The Tuesday Newsletter (9.21)
Tarot and time, at the turn of seasons . . .
I’ve been looking forward to writing this episode of EP for many weeks! In context—where I live, the high temperature yesterday was 100 degrees. Today it is 80.
Of course warmer weather will be back tomorrow. But tomorrow will also be the Autumnal Equinox, my official favorite day of any year.
For an extra treat, autumn’s arrival almost always falls on September 22. I’m fascinated by the number 22, and even though I realize that our Gregorian calendar dates are an artificial construct, I love it that there’s a convergence between my favorite day and my favorite number.
So you can imagine how excited I am about 2022.
Of course there are a variety of other calendars still in use today, many of which are listed on Wikipedia. For example, if the Roman Empire had not collapsed, it would now be the year 2774 Ab urbe condita, whereas—by the Islamic calendar, it would only be 1422 Anno Hegirae.
I’m especially fond of the Baháʼí calendar, which has a “year” composed of 19 months, each of which has 19 days. Each month is named for a virtuous quality, such as Light, Beauty, or Glory. And each day is named the same way, in the same order, so the second day of the second month would be Jalál/Jalál (Glory/Glory).
There’s also a 19-year cycle, but I’ll resist going further into this fascinating system. Since the Baháʼí calendar commences with the Gregorian year 1844, there’s a bit of math involved in getting to the current year of the “Baháʼí Era”: 177.
Those are just a few examples of how humans have parsed time into semi-arbitrary segments, going back to the earliest organized civilizations. But they represent the way our constructed calendars have typically been based on a combination of celestial phenomena and political or religious events.
By contrast, indigenous peoples and traditional cultures create “calendars” that are directly linked to the earth. They are based on agricultural cycles, weather patterns, animal behavior, and other factors crucial not only to group survival but also to spiritual experience.
Australia maintains a site devoted to the seasonal calendars of various aboriginal groups. Here’s a representative sample:
The information on these graphics is so extensive that you will have to enlarge the view to see different pieces and how they fit together. But the details—though fascinating—are not as important as seeing how groups that live in harmony with their environments relate to the passage of time.
Our Gregorian calendar is a template for dividing the year into months, weeks, days. Every year is divided up the same way, and the only recurring elements are provided by holidays woven into the matrix by various religious and political groups. You can add moon phases and cross-quarter days (for example) to make the calendar more connected with our experience of living on a planet—but that only helps a little.
All of which has reminded me of a challenge that’s often encountered in divination: finding the right correlation between “Tarot time”—where past, present, and future are sometimes inseparable or indivisible—and “ordinary time,” where everything is presumed to fall into some absolute, rather limited timeframe. One aspect of divination is the process of converting non-linear information into linear form.
And often you have to do it in the moment, as part of a dialogue.
I thought about some of this a few years ago, but just recently, I arrived somewhere near the same point by an entirely different route. I accidentally saw the beginning of an episode from a 1998 television series titled Religions of the World—and my attention was captured by a single image.
There have been some other TV productions along the same lines, but this one struck me in a particular way. It was based on the work of Ninian Smart, a respected scholar, and narrated by the hypnotically listenable Ben Kingsley. I’ve checked out a few other episodes of the series—and they are intelligent, deliberately paced, well-organized, and beautifully illustrated.
In short, they are nothing like anything that would be made or watched today.
That’s probably a slight overstatement, but it’s just an aside. What I actually want to talk about is the ninth episode: “Religions of Small Societies.” And how I ended up watching it.
Here’s the official episode description/invitation:
Examine the religious rituals and myths of the many small groups of indigenous people living around the world. From the Ainu of northern Japan to the Indians of North America, discover common beliefs and practices that bind these societies on a spiritual level. Learn how these small societies have maintained their cultural identities while fighting off the encroachment of Western ideology.
I had no idea what it was about, though, when I saw an opening montage of dancing shamans, ancient cave art, trekking nomads—and Tarot cards.
The cards shown were an ordinary Waite deck, laid out in a conventional Celtic Cross pattern. So of course my first thought was that they were just included to signify exotic superstitions in general. Or perhaps this was another Ancient Aliens variant, where the punchline would be “Did the great prophets receive their uncanny visions from extraterrestrial visitors?”
But it was nothing like that. I watched as the narrator went through a careful summary of indigenous spirituality, explaining how indigenous people and traditional cultures experience the world as a numinous landscape, inhabited by beings who might reveal themselves at any moment. And how these “small societies” create rituals meant to connect the “two worlds” of here and beyond, and recognize special persons (healers and seers) to interpret between them.
Naturally I was wondering the whole time how Tarot could possibly come into this account. It didn’t seem likely these careful folks would have fallen into some mistaken notion that Tarot was an ancient divination system.
But I couldn’t guess where they were going—and when the Tarot cards did appear, I was surprised and engaged by the connection they made. Their point turned out to be that aspects of the indigenous/traditional worldview could be traced into literate cultures, where they might be found in Tarot.
I think that will not be news to the many creators who have linked Tarot with the imagery of different cultures and mythologies—from the pre-historical to the pre-Colonial to the purely spiritual. But for my part, I hadn’t thought of it exactly this way.
Or perhaps I just hadn’t formulated the premise so clearly. In any case, though, it ties back to the topic of calendars. Indigenous/traditional cultures generally see time in a cyclical fashion, with recurring aspects more important than mundane events.
And in the sense that “Tarot time” is an archetypal space, it’s closer to the indigenous view than to our familiar then/now/next construct.
When I was reading Tarot a great deal, I creating a strategy for bridging this disconnect—and though it might be just something that happened to work for me, I will share it when I figure out how to explain it!
Meantime, I came across a different theory of Tarot time, by someone who has since deleted his whole Tarot website. I tracked it down on the Wayback Machine, though, and plan to post a summary soon.
I didn’t get to it this time, but on Thursday, I have a few thoughts about Tarot and gardening. In the meantime—Happy Equinox! And thanks for reading.
Warmest regards, Cynthia