Empress and Fertility

Today I am thinking about the future a lot; that may be a result of my personal circumstances, or the time of year, or a number of things, but I’m going to run with it. You might ask: aren’t all the cards about the future? Well, yes, we can use the cards as a way to reflect on the present in order to shed light on the future, but that doesn’t mean that each and every card is “about the future” in the way I’m reading the Empress today. This is a new reading for me, but something about it is speaking to me very strongly, so I’m going to run with it, and I would be glad to hear your thoughts about it.

The Empress image is supposed to evoke fertility in all its senses, and today I am reading fertility as being an anticipation of the future. Fertility implies a series of changes that will perpetuate themselves into the future, and thus it implies hope for a future that will be different from the present.

The classical image of fertility that the RWS card relies on is a pregnant woman. This is a very loaded image, so I love the way that the Gaian Tarot expands on its possible meanings by renaming this card The Gardener and situating that pregnant woman within a natural environment that is overflowing with all kinds of bounty. (Yes, there is some imagery in the traditional RWS card that can be read to imply the bounty of the natural world as well, but not as much, and I appreciate the gender-neutral name change. More on this in the next card as well.)

I love expanding the scope of this card beyond purely human reproduction to include all kinds of fertility and even creativity. The important symbolism is that something new is being created, and to me it’s just as important to create new ideas and new things as well as new physical life. Each type of newness is an essential part of perpetuating life moving forward.

When we think about that newness and life moving forward, the importance of the number three for this card is that a third thing is produced out of the joining of two different things. What I want to emphasize is that the two things joining don’t have to be polar opposites, and they don’t have to be any kind of exact match – they just have to be different enough that when they come together they are creative, and similar enough that they can find ways to come together to allow that creativity to occur. That third thing emerges because creativity – or fertility if you prefer – happens when something different comes into contact and allows newness to develop.

For us as conscious beings, being willing to be in a relationship where creativity can occur is a statement about the future; it is being willing to be changed, to grow and develop over time. Any participation in a creative or fertile endeavor is an act essentially about the future.

If we think in horticultural terms, planting a garden is an act of hope. It requires a particular kind of seeing through time that takes hope and openness and experience to cultivate. Last year I couldn’t imagine that my tiny tomato plants would get as big as they did, so I planted them too close together; I couldn’t yet see through time to envision their future selves. This year, when I look at tomato plants, I will see them with a kind of multiple vision – as they are now and as they may grow to be, both together, and will plant them with that kind of vision in mind.

This makes me think that any time we are working with living beings there is the possibility of a kind of time travel of the mind. I know my mother always saw into my – our – past, but I think now that towards the end of her life she practiced a kind of seeing into the future through me.

In future, I think I will read the Empress/the Gardener as being about fertility and creativity, but on a deeper level, I believe this card relates to some deep ties between creativity and hope for the future, between the willingness to be in a relationship where change is a possibility and a certain amount of confidence in the future, even anticipation, related to our ability to shape that future and to be changed as it progresses.

High Priestess and duality

Two is where we come to a place of relationship, to the possibility of duality and interchange between different forms of being, and in the Tarot the two is the card titled the High Priestess, also known as the Papesse. This is where things start to get complicated, and that complicatedness is reflected in the way that the High Priestess has to do with wisdom that is not obvious, wisdom that may be obscured or hidden.

“Obscured” is the original meaning of the word “occult,” and the High Priestess is definitely involved with wisdom that is occult in this sense. I like to use the word esoteric to describe her wisdom, in contrast to the exoteric, or obvious on the exterior, kinds of knowledge that most people rely on.

Most images of the High Priestess have some kind of closed symbology about them, whether it is the traditional veil in front of which she sits or an example of making her book or scroll a closed one. It is important to understand that this does not mean the wisdom she is working with is inaccessible; it only means that it is up to us to use nonstandard ways of knowing to access that awareness, to see through the veil or to be able to interpret the hidden words.

The domain of the High Priestess is mystery, the occult or esoteric, and thus it is appropriate that I have questions about this card which are not easily answered. I think it is appropriate to see the High Priestess as part of a duality, but to me it remains an open question who is her appropriate partner in duality.

The High Priestess can be seen as part of a duality with either the Magician or the Hierophant as her partner. She is placed next to the Magician and Robin Wood renames him the High Priest to make the partnership explicit, but I think in part this is due to Wood’s overt antipathy to the Hierophant; if you read her book she makes it quite clear that she simply detests the Hierophant and everything he stands for. I think that is a bit of an overreaction, and I’ll have more to say about it when we get to that card. It is worth noting that Wood also gives the High Priestess an open book, making her less about the traditional esoteric wisdom, but situating her in a natural setting to emphasize that her wisdom is her connection with nature instead.

For those who do not share Wood’s antipathy to the Hierophant, it is also possible to see the High Priestess as a counterpart to him, especially when she is described as the Papesse. I was just re-exposed to this idea, and it has a certain intrigue. I certainly remember now that my first Tarot deck suggested that the Papesse was a counterpart to the Hierophant or Pope card, but then I started working with the Robin Wood deck and it became my go-to deck for several years, so I pretty much forgot that interpretation. (This is a great example of how useful it is to compare different decks!) Robert Place is the most recent author I’ve read who brought this alternative interpretation back to mind. In his Alchemical Tarot he suggests that the Magician is more of a hermaphroditic figure, and as a result the High Priestess is paired with the Hierophant. The more I think about it, the more this approach has to recommend it.

Historically the Tarot trumps may have reflected the medieval practice of having a triumphal parade where each successive stage in the parade was seen as overcoming or “trumping” the previous stage. Place makes several arguments about this view of the trump cards, and it makes a certain amount of sense in this sequence; first comes the fool, who is overcome by the one who seeks magical power, who is overcome by female spiritual insight, who is overcome by female temporal power, who is overcome by male temporal power, who is overcome by male spiritual authority. Each of these successions could have seemed natural in the medieval context, especially since males had authority over females and the Pope held spiritual authority over the Holy Roman Emperor.

Thinking of the High Priestess in duality with the Pope or Hierophant card makes explicit the contrast between her esoteric ways of knowing and worshipping and his exoteric approach. I am sure that for some people this only heightens the distaste for the Hierophant’s structured systems, but for me it somehow softens his image a little, as I can better appreciate his methods by understanding that he is trying to reach a similar goal.

In some ways the essence of this question comes down to how we gender the cards; the High Priestess’ proximity to the Magician makes their duality seem natural if we see the magician as male. Of course, reducing everything to male-female polarities is a vast oversimplification and is part of the problem; that’s why I appreciate the view of the magician as neither strictly male nor female.

At any rate, the High Priestess introduces the idea of duality and mystery, regardless of how you understand her relationships to the other Major Arcana. The ultimate answer may be that the reader has to use her intuition, especially depending on the way the High Priestess and any other cards show up in a reading, and that ability to use intuition is really what the High Priestess symbolizes in the first place.

Crochet bags for Tarot decks

I was delighted to get a couple of new Tarot decks recently, and I decided to be a little crafty in making my own bags for them. This is just a simple pattern, but I think it’s special to make your own containers for Tarot decks. This is also the first time I’ve tried to write a pattern, so please excuse any mistakes. It is in US crochet notation.

There are two versions, one for a bag I did recently and a more generalized version (metapattern) so that you can customize it to fit whatever deck you’re working with.

Materials:

worsted weight yarn, approximately 35 grams
crochet hook size H
yarn needle
scissors
optional: button and yarn or contrasting string for closure (see end)

Pattern:

Row 1: Chain 16
Row 2: starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain – sc 15 and ch 1 for turning chain
Row 3: turn and sc 15, ch 1
Rows 4-50: repeat row 3
Row 51: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat row 51 until reduced to a single stitch, then end

Example:

crochet-bag-laid-out

Fold over and use needle to whipstitch both sides of bag together, weave in ends
Turn right side out

Example:

IMG_2083

Optional: Add a button to the point of the flap and add a drawstring to the front of the bag, either in the same yarn or in contrasting thread.

Example:

IMG_2084

I probably should have crocheted another two or three rows on this particular bag before starting the decreases so that the flap would lay over more completely, but it works. The drawstring closure is just threaded through the fabric of the front side to make a loop that will hold the button down and the flap closed. Here I’ve just used a simple button and tied the ends of the string in a knot, but you could get creative with fun buttons and beads or other decorations for the drawstring.

Metapattern:

for a Tarot deck with dimensions L x W x H (dimensions from largest to smallest)

Chain enough stitches to measure W + H + two or three stitches, depending on how snug you want your bag to be
Starting in second loop, single crochet in back loop of foundation chain plus ch 1 for turning chain
Turn, sc across, ch1
Repeat rows of sc until fabric length measures 2L+2H
Begin decreasing: sc2tog, sc across until only two stitches left, sc2tog
Repeat until flap comes to a point, then end
Fold, stitch sides together, weave in ends
Turn right side out
Attach button and drawstring closure if desired

Review: Blair-Hunt, Tarot Prediction & Divination

Blair-Hunt, Susyn. Tarot prediction & divination: unveiling 3 layers of meaning. Llewellyn: Woodbury, MN. 2011. 283 pages.

This book essentially provides numerous case studies as a way to help the reader learn different spreads. The author has designed fifteen different spreads, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced groupings, and gives three sample readings for each spread. My favorite thing about this book is that it provides a wealth of examples of interpreting cards in context, in spreads where they interact with each other, which is one of the challenges that beginning readers face in moving from remembering isolated card meanings to doing actual readings. The variety of spreads provided would also be useful to many beginning to intermediate readers.

The subtitle refers to three different ways to interpret the card that the author sees as running along a spectrum from the concrete to the abstract. She refers to these as the divinatory, therapeutic, and spiritual. (p2 ff) She uses “divinatory” to mean specific information about concrete future happenings. Since I see divination as embracing all three of the areas she lays out, I think she would have done better to name this realm of interpretation the “practical” or “predictive” area. She contrasts this concrete level with two more abstract areas: “Therapeutic” is a level of meaning that I would describe as primarily concerned with psychological occurrences and related symbolic interpretations. For her, “spiritual” is the most advanced and/or abstract level of meaning, where the cards are related to generalized statements about Spirit, the Universe, possibly karma, and the overall meaning of one’s life.

Breaking up interpretation into those three levels is an interesting way of getting readers to think about more possible meanings of their cards, especially for those who tend to fall into one type of interpretation too often. Throughout the case studies, Blair-Hunt tries to interpret each reading on all three levels, but she often falls into the problem of the psychological and spiritual blending into each other. Nevertheless, readers interested in seeing different types of interpretation applied to the same cards and spread would find this book valuable.

Blair-Hunt never explicates any particular religious perspective within which she is working, nor does she discuss the way a religious perspective would influence the “spiritual” interpretation of the cards, which is a tremendous weakness in her work. She seems to be coming from a generalized “spiritual” background which includes belief in channeling, past lives, and being able to contact the deceased, but she never addresses either the Christian origin of cards’ symbolism or their more common use among Neopagans today. The author’s perspective on spirit is that the universe is a place where everything is working for our good and that difficulties or challenges are just lessons on the way to a better experience; her optimism on this front can come across as deeply naive.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the text stems from a similar source: she suggests that if the reader has difficulty dealing with the potential meanings of some cards, especially Death, that the reader just remove them from her deck. This suggestion is followed by reassurance that removing cards will not change the interpretive power of the readings. (16) This reassurance strikes me as frankly ridiculous, because removing cards inherently reduces the range of possible outcomes in a reading, and the point of removing “difficult” cards is specifically to avoid having to think about or interpret their images. The way she writes about it really implies that she sympathizes with readers who themselves have a hard time dealing with the potential meanings of the Death card and other cards with potentially negative meanings, as she repeats this advice more than once, and suggests that it may apply to cards such as the Three of Swords and others. (15) I can sympathize with those who have a difficult time thinking about death, but anyone who intends to read meaningfully for herself or others should be willing to spend time and energy grappling with the shadow issues represented in some cards. Trying to make the deck all sweetness and light – or worse, pretending that life itself is all sweetness and light – is willful blindness and likely to lead to all sorts of significant problems.

In more practical terms, the book is difficult to use because the reproductions of the tarot cards in the spreads are tiny – only three-quarters of an inch high (less than 2cm). The author makes a point of using three different decks (the Gilded Tarot, the Lo Scarabeo Tarot, and the Universal Tarot) but the details of the cards can barely be made out in the minute black and white illustrations. In all but a couple cases there is clearly space on the page for the illustrations to be made larger, making the source of this problem truly a mystery.

In addition to the main text, there are five appendices which contain different types of correspondences for the Tarot cards. The first one is a fairly standard set of keywords for the entire deck. The second discusses choosing significators, relying largely on astrological and personal characteristics. Perhaps the most interesting appendix is one on card combinations, where Blair-Hunt lists specific divinatory meanings for certain cards and combinations in a variety of situations that readers are likely to encounter. I was disappointed that she didn’t discuss whether these interpretations come from some other source, her own inspiration, her concrete experience reading, or a combination of all three.

The last two appendices are about the timing that cards can represent and an “empowerment guide” to the Major Arcana. In discussing the timing indicated in cards she uses astrological attributions of the cards that stem from the Golden Dawn without discussing where they come from. But then she creates a timing chart that is completely separate from the Golden Dawn system of attributing the pips to the decans of the zodiac, and doesn’t say where she gets that from either. I am led to believe that she may be unfamiliar with the roots of some of the information she is propagating or that she simply doesn’t care about the historical background of her material. Finally the empowerment guide has color, gemstone, incense, and other correspondences for the Major Arcana, and again she doesn’t cite any sources or explain any background.

If someone learned all fifteen spreads in this book they would be a very well prepared reader for just about any kind of reading someone could ask for, and I really do think this book has a lot to offer in terms of case studies of cards in context. As long as the reader does not fall into the trap of trying to alter the deck to make their understanding of the world sufficiently easy and comfortable, there are some good examples of useful spreads here. If the information in this book is combined with a broader perspective on the Tarot and its history and meanings the reader will have a good resource to help them apply a basic understanding of the deck to its actual workings in real, live readings.

The Magician and Identity

Since the Fool is numbered zero, the Magician is numbered one. One is the identity element for multiplication. In math, an identity element is the number that doesn’t change other numbers (when multiplied, in this case). This is why it is called the identity element: other numbers keep their identity, their same value, when multiplied by one. Their nature remains unchanged by the operation. So what is it that one is doing when it interacts with other numbers?

At the same time, every number keeps coming back to the identity element. In multiplication, every number except zero has a counterpart, and when you multiply a number times its counterpart (also called its multiplicative inverse) you get 1. So you can always come back to this identity element. In some sense, it contains the seeds of all the other numbers, or the potential to take on the identity of any other number multiplied by it.

I think there’s a resonance between the nature of the identity element and the symbolism of the Magician card. The Magician works with the natural forces represented by the tools shown in the card, but she doesn’t fundamentally change those forces; she uses them as tools to accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t change the nature of Air or Water, or restrict the burning passion of the flame she lights, but by working with them she creates change around herself. Or perhaps she creates the change within herself…

And so we are brought back to the paradoxical heart of magic. We create change by starting that change within ourselves. And yet, somehow, we retain a coherent identity. In fact, for many of us, the kinds of change that we create are a lynchpin of our identities. Think about it this way: our skills and abilities are one of the major components of our identities. What are those skills and abilities besides the ability to create change in particular ways? I go to work, and I change the world. It’s only a tiny bit, but I think it matters. Tomorrow I’ll do it again. The changes we make are something we depend on for our very sense of self.

In this sense the Magician is very much about identity because the Magician is one who makes change possible and thus creates identity, and who really has an independent identity, as opposed to the kind of blank canvas that the Fool represents. The Magician has her tools to hand: she is holding all the aces of the Tarot deck, the potential power of each suit, and beginning to use them to create something new, something that could be almost anything.

At the same time, she must balance the opposites within herself, both the opposites contained in the different qualities of the suits and natural powers and the contrasts between what is and what might be. These inverses keep looping back to her, as the infinity symbol on her card keeps crossing through its own center. Out of that central point, out of her identity as an element of change, comes a realm of nearly infinite possibility, with the potential for so many different outcomes that points to the rest of the deck as an unfolding exploration.

NB: For those who are interested, zero is the additive identity – and zero also “breaks” multiplication by not having a multiplicative inverse. In many ways everything I say here about one is also true about zero under addition, but with much stranger overtones because of the way it behaves under multiplication. I chose to emphasize the properties of the numbers this way because I think it teaches more about the meanings of the cards.

Fool and Zero

It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.

Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.

All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.

But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.

This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.

Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.

But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.

Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.

From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.

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.

Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.

How reversals create more Tarot arrangements

In my first piece on the number of Tarot arrangements I only looked at how many different arrangements are possible considering cards in positions of a given spread, and I didn’t take into account reversals. Now, not everyone reads with reversals, (I typically don’t) but a lot of people do, and there’s an interesting bit of math related to powers of two when we throw in reversals.

For a three card spread, the first card could be reversed, which would double the number of possible spreads, right? Imagine that you were “counting” the number of possible arrangements by writing them all down on a giant (REALLY giant!) piece of paper. You’d have to write down all the possible arrangements, then write them all down again with the first card reversed. Then when you counted how many you had, it would be the number of things you originally wrote down times two.

If we call the original number of arrangements N, then when we think about the possibility of the first card being reversed, the new number is N*2.

When you consider the possibility of the second card being reversed, we have to double the number again: N*2*2.

And the third card could also be reversed, which makes N*2*2*2. Do you see the pattern?

Since N (the number without reversals) is 456,456, the number of possible arrangements for a three card spread including reversals is N*2^3 = N*8 = 3.65 million. Just by considering reversals we’ve gone from 456,456 arrangements – fewer than half a million – to over three and a half million.

A couple of alternative approaches:

Notice that every time we allow a single position to be reversed, we double the number of possible arrangements. The number of positions in the spread affects how many more possibilities are allowed when each individual card can be upright or reversed. One way to approach the original question that’s tempting but incorrect is to say that we should be able to just double the number of arrangements without reversals. But that would only work if all the cards had to be upright or reversed together. Since each individual card can be upright or reversed, the bigger the spread, the more possibilities reversals create.

It’s also tempting but incorrect to imagine that we are drawing from a deck that has twice as many cards. It seems like it should work: if we allow for reversals, we have twice as many possible entries in each position of the spread, right? But this doesn’t work because it is imagining that we are drawing from a deck where the Fool upright and the Fool reversed are two completely separate cards. If we did that, we could draw the Fool upright in one position and the Fool reversed in a different position – and that’s obviously not possible with regular Tarot cards. This highlights the fact that we’re drawing cards without replacement, which will be important for future calculations.

The Celtic Cross, and what exponents are good for:

Once we figure out how many for every position in the reading we have to multiply that times two for every position in the spread. We have to consider each position separately, so for a three card spread, it’s the original number N times 2 three times because there are three positions, each of which can be either upright or reversed.

Exponents are a shorthand for “multiply repeatedly.” So instead of writing 2*2*2 we can just write N*2^3, and it means the same thing.

When we start looking at the Celtic Cross, with ten positions, there are ten individual opportunities for each position to be reversed. So we have to take the original number of arrangements and multiply by 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2. That kind of notation makes me cross-eyed! This is when it is easier to write 2^10, which means “multiply by 2 ten times.” Or we can do the multiplication out and discover that 2^10 = 1024. That means that including reversals in a ten card spread gives you a thousand _times_ as many possible arrangements. Not just a thousand more – not added – but a thousand times!

Since the original number of arrangements (without reversals) for the Celtic Cross spread was 4.56 x 10 ^ 18, when we include reversals there are 4.56 x 10 ^ 18 * 1024, which is about 4.67 x 10 ^ 21, or 4.6 sextillion, with a “sex.”

According to at least one back-of-the-envelope estimate, that would be about as many grains of sand as there are on all of Earth’s beaches; it’s also in the range of estimates of number of stars in the known universe.

That’s a lot of Tarot!

What does this have to do with the probability of getting several Major Arcana cards in a given spread? Stay tuned for part 3…


PS: If you have ever wondered why numbers that have to do with computers tend to come in these unusual sizes – 1024 instead of 1000, 256 instead of 250, and so on, the reason is that computers work in binary, which means that the number of numbers they can deal with is expressed in powers of two, just like the powers of two that we’re working with here.

PPS: This estimate used a slightly different size of grains of sand than my original calculations did. It’s within an order of magnitude, though, and really depends on your definition of sand. http://www.universetoday.com/106725/are-there-more-grains-of-sand-than-stars/

Ritual for understanding inheritance using the Ten of Pentacles

The traditional Ten of Pentacles card shows a family scene with multiple generations. It represents fulfillment and completeness in the realm of Earth, meaning especially inheritance. In this ritual we will work with the idea of inheritance in a sense that includes a lot more than just money and physical possessions. For this ritual we take time to see ourselves as occupying a present moment between past and future, where we understand how the past has shaped the present and also how we have the opportunity to affect the world that we will pass on to those who come after us.

Materials: For this ritual you will need ten pennies and the Ten of Pentacles card from your favorite Tarot deck or an image printed out from online. Ten small stones would also work, but pennies are a better representation of the pentacles in the card.

Ritual:

Ground and center yourself.

Cast the circle:

I cast the circle in this time and place to acknowledge the wisdom of the past.
I cast the circle in this time and place to do my work in the present.
I cast the circle in this time and place to prepare the way for the future.

Call the Quarters:

Powers of the East, Element of Air, let me hear the wisdom of the past, speak my own words, and listen for what is yet to come.
Powers of the South, Element of Fire, help me to consume what has been, to transform it in the moment, and to use it to light my way forward.
Powers of the West, Element of Water, wash through me with the love of those who have been, help me flow with my own emotions, and continue the current into the future.
Powers of the North, Element of Earth, you hold the bones of our ancestors, you give form to our bodies, and out of you will grow the potential of what is yet to come.

Invite the Goddess:

Goddess, ever-present one, you have ever been and ever yet will be. In this moment, help me connect with what has been and what will be. Steady me as I understand my place in the ever-moving flow of time.

Sit in the center of your circle and arrange your materials: put the Tarot card in front of you and pile up five pennies on the left and five pennies on the right. The center space represents the present moment, the left the past, and the right the future.

Reflect on what you have received from the past. What can you consider part of your inheritance? This is not just things you have received, or what you have gotten from your blood ancestors. Think about people who have been mentors, elders, resources, or guides for you: what did they gift to you? Think about what you’ve received even from people you never met; many of us honor our forebears in the Goddess movement, for example. What about the experiences you have had with your family of choice?

As you reflect on these things, choose one thing you have inherited, name it out loud, and move a penny from the pile on the left onto the card. Repeat until all five pennies representing your inheritance from the past are on the card.

Hold your hands over the card and pennies and give thanks for what you have inherited and how it has shaped your life.

Now reflect on what you can pass on to others. Will you give them love, physical care, teaching, something you make, or simply your presence? How will you do things that will be remembered, even by one person, or even by people who do not know your name?

Choose one way you will shape the world for others to inherit, name it out loud, and move a penny from the pile on the right onto the card, stacking it on top of one of the ones already there. Repeat until all five pennies representing what you will give to the future are on the card.

Hold your hands over the card and pennies and give thanks for the opportunity to pass on your gifts, and ask for Goddess’ help in doing so if you wish.

Ground and center yourself again.

Thank and release Goddess:

Goddess of the waxing and waning moon, present in all moments and moving through all our times, thank you for your help and love tonight. Let me always use the present moment to continue the chain of transmission of gifts.

Thank and dismiss the Quarters:

Powers of the East, Element of Air, I honor your wisdom; help me pass it on. Go now with my thanks and praise!

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, I honor your transmutation; help me to do the same. Go now with my thanks and praise!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, I honor your current of love; help me to move it forward. Go now with my thanks and praise!

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, I honor your shaping of our very substance; help me to use it well. Go now with my thanks and praise!

Open the circle, and ground and center yourself again.

You may wish to do something special with your pennies, whether that is keeping them for future use, giving them to charity, or giving them to your landbase. You may also wish to journal about your reflections and commitments in this ritual.