Seeing Into The Emptiness

For the Marseille reader, backgrounds are a bore. Everything’s white / whitish. In some cards, like the Moon or the Tower, have a nice background, with buildings, hills, lakes and whatever else graces the cards. Others, have some elements, usually hills, plants, water, things like that. But in all of them, when you look at the beyond the central figure, you face the white. In some, like La Force or L’ermit, white is all there is, and you either focus on the figure in front of you, or you’re faced with the emptiness around it.

Now I like the white space in the Marseille cards. In an age where every image is saturated with color and detail, it’s wonderful to rest your eyes in something that matters  instead of having to fight your way through a ton of meaningless embellishments. After all, less is more and even though your sight is as keen as a lion’s, all that cutting down will soon dull your sight’s sharpness.

When dealing with the whole 78 cards of the Marseille deck, this white space is important, specially when reading the pips: do the objects have enough room to breath or are they crammed together? Can you devise a path between the coins / cups / spades or clubs or are they placed in a random order? All cues matter here and as with any other language, silence (or emptyness) is there to let you know when one thing ends and another starts.

If you’re just using the majors, chances are that all this emptiness won’t bother you. If you’re like me, you will take a cue from the remaining cards and assume that, unless otherwise noted, all the scenes before you are played outside. But like anything else in the cards, assumptions can be misleading and you should be careful, else you find yourself in the woods, with no light to guide you back.

It all starts with a question

Yesterday, I had a message in my facebook wall. A woman had met what she thought was a promising man and wanted to know how she should handle this. She was concerned because she had made some choices there weren’t that good and she didn’t want to tread that path again.

She was even more concerned, because as a seasoned tarot reader, she’s not used to not be able to read for herself, lucky her. After all, staring at yourself takes a lot, as you need to be detached from everything that connects you to the subject of your reading in order to fully understand what the cards are trying to say to you.

Time to bring out the swords

You can take this from a fully-pledged Thothite: ‘nothing beats the Marseille when what you want is instant clarity.’ There! I’ve said it. It’s really all in the whiteness: the lesser elements you have before you to consider, the better. Your eyes can cut to the chase and reveal the bones beneath in a snap.

My client gave me two concerns, so two spreads were in order: one about her future with this new acquaintance and a second one relating to her lack of vision. This meant that two spreads were in order.

What lies ahead for this woman and her new acquaintance?

The central line was clear enough: the meeting was pleasant and the two were in sync. There’s a good possibility that things might develop into something more, specially with this guy being represented by the gallant King of Cups. And yet… That Empress doesn’t seem too impressed! She’s looking away from the King of Cups and, even worse, her shield is facing our new guy. She’s leaning forward, trying to reach something, so an additional sight card was drawn: the Hermit.

My first reading of this additional card was a classic one: there’s something else at play here. Is she actually ready to let go of the loneliness or is she waiting for someone that has become absent? Questions, questions!!! And this card becomes even more important once you realize that the whole spread is directing your gaze to the Hermit. Surely this is the gist of the matter! But more on this latter.

Given the situation, what she should do was simple: she should open up to the new guy just enough to figure out how comfortable she was with him. If you look at Queen of Batons you will notice that the shield that the Empress has is gone. And more than that, the scepter the Empress held changed hands and is now leaning towards the King of Cups. You will also notice how the eyes are shut and the baton rests on her shoulder: there’s no need to remain alert anymore: things are good as they are. But she’s also facing that Hermit, so nothing’s really resolved. It’s more of a compromise than anything else: “be opened to what comes in, but don’t let go of your stuff.

This idea is also corroborated with the Judgement card in the don’t position: “don’t blast your way in.” Again, things should be taken softly and without too many waves. Roll along quietly instead of making any sudden calls.

Why can’t she read the cards about this matter?

These are interesting cards. The three-card spread would suggest good things, but as  La Force, below, indicated, it’s all about letting go. The 2 of Swords then, can be seen as this bubble she built around herself. There’s still enough room there for her to grow and develop, but what about what comes from the outside? Well, no matter how many flowers there are, it’s still not enough. Look at how the outside flowers are small when compared to what grows inside this bubble. The fear then, is that this situation might break this bubble. The central flower dulls and wanes as all those coins come into play. They might be good, but they sure feel like they’re too much to handle. And with that Judgement blasting in at full force, you can be sure that her bubble will pop!

The Hermit and Danger of Words

When she got back to me after the reading, her thoughts were on this bubble as related by the 2 of Swords. According to her, ‘I don’t really know what that “prison” is, however. I don’t consciously feel it so it’s hard to say.’

‘Well, it’s all in the cards’, I think… and I go back to that first spread and again my eyes stop at the Hermit.

Now, as tarot readers, we’re “educated” into seeing the usual concepts of loneliness and abandonment in the Hermit. “it’s the hermit, the one that leaves everything to pursue its goal of enlightenment”. All fair and good. But that really doesn’t play in here. There’s something else… Something important in the card, that only the Hermit can point to. And, as usual, something so clear and blunt it’s staring in your face, but you’re just too close to see it.

But all there is pictured there is this monk holding a lantern! There’s nothing else except that damned monk and its little light. And it hits me with the full might of a lion’s paw: ‘it’s the monk! That’s the thing about this card.’

The card is called “The Hermit”, but in the end, “Hermit” is just a word. And words have no business in cards, other than to facilitate the transmission of knowledge to the client. I should be hit 30 times for getting stuck in a word. ‘Loose the words, keep the pictures’, should be the motto of every card reader.

So, if you forget about the card’s name, everything becomes clear: like the hermit, a monk will withdraw from society to pursue its goals; but unlike hermits, monks live in monasteries. It’s normal for them to walk down shadowy corridors holding their light up to see the path ahead. And, unlike the free life of hermits, life in a monastery is all about routines: there are fixed times to pray, chores to do, etc etc.

Now routine is something that agrees with the story at hand: as we settle in our routines, we tend to see them as comfortable / safe / predictable. And when something comes to disrupt this routine, we might look at it wondering if all this commotion is actually worth the trouble of leaving the security of our little bubble for the uncertainty that waits outside. The more stable out life is, the less we’re inclined to change it to accommodate all the novelties that might come our way.

Thus, in this reading, the Hermit stands for the contentment that arises from routine. What this woman has is enough for her, or so she thinks. In this light, the QB in the “do” and the Judgement in the “don’t” make perfect sense. She should let down her shield (see how the shield in the Empress rhymes with the space delineated by the two swords in the following question) and allow him to come closer, but not change her routine over this. The fact that the new guy is represented got the KC as him is a good thing: he’s experienced (as opposed to Jack and Knight) and he knows what he wants. So you can allow yourself to relax a little and see what happens, while going about your stuff.

Her “prison” then it’s the routine she settled into: the way she’s comfortable with how things are. As the 2 of Swords indicates, this barrier she erected for herself works for her: the flower inside grows and blossoms. It defines her space and how content she is with it, as well as how ready she is to come outside.
Loose the Words, Keep the Pictures
In the end, it all really boils down to this little mantra. ‘Loose the Words, keep the pictures’. Words might feel safer, but it’s all an illusion. In reality, they have a way of sticking to you and soil things out. Pictures, on the other hand, will always point you out in the right direction. They are there for everyone to see. As tarot readers, we are asked to “see”, not “read”. Even that name, “tarot readers”, is misleading. Maybe we should be called “tarot seers” and just to keep looking at the pretty pictures wonder what might be hiding in there.
When it comes to interpret pictures, everything can be useful; even a white background. Specially a white background. By forcing you to look at what really matters and loose all that doesn’t, that empty space is your best protection against all the noise that might creep in.

Tarot deck: Der Lombardische Tarot

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Meeting the Mermaid: An Interview With Dame Darcy

I've known Dame Darcy as a comic book writer for years. She was the creative mind behind Meatcake, a mind-blowing comic that mixed romance, mermaids, strange characters with interesting names like Wax Wolf, StregaPrez or Scampi the Selfish Shellfish, Victorian landscapes, tutorials on how to make dolls, goth chicks and whatever else caught her fancy.

She also used elements of the tarot in one of those. In a four panel page, Dame Darcy was able to synthesize the essential about the minors. You can check it out below:

For someone that grew on a steady diet of superheroes, Meatcake was a breath of fresh air and made me realize how much I was attracted to weirdness. Meatcake was dark and funny and campy and strange all at the same time, and you never knew what to expect from the next story. Only that it would be fun.

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Fast forward to 2015. I was browsing some facebook postings and I saw someone talking about a Mermaid deck created by Dame Darcy. The very same Dame Darcy that created those Meatcake comics. Which, of course, meant, that I had to have them. It also meant that another of my favorite comic book creators also had a foot on the magic scene.

And just this year, the Meatcake Bible, which for the first time collected all those Meatcake stories in one single volume, got a nomination for the Eisner Awards for Best Graphic Album – Reprint category. While it didn't end up winning the prize, just getting nominated for what is considered "the Oscars of comics" was already quite a feat and a recognition of the quality of her comics work. And it also gave me the perfect reason to reach out to her and bring a little of her mermaidness to you. After all, we're supposed to be a maelstrom here, and what's a maelstrom without some mermaids?

1) What brought you over to tarot and, since you've published a book about it (The Handbook for Hot Witches), magic?

I set a goal, then I trust the Goddess to guide me, every day.
Working towards the goal, I watch for the signs she shows to guide me on the path of least resistance. Repetitive numbers appearing as confirmation is one kind of sign.
The basic outline of my experiences here have been that, sometimes frustrating or infuriating circumstances will lead to an ultimate unexpected reward and one must remember to be patient.
Making a mermaid tarot deck is one way to serve the ancient mermaid Goddess Yamaya and writing an occult book for children on a main stream publisher like Holt makes me so happy!
When I lived in LA I didn't like how my Latina students were treated like second class citizens in what was originally Mexico. And I felt like the billboards with all the white girls weren't honoring diversity and celebrating different kinds of beauty.
My students inspired me to write Hand Book For Hot Witches as well as my FairyGodchildren.

2) In both your Meakcake comics and the Handbook for Hot Witches you've made a point in showing how being different was actually a good thing that brought richness, creativity and diversity to the world. And yet, you've identified yourself as a mermaid, and even put out a Mermaid tarot deck. But mermaids have traditionally been associated with bad omens and dangerous events, the story of the goddess Atargatis who transforms herself into a mermaid after unintentionally murdering her human lover immediately comes to mind. How do you see the mermaid as an agent of change in this world?

Like the ocean, Mermaids can be beautiful mysterious and happy sparkiling creatures, representing the glorious days spent at sea when the weather is clear and bright. Bringing joy and abundance to all who love the sea. It is the source of all life on this planet.
My parent's named me Darcy Megan which means Dark Sea Pearl. How they knew I was going to be a goth mermaid when I grew up is very intuitive of them. And I embrace the dark side of mermaids. Everyone should fear and respect the ocean because Tsunami’s and shipwrecks are not a joke.

All the sad things going on with climate change nowadays and the ocean kills me. I wish plastic had never been invented. Or the corporate jerks who don’t take responsibility for its clean up, and one day they will all be stopped. Ultimately, the ocean will win and humanity will lose if they keep it up.

3) Also in your Handbook for Hot Witches, you've mentioned in passage how witches were related with storytellers and how rhymes and songs were important in spells and chants. Being a tarot reader (and deck maker), what do you think is the song of the tarot?

I made the tarot to be lyrical and romantic like a song, and even in one review someone said they could tell I was a musician.
I think the song of my Mermaid Tarot would be a sea shanty.

4) Browsing through your Mermaid deck, there's a noticeable Waite-Smith (WS) vibe there, specially in the minors. At the same time, the court cards and the majors often deviate from that WS matrix. What made you choose the WS tarot as a backbone for your own deck, and why did you choose to present different images for the Majors (for the most part) and the courts?

The first time I saw a tarot deck was my mom’s classic Ryder Waite from 1971.
I’ll never forget one night Mom’s friend was visiting us in Idaho from LA, and they were in the back room sitting by the fire. My mom’s long light auburn hair hung like a curtain with the fire glowing through it as she placed the cards in front of her friend to tell her a story of her life.
I thought it was very entrancing. When I was a teen witch my Mom bought me my own deck in Highschool, but I lost it sadly.
Then my friend Kat Bjelland from Babes in Toyland bought me another Rider Waite deck about ten years ago which I still use now.
I loved the atmosphere of the illustrations and have tried to emulate and recreate this kind of drawing style influenced by the Ryder Waite deck as well as illustrations from turn of the century fairytale books in my comics.

5) Comics are a form of visual narrative and the same could be said about the tarot. Both have their own distinct approach, and yet, there are several similarities between them. Having worked with both, how did your comics work and your tarot work influenced each other? And how do you think comics can help with tarot reading skills?

I was raised catholic and I always loved how the catholic church has stained glass windows that tell a visual sequencial narrative like comics.
When I decided to do a tarot deck I was very inspired by the fact it is also another form of sequencial art. And I couldn’t wait to do a nautical themed one with mermaids as the key characters.
The next tarot deck I want to produce will be based on the characters from my comic book Meat Cake.

 

 

You can contact Dame Darcy through her site, here. The Meatcake Bible can be bought over at amazon, at Fantagraphics or through Dame Darcy's online shop. Her tarot deck, now on its third edition, can be bought directly from her also from her shop. As for the Handbook for Hot Witches, you can get it from amazon and Dame Darcy's online shop.

Every Picture Tells A Story: An Interview with Aliza Einhorn

Aliza Einhorn is a recent find. I was over at Patheos a few weeks ago when I saw an ad for one of her astrology posts there. At the end of the post, Aliza had a short text plugging her latest on-line tarot workshop on how to create your own tarot deck, which is being developed in collaboration with the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW). For those of you who don't know what SAW is, SAW is a school for cartooning, comic art and graphic novels that started its activity in 2012. But more that just a school devoted to teaching the art of making comics, they're invested in bringing more people to comics and guiding people on how to communicate through images. Which is, basically, what we all do with tarot cards. Watching comic book people discovering the tarot is always a joy. Tom Hart, both a comic book professional and the director of SAW and has just posted his reaction over at the SAW's newsletter and it's great.

This is why, when I learned of Aliza's course, I was all over the place and immediately contacted her for a short interview. After all, comics and tarot are two of my major passions. Capital M, capital A, capital J, capital O, capital R. And I will take every chance I have to bring them on. This time, I have invited a tarot reader / astrologer / poet. Which, as you probably know, is a great combination to have together. She will talk through images and words and will spin those into a charm just for you. With her new course, she proposes to bring some of that magic forth and show you how magic is just another word for art.

So, without any further delay, here's Aliza Einhorn, about tarot and comics.

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1) How did your collaboration with Tom Hart and SAW, the Sequential Artists Workshop, come about?

Synchronicity! I was messaging with my friend, illustrator and cartoonist Leela Corman (who is married to Hart) and was saying how I'd like to do another local Tarot workshop for SAW students. I had already done one, a few months before. Literally a second later, Tom asked her if she thought I might be interested in teaching in the on-line SAW school. It felt like it was meant to be.

I've been teaching Tarot and Astrology classes on line for years, on my own. This was the first time I’d ever done anything local and also my first collaboration. Astrology lovers reading this know that Jupiter is in Libra and I have had all kinds of new partnerships spring up during this transit.

2) What is the class about? Who is it for?

I like to say that the class is for everyone! Artists, writers, those who want to create their own decks, Tarot lovers, Tarot curious.
It’s also for folks who simply want to get more in touch with their creativity, or feel blocked, using the Tarot as our template. It’s different than anything I’ve done before, more structured with weekly videos and writing and drawing assignments, and a private forum to talk about it all.

3) How can comics benefit Tarot readers?

Exposure to any art form will benefit Tarot readers because art, good art, moves us on a deep level, just as the Tarot does. This makes us more sensitive humans and thus better able to read the cards with compassion and truth and help people.
For me, comics are like holding a movie in my hands. It’s an immediate, raw experience. Happens so fast and so deeply. The best comics, for me, are like arrows to the heart and I can’t put the book or the comic down. It’s the feeling of not wanting to take the arrows out.

4) You said that reading comics is a raw immediate experience. How would you define a tarot reading?

I really love this question! Although Tarot reading, for me, is art and magic, ultimately I want clear answers, whether I'm drawing for clients or for myself. I want clarity. I want the road ahead. And I want to know what is most likely to happen. I'm in pursuit of truth, more than mystery. And if mystery comes, then I wait, and seek the truth again. So to answer the question of "how would I define a Tarot reading?" a Tarot reading is daily life. Just like I brush my teeth, drink coffee, eat food, work, etc., I draw the cards. For me, the spiritual is practical. And yet I often say to people: I don't know why it works, just that it does. I know a lot of Tarot readers who shy away from prediction. I run towards it!

5) What do you think is the most important aspect when creating a deck?

Courage. To be yourself and to tell your story. Your own imagination is key. This is a theme that runs through the class, but also it’s important to have some knowledge of Tarot history and tradition. You don’t need to be a Tarot scholar, but I think one should know some of the history they’re stepping into.
Still, the most important aspect is YOU and to discover your personal vision, what you want to say, show, within the Tarot context. Every new deck is a conversation with the decks that came before.
There may be folks in the class who decide to NOT make a Tarot deck at all and instead create some other Oracle or head off in a different direction. Folks who do want to create their Tarot deck though will have ample opportunity to explore and experiment and sketch out their ideas with plenty of support. I’ve just started creating mine and class hasn’t even started yet! I got inspired just from the process of putting together the class.
But in order to be yourself and to tell your story and to go deep in that, it helps to be fearless, vulnerable, and allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to draw (or write) how you feel. That’s the hard part, that letting go, but that’s what will cause you to create something unique and authentic and beautiful.

 

Every Picture Tells a Story, Aliza Einhorn's Tarot Deck Creation Class starts September the 5th. For more information on how to sign on and a freebie, do please go the SAW website, here. For more Aliza goodness, you can check her personal website MoonPlutoAstrology and her Patheos column.

 

When Things Go South

When browsing through the tarot-sphere one stumbles upon quite a diverse range of subjects. Whether it be tarot decks, explanatory tips on how to read cards, spreads, the history of the cards, philosophy, pataphysics, there is practically nothing you can’t find on the web. But when you want to learn about why a reading fails, well… things get a little more complicated. For sure, there are a few posts out there, always reachable within a click or two, but that’s it. I guess that people don’t really want to talk about it online (outside of forums and courses, where there’s always someone asking about this or maybe some advice about how a certain reading can go wrong).

Why people won’t openly talk about that would be an excellent question. Indeed, a question for the cards. But the reasons for that might be so varied that we would probably get lost. It’s usual to see readings presented as successful readings, for obvious matters. As tarot readers, we want to engage people, to bring them in. To show them that cards do work. This is why talking about the failures that we, as a person, might commit isn’t exactly the best of strategies. On the other side, boosting a high percentage of confirmed / successful / on point readings might do exactly that. Statistics are reassuring. A high percentage of good readings will lead people to believe that the reading they’re going to have will also be a good one. Which is one of the best publicities that a tarot reader might have.

It really isn’t about the statistics

And yet, no matter who good our statistics are, every single reading we do still places us face-to-face to someone. Do it wrong and you will still loose face before your client, and what good will those statistics be then? If that reading really goes south, it might make you second-guess yourself, which is something most people aren’t used to do. But something that is truly humbling.

I’m writing all of this because a few days ago I had one of those experiences. I was doing an online reading with no background whatsoever. Just three questions that were put on the table for answer. I drew some cards for them and started describing what I saw and, somehow it all went down the hill without me noticing it. By the end of the reading, the whole thing looked like one of those second-rate drama soaps. The kind you don’t really want to watch, because it’s just “oh! so bad!!”. But again, the reading made sense with the cards, and that was all that mattered. When the feedback came, I was faced with this spectacular shit-hits-the-fan-blow-in-your-face failure, and all of a sudden, a nice deep hole in the ground seemed like a very good idea.

Well, maybe it wasn’t really that bad. But it sure looked like it, probably all the more as I’m not used to these types of situations (ah… the power of statistics… how feeble its assurance really is…). And yet, here it was, as it was want to happen sooner of later.

The cards were wrong!

Because they are the ones that are telling us things, right? After all, our job here is just to interpret them and talk about them. So, if they are wrong, how can we say anything right? But if they are right, the merit is entirely ours, for we were the ones that actually decoded them successfully.

Yes, exactly! Blame it on the cards!

Admitting that the cards can be wrong only opens another shitload of problems, because then not only do we need to make sense of what they are trying to show us, we actually have to figure out when they are right and when they are not. And how do you propose to do that? Ask them in a parallel drawing? Invoking whatever help you deem necessary to assure that they are right? And why are you reading cards anyway, if you can’t even figure out that the cards are wrong in the first place? Better stick to some infallible divination system. God knows how many are out there!

On the other hand, if we admit that the cards are always right, then the problem lies entirely with how the reader choose to interpret what s/he saw. This means that not only you are not dependent on the whims of a few pieces of paper, it also allows you to identify and correct your mistakes, thereby becoming a better reader. Even if, in the process, you do have to admit to being wrong. And really, what is that going to hurt except our own sense of worth? The ego might be a useful thing, but we really shouldn’t have it keeping us from seeing what is right in front of us. That is, after all, what we proposed to do by becoming tarot readers.

So what went wrong?

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Moon card, from the Tarot of Xul Solar

Maybe the querent was in denial or just out for some bad ride. Maybe I was in a bad day. Or there was one of those combinations of little things that made this happen. When stuff like this happens, we’re in Lunar territory, so the first thing to do is really to calm down and try to find our way in the middle of all of this

Which was what I did, just as soon as I dug myself out of that imaginary hole. I picked up the same deck that had so “miserably” failed me and asked it that very question

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THE PAGE OF COINS / 10 OF CUPS / THE CHARIOT

The reading was simple:

“Because you were too eager to get to the pot, you got yourself involved in your own theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had.”

Ouch! Talk about being sharp! The good thing, though, is that “a-ha! I could still read that damned cards!” Well, it might not be much, but it sure is a positive thing. I mean, nothing like some self-validation to raise the morals, right? But there’s a whole lot to unpack from this snappy sentence. So let’s see where this leads.

“You got yourself involved in your theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had”

This is basically what the Page of Coins is saying. There he is, coin in hand showing what he got from his work, while also pointing at another coin that just isn’t there!”

So what happened here? There I was looking at the cards searching for a point of entry to the story before me. As usually happens, the images trigger some ideas, and you go with these ideas trying to figure out how they fit the cards. In a way, I was spinning theories and then looking for evidence in the cards to prove it. There’s nothing wrong with this. But again, one needs to be aware that theories are dangerous things to have, as they can lead us down in the wrong direction and thus, distracting us from what is really going on.

The best thing, then, is to avoid the whole thing altogether. To just stick to the spread lying there on the table and take it all in. To not just look for an answer, but rather to let it come to us. This takes time, obviously. In a good day, it might be as little as 30 seconds. Or it might be significantly more in a bad day. Obviously, when we have a face-to-face reading every second counts, as there’s someone right there in front of us waiting for an answer. But that was not the case with this reading, as it was to be delivered in written form.

This leads nicely into the second part of the the reading,

“You were too eager to get to the pot”

Again, we all want to deliver that snappy sentence that will answer the one in front of us. That is, after all, what we all work for. And, with enough time to think about what is right there in front of us, most of us get there. The problem arises when we convince ourselves that we need to do this fast, for that is when shortcuts are usually taken. Shortcuts like not giving the answer enough time to get to us, as said above. Or shortcuts like not checking our facts, which is one of the most essential things we can do in a card reading.

There are many ways to check the facts. The simplest one was already given: “step back and look at things from a distance”. If, however, one is not able to do this for whatever reason, one can always draw some more cards to see how things got to the point where they are now.

This means looking at past events and trying to figure out what happened. To get the narrative behind the question. Which is all the more important when we don’t have any background or context besides what is given by the question itself. The easiest way to do this is with a past / present / future spread, but there are other ways / spreads that can bring something to the table. And no matter which spread you end up using, the more data you have, the better your conclusions are. Something I was just talking about a few days before, but actually forgot to do it this time around.

Building up the narrative has other advantages, like making the querent realize how things played out; something that s/he might not even be aware of (most of the times, they aren’t). And it has the added advantage of empowering us before the querent: if the querent can check what we say against what he already knows of the situation, well… we just made our work easier. On the downside, if we fail to do that, well… there goes our face again.

It really isn’t about saving face either.

Because, at the end of the day, even with all precautions taken, shit just happens. And we will get a reading wrong now and them. We are, after all, humans, succeeding as humans and failing as humans. And a bad reading is actually the best thing that can happen to us, since it makes us stop and really look at what we are doing. Because, let’s face it: we all have a system to read the cards. A system that was built according to what we learned about card reading from books, talks, blogs, actual readings and tips from extraneous sources. If it’s a bad system, it will regularly fail; if it’s a good system, it will fail less. A really excellent system, is worth its knowledge in gold and you can start marketing it with great success!

But the only way to test this system is to read the cards. So what a bad reading really does is to point us exactly which things need to be addressed and corrected.

In a way, a bad reading is the best thing that could happen to us as a card reader, because it allows us to grow. To grow in understanding and in depth. To address what we got wrong and find a better way to deal with the cards. The cost we have to pay is a lesson in humility. Our ego will get stabbed, for sure. But the ego… ah!!! there’s so many things to say about the ego, and we really don’t have the time. There’s work to be done on accurately reading those pesky cards!

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.