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Day 287: The Empress

June 25, 2013
The Empress in the Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood Tarot decks.

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

At one point in my Tarot studies, I came across a book (can’t remember which now) that described the Magician and High Priestess as being spiritual parents and the Emperor and Empress as being earthly parents.  I can totally understand that.  The Magician and High Priestess are concerned with knowledge and wisdom, but the Emperor and Empress have far more earthly concerns.  The Empress card, for example, shows a delightful, fruitful world and invites us to relax and revel in it, and the Emperor shows the rules we artificially impose upon ourselves so that all people have an equal chance to enjoy the world.

In Rider-Waite cards, the Empress is a stately figure, comfortably resting on a couch of rich cushions.  She is not obviously pregnant in this card, but her position with ample lower back support and unrestrictive clothing has led several readers to posit that she is pregnant, and this interpretation flows well with the other symbols on the card.  The Empress wears a diadem of laurel leaves to show her worldly authority, and above them are clustered twelve stars.  These stars can be the twelve zodiacal constellations, or perhaps the twelve months or the twelve hours we note on a clock.  At any rate, they symbolize her rule throughout time.  She raises a scepter above her head, which Waite himself says is “surmounted by the globe of this world”, which shows she places the Earth above all else in her interest.  She wears a comfortable white robe to indicate her purity of purpose, and it is richly embroidered with pomegranates, sliced open.  As I noted with the High Priestess, pomegranates are symbols of female sexuality and spirituality, but they’re also potent symbols of nourishment.  Unlike the Priestess, where their arrangement into a tree-of-life pattern shows their spiritual emphasis, these pomegranates are scattered over the Empress’s very body and are opened for use.  Therefore, they stand more to show that the Empress is the “fruitful mother of thousands”, as Waite described her.

At her feet, the Empress has a heart-shaped shield emblazoned with Venus’s symbol.  This doesn’t necessarily align her energies with the Goddess of love, as some might say, but rather with a divine feminine.  I feel that the fact this symbol appears on a shield gives it a distinctly maternal feel, for the love a mother has makes her an incredibly fierce protector of her children.  As my own mother is fond of saying, nothing comes between a mother bear and her cubs and lives!  Overall, the feel of this card evokes more of a Demeter or Mother Earth energy.  In addition to the nutritive pomegranates on the Empress’s dress, the entire foreground of the card is occupied with a hale, abundant crop of wheat, the basic food of civilized humanity.  Behind the Empress lies a rich wood, full of wild animals and berries that similarly sustain us.  Through this wood flows a river of clean, fresh water that falls at the Empress’s feet, and it symbolizes a perpetual refreshment.  In a matter of speaking, the world shown on this card is essentially as close to an earthly paradise as we’re likely to get!  It is a world and a space where we all desire to be, and the Empress stands as a gateway into this life.

Robin Wood’s card shares a lot of imagery with Waite’s, but it amps it up several notches.  The backdrop of her card also shows a strong wood, and a body of water separates it from the foreground of the card, where a field of wheat and poppies (both Demeter symbols) plays at the Empress’s feet, along with a basket of fruit and vegetables (to show the wealth and abundance she provides) as well as a bee skep (for richness and sweetness).  The Empress here is actively spinning the thread of life on the wheel of time.  And, like Waite’s Empress, her clothing is highly symbolic of fertility.  They are the color of ripening wheat trimmed in green for growth and accented with wheat and vine motifs, along with hearts to show her love.  Her clasp shows an athame and a cup conjoined in the symbol of the Great Rite:  fertility to the max.  Her crown shows all the phases of the moon, and it is capped with six stars that correspond to the six senses we experience her world with.  In the middle of the stars stands four silver disks for the four elements around a central gold disk for spirit.  Her purple cape lined with ermine shows her majesty and purity, and her blue veil shows she is also the Queen of Heaven.  This Empress is obviously pregnant to show her extreme fruitfulness and to show that her realm is full of generative life.

KEYWORDS:  Mothering and motherhood, nurturing, fruitfulness, growth/gradual development, welcoming abundance, experiencing the senses, responding to nature, passion, love, healing/rejuvenating/relaxing time

Close your eyes and imagine that you travel down inside your body to the region of your heart.  Once you are there, this region opens to a lush, green landscape.  Beneath your feet is a path that you instinctively follow.  At the end of the path is a robed woman with a full figure and a kindly face.  This figure is the ideal archetypal mother.  She opens her arms and holds you, deeply filling you with inner peace and a sense of harmony.  Return to this place whenever you have need of this mother goddess’s love or wisdom.

Daily Practice
Keep the Empress card with you at all times today, or place it on your altar.  For the duration of the day, maintain focus on your interactions with other people.  Are you able to speak with a voice of love?  Are you able to listen with ears of loving acceptance?  Are you able to be present to someone else’s joy or pain?  Try to develop your ability to open up to other people in these ways today.

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 Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

Day 286: The High Priestess

June 24, 2013

The High Priestess in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood decks.

In cards highly influenced by the Rider-Waite deck, the High Priestess is found robed in Isis’s pale blue and white colors, seated between the black and white pillars of Boaz and Jachin, and in front of a tapestry bearing pomegranates (which are arranged in a tree-of-life pattern).  All this stands before a vast, calm body of water, which can be seen through the gaps between the pillars and tapestry.  The High Priestess has a moon at her feet, and is crowned with Isis’s headdress.  She also holds in her lap a scroll labeled “Tora”.

This card necessarily contrasts the Magician.  The Magician’s card was all about light and active passion for life, especially given the dominance of red roses and his red robe.  Where the Magician actively communicates his divine knowledge, as shown by his open display of his tools and him standing in a very open position, the Priestess largely stays silent.  She too has a white inner robe to show her purity of purpose, but her outer robe is the pale blue of spirituality and emotions.  She is passively sitting and her robes further close around her.  The information she holds, the Tora scroll, is half-hidden within her robes, too, and the scroll itself is still unopened.  I like to think that this means the Priestess’s wisdom can’t be broken into words and can’t be treated metaphorically.  Her wisdom is so profound that it can only be felt.  If we try to communicate it, our utterings become meaningless.  We learn the Priestess’s lessons not through channeled instruction, but through quiet intuition.

The Priestess’s spiritual reception is echoed through her surroundings, much like the Magician’s meaning is echoed by his bower of flowers.  A large, calm body of water reflects her stillness and the depth of her quiet wisdom, and the pomegranates on the tapestry behind her reflect her feminine mystery and a deep spirituality.  The black and white pillars that flank the Priestess are supposed to be Boaz and Jachin, the columns that stood at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple.  This temple housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained all divine wisdom within.  This effectively makes the Priestess herself the temple.  I, however, like to think of the pillars more as a yin-yang symbol.  They represent the divine duality that permeates everything and is the source of all magic.  They are also a reminder that every situation contains the seeds of its opposite.

Rider-Waite’s High Priestess has an awful lot of Judeo-Christian symbols on it (not the least of which being the enormous cross on Isis’s chest), so Robin Wood paganized the card in her deck.  As with her Magician, her High Priestess is an avatar of the divine, and so shows a woman with dark hair and blue eyes, which signifies that she embodies the dark and light aspects of the divine and the balance between them.  Her robe is a fluid ombre combination of all the Goddess colors, for she is all Goddesses in one.  Her shoulders are maidenly white, then flow into Mother Earth green, then the light blue of feminine spirituality, and then finally the deep Indigo of Crone energy, mystery, and magic.  She wears a waning-moon crown to show her wisdom, and a pentacle around her neck to show she keeps the secret knowledge.  Like the Magician, she is naked beneath her robe to show she is free and unashamed.  She holds a crystal ball in her right hand as a symbol of mystic knowledge that can only come from within, and the spherical shape further highlights the feminine, intuitive knowledge that scrying provides.  Her left hand holds and open book, black to show it contains deep wisdom.  She freely offers this information to us, but we must come close to read and experience the magic along with her.

Whereas Robin Wood’s Magician card was full of light from the lit black and white candles behind him (and apparently indoors, for those candles are burning steadily), the High Priestess card is dark.  It shows an outdoors nighttime scene with a full moon partially shrouded by clouds.  The darkness also relates to the intuitive wisdom of the Priestess, and the full moon shows that her knowledge is at its fullest, and it is obscured to show that her’s is a hidden mystery.  Like the Magician, she has pillars of black and white divine duality behind her, but these are live trees just in bud.  This shows that for all the fullness the High Priestess offers, it is still just the surface.  She has unlimited potential for growth behind her.

Again, the major symbols in this card are enumerated below:

1.  Moons.

  • In the Tarot, these are usually symbols of feminine power and mystery, and Pagan readers also associate them with Goddess energy.  They are also symbols of cycles, mystery, hidden power, and the passage of time.

2.  Water. 

  • The amount of still water behind the Priestess in the Rider-Waite cards shows how all the energies she brings are strongly rooted in water’s feminine receptivity.

3.  Pomegranates.

  • This fruit is a strongly feminine symbol, and it is particularly associated with feminine sexuality.  There’s the obvious correlation of Persephone biting into a pomegranate, which forced her to accept Hades, but there’s also the fact that it is a fairly voluptuous fruit, filled with a life-giving juice in the middle of a dry desert.  It’s quite breast-like.  Even the arrangement of its seeds within resemble functioning breast tissue in anatomy.  Pomegranates are also a major symbol of spirituality.  Kabbalists, for example, sometimes describe spiritual paradise as an orchard of pomegranates, and this connotation in this card is highlighted by the fruit being arranged in a tree-of-life pattern.

4.  Black and White Pillars.

  • I prefer to think of these as representing the divine polarity that the Lady holds in balance and from which all energy flows.

5.  Hidden Scroll.

  • The scroll is half-hidden in the Priestess’s robes.  I like to think this means that the Priestess holds a vast amount of spiritual wisdom, but that it can’t be entirely accessed through typical book learning.  You’ve got to trust and experience it in your heart for yourself.

KEYWORDS: Staying nonactive, accessing the unconscious, seeing the potential, sensing the mystery, inner wisdom, intuition, stillness, profound experience, hidden teachings.

When you have a situation that requires your intuition, try this mediation.  Before you begin, contemplate your situation thoroughly.  Then close your eyes and take several deep breaths.  Imagine that you stand before a great clear pool.  This is the pool of your own internal wisdom.  Beside the pool is a magical chalice.  Fill the cup and drink deeply of the waters.  Ask what it is you should do in the situation.  Listen for an answer–and then follow it.

Daily Practice
Keep the High Priestess card with you, or alternatively, place it on your altar.  For the duration of the day, maintain awareness of your hunches and intuitive perceptions.  Follow your intuition today and see where it leads you.  Release yourself into the vast supportive net of the universe, and know in your bones that nature always supports you.  You are always connected to the people, places, and things of this world in ways you can never fully, consciously know.

For what it’s worth, 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 Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

Day 285: The Magician

June 21, 2013
ThreeCard 1 Magician

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

In the more Rider-Waite like cards, the magician stands within a bower of flowers (which often link up with life whether they are white roses or not, especially when they are shown in abundance), usually of white lilies which represent purity and innocence and red roses which represent passion and courage.  These flowers echo the colors of his robe, with courageous passion cloaking his inner pure intention and the absolute clarity of his purpose.  The magician draws down power with the wand in his right hand and directs it outward to all life with his left.  He’s a conduit for energy, but he’s not one to hoard the energy or force it to a direction.  He has just learned how to focus and to direct the elements, and bring them together to a more efficient flow through his Will.  (It’s really great to contrast how the projection of Will changes between the Fool and the Magician.)

The magician is also crowned with a lemniscate and wears an ouroboros about his waist as a belt.  Both are symbols of the infinite and eternal, but they don’t necessarily mean “endless”.  Rather, they’re notive of the cyclical flows of energy, and remind the reader that all the random, unrelated events of life are connected to a great, ever-flowing pattern–a pattern the Magician can tap into, for he consciously works with and practices the maxims of “As Above, So Below” and “As Within, So Without.”

Since the Magician relates to the conscious level of Will, he often relates to some sort of ‘marshalling of forces’ in readings, some sort of unifying drive within the querant to effect a change, usually with his or her own creativity and organizational skills.  As Robin Wood notes, “this card means originality, great creative powers, imagination, skill, diplomacy, self-reliance.  The opportunity to use any of these talents.  The merging of the four elements.  Mastery in the magical aspects of life.”

Robin Wood’s magician is notably different from a typical Waite-styled magician.  According to her book, the Magician is an avatar of the Wiccan God, clearly evidenced by his horned hood.  His dark hair and blue eyes signify that he embodies the dark and light aspects and the balance between them.  His robe is the same red and white of the other magicians, but has a border of gold (incorruptibility) with white roses (freedom) and lilies (purity), and these flowers have bright green leaves to show that these values are growing in the God’s life.  The robe is open to show that the God is open to novelty, and he is naked beneath it to show he is free and unashamed.  His hands are positioned in the same “as above, so below” position of the other Magicians, and the hand that we can see is held in a slightly open position of the God, which signifies that the Magician is both the God and himself, much as we all are.  All the tools the Magician needs for success lie on the table before him, waiting for him to channel his will to their energies.  Behind him stands two candles, a black and white one to represent the conscious and unconscious minds.  Both are lit because the Magician is illuminated in both aspects, and together they fill the card with light.  This feature will strongly link Robin Wood’s magician with her next card, the High Priestess.

Again, the major symbols of the card are numbered below:

1.  Red Roses/Red Robe.

  • The roses connect to the zeal of life the magician has, and their red color connects to the active principles of passion and courage the magician has.  These qualities are reflected in his outer robe.

2.  White Lilies/White Robe.

  • Lilies mean purity, chasteness, and innocence.  A white color means purity, clarity, and freshness.  The Lilies beneath the Magician and the white inner robe show that his grounded, most inner purpose is pure and clear.

3.  As Above, So Below stance.

  • This shows how the magician actively channels energy and combines it with his own will.

4.  The Lemniscate and Ouroboros

  • Both are symbols of the infinite and eternal, of the cyclical flows of energy.

KEYWORDS:  Taking action, acting consciously, concentrating, experiencing power, creativity, magic, active principle, originator, willpower, initiative, conduit, focus, resourceful, channeling, conducting

Close your eyes and take several deed breaths.  Imagine that you travel through time and space until you stand before the most primal of energies–the force behind all creation.  How does this energy appear to you?  As you stand there, begin to inhale and exhale slowly.  As you inhale, imagine that you draw this force into your being.  Fill your body entirely until there is no “you” left–only this creative force.  After that, open your eyes.  How does it feel to be one with the power of the Magician?

Daily Practice
Keep the Magician card with you at all times today, or place it on your altar.  Stay focused on action today.  What is it that you need to accomplish?  Do you have goals?  If not, why not?  Set some goals today.  Write down the steps to achieve your daily goals and complete each step.  The power behind magic is that of movement–so stay active until you achieve your plans.

For what it’s worth, 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 Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

Day 284: The Fool

June 20, 2013
The Fool in the Universal Rider-Waite, Hanson Roberts, and Robin Wood

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

The Fool card shows a young, androgynous man walking near the edge of a precipice and paying it no mind.  Instead, his focus is on enjoying the sunshine upon his face (or, in the case of Robin Wood’s deck, playing the flute).  The Fool is a character of complete, thoughtless innocence.  His only interest is in the novel experience, and he jumps into each new experience with a light heart and very little discipline…which can be dangerous, as the Fool’s position on the edge of a cliff shows.  The Fool is not without some defenses.  The little dog yapping at his heels warns him of the danger, and we can take this dog to be a symbol of things like the Fool’s unconscious mind or his friends who might pull him back just before lighthearted play turns to disaster, thanks to the Fool’s thoughtlessness.

Interestingly, the Fool’s precipice lies between the peaks of mountains shown in the distance and the valley below.  Readers often say the lofty peaks represent knowledge or enlightenment, and the valley represents the Fool’s own soul or deep unconscious.  Should the Fool suddenly recognize where he currently is and aspire to climb the peaks, he will have to pass through the valley first.  This placement implies that the Fool stands at the brink of a journey that will change his essence.

Another important aspect of this card is its number.  The Fool’s card is numbered zero.  This is the value of what we have when we start in the world, and it’s also the value of what we take away when we die.  At a really basic level, I take this to mean that the Fool–for all its imagery for new beginnings–also means that it’s also a card of endings, or–at the very least–recognizing that every ending holds within it a new beginning.  The zero also sets this card stands outside the major arcana cards that have values, which A.E. White seems to have picked up on when he wrote that the Fool “is a prince of the other world on his travels through this one”.  The Fool’s nothing provides the necessary contrast so that we can understand we are having an experience.

More practically, the zero underscores the unlimited potential at the root of this card.  It’s an amazing thing to have the world open in front of you, to be able to dance up the mountains or into the valley at your own whim and caprices, and the innocence that comes with that stance is beautifully carefree and joyous, but it’s a starting point.  It will end eventually on a successful journey.  A good Fool will someday internalize the warning dog yapping at his feet and warning him of danger, and that is as beautiful a moment as a purely innocent one.  So when I see the Fool come up in a reading, I remind myself to enjoy the moment of novelty and to revel in all the possibilities it will present, but to always keep an eye open for that whisper of warning so that I can make the best decisions I can.

There’s a few specific symbols in these images that I feel deserve special attention, which I enumerate below:

1.  The Satchel.

  • Each Fool in the cards above is carrying some sort of satchel on his back, but his attention isn’t on that sack.  Some readers hold that this sack represents one’s past lives and experiences–the stuff that clings to all of us when we are ‘born’, but that we don’t consciously acknowledge in our new paradigm.  Rachel Pollack, however, calls attention to the fact that the Fool “bears them lightly and does not mistake them for his true self, which, after all, is nothing.”  Robin Wood, on the other hand, says that this pack holds everything the Fool needs to get along in the world, but they’re not easily accessible to him (especially in her deck, where it is strapped to the Fool “with the white ribbons of guilelessness”).

2.  The Wand/Flute.

  • In most cards, the satchel dangles from a wand, which is highly significant in the Tarot as a symbol of one’s Will.  It’s important to note that the Fool is almost negligent of his Will at this point, as he has carelessly tossed it over his shoulder in a passive role as a carrier.  In Robin Wood’s deck, that wand is transformed into a musical pipe, which really highlights what she views the Fool doing with his will: playing with it.  “In a larger sense [the Fool is] doing just as he wants [with his Will], with little regard for the consequences.  Far from a staff to steady his steps, he has made [it] into a flute to dance to!  And dancing on the edge is very dangerous.”

3.  The White Rose.

  • To me, roses in the Tarot are special symbols that mean “life”.  They’re a flower that combines an incredible sweetness (their scent) with a noted potential for pain (their thorns), which I find nicely parallel’s life’s experiences. White roses also have a specific meaning of freedom. The white color has the associations with newness and freshness that I take to be similar to a fresh, blank page. It has unlimited potential; anything can be written upon it. The Death card carries a large black flag with a white rose upon it for this reason: Death brings about new life with unlimited freedoms. In Robin Wood’s deck, the Fool wears a crown of five white roses to symbolize the freedom the he feels in experiencing the five energies of life: the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.  The wreath circles his head and not his heart, because his knowledge of the elements is all cerebral and not an emotional knowledge from his heart.

4.  The Red Feather

  • In most of these cards, the Fool wears a red feather on his hat.  Red is a color of passion, and feathers connect to the apparent freedom of birds.  It is this passionate freedom, then, which crowns the Fool (doubled with the life and freedom found in the white roses of Robin Wood’s crown), and which we will again see in the reborn Fool on the Sun card.  Robin Wood also notes that in her deck, this feather stands for the Fool’s courage–which, at this point, is the “bravery of ignorance.”

Fool Action Words: Innocence, Beginning, Being Spontaneous, Having Faith, Embracing Folly, Freedom, Risk, Young in Spirit, Immature

Sit comfortably in front of a white wall.  Open your eyes and gaze as though you are focusing on a spot at least three feet through the wall.  Breathe normally.  Follow the breath with your mind and do not allow thoughts to interrupt your ability to follow the breath.  You can count each breath from one to ten.  Return to the number one each time you notice a thought arising.

Daily Practice
Keep the Fool card with you at all times today, or, if this is not practical, place it on your altar.  Keep a “foolish” mind with you all day.  Don’t assume the reasons for the things that happen.  Avoid internal dialogue and running commentary about the events of your day.  Keep a simple mind that reflects everything and clings to nothing.  Evoke the Fool state of mind whenever you need simplicity and truth in your life.

For what it’s worth, 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 Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s Around the Tarot in 78 Days. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website,

A Very Brief Intro to Tarot and Tarot Decks

June 19, 2013

For the next 28 days in Roderick’s program (well, 31 since the days of contemplation, devotion, and reflection fall between The Devil and The Tower study days), we’ll be focusing on the cards in the major arcana of the tarot as well as a few basic spreads and other techniques.  Before launching into a study of the Fool card, I thought it might be best to pause and take a moment to outline some tarot basics.

In my opinion, one of the most important things to know about the tarot is that it is not a divination system that has been with us since time immemorial.  Playing cards themselves didn’t arrive on the scene until the 14th century, and current scholarly consensus is that cards that would become the modern tarot deck originated in 15th-century Italy as a game for the aristocracy.  The earliest decks that have been found definitely look more like playing cards than the elaborate illustrations we see today.  The minor arcana cards, for example, just show two circles or two sticks on what would be the two of pentacles or two of rods.  The court and major arcana cards primarily just show a central figure as well.

Tarot as we know it is fully rooted in the late 18th-century.  Though it is true that cards had previously been used in divination prior to this time (the earliest reference occurs in 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forlì), using the cards to do more than select another random oracle was largely the extent of their use.  Different manuscripts from the mid 1700s evidence a more elaborate cartomancy, but the groundwork of modern tarot was largely set in 1781 when Antoine Court de Gébelin published Le Monde Primitif, in which he hypothesized that the symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille had hidden within its illustrations and form the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Thoth.  Court de Gébelin generally tried to read a lot of Egyptian influence into the cards, and even claimed that the name “tarot” derived from the Egyptian words for royal and road (“tar” and “ro”), which meant that the cards were a “royal road” to higher wisdom.  These claims were made well before Champollion decoded the hieroglyphics, however, and subsequent study has found little to uphold Court de Gébelin’s early theories.


Cards from Wilfried Houdouin’s “The Tarot of Marseilles Millennium Edition” (2011).  This is his ‘reconstruction’ of the original cards, which are among the oldest extant (and most complete) tarot decks.  They might date back to the 15th century.  In this deck, the minor arcana are not as fully illustrated.

The popular culture link between ancient Egypt and the tarot, however, had been indelibly forged.  In 1790, the French occultist Jean Baptiste Alliette published a book linking the Egyptian Book of Thoth along with astrology and the four elements with his own inteprtations of the tarot deck.  Just before his death in 1791, he also produced a special divination deck of cards that brought together his own ideas with older French systems.  As far as we know, Etteilla’s deck was the first specifically designed for cartomancy.

The cards that have most influenced contemporary tarot studies were published in 1910 by occultist Arthur Edward Waite and his contracted artist, Pamela Colman Smith.  Published by the Rider company, these cards are known today as the “Rider-Waite” tarot deck.  The images on these cards are pretty simple as far as the art goes, but Waite and Smith collaborated to include so many details into the cards that they contain a tremendous amount of symbolism.  Waite and Smith also insisted on creating full, descriptive images for each card, including those in the Minor Arcana.  These two innovations suddenly made tarot reading incredibly accessible.  Whereas with older decks you either had to memorize lots of meanings or else be truly psychic, almost anyone can interpret a meaning from the Rider-Waite cards with just a little bit of training and a nice dose of intuition.


A comparison of different fool cards from variously published Rider-Waite decks.  Left to right:  The “A” version of the 1910 deck, “The Original Rider-Waite Tarot” (1993), “The Universal Waite” (1990), “Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot” (2003).  The Universal and Radiant decks were projects to re-color the Rider-Waite cards using modern printing.  Mary Hanson Roberts colored Universal and Virginijus Poshkus colored Radiant.

Another major influence on contemporary tarot is the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck.  Under directions from occultist Aleister Crowley, Lady Frieda Harris painted (and repainted) these cards between 1938 and 1943.  Neither lived to see the deck published, which was first done by Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis in 1969 (Harris’s original paintings were re-photographed for a clearer deck in 1977, and were re-photographed again for the currently available edition of the deck in 1986).  These cards, some of which are shown below, are completely packed with complex symbols that Crowley brought together from many disparate cultures and systems and can provide incredibly rich readings.  Those familiar with Crowley’s work and metaphysics cannot help but be impressed by the thoroughness of his deck and how well its elements work with each other.

Crowley, however, made several changes to the deck structure established by historical decks such as the Tarot of Marseilles and the newer Rider-Waite deck.  While his changes are very well reasoned within his metaphysical conception, it does mean that readers who are drawn to the Thoth deck cannot rely upon many of the published meanings, symbols, and history of the cards.  Therefore, Thoth readers need to be aware that they must undertake specially targeted research in order to fully understand this deck.  Subsequently published decks by others that have been inspired by the Thoth deck would also require this research.

The Fool, Moon, and Aeon cards from Crowley's Thoth deck.

The Fool, Moon, and Aeon cards from Crowley’s Thoth deck.

Today, I believe it is safe to say that any one of the hundreds of currently published tarot decks will fall into at least one of five main categories:  a Marseilles-influenced deck, a Waite-influenced deck, a Thoth-influenced deck, an art deck, or a novelty deck.  It is definitely important to understand the influences of whatever deck you are drawn to and whether or not they are even appropriate for readings.  Some may be exquisite cards, but leave you with flat readings.  For example, I acquired a Dante Tarot deck several years ago.  It was a joke gift from a professor whose “Virgil and Dante” class I was taking.  I was completely uninspired for one of the long “reading journal” papers she insisted we write, so I made an academic stretch and hypothesized about a connection between Dante’s Divine Comedy and the tarot.  For my trouble, I got an A, the lone comment “Wild!” and this tarot deck.  I would consider this deck both an art deck and a novelty deck, and I loved its amazing illustrations, but I couldn’t get a decent reading out of these cards at all.  I’d lay down a spread, look to see if I could note any patterns…and get absolutely nothing.  Despite having a good understanding of the symbolism of both tarot cards and Dante’s work, they didn’t tug on my intuition one bit.

I do find that art decks and novelty decks in general aren’t the best when it comes to being a working divination tool.  However, there are some good “art decks” that do make great use of established tarot imagery.  One such deck that I do have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for, however, is Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot, which was published in 2010.  Law’s work is exquisite–if a bit ‘fantasy’ for my personal tastes–and very dream like.  Despite the amazing originality of Law’s images, though, I find that a Rider-Waite reader would be able to see tons of similarities between Law’s deck and the ‘old’ standard.  Once you thoroughly understand the Rider-Waite cards, you can’t help but see their meanings and motifs jump at you from Law’s images.  I almost can’t wait until I can get my hands around one of these decks!


The three of swords, eight of pentacles, Fool, and Star cards from Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot.

In my years as a pagan, I’ve owned several different tarot decks and had loads of friends with plenty of others.  In my experience, I’ve found that I can pass on most art and novelty decks, as well as those inspired by the Marseilles deck (they read as “empty” to me, and I sorely miss illustrated minor arcana cards).  I think that Thoth decks are incredible and rich, but I’ve never been drawn to study Crowley in any great depth, and I always feel that much of my readings with these cards are “missing something.”  This means that I do most of my work with Rider-Waite cards and those with a strong Rider-Waite influence.

That being said, I despise the copy of the Rider-Waite cards that is most available today.  They worked off of a poor printing of the original, and have made the line work is so heavy, it obscures many of the finer details.  The colors also make you want to gouge out your eyes.  Marginally better is The Original Rider-Waite deck (1993), which has better coloring, but uses a what looks like a heavier-lined version of Smith’s “C” deck for the outlines rather than the clearer “A” deck.  I prefer to use the Universal Waite Tarot, which is Mary Hanson Robert’s 1990 recoloring as my main reference point.  Influenced by the “A” deck lines and coloring, it offers a softer, richer, and incredibly more precise art (the scanned images on that link are over-exposed, the cards are really lovely).  Another popular re-coloring is Virginijus Poshkus’s 2003 Radiant Rider-Waite, which is highly color-saturated and slightly redrawn.  There are plenty of Rider-Waite ‘clones’ that directly redraw the cards in a style that might be considered more appealing.  Timothy Roderick recommends the Universal Tarot as one of these decks.

There’s also about a million cards that might not be completely identical to Waite, but still display a very strong influence.  Two decks like this that I use frequently are the Hanson-Roberts Tarot and the Robin Wood Tarot.  Truth be told, my Hanson-Roberts deck gets the most play because its cards are small (about 4 inches by 2 3/8ths inches) and easiest to shuffle and handle.  I enjoy the coloring and dynamic figures in her rendering, though I do find that some of the faces border on the ‘cherubic’.  I’ve had a lot of great readings with this deck.  Most recently I’ve been working with the Robin Wood Tarot because it is what my HPS uses and teaches.  It has several cards that are completely different from Rider-Waite’s images, but Ms. Wood has excellent reasons for her choices.  She also includes plenty of imagery that British Traditional-trained witches will find very appealing and evocative.

From here on out, I will be sharing images of my three main decks:  Universal Waite, Hanson-Roberts, and Robin Wood when we study each of the cards in the major arcana.  Enjoy!

Day 283: Divination

June 18, 2013

Divination is nothing more than the practice of seeking future knowledge or insight into the unknown by some form of “supernatural” means.  That being said, there are just about a million different ways to practice it.  But, in the end, you’re basically left with three large classes:  psychic ability, recognizing mechanical symbol patterns, or a combination of the two.  People with a decent sized wallop of a psychic gift might divine by dreaming.  People without a jot of psychic talent might become skilled tarot readers.  And if you’ve got a strong background in tarot and are a little psychic, things can get really interesting very quickly!

I’m no great psychic, but I’ve had a few experiences that have made me wonder just how psychically blind I am.  For example, one day a few years ago I got rooked into playing a game of Clue.  My friends set the board up and I got drinks, and somewhere deep within I just knew it was going to be a short game.  On one of my first rolls, I was the first person into a room and immediately a name and weapon flew to my head and I knew the situation was right.  In fact, I blurted out “Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with the candlestick!” (or whatever it actually was) without even looking to see what cards I had!  Of course, that was exactly right.  That was probably the most dramatic of my “knowing” moments.  I have lots of accumulated instants of things like knowing what’s going to be playing on the radio when I turn it on, whether the next card in the deck is going to be red or black, or whether my opponent is going to choose rock, paper, or scissors.  (There was a time in high school where my friend Andrew and I played that, and I tied him almost 50 straight shoots in a row.)  Usually with these moments, if I immediately follow my instinct, I’m right…but if I try to rationally think about my decision, I turn out wrong.

Obviously, whatever level of psychic ability I have is a far cry from being able to look at a person and tell them they’ll get Alzheimer’s in 20 years, so when it comes to divination practices, I’ve always relied on what Roderick calls “the mechanical methods”–learning and interpreting symbolic patterns.  To me, this is practically second nature at this point–what is majoring in literature and getting a graduate degree in it but learning to identify and interpret symbolic patterns?–but I definitely do not do this enough.  The last time I so much as touched one of my tarot decks was probably Samhain 2011!  And so, it is with almost a novice’s experience in divination that I come to this last section in Roderick’s 366.

Practice:  Questions about divination

  • What are my current beliefs and attitudes about divination?
  • Is it right or wrong to glimpse the future?
  • What are some possible results of knowing the future?
  • Do I believe that human beings are guided by a predetermined plan or is choice involved in our destinies?
  • Can knowing something about the future alter my current behavior or life patterns in some way?

I don’t not believe in divination, but I am always hesitant to attempt it or to ask someone to do a reading for me.  It’s not because I think there’s any moral stance on peeking into the future…it’s just that I don’t really have much of a use for it.  When I make a major decision, I take into account just about every scenario that could happen before I commit to something.  I get a lot of information, and I almost always feel like the decisions I make are the right ones for me at that time.  There’s also a part of me that doesn’t mind a trip down a wrong path.  For example, if I had two job opportunities in front of me, and I chose the one that I thought was best at the time and then found out somehow that had I taken the other one, I could have gotten these crazy promotions and earning triple what I was making, I really wouldn’t get terribly upset by that.  Sure, I’d regret not making as much money, but I would very quickly find a lot of instances where the job I did select gave me a lot of self-satisfaction.

And you know what?  If logic was telling me job A was better, but my Tarot cards were screaming job B…I don’t know that I’d trust them enough to take job B.

I don’t think humans are guided by a predetermined plan, but I do think we have a tendency to pigeonhole ourselves into paths that look really close to being predetermined.  I could get into medical school this fall and eventually become a brilliant surgeon…but I won’t, because I’ve already made a lot of education choices, and I’m a little burnt out of being in school.  My past decisions have put me on a path that has some level of determination built into it, and I’m only 29.

Maybe if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that going to med school would grant me an eternity of happiness…maybe then I would go.  But in my experience that kind of certainty is beyond what most divination systems can offer.

How to Rescue a Baby Bird

June 17, 2013

This post is brought to the Internet courtesy of the fact that I am finding dessicated carcasses of abandoned baby birds all over my neighborhood.  Unfortunately, that sentence is being a little kind.  Now that all my neighbors have taken to mowing their lawns on a regular basis, I’ve actually found several disturbing carnage scenes where a mower very clearly ran over a live, hearty fledgeling.

So I have decided that it is in the best interest of our infant avian friends if I dust off my biology degree for a quick instructional in baby bird rescue.  And you know what?  I think that this is a fairly important skill for us nature-loving Pagans to have down cold.  We strive to be responsible stewards to our environment, and giving appropriate aid to animals certainly falls in that category.

Despite popular myth, a baby bird's parents will not abandon their child because of scent you may leave on the fledgling.  Birds actually don't have a great sense of smell.

Yup.  You can hold a baby bird in your hands and its parents will still love it.

The first thing to be aware of is that you can actually touch a baby bird pretty safely.  There’s a major myth floating around American culture that if you touch a baby bird, its mother will instantly reject it.  In truth, birds have a poor sense of smell, and they will certainly accept their restored progeny.  The likelihood of you picking up a disease from handling the bird with bare hands is also very low, provided you thoroughly wash your hands any any other objects the bird has touched afterwards.

Those points being handled, here’s a handy ‘protocol’ to follow:

1.  IS THE BIRD SICK OR HURT?  Do you notice any bleeding?  Is it not able to move both wings or legs?  Are the wings drooping unevenly?  Is it weak or shivering?  Has it been attacked by a cat or dog?  (Note:  if you rescue the bird directly from a cat or dog and it ‘looks okay’, it likely isn’t.  Their teeth (especially cats) can cause nearly invisible puncture wounds, and salival bacteria can cause a lethal infection to the bird 3-5 days after attack.)

  • NO:  Continue to number 2.
  • YES:  Keep the bird warm in a dark, quiet container with good air flow and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area.  A heating pad set on low under the box or a hot water bottle can provide heat.

2.  IS THE BIRD FEATHERED?  While almost all song birds emerge from their egg naked, blind, and completely dependent on their parents, other birds–like quails, ducks, etc–are more dependent upon hatching.    A good rule of thumb to follow is to look and see if the chick, however, old it is, has at least down covering its entire body and wing feathers beginning to come in.

  • NO:  It needs help!  If you can locate its nest and the nest is still intact, put the baby in the nest and observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents are visiting the nest, you’ve done your job.  Leave the area.  If they are not, remove the bird, keep it in that warm, dark container, and contact a rehabilitator.  If you cannot find the nest or the nest is destroyed, try putting the bird in a berry basket, or a smaller plastic box.  Line the container with dry grass, the old nest, pine needles, or other such items and securely fasten it to a protected area in a nearby tree.  Observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents do not respond to the chick, secure the chick in that warm, dark box and contact a rehabilitator.
  • YES:  If the bird is fully or partially feathered, chances are that it doesn’t need your help.  A guideline here is that the ‘downier’ a chick is, the more likely it needs assistance.  The more ‘grown up’ feathers it has, the more likely it is that it’s just fine.  As young birds develop, they outgrow their nest, so they typically leave it and move about on the ground or low branches for a few days before they can fly.  Unless the bird is injured or in an area where it could be hurt by other wildlife, cats, dogs, or curious children, it should be left where it is.  If it is healthy, but in an insecure area, put it in a sheltered bush or tree and observe it from a distance for an hour to see if its parents return to it.  If they do not, box the bird up and contact a rehabilitator.

Why put the bird in a warm, dark, quiet box?

  • Younger birds need a little help with thermoregulation, so they may need a heat source.  Try putting one end of the box on a heating pad set on low or a hot water bottle.  Alternately, fill a plastic baggie with warm water, wrap that in a cloth, and put that in one end of the box.  The dark and the quiet will also help soothe the bird.  It is almost certainly terrified of you and absolutely does not want to be cuddled!

Why contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator?

  • Taking care of a baby bird isn’t difficult, but you do want to limit your own exposure to pathogens and you want the bird to eventually be able to be a successful, wild creature…which it may not do with constant handfeedings.  Rehabilitators can give that bird the best possible chance of returning to the wild.  Also, the younger a bird is, the more it needs attention.  Feedings every 10 minutes are not uncommon!  You likely are a busy person, so it’s best to pass on this particular business to a professional!
  • Veterinarians are usually not able to rehabilitate wild animals, but their offices can probably put you in touch with a local agency.  If you cannot find a rehabilitator through local listings, your local Audubon Society chapter, or your state/county government information, call an area veternarian and ask for their assistance in contacting a rehabilitator.

Now you can be an informed friend to our infant feathered fellows!

UPDATE:  I just came across this amazing flowchart on the best webcomic for biologists, Bird and Moon.  It is so epic, I’m sharing it here.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs.  They're wily.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs. They’re wily.


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