My "Tarot Manifesto"--plus some notes on Tarot and the Christmas Star of 2020
But to begin with . . .
I had planned two personal essays for Issue 1.3, and the first—about the process of re/creating my early books—has already been shared. The second was intended to be an account of how I became involved with Tarot, and how my engagement evolved over time.
But I got to thinking that there’s more room on the Exploration Project page than there is in the newsletter issues I send out via email. So I’ve put the second planned story—“Connecting with Tarot”—on the site, where you can read it if/when you wish.
Instead, I’m providing this differently personal story: a “Tarot Manifesto” created when I first thought about launching the current publications. It’s meant as a concise explanation of how I relate to Tarot now, based on the experiences I’ve had over quite a few decades.
Some readers may identify with this set of ideas—and some may decide my perspective is quite far from their own. I’d love to hear comments in either category!
A Tarot Manifesto
There are, of course, no right/wrong, better/worse ways to approach Tarot. Part of its fascination lies in the variety of ways it can become part of anyone’s life and thought.
I’ve written about that diversity in Ten Doors to Tarot, which I hope is worth a read.
But precisely because there are many different approaches to Tarot, there is great value in thinking about your personal choices, how they fit together, and how they shape your Tarot practice.
I hadn’t really worked this out in my own mind until I began planning the Textual Project (my Medium publication) and the Exploration Project (my Substack newsletter). That process has encouraged me to take a clear look at what Tarot is, and isn’t, for me personally.
So I decided to write down a description of my relationship with Tarot. And here it is, in the order that ideas occurred to me:
Once you get to know Tarot well, the structures of the deck become a way of organizing ideas and perceptions. A thinking tool, with suits and trumps serving as a kind of archetypal shorthand. This could happen almost as soon as one becomes interested in the cards, or emerge only gradually, through long acquaintance. And for some people this might never happen—but it’s been very important for me.
I love doing readings. It’s almost always an absorbing experience, as I let go of (at least some) ego awareness and just give myself over to communicating whatever the cards have to say. But it’s also a very intense experience, and doing a lot of it—as I did for several years—can become exhausting. For me, it’s all or nothing, and I wouldn’t want to read in a more casual or programmatic way.
I consider the core purpose of a reading to be revealing something that would not be known otherwise. The cards may offer some insights that fit what the querent is already aware of, and sometimes that may be all there is. But my goal is always to let the cards reveal something that is surprising--yet also feels true.
Personally, I chose a specific method of practice and tried to continue deepening that method. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to experiment with different spreads or explore various systems of interpretation. Instead, I explored, expanded, and refined one way of reading Tarot for other people—mainly by doing it a lot. Part of the purpose for my new book is sharing this approach with those who might find it useful in some way.
So my approach to reading is completely focused, in a certain way. But on the other side of the coin (or pentacle), my approach to everything else about Tarot is eclectic and inquisitive. In writing about Tarot, I want to explore stories about how people relate to the cards, and to discover connections between Tarot and other idea/image systems. Which covers a lot of territory!
I think of Tarot as a complex system, and I am more interested in understanding its unifying structures than I am in interpreting individual cards or particular symbols. That approach applies to my reading method as well as my writing and research. (Another common element, now that I think of it, is looking for the surprise—the thing that wasn’t known, or wasn’t known well enough.)
My current projects have been shaped by the personal preferences I’ve just outlined. And candidly—when I look around at what a lot of other people are doing in the realm of Tarot today, I have to recognize that I may be something of an eccentric/outlier/contrarian. But there might be other folks out there who fit the same labels—and if so, I’m hoping to engage, inform, and even inspire them.
Tarot in the Sky
An especially vibrant planetary conjunction is taking shape in the night sky, as the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn come together. They'll reach the closest point (just a tenth of a degree apart) on the night of December 21 — which is this year's Winter Solstice.
In the photo above, taken on December 13, 2020, that's Saturn on top, Jupiter below. (Credits: NASA/ Bill Ingalls)
According to NASA:
It's been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night, as it will for 2020, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this 'great conjunction.'
Naturally, scientists are saying that the occurrence of this unusual event on the Solstice is "just a coincidence." But anyone attuned to the rhythms of the year — and the rich symbolic terrain of the heavens — will feel there is great significance in this convergence.
That's especially true given the extraordinary difficulties that have beset human beings over the past year. So it would be hard not to see such a remarkable celestial display as a signal of something very important . . .
Whether it's a reminder, a promise, a warning, or some other sort of signal remains to be seen. But for now, Tarot offers us a point of reference that dates back to before the last “great conjunction,” which occurred in 1623.
Here are some examples of how The Star has evolved in Tarot history . . .
That’s a Bembo deck (c. 1450) at left, Nicolas Conver’s Marseilles-type design (c. 1760) in the center, and the path-breaking Voyager Tarot (1986) on the right. For a rich discussion of Star iconography visit this thread on the Tarot History Forum.
Meanwhile—as an overview—I offer this excerpt from my new book-in-progress:
Historical perspective: The Star was originally so called (presumably) because its central figure, a robed woman, held a star in her hand -whether for decorative purposes, or with some deeper meaning we may never know. But the imagery of this card was changed significantly in the Marseilles-type deck, where the central figure became a nude woman, kneeling by a stream and pouring liquid from two vessels. The later imagery is obviously connected with that of the Temperance card - both figures pour liquid from two vessels; both are by the water (in Waite-type decks, both have one foot on land, one in the water); and both are seen beneath star-filled skies. But it is unclear why they should have taken on this similarity. Perhaps the simplest explanation is based on their order in the sequence of the trumps, for these two gentle, ethereal cards flank the two most disturbing images in the deck, The Devil and The Tower. They differ in that the figure in The Star is a mortal woman, not an angel - and instead of conserving liquid by pouring back and forth between the two vessels, she pours the liquid out. With one hand she pours into the water, with the other onto the land. This symbolism has been interpreted as representing the order and continuity of being (in the symbolic circular flow of water through heaven and earth).
Divinatory principles: Hope and aspiration. Faith, immortality, and inner light. (Problematically: dreaminess, disappointment, and pessimism.)
Archetypal theme: The new vision of reality that comes out of the breakdown associated with The Tower.
Mythic associations: By tradition, there are seven small stars and one large star on this card. The large star is connected by some with Sirius(the star of Isis and the brightest star seen from Earth), and with the Star of Bethlehem. The seven small stars may be connected with the Pleides, a group of Greek maidens were transported into the heavens after death. Another mythic association is with the cup-bearer Hebe/Ganymede, who brought nectar to the gods of Olympus.
So be sure to spend some time contemplating the symbolically rich Tarot Star as you prepare to view the Christmas Star of 2020. NASA explains easy steps for viewing the great conjunction and EarthSky offers further astronomical information.
And don’t miss Newsletter 1.4, coming next week. In the meantime — thanks for reading, and warm wishes for the holiday season.