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“.

 

 

Idea Delivery Through Tarot and Comics -3

This is part 3 of a three part post about my presentation at this year’s Tarot Con – U.K.. If you’ve missed part 1 and 2, you can find it here and here.

After seeing how comics and tarot have interacted with each other throughout the years and how comics could be a fertile field to mine for ideas, in today’s post I’m going to focus on what’s probably the most important reason to read and / or study comics: its structure.

In comics, we combine pictures and words to tell a story. Sometimes the story is carried by words, other times, it is the images that carry the story. With the tarot, we use the pictures to find out the story which will then be told to the querent. In common with comic books, we have printed images with captions. However, unlike comic books, the text doesn’t accompany the images. A typical tarot card will look something like this:

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Typically, we have a card which is filled with an image and one or two  captions above and/or underneath. So, the first question would be if more than 95% of the tarot card is filled with an image, why do we keep going back to the keywords? If keywords are really that important, maybe we would have have cards like this one:

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where we would just have the card’s name and some keywords written on it. We could even have customized decks where each reader could write its own keywords. Instead, we have images, with just a few words to make each card understandable and easy to identify and relate to. We have thousands of decks, each providing us with an alternative take on the card’s meaning.

So the images in the cards, are important. And it’s the images that we should first look at. And, sure, keywords also have a part to play in the reading. In the midst of thousands of possible meanings each card has, if we didn’t have a way to navigate through that, we would have a pretty troubled journey. So keywords are also useful. But we should not depend exclusively on them.

Steve Englehart, a comic book writer, that had some of its work featured yesterday, when asked for a quote about tarot and comics had this to write:

As a comics reader, I always liked what I was looking at, but it wasn’t until an artist named Gil Kane (GREEN LANTERN, SPIDER-MAN, et al) sat me down one day showed me how he led your eye through each page that I fully understood it. It is an art, within the art, and I would say the same for Tarot reading. The first step is to know what each card means. The next step is to string those meanings together to get a complete story. Everyone begins with the “cook book” approach, where you’re more concerned with adding the flour and the sugar and not yet seeing the pie, but a good cook will soon come to understand how it all folds together. When I was learning Tarot, I was given a number of exercises where three cards were grouped together and I was asked to read those three as one story. Then we moved onto five cards… Bottom line, it (simply) requires the reader to see the big picture while working his way through all the little ones.

When learning the trade, we’re often taught that the images in the tarot cards function as triggers, as sort of key that can unlock our imagination and have us access new ideas and concepts. David Mack, in his Kabuki: The Alchemy book (available here) presented a similar view on comics:

Kabuki - The Alchemy, by David Mack
Kabuki – The Alchemy, by David Mack

Comics as a book of doors. As a device capable to open your mind and and see what is between the images. Which is exactly what we, as tarot readers do. Or should aim to do.

We write our stories by placing tarot cards next to tarot cards. And then finding something that will link them together into a cohesive whole. So, for example, while this would be a typical 3-card spread,

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A few speech balloons are really all that separate us from transforming the above set of cards into a comic strip.

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Strip by Luis Aguillar for Tarotvignettes. You can reach him out at the above address.

Mike Carey, another of the comic book writers featured in yesterday’s post, when asked for a quote had this to say:

I think a large component of the way we respond to images is highly subjective and inferential. Pictures create associations for us that are personal and emotionally charged. Other sensory stimuli do this too, but the triggers work with different intensities. When reading words – or at least, words arranged into sentences – the rational and logical parts of our minds are fully engaged and there’s limited space for the irrational, associative parts of our minds to go galloping away on tangents. Poetry, though, affects us differently and often (not always) sets out deliberately to increase that interpretative space.

Comics can be more like sequential prose or more like poetry, depending on the artist. And of course it has as much to do with the relationships between images as it does to the images themselves. Each new picture creates multiplying possibilities for interpretation – or else closes them down by making an ambivalent meaning explicit.

In that sense a comic page can be like a tarot spread. The panels, like the cards in a tarot reading, are not read in isolation. They combine to form an interpretative space that can be either loose and open or tight and clearly defined. The mind moves between them and makes the connections. Meaning – seldom definitive – arises as a result of that activity.

As exemplified in the sequence below, what we get from each image is a frozen moment in time and space. The images don’t move. They are just there and movement is made apparent by spotting the differences between each image.

Sequence from David Mack's Kabuki - The Alchemy
Sequence from David Mack’s Kabuki – The Alchemy

Just like in a reading, we look at the images shown in the cards and try to figure out what’s there and what is missing. We try to figure out what details jump out to us, what elements are repeated and what changed. In a nutshell, when reading a spread, as in all other areas of life, we go after what picks our mind’s interest. This is what’s behind such common image reading skills as pin-pointing and bridging. This is also what we do in our everyday lives with the information we gather from our senses. We sort it out between what matters and what doesn’t matter and quickly eliminate everything that doesn’t matter.

Will Eisner, one of the most influent comic book artists once said this at an interview (published in Will Eisner: Conversations. M. Thomas Inge (ed.)):

Now, when people ask me what I do, to answer it as quickly as I can, I say “I’m a writer. I write with pictures. This is my medium and I think there’s an advantage to sequential art, because, first of all, it communicates more rapidly than text alone. Text cannot be dismissed, because text is capable of revealing the great depth that single images or static images cannot do. And that’s one of the challenges of this medium.

So we write our stories by placing tarot cards next to tarot cards. Panel after panel. We need to have a start point, something that informs us where we are. In the same way, we need to have a finishing point: a card that will tell us how the story ends or, at least, where it is headed. Between these two cards, we place a finite number of cards. Just enough to have the essential plot points, the main happenings that will allow us to figure out what we have before us.

Most spreads follow this simple rule: from past (our establishing panel) to the future or the resolution (the end panel) and between, all the necessary cards needed to give meaning. Each card a fundamental part of the Story before us. And, as Scott McCloud reminds us,

Panel from Making Comics, by Scott McCloud
Panel from Making Comics, by Scott McCloud

So, taking the time to read comic books and look at them, at how they are made can also gives hints as to how to build spreads. How to arrange the information we have with us into a spread that is functional and is easily readable. Taking, for example, the following page,

Page from Hawkeye #2. Art by David Aja; Written by Matt Fraction, with art by David Aja. Published by Marvel Comics
Page from Hawkeye #2. Written by Matt Fraction, with art by David Aja. Published by Marvel Comics

we can see the main panel, in which we see two persons diving in what looks like a pool, trying to escape what seems like a hail of projectiles, most probably bullets. And then, we have a series of short panels around this main panel; each of these little panels tell us something about what we are seeing: The innocent bystanders that get shot; that indeed those projectiles we saw in the main panel are bullets; the bullet cases that continuously drop from the gun.

Taking this as an example for a spread, we would have something like this:

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If you’re reading about relationships, then you can figure out if the other party is going to laugh at your jokes; if the sex will be good; if you will be able to talk or easily put up with one another. Or maybe it’s a job related question. Then you could find, for example, what type of boss you will have; if the work is too demanding or not; if you will be have any problems or not. Etc, etc…

As a final example, I would like to present this page, again from David Mack’s Kabuki: The Alchemy

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This ended up as the base of a spread I called “Self Portrait”. The spread is very simple and you can use it to train your image association skills. So,

  1. TAKE A CARD FROM THE DECK – this is your outline
  2. LOOK FOR SOMETHING IN THAT CARD THAT REMINDS YOU OF ANOTHER CARD FROM THE DECK – this is your potential

So, if for example you’re using the Rider-Waite Smith deck and you’ve drawn the Hermit, and saw the Lantern, you could associate it with the Sun; or the Ace of Pentacles. Or maybe you saw the staff and thought of the Ace of Wands; or the Magician. Or the hooded figure reminded you of the veil of the High Priestess. Just play with your imagination and see where it will lead you. It is, after all, your potential 🙂

 

Idea Delivery Through Comics and Tarot -2

This is part 2 of a three part post about my presentation at this year’s Tarot Con – U.K.. If you’ve missed part 1, you can find it here.

In this part I will present some work I chanced upon throughout the years. Books that for one reason or another made me stop and ponder a while, and from which I took ideas that later on would coalesce and build up into my personal view of the tarot. It was not a neat journey as it would appear by reading this post, and sometimes, comics that I will present side by side have reached out to me throughout the years.

This is also the part that mostly deviates from the presentation I gave at Keswick, so if you did attend it, just follow through and you’ll see how everything ties together.

Oddly enough, this journey starts not with a comic book, but with a TV series: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller was one of those TV series that retold several European folk tales using a mixture of live actors and puppets. In one of the episodes, right at the end, the dog questions the storyteller about a detail in the story that supposedly didn’t make any sense. The storyteller’s answer was very simple:

“Ah…, you see? But that’s the thing. You should always trust the story, for the story always tells the truth. But you should never, ever, trust the storyteller”.

This little line forever changed the way I related to stories. To what I saw or read. No longer were they these little pieces of fiction without consequences, but rather strange new worlds that would somehow touch our own world. It didn’t matter that they lived in the minds of people, its only actual physical presence the inks and papers they depended on… they existed here with us and would tell us everything we ever wanted to know about life, the universe and everything. So when a story presented us something that made us stop, well then… we should really stop and hear what it has to say, for its of the upmost importance. And even today I find echoes of that distant past. One of the most rewarding ones has been Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ series The Unwritten, about a Harry Potter look-alike character who possesses an immense knowledge about literary geography and who might or might not be a fictional character that actually crossed the line between fiction and reality. It’s a really wonderful series and you can find it here.

Anyway… comic books and tarot…

When we start learning the various meanings of cards, we get a list of keywords. An immense list of keywords and some of them are contradictory. For example, for Strength, we might find “Pleasure” and “Fight”; for The Star, we might see “Hope” and “Illusion”, etc., etc. We are told that cards can have positive meanings and negative meanings and that the actual meaning will depend upon the context of the reading. Opposites coexisting side by side, from which we get to pick the correct meaning for each situation depending on factors like intuition, logic, and pure dumb luck.

For a long time, my vision was exactly like that. Until I chanced upon a comic written by Steve Englehart that depicted a fight between two characters, Galactus and the In-Betweener, where the first defined itself as “the absence of opposites” and the second as “the meeting of opposites”. The comic was The Silver Surfer #18, part of a series of stories that explored how to deal with opposite concepts.

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Silver Surfer #18. Written by Steve Englehart, with art by Ron Lim and Joe Rubinstein. Published by Marvel Comics

In the comic, Galactus (or the absence of opposites) ends up winning the fight, simply because he doesn’t have to jump from one state to the other; from positive to negative; from life to death; from pleasure to pain. He could be both of them at the same time and that enabled him to become something else… A balanced being.

Other issues would follow on this idea and try to figure out how to bridge two opposing concepts. And, at the end of the run (in Silver Surfer #31), we get these two pages that tell us that between every two concepts, every two opposing ideas there is a third one, a concept/idea that links both sides and as such is made from both sides of the coin, but is its own thing. And then, I started to look at the Tarot, and each Major Arcana was defined as the path that linked two Sephirahs… Each card was not meant to be just “Yes” or “No”; “Positive” and “Negative”, but something that contained both aspects and everything in between.

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From Silver Surfer #31. Written by Steve Englehart; Art by Ron Lim, Tom Christopher and Rob Williams. Published by Marvel Comics

 

This led me to something else I saw years before in a Hulk comic. Now, the Hulk had been this rage-fuelled monster that existed inside the body of Bruce Banner, a scientist. His dark, primitive side. And for more than 30 years, that was all that he was. Until a writer, by the name of Peter David came along and had the idea of integrating both the puny, cerebral human side of Bruce Banner and the primeval monstrous side of the Hulk into a single entity:

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The Hulk personas finally gets joins its human side, in this sequence from The Incredible Hulk #377, by Peter David, with art by Dale Keown and Bob McLeod. Published by Marvel Comics

And I remembered an Alan Moore comic published more than 10 years ago, Swamp Thing #50 (reprinted here and here)

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The climax of Swamp Thing #50, where Light and Darkness reach out and literally join hands, to give us the Tao. Art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. Published by DC Comics.

And something made a click: cards do not show us a positive or negative meaning, they show us a way to integrate whatever we have with whatever we might be missing.

Looking at the Hero’s Journey, and how it relates to the Major Arcana, we can establish three different sets of cards, as depicted bellow:

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Applying what was said above, we can again see the same principle: a first set of cards, between The Magician and The Chariot, which I usually call “The Path of Innocence”, in honour of the William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” and a third path, from Atu XV – The Devil to Atu XXI – The Universe, or “The Path of Experience”. And it’s easy to see how the each card in the middle row relates to the one that is directly above it and below it. How it takes elements of both end-cards and builds something else.

This all seemed nice and clear until a few years ago I stumbled upon this particular page, taken from Firestorm #96, which had this most interesting caption: “From awareness grew the knowledge of impulse and reason (…) that guide our decisions”

"Fury of Firestorm". Written by John Ostrander, with art by Tom Mandrake. Published by DC Comics
“Fury of Firestorm”. Written by John Ostrander, with art by Tom Mandrake. Published by DC Comics

Going back to the Major Arcana, one easily recognizes the “Impulse” and “Reason” as keywords to as The Wheel of Fortune and the Justice cards. And that’s all that one needs to make a decision. Placing the Major Arcanas in two rows, we get other interesting pairs:

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Pairs like The Hermit (Scientific knowledge) and “The Hanged Man (Intuitive knowledge); Strength (Life) and Death, and so on. But more interesting still, is the combination of The Hierophant with The Tower, where we see portrayed the influence of God upon Man (The Hierophant) and Man’s attempt to reach out to God’s level. Or, to put it in another way, where duality first appears, and where it is resolved. And, in this aspect, The Star assumes an added importance: it’s hope, yes, because it’s a return to Unity; A new birth where everything shines in a new light. Or, as Alan Moore stated, again, in Swamp Thing #50,

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Swamp Thing #50. Written by Alan Moore; Art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben

 

So, where does this leaves the Minor Arcana?

Well, the Minor Arcana are related to the Alchemical elements. Fire, Water, Swords and Pentacles. Or Will, Love, Reason and Material Resources. In the Rider Waite deck, these cards depict also depict journeys. Not the mythical journey, but the day-to-day struggles. If we want to turn to stories, we should not look at the concepts, at the ideas, but at the actual paths the characters make. We should look at biographies. Sure, there’s still plenty of ideas and concepts one can milk stories from, as we can see from these examples:

FF322_20a FF322_20b

Panels from Fantastic Four #322. Written by Steve Englehart. Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott. Published by Marvel Comics
Panels from Fantastic Four #322. Written by Steve Englehart. Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott. Published by Marvel Comics

 

And

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Pages from Crossing Midnight #6. Written by Mike Carey. Art by Jim Fern and Mark Pennington. Published by Vertigo/DC Comics

 

But we’re probably better served when looking at a character’s evolution. To understand Fire, we need to understand Will, determination, creative energy. How to fuel this determination and channel it to our objectives.  Mike Carey’s series Lucifer (which you can find here) tells us the story of how Lucifer pretended to escape his creator’s role by creating a new Universe that might better correspond his point of view. What it takes to bring something forward and defend it, sustain it and, ultimately, make it stand.

For swords, we could turn to the stories of the samurais. Swords are about reason, but they are also about balance, fluidity and adjustment. In order to live by the sword, one must be centered, fluid, and disciplined. Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond (available here) brings us the fictionalized account of Miyamoto Musashi, considered the greatest samurai that ever lived. How he learned his trade. How he incorporated the zen teachings he chanced upon, and how he developed his own style of fighting, a style that made impossible for any opponent to get near him, het alone cut him down.

Pentacles is an easy one. If you want to learn about resources, social networks and money, you need to look no further than Uncle Scrooge. Of particular interest is Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (available here), where he tell us the story of how Scrooge got rich, in ten chapters that closely correspond to the suit of Pentacles. Also of interest are Carl Bark’s stories featuring Uncle Scrooge. Carl Barks was the creator of Uncle Scrooge and the one that got to define his personality and charm. And it’s interesting to see that for all the pettiness and the eye for business, he also gave Scrooge a heart that shone even more brightly than any gold coin he might find.

Which leaves us with Hearts. Love, feelings and relationships. The bonds that allows us to nurture ourselves and grow. The bonds that ultimately will define where we came from and who we are. David Mack’s Kabuki series (available here) is all this and more. A love letter to his mother, and then to himself it shows us how everything around us and everyone around us can fuel us, drive us forward and ultimately help us on our path.

And thus ends part two… a personal journey through comics and tarot that I hope might open some new avenues for you. But comics have more to teach us than just stories. Join us tomorrow for part 3, where we look at what else can comics bring us that’s of interest to tarot readers. In the meanwhile, do browse our archives for some other goodies

 

Idea Delivery Through Comics and Tarot -1

It’s somewhat hard to return to a project that was quiet for a few months. To get to it again, and start to think of things that might be interesting to put up here. To again devote some time to write them up and present them to the Tarot community at large. But then, we felt the project deserved more than just join the ever-growing limbo of dead blogs that simply exist on the web, it’s creators to lazy to continue them or too lazy to take them out of the web and put them out of their misery. And so, they linger… Half-dead and half-alive, in a suspended animation state while its creators go on to do other stuff. It happened to us. We went on to do other stuff. And all of us left at the same time. But we also didn’t forget about this blog. And so, we’re back.

 

As some of you might know, I recently presented a talk at the U.K. TarotCon last September. It’s subject was one that was very dear to me: Tarot and Comics. Two of my favourite subjects. Now that that presentation is over, I thought it would be a nice idea if I wrote here about some of the things that I talked over there, and probably expand upon it. Since this is supposed to be a pretty long post, I’ve divided it in three parts, of which this is part 1. The remaining parts shall be posted in the next few days. If you happened to attend that conference, think of this as a sort of companion piece; if not, just sit back and enjoy the post.

 

When mentioning tarot and comics, most people will probably think of Promethea. The Alan Moore comic book that started with a Wonder Woman type hero but immediately evolved into an exploration of the Golden Dawn Magickal System. A sort of crash course on tarot and magick. There were 32 issues published and collected in 5 volumes, that you can find here).

Promethea #1. By Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III
Promethea #1. By Alan Moore and J. H. Williams III

What was interesting to the series, is that each issue was based either on a Sephiroth (issues #1-10) or a Major Arcana tarot card (issues #11-32). Of special interest to tarot readers is issue #12, which presents a journey through the Major Arcana tarot cards in 4 different levels. There’s the actual tarot card, created specifically for that issue, as well as a description of the tarot card, how it relates to world history events. But there’s also a word or expression written in Scrabble tiles which is always an anagram for Promethea. And there’s a little anecdote as told by Aleister Crowley divided in 22 parts, with each part attributed to each of the Major Arcana cards. Each page drawn in such a way that when you put them all side by side, you get a giant panel depicting Promethea’s journey through the Major Arcana.

First four Major Arcana cards as depicted in Promethea #12
First four Major Arcana cards as depicted in Promethea #12

But the book doesn’t end here. In issues #5 through #8 (collected in the first and second volumes of the series), you’ll get a brief exploration of the elements and then, of course, you can browse through all the remaining issues and try to figure out how each Major Arcana helped shape that particular issue. In all, it’s an interesting reading and one that might offer a new perspective to your understanding of the cards.

But comic books have more to offer than Promethea. With this in mind, this presentation started with a comic book published in 1978 called Doorway to Nightmare by DC Comics.

Doorway to Nightmare #1, published by DC Comics
Doorway to Nightmare #1, published by DC Comics

What was interesting in this comic book was the presence of a character, Madame Xanadu, who was a tarot reader. In each issue, someone would stumble into her parlour and have their cards read. According to Jack C. Harris, editor of the series, the tarot cards were such an important part of the series, “they were at the very heart of the idea from the beginning”.

The first issue of Doorway to Nightmare is also worth mentioning because of  a text that was published there about the origins of the tarot cards, which is reproduced below. Bill Kunkel, the author, traced the origins of the tarot deck to the fourteenth century and to elements present in Dante’s Divine Comedy. He then goes on to explain how the cards might have evolved and even present a way of reading the Celtic Cross. Now this text does present inaccuracies, and some even blatant, but even so, it is clear that its author tried to present the tarot in a positive light and not as a game to be played at parties for the amusement of guests. Which holds even more value, when one considers that this is a comic book, and as such meant to be read by children and teenagers. Who probably never heard of tarot and, again, probably would forget about it half an hour later after finishing the book.

 

Tarot text that appeared on the first issue of Doorway to Nightmare
Tarot text that appeared on the first issue of Doorway to Nightmare

A few years later, in 1981, a new series starring Madame Xanadu appeared, written by Steve Englehart. Once again, someone comes to Madame Xanadu in search of advice.

Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 07 Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 08 Madame Xanadu (1981) 01 - 09

It is unfortunate that the first card is wrongly attributed to the Queen of Cups, when in fact, it’s the Princess of Cups. Even so, it is an inspired reading, while it is also interesting to see how the artist, Marshal Rogers framed the sequence, using cards as actual comic book panels and easily leads us through the reading.

Meanwhile, over at Marvel, 1978 saw the release of Marvel Team-Up #76, a comic book which also relies in tarot cards as a story device and does present a Celtic Cross reading. However, it is the cover that is of interest to us, as it features the first time superheroes were depicted as Major Arcanas, with Spider-Man as The Fool, Dr. Strange and his apprentice Clea as The Magician and The High Priestess and Ms. Marvel as The Star. The villain, a sorcerer by the name of Silver Dagger, was represented as Death.

Marvel Team-Up #76
Marvel Team-Up #76

It took almost 30 years, but the first decks featuring characters from comic books were finally here. In 1995, Lo Scarabeo publishes a limited edition Majors-only deck featuring some of Marvel’s superheroes, while at DC, Rachel Pollack and artist Dave McKean put out the Vertigo Tarot, featuring such popular characters as Dream and Death, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; John Constantine from Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Black Orchid, among others.

Marvel Tarot Deck, published by Lo Scarabeo
Marvel Tarot Deck, published by Lo Scarabeo

Nowadays, it’s not so difficult to consider superheroes as archetypes. We have a long history of stories featuring gods and goddesses. For a long time, we used these stories to educate ourselves; to teach us the ways of the world and how to behave in it. As our religious believes changed, so did the stories we told each other. The myths of yesterday started to loose its strength and new stories appeared to substitute them. Stories about extraordinary characters. And stories about people put in extraordinary situations. In 1938, Superman appeared for the very first time. And ever since, kids and teenagers throughout the whole world have once again embraced the idea of super-human power.

Superman can be represent all that’s best in humanity. A being with the powers of god, that only wished to live as a human. A being capable of great deads, that came to our world from another planet. An immigrant, who fought and found its place on Earth whilst never deviating from its moral set of values and believes. Who got its powers from our yellow sun. (For an interesting view on Superman and all that he represents, do check this book). If we were to assign a tarot card to Superman, it would probably be Atu XIX – The Sun.

Looking at the stories behind other popular superheroes, it’s not difficult to find cards that can correspond to them.

With Spiderman, we have a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead of using his powers for good, he choose to use them for personal gain as a professional wrestler. One day, he could have stopped a burglar, but he choose not to. The same burglar who would murder his Uncle Ben just a few hours later, and teach Spiderman his most valuable lesson:

From Amazing Fantasy #15, featuring the origin and first appearance of Spiderman. Story by Stan Lee; art by Steve Ditko.
From Amazing Fantasy #15, featuring the origin and first appearance of Spiderman. Story by Stan Lee; art by Steve Ditko.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Even today, more than 50 years after his first appearance, writers milk this motto to put Spiderman in situations where he must choose between doing the right thing or doing what he wants. His tarot card? The Hanged Man.

With Green Lantern, we get the story of Hal Jordan, a pilot who is presented with a ring capable of transforming his wishes into reality. Imagination becomes Will and Will becomes Form. Or the Magician.

Green Lantern's Origin.
Green Lantern’s Origin. Published by DC Comics

The Hulk is just another variation of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. A man that harbors within itself a monster that symbolizes the primitive mind. Or The Strength.

The Incredible Hulk #1. Published by Marvel Comics
The Incredible Hulk #1. Published by Marvel Comics

With Batman, we have a man who, as a kid saw his parents murdered, his innocence destroyed. That kid vowed to punish evil wherever it might be and grew so obsessed with it that he devoted every single moment henceforth and every single resource at his disposal to acquire the means to actually fulfil his promise. Or The Devil.

The Legend Of The Batman: Who He Is And How He Came To Be. Published by DC Comics.
The Legend Of The Batman: Who He Is And How He Came To Be. Published by DC Comics.

And the list goes on… Pick a superhero. Any superhero. Look at his personal history and you can easily find a tarot card that corresponds to him.

 

But comics can give us much more than just a new take on tarot archetypes. Join us tomorrow, for part two, where we look at the Hero’s Journey, the Minor Arcana, and how can comics make us see the cards in a different manner. In the meanwhile, feel free to browse the archives.

Robert Anton Wilson and Tarot

Maybe Logic The Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson

For the first time, I will write a post in e-prime. Not that I haven’t tried to do it, mind you. I had and I still struggle to do it. However, no matter how much I would like to do it, I always end up struggling to find the right word or better yet, the right combination of words to translate precisely what I intend to say. In the end, I take the easy way out and just write in normal, plain english.

For those of you that don’t know, e-prime stands for “English Prime”, a variant of english which excludes every single form of the verb “to be”. You can find out more about it here.

I first came upon this form of English in the books of american author Robert Anton Wilson (RAW). Born on the 18th of January, he would complete today his 83rd birthday, had he not died seven years ago.

I first got exposed to his ideas quite accidentally, through a comic book called Arkham Asylum: A Serious House in a Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. Needless to say, it made an impact on my adolescent psyche:

arkhamasylum_ashose

As a side note, this comic marked also my first ever exposure to the Toth deck, through the Tower card, although at the time I didn’t knew that it actually existed and just assumed the artist made the image up. Silly me…

Fast forward a few years. I had discovered Philip K. Dick and held him in such high appreciation, that when I saw a quote of him on one of RAW’s books, I decided to give this guy a try. I started with Prometheus Rising, followed by Quantum Psychology. Two books that would significantly alter my way of thinking. Both books function pretty much as two halves of the same coin, although tarot readers who want to significantly better their reading skills should probably start with Quantum Psychology.

The books argue how we got imprinted with a set of Aristotelian values that made us see the world through the lenses of a binary code: Black or White; Right or Wrong; Left or Right; Yes or No. In Prometheus, we then get toured through each of Leary’s 8 Circuit Model of Consciousness and how we can break free of this code by reaching higher levels of consciousness, much like our perceptions of the world evolve as we go up the Cabbalistic Tree of Life. In Quantum Psychology, we have a different approach.

Again, we start with a two-value set and how it enforces our view of the world. Wilson then goes and expands this notion by introducing a third value: “Maybe”. And then a forth value, “Meaningless”. And so on. As he does this he starts to show us how can we expand our world view, our reality tunnel. So that we no longer see a world in Black and White, but start to see it in shades of Grey. As the book progresses and we become increasingly more comfortable with relativism, he goes even further, mixing ideas from fields such as Quantum Physics, Psychology, Magick or Yoga and the likes of Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs, Gurdjieff, Timothy Leary, Einstein and James Joyce.

Starting with thought-provoking ideas like “Whatever the thinker thinks, the prover proves” – an interesting concept that basically says that if we can come up with something (an idea, a concept, an opinion), then we will also come up with a way to validate said idea – he then sets out to systematically deconstruct our view of reality by simply showing us that  if we can prove everything we think of and our view of reality results from perceptions gathered by our senses and transformed into electrical signals to be transmitted to the brain, we do live in our own version of the world and all discussion of it ends up pointless because we can always think a way around the conundrums that other people throw at us.

This also means that statements like “Andrew is rich” do not have any kind of meaning at all, because other people might not see Andrew quite that way. In fact, for the sentence “Andrew is rich” to have any value, people would first have to agree on the definition of the word “rich”. And how can we define a simple four letter word such as “rich”? Do we even agree on the definition of said word? Or do each of us has its own definition of richness, which may or may not approach other people’s definition, but none the less remains unique; personal. So, instead, maybe we should say something along the lines of  “I sure find Andrew rich”, or even “In my opinion, Andrew has so much money, I see him as a a rich person”. Notice the difference in the latter sentences with the first one. In the first, we simply state “Andrew is rich”, whilst in the latter, we say something along the lines of Andrew possessing so much wealth that he meets OUR definition of richness. Our definition. Not some nameless, absolute, quantified definition. Remember, we always talk about and we can only talk about our perceptions; our way of seeing the world. By inserting a referential in the sentence, we not only acknowledge that we see only according to our own views, but we also acknowledge that anyone else might have a different opinion…

And what does any of this have to do with tarot?

Early on, we get taught that we shouldn’t see the cards as either positive or negative, but instead as existing in a type of quantum state that when accessed can become either positive or negative or even both. An idea first put forth by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in what became known as the Schödinger’s Cat paradox.

We then get a table of meanings for each card; a table with hundreds of meanings that supposedly we can assign to each card, only to get warned not to take them at face value. “You should only use them as a guideline”, we get told. “Try to find out your own meaning for the cards; your own attributions”.

The difficulties increase if we pause to think that if a certain card can have multiple meanings, then perhaps none of then actually describes the card. And instead, we all just wander around its edges, trying to pinpoint its exact meaning. By stating something along the lines of “I see the card in this perspective” or “in this reading, I assign this and that value to the card” we can inform others of the subjectivity of the reading, as well as invite them to offer their own views. Their own perspectives. Notice how when applied to a reading this changes the focus from the deterministic “this and this shall happen” to the more softer “I see this card translating this and that effect”, which can then shift the purpose of the reading from a simple Q/A session to a more self-awareness direction and a more significant type of work.

Then we have the never-ending debate of reversals. Should we or shouldn’t we use reversals? As we have already covered that in Shelley’s wonderful post, lets instead consider the following:

  1. the question arises because some but not all (somebunal, as RAW would say) methods of card shuffling invert the position of the cards.
  2. If most methods of shuffling result in 1-2 different card positions, some methods of shuffling that can produce an infinite number of positions, thereby raising the questions “If we use these types of methods when can we consider a card reversed?” and “If our way of shuffling can produce 2 card orientations, which I will follow in my reading, if I use a method of shuffling that produces “n” possible card orientation, should I also use the final orientation of a card as an indication into what type of meaning I can extract from the card?”
  3. considering the reversal as an inversion or decrease in terms of intensity of the meaning of the card can, in fact, help us assign meaning to the card, and might lead to a quicker reading, since you don’t have to consider so many alternatives.

Independently of the answer you might arrive, you end up with a personal system. Something that functions for you because it mirrors your own personal views regarding tarot reading. And your personal views only. Another person might very well reach a different conclusion. Because “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”, both ways remain valid.

Another interesting point regards the use of language. We put way too much faith in the objectivity of language. But if we can’t even agree on the definition of simple concepts as “richness”, how can we accurately transmit an idea? Or, better yet, should we really concern ourselves with this? Enrique Enriquez, picking up on a tradition that goes all the way back to the surrealists, and even before them, has produced some wonderful work regarding “the hidden meanings of words” or, to put it in another way, to show us just how flexible our own communication system can become once we let go of the rigid parameters of “this means that and only that”. In a sense, when we say that a certain image in a card reminds us of something completely different, we end up doing the same. We associate two different images and establish a connection between them. A connection that might only have surfaced because at that particular moment we became aware of the second image. No doubt aroused by something deeply rooted into our own perceptions, in our brain chemistry and in the particular way our brain functions.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea… If you want to explore this type of approach in more detail, I strongly urge you to take some time and study his work. In the meantime, I leave you with a few exercises where you can actually test these notions.

EXERCISES:

1. Make a table where you only assign a single meaning to each card of the tarot deck. In the end, you will have 78 meanings, which you will use in every reading you make for a considerable amount of time (at least 2 weeks). How do your readings change by this restriction? Do they loose any of its accuracy?

2. Make a second table where you assign a different meaning to each card. So, for example, if you went with “Guide” for the High Priestess, consider now the word “Passive”. The more different, the better. Again, use this table for a reasonable amount of time, not less than the previous one and again, in every reading you make. Take notice of any changes in your reading ability or accuracy that might happen.

3. If you do reversals, stop using them. If you don’t use reversals, start using them. Does your reading suffer or do you notice any improvement by using them? What changed in your ability to read and translate the cards?

4. Pick a card from your deck and study it, writing down every single element you notice and an image it suggests. Then, try to reproduce the card you saw, but by replacing the symbols you just saw with the ones that popped into your head. Compare the results. Do you still have the same card?

Have fun and…

Happy birthday Mr. Wilson from all of us here at Maelstromtarot!!! 😀