On Tarot Cards
Quite a lot of people have been blogging about Tarot cards recently, and there was a quiz on Which of the Greater Trumps are you?.
One thing that struck me about all of these was the horrible images in all of them. The “Which of the Greater Trumps are you?” quiz offered several styles of “Tarot” card to illustrate it, but not one of them was authentic. I chose the least repellant, but it still looks like an insipid Victorian “fairy at the bottom of the garden”.
Matt Stone and Sally both used the Waite pack, which loses the original symbolism of the cards. I then did a Google image search for Tarot cards, and was amazed at the huge variety, but the impossibility of finding a single authentic image.
Or am I just being a modernist old curmudgeon or control freak, and not keeping up with the postmodern spirit of “one man, one Tarot”, and even “one man, one religion”? Am I falling into the trap of saying “This must mean to you what it means to me?”
I first became interested in the Tarot by reading two novels: The sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, and The greater trumps by Charles Williams. Before reading The sandcastle I’d never heard of Tarot cards, so I went and bought a pack at the Mystic Bookshop in Johannesburg, which was a pretty esoteric place, and the only place one could get such things back then.
In The sandcastle the character who uses the Tarots gives them her own meanings, but I was impressed by the imagery of the cards themselves. They spoke of archetypal human experiences, the things that shape our lives. I then read Charles Williams’s The greater trumps and he extended the meaning of the imagery further. I won’t add spoilers here, but just recommend that people read it.
In trying to find what others made of the symbolism, I looked for books on the Tarot, and found that most of them were by cartomancers, and were banal and boring. The cartomancers’ trade relied on human desires for health, wealth, popularity and success, and interpreted them in the light of that. They were no different from the advertising industry, reflecting the values of capitalist materialist society. I went back to Charles Williams for my understanding and interpretation.
Consider the greatest of the Greater Trumps, the Fool. Matt Stone uses the Waite pack, in which the symbolism of the original card is completely lost. I was going to say “original” symbolism, but then I’m not sure that anyone is qualified to say what the original symbolism was. So let me say what it signifies for me.
Waite’s version of the card seems to depict a self-absorbed Victorian fop, careless rather than carefree. The fact that his pilgrim’s staff has turned into a rose might lead us to think that he is a sort of hippie flower child. Perhaps that is what the hippie flower children, or some of them, eventually became, but that is a far cry from the original vision.
Unlike the original card, in Waite’s card the fool’s journey has no purpose, no destination. He is careless of where he is going, because he is so self-absorbed that his surroundings mean nothing to him. His journey is pointless, and the dog seems to be just as pointless.
In the original cards, however, the Fool is the “fool for Christ”, the holy fool who has turned his back on the world, yet looks back inviting us to follow him, if we dare. He is being attacked by an animal, a dog perhaps, or a lynx, but it does not seem to be very much bothered by it. So those on the Christian pilgrimage may be attacked by the devil or his demons or the cares of the world, but are not much bothered by them. The response of the Fool is dispassion rather than unawareness.
He is following a road that few choose. His dress suggests a court jester, but also a pilgrim. He is a silly fool, and the English word “silly” is derived from the Greek sali, blessed, and which is also the Greek term for the saints who are holy fools, the yurodivi. And “blessed” suggests the Beatitudes, where the blessings experienced by the saints are so different from the blessings sought by the world that to the world they seem like curses rather than blessings. Little or nothing of this is suggested by the Waite image.