“A wicked pack of cards”, so T.S Eliot in ‘The Waste Land’ where the cards are wielded by “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante”. This implicitly disreputable use of the cards for fortune telling is what most people know of them, though they were also used as ordinary playing cards for the game of ‘Tarocco’ in France and Italy. There have been many designs for many purposes, not least today as multiple packs have been designed to accompany particular New Age identities and so adapted to fit the schema of each particular group or practitioner. Theories about their origins are numerous, most commonly that they were brought to Europe by gypsies and that the source lies far back in India or Ancient Egypt and that the pictures illustrate symbols of arcane lore or represent hidden knowledge from Gnosticism or Cabalistic doctrine or contain some other occult significance.
This uncertainty is not a modern phenomena. Earlier commentators were equally divided. Writing in Rome in 1526 Pietro da San Chirico tells us “We have but little certainty who was the inventor, ..... [he considers a range of possible sources] ..... If asked, I should say that they ever were, and ever will be: and I am of the opinion that none of these found the cards, but that the cards found them.” [*]
I found the cards - or they found me - many years ago when I acquired the pack illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith to the specifications of A.E. Waite. Waite was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn and the specifications and interpretations of his so-called “rectified Tarot” have their source in the teachings of that order, though Waite himself often seems sceptical of occultist interpretations, particularly those of Eliphas Levi whom he follows for the design of some cards - particularly in the inclusion of Egyptian symbolism - but is dismissive of him elsewhere calling his occult explanations “of a singularly fatuous kind”. I also later acquired a pack of Aleister Crowley’s cards with stunning illustrations to his specification by Frieda Harris. Crowley had also been a member of The Golden Dawn, but split to found his own order. Both Waite and Crowley also wrote books to accompany their packs and I have drawn on both of these and have indicated particular influences of their comments (rather more from Waite than Crowley) in the notes to the cards.
I have also drawn upon the comments of Alfred Douglas in his book on The Tarot which probably guided my interpretations of the cards more than any other when I bought it to go with my cards in the 1970’s, though re-visiting it now I note that he sees them primarily in terms of a personal spiritual quest defined by Jungian psychology. Though I have used the Crowley and Waite packs in making these poems, I have sought to go back to the earlier cards for my primary inspiration. To this end I acquired a modern enhanced re-print of the Marseille pack as illustrated by Jean Dodal early in the Eighteenth Century. These cards are also available on the Internet in their original form and have been used as illustrations for the poems. Where what I have written is directly influenced by another pack I have acknowledged this in the notes. Dodal’s pack is particularly useful in that it preserves the traditional symbolism of the cards as many early packs printed for use as playing cards do not, but is also untainted by later occultist symbolism found in the Waite and Crowley packs and the many more recent packs where this takes a number of diverse forms.
The poems which follow are based only on the 22 ‘Trump’ cards, also known as the ‘Major Arcana’. The “Minor Arcana’ or 56 ‘Court’ cards are not included here.
All illustrations in the Public Domain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarot_of_Marseilles
A.E. Waite The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (London, 1910)
Aleister Crowley The Book of Thoth (London, 1944)
Alfred Douglas The Tarot (Penguin, 1974)
[*] Quotation taken from Alfred Douglas (pp.37-38) who quotes it from : Samuel Weller Singer, Researches into the History of Playing Cards (London, 1816).
The Fool may be numbered ‘0’ or ‘I’. Sometimes though still numbered '0' - this card is placed before the final card 'The World' rather than at the beginning, sometimes both at the beginning and the end of the sequence. This ambiguity is inherent in the significance of the card.
In the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Culhwch sets out to wed Olwen who is daughter of a giant. This is apparently an impossible task both because he doesn't know where to find her and because the giant routinely kills all such suitors. There are multiple 'gatekeepers' on such a mythic quest as indeed in Culhwch's story.
The illustration in the Rider-Waite pack has the mathematical sign for Infinity: ∞ over The Magician’s head. The figure 8 - whether on its side or not - also traditionally indicates Eternity.
Dodal’s image seems to suggest this sign in the shape of the floppy hat which is a characteristic of the traditional cards. Such a hat is often worn by in portrayals of the Norse god Odinn.
On some cards, as here, the objects on the table are shoemaker’s tools. On others the suit signs of the Minor Arcana are displayed, i.e. Batons, Cups, Swords, Coins, seen to represent, respectively, Fire, Water, Air and Earth.
The High Priestess
The name of this card varies across different packs. The High Priestess seems the best title, though its interpretation as a feminine pope has both historical and etymological resonances, not least the meaning of pontifex (here with a supposed feminine ending): Pontifex ='Bridge Builder', Pons = ‘Way'.
There was a medieval legend of a female pope which may have given rise to the Papess title. She is said to have reigned between 854 and 856 as John VIII but became pregnant and died in childbirth. But there is no historical evidence for this.
This poem is particularly influenced by Pamela Colman Smith’s image in the Rider-Waite pack of a woman in a luxurious flowing robe set among woodlands and cornfields.
The origins of her image seem to be in the Mother Goddesses of antiquity. The eagle on her shield has been interpreted as “the soul enthroned in Nature” (Douglas), but Waite’s card has the sign of Venus on the shield and he asserts that “most old attributes of this card are completely wrong in symbolism”.
This figure is exemplified in mythical history by the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, leader of the Greek warriors who attacked Troy characterised by his pride and unquestioned sense of his own superiority.
The conflict between him and his co-warrior the great hero Achilles is one of the narrative threads of the story of the assault on Troy.
The older (and wiser) king Nestor, in trying to mediate between them, tells Achilles:“...don’t be so stubborn as to clash with a king who holds a sceptre, a king to whom Zeus has granted glory. You are strong, your mother was a goddess; but he is stronger because he commands more men.” (Iliad I. 324 ->)
Needless to say, Achilles does not heed this advice.
This card is also variously entitled ‘The High Priest’ and ‘The Pope’. A. E. Waite notes, in respect of the holy sign made by the Hierophant: “It is notable in this connexion that the High Priestess makes no sign.” He also asserts that he does not represent Religion but “a mode of its expression”.
Commentators often see the card as, in Crowley’s words, “a glyph of duality”, or take it as face value as a marriage and a new beginning. Douglas sees it entirely from the male lover’s point of view as a choice between his mother and his lover. But it seems best to focus on duality as a unity here. Waite simply calls it “a card of human love”.
For Crowley this and its twin card XIV [usually ‘Temperance’, but called by Crowley ‘ART’] “are the most obscure and difficult” of the Major Arcana. The Temperance card portrays a cup bearer and has, according to Crowley, cauldron symbolism. He notes that these two cards “are so complementary that they cannot be studied separately, for full interpretation.”
The deeper symbolism of the ‘Hermetic Marriage’, and the representation of Hermes /Mercury with a caduceus is a common theme of interpreters of the card and in this context I found myself drawn to the image of the so-called ‘Gaulish Mercury’, generally distinguished from the Roman Mercury as being the Celtic deity Lugus. In much of the iconography of Mercury, both from Roman Gaul and Roman Britain, Mercury is portrayed in company with Rosmerta. Rosmerta’s iconography most often represents her with a vat and a straining spoon, though on the more Romanised reliefs she is also shown with a cornucopia. There is a relief from Gloucester where she appears with a horned Mercury who is holding a caduceus while Rosmerta holds a double-axe sceptre.
Both Waite and Crowley replace the horses drawing the chariot with sphinxes (following Eliphas Levi). But the horse is too strong an expression of elemental life for me to follow them in this interpretation of arcane cabalistic lore.
A.E. Waite re-assigns this card to number Eleven in the sequence, interchanging it with Fortitude which he places here.
He says “The pillars of Justice open into one world and the pillars of the High priestess into another.” Between the stepping out of The Fool on his journey and The World, which completes the sequence (if only to return to The Fool again), different versions of The World are presented. Waite’s comment here is indicative of two of them, but each of these have their own distinct and different worlds too.
“This is a card of attainment rather than a card of quest.” - A. E Waite
“ ....... I’ll break my staff, Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, And deeper than ever did plummet sound I’ll drown my book.” Shakespeare’s Prospero, The Tempest (V.i.54-57)
The Hermit is a figure who often features in medieval tales as one living alone in a forest, There is also often a sense of the renunciation of power. At the end of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Bedivere comes across a hermit who was once Archbishop of Canterbury.
Myrddin too, in the early Welsh tale, retires to the forest and becomes a wild man. The particular narrative of this withdrawal involves madness after a battle, but the archetype of The Hermit, one who has withdrawn from the madness of the World, renouncing power, wealth or influence, but attaining wisdom, is also present here.
The Wheel of Fortune
Which way should the wheel turn? Some cards show it turning clockwise, others anti-clockwise.
Waite loads his card with Egyptian symbolism, following Eliphas Levi, though he is dismissive of him elsewhere and he calls his occult explanations of the card “of a singularly fatuous kind”.
The Hanged Man
This card is called ‘Traitor’ in some old packs.
Dodal’s numbering suggestively reverses the XII.
Waite’s ‘rectified Tarot’ replaces the traditional skeleton with one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.
“Mingling or combining in due proportion” is the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary which best fits this card.
Crowley calls this card ART and represents it in alchemical terms, showing "the mingling of the contradictory elements in a cauldron”.
Douglas finds an apt quotation to indicate the significance here:
“I am the mediator of the elements, making one agree with another; that which is warm I make cold and the reverse, that which is dry I make moist and the reverse, and that which is hard I soften ...” Aurora Consurgens I
Waite suggests the Devil here is the ‘dweller on the threshold’ when Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden.
These two characters appear on several cards with different connotations and more generically simply represent two human beings.
This card has a wide variety of different names in old packs, including ‘The House of God’, ‘The House of the Devil’ and ‘The House of the Damned’.
In some old packs this card is called ‘Angel’ or ‘Trumpets’. Waite calls it ‘The Last Judgement’ and characterises it as a "card of eternal life” also suggesting a comparison with the card ‘Temperance’ in this context.
Waite rejects the view that this card represents “the highest degree of initiation” but rather “the law of manifestation carried to the highest degree of perfection”.