She dances freely in mid-air, unconstrained by the laws of gravity and perhaps any of the other laws of this world. She looks totally feminine to me, but all my sources say she’s an androgynous being, which is probably why Pamela Coleman Smith and many of the other tarot artists discretely drape her private parts. Each of her hands holds a wand, suggesting positive and negative poles of energy. The symbolism here is thick and obvious. When we are able to integrate our masculine and feminine natures, our positive and negative sides, our conscious and not conscious minds, we enter into a state of being in which we can accomplish wonders (see my previous posts on The Sun and Judgement).
“What can we say of an understanding, a freedom and rapture beyond words? The unconscious known consciously, the outer self unified with the forces of life, knowledge that is not knowledge at all but a constant ecstatic dance of being….”* A quick troll through the Internet yielded the following quotes from people who’d been there and made a valiant effort to describe the undiscribable:
…I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there…
Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who suffered a brain hemorrhage and was trapped in her right brain.
The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.
Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhart
A laurel wreath surrounds the dancer. Laurel wreaths were given to victorious Greek athletes, notable poets (it’s where we get the laureate in poet laureate), and scholars. And so the wreath implies that the dancer has accomplished a great victory; and, indeed, she has. She is The Fool who has at last reached the end of his hero’s journey. A.E. Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith go to great lengths to make sure we understand this. The Fool and androgyne on The World card are the only figures in the major arcana that are dancing. We dance to bring ourselves into alignment with the multiverse, which, as quantum physicists are quick to tell us, is simply a dance of particles. The cosmic dancer began her journey toward enlightenment as The Fool and struggled through all the trials and dangers of the major arcana. She hung on the Tree of Life and overcame Death itself. Through her adventures she has achieved the goal of The Great Work—“Know thyself”. Her conscious and not conscious minds are in communion and the multiverse is open to her. A supreme victory indeed.
The Fool’s number is zero, the cosmic egg. The laurel wreath in The World, instead of being round like most laurel wreaths, is also shaped like a zero—another clue that these two are the same being. The wreath in the Marseilles decks actually comes to a point at both ends and looks remarkably like a Vesica piscis. This is the space formed when two circles intersect, and has come to symbolize liminal space . Gods and Goddesses and Saints are often pictured inside a Vesica piscis. Our dancer has transcended reality as we know it and is looking at things from the viewpoint of a god.
The wreath, come to think of it, is also shaped like an eye. Perhaps this is the eye Meister Ekhart was talking about?
The symbols of the elements, the four cardinal directions, the fixed signs of the zodiac, the archangels, and the gospel makers nail down the four corners of The World.
- The Bull: Earth, North, Taurus, Uriel
- The Lion: Fire, South, Leo, Michael, St Mark
- The Eagle: Water, West, Scorpio, Gabriel
- The Angel: Air, East, Aquarius, Raphael
Nobody agrees on which gospel maker goes with which animal. But I do know that in Venice the statue of a winged lion stands atop a pillar in St. Mark’s square near St. Mark’s Basilica because it is a symbol of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice.
When magicians and witches cast a circle for magical workings they draw the circle and invoke the above four quarters. They don’t invoke all the symbols for each quarter, of course, but choose the one or ones most appropriate for their work. Usually the directions and the elements are called, sometimes the archangels. A magic circle is an entity that exists in liminal space, between the worlds, and effects all of them. Those within the circle are, by definition, in all places at all times, at one with everything. Alchemists call this state of being “squaring the circle”, a concept which implies that with the grace of the divine all things are possible, that the mysterious can be “squared” with physical reality.
“As with other alchemical images, this etching was believed to possess all that is needed to transform lead into gold. A caption above the picture proclaims, ‘Here followeth the Figure conteyning all the secrets of the Treatise both great & small.’ The image echoes a recipe from the Rosarium, ‘Make a circle out of a man and woman, derive from it a square, and from the square a triangle: make a circle and you will have the philosopher’s stone.’ The circle containing the male and female figures is the microcosm and the larger outer circle represents the macrocosm. Note how the alchemist connects the concentric circles with a sexton. Circles are considered feminine in nature because they act to contain matter, much in the same way a womb acts to hold within itself the embryo. The square represents a masculine aspect and signifies earth with each of the four elements.
“Finally, the triangle symbolizes fire and acts to connect and integrate the above with the below. In the same way it signifies body, soul and spirit. Male and female energies are fused into a complementary wholeness that forms the basis for effective functioning in reality (the square). Extending outward from this inner psychic structure, human consciousness is brought into a divine relationship with the cosmos (the large, outer circle). Thus, there is inner and outer harmony within oneself, with the opposite sex and with the universe.” Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D.
The Wheel of Fortune key also squares the circle, but in this case, the circle is a physical wheel, and the viewpoint of The Wheel of Fortune is from its rim. We, and by extension, our fates, go up and down as it turns. But the viewpoint of The World is from the center of the card—the center of the circle and the center of the square. The dancer understands that there is no single center or axis to the multiverse. In the dance of the cosmos, each of us dances at the center, a still-point around which everything moves. Nothing and everything all at once.
William Butler Yeats might have been describing The World when he wrote:
“O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
“Among School Children” from The Tower 1928
To be continued…
*Rachael Pollack on The World card, Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom.