How many major arcana to expect in a Tarot reading?

For the last topic in my series on mathematical investigations of Tarot, I want to discuss how many major arcana cards should be expected in a typical spread of ten cards. The answer to this is a little difficult to calculate, and it draws on the work we’ve done so far. We established that the number of distinct ten-card arrangements (spreads) without reversals is 78! / 68!, which is approximately 4.56 * 10 ^ 18.

In order to find out the probability of having, say, 4 major arcana cards in a ten-card spread, we can figure out the number of different arrangements of four majors and six minors are possible. That gives us the number of different spreads with exactly four major arcana cards in it. If we divide that number by the total number of ten-card spreads, we get the probability of having four major arcana out of ten.

To find out how many ten-card spreads have exactly four majors, imagine that we split the deck into two groups: majors and minors. First we draw four majors at random, then draw six minors at random. How many different ways can we do that? We’re going to use a concept called combinations to figure out. Combinations are like permutations, except in combinations order does not matter. Combinations are like a salad – all the ingredients are mixed up together. Permutations are like a sandwich – which thing is on top matters.

To figure out how many combinations of four major arcana cards are possible, say we draw four. There are 22 possibilities for the first card, 21 possibilities for the second, 20 for the third, and 19 for the fourth, so there are 22*21*20*19 = 22! / (22-4)! = 22! / 18!. But this way of counting would assume that the order of drawing matters, when in fact we haven’t arranged the cards into the final spread yet at all. So this number is counting it as different if we draw the Fool, the Star, the World, and the Hanged Man as opposed to the Hanged Man, the Star, the World, and the Fool. These are different permutations (different orderings) but the same combination. Each combination can occur in 4*3*2*1 different permutations, so each one is being counted 4! = 24 times. If we take the result above and divide by 4!, we’ll get the correct number of combinations of four major arcana cards: 22! / (4! * 18!)

For the combination of six minor arcana cards, we can do the same thing and get 56! / (6! * 50!)

So now we have a combination of four majors and six minors and we have to make a Tarot spread out of them. For any set of ten cards there are 10! (= 10*9*8*…*2*1) ways to arrange these into a ten-card spread because the positions of the cards matters.

Then we can multiply these results together to figure out how many Tarot spreads there are with four majors and six minors: (22! / (4! * 18!)) * 56! / (6! * 50!) * 10! = 8.62 * 10 ^ 17.

Now that number isn’t really useful to us. All it tells me off the top of my head is that the number of spreads with four majors is smaller than the total number of spreads (and if we had gotten the opposite result, we’d know something was wrong with our math!). How much smaller is it? Well, we can divide: the number of spreads with four majors divided by the total number of spreads is 0.1887.

That number is a probability! Specifically, it’s the probability that a randomly-dealt spread of ten cards has exactly four major arcana in it. If you remember that percentages are probabilities times 100, then that number tells you that about 18% of your ten-card Tarot spreads will have four major arcana cards.

I used the same process to calculate the probability of having zero, one, two, and so on majors in a ten-card spread. Here are my results:

  • For a spread with no major arcana cards the probability is 0.0282
  • 1 major has probability 0.1324
  • 2 majors has probability 0.2607
  • 3 majors has probability 0.2838
  • 4 majors has probability 0.1887
  • 5 majors has probability 0.07994
  • 6 majors has probability 0.0217
  • 7 majors has probability 0.0037
  • 8 majors has probability 0.00039
  • 9 majors has probability 0.00002
  • 10 majors has probability 5.138 * 10 ^ -7 (that’s a number starting with six zeroes after the decimal place)

Interestingly, you’re most likely to get three majors in a ten-card spread, and almost as likely to get just two majors. Anytime you see more than four majors it is going to be very unusual, and anything with more than half majors is extremely unusual.

The most surprising result to me was that you have less than a 3% chance of getting a spread that is all minors. What surprises you about these results?

Note these results are rounded. If you add them up you will get almost (but not quite) 1.000, which is what we should get (there’s 100% probability of one of these conditions occurring when we deal a ten-card spread).

Again, these results took some effort to calculate, so if you use them, please link back.

Daily Tarot Practice

I’ve discovered that a daily Tarot practice is a great way to get better insight into the meanings of the cards as they relate to everyday life. I’ve been working on my daily practice lately – and I’ll be writing more about that soon – and have made it a habit to draw three Tarot cards daily.

Like other kinds of daily practice, this is something that many teachers and books advise, but I don’t know how many people actually do it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how useful it’s been.

One of the things it often does is reflect back to me what I already know; you could make an argument that this is entirely what Tarot does, and it’s very useful! By highlighting some things and bringing them further into my conscious attention, Tarot helps me figure out what is most important for me to be concentrating on at a given time. This helps me use my own self-knowledge more effectively. For example, when I’m having a bad day with depression and I draw the Five of Cups, seeing the card reminds me to acknowledge my feelings and take extra time for self-care.

Another way daily work with the cards has helped is by allowing me to discover more mundane meanings of the cards in my life. I don’t know about you, but most of the meanings I’ve learned for cards are expressed in broad, generalized language that has a lot to do with the psychological implications of the cards. This is useful because it allows for a broad range of interpretations, but it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of practical meanings very much.

Those practical, mundane interpretations are something I’m discovering for myself. The Six of Swords can mean a lot of paperwork and bureaucratic hassle. The Lovers is a beautiful card, but the Two of Cups has more to do with connecting with my love in day to day life. And I can’t tell you how often lately the Chariot has come up when I’m going to spend a long day in the car.

If you’re thinking of starting a regular Tarot practice, start small – maybe even just drawing a card a day. If you’re learning Tarot, it can help you practice remembering the meanings of the cards. If you’re experienced, maybe you’ll find new meanings or just get a heads-up on what your day may hold for you. Either way, incorporating Tarot into your daily practice can be rewarding. I’d love to hear about how it works for you.

Animal signs

While keeping up my series of posts on divination at the time of the new moon, I’m going to mix things up today and write a little bit about a kind of divination that is not nearly as systematic as Tarot or runes or other methods. It’s less systematic, and in some ways more open to chance and to individual interpretation, because it relies on nature for its signs. Specifically, I’m going to share a few experiences I’ve had with observing the appearances and behavior of animals that have carried spiritual meaning for me. If you’ve had similar experiences, I’d like to hear about them, too!

There are formalized systems of animal divination, or at least collections of the suggested interpretations of particular animals and their appearances or behaviors, but I haven’t studied any of these. So far, my work with animal signs has been primarily an extension of connection with the landbase and finding the divine in the immanent all around us.

The most powerful signs for me have been the animal form of a deity making an appearance, such as when I encounter ravens and crows and sense the Morrigan at work. These signs are often a gentle reminder of her presence – sort of like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m here with you.” On the other hand, they can also be a reminder to consult with a deity or power that I haven’t interacted with in a while – sort of the equivalent of that “Hey, we haven’t talked in a while. How are you doing?”

This kind of interpretation is an area that relies heavily on intuition and one’s existing relationships with spirits and powers. It can also be significantly improved by a working awareness of one’s landbase and its other inhabitants. Anything out of place or unusual is more likely to be able to carry divinatory meaning. For example, seeing eagles at the zoo is probably not a sign from Zeus or Athena; seeing eagles in the wild is more likely to be.

In addition to deity forms, I also draw on the stories or qualities associated with specific animals to interpret signs. I once went to Teddy Roosevelt Island and saw turtles in two widely separated places. That day remains the only time I’ve seen turtles there. That was a strong message for me to endure and be patient but persistent, and it bore out.

Now, not every appearance is going to have divinatory meaning. Even behaviors that seem unusual can be perfectly natural, just unfamiliar to you. It’s always important, with this as with other forms of divination, to reflect on how and why you’re interpreting the message the way you are, and to think critically about whether the message is significant at all. On the other hand, a natural cause doesn’t rule out a symbolic meaning; one time that I observed a very active stag during the rutting season, I knew he was out and about because of the rut, but his appearance was also a meaningful message to me to remember the masculine divine and the way the urge for life continues even near Samhain.

Finally, don’t restrict yourself to the charismatic megafauna (the big interesting animals) only. Don’t be bummed out if your power animal or the animal forms of your deities don’t live in your local environment. Try paying attention to what is present in the world around you. Does that cheeky cardinal in your yard show up more often at times when you need to let your own colors shine?

If you have worked with this at all, share some wisdom: How do you work with signs and meanings from the animal world? How do you develop this kind of awareness?

How many reversed cards in a Tarot reading?

How many reversed cards should we expect? Many Tarot readers read reversed cards with slightly different meanings; we know that reversals have a lot of nuance in them, and don’t just mean “bad” things, but it can still be disconcerting to see seven or eight cards out of ten upside-down. Actually, people who work with reversed cards should be accustomed to seeing quite a few reversals in any spread, but it’s still hard to quantify whether any given number of reversals is unusual. It turns out that the binomial probability distribution can help us refine our expectations of how many reversed cards are usual in a typical spread.

While we know to expect “about” five reversed cards out of ten, the binomial probability distribution tells us that really anywhere from two to eight cards is not surprising.

The binomial probability distribution applies to situations where we have a number of independent events, each of which has two possible outcomes. In a Tarot spread, each card is an event, and its outcomes can be either upright or reversed. I’m going to assume that each card will be reversed about half the time, for a probability of 0.5. This assumes your method of reversing cards is truly random, but it will be a reasonable approximation for most methods.

The average number of reversals in a given spread will be the number of cards in the spread times the probability of a single card being reversed. For a ten card spread, the expected number of reversed cards is five. This intuitively makes sense; it’s when we get more or fewer that we start to wonder whether it happened by chance.

The number that helps us understand how much things differ from the expected is the standard deviation. For a probability distribution, the standard deviation is a measure of how wide the distribution is. This means it tells us how normal or weird a particular difference (deviation) from the expected value (standard) really is.

For a binomial probability distribution, we find the standard deviation by taking the expected value times the probability of the opposite outcome (which is also one half, or 0.5), and then taking the square root. For a spread of ten Tarot cards, the standard deviation works out to about 1.6.

Almost 70% of the time, when we deal ten cards, the number of reversed cards will be the average (five) plus or minus one standard deviation (1.6). Therefore most of the time, we should expect four to six reversed cards.

For 95% of readings, we’ll be within plus or minus two standard deviations, which means anywhere from two to eight cards reversed. This is important; it’s easy for us to look at six reversed cards and say that that’s close to five, so it’s normal, but when the reversals start creeping up towards eight, a significant majority of the reading, we can get nervous. Don’t!

Understanding that eight reversed cards is normal is an example of how math helps us refine our intuition. 95% of the time is a lot – this is nineteen times out of twenty. In only one out of twenty readings would you expect to get something outside of these bounds. How long does it take you to do twenty full Celtic Cross readings? Only once out of those twenty times would you see a reading with all reversed cards or all upright cards, or even a reading with just a single card upright or a single card reversed.

Of course, this kind of understanding is only a starting place for the real work of a Tarot reading. The specific meanings of the cards which are reversed, the patterns revealed in the layout, and most importantly the meanings that the client reads as applicable to her or his life, are much more important for the interpretation of a given Tarot reading, and they give each reading its unique qualities.

Still, the simple numerical understanding indicates that we should expect to work with what seems like a lot of reversed cards. Hopefully, knowing this means that the presence of these cards won’t necessarily make you disturbed or uncomfortable; they are a way for Tarot to give you a wider range of nuance and information, so engaging with them can lead to even more insight and understanding.

Elemental Dignities: a few examples

Considering the Elemental Dignities among three cards can show which cards are supporting and reinforcing and which cards have friction or conflict, adding new depth to a reading.

I wrote about using Elemental relationships between Tarot cards and astrological signs in the Weekly Tarot Zodiac entry for my women’s spirituality organization. Where the idea of Elemental Dignities really becomes useful, though, is when we’re working with three (or more) cards and the relationships between them.

For WTZ entries such as next week’s, instead of looking at the Elements of three different cards, I look at the Elements indicated by the Wild Card, the astrological sign, and the card drawn for that sign. Understanding the relationships between the Elemental Dignities of these three pieces helps me know how the current situation and the natural tendencies of a person’s sign are likely to interact with the wild card’s influence.

The Major Arcana cards don’t necessarily have an Element associated with them, but even there the Elements give me more context in which to read the Majors. For Aries, for example, the context of Fire and Earth guided me to read the card Awakening (Judgment) as suggesting certain kinds of renewal.

When all three pieces feature the same Element, that obviously means that Element is having a very powerful influence on the person’s life right now. It’s worthwhile to be cautious about this occurrence, though, as it can mean an over-abundance of that Element. My WTZ reading didn’t have any of these, but Virgo with the Hermit was close, so I included a reminder not to go too far into the Hermit’s withdrawal, suggesting instead that readers balance that with the “Explorer” part of the wild card.

When two pieces have one Element and the third piece is a friendly Element (remember, Water and Earth are friendly to each other, Air and Fire are friendly to each other), all the pieces are usually working fairly well together. For Cancer, a Water sign, to draw an Earth card in combination with the Earth wild card indicates that it should be fairly easy for Cancer to use her natural inclination to work with the experiences these cards portray.

When the three pieces are split between two Elements which are neutral to each other (Earth and Fire or Water and Air), there is a tendency for the “odd one out” to be downplayed or de-emphasized relative to the others. For Sagittarius, with the 5 of Earth and the wild card Explorer of Earth being neutral to the Fiery qualities of Sagittarius, I read that as two pieces of advice for Sagittarius individuals to try to limit their innate tendency to try to change things, suggesting instead that they work on remaining present with the situation they experience even while it is challenging or difficult.

There can also be a split between two Elements which are unfriendly to each other (Earth and Air or Water and Fire), which usually indicates friction or an inability to get different parts of a situation to work in harmony. The wild card for this week is an Earth card, and Taurus is an Earth sign, but Taurus drew the Elder of Air, which I interpreted as Taurus’s earthy tendencies creating difficulty moving into the role of a wise elder.

Elemental Dignities are especially interesting when the three pieces are from three different Elements. This means that among the three there will be pairs that are both friendly and unfriendly! For example, with the wild card Explorer of Earth, the Air sign Gemini drew the card Elder of Water. Here the Earth and Water are friendly, the Water and Air are neutral, and the Earth and Air are unfriendly.

These combinations hold fascinating potential. One of the first interpretations I try to apply to these situations is that one piece forms a “bridge” or “hinge” between the otherwise unfriendly pieces. In this case, the Elder of Water may mediate between Gemini’s Airy tendencies and the Explorer’s Earthy stolidity. Exactly how that mediation takes place depends heavily on the cards themselves; sometimes it can indicate that the one in the middle is being pulled in two different directions, and sometimes it can be a suggestion for a way forward to combine the best of both worlds. Either way, the idea of Elemental Dignities helps me connect the pieces when there are multiple Elements floating around in a particular reading.

For more information about Elemental Dignities and examples of three-card combinations, see the excellent resources at Tarot Eon.

Are Elemental Dignities something you use in your readings? How do you find them helpful? Would you like to learn more?

Elemental interactions in Tarot

The Weekly Tarot Zodiac is a feature of the Order of the White Moon, the Goddess-centric order that ordained me. The Weekly Tarot Zodiac entry that I wrote for this week is an example of how to use interactions between the Elements to give more depth to a reading.

I have been known to describe my Tarot style by saying that I read people as much as I read cards. Fundamentally, I use Tarot as a tool that gives me a beginning point for starting a kind of spiritual counseling session with an individual. In the Weekly Tarot Zodiac, I don’t have an individual to dialogue with as the reading develops; in fact, I don’t have a single individual in mind, but instead am trying to write something that will be helpful for as many different people as possible.

The readings consist of a single Tarot card for each sign of the zodiac, plus a wild card. This simplicity is challenging: there are a lot of individual Tarot cards that are very ambiguous in their meaning. Even the ones that seem fairly clear-cut, such as the ten of Swords, have to be interpreted, as they provide only a snapshot or allusion to a particular situation. Is this something to seek out? Something to avoid? Something you’re currently experiencing? A course of action to take in order to avert an unwanted outcome? The inherent ambiguity is a significant strength of Tarot as a divination system; it allows it to be flexible and diverse enough to help almost any querent find a meaningful reflection of hir situation in the cards. Where the querent and reader interpret and apply the potential meanings is the magic of Tarot.

Without a personal interaction to engage that kind of meaning-making, I try to harness the combination of two different systems, specifically using the interactions between the Element of each particular sign and the Element of a Tarot card. The Element of a zodiac sign gives me clues about the qualities a person is likely to have: for example, the Water signs of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are likely to be deeply emotional (although each is different depending on the quality of the sign – cardinal, fixed, or mutable – which I hope to discuss more in the future).

When I compare the Element of the sign with the Element of the Tarot card, it gives me clues about whether the card is suggesting that a person should capitalize on hir natural tendencies or try to work in a different direction.


When the Element of a card matches the Element of the sign, that often means that a person should engage hir predisposition to work with that Element. In some cases, though, especially if the card seems to depict a negative situation or is reversed, it can mean an excess of that energy.

When the Elements fall into the pairings of Earth with Water or Air with Fire, they are closely aligned and will usually be easy to work with. I think of these as suggesting a gentle redirection of energy; a Water person might take hir natural emotional energy and ground more fully, while a Fire person might be getting a suggestion to direct hir intrinsic drive and action into some reflection or brainstorming. For example, when Gemini got the Two of Wands this week, I suggested moving from imagination (Air, Gemini) into action (Fire, Wands).

When the Elements fall in pairs of Earth with Fire or Water with Air, they are neutral towards each other. The tendencies of these Elements neither reinforce nor cancel out. They can indicate something that the person simply doesn’t think about or work with very much; it’s not a difficult or impossible way of viewing the world, just a less-used one. For example, when Libra got the Three of Cups this week, I suggested turning Libra’s tendency for thinking (Air) towards enjoyment and celebration (Water, Cups).

When the pairings of Earth with Air or Water with Fire occur, there can be real friction. The natures of these Elements are inimical to each other; it can be really difficult for a deeply emotional person to get up and actually take action, or for someone who spends all hir time in hir head to get down and ground. I think of these cards as direction to stop and reconsider: really challenge yourself to develop the qualities that are hardest for you to use. For example, when Aries got The Moon (which is associated with Water for me), I asked those individuals to engage with the deeper, less conscious feelings that they tend to leave behind in their drive for action.

Another challenge that arises with this method of interpretation is that the Major Arcana don’t have simple Element associations the way the cards of the four suits do. We can construct Elemental attributions – it’s easy to see the Sun as Fire and the Moon as Water – but these depend heavily on each person’s view of the cards and any other factors being considered. (In a Qabala-based system of understanding the cards, for example, the Sun and Moon might both be attributed to Air.) For these cards, I typically try to compare the overarching theme of the card with the sign’s Element and consider the same kinds of alliances and frictions that might occur: Taurus can run the risk of being too stable and grounded, so when the Lovers came up, I interpreted that in the context of flexibility and growth.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to use Elemental interactions to build greater relationships between different Tarot cards or between the cards and any other Elemental system. In future posts, I hope to give more specific examples of working with the system of Elemental dignities between cards, so stay tuned.

NB: I capitalize Element when I am referring to the symbolic, metaphysical Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit, to avoid confusion with the chemical elements (hydrogen, helium, etc.).

Reviewing divination

Star wrote recently about reviewing divination, and expressed some discomfort at the idea. I think reviews are important (although I’ve been slack at doing more of my own lately), especially for things like divination where it can be hard for potential consumers to assess what they might be getting. In particular, Star did a great job of evaluating things that go to the heart of a particular diviner’s skill and style. She didn’t just say “it was a good reading because it told me what I wanted to hear” or the opposite. So in that spirit, let me make a few comments of my own about a reading I had recently.

On the advice of the wonderful Caroline Kenner, I had a session with Ivo Dominguez. It was very freestyle; Ivo told me he would use astrological data, Tarot, and his own intuition or “sight,” but he didn’t say where specific information or observations came from. That was fine with me because he was so dead-on about so many things that I don’t care how he got that information. We spent more time discussing how those things were related to my magical and mundane life, which was more important.

Ivo let me frame a general area of interest and then he ran with it, which also contributed to the wide-ranging nature of the discussion. He used a lot of metaphors to communicate some of the things he was expressing, and would switch from metaphor to metaphor to try to give me as much insight as possible. I like thinking that way, and felt like it gave me a lot of information that I’ll continue to unpack as I review it. Others who want things expressed in a more plain-and-simple kind of way might be frustrated by that style. But Ivo chooses his metaphors carefully and has a wide range of symbolism at his disposal, which makes him much more effective at communicating this way than most people; his symbols aren’t an attempt to escape more specific communication as much as a way to convey complexity.

And speaking of reviewing, Ivo made an audio recording of the whole session and sent it to me as an mp3 so that I can go back over it, and can come back with follow-up questions after I review it. I thought that was the crowning grace of a really fantastic session. Thanks, Ivo!

How CS Lewis Taught Me Astrology

CS Lewis’ fictional descriptions helped me understand the qualities of the five classical planets because he retained pagan elements in the Medieval worldview that he studied and loved.

I have written before about why I prefer other forms of divination over astrology, but for some of my recent lessons in the Order of the White Moon, astrology became important, so I set out to become at least minimally more familiar with it. In the process of doing so, I made a strange discovery: some of my deepest visceral understanding of astrology draws on the work of Christian apologist CS Lewis.

Specifically, it comes from the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, an attempt at a sort of sci-fi Christian allegory. At heart, though, Lewis is a medievalist, and like Dante, he has to make space for those virtuous pagans and their ideas that he could not bear to leave behind. (Please note that I use lowercase for classical paganism or what Bonewits described as paleo-paganisms.)

In The Discarded Image, Lewis’ book on medieval cosmology, he says, “Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.” (203) He goes on to admit: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.” (216) While he admits that there is a tiny problem in that the old cosmology was scientifically inaccurate, but being well aware of the changes in scientific ontology and epistemology around the turn of the 20th century, he feels free to use the fall of positivism as a defense for his romantic fascination.

A much more serious concern for him is that the truly classical worldview, rediscovered in the medieval period, was not Christian. He integrates his beloved Model with Christianity by, among other things, characterizing the spirits of the planets as a kind of angel, fitting them neatly into the Great Chain of Being without disrupting its hierarchical structure, following the lead of many thinkers both medieval and modern who concluded that they had found in Christianity the name of the Aristotelian Prime Mover.

The Space Trilogy reads to me as an extended series of musings on how the hybrid vigor of this revitalized (and redeemed?) medieval mythology might play out in today’s world(s). It starts out with establishing the cosmos and Earth’s place in it; the second book reimagines a new creation-redemption myth; the third brings the consequences back to Earth with a quasi-apocalyptic tale that fuses the trippy imagery of Arthur C. Clarke with the assurance of epic meaning through spiritual warfare of Frank Peretti.

Lewis was trying to work with sci-fi, but the result reads more like fantasy kludged with his contemporary technology. Since his protagonist, like himself, is a scholar of languages and liberal arts, neither of them has any interest in the science and the narrative takes pains to spare the reader any potentially boringly-detailed discussions of the technology. Much more interesting are his interpretations of the angelic beings of different orders; he dwells lovingly on the sensations of being near them and speculates about how they might exist, using all the best medieval metaphors, such as “vibrations.”

Throughout it all runs the deep certainty of the apologist and the massively kyriarchical assumptions of the utterly privileged. To me, there is also a whisper of the sense that readers can vicariously enjoy the protagonist’s place at the center of universe-shaking action in lieu of their own frustrated desires to have a more important role in the epic narrative their theology lays out for them. With all of this in mind, I should point out that That Hideous Strength, the third in the trilogy, is a deeply weird book and not one I recommend to the casual reader – but…

For me, Lewis certainly succeeded in his project to bring a deeper understanding of the Medieval cosmology to the modern mind. Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the powers that inhabit the five classical planets descend to Earth, and Lewis chronicles the effects each of them has on a core group of characters. Those accounts stuck in my mind as the most vivid ways of understanding the influences of each of these planets, much more clearly than any information gleaned from the original myths, perhaps because Lewis does write from the human perspective.

Mercury brings puns and “plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced yet (on consideration) well worth taking seriously…skyrockets of metaphor and allusion.” (318) Lewis’ own allusions to the qualities of literal mercury lead to him describing how “all the fragments – needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts – went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves,” much as is experienced when poetry brings “the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.” (319)

Lewis is more sparing in his descriptions of Venus’ effects, sparing the delicate sensibilities of his English readers. We do see that Venus brings warmth, comfort, and sweetness; good scents and a feeling of being rocked on the ocean touch “the inconsolable wound with which man is born.” (320) The effect is one of desire, but holy desire, which can never be fully satisfied in the sublunar realm.

The arrival of Mars stirs discussion of courage in terms that are the essence of British masculinity in the World Wars. The people are unafraid to die, and the martial splendor overwhelms any petty concern with dangers. Interestingly, here Lewis also alludes to Northern European mythology by syncretizing Mars with “Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth.” (322)

Saturn comes next, with cold, the cold of the depths of space where even stars fizzle themselves out into the heat-death of the universe. It is the embodiment of time, “more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.” (323) This mastery of the depths gives Saturn a kind of immovable strength, but all its power is suffused with sorrow.

Last, in Lewis’ descent of the gods, is Jove. I get the impression that he is placed there because he is the only spirit which can overmaster Saturn, and Lewis is too much of a storyteller to leave readers on the ending without a conclusion that Saturn creates.

Lewis first describes Jove as “one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.”

The further account was the first to make me understand how the adjective “jovial” was originally meant to combine kingly dignity and hearty revelry; Lewis says that under Jove’s influence, “Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously,” (323) and that all the characters feel as if they are at some royal festival.

The vividness and human perspective of these interpretations was what helped most as I was trying to make sense of different planets’ roles in astrology, so I can honestly say that Lewis, bless his Christian medievalist heart, was the first to teach me astrology, and his lessons remain with me today.

This sort of connection through preservation of earlier knowledge is an example of how Neo-Paganism can justifiably count paleo-paganism among its spiritual ancestors; what it means today is what we have to create for ourselves – not even the stars can tell us that.

The Wheel of Fortune or the Wheel of the Year?

(I’m late with my new moon article on divination again; I apologize. The piece I was writing for that decided to grow into something bigger, so in its place I have slightly expanded on this snippet from a lesson I was working on.)

If you haven’t yet seen the Gaian Tarot, check it out. It is an extremely engaging deck that I plan to write more about in the future. One of the most interesting changes it makes in the Major Arcana is replacing The Wheel of Fortune with simply The Wheel:

From the website’s description of the card:

The Wheel of the Year turns and spins, as one season transforms into the next. In this card, the fiery core of the Earth is at the still point of the turning world. Trees of each season are rooted in Her body. Around the trees we see the eight phases of the moon, which correspond to the eight holy days of the solar year. The zodiac is aligned with the seasons and the lunar phases. For example, the Dark/New Moon corresponds to Winter Solstice, the shortest night of the year when the sun begins to wax again. Winter Solstice occurs when the sun moves into the sign of Capricorn. So these three — Dark/New Moon, Winter Tree and sign of Capricorn — all line up on the card, and so on around the Wheel.

The cycles of nature teach us that all of life moves in a wheel. Wherever we stand on this wheel, we are certain to move to the next point and the one after that, until we are brought full circle to the place where we started, and as T.S. Eliot wrote, we “know the place for the first time.

Outside the wheel of the solar year, the lunar month and the wheel of the zodiac, we see a circle of prayer beads. This rosary, or mala, is divided into six sets of nine (the magical number of three times three). As we say or sing repetitive prayers, counting beads as we go, we enter an altered state where anything is possible, magic happens, and butterflies — symbol of the soul — break free of the turning of the wheel.

When I meditated on this card, it actually took me some time to see that Joanna Powell-Colbert, the creator of this deck, had not just reinterpreted the Wheel of Fortune but totally replaced it with a different wheel – the Wheel of the Year. That leads to a very different potential set of meanings. The biggest contrast is that unlike the traditional Wheel of Fortune, the Wheel of the Year is utterly dependable. Weather will change, even climate may change, but the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, and days in summer will be longer than the nights. When the situation reverses in the winter, on the whole, the weather will be colder than it was in the summer. I know these things down in my bones, and so does the planet.

Contrast this with the Wheel of Fortune from the Medieval Cats deck:

Here, people (cats) from different stations of life are situated around the Wheel, with a blindfolded figure (referencing Justice?) at the center. One implication is that the wheel turns, of course, and people may rise and fall. But that is too simplistic an approach in context: random events are not going to turn a pauper into a prince, especially not in Medieval Europe, and while we all long to see karma paid back, except to ourselves, it seldom arrives in neat packages of retribution or beneficence. In particular, during the historical period symbolized on this card, the Wheel of Fortune, with its promise of changing life circumstances, was even more of an unattainable dream than it is now for most people.

So what happens when we replace one utterly unreliable Wheel with a different one, a Wheel turned by gravity and as dependable, at its core, as the fabric of space and time?

Personally, I have an entirely different reaction to the Wheel in the Gaian Tarot. The reminder of the seasons is a welcome one, even if the changing seasons sometimes bring devastating storms, as the East Coast of the US recently learned again. To me, the Wheel of the Year in this card reminds me both that change is inevitable – and brings the unpredictable – but that it’s also, in some ways, dependable, and that the changes themselves, like the seasons, are impermanent.

I have to say that I personally don’t like the quasi-Buddhist “escape from the wheel” interpretation, because I find it is disturbingly easy for that idea of “escape” to turn into disregard for the “earthly” and preference for the “spiritual.” To me, Paganism involves valuing the “earthly,” and certainly not trying to escape from it. That the creator included that in the card while putting so much beauty into portraying the Wheel of the Year speaks to me of what might be a deep cognitive dissonance within some Buddhist-influenced approaches to Paganism…but that’s another topic.

For now, what do you think of replacing the Wheel of Fortune with the Wheel of the Year? How do you read, or ride, the Wheel?

Kore and the Eleusinian Mysteries: A Tarot Spread to Encounter Persephone

I’ve finished Level 2 of my studies with the Order of the White Moon! Here’s my goddess project for this level. It’s also in the OWM Goddess Gallery with images.

The rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries centered on the worship of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. In the context of the Mysteries, Persephone was known by the title Kore, which means simply “Maiden.” Although the exact details of how Kore was worshipped in the Eleusinian Mysteries have been lost, you can use the Tarot spread in this project as inspiration for your own encounter with the goddess.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were a series of rituals that culminated in mystical initiation; they were held in and near the Greek city of Eleusis, a day’s walk from Athens, from approximately 1500 BCE to 392 CE. Even though the Mysteries endured for almost two millennia and attracted initiates from across the Hellenistic world, we know surprisingly few details, because initiates took a sacred vow of secrecy. We do know that they focused on the worship of Demeter and Kore. Reconstructing the Mysteries is a tricky process of interpolating the gaps in archaeological evidence with what we know about the myths of Demeter and Persephone/Kore. Since the myths themselves are many-layered and often conflicting, mythologists can end up going in circles.

One theory, advanced by authors following the lead of C. G. Jung and Karl Kerenyi, holds that the Mysteries included a ritual drama.  Initiates may have witnessed or even participated in a reenactment of Demeter’s search for Persephone after her abduction by Hades. The drama may have been drawn from the story as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter or the Orphic hymns, although there are multiple theories on exactly which parts of the many interlocking stories were told and how the drama had such a significant effect on the initiates. [1]

A second major theory emerged from scientific investigation into entheogens and their historical use. A ritual drink, the kykeon, was consumed during the Mysteries; ethnomycologists speculate that the kykeon may have been a hallucinogen. The kykeon, was made from barley, and barley can harbor the ergot fungus, which has been shown to produce chemicals related to LSD.  [2] This theory is improbable, given the difficulties of creating a safe and reliable hallucinogen with the technology of the day, especially since ergot is often poisonous. Extraordinary experiences were part of mystery cults, but any trance or ecstatic states were likely achieved through more reliable spiritual technologies such as fasting, dancing, and disorientation from sensory overload by sudden light and loud sounds. [3]

The most intriguing speculations have to do with the results of the ritual: many authors throughout the time of the Mysteries attested that initiates were unafraid of death. They reported that initiates were assured of having a special place in the afterlife which was much more pleasant and joyful than the rather dull and dreary existence led by the shades of the uninitiated. Since Persephone ruled as Queen of the Underworld, it made sense that she could provide special privileges for those who were devoted to her in life. [4]

We do know that large fire was lit in the main building on the night of the initiation. [5] One possibility is that in the climactic ritual, this fire may have been used in a symbolic way to make the initiates immortal, as the Homeric Hymn tells us Demeter tried to do with the infant Demophoon (whom she cared for while Persephone was missing). [6] Another possibility is that the rites were connected with an assurance of rebirth, since Persephone is also described in the Orphic hymns as “parent of the vine,” that is, of Dionysos (also called Zagreus and Euboleus), who died and was reborn multiple times in myth. [7]

The worship of Demeter and Kore was not just about the afterlife, though; another symbolic interpretation of the myths is that Kore is a personification of grain crops, literally the bread of life. One of the few statements we have about what went on at the Eleusinian Mysteries is that a single stalk of grain was exhibited, and even if that account is not reliable, Demeter and Persephone are both often shown with grain as their symbol or as as their gift to humankind. [8] Similarly, Hades, the god of the underworld was alternately known as Ploutos, the wealth-giver, who carries the cornucopia as a symbol of his relationship to abundance not just in terms of minerals below ground but also fertility above it. [9]

In the older Greek tellings of this myth, Persephone actually spent the summer underground, not the winter. In the Greek climate, grain was planted in the fall, grew over the winter, was reaped in the spring, and was stored for summer, often underground. Winter, not summer, was a time of growth and fertility. The heat of summer was seen as less lively and more dangerous, and summer was the military campaigning season. In contrast, winters were mild and rainy, and the time when growth was most abundant.  Kore is now thought of as a spring goddess, because retellings of the myth were adapted to fit other climates. However, the Eleusinian Mysteries echo the original Greek ecological rhythms. The  Mysteries were celebrated at the end of September or beginning of October, corresponding with the fall planting. [10]

One of the best introductions to the Eleusinian Mysteries is the first chapter of Hugh Bowden’s Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, where he describes the Eleusinian Mysteries as the most famous and best-known of all mystery cults. Bowden accepts that we cannot know precisely what occurred, but gives many details about the rituals that can be known, especially from relatively recently unearthed archaeological evidence. The festival was preceded by priests and priestesses of Eleusis going to Athens, taking with them sacred objects, hiera, in baskets. These objects were not shown to the uninitiated, and although we can speculate that they may have been statues or symbols such as a stalk of grain, we do not know for sure.

The festival started in Athens itself, where initiates had to go to the shore to wash themselves and a piglet in the ocean and then sacrifice the piglet. A few days later they walked in a processional to Eleusis, carrying the sacred objects back with them, and entered the sanctuary, where they rested and drank the kykeon. The secret initiation ritual took place at night, and the euphemistic descriptions of it usually separate it into three parts: things said, things shown, and things done. Of these, the things shown were the most important part. This was when the sacred hiera were exhibited, and the primary priest who showed them to the initiates derived his title from the role: he was the hierophant, he who makes the hiera appear.

This sacred vision, made possible by the large fire, is emphasized as the central part of the initiation by descriptions of initiates as those who had seen the Mysteries. This worship of Kore revolved around an encounter with her, coming face-to-face with the goddess through ritual, rather than on beliefs or explanations. Bowden suggests that initiates developed their own understandings of what they had seen and experienced, which helps explain the overlapping and even conflicting profusion of myths. This process of meaning-making is similar to the way we interpret a Tarot reading by reflecting on it to construct a coherent meaning in a particular context, adapting our understanding and the cards’ images to fit together smoothly.

This Tarot spread takes the form of a stalk of grain and can be an image for you to contemplate as you strive to connect with Kore. It could be done at the beginning of your relationship to her, to gain insight into ways you might try to get to know her better, or to gain insight into a past experience where you felt her presence in your life. Each position is named after something related to the Eleusinian Mysteries, indicating roles the cards can play in your experience. This spread is not as much about divination or understanding the future as it is a way to begin to have an encounter with the goddess. If you want to invoke her promise of guidance in the afterlife and potential for rebirth, light a candle, or better yet, do this reading by firelight.

Positions in the Kore spread

6     8
3     5

1 – Offering: This card may symbolize what you need to give up or leave behind you as you begin your metaphorical journey. It may also be the thing you will do (rather than something to stop doing) to make an offering to the goddess.

2 – Procession: This card represents something that separates your everyday life from your experiences of encountering the goddess (future or past). It symbolizes both the way initiates plunged into the ocean and the long journey on foot to Eleusis afterwards.

3 – Torch: Something or someone who lights your way as you travel appears in this image. This may be closely related to Hecate, who helped bring Persephone back from the Underworld.

4 – Kykeon: Like the ritual drink of barley-water, this card is something that you take into yourself which is unique to your encounter with Kore, possibly something that takes the place of what you gave in offering.

5 – Basket: Representing the baskets in which secret sacred objects were carried in procession, this card holds an image of something that may have a meaning unique to you. What do you take with you to encounter the goddess?

6 – Things said: Interpret this card in the context of a communication that reflects a part of the mysteries of the goddess.

7 – Things seen: This is an experience that was part of the mysteries. Ask yourself how others have played the role of the goddess to you.

8 – Things done: Let this card inspire you to find ways that you may play the role of the goddess towards others.

9 – Stalk of grain: The way you find the encounter appearing in your everyday life afterward may be deceptively simple, but full of meaning. What will you take away from your encounter? What seeds will you plant? And what will your blessings or wealth be?

To make the “stalk of grain” shape more apparent, tilt the cards on either side (3, 6, 5, and 8) a little away from the central line.

Note that if the Hierophant card appears in this reading, it should be interpreted in a positive light with reference to the original hierophant’s role as a priest of Kore’s mysteries, and not with negative associations with hierarchy, rigidly formalized religion, or the Christian associations of the Pope.


[1] C. G. Jung and C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton University Press, 1969, and Karl Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, 1991. (Transliteration of Kerenyi’s first name varied between Carl and Karl.)

[2] R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. First chapter available online.

[3] Hugh Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World, Princeton University Press, 2010, p 43.

[4] Bowden, p 26, 48.

[5] Kerenyi, p 92.

[6] Marvin W. Meyer,  ed., The Ancient Mysteries, a Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p 26.

[7] Meyer, p 104-5. Although the phrase is rendered there as “maiden rich in fruits,” the text still makes it clear that Dionysos is Persephone’s son. A different translation of the Orphic hymns including the phrase “parent of the vine” is available online.

[8] Meyer, p 19. This account is from Hippolytus, a Christian who was writing about the mysteries in a negative light without himself being an initiate, so it must be treated with care, but the repeated grain symbology elsewhere makes it one of the more likely possibilities.

[9] Wikipedia describes Plouton and Ploutos as being conflated although originally separate; in another instance of overlapping myths, one of them he may have been Demeter’s son who was merged into the figure of the other, her son-in-law. The Orphic hymns refer to him as Plouton and wealth-giver simultaneously.

[10] Bowden, p 31.