Posts Tagged ‘tarot’

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Tarot Imagery in “The Searchlight”

August 8, 2015


Getting ready for BATS next weekend, I’m working on a close reading of Woolf’s “The Searchlight.” Here are my lecture notes for the introduction.   Can’t wait to explore the story during our session. I’ll post the close reading itself after I get the benefit of our discussion next Saturday.  I always learn so much from our seminars!

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 and developed an acute awareness of the rigidity and smugness of prevailing 19th century attitudes that assumed she would take her place in society accordingly. Unwilling to be bound by societal norms of class and gender that relegated her to a codified domestic life, she wrote both fiction and essays that challenged the status quo.  She named the new century of her adulthood the Modern Age, and used a fresh and dynamic approach to write about everyday life in the midst of the 20th century explosion of urbanization, technology, global war, and cultural change.  Like her fellow Modernist writers, she mined themes, symbols, and works of the past for nuggets of meaning to enrich her own works.  But she applied a modern psychological consciousness to her writing, and delved deeply into the human mind’s capacity to observe and make meaning from sensory details and associations  from ordinary life as well as from large events to explore the macro and micro elements of the changing world she lived in.


Bay Area Tarot Symposium Coming Up!

July 25, 2015

On August 15th and 16th the fabulous Bay Area Tarot Symposium will take place at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose.  It promises to be the biggest one yet, with an eclectic mix of leading lights of tarot, as well as some very exciting  presenters who are new to the symposium.  On Saturday the 15th I will present another of my tarot/literature crossovers, this time on a Virginia Woolf short story. My friend Sophia Mao introduced me to this story through her erudite and fascinating Honors Thesis for the English Department at UC Berkeley.  Her writing on the images of “The Tower and the Telescope” inspired me to see the story with a tarot agenda, which yielded a very rich reading. Here’s the description of my presentation that the BATS program will use as an introduction.

Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf:

                                                                                                                           Tarot Connections in Woolf’s “The Searchlight”                                                                                        

While many readers see Virginia Woolf’s work as daunting because of her use of stream of consciousness, her fragmentation of time, and her haunting but difficult mysticism, her work can be accessible and enjoyable when read with the tarot as a key to her symbology and themes.  In our time together, we will do a close reading of her very short story, “The Searchlight,” using the images of the Tower card to unlock the door of understanding to the story’s message.  Like her Modernist contemporaries, Yeats and Eliot, Woolf taps into archetypes that offer wisdom and guidance for our modern era, archetypes that are reflected in the tarot deck in usage during their era, the RWS deck.

Madame Sosostris’ Tarot Reading in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

May 2, 2012

Click here to read the passage from The Waste Land to which this essay refers.

Below are the cards that are mentioned in reference to Madame Sosostris’ tarot reading in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The blank card is not shown. Images are from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Corresponding lines are listed below the cards.


Ten of Swords: “Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor.”
Queen of Cups: “Here is Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks, The lady of situations.”
Three of Wands: “Here is the man with three staves…”
Wheel of Fortune:  “…and here The Wheel…”
Six of Pentacles: “And here is the one-eyed merchant…”
The Hanged Man: “I do not find The Hanged Man.”

Madame Sosostris’ Tarot Reading in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: An Annotative Essay

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences;  the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary.  The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking;  in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes.  (Eliot,Essay on Hamlet, 1917)

In 1922, T.S. Eliot published his long poem, The Waste Land, one of the most influential literary works of the 20th century.  His use of fragments of literature, myth, and everyday experience differs from the traditional narrative structure that had been employed by writers of the past.  He does not rely on the assumption that his audience has a common cultural background or experience to connect with his work;  instead, he writes with a multiplicity of voices that eventually form a unified whole.  He accomplishes this feat by what he calls the “mythical method.”  When writing about Ulysses in Ulyssess, Order and Myth, 1923, he admires Joyce’s use of myth, in his ability to manipulate “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.”  He uses this method himself to structure and give meaning to what he calls “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”

In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” he introduces his method of collaging “fragments [he] has shored against [his] ruin”(430), fragments of experience and culture to give our lives meaning.  He also starts to bring together the overarching theme and mythical background of the whole work.  He mines the ancient myths of renewal that were used to celebrate the coming of spring, focusing especially on the legend of the Holy Grail.  This legend is the story of the quest for a means of renewing the waste land of ordinary existence through the healing of the maimed Fisher King, whose wound represents the illness of his realm.  The poet twists these myths and other historical and literary allusions to show that something has gone wrong in modern times, that our world is sick and longing to be healed.

Although Eliot is quite explicit in his copious notes to The Waste Land about his feelings of despair about the modern world, the poem itself offers some hints that there might be a possibility for hope of  regeneration, at least for individuals.  This is especially apparent in the stanza of the first section which describes a tarot reading, although at first sight it may not seem that way. The epigraph of the poem refers to the Cumaean Sybil, the ancient Roman oracle who guided heroes on their quests.  According to myth, she was granted eternal life by Apollo, but not eternal youth, and she becomes a dried up crone in a cage, begging for death.  Having established the decay of the oracular power the Sybil represents, Eliot introduces “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante”(43) as a parody of the ancient myth, a contemporary mortal woman with a “bad cold,”(44) who is the “wisest woman in Europe with a wicked pack of cards.”(45) While some critics think the poet is making a reference to Mme. Blavatsky with this character, she is hardly a sybil, with her self important attitude towards clients displayed in her insistence on delivering a horoscope herself, “one must be so careful these days.”(59)   But the substance of her reading, as she reveals the cards one at a time, has power and meaning all the same, using the same myths and symbols that Eliot employs throughout the poem.

The first card of the reading, the “drowned Phoenician sailor,”(47) is past hope of life or rebirth, even though he is immersed in water, which appears as a symbol of life and renewal in other parts of the poem.  In parentheses, Madame Sosostris adds, “Those are pearls that were his eyes.  Look!” (48) This is a line from Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which in that work is followed by:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (

Although the line in the poem seems final and hopeless, Eliot’s method of using allusion to enrich his work yields a depth to the card’s meaning, implying that a “sea-change” will come, that there is hope of a “pearl” even after drowning in the sea of despair that the modern world has produced. Eliot admits that this card is not actually one of the official cards of the standard tarot pack, but the image on the 10 of swords seems appropriate to represent the theme that Eliot gives this card, perhaps even the ambivalence of its meaning, represented by the darkening or lightening sky, depending on the perspective of the reader.

Next, “Belladonna” appears, the “Lady of the Rocks, the lady of situations.”(49)  Again there is a possibility of two different readings;  Belladonna could refer either to a beautiful woman or to the seductive but deadly nightshade plant.  If we use Eliot’s clues, the Queen of Cups fits this card.  This Queen holds out a Grail in seemingly benevolent way, and yet she is cut off from the seeker of her gifts by water and rocks.  Again Eliot gives us a chance of renewal, but in a way that is fraught with peril.  The next card, “the man with three staves,”(51) is identified by Eliot in his notes as “an authentic member of the tarot pack,” (Notes to The Waste Land)and he notes that this card signifies the Fisher King to him.  In the 3 of wands, a man stands looking out at a waste land, longing to be healed and to see his land come to life again, but he can only be regenerated through the quest of the hero who searches for spiritual truth and feels compassion for others.  Eliot may tell us that there is no hope in the future, for the king or for us, but the card itself holds fragile buds of life in the wands the figure has planted in his waste land.

The fourth card to be revealed is The Wheel (of Fortune), another card that offers a spectrum of meanings.  In Eliot’s interpretation of the world as full of “futility and anarchy,” the wheel turns round and round, like the “crowds of people walking in a ring”(56) that Madame Sosostris sees in her vision.  To Eliot, we are like the king of Greek myth, Ixion, who was punished for his sins by being condemned for eternity to spin through Tartarus, lashed to a fiery wheel.  But the card itself also carries the possibility of chance and change, of spinning the wheel to move to new opportunities.  Instead of spinning in a fixed position, repetitively and without direction, The Wheel can take us on a ride that spirals upward, taking us to new heights and vistas.

Eliot now presents us with the “one-eyed merchant,”(53) a card not strictly defined as a member of the deck.  However, inspection of the 6 of pentacles shows a figure who does indeed fit that description.  This card shows the merchant holding scales and distributing coins as charity.  In part III of the poem, Eliot depicts this character as Mr. Eugenides, the “unshaven” merchant who sells currants, a denizen of the grey, bleak, and greedy “unreal city.”(207-211)  But the image of the card, while ambivalent, offers the possibility of compassion and balance, of putting the merchant’s coins back into circulation.  Like the motif so prevalent in the poem, of stopped up water that needs to be released, this card shows the possibility of allowing our human connections to flow again as well.

Madam Sosostris now tells her client that she is “forbidden to see”(54) what the merchant is carrying on his back, represented by the “next card, which is blank.”(53)  Since Eliot was using the RWS deck (as evinced by his description of the 3 of wands as the “man with three staves,” RWS being the only deck in circulation at that time to have that image), it is reasonable to assume that he was thinking of the blank card which came with the deck.  He gives no explanation, but it is possible to think of what the merchant “carries on his back” as some kind of treasure or boon that he will distribute to his community, like the coins he hands out to the beggars.  And it is tempting to find a comparison of the blank card to the blank stone that comes in a set of runes, which can show not only what is hidden, but also the opportunity of creating one’s own fortune, one’s own destiny.

Eliot ends the reading with The Hanged Man, whom he associates with “the hanged god of Frazer,”(Notes to the Waste Land) who, in his great work on mythology, The Golden Bough,” uses the same motif to describe the vegetation rites that ancient people performed to keep their lands fertile and safe.  But instead of presenting the card in a way that completes the ritual of rebirth and regeneration to which the poem has been leading, Eliot has Madame Sosostris say that she does “not find The Hanged Man.”(54-55)  He indicates that there is no renewal for us, that the traditions and religions of the past have been lost, and we have only “ruins” of what is left from which to cobble together a personal meaning for our lives today.

Eliot clearly felt that our traditions and beliefs had been smashed and torn beyond repair.  But the images and themes he presents in this tarot reading can take on a story of their own.  Although he notes that he is “not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards,”(Notes to the Waste Land) his choice of cards reveals that he knows enough to structure a story that can still have different ending from the doom he feels is ahead.  This “heap of broken images”(22) that we wander through in our own waste land can still be brought together and made whole by the creative, visionary mind, for “in the mind of the poet, these are always forming new wholes.”  Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor, is ready for a sea-change.  The Queen of Cups holds out the Grail to the seeker who perseveres in his quest to heal the Fisher King. We can still spin The Wheel of Fortune for a chance at a new life, while compassion and connection to others is in our grasp if we balance our lives and share our gifts.  Our own destiny is still to be written on the blank card, and if we search for The Hanged Man, we can right him and accept his blessing and wisdom.

If you are interested in reading more about T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land, here are some sources you might find interesting:

The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, T.S. Eliot, 1980.  Includes The Waste Land in its entirety, with Eliot’s own notes.

T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems, Derek Traversi, 1976.  An excellent critical study of Eliot’s major works of poetry. This is a hypertext site of The Waste Land with complete annotations.

The Golden Bough, A Study of Magic and Religion, James Frazer.  There are many editions of this groundbreaking work, some abridged, some illustrated.  Eliot relied heavily on it for the mythical background of his poem.

From Ritual to Romance, Jessie L. Weston, 1920.  Eliot incorporated into The Wasteland Weston’s theory that the rituals of the ancient vegetation religions were encoded in the tarot.

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.

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.

Resources for Andre Breton’s Tarot Connections

September 27, 2011

At BATS I gave out a bibliography/resource page with the essay in my last entry.  Since then,  some of the participants from the presentation have given me some new leads to follow up, so here’s the list, but with some additions:


Revolutions of the Mind:  the Life of Andre Breton, Mark Polizzotti, 1995.  A complete and compelling biography that sheds light on the surrealist movement as well as on Breton’s work.

Free Rein (La Cle des champs), Andre Breton, 1953.  Trans. Michael Parmentier and Jacqueline D’Amboise, 1995.  Great collection of essays, including a discussion of the deck of playing cards created by Breton and a group of fellow surrealists, which they called the Jeu de Marseilles.

History of the Surrealist Movement, Gerard Durozoi, 1997.   Trans. Alison Anderson, 2002.  Lavishly illustrated, complete history of the twists and turns of the surrealist journey.  It has some samples of the wonderful Marseilles deck that Breton writes about in La Cle des champs.   A page that gives the history of the Jeu de Marseilles, as well as some samples.

The Tarot of the Bohemians, Papus. First published 1896.  Trans. A.P. Morton.  The occultist Oswald Wirth created a tarot deck for this book.  Wirth  revised it soon after, but it was not published 1926.  Breton was using this revised deck for Arcane 17. Both decks are known as the Wirth Deck.

Andre Breton, Mary Ann Caws, 1971.  An accessible analysis of Breton’s major works.  A brief French language biography with many helpful links.  A site on surrealism and Breton, includes poetry and the Surrealist Manifesto.  A nice sampling of poems from some of the major surrealists.

Andre Breton’s Arcane 17: An Exploration of the Tarot’s Star Card

September 23, 2011

 Here’s a copy of the handout I gave to the participants at my presentation for BATS, but it now includes an analysis of what turned out to be the most exciting passage of all in our discussion, the butterfly paragraph.

During WWII, the French surrealist poet, Andre Breton, lived in America in self imposed exile. He spent three months in the far reaches of northeastern Canada, where he struggled to make sense of personal losses he had experienced, as well as of the horror and bleakness of global war.  During that time, he wrote his extended prose poem, Arcane 17, the title referring to tarot card 17, the Star card (Breton was using the Star card from the revised Wirth deck, published in 1926). A work of poetic alchemy, this book offers hope for the individual and for our fragile world in advocating an embracing of the divine feminine in nature and in ourselves.  The Star serves as a key to the symbolism of the work, and Breton’s method of exploring the image of the card uses creative visualization, offering transformation and transcendence.  By examining some of the passages that specifically refer to the Star card, we can follow his surrealist method of drawing meaning from an image that takes on a life of its own when the imagination takes the leap to become one with it. The first time he describes the card, he treats it as a vision outside of his window, appearing to him as a growing light, which resolves itself into the card’s scene:

All the magic of night is in the frame, all of the night’s enchantment.  Perfumes and chills extravagate from the air into thoughts.  The grace of life sends a muffled vibration through the flutes of Pan at the foot of the curtains.  Besides the black cube of the window is no longer so difficult to pierce:  it is penetrated little by little by a brightness spread out in a garland, like a convolvulus of light attached to two transversal edges at the top, not hanging below the upper third of the shape. The image gradually focuses into seven flowers which become stars while the lower part of the cube remains empty.  The two highest stars are of blood, they represent the sun and moon;  the five lower ones, alternating yellow and blue like sap, are the other planets known to the ancients. (67-68)

He immediately establishes that the night he exists in and the card itself are one, in the “frame” that beckons to him from both the window and borders of the card.  He infuses his surroundings with “enchantment,” exploring sensory details, “perfumes and chills,” to flesh out the half real, half “magic” aura he experiences.  “The flutes of Pan” vibrate softly for him, signaling that he is entering a mythic realm, with deep archetypal significance.  The details of the card appear a little at a time for the poet, a “convolvulus of light” stretches its tendrils from the top of the card/window until the flowers brighten and take the shape of a vine of stars.  He creates his own symbolism for the stars, the sun and moon with the planets “of the ancients,” creating a bond between his own yearning for meaning and that of humankind of the distant past.  The sun and the moon “are of blood,” linking them to our own bodies, while the planet stars, “alternating yellow and blue, like sap,” extend the link to the natural world.  The blood of humans and the sap of plants connect to the celestial bodies, which shine above for us to look up at them and feel the connection, as humans have always done.  He then describes the scene as if it were moving, alive, the light gradually growing:

A new glimmer emanate[s] from the zenith which would dominate from above the first ones:  a much brighter star is inscribed in the center of the original septenary and its points are of red and yellow fire and it’s the Dog Star or Sirius, and it’s Lucifer Light  Bearer and it is, in its glory surpassing all the others, the Morning Star.  (68)

Above these shimmering stars the primary light of the scene rises.  By using the word “inscribed” to describe its appearance, the poet emphasizes the surrealist belief that the word itself can create magic and meaning.  The night sky, as a representative of all of the natural world, has its own system of symbols that can be felt and understood in a visceral way by allowing the imagination to wander in it freely, and to accept whatever images and associations the mind infuses into it.  The true poet then has the task of using words to help his readers have that same imaginative and sensory experience that he has had.

Breton also uses the image of the Star to act as a symbolic key to his experience of it.  But he does not pin that it down to any specific correspondence.  Instead, his imagination allows multiple associations to infuse the Star with fluid and changing meanings, enriching an already potent image.  Breton uses the story of the Egyptian god Osiris in other parts of Arcane 17 to reinforce the theme of eternal resurrection.  He brings up the Dog Star here, to the Egyptians a morning star that heralded the sun, which was associated with the goddess, Sepdet, a daughter of Osiris.  Sepdet had a child by him, the planet Venus, which we now know as our “Morning Star.”  This reference to Venus leads to the Roman/Greek goddess, shining down on mankind as a beacon of love and nurturing, properties that Breton associates with the divine feminine elsewhere in this work.  But the poet adds yet another association to this brightest of stars, that of “Lucifer Light Bearer.”  He is referring to the legend that the angel who rebelled against heaven fell from the sky, and is also identified with the Morning Star.  These overlapping references explode in the “glory surpassing all the others,” the Star that can illuminate Breton’s multiple themes: that the cycles of life lead to resurrection, that love and nature create harmony, and that rebellion is a means to true freedom.

Breton then describes the scene that appears by the light of the Star:

The landscape doesn’t light up till the very instant it appears, and at that instant life brightens again and immediately below the luminous blaze which just gave way to the one mentioned, a young woman is revealed, nude, kneeling by the side of a pond, and with her right hand she spills into the pond the contents of a golden urn, while her left hand empties onto the earth an equally inexhaustible silver urn.  Alongside that woman who, beyond Melusina, is Eve and now is all womankind, the leaves of an acacia rustle to the right while to the left a butterfly flutters on a bloom.  (68)

As the poet experiences the brightening of the sky from the appearance of the central, greatest Star, he invites us to use our own imaginations to see by its “luminous blaze,” to feel that “life brightens” again.  Breton then describes the figure in the center of the card, a naked young woman, kneeling as she pours out the contents of two urns, the gold one from her right hand into a pond, the silver from her left onto the ground.  The fluid and eternal nature of this process is marked by his use of the word “inexhaustible” in his description of the urns.  He associates this woman with the Melusina of European legend, a water fairy who marries a mortal, but because he does not follow the “rules” for a marriage between mortals and immortals, he loses her.  However, she still protects him from afar, in spite of the fact that he caused her banishment from the mortal world.  Breton sees Melusina as the embodiment of the divine feminine, a sensibility of natural love and understanding that men have banished from the modern world.  Breton also associates the woman with Eve, as the archetype of “all womankind,” implying that all women have the divine grace needed to save and nurture our world.  The woman of the Star card gives him hope that this archetypal principal is still hovering near our impoverished world, with the “inexhaustible” pitchers that could renew it.

A few pages later, Breton goes on to speak from the point of view of the two streams that flow from the urns, their purpose and properties:

The left hand stream.——I burn and I rouse, I carry out the fire’s bidding. . . . I’m headed for that bleak pond where, under phosphorescent creams, ideas which have ceased to move men have come to be buried.  And this pond belongs to the dogmas that have met their end, to which men no longer make sacrifices except out of habit and pusillanimity.  It belongs to the innumerable existences shut in on themselves, whose magma gives off , at certain times of the day, a pestilential odor but who still retain the power to glimmer with a new dream, because it is there that I bring the incessant bubbling of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas and it’s through me that it rediscovers in its depths the secret principle of its whirlpools. (75-76)

Breton sees the pond renewed by the urn’s contents.  Its surface is covered with “phosphorescent creams,” producing an eerie but superficial light that hides outworn “dogmas” and the “innumerable existences shut in on themselves.”  Like the pond, the stagnant atmosphere of the modern world has no more vital belief systems, and no way for people to reach out and connect with each other. However, even though the pond gives off a “pestilential odor” in its morbidity, it still “glimmer[s]” in its longing for “a new dream.”  The urn’s stream can filter deep within the “bleak pond,” and make it “bubbl[e]” again, and recover the effervescence “of dissident ideas, of fermenting ideas” that can effect true change for the better in the world.  Then the poet speaks as the stream of the silver urn:

 The right hand stream.——I bewitch and I multiply.  I obey the freshness of water, capable of erecting its palace of mirrors in one drop and I’m heading for the earth which loves me, for the earth which couldn’t fulfill the seed’s promise without me.  And the seed opens, and the plant rises, and the marvelous operation takes place by which a single seed produces several.  And ideas would also cease to be fertile at the moment when man would no longer irrigate them with all that nature can individually instill in him in the way of clarity, mobility, generosity, and freshness of view point.  I bring to the soil where he walks the confidence he must have in the eternal greening of his reasons for hope at the very moments when they might appeared to have been destroyed. (76)

The fresh water of this urn joins up with “the earth which loves” it, allowing the naturally fertile ground to “fulfill the seed’s promise.”  Breton emphasizes the beauty of nature in what it has to offer us in itself, but he also uses water as a symbol of the nourishment that ideas need in order to grow “clarity, generosity, and freshness of view point” in the human mind.  As our suffering earth needs the bounty of “all that nature can . . . instill,” so does the “soil” of our minds need the “eternal greening” of hope to keep our lives and thoughts vibrant and growing.

Breton then returns to the image of the butterfly as it flutters near the woman, and he goes on to develop the butterfly as a symbol:

 The butterfly turns.  During this last passage it remained still and facing front, mimicking a hatchet of light planted in the flower.  A flutter now reveals its wing, thrice smattered with the dust of all precious stones.  Its pump doesn’t work anymore, imponderable instruments developing from the flowery sap pause in the course of this barely material activity.  And before taking flight to attend to the dissemination of the fecundating substance, before finding again the stippled and sinuous line that directs its flight, it only seems to exist in order to bring to our eyes the sumptuousness of that wing.  And in its turn it tells what a consoling mystery there is in the raising of successive generations, what new blood incessantly circulates and, so that the species may not suffer from the wearing down of the individual, what selection always takes place in time, succeeds in imposing its law above all.  Man sees this trembling wing which is, in all languages the capital letter that begins the word Resurrection.  Yes, the highest thoughts, the greatest sentiments can undergo a collective decline and the human heart can also break and books can age, and all things must, on the outside, die, but a power that is not at all supernatural makes death itself the basis for renewal.  To begin with, it guarantees all the exchanges which make sure that nothing precious is lost internally and that, through its obscure metamorphoses from season to season, the butterfly again puts on its exalted colors. (78)

At first the butterfly is “still,” as it would be on the card, but its presence draws our attention.  The juxtaposition of the delicate fluttering of a butterfly’s wing with an illuminating “hatchet of light,” as the poet sees it, alerts us to its importance, as if it is about to reveal the underlying reality of the scene before us.  The fragile beauty of the butterfly’s wing is a treasure as great as the “dust of all precious stones.”  Breton then goes on to describe the scientific and practical activities of the butterfly, how it takes in the nectar of the flower and then goes to “disseminat[e] the fecundating substance.” The butterfly is merely acting out its natural role, but the poet’s eye recognizes the moment of breath-taking surrealistic beauty as he gazes on the “sumptuousness of that wing” itself.  And then Breton explains the “consoling mystery” of the fragile butterfly.  Any member of a species can be worn down or destroyed, but “successive generations” carry on the legacy of each and every individual. Although ideas, achievements, and individuals will “decline” and “die,” the natural order of things makes even “death itself the basis for renewal.”  The poet needs no reassurances from the “supernatural” for promises of everlasting life, but instead feels the awesome power of nature itself as she continues to push forth new life “from season to season,” revealed to us in the promise of the butterfly’s “exalted colors.”

Breton deepens his experience of the card as he describes the creative visualization that takes place in his imagination as he continues to immerse himself in its details:

 The star reclaims its dominant position among the seven planets in the window whose fires grow dim to proclaim it the pure crystallization of night.  In the only corner that still remained walled with darkness, the claws of a thousand lynx lacerated everything that obstructed vision, releasing a tree as they settle in along its branches whose foliage is such a fascinating green that it seems to be made from the eyes of those same lynx.  I wait for everything to return to its original serenity.  The young woman continues to tilt her two vases over the ground and over the water, with her back to the thorny tree.  But imperceptibly the scene is changing . . . what’s going on?  The acacia comes so close it almost occupies the whole field of vision, doesn’t it look as if its arms are pulling apart the window frames?  Amazing!  It’s walking toward me, it’s going to turn me upside down:  I’m dreaming. (81)

The scene is essentially the same, the stars in the night sky, the woman pouring invigorating streams of water into the pond and onto the earth.  But it then takes a surrealist twist, and the poet describes what happens in his imagination as the picture on the card takes on a life of its own.  The small tree to the woman’s left has now grown large enough to hold “a thousand lynx,” whose only connection with the actual picture is the “fascinating green” of the foliage and the eyes of the lynx.  Their appearance lends an exotic and mysterious note to the scene that deepens its power.  And then Breton moves from a simple description of the details his imagination has added for him;  he starts to describe the actual process he undergoes in his hypnotic like trance of visualization.  He experiences surprise and awe, asking himself, “. . . what’s going on?”  In that space we can see only as an ellipsis, his “amazing” powers of the imagination breathe life into the original images.  Breton admired the poet Arthur Rimbaud for his call to poetry to provoke a “dereglement de tous les sens” (a derangement of all the senses) to be able to experience the world more fully, and here he seems to have found it for himself.  The tree in the card is now pushing through his window as well as the threshold of the card, about to turn him “upside down,” a true derangement of the mundane world that his imagination has effected for him.

Breton ends Arcane 17 with a message of hope and a call to action:

 “The angel of Liberty, born from a white feather shed by Lucifer during his fall, penetrates the darkness;  the star she wears on her forehead becomes, ‘first meteor, then comet and furnace.’”  We see how, where it may once have been unclear, the image sharpens;  it’s rebellion itself, rebellion alone is the creator of light.  And this light can only be known by way of three paths;  poetry, liberty, and love, which should inspire the same zeal and converge from the very cup of eternal youth, at the least explored and the most illuminable spot in the human heart.  (97)

He quotes Victor Hugo’s description of the “angel of liberty” from his epic poem, “La Fin de Satan.”  He describes the qualities of the angel’s star, identifying it with the properties of “Les Etoiles” he has experienced in the card and in his vivid imagination.  He follows its momentum, at first only a “meteor, then comet, then furnace.”  He calls for rebellion against the dogmas and lifestyles that no longer serve us or the earth, rebellion that will set the star on its blazing path of light.  “Poetry, liberty, and love” can inspire our journey to a sane and natural world if we allow the essence of the tarot Star to light up the “most illuminable spot in the human heart.”

Tarot Birthcard: The Chariot

June 23, 2011

Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

Here is a birthcard reading for card VII, The Chariot.   To find out your own personal birthcard, click here.

The archetype of The Chariot represents finding direction in life, while reconciling opposing desires and perspectives.  With the Chariot as your birthcard, you have a tendency to “find” yourself in situations of conflict, and to actively seek out challenges.  You get great satisfaction in working through conflict, which you do mostly with the help of your outstanding abilities to reason and communicate.  You like to have a sense of constant movement that leads to progression in your life.  You enjoy travel, and see your life as a long journey with inner as well as outer voyages and stops.  You need balance and harmony to function at your best, but you often find that your emotions and your mind fight against each other, the mental and emotional “horses” dragging each other from your chosen path.  When the two are in balance within you, the outer events of your life sail along with an exhilarating feeling of speed and a true sense of direction.  In addition to the qualities of the image of the Chariot, which expand and personify numerological properties, the number 7, your number, also has significance in itself.  The 7 marks a fresh start, a new direction, and is considered a special number, the mystical number.  It can’t be broken down into smaller parts or fully understood.  People with 7 as their number often experience a sense of mystery and destiny that is paradoxically never satisfied in an answer or a goal, but only in finely tuned movement and change.

The image of The Chariot from the Tarot of St. Petersburg shows the charioteer in control of his path.  This powerful driver can be seen as a representation of Dazhbog, the pre-Christian Slavic god who drives his diamond chariot of the sun across the sky every day.  He is attended by the stars and planets, seen behind him, and the moon, which arches over his shoulders as a cloak.  His chariot is drawn by fiery, headstrong horses who struggle to break away and follow their own paths.  The chariot of this myth represents an inner struggle between two seemingly contradictory facets of the personality:  the heart, and the mind, which pull in different directions.  Each of the “horses” is intent on getting his own way, even if he tears the chariot to pieces.  With The Chariot as your archetype, you see your life as a path to be traveled, maintaining control, and focusing the energy inherent in these potentially destructive steeds to move you forwards.  As Dazhbog shows you in this image, you do not need to clutch the reins too tightly.  Your control of the red horse of passion and the white horse of reason can come from a strong sense of purpose, and an instinctive ability to “harness” your own emotions and thoughts to help you reach your goal.

The message of The Chariot is that opposites can stand side by side, as in the dualism of Slavic mythology.  This aspect of that ancient religion is unlike the dualism of most other Western religions, where opposites of good and evil fight with each other for supremacy.  Instead, Slavic dualism, seen in Dazhbog’s journey from day to night, or from summer to winter, allows light and dark, reason and passion, heat and cold, to complement each other to form a harmonious whole.  The identity of each of your “horses” is made more distinct by contrast with its opposing characteristic or position.  Yes, the pull of opposites can create conflict in your life when two goals or desires threaten to upset the stability of your chariot.  But without conflict, there is no progress, for it is conflict which induces you to change and grow, making you dissatisfied with your present way of living and forcing you to find new solutions.  It is understandable to perceive The Chariot as too risky a possibility, to be unwilling to take up the reins because they don’t seem strong enough to tame the horses, to reconcile your conflicting desires.  But only by controlling your fears and harnessing all your forces towards a chosen, clearly defined purpose can you victoriously meet your challenges.  The Chariot as your birthcard gives you the ability to take up the reins of your own life, put yourself in the driver’s seat, and choose your life’s direction.

Tarot Birthcard: Strength

June 21, 2011

Rider-Waite Tarot by U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

My friend Sophia tells me she figured out her birthcard number to find that it’s 8, the Strength card, so I thought I would choose that one to work with today.  To find out your birthcard, click here.

The lion subdued by a graceful maiden is the traditional image for this card, representing the balance of opposites within an individual.  The fiery nature of the lion is a metaphor for the raw power and impulses that well up inside of you, even when you are presenting an outward “maidenly” appearance.  When channeled towards a purpose, this power is productive and invigorating, but out of control it can be dangerous and destructive.  The maiden’s “force” is anything but forceful; her gentleness tames the unmodified power of the lion and he becomes a gentle friend, companion and servant.  As an image of your archetype, this card shows the possibility of awakening your potential energy, which may be brought into full awareness only through the agencies of self-understanding and compassion, which can help you harness your lion to empower you to accomplish your goals.

Your inner passions are the source of your love and creativity, but they constantly need to be processed to be understood and expressed.  You have good, strong instincts that can guide you, but you must let them flow through you at a pace and level that will not knock you off balance.  Passion can be overwhelming if allowed to rule your life without being tempered with thoughts and beliefs.  But if channeled into productive expression, it can give you the intuitive guidance to help you make your decisions, and to power your efforts once you start to act.

Sometimes, because of outside influences, you may feel like your impulses and instincts should be put down or ignored, that practical concerns and societal pressures should be listened to, even against your own instincts.  Trust your inner self to know best; your passions will lead you in the direction that is right for you, and your own Strength will be the only force you need to guide you in the direction that will allow you to enjoy and employ your passions in a healthy and productive way.

The fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast fits both the image and the spirit of this card.  When the kind and gentle Beauty first finds herself a “prisoner” in the Beast’s castle, she sees him only as a fearsome and brutal creature.  The Beast also feels himself loathsome and monstrous in her presence, and they uneasily keep each other at bay.  Over time, Beauty’s quiet and compassionate influence “tames” the Beast, bringing out his humanity.  They eventually form a loving relationship that allows them to rule together in harmony over the Beast’s realm.  The raw power of the Beast is channeled into life and love giving Strength through Beauty’s gentle touch.

This card’s archetype offers you an inner Strength that gently helps you find an outlet and purpose for the raw forcefulness of your passion for love and life.  Like the infinity sign that appears above the maiden’s head like a halo, your life can flow in balance and harmony when your power is tamed by compassion and love, for yourself and for others.