This is the third article in a series of analyses of the art with which Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the 36 cards of the decans, as a supplement to the previous charts. These posts will attempt to recount the stories—mythic or otherwise—that contributed to the concepts with which she imbued her illustrations. When we understand the stories that underlie them, we can not only better interpret but we can also better communicate a cohesive story out of several cards laid down in a spread. Indeed, these are stories that have fascinated humankind for millenia.
You’ll find the format consists of a column of text, at right, consisting of the stories and interpretation. At the left you’ll see a sort of quasi baseball card arrangement that provides reference information. The paper size is standard letter, but with space at the left margin should anyone wish to three-hole-punch the paper. Note that the Acrobat file, accessible through the download button below, will be better to print from and easier to read onscreen.
John Barleycorn Must Hide
The stage cards place a double-edged, straight horizontal line where the back edge of an imaginary stage touches the bottom of the cyclorama (the scenery back drop). They have no outstanding quality in common, apart from this design element. Perhaps assigned total freedom for the minor arcana, theatre designer Pamela Colman Smith’s creative habits kicked in when faced with blank paper.
Yet one stage card is different. In all others, "actors" are placed on stage. In this single instance, the "actors" stand behind the stage. In effect, they are painted figures on the cyclorama. They are demoted to scenery.
We’re in decan number three, Venus in Aries. It is the Four of Wands: the Lord of Perfected Work. The qabala emanation is Chesed.
Where’s the focus? Is it the bower covered with fruit vines? Is it the two figures with bouquets? Or is it the castle? There is no focus. If no actors are on stage, either the curtain has just risen, and we await their entrance; or they just exited, and the curtain is about to fall.
Waite calls the figures two females. Yet Colman Smith paints blue drapery on one and red on the other, colors astrologers associate with Venus and Aries, respectively, female and male. So why two females? One possible explanation is James Frazer, whose The Golden Bough was published between 1890 and 1913. Waite would undoubtedly have been familiar with it. Frazer famously asserted that goddess worship in early civilizations derived from neolithic matriarchies.
More importantly, Frazer calls the story of Pluto and Persephone a metaphor for the agricultural cycle, "…particularly of the corn, which is buried under the soil for some months of every winter and comes to life again, as from the grave, in the sprouting cornstalks and the opening flowers and foliage of every spring." (Note that Pluto, ruler of the underworld, holds dominion over the germination of seeds.)
Let’s look at the astrology and qabala. Aries represents a flying ram who rescued two royal children from assassination. He was later sacrificed; his wool became the golden fleece. Aries is often confused with Ares (later renamed Mars). Traits of Ares and Aries merged together over time. This may explain Mars’ place under Aries in the Zodiac wheel. Aries is the male force. Like the ram, this force may act in sacrifice for the next generation and bestow a boon. Venus has two aspects: sacred and profane, heavenly love and worldly love, respectively. Chesed, per the Book T, is "Perfection, realisation, completion, making a matter settled and fixed." Éliphas Lévi associates Chesed with "Astaroth or Astarte, the obscene Venus of the Assyrians, who is represented with the head of an ass or bull and the breasts of a woman." That describes Taurus to Virgo, the growing season; harvest and weigh next month, Libra.
Waite refers to "Harvest-Home," an old British harvest celebration. It features John Barleycorn, a personification of the barley crop, and the beer and whiskey made from it. Perfected Work indeed! In Barleycorn’s story, his small person is planted, grown, harvested, then cut down with a scythe. He returns after death to give us delight, consolation, and hangovers. Another metaphor for the agricultural cycle! We’ll skip quickly over a pun about Wands, suit of fire and "firewater," It all fits together. The Four of Wands is the culmination of interaction between male and female. Aries, loving father, sacrifices himself as heritage for the next generation, aided by Venus the profane, our earthly mother.
We can debate whether Colman Smith consciously put the Golden Dawn’s astrology and qabala into her designs, or whether they entered by osmosis from her time in the Order. For me, the colors of the togas and this overall composition appear to show knowledge and intent.
Linking "Harvest-Home" and Barleycorn, I sometimes ask querents whether alcoholism has anything to do with the reading’s question. This card has led a few querents, including one very close friend, to better understandings. Another issue this card brings up is good parents: the loving and sacrificing father, and the nurturing mother. It is a card of beneficent parental relations. Both themes are consistent with Waite’s divinatory meanings,. They also make a nice balance to the sometimes negative parental issues of the decans ruled by Saturn.
Copyright Information:The article above is copyright ©2021 by John Iacovelli, All rights reserved. Note: I am holding off putting a Creative Commons license on this text, as I may put it to multiple uses in the future. Please don’t let that stop you from generating ideas based upon this text.
The feature collage background is Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (1514)