Category Archives: Tarot

Hijacked by Mamluks

One of the greatest dangers a writer faces while doing research is getting sidetracked by an irresistible piece of trivia and wandering for hours through cyberspace and reference books. By the time he or she resurfaces, bleary eyed and sated with useless information, hours have passed—hours that could have been spent on something productive.

This happened to me, for about the bajillionth time, as I was preparing a presentation about the history of tarot. I kept running across the statement that the first playing cards didn’t appear in Europe until the early 1300’s— and they were probably Mamluk.

Mamluk playing cards had 4 suites--coins, polo sticks, swords, and cups--and 3 court cards--Kings, Viceroys, and Deputy Viceroys.

Mamluk playing cards had 4 suites–coins, polo sticks, swords, and cups–and 3 court cards–Kings, Viceroys, and Deputy Viceroys.

“What’s a Mamluk?” I thought. And that’s when the Mamluks grabbed me and dragged me through nearly eight centuries of fascinating history that had absolutely nothing to do with the tarot.

It all began way back in 800 CE when the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad began supplementing their military with slaves purchased from a place called Circassia in the northern Caucasus Mountains.


Circassia doesn’t exist anymore, but Circassian people still live there. And it’s still sort of the Lake Woebegone of Eastern Europe, where all the men are strong,

Modern Circassians

Modern Circassians

all the women are good looking,

Modern Circassian

Modern Circassian

and all the children are above average.

The medieval Circassian slaves were such excellent fighters and strategists that they were given more and more power and responsibility. Any historian would have told the caliphs this was a bad idea, but who listens to historians?
They eventually grew more powerful than the caliphs who owned them and formed a military regime that dominated the Middle East for over eight centuries. They called themselves Mamluks (Arabic for slaves).

Mamluk--artist unknown

Mamluk–artist unknown

Baybars (maybe), artist unknown--at least by me.

Baybars (maybe), artist unknown–at least by me.

In 1260, Baybars, a Mameluke general owned by the Sultan of Egypt, defeated the Mongols and halted their sweep through the Middle East and into Egypt. This is a hugely significant accomplishment, since the descendents of Genghis Khan had been pillaging their way west for the past 500 years without a single defeat. Baybars then killed the sultan and took over Egypt. During his reign of seventeen years Baybars crushed the dreaded Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drove the crusaders from Antioch, and extended the rule of Egypt across the Red Sea to control the valuable pilgrim cities of Mecca and Medina.
A totally amazing curriculum vitae.
The Mamluks remained a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East until the early 1800’s when The Ottoman Empire realized that they were way too powerful and massacred them all in Egypt (1811) and then Baghdad (1813).*


But not all the Mamluks stayed in the Middle East. Many become mercenaries throughout the Levant and Europe. Every King and even some of the more wealthy nobles had their crack Mamluk troops. Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard had a Mamluk division and Napoleon himself had a Mamluk body guard.

Roustam Raza, Napoleon's Mamluk body guard, oil on canvas by Émil Jean Horace Vernet, 1789-1863

Roustam Raza, Napoleon’s Mamluk body guard, oil on canvas by Émil Jean Horace Vernet, 1789-1863

Another image of Roustam Raza

Another image of Roustam Raza

Remember all those medieval historical novels and romances where the hero must fight the villain’s dreaded Mamluk bodyguard?

And soldiers have lots of time to sit around and play gambling games. I have no doubt that the European knights of the 1300’s were eager to learn the favorite game of these amazing fighters. And so playing cards became all the rage in Europe–thanks, in part, to the Mamluks.

Circassian woman, veiled, by Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

Circassian woman, veiled, by Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904)

Circassian women were so beautiful that they were sold as concubines and became the rulers of  seraglios throughout the Middle East. From this position they would have had quite a bit of influence on Middle Eastern politics.

Voltaire had this to say about them:
“The Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglio of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise. These maidens are very honorably and virtuously instructed how to fondle and caress men; are taught dances of a very polite and effeminate kind; and how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.”
–1734, Letters to the English, Letter XI, On Inoculation
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840–physician, naturalist, and racist) theorized that the Circassians were the closest to God’s original model of humanity, and thus “the purest and most beautiful whites were the Circassians”. Since the Circassians were from the Caucasus Mountains, the word Caucasian came to be the name of the white race.
Now, aren’t you glad you know what a Mamluk is?



*“History of the Mamelukes” A nice, short, readable article on a complex subject.


Filed under Tarot, Writing

All You Really Need to Know About the Tarot Major Arcana

In her definitive book, Seventy-eight Degrees of Wisdom, a Book of Tarot, Rachel Pollack begins the first chapter with this spread:

 2 Tarot_spread,_basic

These are the four most basic tarot archetypes arranged in a perfect pattern of spiritual evolution. I call this the “everything you really need to know about the major arcana” layout.

 The vertical axis is The Fool and The World. The beginning and the end. The Aleph and the Tav. The Alpha and the Omega. Most authors describe these figures as androgynous and both figures are dancing. In fact, they are the only dancers in the major arcana. Death dances in some of the decks, but Death will always dance, and who are we to say it can’t. All of the other figures are pictured in static positions, like they’re posing for a photographer—they each represent a distinct, fixed state of existence.

 The Fool is dancing along a precipice high above the rest of the world and looks to be about to leap down into it. But there is no fear or holding back. S/he radiates innocence and total confidence.

 The World, however, dances suspended in a magical wreath of victory and radiates not only a feeling of completion and wholeness, but also a feeling of endless possibility, which in turn suggests new beginnings.  Together they represent the eternal dance of the universe from beginning to end to new beginning—the cosmic spiral. Like an electromagnetic current spiraling between the anode and cathode ends of a battery, the vertical axis spins around the static horizontal axis formed by The Magician and High Priestess.

The Magician’s planet is Mercury, which represents the psychological functions of logic and communication. He holds aloft a wand in his right hand and points down toward the earth with his left. And so the Magician clearly represents manifestation through logical, linear thought and action—functions of the conscious mind, the left brain. Occultists and many psychotherapists assign these traits to the positive, masculine principal.

The High Priestess sits calmly between a black pillar and a white pillar. A veil hangs between them, the thin veil of conscious awareness, which is all that separates us from our inner selves. The Moon, the planet of imagination, illusions and the unseen, is assigned to her. And so the HPS is the keeper of the infinite and powerful, yet static wisdom of the not-conscious, the right brain. These traits are assigned to the negative, feminine principal. Water is a symbol of the not-conscious and tarot readers are fond of saying that the piece of the High Priestess’s blue robe that trails off the card becomes all the rivers and pools and oceans that appear in the rest of the tarot.

The numbers of these cards are also significant.

  • The Fool’s number is 0, which isn’t a real number, in fact, it’s a not-number. It’s egg shaped, and like an egg, it represents infinite yet unmanifested possibility.
  • The Magician’s number is 1. The first real number. One means wholeness, ego.
  • The HPS’s number is 2. With the number 2 we have a duality: odd/even, positive/negative, black/white, yin/yang, masculine/feminine.
  • The World’s number is 21. It contains both 1 and 2, The Magician and the HPS. In other words, The World represents the reunion of The Magician and The High Priestess, the yin and the yang. 2+1=3, the magic number, the number of creativity, the child of the union of 1 and 2. In fact, the digits of both the horizontal and vertical axes add up to 3. The High Priestess key even foretells the resulting three. She is the third figure between the two pillars of Boaz and Joachim, mercy and severity, the pillars of the Temple of Solomon. Waite has even labeled one B and one J to be sure you don’t miss the symbolism.


This is the guide to inner wisdom that Cabalists call The Tree of Life. It’s made up of the ten Sephiroth or Sephirot connected by twenty two paths. Each path is assigned a major arcana card. The sephroth on the right form the pillar of mercy and the ones on the left form the pillar of severity. The High Priestess forms the third or middle pillar of the Tree. In fact, the path on the middle pillar from Kether to Tifareth is the path of the High Priestess, whose Hebrew letter is Gimel. The other two paths that make up this pillar are Temperance (Samech) and The World (Tav). So if we read downward from Kether, the first Sephirah, we get the following advice. “To reach Malkuth, The World, we must first establish communication with the not conscious (HPS, Gimel) then we must establish communication between the conscious and not conscious (Temperance, Samech).  Once this communication has been established, direct communication with the divine becomes a state of being (The World) and we reach our goal, Malkuth. Of course one can get there by taking either the right or left pillar, but most cabalists consider the middle pillar to be the preferred path to Malkuth. 

 The_FoolWith this information, the meaning of the spread becomes obvious. In order to learn the lessons necessary to become a more complete, enlightened being The Fool must separate into masculine and feminine. The one must become two.


We see this in so many creation myths. God formed Eve from Adam’s rib so he would have a partner, someoneThe_World,_artist_unknown different from himself to exchange ideas with. In many pagan mythologies, the goddess was the first and only being. She gave birth to a son who became her consort/partner—again someone opposite, someone with a different point of view. The journey of the major arcana cards is about how these two, which are really the conscious and unconscious minds of the seeker, become aware of each other and establish an intimate and fluent dialogue. When this is accomplished, the seeker has attained Nirvana, or Heaven on Earth, or the fulfillment of all desires. In other words, he has attained The World.


Filed under Major arcana, Tarot, The Hero's Journey

The World: The Hero’s Journey and the Major Arcana, Part I


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.The_Fool_001 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.

Marseilles deck

Marseilles deck

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 Lion of St Mark I think it is appropriate that the artist positioned him so he’s glaring directly into the Doges’s Palace.

The Lion of St Mark
I think it is appropriate that the artist positioned him so he’s glaring directly into the Doges’s Palace.

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_FortuneThe 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.


Filed under Major arcana, Tarot, The Hero's Journey

Judgement, Part III: The Major Arcana and The Hero’s Journey



Continued from previous posts…

ShinThe letter Shin corresponds to the Judgement key.  It means tooth and the sharpness that tears apart the limitations of the physical world and our sense of separateness. It represents Divine power as it is the initial letter of two of the Names of God. Qabalists call Shin the “Holy Letter.”

Shin, along with Aleph (The Fool, air) and Mem (The Hanged Man, water) is one of the three mother letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Its element is fire, a perfect metaphor for the passion of spiritual awakening.

In my experience, Judgement seldom appears in readings, and when it does I sit up and reassess the querent. Its appearance means that he is, was, or will be at a significant crossroads in his life—note the cross on the banner. He has arrived at that point as a result of some great catastrophe, or because all his options have gone and he is faced with only these paths, or because of some huge revelation. Whatever it was caused or will cause a spiritual awakening of some sort. His life is probably in turmoil because his view of reality has totally changed. He knows the way he must go, it cries out to him like the blast of the angel’s trumpet.  But the way is so difficult, or so dangerous, or so impractical, or so totally bizarre and unbelievable that perhaps he is reluctant to follow it—especially if the card is reversed. If the card is upright, I always advise him to follow it. If the card is reversed there is a possibility that the calling is false, and I check out the other cards in the spread very carefully. If they are favorable I tell him to quit stalling and get on with it.

Image by ChibiTotoro222

Image by ChibiTotoro222

Unlike Justice, this card is not about personal karma, the things that happen because you’ve earned them; it’s about reassessing one’s life and purpose based on a transformative experience that blasts away all previous beliefs, and reveals a crystal clear truth. This is the card initiate, the resurrected one.

If Judgement appears with the High Priestess and/or The Moon the querent’s awakening is a deeply spiritual one and may involve the quick and possibly disturbing development of psychic powers. If it appears with The Emperor or The Chariot or Kings, it may indicate the awakening of the charisma that is so necessary in a leader.

As the Housewives’ Tarot points out, it may be about the revelation of more mundane, but still important truths–especially if there are no other major arcana in the reading.

The time has come to weigh the facts–and yourself! Judgement is about abandoning bad habits and accepting yourself for who you really are. Don’t be modest; take credit for all your good deeds and valuable traits. Shed the negative thoughts that weigh you down with their high-calorie burdens. True happiness is more about eliminating low self-esteem than losing those pesky five pounds. The Housewives Tarot

The time has come to weigh the facts–and yourself! Judgement is about abandoning bad habits and accepting yourself for who you really are. Don’t be modest; take credit for all your good deeds and valuable traits. Shed the negative thoughts that weigh you down with their high-calorie burdens. True happiness is more about eliminating low self-esteem than losing those pesky five pounds. The Housewives Tarot

Judgement is the penultimate card in the hero’s journey. It is the revelation of the whole point of the exercise, the hallelujah-come-to-Jesus time, the gottcha moment, the hero’s take home lesson. Often we are left to infer what this lesson is and how deeply it affected the hero.
In the movie Avatar, the Judgement moment came when the planet Pandora mobilized itself to fight back. I have no doubt that this mind-blowing demonstration of the interconnectedness of life transformed Jake Sully’s view of reality, but we are left to judge whether or not he really got it  from his actions.

Other stories make sure you know the hero got the point.
The movie The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy waking up at home and telling her family and friends that “If you can’t find it in your own back yard it’s not worth looking for.” This, simply stated, is the spiritual lesson every guru tries to teach—joy and contentment in the moment.
Star_Wars, Empire at War, developer Petroglyph, publisher LucasArts
At the end of Star Wars we are actually shown Luke Skywalker’s spiritual awakening as he heeds the words of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and uses “The Force” to pilot his space craft into the depths of the Death Star and drop the bomb that will destroy it.

The Judgement moment in a story is the spiritual or philosophical reason for the hero’s journey. It’s what brings the sigh of satisfaction or gasp of wonder at the story’s conclusion. Without it, the journey is meaningless.


Filed under Major arcana, Tarot, The Hero's Journey

My Stroke of Insight—Synchronicity Strikes Again

My_Stroke_of_InsightSeveral days ago I found Ellis Nelson’s latest post in my in-box. She doesn’t post very often, but when she does, it’s definitely worth reading. This one is no exception. It’s a review of My Stroke of Insight, a book by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. When she was thirty-seven she suffered a stroke to her left brain which crippled her ability to think in logical sequences, move, and perceive what we call reality. It left her suspended in nirvana, state of being one with everything (her words, not mine). I watched in awe as this amazing woman told her story in a recent TED lecture.


The right and left hemispheres of the brain look at the world differently. The left hemisphere uses linear logic. It reasons, explains, and acts. It’s what gets us from point A to point B by 3pm. The right hemisphere uses intuition, and it “thinks” in images and music. It doesn’t do words. It looks at the total picture while the left looks at its parts.

Take this simple test to find out if you’re a left brain thinker or a right brain thinker.

I am a definite right brain thinker, but my Gemini, geotechnical engineer husband could make the dancer twirl both ways.

I’m guessing that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a measure of this dichotomy. Introvert (I), Intuitive (N), Feeling (F), and Perceptive (P) would be the right brain functions and Extrovert (E), Sensing (S), Thinking (T), and Judgement (J) would be the left brain functions. So if you are an INFP you would be a strong right brain thinker and if you are an ESTJ you would be a strong left brain thinker.

Alan Alda conducted a fascinating interview with a man who had his corpus callosum* surgically severed and the Dartmouth researcher who is studying his condition. It was obvious that even though the connection between Joe’s hemispheres was missing he could still function normally; but in laboratory testing it became quite clear which side of his brain controlled which functions.

So what does synchronicity have to do with all this?

Just a few days before reading Ellis Nelson’s blog I had posted my latest Judgement entry. The gist of the post is that the Judgement key should be read as spiritual awakening and this can only be accomplished by establishing a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. After listening to Jill Bolte Taylor’s powerful story I had my own stroke of insight. Actually, it was more of a “Well, duh!” moment.

I realized that we have a metaphor for this concept of dialogue between the conscious and unconscious hard-wired into our physical anatomy in the form of our bicameral brain. Our left brain corresponds to consciousness–the chatter of everyday life, problem solving, making a living, and stayin’ alive. The right brain is the realm of the unconscious–the awareness of beauty, emotion, universal connectedness, creative inspiration, and inner wisdom. I’m betting that this is the part of our brain that sees/perceives ghosts and fairies and angels and hears things that go bump in the night.

We exist in the material world and so we see our left brain functions as being more useful, trustworthy, and comfortable. Our society also tends to value these functions more. Jobs requiring strong left brain functions such as engineers, medical doctors, accountants, and lawyers pay quite well. But strong right brain users, such as writers, musicians, artists, social workers, and psychics, usually make very little money and frequently have a left brain day job to make ends meet.

Any esoteric study, including the tarot, is essentially a series of lessons in how to step out of the left brain and explore the right brain. Meditation, ritual design and performance, prayer, Tai chi, and magic all do this. In time, the seeker becomes comfortable and familiar enough with the right brain to be able to understand its cryptic messages and trust them enough to use them in tandem with the blatantly obvious left brain messages. Hunches are no longer hunches, and vague impressions of people and things that “shouldn’t” be there are no longer vague. They become vivid messages and images that help us navigate our complex lives with more skill and assurance than if we were only using our left brain. They expand our awareness out into realms that nourish our hearts and souls and add layers of richness and meaning to our physical existence. They make us better human beings.

As Jill Bolte Taylor says, the world would be a better place if we could all learn to cross over into the nirvana of our right minds. But wouldn’t it be even better to be able to listen to the stereophonic symphony of both sides of our brain singing to each other?

* The thick band of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain



Filed under Book Review, Major arcana, Tarot

Judgement, Part II

Need I say more?

The Judgement key is an obvious depiction of Judgement Day. The Hierophant and perhaps The Devil are the other blatantly Catholic major arcana, although most of the keys have a Catholic feel to them. If you lived in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries when tarot decks were becoming popular you were either Catholic or you were in trouble. The Church had zero tolerance for heretics, and Jews and Muslims were treated like dirt. This was also the time of the infamous European Witch Hunts. So it is not surprising that, even though their message is universal, the designers of the early tarot decks used a Christian theme to make their work more widely accessible. (See previous post on tarot origins)

The death, redemption, and rebirth into a blessed afterlife concept lies at the heart of nearly every religion. It reminds the faithful that there is more to this world than what meets the untrained eye and challenges us to let go of our strangle hold on the material realm. To do this we must release the belief that the more money we make the happier we will be, that the job that is sucking us dry is our only lifeline to a better existence, that everything would be fine if we had just been born into a happy nuclear family, that it makes even one iota of difference what our neighbors think of us, or that we are somehow fatally flawed and unlovable. Each of these convictions clips our wings and traps us in that tiny fragment of the Multiverse called “the material world”. See my previous post on The Devil.

Those are lovely sentiments, you say, but I like this world and I like my creature comforts. And I need to support myself or I’ll be out on a street corner clutching a give-me-money sign and looking pitiful. And even if I do give up all my stuff, how the hell do I escape the material? I’m not ready to die yet.

First off, the goal is not to “escape the material”. We are attached to physical reality just as someone suffering from agoraphobia is attached to his house.

AgoraphobiaThe goal is not to get him to escape his house, but to be comfortable with navigating the outside world and returning home safely. As long as we are “alive” this world is our home, but to be able to live that life more fully we must travel in the other worlds, bring back their wisdom, and apply it. Most of us don’t make it farther than the sidewalk, but I’ve met some amazing people on the sidewalk in front of my house.

The makers of the tarot adopted the Judgement Day myth as a metaphor for spiritual awakening, for getting to the sidewalk. The tarot isn’t a guide to the afterlife; it’s a guide to this life.

Notice that Judgement is the second to last card of the major arcana. All the cards before it are mini-lessons about how to get there. If there is a single theme to the tarot it is the lack of communication between the conscious mind, which perceives and comments on the material world and the unconscious mind, which perceives and comments on the outer planes. Our formidable task as human beings is to bring these two parts of ourselves that don’t even speak the same language, let alone view reality in the same way, into useful dialogue.

In this key the man(conscious) looks to the woman (unconscious) who looks to the divine or super-conscious.

We see this clearly first in The Lovers (key6), where the man (conscious) is barely looking at the woman (unconscious), who is ignoring him and looking up to the angel, a being on another plane.

The Devil, perched between and separating a man (conscious mind) and a woman (unconscious mind)

When we arrive at The Devil (key 15), despite all the lessons in between, things have deteriorated. Both the man and the woman are now chained to the material world. The woman is staring bleakly ahead and the man looks like he is trying to reason with her—a very poor tactic when dealing with the unconscious. These two have put all their faith in earthly power and money and carefully built themselves a sturdy tower to protect it all. They probably have two fat 401ks and stocks and bonds out the yin yang.

But the divine gives them one last chance. It strikes down that tower with a bolt of lightning and they tumble to earth. (The Tower, key 16)


This is the dark night of the soul and we all must face it at least once in our lives in one form or another. It may be a serious illness or a dream that either scares the shit out of us or dazzles us with its powerful beauty. It may be an initiation, or the loss of a loved one, a limb, our house, our savings, etc. It shatters our psyche and changes our lives to the point where nothing makes sense anymore and we are forced to reexamine all of our previous convictions. Things seem hopeless and we may even wish we were dead.

But if we are strong, we keep on until we see a tiny glimmer of hope (The Star, key 17).


And if we have the courage to follow that star, we arrive in the realm of the unconscious, the vast “Twilight Zone” of The Moon (key 18)

The Moon shining on two dogs, the conscious and unconscious mind, and two towers, stand ins for those two ubiquitous pillars.

and we learn up close and personal that “There are more things in heaven and earth…Than are dreamt of in (our philosophies).”* With this experience and revelation, the conscious mind can no longer ignore the murmurings of the unconscious, which are becoming louder and clearer. Once we manage to establish a tenuous dialogue between the part of us that is in constant communion with the outer realms and the part of us that understands and operates in this world, things which seemed impossible become possible and the chains that bound us fall away.

Builders of the Adytum deck

Builders of the Adytum deck

The Sun (key 19) pictures the man and woman transformed into innocent children, holding hands and dancing together. They are now in communication. With this insight comes spiritual awakening (Judgement).

Marseilles Deck, late 15th century

Marseilles Deck, late 15th century

The two children are now integrated into one child, who stands between the man and woman, the conscious and the unconscious, which gave him/her birth. And most importantly, he/she is now facing the angel and completely aware of the clarion call of the divine.

We are all heroes struggling through a life that often seems unreasonably cruel and inscrutable. The tarot was designed to be a guide through the chaos toward enlightenment.

To be continued…..
*The Bard says it all yet again. Hamlet, Act I. Scene V



Filed under Major arcana, Tarot, The Hero's Journey

Judgement, Part I: Name that Angel

The concept of Judgement is not confined to Christianity. For example, when an ancient Egyptian died he expected to journey through Duat, the kingdom of Osiris. He would undergo many tests and trials and hopefully arrive at the place of judgement where Anubis would weigh his heart against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If his heart was heavier or lighter than the feather his soul was thrown to Ammit, the Devourer of Souls, but if it was in balance with the feather his soul continued to paradise and eternal life.

Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased. From the Papyrus of Hunefer, c. 1375 BCE

Anubis weighing the heart of the deceased. From the Papyrus of Hunefer, c. 1375 BCE

But the Judgement key is a depiction of the Christian Judgement Day. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, 5:16, the Apostle Paul describes Judgement Day: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”

Most Judgement keys show an Angel calling the dead up out of their coffins with a mighty blast from a trumpet, just like Paul’s description. The horn is huge and lines of sound pour out from its bell. Jagged spikes lancing out from the angel underscore the power of the scene. Note that it is sound and not light that wakes the dead. Our sense of hearing is more primal than our sense of sight.  It is easy to sleep through daybreak, but an alarm clock is impossible to ignore. We “see” objects all the time in our dreams, but when we “hear” a voice or sound in a dream it is such a powerful experience that it often wakes us up. Unlike an image, which we can easily decide was “only a dream”; we have trouble dismissing a sound as nothing.

But Paul doesn’t tell the Thessalonians which archangel will appear with the Lord and he isn’t clear about who is blowing the trumpet. The author of Revelations tells us that it will be the archangel who sounds the blast during the apocalypse: “…the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven…” Rev. 11:15. But he also neglects to tell us who that seventh angel is.  And so there is disagreement amongst my sources over whether the trumpet player is Michael or Gabriel or Moroni.



The Angel Moroni atop the Birmingham LDS Temple

The Angel Moroni atop the Birmingham LDS Temple

Mormons believe that Moroni was an ancient North American prophet who appeared to Joseph Smith as an angel and directed him to the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Note the trumpet. But I strongly doubt that the angel in this tarot key is Moroni. The New World hadn’t even been discovered and, of course, the Church of the Latter-day Saints didn’t exist when tarot cards became popular in the 15th century.

Marseilles Deck, late 15th century

Marseilles Deck, late 15th century

In his book, The Tarot, a Key to the Wisdom of the Ages, Paul Foster Case assures us that the angel “is obviously the angel Gabriel, not only because he carries a trumpet, but also because Gabriel is the angel of the element of water, which is indicated by his blue robe.” In the B.O.T.A. and Rider-Waite-Smith decks the angel’s robe is, indeed, blue, but his wings are red, the usual color for the element of fire, which is Michael’s element. In the Marseilles decks, the angel’s robes are a variety of colors, often red. Also, the angel Gabriel has only recently been pictured with a trumpet. In medieval art he is almost always pictured with lilies or other white flowers.

The Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear God's child. By Jacopo da Nontagnana c1440-1499.

The Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear God’s child. By Jacopo da Montagnana c1440-1499.

S. Vernon McCasland has found perhaps the earliest depiction of a trumpeting angel resurrecting the dead in an Armenian illuminated manuscript dated 1455, at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.* However, as far as I could tell, there was no mention that the angel is Gabriel.

Illuminated manuscript page depicting dining in paradise and an angel resurrecting the dead. Walters MS 543 fol 14, 1455 CE. Note the resemblance to the above two Judgement cards.

Illuminated manuscript page depicting dining in paradise and an angel resurrecting the dead. Walters MS 543 fol 14, 1455 CE. Note the resemblance to the above two Judgement cards.

The first mention in English literature of Gabriel as trumpeter is in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). * “Betwixt these rockie pillars Gabriel sat, Chief of the Angelic guards” (IV.545f)… he Blew his trumpet, heard in Oreb since perhaps When God descended, and perhaps once more To sound at general doom.” (IX.73ff). And although it isn’t mentioned in the Qur’an, the traditional Islamic trumpeter of doom is Israfil, not Gabriel.

In The Devil’s Picture Book, Paul Huson assures us that the angel “is undoubtedly Saint Michael, the archangel, and he can be recognized as such if not by the action he performs, then by his traditional cross-emblazoned banner floating from the trumpet itself.”

The Catholic church gives the Archangel Michael four responsibilities:

  1. “To fight against Satan.
  2. To rescue the souls of the faithful from the power of the enemy, especially at the hour of death.
  3. To be the champion of God’s people, the Jews in the Old Law, the Christians in the New Testament; therefore he was the patron of the Church, and of the orders of knights during the Middle Ages.
  4. To call away from earth and bring men’s souls to judgment (“signifer S. Michael repraesentet eas in lucam sanctam”, Offert. Miss Defunct. “Constituit eum principem super animas suscipiendas”, Antiph. off. Cf. The Shepherd of Hermas, Book III, Similitude 8, Chapter 3).” **

So, according to Catholic teaching, it is obviously Michael, not Gabriel who will preside over Judgement Day. But Huson was only half right. The white banner with the red cross is St George’s cross, not St Michael’s cross, which is a blue cross on a white background. However, a quick perusal of Google images for Archangel Michael revealed a few depictions of him carrying a white shield with a red cross, but none of him carrying a blue cross in any form.

Archangel Michael carrying a white shield with a red cross, by Raphael Santi, 1483-1520.

Archangel Michael carrying a white shield with a red cross, by Raphael Santi, 1483-1520.

And I actually found a picture of him blowing a trumpet.

Holy Trinity Icon Studio

Holy Trinity Icon Studio

It is obviously Michael—not only because Holy Trinity Studios says so, but also because, as in many other depictions of him, he is killing satan.

But this is still only educated guess-work. Why not ask someone who has actually spoken with the archangels? According to Doreen Virtue’s post “8 ways to recognize Archangel Michael” this archangel has a loud, clear, matter of fact voice. She says it’s a voice you can’t ignore and actually pictures a trumpet shaped megaphone next to this description. His aura is a royal purple that’s so bright it looks like cobalt blue. And he’s hot. The people he visits often perspire and some women feel like they’re having hot flashes. Michael offers support, courage, and confidence.

Gabriel, however, “is the archangel of communication, often announces what’s on the horizon, and acts like a manager or agent in orchestrating new ventures related to one’s soul purpose.” *** He gives insights through dreams and meditation.

So which one of these two angels would be more likely to sound a trumpet till the dead rise from their graves and escort the quick and the dead through an apocalypse and into heaven?

Archangel Michael?

Archangel Michael, by Ishthar art.jpg

Archangel Michael, by Ishthar art.jpg

Or Archangel Gabriel?

Archangel Gabriel, as channeled through Shelley Young

Archangel Gabriel, as channeled through Shelley Young

I’m betting that angel would be Michael. Anyone want to bet on Gabriel? We only have till Judgement Day to find out who wins.

*S Vernon McCasland, “Gabriel’s Trumpet” Journal of Bible and Religion 9.3 [August 1941:159–161].
**Catholic Encyclopedia: St Michael the Archangel.
***Doreen Virtue, Archangels 101: How to Connect Closely with Archangels Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Gabriel and Others for Healing, Protection, and Guidance,


Filed under Major arcana, Tarot