Archive for the ‘Tarot and the Holidays’ Category

Winterdance:Traditions of the Winter Solstice

December 21, 2011

3000 years ago, the early Celts were building great outdoor stone temples across the British Isles, such as Stonehenge in the southwestof England, and Newgrange in Ireland.  All of these colossal monuments have one thing in common, a shaft of light shines into the heart of the structure at the dawn of the Midwinter Solstice.  The word solstice means “sun stands still,” and the ancient Celtic world held its breath to wait for the sun to return and bring back its light and warmth.

We still mark the darkness of Midwinter with customs that descend from the ancient Celts, even if we don’t recognize them in their present day garb.  One of the most important elements of the Midwinter tradition is the Yule Log.  The Druids burned a special log at the Solstice, which burned (or smoldered!) for 12 days, starting on the Solstice, marking the celebration period for the return of the sun.  A piece of it was saved for next year’s fire, to ensure good luck and abundant crops the following year. Their descendants kept up this custom by burning their own Yule Logs, searched for and brought into the house with much ceremony.  After the sun went down, the log was lighted in the hearth with libations—of both the sacred and profane type!  The 12 day period of Midwinter feasting and relaxing was filled with storytelling, music, dancing, and enjoying the company of family and community.  They also had time for quiet reflection on the past year, and played games of divination to see what the new year would hold.  In our modern world, where we do not defer to the cold and dark of the winter season, or to pretty much anything that may try to stop us from working, getting, and spending, we think of the 12 Days of Christmas only as the title of a fanciful song.  To ancient peoples, the weather of those 12 days provided an enforced time of rest and celebration, when they could enjoy the turning of the wheel of the year, when they did not have to shoulder their burdens.

Examining the still popular 17th century carol, The Holly and the Ivy, can give us more clues to the evolution of the Solstice holiday.  While most of the song is full of Christian imagery about the holly berries and Christ’s blood, or Jesus’ purity, white as snow, the first stanza holds remnants of an older story:

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

This puzzling verse makes no sense within the context of the song;  there is never another mention of the Ivy, and it’s not a tree, anyway.  But using Celtic stories to tease out this two-part riddle, we can see the origins of some of our modern holiday traditions.

A much older, pagan version of the song, The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy, uses the two plants as symbols for a contest between men and women:  man is represented by the prickly, more aggressive holly tree, and woman appears as the softer, feminine ivy, which wraps itself around the holly tree.  To the Celts, the turning of the seasons needed the balance of the qualities represented by the winterdance of these two partner plants.  Both of them were evergreens whose berries appear in winter, and we can understand how the Celts would view their vitality against a backdrop of the bare trees which had gone dormant. They brought these living decorations into their homes as a reminder of the fertility of nature in spite of harsh conditions, and the promise of the return of the light of the sun.  In the same way, we decorate our winter environment with vibrant lights and greenery, maybe not quite consciously, but somehow responding to the same impulses that earlier peoples did.

But the idea of the Holly wearing the crown requires another explanation.  The primary story of the Solstices is that of an ongoing choreographed competition between the Kings of the opposite seasons, the Holly King of the winter, and the Oak King of the summer.  At the Solstices, they vie for supremacy, and in the winter, the Holly is the King, his bright red berries shining in the dark landscape. His strong and well defended green leaves and red as blood berries are powerful symbols of life in the bleak midwinter, especially next to the vulnerable Oak King, who appears lifeless and naked without his abundant summer crown of greenery.  But on this shortest, but most magical day of the year, nature’s miracle takes place, the Summer King is born again.  Although just an acorn, a promise, of his future glory, he will grow stronger and greener with every day of waxing sunshine.  The older version of the song points us to the meaning that has been lost:

Oh, the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The shining of the winter stars
As the longer days draw near.

Bringing the seasonal symbolism back into the Christmas carol shows a wonderful evolution of the mythology that opens itself up for us when we go beneath the surface.  The story of the ancient Oak King, born on Midwinter under the shining star of hope, the promise of light returning to the world, is fused with the symbolism of the child born under the Christmas star.  And the Holly King’s affirmation of life appears in the jollity and generosity of Santa Claus.

The older celebrations and beliefs of the Celtic Yuletide tradition are not lost, just transformed into customs which can fit our busy and productive schedules.  We can enjoy them as such and still be filled with the Solstice spirit.  We can also look a little deeper into the history and meaning behind these customs to help us have a more profound experience with the changing seasons and our natural environment.

Yule Tarot Exercise

December 21, 2011

Here are some tarot exercises that explore the themes of the Winter Solstice. The images here are from the RWS deck, but you can use any deck you like with the exercises.

In the image from the 5 of pentacles from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, the two figures are “left out in the cold.”  Find a card from the deck you have chosen to work with that represents your own darkness at this time of the year; perhaps your anxieties about the new year, your feelings of being cut off from others, or situations in which you feel like you are walking right into a strong wind.  Is there any light offering you hope for the future, like the stars that shine in the window of this card?

The 4 of swords offers refuge from the cold and dark outside, like the quiet time and space we all need to organize our inner lives.  Reflection and analysis of your situation will help you take up your sword to face the outside world again, but this time with strength and precision.  Find a card from your deck that represents a safe and comfortable meditation space you can go to in your mind.  Enter the image on the card.  How does it feel to be there?  Note all the details around you so you will be able to visualize it again when you need to enter it again for your time of respite.

The tarot Star shines in the sky as a beacon of hope and promise for the coming year.  The woman in the image has one foot in the water and one on land; she is comfortable in the watery world of emotion and spirituality, but she is grounded by her connection to the earth.  The stars above her light and guide her actions.  Find the Star card from your deck.  How does it enhance your understanding of your own personal Star of hope?  Now search your deck for an image that represents the dream your Star offers you.  How does this image fit your hopes for the coming year?

The 10 of pentacles shows us a gathering of generations, complete with children and dogs.  There is an aura of celebration and community that exemplifies the Yuletide spirit, with Stars of hope hovering above the figures.  Find a card in your deck that represents your ideal sense of fellowship and connectedness with others.  How can you bring this spirit into your life, and into the lives of those you care about?  How can you carry this image into your daily life, so it’s there to help you make connections with others?

Samhain Tarot Exercise

October 27, 2011

I like to spend time around the Celtic holidays to reflect on the last season, and look forward to what I’ll be putting my energy into in the coming months.  I find the themes and archetypes of the tarot fit nicely with the journey around the Celtic wheel of the year.  I’ve developed some tarot exercises to explore those themes and archetypes.  I use the RWS deck as my baseline, and then I choose another deck to work with, something seasonal, or to fit my mood, or just a deck that I’m learning to work with. Here’s a handout that I give out for my Samhain/Halloween workshops.

  Several of the tarot cards depict themes that have relevance in exploring the symbolism of Samhain.  The Moon card represents our connection to the spiritual otherworld through our dreams, visions, daydreams, and imagination.  As you look at the picture of the Moon card from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, try to see it as an invitation to look beyond the veil—between the worlds at its most transparent time of endings and beginnings.  Do you find this glimpse of the otherworld attractive? Frightening?  How does it reflect your own dreams and visions—sleeping or waking?  Find the Moon card from another deck.  Does it enhance your understanding of your dream world? 
  The Death card represents the ending of the old year and the sloughing off of outmoded ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.  This card urges us to leave behind what we no longer need—what no longer helps or sustains us.  Find the Death card from another deck, and compare and contrast it with the picture shown here.  How do you feel this process of ending happening in your life?  Now choose a card from your deck that represents something you need to get rid of to make room for the blessings of the new season and year. Consider habits—even addictions—toxic situations or people, outworn attitudes or beliefs. What card feels like the dead leaves of your life? Which need to be blown away by the crisp and invigorating wind of autumn? 


Now take a look at the “harvest” of the last year, represented here by the Seven of Pentacles from the RWS deck.  Reflect on your work of the past year.  Choose a card from your deck that captures something of your “harvest.”  How does the card depict what you have gained? What memories and achievements will you store in the winter months to nourish and warm you? 
The new year dawns like the sunrise of the Temperance card.  The angel has one foot in a pool and one on land, representing an ability to move between the ordinary “earth” world and the “water” world of dreams and visions we first entered at the invitation of the Moon card.  Compare the Temperance card from another deck with this one. How do they offer you a glimpse of your new path? Find a card that represents the “crops” you would like to plant for the next year.  What are your goals? Your deepest desires? What would you like to involve yourself in?

From Turnips to Jack-O-Lanterns: The Origins of Halloween

October 24, 2011

Samhain(summer’s end) was originally the Celtic festival celebrated around November 1st to mark the end of the old year and celebrate the beginning of the new.  The festival had a two fold purpose–to commemorate and communicate with the dead and with the other inhabitants of the spiritual world in which the souls of the dead now lived, and to reflect on the past and catch a glimpse into the future of the individual and the community.  To find ways to give this holiday meaning for us, here’s a little of the history that goes with it.

The Celts mourned and prayed for the souls of those who had died in the past year, to help them move along on their journey to the otherworld.  They also believed that on that night the veil between our everyday world and the spiritual otherworld was at its thinnest and most transparent, and that contact was possible with ancestors and others who had gone before them, as well as with spiritual beings who inhabited the otherworld, just out of their reach and vision, but all around them.

So they immersed themselves in a celebration of and connection with the dead, later echoed in the Christian holiday constellation of All Hallow’s Eve(Halloween),  All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, put together by the Catholic Church to exert some control over pagan practices that were too strong to be eradicated.  On Samhain (as on May Eve) the Lord of the Dead, Gwynn ap Nudd (in Wales, other regions had various names for him), rode his giant dark horse with thundering hooves across the night sky, accompanied by his pack of “hell hounds,” white dogs with blood red ears, and the fluttering, shadowy souls of the dead.  While the Lord of the Dead and his train traveled in our world, the gates to his realm stood open, and heroes could embark on the perilous journey to visit the Underworld, to acquire treasure (like the magic apple of the Tree of Avalon) and knowledge  from its inhabitants.  But the gates remained open only for the night itself, and the hero must return by cockcrow or be locked in, possibly forever.

Many of our Halloween customs and superstitions come from the traditions of the Celts, based on the stories about this night.  Our intricate and eerie Jack-O-Lanterns descended from humble gourds and veggies like beets and turnips, carved and lit from within to frighten away faeries and other spirits who may come upon the unwary traveler in the dark and force him to join Gwynn ap Nudd’s “Wild Hunt.”  Another common legend of this night tells of the hero’s dark journey to the Underworld, depicted in the gruesome image of his severed head thrown into the Cauldron of Regeneration, to heal both the hero himself and his land.  We find an echo of this motif in the game of bobbing for apples, where the participant’s hands are bound behind his back and he immerses his head in water to catch the “sacred” apple.  The frightful nature of this holiday also encouraged travelers and revelers to wear disguises to shield their identities from prowling spirits, which later became the custom of dressing as the wandering spirits themselves, who asked for propitiation in the form of food and drink as they went from house to house, caroling like Christmas wassailers.  Our modern day trick or treaters still ask for propitiation in the form of candy in exchange for the mercy they show in not trashing the homes of their “hosts.”

The Celts also found another function for Samhain, one which capitalized on the nature of this holiday as a liminal point in time, as well as on the transparency of the veil between the worlds.   They considered it a threshold into the spirit world, when divination and understanding of secrets and mystery was possible, and when their understanding of past, present and future could be enhanced.  The Celts viewed time differently than we do, as cyclical rather than linear. Our contemporary idea of each new year is a milestone in the straight line that is time, running from birth to death. These markers stack up year after year, always going forward, never to be revisited, with no possibility of touching a future year. But the Celts saw time as a circle with no real beginning or end, and believed they could touch the past or future as other points in the circle. On Samhain, with the spiritual world so accessible, they used various forms of divination to see the meaning and significance of the past and future with heightened insight and intuition.

Dreams on this night were considered from the gods, They saw portents on the morning after the great Samhain bonfire in the colors and shapes of its ashes. The apple played a prominent role in Samhain rituals in the role of a divinatory tool because of its reputation as the fruit of the magical Tree of Paradise.  Victorians still cut apples in half so the seeds appeared like a star, then counted them to figure out the first letter of the name of a future mate.  And the winner of the bobbing for apples game would be the next one married, a part of the game still alive even in the 20th century.  The Celts also ate hazel nuts to increase their ability to understand the signs and omens of the otherworld, the way young Gwion Bach of Wales found himself accidentally filled with cosmic knowledge and insight when he licked his fingers after burning them in the magic potion of the goddess Ceridwen.  The hazelnut tree also leads us to the tarot, in that the Magician’s wand is traditionally believed to be made from the hazel tree. The Celts reflected on the past and tried to peer into the future on Samhain, and the tarot can help us celebrate this aspect of the holiday by acting as a reflection of our path as it takes a new turn.