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September 11, 2023
Towers . . .
I’d been planning for today’s essay to focus on clairvoyance and states of awareness. But I think I’ll carry that over til next time—and consider a powerful convergence that seems to be at work.
Of course I knew that today would be September 11, anniversary of the attacks that demolished the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. But it was only this morning that I realized today’s anniversary marks the passing of 22 years.
As continuing readers of EP already know, the number 22 holds great fascination for me. In fact it was, at least in part, the 22-ness of the Major Arcana that drew me into the world of Tarot. And I’ve written several times about the intriguing qualities of this number, and its companion, 11.
So here we are on the 11th day of the 22nd year. Even more striking is the continuing resonance between the “twin towers” at the center of 9/11’s tragedy, and the trump we know today as The Tower.
Although its imagery has taken a variety of forms over the centuries, a dominantly recurring theme of this dramatic card is the destruction of buildings.
And that, of course, brings in another element of the current convergence: Friday’s catastrophic earthquake in Morocco.
I want to consider all this a little more . . .
The earliest indication of an order for the Tarot trumps is found in Sermones de Ludo Cum Aliis (often called the “friar’s sermon”), which probably dates to just before 1500. In that list, the card we know as Tower was placed squarely between what I think of as the “dark cards” and the “bright cards”:
12. Lo Impichato (Hanged Man)
13. La Morte (Death)
14. El Diavolo (Devil)
15. La Sagitta (the Arrow of Light)
16. La Stella (Star)
17. La Luna (Moon)
18. El Sole (Sun)
More precisely—I think of the Hanged Man as twilight, Death as midnight, and the Devil as that deep hour when the soul sometimes struggles against an enveloping darkness.
But then comes an Arrow of Light, piercing the blackness. At first you can see just a little glimmer, like a twinkling Star. Then a reflected glow, like the light of the Moon.
And finally, the immense brightness of the Sun, warming the soul back to life.
For me, those seven cards tell a perfect story—and that’s one reason I accept the friar’s order as archetypally significant.
We can also think of the Arrow of Light as a bolt of lightning, bringing a burst of energy that shakes up the old and makes room for the new. Something like the “creative destruction” represented by Shiva.
In terms of imagery, there are very few Towers left from the earliest decks. So most of what’s standardized today comes from either the Marseilles model or a generalized esoteric model. Here’s the one hand-painted instance we do have, next to a fairly typical Marseilles version:
Both are probably from the later 1400s.
It was customary in those days for wealthy Italian families to compete with one another by building ever-higher towers, so it’s likely these structures were meant to symbolize pridefulness. Also likely, the “tower” motif had a connection with the Tower of Babel, which humans of legend built in their attempt to reach heaven.
The Babel-builders got themselves in serious trouble, of course, and some cards showed people being thrown off the tower. Perhaps they were tossed down by a wrathful God, or they might have gotten into a fatal fight after God gave them different languages and they could no longer communicate.
Here’s an example of that very common Tower motif, from the Tarot of Jean Noblet (printed in Paris around 1659).
Those three elements—tall building, fire or lightning, falling bodies—became the essential symbolism of The Tower.
If you want to look more closely at the evolution of this powerful card, you’ll find a wealth of material at The Tarot Wheel, a site that not only traces the history of each trump, but also provides many visual references that help us understand the symbolism found in early Tarots.
Anyway. No matter the origins, or the nuances, it seems that almost every version of the Tarot Tower seems disturbingly similar to the calamitous collapse of the World Trade Center towers. And in many respects, to the sudden, powerful, inexplicable shaking we call “earthquake.”
In 2011 (by chance—wasn’t thinking about the year number) I developed a very strong feeling there was something to be learned from the history of earthquakes, and I undertook a lot of research on the topic.
Proper scientists study the physical processes that produce earthquake activity. But I was curious about the history of earthquakes, and how they aligned with other events. I did find some patterns that seem meaningful.
Because strong earthquakes are so frightening, and so destructive, there are surprisingly good records of their occurrence, going all the way back to the year 526, when around 250,000 people were killed in Antioch.
That quarter-million number has occurred several times in history. My research (which only tracks high fatality and high magnitude earthquakes) references at least five instances in that range, the most recent being Indonesia in 2004. However, totals often include subsequent deaths from disease and starvation, as well as in some instances, deadly tsunamis.
By now you may be wondering how this connects with Tarot—beyond the obvious imagery of falling towers. And I’ll offer a couple of answers.
First, no other natural catastrophe happens as suddenly as an earthquake, and in that sense, it’s perfectly represented by the Wheel of Fortune. Floods, volcanoes, forest fires, tornadoes, cyclones, hurricanes all give some warning, even if not enough. But earthquakes can’t be anticipated by even a moment.
That kind of suddenness is what I think of when the Wheel of Fortune and the Tower appear together.
Second of all, no other natural catastrophe produces fatalities on the scale of an earthquake. Tens of thousands, at most, are killed by the volcanoes, floods, and so on—never hundreds of thousands.
That kind of scale is what I think of when the Tower appears with the World.
I’ll write another time about the “World” as represented in Tarot, and how it relates to the “planet” we are trying to live on. But for now, I’ll close with the results of my latest Google experiment.
As usual, I just combined two terms—Tarot + earthquake—and hit search. This seemed like a very long longshot!
But also as usual, I was surprised at the results.
Here’s a handmade San Francisco Tarot that uses “Earthquakes” for a suit.
I like that idea a lot!
And here’s a reading from four cards that were shaken out of the Tarot box by an earthquake.
How about a “true Tarot tale” about “the Tower card, a teeny earthquake and a tiny tornado”? Or one of many YouTube videos in which Tarot readers try to predict the next big earthquake?
I’ll leave you with that thought.
As a rule, I’ll introduce a newly discovered deck at the end of each regular newsletter. But on this occasion, I have to go back to The Tower Takeover Tarot, in which every character from every card is falling out of The Tower . . . .
As always, thanks so much for reading. Look for the next Notebook Page later this week. C