Connecting With Your Ancestors Through Tarot

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Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about death, dying, and honoring ancestors. I even wrote my November newsletter on the topic. Much of this was sparked by reflection on the recent All Souls’ Day on November 2. I realized that not only did I have no active practice to honor my ancestors; I didn’t even have the vaguest idea about who had come before me.

My parents didn’t teach me about my ancestors, so I realized that anything I wanted to know, I’d have to research on my own. I embarked on a free trial membership at Ancestry.com, without much in the way of expectations. However, I was able to trace my ancestry back to my fifth great-grandparents on my father’s side. It was exciting and satisfying to learn the names of the family members who came before my generation. It was also eye-opening to look at some of the public records and piece together little bits of history that relate directly to my flesh and blood relatives from decades and centuries ago. I even found a few photos of some of my relatives from the 1800s that other members had posted on their own family trees.

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Example of an ancestor altar from Parting the Mists

Ancestor Altars and Rituals

Recently Diotima Mantinea of Urania’s Well Astrology wrote a post called How To Talk With Your Ancestors At Samhain, and I used her instructions about how to make an ancestor altar and hold a ritual to honor them.

Here’s the thing, however: if you, like me, aren’t clairvoyant, then how, exactly, do you go about “communicating” with your ancestors? How do you know you’re making a connection, if you don’t “see” or “hear” anything when you attempt to commune with them?

I get around this by using my cards. Because I am such a rational and logical thinker, it’s always been hard for me to trust any sort of impressions that may come to me during a meditation or prayer reflection. Perhaps the reason I work so well with the cards is because they provide me a concrete visual confirmation of a message, rather than requiring me to trust something more nebulous like an intuition or impression.

In my recent attempt to make a first connection with my newly discovered ancestral line, I conducted the ritual as suggested in the above-mentioned post, but, I also added one step: in the phase of the ritual where you are encouraged to reflect and “listen” for your ancestors’ messages, I felt compelled to pull out my Thoth tarot deck and ask my ancestors for a message through the cards. I explained to them that this is the way I feel most comfortable communicating, and invited them to share with me through the cards.

I was feeling particularly frustrated that I can’t seem to easily receive messages or visions like I hear so many of my magical friends talk about. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others and feel like you may lack some crucial skill or component. What I was forgetting, however, is that there isn’t one way that’s better or worse. What’s important is that you find your way that works.

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A Simple Three-Card Ancestor Reading

I drew three cards as follows:

  1. My ancestors’ message for me
  2. My ancestors’ advice for me
  3. How I can best connect with my ancestors

The messages, unsurprisingly, were filled with love and encouragement and a gentle push for me to lighten up a bit and not be so hard on myself for the fact that I can’t “directly” communicate with them through clairvoyance, because the cards are just as valid a vehicle. Rather than comparing ourselves to what others can do, we must remember to focus on what we can do and work within that.

Developing and cultivating a relationship with blood relatives who have come before you can be a beneficial practice that helps link you to the life/death/rebirth cycle. When we actively think about death and dying, and we actively ask for guidance from those who have come before us and wish to help guide us on our earthly journeys, we can grow in our faith and diminish our fear of death.

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Starting The Relationship

Even if you don’t know the names of your ancestors, call on them and ask them for support. Even if your family never taught you about where you come from, and even if you don’t have access to records that trace your ancestry, trust that your ancestor tribe is there for you and wants to help support you.

Here are some more resources to help you get started:

How To Communicate With Your Ancestors
by Michael Shankara at Gaia

Ancestral communication has been an ancient practice in every wisdom tradition throughout time. Your ability to connect with your ancestors is always available.

Accessing the Wisdom of Our Ancestors
An interview with Sobonfu Somè, a teacher of African spirituality from the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso

It is important to create a relationship with the ancestors first, but it cannot be a one-way kind of relationship. Your relationship with your ancestors is a relationship that must be nurtured like any other relationship.

Five Ways To Honor Your Ancestors
by Dr. Daniel Foor, Ph.D. of Ancestral Medicine

Direct contact with the spirits of the ancestors can be cultivated through ritual practices; however, communication may also happen spontaneously in forms such as dream contact, waking encounters, and synchronicity. When we have a framework to receive their outreach, their work is made easier and we are open to the enjoyment of conscious, ongoing relationship.

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A Cock & Bull Tarot: The Minchiate Etruria

I love Italy a lot. At least I love a lot of Italian things: the food (divine), the art (frighteningly brilliant), antiquities (just such a lot of it), opera (because FEELINGS), the men (well they ARE very well-groomed & know how to drive a Vespa), faux-antique tea trays (yes, they’re a Thing & JUST LEAVE ME ALONE), and above all, Italian cards. Come to think of it, I hardly use any other decks anymore: the Soprafino tarot, the Vera Sibilla oracle (about which I will tell you more in the future), and pretty much my first big tarot love: the Minchiate Etruria (say Ming-kee-AH-tay. Which looks surprisingly like Chinese but it isn’t. Honest!). Although it never really went away from my practice I’m getting reacquainted with it at present, and so I reckoned you might feel like joining me for a light Italian summer snack.

I found my beloved Etruria about nine years ago in a cheap bookstore amid a batch of Lo Scarabeo leftovers, a print from 1996. The original deck itself saw the light in 1725 in Florence, Italy. It was my first non-RWS deck, and it was quite a departure. But I loved everything about it: the baroque art, the bewildering amount of strange majors (or trionfi), the sporadically illustrated pips. Even the LWB that gave meanings so unlike the high-flown esoteric reading style I was used to. Although at first I struggled to make sense of it, when I found The Minchiate Tarot by the late Brian Williams I fell in love even more. This brilliant book (which I will use as the main source for the discussion below) not only explores in great detail the iconographic context & history of these cards, but it also emphasizes its earthy, self-assured, even cocky nature. The book also comes with a modern Minchiate deck illustrated by the author. Recommended!
 
The name Minchiate seems to have been derived from a (lost) gaming term, as originally it was played as a game, a variant of tarocchi . But it also sounds the same as an obscene expletive, or disparaging term for trifles or nonsense. In Dutch we would probably say gelul, talking out of your dick. In English ‘cock & bull’ would be the nearest expression. Not inappropriate for a worldly, chatty, confident & proudly Florentine deck! So let’s take a closer look.
 
The Minchiate Fiorentina is but one of many tarot variants strewn along the path of what we now know as the traditional tarot deck, of which Marseille-type decks are probably the best-known (I will go with the term traditional deck or tarot for clarity’s sake when comparing the Minchiate). The Minchiate deck did not evolve slowly over time like other regional patterns, but it was invented all at once somewhere early in the 16th century. It continued to flourish throughout the 17th & 18th centuries (hence the Etruria edition), and remained a living game until the 1900s. As there is a lot of excellent information about the Minchiate to be found for the enthusiastic student such as this excellent article by Benebell Wen whom we should all adore), I will limit myself here to the trumps & their most glaring divergences from the mainstream tradition.
 
Firstly, the sheer number of trionfi: there are 41 instead of the usual 22. Because of this it is more or less traditional to read trumps & pips separately. I myself hardly bother with the pips when reading this deck. So what are the extras? Well, in addition to the three ecclesiastical Virtues present in the traditional decks (Temperance, Strength, Justice), we also have the four cardinal Virtues as first described by Aristotle: Hope, Prudence, Faith, Charity. This alone firmly makes the Minchiate a product of the Renaissance with its renewed interest in the Classics. Another series of added cards are the twelve signs of the Zodiac, although no one knows how to explain the random order in which they appear. Furthermore we have the Four Elements. 
 
Cards that iconographically diverge from the Marseille-type, but not from Italian pre-Marseille cards, are Wheel of Fortune, Chariot, Time, Hanged Man, Death, Devil, Tower. Time replaces the Hermit, and depicts an elderly male figure on crutches, surrounded by Saturnine symbolism such as the hourglass & kneeling stag. The Tower is traditionally called the House of the Devil (or God, whichever you prefer), and depicts a nude woman running out of a burning building.
 
Curiously the first five trumps (after the Fool) are called I Papi (the Popes), even though there is no Pope to be found! Instead we have two Emperors: the Western & Eastern Emperor. The Popess seems to have been replaced by the Grand Duke, of which both the name & nature are uncertain. It seems that he started out as a Popess or Empress-like figure, but morphed into an androgynous-looking young male. I therefore read him as an ambiguous, mutable figure, capable of change & growth, but also deception. 
 
There is no Empress either, but before anyone complains about the gender balance in this deck: the Chariot depicts a nude Victory instead of the usual Martian male, the angel in Fame (Judgement, about which more in a minute) is distinctly female, and the four cardinal Virtues are of course all ladies as well. Moreover, the pip suits of Coins & Cups have Fantine (maidens) instead of Pages. So there.
 
A number of trumps have quite distinct iconographies as compared to traditional decks. However, I’m picking my two favourites here: the World & Fame, which replaces Judgement. The World does not depict a simpering world soul enshrined in a floating bower, but a fully nude Amor triumphantly standing on the Globe, bearing his arrow & a crown. This harks back to the Love card, in which a kneeling lover receives a crown from either the object of his adoration or the Goddess of Love herself (and who is to say those two are different beings?), while being shot at by Amor. Love makes the World go round is what these cards are saying, and what a glorious, perilous affair it is. 
 
However, to the Florentine mind this is not even the highest ideal yet: the final trump is Fama, Fame, also called the Angel or the Trumpets. In the Etruria deck this angel is a woman blowing on two trumpets, floating above a recognizable Florence, and sporting the De’Medici family crest. So still better than Love is Fame, when the whole city (which is the whole world you need anyway, at least when you live in Florence) talks about you. Even if it’s only cock & bull. No such thing as bad publicity, right?
 
My love for the worldly message of this deck has NO BOUNDS, people: no Pope or Popess, Amor ruling the world, and what your neighbours say about you completely negates the Judgement at the End of Days. 
And that’s before even trying to read them! 
 
So let’s look at an example. This is a reading I recently did for a client. As you can see I added charms to this reading, which are very well received by the baroque images of the Etruria. This is the ‘traditional’ spread from the LWB: three trumps for the main story, more or less past-present-future, but to be read loosely as a story. Four pips around it, past, present, future developments or challenges, and outcome.
 
The client felt at a loss about where her life should be going: to leave her situation including her relationship, or not? To me, World at the centre with Amor on top of a crossroads of sorts, reflects this conundrum. The figure is holding the Cross & the Heart charms, meaning a choice between shouldering the burden & following your heart. Amor being at the heart of this reading is significant in itself of course. The Mask covering his face indicates that the querent does not feel the love anymore, and she feels fake & insincere. 
 
Taurus to the left, looking wistfully at the Chariot that I pulled as a sight card, shows that the querent has found stability that they now find stifling (Elephant, Cloud), and would rather move along (Star charm). Also, the Chariot explains why the querent is reluctant to move from a secure spot, after some abrupt movement earlier on. However, from the cards to the right it is clear that she will eventually make the dreaded move: House of the Devil shows a woman running from a dire situation, with the Man charm covering the figure pulling her back in.
 
The woman figure got the Oyster & Pearl charm, showing that deep down she already knows that she needs to leave. The Water card shows the Ship, meaning a new adventure, and also a literal journey. So she will definitely move away. The Ship also got the Compass, meaning a new direction. With the Roman numeral X at the heart of the Chariot, the World crossroads, and the Compass, this means three Crossroads in a row. Obviously there is a lot of emphasis on choosing a new path.
 
Looking at the pips, we see the painful situation that the querent has left behind, before she found her present stability that has now turned stagnant: Three of Swords, with Dragon covering the wolf that suckles the children. This situation was toxic, not nurturing, and she did well to leave it behind (Skull, Dagger). In the present we find the Seven of Cups, with four accompanying charms. The Cups show an illusory relationship, and the Lion staring at the Moon & Ring but ignoring the Apple that would actually nurture him tells us that the querent is using her Strength to keep herself in an unhealthy situation. 
 
We already saw that she will likely move away, and if she does so she will receive a gift, as illustrated by the Three of Coins. She will be dealt a lucky Hand, and find a nurturing & prosperous situation (Peacock/Empress). Moreover, with the Seer’s Eye & the Hand of Cards, the Three indicates that she will be able to expand her card reading business some more. 
 
The outcome looks very good indeed: the Eight of Coins shows her happy & secure amid a warm community. With Butterfly & Raven it is clear that her ancestral spirits are fully on board with this transformation. Locket & Witch Plant show gifts & growth yet to be revealed, and confirm that loss & stagnation are diminishing factors, even though the querent will need to continue her internal work.
 
So that is a clear, concise reading that you can make as detailed as you want, with just this simple spread! However, I mainly use the trumps in freestyle storytelling readings, or sometimes in a Grand Tableau, using all the charms as well. Endless possibilities! If you take the trouble to get to know these intriguing cards, you will be well rewarded.
Buon’appetito!
 
Want your own Minchiate reading? You can choose between several in my shop!
 
 
 
 

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.

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

K4 p19

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 -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.