Strength – Christian Mauls Lion

The classical idea of the virtue of Strength has little to do with physical strength. It involves a physical or metaphysical confrontation with a threat that must be overcome, or through perseverance, survived. Waite, in his Strength major arcanum, adds another element: the Holy Spirit. There was historical precedent, for the Roman Catholic Church had already linked the two. Waite’s chief graphical element making the link is the lemniscate, otherwise known as the infinity sign. A number of visual references additionally may tie Strength to various Christian martyrs, Saint Andrew in particular, and of course, to Androcles and his friend, the lion. But beyond the Christian mysticism, the “spin” that Waite adds to the classical virtue, that of overcoming and persevering based upon the strength of deeply held moral belief (or faith) may be appropriate for our own time of the plague. Such belief does not have to be religious. Just knowing right from wrong is probably enough to “persevere” and do the right thing no matter what the cost. Nurses and doctors treat patients even if personal protective equipment is in short supply because helping patients is their deepest belief. Making a grocery run for a neighbor who is temporarily unemployed, when you’re also temporarily unemployed is also a form of Strength. Some of us may not survive, but I hope that we put up a strong fight. Maybe Strength is a good starting place.

Read more

The Two of Cups – A One Page Guide

The youth and maiden of the Two of Cups seem such a nice couple. Then we notice how differently they dress, and how solemnly they look at each other. Still, there seems little doubt that Colman Smith’s illustration is generally appropriate for the divinatory meanings. Love is in the air. Along with a couple of unexpected symbols: the caduceus, and a lion’s head solar disk. With our tarot wheel as starting point, we find tension between Cancer, the sign, and Venus, the ruling planet. It is love vs. death, creation vs. destruction. An uneven match, given that Venus was amongst the most powerful of the gods… but you know what they say, "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." Venus being nice, however, negotiates. The caduceus was used as a symbol of diplomatic negotiation in Rome. As for the lion’s head solar disk, it leads us to Baphomet, who had a caduceus where his reproductive organs should have been, the Demiurge, the artisan who fabricated the universe but didn’t create it, and Ariel, a fallen angel. They help us identify Waite’s strange phrase at the end of his divinatory meanings as a rather progressive statement (for 1910, at least) about homosexuality: that though homosexuality may not be "natural," in that it does not have the power of re-generation, love as represented by Venus is yet able to sanctify it. But then, I already told you Venus is powerful.

Read more

The Tower, the Black Death, the Antichrist and the Apocalypse

Recent scholarship indicates that the first wave of the Black Death which swept Europe in the fourteenth century convinced Petrarch that apocalypse was nigh. He identified Avignon, site of the immense Papal Palace built by Pope Clement VI as a contemporary Tower of Babel. The flowers on the papal coat of arms of Clement, sculpted on the exterior of the palace, bear a remarkable resemblance to what Waite calls the “mystic rose” on Death’s banner. This provides not only a minor tarot mystery, but an insight into Waite’s “curation” and re-use of the jumble bag of historical tarot symbols in his seemingly unbounded endeavor to inject Christian mysticism into the modern tarot he and Colman Smith popularized so successfully.

Read more

Recurring Card Patterns and Probabilities

If you’re like me, you have no doubt looked at what seems to be a wildly notable pattern of cards having something dramatically in common in a spread, and wondered, “what’s the odds of that?” We’ll start with a simple example. In a three card spread, what are the odds of getting three Eights? I’ll tell you. The odds are 19,019 to 1. If you see some cards and know they had odds against them all appearing together of nineteen thousand to one, you’re going to pay attention. And in fact, the 19th and early 20th century experts took note of these patterns. You’ll find that Waite, in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, has an entire section on "The Recurrence of Cards in Dealing." He even provides additional meanings for these patterns. For example, in the case of those three upright Eights, Waite writes that it signifies marriage. Waite most likely was looking at a layout of ten cards. Given seven additional opportunities to draw an Eight in a ten card layout, the odds drop all the way down to 175 to 1. But more than just numeric patterns, we can also ask what the odds are for getting all the cards associated with Capricorn. Or if we see four of the six cards associated with Venus, we can look up the odds of that. Fortunately modern spreadsheets provide something called a hypergeometric function which allows us to answer questions like these. And you’ll be able to download a spreadsheet in which you can plug your own numbers.

Read more

Two Questions On the Hermit

Two questions about the anonymous but enlightened hermit: (1) who is he and (2) why the six pointed star? Less mysterious but also important is the question of why Waite included the very, very negative secondary set of upright divinatory meanings in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot? As we examine the questions, we’ll find links to Father Time, the Christian God the Father, and the head of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. We’ll also stumble across that famous number, 666. In the end, the identity of the Hermit is in the eye of the beholder, since he seems to hold more than one identity. But that may be appropriate for a major arcanum associated not just with prudence, but also with dissimulation and treason.

Read more

Tarot Reversals – The Eights

You’d think that the Eights, which after all, should hold the promise of the infinity sign—an eight turned on its side—would share a theme of endless vistas and promise. But no. We could say that the Eights tell the tale of a journey—just not a very pleasant one. But a journey makes perfect sense, given that the qabalistic influence, Hod, is thought to represent the two feet of a person’s body. The beginner of the Eight of Pentacles takes the first steps. The Eight of Wands continues, swiftly approaching a conclusion; things are looking promising. But then the Eight of Cups comes to the fork in the road. And you know what Yogi Berra said: "when you come to a fork in the road, take it!" And so, unfortunately, the Eight of Swords binds herself at a time of crisis. The relationships between the divinatory meanings (as defined by Waite in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot) of the upright vs. reversed minor arcana in the RWS can be interpreted as a change of perspective. We find visual clues to better understand reversals by looking at the characters’ points of view. Where there is more than one character, we look at their perspectives of each other. Where there is a single character, from the point of view of an outside observer. Welcome to the annoying Eights and their reversals, the roadtrip from Hell of the Waite Colman Smith deck.

Read more

The Eight of Pentacles – A One Page Guide

A.E. Waite expends a lot of effort to make sure we see the laborer of the Eight of Pentacles as one who is learning his craft. In the Pictorial Key, he not only mentions this fact in his divinatory meanings for the Eight, he also points it out in his description of the Three of Pentacles. Why does he draw our attention to this? I suggest that Waite’s message is that tarot, and indeed, magic, can be learned by us in the same way that the apprentice learns: by starting out with the simple tasks; then through long experience at those tasks, over time, he becomes the skilled artisan. Our laborer wields his hammer like Mercury’s caduceus (which is basically a wand). He imbues magical energy into the symbol of the classical element of Earth, the coin. The result is the trophy, a symbol of something that he has won through his effort.

Read more