Thoughts on the Wheel of Fortune: January 1, 2021
In a previous issue, I noted that my ambitious plan for Cycle 1 of the Exploration Project newsletter had been a bit disrupted—not in a “Tower” way, but more along the “Wheel of Fortune” line.
Obviously, my ride on the Wheel has continued, as this newsletter is both belated and abbreviated! But the past month has prompted me to think about Tarot’s notorious “difficulty” cards.
The Wheel of Fortune seems (to me, anyway) the most benign of this group, which also includes The Tower, The Devil, and Death. Never mind the usual euphemistic views of those cards. Although they can be given a developmental spin (change, transformation, evolution, et cetera), in my own experience they don’t usually turn up in a reading unless there is significant difficulty in play—or coming along.
The Wheel, of course, is “spinnable” by definition. But I have rarely found it to be a herald of happy surprises.
At some point in this reflection, it occurred to me that the Wheel of Fortune is sort of a cross between a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster.
Or perhaps it’s more like a Tilt-a-Whirl?
Once I started thinking of the difficulty cards as amusement park rides, some other parallels occurred to me. Death brings to mind the kind of “death drop” ride that consists only of a sudden, terrifying descent. The Devil seems more similar to rides that take you into a dark cave. And The Tower reminds me of a shock ride, where something leaps out or pops up to create a startle.
I’d love to hear alternate associations, if you have them! But in the meantime—I’m still stuck on the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Which is actually one of the few amusement park rides I like. You couldn’t pay me to get on anything that goes more than a few feet off the ground, but I’m willing to whirl around in a giant tea-cup, or take the boat into a haunted cave.
The thing about the Tilt-a-Whirl—or possibly The Wheel of Fortune—is that you have a lot of motion, but you never actually get anywhere. Occasionally the ride tricks you by slowing down, so you’ll be startled when it speeds up again. And you have to take advantage of those brief lulls to adjust position and get ready for whatever comes next.
That’s my thought about the beginning of this new year. So I’m going to set aside previous plans, write what I can in this issue, and send it out before the day is done.
First: “Tarot in Troubled Times”
This story was originally published in the Medium publication Change Your Mind Change Your Life, just as the pandemic was reaching the summer peak. It’s a little basic in places—but parts of it seem more relevant now than ever . . . .
You can tell almost any story with Tarot images.
For example . . . the three cards shown above symbolize a narrative that:
begins with an unexpected challenge (The Tower)
continues with a retreat from social life (The Hermit)
and concludes with a return to brighter days (The Sun)
Cycles just like that have repeated throughout human history, in many different forms. The Tower could represent countless volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and floods, dating back to biblical times and before.
It could represent Black Monday, 1929; Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany; the bombing of Pearl Harbor; the appearance of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS); the attack on the World Trade Center . . .
After each of those events, life changed dramatically for many people. But eventually, in all those stories, human effort won out over adversity.
In 2020, we see this age-old narrative playing out again. After the sudden appearance of a novel virus, we have faced the necessity of “social distancing,” and radical changes to our familiar habits.
Yet we look ahead to the eventual return of a more open, hopeful way of life.
The essence of this archetypal story is human resilience in the face of unpredictable uncertainties. It’s a reminder that we never know what will happen next, or what we will be called upon to do in order to survive.
From erupting volcanos to broken relationships . . . all life-changing events feel intensely personal while they are happening. But if you take a step back, they are revealed as part of the ebb and flow that everyone has experienced across time, around the world.
Tarot helps us gain that distance, and the insights that come with it.
Images and Interpretations
If you would like a high-level introduction/refresher on the Tarot, visit here.
But briefly, and at a very basic level:
Each of the 22 cards of Tarot’s Major Arcana (“arcana” = “secrets”) offers an evocative image that can be interpreted in many different ways. Various meanings have been attached to each one over the centuries — and there is no “right” interpretation.
Those various meanings express both complementary and contrasting aspects of each card, so — taken together — they offer a 360-degree view of important elements in our lives: social structures, states of mind, philosophical principles, conditions of experience, much more.
If we look more closely at the three cards I picked out to lead this story, we can see a deeper and broader range of meanings — drawn from different perspectives, but connected in each case by a key image.
XVI. The Tower
Key image: A building struck by lightning.
Key meanings: Catastrophe. The unexpected. Divine intervention. Punishment. Reversal.
IX. The Hermit
Key image: A man with a lantern or staff.
Key meanings: Inwardness. Philosophy. Withdrawal. The seeker. Meditation.
XIX. The Sun
Key image: A stylized version of the sun.
Key meanings: Growth. Success. Reason. Splendor. Abundance.
There are many traditions of Tarot interpretation. Some are idiosyncratic, while others are rooted in long-standing esoteric traditions. Some make intuitive and immediate sense, while others derive from complex, even mystifying systems.
But interpretive approaches are just one part of what makes the Tarot a source of fascination. There are literally thousands of Tarot designs — from those created hundreds of years ago to those created yesterday.
These different designs offer amazingly diverse visions of the Tarot’s key images, usually reflecting some combination of several influences:
An artist’s personal style and interests
Elements of a particular culture (from Renaissance Italy and Edwardian England to postmodern San Francisco)
A specific view of the Tarot — its history, significance, and use
So the Tower/Hermit/Sun story might look like this, using cards from three very different 20th-century decks:
The beauty of Tarot is its power to connect personal circumstances with the essential experiences of human life. That power derives from a combination of visual imagery and interpretive tradition — continually renewed through new artistic visions, and fresh insights.
So every person can bring to the Tarot a unique perspective, choosing (or creating) a deck design that has resonance for them, and discovering which interpretations seem most meaningful in light of their own experiences.
Tarot cards in the Major Arcana represent large-scale forces that shape and reshape our collective human experience. So it’s not surprising that many of these 22 “trumps” are related to challenges, and difficult circumstances.
That means there are many different groups of cards that could be used to tell the story of COVID-19 and its effects. Here are two examples — representing an abstract/philosophical perspective, then a concrete/psychological view.
A philosophical approach might use these cards:
Death (a major transition), The Hanged Man (caught between two realities), The Wheel of Fortune (uncontrollable events).
And looking more deeply into those choices, we would see:
Key image: A skeleton.
Key meanings: Transformation. Profound change. Destruction and renewal. Mortality. Ending.
XII. The Hanged Man
Key image: A man hanging upside down by one foot.
Key meanings: Ambivalence. Transition. Suspension. Sacrifice. Initiation.
X. The Wheel of Fortune
Key image: A wheel ridden by human or animal figures.
Key meanings: Chance. Fate. Irony. Instability. Evolution.
A summary narrative based on those choices could look something like this:
We are reminded of our mortality — and for a while, we are left without security or clarity. The outcome of this story is yet to be determined, since we have little control over natural forces, or what others do.
That story captures in an abstract way some of what we are all dealing with in these times. By contrast . . .
A psychological approach might use these cards:
The Chariot (assertive action), Temperance (a balanced view); The Star (hopeful aspiration).
Looking further into those choices:
VII. The Chariot
Key image: A man in a wheeled vehicle.
Key meanings: Mastery. War. Triumph. The persona. Progress.
Key image: A woman pouring liquid from one pitcher into another.
Key meanings: Moderation. Caution. Prudence. Combination. Reflection.
XVII. The Star
Key image: A woman kneeling by water.
Key meanings: Hope. Aspiration. Healing. Beauty. Promise.
This set of cards could define personal choices, or provide insight into the different ways people have responded to COVID.
The Chariot choice could be positive (take control by using preventive measures) or negative (assert control through denial). Temperance could represent a choice to be thoughtful rather than reactive. The Star — hope as a path to healing.
That analysis offers a more concrete view of our current situation, and raises several questions: Which of these paths am I on? Which ones have our leaders chosen? Where will each of these paths lead us?
A Closing Thought . . .
Many people assume that Tarot is just a superstition, or a bit of silliness, or even a scam. But they are missing out on rich rewards.
The foregoing is just a glimpse of how Tarot can be used as a tool for exploring ideas, discovering patterns, and understanding associations. It encourages creative thinking, and offers a path toward greater awareness — of ourselves, our world, and the limitless potential of human consciousness.
If you’ve been meaning to learn more about Tarot, this is an especially good time. And if you are already engaged with Tarot, expand your practice even further as we all try to deal with these troubled times.
Second: Thinking about the Exploration Project in 2021
See above, Wheel of Fortune!
But I’m focusing on a few specific considerations.
I probably can’t maintain two different Tarot projects—a Substack newsletter, and a Medium publication. But neither one offers exactly the platform I would like to have. So I’m looking at ways to combine them in a more flexible and accessible way.
One reason for starting these projects was to build an audience for my new book. But progress on the book has fallen far behind, so I have to figure out the right balance of efforts.
My plan for “revising and updating” the first two books (History, Mystery and Methods, Mastery) has turned into a much bigger undertaking than I had in mind. The original text just seems too densely written when I read it now—but I have no idea whether anyone else will like the new version better. Or even like it at all!
If you happen to have fond memories of the original books, please have a look at the new version of Chapter 1 (in three parts, here on Exploration Project) and let me know your thoughts. Better? Worse? Merely different? Unnecessary?
But despite all the challenges just mentioned, I still have lots of stories I want to share, in whatever format. Included are all the ones I listed in that ambitious early plan, and several that I’ve promised since, but haven’t yet written.
Among the latter:
More about Bill Butler, author of Dictionary of Tarot
A look at the fascinating photography project A Counterculture Tarot
A one-woman art exhibit that presents all 76 cards, in various media
Excerpts from a vintage interview with Stuart Kaplan
And along the way—I’ve come across a whole list of new topics I’m excited to write about. So there’s never any lack of material . . . just time!
Finally: Lagniappe for Issue 1.4
I’ve come across a thinking/planning tool that I really like: Goalscape. It’s highly visual and endlessly configurable, so I’m often reminded of Tarot when using it.
In fact, I was inspired to make a “Tarot Structures” project in Goalscape:
You can create notes for each element, using the full-featured text tool at right, and attach files. So there are multiple ways to elaborate every structure, and if you like, every card.
Goalscape makes it easy to zoom in and out—for example, just one click refocuses the view on the Major Arcana:
You can test-drive Goalscape for free, with up to 30 elements. The online version runs in its own browser window, and costs $6 a month if you fall in love. (I’m not an affiliate, by the way.)
Almost anything you might want to envision or organize—business plan, fitness plan, marketing plan, whatever—will fit in a Goalscape project. But on top of that, I think it makes a great Tarot companion.
So those are my offerings for this issue. Another one will be coming soon—and we’ll all find out together what’s next in the Exploration Project.
Warmest regards, Cynthia