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Day 299: The Devil

August 7, 2013
The Devil in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

The Devil in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

Why on earth does this card occur so late in the Major Arcana?  After the wonderful, holistic Temperance card, having the Devil as the next stop in the Fool’s Journey seems a bit like a slap in the face or like we’ve taken six or seven steps backward.  Why, for example, aren’t the Lovers and the Devil switched around?  After having found such facility with one’s own energy, wouldn’t the next logical step be working with energy in another?

Well, part of the regression is that the final seven cards of the Major Arcana do, in fact, collectively take that logical step of working with forces outside yourself, and some of that requires going back to the beginning of the journey.  The Devil is the start of working with forces beyond your own self.

Throughout the animal kingdom, one of the most basic “work with another” forces is sex.  After all, the only time individual animals within many species ever interact with one of their fellows is to exchange gametes.  While the Lovers portray a healthy, constructive, human sexuality, the Devil portrays the raw impulse of lust.

PentagramManOne of the most crucial symbols in this card that links the Devil with lust is the inverted pentagram upon his forehead, especially when coupled with the chained “Adam and Eve” figures below the Devil.  Among other things, the pentagram is a symbol for the human body, as our bodies resemble a five-pointed star when our arms and legs are outstretched, as shown in the image at the right.  In typical Western imagery, our reason and judgement–seated within the head–trump our basic desires–seated within the genitals.  When man is turned upside down, desire trumps judgement.  Therefore, the reversed pentagram is a sign of sexual preoccupation or dominance.

This is not necessarily a negative thing.  In fact, it is a common occult belief that spiritual energy is one and the same with sexual energy.  Even laypersons understand the immense power of sexual energy, so why wouldn’t occultists find ways to use it in order to reach an enlightenment?  In this view, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility to consider the Devil a sort of hero.  In fact, literature would have already beaten us to this point.  William Blake, for instance, figured Satan as the true hero of the Eden tale, for he brought Adam and Eve a deeper knowledge of their true selves by bringing sexuality to the garden.

Lust, however, is a peculiar powder keg of energy.  It can propel people into fantastic realms of energy, but we very rarely let it do that.  Instead, lust is far more likely to manifest in a myriad of problematic negatives, like violence, sexual crimes, rampant avarice, theft, addiction, and so on.  Truly, it takes a person who has already achieved the inner peace of Temperance who can constructively wield lust.

The Heirophant, The Devil, and The Lovers in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The Heirophant, The Devil, and The Lovers in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The inverted pentagram is not the only symbol on the Devil card that connotes lust (or, when it is directed toward objects, greed and materialism).  The Devil figure, for example, is the only obese character in the entire Major Arcana.  Fat in the tarot is connected with gluttony, avarice, and generally a destructive excess of earth energies.  Similarly, the extreme hairiness of his lower body and the spread of his knees brings most of the visual attention to the card to the Devil’s genitals and his two naked acolytes–three powerful images of lust.  This is especially interesting when compared with the Lovers, where all the visual tricks direct the eye upward to the angel and one has to consciously look to the card’s base to see the nude figures for which the card is named.  Another vestige of the Lovers card on the Devil are Adam and Eve’s peculiar tails.  Adam sports a flaming tail, while Eve’s is one of fruit.  Each of these tails corresponds to the tree they stand before on the Lovers.  Adam’s is a fruit from the Tree of Life, while Eve’s is from the Tree of Knowledge.  Instead of these trees spanning the entire length of their spines (and thus, their major chakras) as they do in the Lovers, these fruits are only channeled to the figures’ root chakras.  This chakra relates to our most basic survival needs–safety, nourishment, and propagation–but when over stimulated, we seek an excess of these things and develop lusts.

Further symbols of materialism can be found in the composite animals that make up the Devil.  His wings come not from a bird, but from a bat–the only mammal, a very earthy set of animals (with the exceptions of whales and manatees, of course), that can fly.  His horns and face come from the goat, an animal who constantly eats and ruts.  His ears come from a donkey, the most stubborn of animals.  All these animals are excessively “earthy,” which as we’ve already discussed, manifests in lust and greed.

Finally, further preoccupation with the material in the Devil can be found by comparing it with the Hierophant.  The Heirophant’s left hand is upraised and holding his triple-cross staff.  This staff is a sign of the papacy and each bar represents a devotion to the higher power of the three-part Christian god.  The Devil, on a literal other hand, holds a flaming torch down to the earth.  This symbolizes that the only thing that holds power for him is the here and now.  The right hands of both figures also express their beliefs.  The right hand of the Hierophant is raised and the hand forms a gesture of two fingers pointing up and two pointing down, which signifies “as above, so below.”  In other words, it is a sign that there is more to the universe than what we experience around us.  The Devil raises this arm, too, but his fingers–while grouped in sets of two like a Vulcan salute or the Jewish benediction of the Kohanim–all point upwards.  For the Devil, nothing exists but the material world–all that we experience with our senses.  Moreover, the Devil’s exposed palm reveals the glyph of Saturn (albeit laying on its side).  This sign explicitly means “matter taking precedence over the mind or the human spirit”.  Overall, the Devil’s hand is a doubled reinforcement of material preoccupation.

It is to be noted that with all the images of lust in this card, one would assume that the chains holding Adam and Eve to the Devil would hold them fast.  However, the chains are only loosely draped over their necks and their hands are free.  At any point in time, either figure could lift the yoke off his or her shoulders, so to speak, and be free of the Devil.  This represents the fact that lust gone awry is more of an unfortunate illusion than anything else.  It may mean that the figures have consciously made the choice to be consumed by their lusts, but it is also a reminder that no matter how lost we might believe ourselves, we have only to make the choice to behave differently and we will be free.

Robin Wood's Devil.

Robin Wood’s Devil.

Robin Wood’s card revolutionizes the typical Devil imagery.  As a Wiccan, Wood does not believe in a personified Devil, but she does wholly believe in naked greed, which is what she chose to represent on the card.

The card uses imagery of the Monkey Trap, which is actually carved on the top panel of the chest.  The trap is very simple:  food in a box where the only way to reach it is a small hole.  The monkey can put its hand in the hole and grab the food, but its fist will be too big to slide out of the hole.  All the greedy little monkey has to do is let go of the food and he will be free, but he will cling to that morsel even while a person approaches him and clubs him to death.  (As an aside, Wood notes that the lower panel on the chest depicts a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.  Though I’ve not been able to identify the painting, I do find it interesting that the one figure of it that we can fully see is busily stuffing his face:  a little glutton!)

Wood explains that the chest her two figures are struggling with is chained open.  They are free to take as much treasure as they can carry–and what treasure it is!  A cup with a border of hearts for love, a golden crown for leadership, ropes of pearls and jewels for wealth, a book for knowledge.  Nothing in the treasure itself is bad:  it is the insatiable appetite of the people who want to have the entire thing that is the problem.  All they would have to do is settle for some of the treasure, and they would be free to enjoy it.

Wood’s characters are naked to show their naked greed.  Neither is balancing their emotions with their intellect, and they cannot see clearly (the woman even has one eye covered).  With greed such as this, there is no room for anything or anyone else, which is why the two characters pull in different directions; in fact, neither one knows anything of the other’s existence!  Greed is a lonely state:  all energy is contracted to a single point.  The tunnel they are in shows this narrowness.  At its opening can be seen enlightenment’s mountains and birds of freedom.  All they have to do is walk out…but they won’t, because of the Monkey Trap.

One vestige of the Rider-Waite card remains:  the inverted pentagram, which is formed by the chains on Wood’s card.  She says that she has included this detail to show that the characters’ attitude “is anti-life, and works against the harmony of the universe, just as they are working against each other.”

KEYWORDS:  Lust, Greed, Obsession, Focus on the material, Oppression, Addictive behavior, Illusion.

Before you begin, take a moment to consider a difficult situation you face.  Then close your eyes and imagine that you stand at the base of the Devil’s cube (as depicted in the tarot card).  You are chained to the cube.  Notice that the chain is made up of words.  these words tell you what it is that binds you in an unhealthy way to the situation.  You will notice that the chains are loose around your neck.  As you begin to slip them off, the devil figure will tell you all of the reasons why you must stay in the situation.  Simply listen and take note of how the beliefs you hold keep you bound.  Once you slip the chains off, the devil figure disappears.  Open your eyes and note how much freer you feel.

Daily Practice
Keep the Devil card with you or place it on your altar.  Take note today of your attachments.  Keep a written record of the ideas, concepts, beliefs, and attitudes on which you insist.  Are there friends or even enemies that remain tied to you based only on your conceptualizations (and not the presenting reality)?  How has the “devil” of grasping controlled you?

The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

Day 298: Temperance

August 6, 2013
Temperance in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

Temperance in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

After a line of cards with so many changes between decks, it’s nice to have a break with a card Robin Wood changed little from Waite’s.  In fact, the only main differences I can see are that her angel is more clearly male, his wings are gold, he juggles balls instead of pours water between cups, the path behind him is less defined, and the sun is a white ball instead of a gold crown.  All in all, not too bad.

I suppose it is best to begin with the figure of the angel.  I think it best to consider him as a symbol of an intermediary between humanity and the heavens–however you conceive of that realm.  Having undergone a death, the Fool now becomes an intermediary between his former earthly self and the celestial realm beyond the cycle of life.  A similar way to view the angel is as the goddess Iris, an easy leap to make here given how most representations show the angel next to her flower. In fact, the B.O.T.A. (Builders of the Adytum) deck removes the flowers and arcs a rainbow–Iris’s primary symbol–over the angel’s head, as shown below.  Iris was a messenger of the Gods in the Greek pantheon, and so represents their link with humanity.  The depiction of this particular angel also reinforces the link between human and divine.  His wings, for example, are the dark red of blood and so here refer back to a body.  His robe, on the other hand, is purity’s white, and that all important sign of divinity.

Upon the angel’s breast are two symbols that bring a psychological link to the angel.  The square and the triangle, in Waite’s terminology, stand for the septenary.  This is a reference to a Theosophical concept known more colloquially as the sevenfold nature of man.  The human being consists of seven principles, which are divided into a higher triad (the triangle) consisting of the divine, spiritual, and intellectual parts and a lower quaternary (the square) consisting of the passional, vital, astral, and physical parts.  In this concept, the triad parts last forever while the quaternary parts last for only one life and are brand new in each individual’s discrete lifetime.  In Theosophy, the triangle is typically seen above the square.  By placing the triangle within the square, Waite is essentially demonstrating that “after the Ego’s death, eternal energies work within the square of ordinary activities and that we need not look to miracles to sense our connection with the immortal universe” as Rachel Pollack explains.

To reinforce this cooperation of divine and mundane in the new, reborn self, Waite has carefully included the tetragrammaton just above this symbol.  This is hard to make out in the coloring of the above image, but is much easier to see in the one below where the Hebrew letters י ה ו ה are worked into the robe’s folds.  (The B.O.T.A. card makes the tetragrammaton more obvious.)  We last saw the tetragrammaton upon the Wheel of Fortune where it was an external mystery of fate, as Rachel Pollack notes.  Here, however, it has become a very part of the Fool’s nature and, together with the septenary, shows how the Fool has become a master of his own fate.

Temperance from Rider-Waite and B.O.T.A. Tarot.

Temperance from Rider-Waite and B.O.T.A. Tarot.

The angel also wears the sign of the sun upon his forehead.  This is a sign of higher consciousness, and it also marks the angel as the rising sun shown behind the towers of the Death card, which could potentially make the water he stands in the start of the river in Death.  Behind the angel is a setting sun that conceals a crown.  This crown represents the ego that died in the Death card, and the physical ream of the ego is further noted by transforming the two towers that made the gateway to the beyond in Death into two physical mountains.

The angel stands with one foot in the water and one foot upon land, which–like the septenary sign–illustrates how temperance blends energies, for as Pollack notes “the water symbolizes the emotions while the rock represents grounding ourselves in the ‘real world’ beyond our selves” and the angel does both at the same time.  The angel also pours water from one cup to another, again symbolic of “all the elements of life flowing together.”  Pollack also calls attention to the fact that the flow of the water here is a physical impossibility:  pouring water runs down in a steep parabolic half:  this shows a shallow diagonal path.  Pollack notes that this may indicate that Temperance’s joyful ability to combine the elements of life would appear magical to those still trapped by ego’s masks.

Robin Wood's Temperance.

Robin Wood’s Temperance.

For Waite, the type of Temperance he had in mind with this card was more along the lines of a type of self-control and equanimity, as evidenced by bringing together human and divine, unifying all the parts of man together with God’s essence, and blending all the energies together into a miraculous whole.  For Robin Wood, however, the Temperance she most had in mind was the temperance of moderation.  As she notes, “this card means economy, moderation, and patience.  Perhaps the Seeker is going to achieve security by clever juggling of his resources.  Perhaps she is going to go through a time where she has to juggle her resources!  It may also mean meditation.  Increasingly, to me, it means the ability to move gracefully and easily through life, not beset with uncontrolled appetites and avariciousness that can pull you off course.  Everything in moderation (including moderation!).”Wood gave her angel golden wings instead of red to show the incorruptibility of the freedom, skillfulness, and mastery that wings are typically associated with.  His white robe still means purity, but she notes his rolled-up sleeves indicate the angel is not adverse to hard work.

Like the Waite card, Wood’s angel wears a triangle within a square on his chest.  She notes a similar symbolism:  the square is the reality of the material world and the triangle is the spirit.  Together, they symbolize the spirit in the flesh, which is life.  The positions of his feet show that he is firmly grounded by in reality (the seen, consensual universe) and the unconscious (the instinctive, intuitive universe).  The sun upon his head completes his mastery of elemental nature:  he is free to move in air through his wings, water through one foot, earth through the other, and fire through the sun upon his brow.Instead of pouring water, Wood’s Temperance juggles three balls:  a silver ball (spiritual wealth, the subconscious, and the present), a gold ball (material wealth, the conscious mind, and the past) and a crystal ball (mental aptitude, mystery, and the future).  He handles them easily and controls all their forces within himself.The Irises next to him call to mind the Goddess Iris and her rainbow, and they serve as a reminder that temperance is beautiful and their yellow color signifies its joy.  The mountains behind the angel lead to mountains of enlightenment, and the rocky path to them notes that finding enlightenment will not be easy, but will take you through a new vital course.  The fog at the base of the mountains symbolizes the uncertainty of such a path, but also a reminder that with temperance, you can still stay on the path.

Wood also specifies that her sun is a rising sun, not a setting sun, and it shows the promise of the mastery that can be obtained if you follow Temperance’s path.

KEYWORDS:  Inner balance, Mediation between human and divine, Combining different energies, Moderation, Calm.

Close your eyes and imagine that you stand in a great, grassy field on a clear, sunny day.  Hold in your mind a question about your life that stirs your emotions.  Take several deep breaths and then look to the sky.  From above comes a spiral of colored light.  The complexities of light are too great to define, but this spiral swirls down around your body.  As it does, it transforms you.  It also transforms the question you hold in your mind.  This swirl of light sweeps away all of your emotional ties to the situation at hand and leaves you with a clear mind.  The spiral of light recedes to the heavens again.  Now that your mind is clear, what is the best action for you to take in the situation–if any?

Daily Practice
Keep the Temperance card with you or place it on your altar.  For the duration of the day, attend to the small details of your life.  The gods are in the details, so go find them there!

The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s books Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom and The New Tarot Handbook, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

The Two Different Deaths in the Major Arcana

August 5, 2013
The Hanged Man and Death in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The Hanged Man and Death in the Rider-Waite Tarot.

Now that we’ve gone through the Hanged Man and Death with great detail, the thought has occurred to me that having both of these cards in the Major Arcana might actually be a little redundant.  After all, the Hanged Man actually depicts an execution method and–one one level at least–strongly signifies a corporeal death.  So to does the death card, especially with the fallen king under the horse.

Waite has apparently anticipated such a response, for in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot he writes in his description of Death that:

There should be no need to point out that the suggestion of death which I have made in connection with the previous card [The Hanged Man] is, of course, to be understood mystically, but this is not the case in the present instance. The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate.

I think that reflecting back upon some of Pollack’s work in her Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom is beneficial here.  As she plots out in the psychotherapy of the Death card, the Fool has begun important internal work with Strength in that he has discovered his own will.  The Hermit helps the Fool discover who he really is with this will, and what habits or fears of his old ego must be shed in order for the will to be fully expressed.  The Wheel and Justice help clarify these habits or fears, and these enable the Fool to willingly undergo the humiliations of the Hanged Man to rebirth his soul.

The Hanged Man is the first stage of a spiritual death and rebirth:  the willingness to undergo that death.  The Death card itself is the very moment of the crisis:  just as that change begins to be wrought, there is a moment of fear that nothing will lie beyond that transition.  We can only hope that something lies beyond.  There is a crucial element of doubt in the Death card that is completely absent in the complete trust the Hanged Man has.

If the Fool can shed his ego’s doubts at the moment of Death, he’ll be able to attain Temperance:  the final card of the second line.  It correlates with the Chariot card, which showed mastery of the material world.  Temperance indicates the mastery of a person connected to that world, but in a far more meaningful way.  Like the child who innocently greeted Death, the Fool reborn into Temperance can engage with life again with full consciousness, a consciousness unimpeded by the ego’s masks.  Temperance in this context will therefore not mean “moderation” but rather “a true response to all situations that arise.”

Day 297: Death

August 2, 2013
Death in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

Death in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

A Golden Dawn Tarot card for Death.

A Golden Dawn Tarot card for Death.

When Waite designed his tarot deck, he made very conservative changes to some cards and very drastic changes to others.  Death is one of his Drastic Change cards.  The image to the right comes from an older deck Waite would have known well:  the Golden Dawn Tarot.  Its message largely buttresses the conventional folk wisdom that death comes for all, king or serf alike.  As Rachel Pollack notes, death’s final democracy “was a favourite theme of medieval sermons” and influences the Jewish practice of burying everyone regardless of class in the same manner.  Waite, however, thought that “the veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation, and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented [... by] apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton.”

In creating his apocalyptic vision, Waite did maintain one image from the Golden Dawn card:  A river flowing through the background and ending in a rising sun.  Rivers are both eternal and yet constantly changing; as Pocohontas sang in the Disney film “you can’t step into the same river twice.”  The river ends in the setting sun, a sun that will ‘die’ with the night, but that we know will rise again in the morning.  Even here, Waite hints that death is not an end, only another place on the cyclic flow.  The setting sun is flanked by a pair of pillars, which we approach again (and much closer) in the Moon.  These pillars mark a change, not an end.  Before them lies one state, behind them another:  but there is something before and after them, and entering their gateway does not destroy a person.

Unlike the Golden Dawn card, Waite’s river is a two part river.  At the first level, it is a river for man, but it is still a mystical river.  On the side where men exist, the riverbank is dry and desert-like, but lush greenery exists on the opposite bank.  An Egyptian-like boat is the only thing shown that can access both sides.  It’s Death’s funereal boat, and it represents the true self Death carries through to a new existence.  The message is clear:  do not be afraid to get on that boat.  The things we cling to now are dried and decayed, but so many better things await us on the opposite side.  The fact that the river on the opposite side continues to a second, higher level (irregardless of normal water flow), shows that our journey continues in new, exciting ways ‘on a higher plane’ after death.

In the card’s foreground, the formerly naked skeleton is now clad in black armor and riding a white horse.  These colors are reflected in the banner he carries:  a great white rose upon a black field.  These colors can sort of be thought of as they appear on the yin-yang:  each contains an element of the other.  Black absorbs all colors–much as death absorbs all life, which is why he wears it–but it is also the color of life’s source.  It is the darkness of the womb and the blackness of fertile soil.  White reflects all colors–much as life reflects a myriad of amazing experiences and journeys–but it is also a complete absence.  It is the nothingness we fear to imagine when we think of death.  The black armor Death wears protects his otherwise frail skeleton and shows that nothing can penetrate his final power, and the white horse he rides signifies that Death will always ‘trump’ or ‘control’ life, no matter how powerful that life may be.

Death and his horse are a reification of the abstract flag he carries.  However, the flag offers more commentary on the relationship between death and life. Waite says that the rose is “the Mystic Rose, which signifies life,” but the symbol is a bit more profound than that.  In Western literature, the Mystic Rose is a Grail symbol.  In fact, sometimes it is the Grail itself.  Through this connection, the Mystic Rose is a symbol of rebirth as well as life, and the white color of the rose denotes the purity of a rebirth.  Though the blackness of death surrounds the rose, it also provides it the fertile ground for its continual rebirth.  Death cannot exist without life’s rebirth, and life cannot exist without death’s rest.

Four people surround Death and his horse.  Beneath the horse lies a felled king, his crown rolling upon the ground.  Before the horse stands a praying bishop, a woman kneeling with her face turned away from the sight before her, and a little child kneeling and offering flowers to Death.  Different taroists have ascribed different meanings to these people, but I am fond of Rachel Pollack’s interpretation:  “The king, struck down, shows the rigid ego.  If life comes at us with enough power the ego may collapse; insanity can result from an inability to adjust to extreme change.  The priest stands and faces Death directly; he can do so because his stiff robes and hat protect him and support him.  We see here the value of a code of belief to help us past our fears of death.  The Maiden symbolizes partial innocence.  The ego is not rigid, yet still aware of itself, unwilling to surrender.  Therefore she kneels but turns away.  Only the child, representing complete innocence, faces Death with a simple offering of flowers.”

Overall, Rachel Pollack has nicely summarized the holistic message of the Rider-Waite card:  “Death does not actually refer to transformation.  Rather, it shows us the precise moment at which we give up the old masks and allow the transformation to take place.”  She traces the psychotheraputic path through the previous cards to underscore this message:  “By force of will (Strength) the person, with the help of the therapist-guide (the Hermit), allows knowledge to emerge of who he or she really is, and what habits or fears he or she wishes to shed (Wheel and Justice).  This knowledge brings calm and a desire to change (The Hanged Man).  But then a fear sets in.  ‘If I give up my behaviour’, the person thinks, ‘maybe there will be nothing left.  I will die.’  We live under the ego’s control for so many years we come to believe that nothing else exists.  The mask is all we know.”  In Death, we have the option to understand that our current conceptions are but masks, and we have the chance to look behind that mask and find a greater reality.

Robin Wood's Death

Robin Wood’s Death

Just as Waite radically changed the image of Death from his source material, so too has Robin Wood drastically changed her Death from Waite’s.  In her tarot, this card means “sudden and complete change; a discovery that brings about such change in the Seeker’s life direction; the end of an era and the beginning of a new one; change that is inevitable and profound; it is a change that is better in the long run, even though it can be frightening.”

Wood has done away with the skeleton since the card does not refer to a physical death, and his robes are the red of “heart’s blood”, because change generally strikes your emotional core and because change is a vital, energizing thing.  Change takes courage, but Death will give you all the courage you need.  After all, it’s hard to face Death with anything more than courage!

The flag he carries is similar to Waite’s with a white rose on a black field.  Wood notes that “the white rose is a symbol of freedom and rebirth, the black field is mystery and the unknown.  So the seeker will find freedom and rebirth by going through the unknown, and following the path he is shown.”  Wood also notes that the flagpole is purity’s white since you must undertake Death’s direction with purity in your heart, and that the flag is grey where it meets the pole for balance.  It is attached with thirteen nails since death is the thirteenth of the Fool’s trials.

I personally think it is important to note that Wood’s rose is not the heraldic five-petaled rose of Waite’s, but a full and gorgeous blossom.  In Western culture, this type of rose is a symbol of the soul and its union with the divine in a manner similar to how the East views the lotus.  It is the cup-like receptive vessel open to receiving the Divine while simultaneously shielding its center from mundane troubles.  As the Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote:

Just as the rose consists of many petals held together, so the person who attains to the unfoldment of the soul begins to show many different qualities.  The qualities emit fragrance in the form of a spiritual personality.  The rose has a beautiful structure, and the personality which proves the unfoldment of the soul has also a fine structure, in manner, in dealing with other, in speech, in action.  The atmosphere of a spiritual being pervades the air like the perfume of a rose.

My thought, then, is that if you want the type of soul promised by Death, you need to trust his mysteries and follow the path he shows.  Only by undergoing his trials will you understand which aspects of your ego were masks shielding your blossoming inner rose.

Wood’s fool stands in a birch wood “because birch trees are the trees of beginning, rebirth, and cleansing in the Celtic system” and it is springtime to reinforce that idea of rebirth and cleansing, as we can tell with violets growing along the path.  A new maple, for sweetness, springs up along the directed path to show that new beginnings can be sweet and wonderful things even though they are also a passing of what has come before.

Behind Death is the path the Seeker was previously on, and the new path spreads to the left.  Both are equally stony, since new directions are not necessarily easier than the old.  Both paths, however, are equally clear; the new journey will not be any more difficult to find.  The new path also presents a yellow butterfly as a guide:  yellow is symbolic of joy, and the butterfly is a symbol of transformation and rebirth.  “The new path will have unexpected joy, and will transform the Seeker.”

KEYWORDS:  Change, Transformation, Something that needs to end, Now for something completely different!

Close your eyes and imagine that you stand before the skeletal death figure from the tarot card.  He will point to an open grave, freshly dug in the earth.  Peer into the grave and you will see a scene from your life that requires change.  Ask this skeletal figure what must be done in the situation.  After you hear the words of death, open your eyes.  Heed death’s advice and move into action.

Daily Practice
Keep the Death card with you or place it on your altar.  Imagine that this is the last day of your life.  Go about your usual day with this “final day” attitude.  How will you approach this day knowing it is your last?

The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

Day 296: The Hanged Man

August 1, 2013
The Hanged Man in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood decks.

The Hanged Man in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood decks.

Looking to Waite for an idea of the Hanged Man’s meaning is one of the most maddening exercises in all of Tarot.  For example, on page 22, he says the card means ‘prudence’ but on page 116 he clearly says it is not prudence, and then finally on 285 he says it means ‘wisdom’!  The most detailed description, obtuse as it is, follows:

The gallows from which he is suspended forms a Tau cross, while the figure–from the position of the legs–forms a fylfot cross. There is a nimbus about the head of the seeming martyr. It should be noted (1) that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon; (2) that the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering; (3) that the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death. It is a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled. One of his editors suggests that Éliphas Lévi did not know the meaning, which is unquestionable nor did the editor himself. It has been called falsely a card of martyrdom, a card a of prudence, a card of the Great Work, a card of duty; but we may exhaust all published interpretations and find only vanity. I will say very simply on my own part that it expresses the relation, in one of its aspects, between the Divine and the Universe.

He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.

Thanks, Waite.  That’s really helpful.  But let’s examine some of the salient details he’s noted anyway, beginning with the tau cross and the fylfot cross.

A basic tau cross and a basic fylfot cross.  If we're to be very technical, a fylfot cross differs from a swastika in that it has shorter arms extending from the central cross.

A basic tau cross and a basic fylfot cross. Both are symbols used in Freemasonry.  If we’re to be very technical, a fylfot cross differs from a swastika in that it has shorter arms extending from the central cross.

As we can see, a tau cross resembles a T, or a tau in the Greek alphabet.  It’s a very simple symbol and, as such, pops up in many different cultures.  Obviously, under Christian symbolism it has come to be aligned with salvation salvation through the identification of the tau with the sign which in Ezekiel 9:4 was marked on the foreheads of saved persons.  In Egypt and Sumer, it was more an emblem of immortality or generally of life (sometimes specially as a phallic symbol).  In this, it is connected to Tammuz, the dying and rising God, and through him the Greek deity Attis and the Roman Mithras.  In Mayan culture, a similar cross was considered a “tree of life.”  These correlations with life or a life cycle seem to be more of what Waite had in mind than Christian salvation, given his direction to observe “that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon.”

Upon this tree of life, then, a man is hanged in a manner used in the era of the tarot’s birth as an execution or a humiliation.  This overlay of death would seem to be a perversion of the tau, but–as Waite notes–the man is clearly not suffering.  Moreover, his body is twisted in such a way that it resembles the fylfot cross or the swastika, a symbol that has long been used within Hinduism to evoke Shakti, the personification of primordial cosmic energy or of divine feminine creative power.  The word “swastika” also translates as “to be good” or “to be with the higher self.”

So perhaps this card is using a horrible image to show a greater truth.  Even if this does show a torture or an execution, it is still within the realm of Life.  Even as the life of the man is held in suspension, Life still continues, and the amazingly powerful, benevolent, creative cosmic energy that birthed Life still resides within the suspended man.  Even if that man does die, that energy will live on and be reborn in his new form.

Rachel Pollack seems to be drawn most to the inner calm that comes from a realization such as this.  She says that the Hanged man feels life through this inner awareness and that he “affects us because it shows a direct image of peace and understanding.  The calm shows so strongly in the card because the Hanged Man has surrendered to the rhythms of life.  In the old initiations surrender involved joining the rituals instead of just watching them.  For many modern people it involves releasing the emotions they have locked up for years.”

Another very literal interpretation of the card is simply to change your perspective.  Sometimes looking at things “upside down” gives you a new insight that wouldn’t have been achieved through conventional means.

This is more the interpretation Robin Wood had in mind when designing her card, which to her “means suspense, change, looking at things from anther viewpoint” or “willing to surrender to higher wisdom, or sacrifice to gain this wisdom, especially in occult or spiritual matters.  An inner search for the truth.”

Wood consciously removed the ropes from her Hanged Man, which makes his inversion entirely voluntary.  Like Waite’s tau, Wood suspends her man from living trees, which are ash to call to mind Yggdrasill, the world tree from which Odin hung to gain the knowledge of the runes (upon which he died, but used the knowledge he’d received to immediately restore himself).  Unlike Waite, however, her man is between two trees to show the two vantages he balances:  old and new.  These trees are also reminiscent of the rune hagalaz, which has connotations of an ordeal or a drastic change:   a wake-up call from the Gods.

From the viewpoint of the man’s normal orientation, his upper body forms the inverted triangle which is the first-degree sign of Wicca, which indicates he is on a new path to wisdom and changing his priorities.  He wears a white shirt to show the purity of his resolve on this path.  (This is also the symbol for water.)  His legs form a slightly-cockeyed upper-pointing triangle, which represents the symbol for fire (along with his red trews, which also represent his courage), and will.  All the Hanged Man does, he does through his own free will.

Wood’s Hanged Man has a nimbus of light around his head to show the spiritual radiance his inversion has given him, and it stands out against the grey background, which represents the balance of night and day mingling equally.  It can also stand for the drabness of the views the man held before his inversion, which is being lighted by his new outlook.

As a final note, it may well be worthwhile to consider the interplay between water and fire in all the versions of the Hanged Man.  In Waite, for instance, the man’s leggings are red (fire), and his tunic is blue (water).  Wood’s man has his upper body in the water sign and his legs in the fire sign (from his perspective).  He brings activity and passivity into balance through his inversion.

KEYWORDS: New point of view, Unconventionality, Letting go, Suspension, Sacrificing.

This meditation is designed to help you learn to release to life and to embrace the power of surrendering.  Close your eyes and begin to take deep breaths.  Imagine that you stand before the ocean.  Waves are crashing powerfully against the shore.  Walk into the ocean and feel that it is warm and soothing.  Allow the waves to sweep over your body.  With each wave that caresses you, imagine that you become increasingly transparent.  Slowly you become one with the tide itself.  See yourself as nothing but ocean–a tide that moves in and out, free and boundless.

Daily Practice
Keep the Hanged Man card with you or place it on your altar.  Difficulties do not cease of their own accord.  When left unattended, they become worse, uglier, and meaner.  Do not run any further from a difficult life situation.  Face it today.  Get to the bottom of it.  Determine what it is you can and cannot do.

The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

The Dark Side of the Hanged Man

July 31, 2013

It’s taken me several days of behind-the-scenes work to be able to write anything about the Hanged Man.  I do not have any major issues with how contemporary tarot readers interpret the card.  It was my research into the historical imagery that churned my stomach and made me wonder if there’s more to the card than what we typically ascribe to it.

Prior to this research, I never had a strong visceral reaction to the Hanged Man.  In part, it was because I thought the very suggestion of it depicting an execution was hilarious.  Certainly there are far more expedient ways of dispatching someone.  Hanging someone by the neck, for example, will result in death in a few minutes, at most.  And young children frequently hang upside-down for hours.  My own brother would watch whole television shows while standing on his head, and it never did him any harm.  With this in mind, could prolonged inversion actually result in someone’s death?

Well, as I found out, it can. In sustained periods of inversion, the heart struggles to pump blood into the legs, while the blood in the head struggles to return to the heart. (Keep in mind that the brain has no muscles to help circulation along, and relies much upon a regular blood pressure and gravity to keep an even circulation). Subsequently, the heart works extra hard to keep circulation flowing. This extra effort can cause it to fail. If it does not, sustained circulation problems can lead to blood clots and swelling in the brain, which can lead to stroke. Blindness can occur through increased ocular pressure. Blood can pool in the lungs and result in pulmonary edema and respiratory failure: in other words, the victim drowns in his or her own blood without any visible wound. No matter what, death can certainly occur, but it will be a long, torturous time in coming.

An old image depiction a medieval German Judenstrafe, or Jewish Execution.

An old image depicting a medieval German Judenstrafe, or Jewish Execution.

To my horror, I learned that this has, in fact, been an execution method. In medieval Germany (late thirteenth century to early seventeenth), this execution came to be associated with Jews and developed the name Judenstrafe, or “Jewish Execution/Punishment,” and it was specifically devised to be inhumane.  The standard punishment was to hang the Jewish thief by the feet and similarly string up two dogs beside him, but there were several variations upon this theme. The dogs could be alive or dead, or one instead of a pair, or the offender would be suspended by one foot alone. Obviously, if the dogs were alive–as they are in this image–they would snarl and bite and scratch the offender as they tried to free themselves. If other crimes were committed during the theft, the execution may have other layers. For example in Ottingen in 1611, a Jewish thief who had stolen silverplate and tried to cover up his theft through arson was condemned to suffer the Judenstrafe whilst simultaneously being burned, the variation of which is shown in this image. No matter the variation, though, the indignity and torture were both extreme.

Germany is, however, not the only nation to have practiced an inverted hanging. As many taroists know, it was a practice in medieval Italy, too. However, unlike Germany’s Judenstrafe, it appears that Italian inverted hangings were not the primary form of execution, but rather practiced as part of a “hung, drawn, and quartered” grouping of methods or as a way to desecrate a corpse afterwards. The methods of medieval Italian executions are shockingly creative, and they fell on a spectrum of decency: it was far nobler to beheaded like the saints than to hang as Judas–especially if one belonged to the upper classes. For the common man, execution was frequently hanging, no matter the crime. For a nobleman to hang, though, was a mark of his shame. For all, though, to be hanged upside down–either before, during, or after death–was a special infamy and especially humiliating.

It’s from the Italian practice and its intense associations with betrayal and humiliation that many tarot historians believe the Hanged Man imagery originated. The Italians not only physically hanged people, they metaphorically did so in frescoes. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, artists were frequently commissioned to paint images collectively known as pitture infamanti (defamatory portraits) on the walls of the main centers of justice in northern Italy. They were intended to act as effigies and to humiliate and insult traitors, debtors, thieves, and frauds. As with modern effigy practice, the people these images depicted were rarely killed.

Preparatory drawings for pittura infamante by Andrea del Sarto.

Preparatory drawings for pittura infamante by Andrea del Sarto.

While none of these frescoes survive today, a few of Andrea del Sarto’s practice sketches for a commission do exist, and are shown above. Clearly there’s more than a little visual similarity between these sketches and the Tarot’s Hanged Man, and as the earliest Tarot decks were made in northern Italy in the mid-thirteenth century, it certainly is easy to make a historical connection between the archetypal image and these objects of extreme humiliation. When you add in the facts that the Hanged Man was also called Il Tradatore (the Traitor) in some early decks and that his number in the Arcana is always twelve in every known deck (twelve referring to Judas Iscariot, the twelfth of Christ’s apostles and the one who betrayed him to the Romans), you really don’t get the sense that any original meaning of this card was positive.

After a lot of soul searching and reflection, I’ve decided that interpreting the Hanged Man in the conventional way is completely appropriate and wholly preferable in how we consider the Major Arcana as the Fool’s journey into a holistic knowledge.  And yet, we should be aware of the horror behind the image.  There will certainly be readings where the betrayal and humiliation behind this card will be far more relevant than other interpretations.

Day 295: Justice

July 30, 2013
Justice in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood decks.

Justice in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood decks.

While it is true that Justice was originally card 8 and Strength card 11, I’m glad Waite switched them around.  It makes sense to me to have this card–the card of judicious balance–to be the one linking the first ten numbered cards with the second ten numbered cards.  It also marks a distinct change in the pattern of the Major Arcana.  In the first half, different cards stood as different pairs of a duality.  The Magician and the High Priestess formed a dyad, as did the Emperor and Empress, Empress and High Priestess, Emperor and Magician, High Priestess and Hierophant, Hierophant and Magician, Hierophant and Emperor.  Eventually the Chariot emerged as a master card, holding the dyads and controlling them so that they could work together.  Justice, however, takes it a step further and brings that control internally, so that different dyads can exist in one figure.

In the Waite card, this unification can actually be seen in the Justice figure herself.  She sits, like the High Priestess, between two pillars.  But she is clad in the Magician’s red rob, and has one arm up and one arm down, just as the magician does.

In other respects, Justice is exactly what her name entails:  Justice.  She wears the red of passion and courage, but it is tempered with a green cloak:  compassion.  Her scales are also level–noting that truth is often a matter of balancing the different perceptions of others–and her sword stands fully at the ready, and will cut both ways.  It is also to be noted that Justice here is not blindfolded.  Rather, her stare is a challenge to the querent to honestly examine his or her own life, free from the past and from the frames we’ve placed on it through time, culture, and other limitations.  It is a challenge for us to shift these artificial restraints and exact our own free will.

Robin Wood’s card shares many of the symbols of Waite’s.  Wood, however, notes that she gave Justice a fair complexion to show the ‘fairness’ of her nature, and a laurel wreath to show Truth’s ultimate victory.  Her Justice is especially strong in countenance, and very steady.  She is comfortably and solidly seated:  she will not rush to judgement in order to make sure the truth will out.  She is calm because passion plays no part in her decisions.  Her eyes are open so that she may see all sides to the argument.

Wood makes the observation that the Red/Green colors of Justice’s robe and cape are the respective colors of the God and Goddess, and their energies of courage and vitality are balanced in her.  Her clothing is lined in purple to show the depth of her wisdom and the majesty of her justice.

Unlike Waite’s Justice, who sits before a purple cloth, Wood’s sits before nature:  open air, trees, hills, and sky.  This is to show that her justice is calm and as ancient as the hills, but also vibrant and alive!  The epitome of open-thinking!

KEYWORDS:  Fairness, Justice, Truth, Self-Examination, Self-Honesty, Unbiased Thought.

Close your eyes and visualize a situation that you believe is causing difficulty in your life.  Allow the image of this scene to become a blur of many colors.  The colors blend and become a single hue.  Simultaneously, imagine that you become hollow.  Then imagine this empty space within you becoming the entire universe of planets, stars, and vast empty space.  Once you see this, inhale deeply, taking in the color that represented your situation.  See the color pass through you and dissipate in the vast neutrality of empty space.

Daily Practice
Keep the Justice card with you or place it on your altar.  Focus your attention on your judgements and discriminations throughout the day. You do not have to change your actions or your thoughts.  However, at the end of the day, take time to consider how often you deferred to the judging, discriminating mind.  How did your thoughts influence your actions and decisions?  How might daily judgement-influenced action add up to change the course of your life?  What might a judging mind keep you from achieving or attaining?  How does it affect your relationships with other people?  How does it affect how you relate to the world?

The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book The New Tarot Handbook, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,


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