked with the Thoth deck, which was my main deck for close to twenty years. As I moved to the Marseille, I’ve found out that the esoteric system still held, but wasn’t as precise as the cunning folk one. So grudgingly, I ended up switching to the cunning folk whenever I read the Marseille [I mean, who am I to argue with hundreds of years of use of a system? If it really didn’t work, it would have been discarded by now, right?]. 

Thankfully, and as I said previously, the elements really aren’t that necessary in a reading. Just looking at the suits and its functions will get you there most of the time, as I’ve personally found out by comparing my Marseille readings with the ones given by more traditional readers.

So, look into it, see what system catches your fancy and stick with it. Don’t complicate stuff and, specially, don’t start shooting in every direction. Card readings should be precise and accurate. And for the most part, we actually don’t need the elements thrown in there. Even if it can help. So keep it simple.

A Reading of Bones

Once, on a beach, I found a bird skeleton. This was the first time I found some animal bones. For a moment, it felt like being in an adventure movie, suddenly finding some lost treasure. Excited, I picked up the whole thing and happily brought it home with me, regularly checking on the bones to make sure that it was real. My adventure, however, ended badly, as I soon developed an acute rash in the skin and had to be brought to the hospital for a cortisone shot. The lesson was simple: treasures might be cursed and bones found in the wild are to be left alone, lest they bring some pestilence with them.

I never thought of going back to bones. In fact, I quite forgot the whole thing until today, when it came back to mind as I was writing this text about the newest tarot deck to grace my doorstep. A deck with one of the most interesting concepts I’ve seen in quite some time. A Tarot of Bones. As a recent Marseille convert, the idea of “reading to the bones” has become increasingly familiar, and in some cases, a mantra. How then would a set of cards which depicted only bones do, when one wanted a tarot reading?

Enter Lupa, a Neo-Pagan author who has been working with animal parts for some years now and published some work on the subject. For this deck, she has amassed an incredible amount of animal parts (both real and replicas) and assembled them into artistic installations that incorporated tarot symbolism. For the deck, skulls, rib bones, vertebrae, teeth and jaws and long bones from the legs and feet have been amassed, each particular sort of  bone attributed to either the Major Arcana cards or one of the suits of the Minor Arcana. Hence, we find Skulls in the trumps, while rib bones were used for the suit of cups, long bones for wands, vertebrae for disks and teeth for swords. For the court cards, skulls and the bone that was attributed to a particular suit are present, so for example, the Knight of wands shows us the skull and the wing bone of an American Turkey.

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Assorted cards from the Tarot of the Bones. Artwork and conception by Lupa

Browsing through the deck, each card is both unique – with a particular background that agrees with the image depicted – and easy to identify, the name of the card plainly visible in the cards. The pictures are pleasing to the eye and invite us to return to a more natural world or, at least, a more nature-friendly world. This is, I think, one of the strengths of this deck. To let go of usual images that populate our human mind, with all the symbols and images that we use to stand apart from Nature and open the door to the natural world which lies all around us and let it in. I’ve been taking this deck with me for walks in beaches and parks and lying random cards on the ground to look at and meditate. They connect well with the natural world and, in fact, they seem stronger with this little exercise, speaking with a louder and clearer voice.

As for reading, well… skulls and bones don’t make for an easy reading if you, like me, can’t tell a hyena skull from a wolf skull. When I first opened the deck, and started looking at the cards my first thought was “how in hell am I going to read this?”. My problem was that I never got used to rely on keywords and when you’re used to work with images, it helps to actually be able to tell what you’re looking at. This is where Lupa’s companion book comes in handy (since there is no LWB accompanying the deck), by giving us both a description of the card and a peek behind the making of each assemblage as well as the reasons for a certain animal being selected. The book also tells us how the Waite-Smith system was used as the inspiration of the deck so expect to find some Waite-Smith inspired imagery.

But there is another way to read with it, and one that I found to be more fulfilling, which is to forget about everything you know about the tarot or, indeed, about the animals represented here and just let the images soak you. To let them come forth and freely enter your mind to tell you their story. My first question to the deck was “How can I work with you?” After laying three cards on the table, I got:

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10 OF WANDS / 7 OF PENTACLES / 3 OF CUPS
“What is tied needs to be let loose. Spread us around your space and watch the ripples as they unfold.” Oh! This was easy, I thought. To forget about meanings and  traditional depictions and reading systems. To forget about bones and animals and everything related to them and just let it flow. But then, what was I to expect from a deck that prompt us to reconnect with the rhythms of nature? To just let go of everything and go with the flow. If you want a reading to the bones, strip out all the meat and fat to focus on focus on what’s necessary.

All good and dandy then. Time to go to the next question, I thought. “What do you have to tell me?”

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9 OF SWORDS / 4 OF PENTACLES / ACE OF WANDS.
This one took me a bit longer than the previous one. Which, to be quite honest, I liked, as it tells me that there’s things to explore in here. Mysteries to be discovered. So I went with the theme: 9 sets of bone shards are spread all around the tableaux. They might be teeth but spread out this way they will hardly cut anything. What good then, does to be sharp, if you can’t exercise that sharpness? In the next card, the four of pentacles, four vertebrae are joined together in a cross. It almost seems as if all those shards came together to form these larger structures. Where previously there was chaos and entropy, now there’s stability; there’s a sense of order. And then, as we look at the ace of wands, we can easily see how each branch of the bone cross rose and melded to form the long bone visible in the last card. My snappy sentence would then be “What is separated needs to be put together. Do this in steps, looking first for stability and then for unity.”

The progression from Swords to Pentacles to Batons tells me that there are advantages to this approach. Swords turn into coins, loosing their sharp edges and bringing in rewards which can then be used to build a wand. Batons being associated with work and might, this tells me that by bringing focus to my work, things will be able to grow faster and stronger (notice how the size and the volume of the bones increase from card to card).

Looking up to the first reading I can see how they complement each other. One telling me to let go and become looser, the other, to concentrate and focus. If anything, I’m again recalled of the rhythms of nature. Of things expanding and contracting and how important it is to stay in the flow of things. Nature has seasons, after all, and these seasons teach us that there is a time for everything. It’s back to the basics then, remaining open and aware of what lies in front of us. 

The Tarot of Bones can be ordered from the author here. Be sure to pass by her site and check all the cards of the deck as well as the sculptures that were made for each card. There’s great work there. For more about Lupa and her work, just visit her site.

 

 

To a Queen of Swords…

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Queen of Swords by Martha Pawlowna Sachidowitz. Part of a playing card set drawn for Pushkin’s Queen of Spades story. 

A friend of mine, let’s call her C., often complains that she doesn’t understand the suit of swords. I find this interesting, as most of the times that I talk to her, she is behaving like a sword, always analyzing things and trying to find her balance in the midst of a hectic day. Even if it is not the dominant element, swords are there and definitely play a big part in her life. It is there in her decision making when she cuts to the chase (which she often does). It is there in the way she handles her disease (she has an autoimmune disease which can leave her quite impaired when it flares up), by carefully weighting her options and evaluating how her treatments are improving – or not – her condition. It is there in the delicate balance that exists between her own limitations and her life, both professionally and personal. In fact, her medical condition has such an impact in her life that if it wasn’t for her ability to correctly use swords, things would have turned out quite differently.

So, what does the suit of swords mean when we’re dealing with the tarot?

We start with the word. Swords are long, sharp blades capable of cutting things down. Since there are also other objects that can cut things – like daggers, knifes, sharp glass, razors, scissors, hatches, axes, paper or cold air – we can also place these under the suit of swords. Swords then indicate things with sharp edges, and indeed, sharpness is one of the first things that comes to my mind when there is a sword at play. However, there are other objects that are also sharp. Things like nails, needles and pins might not be able to cut, but they prickle. They can also open wounds just like a sword can. They don’t have a sharp edge, but possess a sharp point, which means that these two can also be grouped under the suit of swords. We can then say that this suit represents anything with either a sharp edge or point; anything that can open a wound, no matter how superficial or small. And, while most tarot decks do focus on swords, some do look beyond them, addressing this very concept of sharpness.

Swords then are things that can cut. That can open wounds and, if the cut is too deep, kill. No wonder that they are seen as the most negative suit of the tarot. They bring to mind such ideas as pain, trouble, tears and death. And yet…since nothing “is” only negative or only positive, there is another side to this suit. Cutting things down can be, in the right context, a positive things. A common example is a problem so big that it needs to be addressed in parts; it needs to be cut down in smaller pieces so that each piece can be addressed separately. This is known as reductionism and is probably one of the sharpest tools of reason. Another example is the “cutting of illusions” that while destroying a dream also gives us the ability to be pragmatic and rational; to look at things as they are and not as we wished them to be.

We also cut things down when we need to divide something – a cake, for example – into small portions so that everyone can have its fill. Think about sharing with friends and family, about things like charity (where we take a part of our possessions and give them to those in need) or even about the process of reproduction. Cells replicate by continuously dividing themselves and even in the phenomenon of birth, where the baby gets separated from its mother. In a way, it is as if the mother gives up a part of her body in order for it to have a separate existence. All divisions and all events under the suit of swords.

And then there is concept of equilibrium. If you’ve ever tried to handle a sword, even if just for a swing, you’ve noticed that that is not an easy thing to do. Swords are heavy things, but they should move as if they were weightless. The arm and the sword need to be in sinc if the swing is to have any effect. Sword practitioners spend years trying to perfect that balance between their arm and the sword that’s being held, all to get the clean, swift, graceful swing that can effortlessly cut things down. If you haven’t, go watch some youtube videos of samurais or sword practice and focus on the lightness and the fluidity of the movement. Here’s a nice video of Yoshio Sugino, 10th Dan Master of Katori Shinto Ryu.

 

Balance is also required to make a sword. The metal needs to be heated, hammered and bent, its proportions, curvature and bevels shaped into being, sharpened, treated with clays or other substances, quenched, tempered, sharpened and polished. The blade needs to be balanced in order to properly swing. The edge has to be sharp and hard, in order to cut through effortlessly, while the back of the blade has to be softer in order to absorve the shock of blows meted out by opponents. This means that the blade has to be both flexible and hard. For more on sword making, watch this video below:

 

 

So what does all this has to do with reading cards?

It’s easy to see how the ideas of flexibility, hardship, cutting down, and balance can be reflected in cards with the trumps most associated with swords, namely Justice and Death. It is when we get to the pips that things might become more problematic. And here we need to distinguish between the esoteric decks – like the Waite-Smith and the Thoth  – and the Marseille style decks with its more down-to-earth approach.

With the esoteric decks, those concepts are present in both the drawings and the theory that goes with the card. If you can understand how an energy, for a lack of a better word, whose main purpose is to divide and to cut down, thus restoring balance where it is needed, changes along the suit, you’re all ready to go.

For the Marseille decks, however, a different approach is needed, since these type of decks are best read by looking at what they show us that to any cabalistic / magical / psychological / whatever theory. And what they show us is swords entwined in one another, forming oval structures which might contain – or not – something inside. When Swords appear in a reading, the first thing one needs to think is there’s something that needs cutting down and fast. Why fast? Because not only it’s the fastest weapon of the four suits, but also because once something is cut down that’s it. Problem solved. So, the higher the number of swords, the more urgent / pressing / complex / demanding / oppressive / painful your problem is. Or, to put it in another way, the more imbalanced the situation is and the faster you need to act and strike down everything that’s causing the mess in front of you. But it also means that the less options you have, because well, it’s the night of the long blades and something has to be done NOW! if one is to survive this.

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Tarot de Marseille by Jean Noblet, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy

This is backed by the cards, as when the numbers increase, that circle of swords grows and grows, expanding towards the centre and the flower that was inside wanes and wanes into oblivion. Besides, as the number of swords increase, so does that sharp cocoon thickens. What this means is that as the number of swords increase, so do things become tougher and uglier. There’s no more Mr. Nice Guy here; only the need of swift action and to hell with the consequences. If, however, the swords decrease, things become less pressing and more malleable. It’s easier to sort things out, to balance things out.

Whether one is using a Marseille-styled deck or an esoteric deck, swords take no prisoners. Taking the way of the sword is to take the warrior’s path. It is to fight every day with determination and calm; to meet any situation without strains and without being reckless. As I said earlier, my friend C. has a great deal of swords in her. It’s not her dominant element, as there’s also a lot of fire in there, which brings a certain recklessness, unpredictability and a kind of lust for life that no Sword could give. But swords are there, sharp and ready for whatever the day will bring.

Sensing Through…

PICTURE…

a pitch-black space. Nothing but darkness all around you. At some point you can’t quite fathom there’s a light. A small light that seems to grow little by little as you walk in its direction. As you get closer, you realize that its shaped like an arrow. The arrow, a keyhole on a door, pointing up. You want to know what’s on the other side, and so you peep through the door, getting a glimpse on what’s on the other side. There’s not much to see – it is a keyhole you’re peeping through after all – just a bright open space. You open the door and enter this new world, the darkness becoming a distant memory as the door closes behind you.

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Sequence from Sens, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

As with all worlds, this too embodies the spirit of the Labyrinth, even if it isn’t your regular. There’s no walls here, just empty space punctuated with the ocasional structure. As with all labyrinths, this one also have rules. And they are simple. He is to follow the arrows until he gets to the end of it. That’s it. Just follow the arrows until he gets to the other side. But there’s a catch: not all arrows are visible. Some are buried in the sand. Others, hidden on the top of strange walls, or imprinted in an ice cap. It is his task to find the arrow that will lead him to the next stage of his journey.

That this labyrinth has no walls is of no consequence. You see, all labyrinths are the same: they’re a gathering of paths that meet and combine only to later diverge again. It is rumored that all labyrinths share the same path. A place outside our perception of time and space where they all meet. A place where every traveler can meet with each other or, maybe, change courses and decide for a new path for himself. A place where the traveler can become one with the labyrinth and begin to transcend it. If there is ever a place to know oneself it is there. At the crossroads of every possibility.

We, however, don’t know anything about this man whose journey we’re witnessing: we don’t know his name or his story, we don’t know where he is going. We don’t know what he’s searching or if indeed he is searching for anything. All that we are allowed to do is watch. Watch as this man silently (progresses) through the maze, taking his directions from arrows that appear every now and then, pointing the way forward, hinting at the possibility of a trajectory. Of a path. But when he realizes where he is, all that we get to know is this:

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“Vous êtes ici”. You are here. A page form Sens, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu

Our hero continues on his solitary walk until a moment where he finds the arrow that leads to the exit. He is now an old man and has lost almost everything he carried with him. He tried to avoid this one last arrow, but to no avail. The arrow follows him. It becomes his shadow. He has no choice but to accept what comes next. But then, why would he want to avoid this? Hasn’t he been following all the other directions? Hasn’t his life been a walk from arrow to arrow across strange / deserted landscapes? What is he afraid of? He stops for a moment, looking at the arrow. Trying to figure out where it will lead him. And resolutely, he steps down and exists the labyrinth.

What you’ve just read is a brief summary of Sens (which you can also get it here), one of the latest works by french cartoonist Marc-Antoine Mathieu. If you’re not familiar with the French, don’t worry. The book is mostly a mute graphical account of this man’s journey. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. Inside its pages is one of the most interesting explorations about the meaning of life and the journey each and every one of us takes from the moment of birth to that final moment where we leave the maze of life.

As tarot readers, and even as humans, that is something that every once in a while concerns us. Where did we come from? Where are we headed? What is the meaning of all this? You know… the BIG questions. Sometimes, it’s easy to find a path and follow it. Other times, not really. It is at those moments when we pick up our cards and start asking questions. What should I do? What is the meaning of? Why did this happen? How can I proceed?… And, like the man in this story we take our cues from visual hints. We look for directions, because, well… things do get easy when someone or something points out the way forward. For some, it’s about removing the burden of choice. For others, it’s about strategy: to know possible outcomes in order to decide the approach that best serves their purpose. Others still, just want to know what the heck is this all about.

For all, it is about seeing. Is this why we need images to tell us stuff? We do tend to believe what we see, after all. What is fashioned before our very eyes. With the tarot, events are presented to us as images. In a way, we are there in those images and it is those images that we take with us when the reading ends. This is, I’ve always thought, one of the greatest allures of the tarot and other image-based divination systems. The ability to perform an autopsy. To see with our own eyes.

With this in mind I’ve asked the cards “Why are images so special that we turn to them in to figure stuff out?

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La Maison de Dieu. La Force. La Mort.

They are needed to bring down our defenses. By doing this, they make us confront all the nastiness that’s inside of us, just waiting to creep out. All the things that we’d like to keep in check and in fact, we probably fight to keep them under a leash. They are important because they make us see all the stuff that we don’t really want to face. But face them we must, if we want to deal with what’s at the root of our problems and sort things out. They are special because they show us things and make us act upon it. That’s their power and our weakness.

Like St. Thomas, we’ve developed a soft spot for information that comes through the sense of sight. Whether they are visions, dreams, or whatever’s hanging in front of our doorstep. “A man profits more by the sight of an idiot than by the orations of the learned“, an arabian proverb goes. “Foresight could make wise men of Durraman’s donkeys“, as another proverb goes. Or the classic “out of sight, out of mind“. Even in the Bible we get things like “preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight“. Sight has a special place in the way we perceive the world. Our world. It is only fair that it should be sight that pinpoints what we need to work upon and calls us to action.

Placing our need / desire / wish to become aware on a set of random images that pop up from a deck of cards might be just absurd. But, as Marc-Antoine Mathieu points out in this very same book, “the absurd only makes sense if it is accepted“.

 

 

Discovering the Magical World of Ellen Lorenzi-Prince

It’s not everyday that a deck grabs you by the balls and leaves you speechless. It’s even rarer when the same artist manages to do it again and again with every deck she puts out. And yet, this is exactly what happens to me every time I get my hands on one of Ellen Lorenzi-Prince’s work. With the forthcoming release of the third edition of the Tarot of the Crone and the reprint of the Tarot of the Dark Goddess, this is exactly the time to spread the word about this wonderful artist.

My first exposition to Ellen’s work came with the Tarot of the Crone. Unlike most decks out there, this one fulfilled all my personal needs. The lines were simple and clear. The colors added to the feel of the card, without overwhelming it. The human figures had expression and body movement. In fact, you could actually feel that these scenes were happening right there in front of you. Even better, the figures were facing us, the readers, inviting us to take our place among them and participate in what they were doing or, perhaps, confronting us with issues unresolved. But the most important thing of all, the one that actually cuts the deal for me is “do these pictures tell a story?” And well… they do! They spoke of ancient mysteries, of our connection to nature and the part women played in that process. They reminded us of what we once held sacred. How the elements of earth, fire, water and air had their role to play in our lives. And how, somewhere along the line, we had severed that connection to revere gods of electrons and statistics.

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The Tarot of the Crone, by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. 2nd edition.

The tarot of the Crone because an instant hit with me. For months, I would use it for every reading I would make, its voice whispering “Break down the mold. Go back to the basics and see where the important stuff lies.” Having started my tarot path as a full-pledged Thothite, this deck delivered the first major clue that the esoteric system with its elegant, complex and clockwork mechanics might not be as formidable as it seemed. Instead, I was asked to look below to the earth and to discover the magic in the little things that Nature continuously throws at us. And for that, I was eternally thankful. Click here for a glimpse of the kind of insights that I would get from the Tarot of the Crone.

A few months later, her second deck, the Dark Goddess Tarot, arrived. The deck presented images of 78 entities – as they aren’t all goddesses  – drawn from various mythologies and legends from around the world. I remembered being excited with this deck because one of the entities portrayed was that of Tlazolteotl, one of the goddesses that had a big impact on my life at that time. The inclusion of Tlazolteotl in the deck made me wonder who else might be in it. And while some of the more popular goddesses have found their way there – like, for example, Shekmet, Isis, Hecate (as Phosphorus), Aphrodite, Kali or Santa Muerte – a number of other interesting, even if less known, entities are there.

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Cards from the Tarot of the Dark Goddess, by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince.

In all, these 78 cards bring us tales of love, vengeance, loss, pain and fury. If the Tarot of the Crone spoke about our connection about Nature and how far we’ve deviated from it, the Tarot of the Dark Goddess offers us a way back. By following these entities, learning their stories, hearing their advice and acting upon it, we can trace our way back to that communion with the natural world that was pictured in the Tarot of the Crone.

Coincidently or not, the first card of the deck, the Fool is attributed to Sheela Na Gig, figurative carvings of naked women with an exaggerated vagina, that are found throughout Great Britain and Ireland in churches, castles and other buildings. According to the LWB (Little White Book) that accompanies the deck, this card asks us to “Dare to come back to where you began”. For the last card of the deck, the Hag of Earth, Ellen gave us a painting of She Who Watches, a woman turned into stone by a trickster spirit so that she could fulfill her desire to be and stand by her people forever. Referring again to the LWB, the message Ellen gave to this card is “Remember history or more will be lost”. In-between, there’s 76 cards to leads us to this process of journeying back, once we decided to pass the Fool’s invitation.

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The Fool and the Hag of Earth, from the Dark Goddess Tarot. 

With her next deck, we journey to Ancient Creete, home of the Minoan civilization. 78 cards, painted in the style of minoan images, while still maintaining that characteristic Ellen line, propose to show us aspects of the day-to-day lives of people that are in communion with Nature, the Goddesses and themselves. In a sense, this is the next stage of Ellen’s story. After the shamanic visions of the Tarot of the Crone and the journey back home with the assistance of the  various goddesses and mythical figures that populate the Tarot of the Dark Goddess, we suddenly arrive to where we’re supposed to be. And it’s a place filled with light, where everything feels in harmony with everything else. Looking at the images, one can’t stop to wonder why did we ended up diverging from this.

 

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Cards from the Minoan Tarot. Art and conception by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince.

More or less at the same time, The Kali Tarot Prayer Cards were released. This deck, a set of 22 cards fashioned after the Major Arcana of the Tarot, gives us a glimpse of the work Ellen did with one of the Dark Goddesses present in the her second deck and how these entities can help us navigate to the places suggested by both the Tarot of the Crone and the Minoan Tarot. While this deck can also be used in readings – and to devastating results – it is a  a meditation tool that the deck shows all that its capable of. In every card there’s a painting corresponding to an aspect of Kali. An aspect that somehow can be framed as one of the Major Arcana of the tarot. All the pictures are presented as they are. With no names or numbers to indicate to each the Major Arcana they belong. In what feels like a conscious choice, we are asked to consider the images as they are. To truly read them as images, not as an assortment of keywords or any other tarot luggage that might get in the way. Behind each card, along with the indication of the Major Arcana, there’s a prayer to the goddess. A message, if you will of how we can connect to that goddess or how that particular aspect can help us with our issues.

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Cards from the Kali Tarot Prayer Cards. Art and conception by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince.

In all, Ellen’s work with the Tarot is unique and deserves your attention. So give yourself a treat and treat yourself to one of her decks. You will not be disappointed.