Category Archives: Tarot

Adventures in Hermeticism and the Advancing Pagan

It’s funny how our research interests change as we age and our work progresses (“And by we you mean I,” my internal therapist gently chides.).  I’ve gone through long phases, particularly in the beginning, where if something wasn’t immediately and obviously related to Wicca then I didn’t give it the time.  I remember watching The Craft at the height of my Teen Witch days and noticing that, in the scene where the girls are at Mass and Nancy is pretending not to notice Chris carrying Sarah’s book, Nancy is absorbing herself in a book on Qabalah.  I remember very distinctly thinking to myself, “Why on earth would Nancy care about Qabalah as a witch?”

My adolescent naiveté is pretty hilarious to me now, given 1) that I assumed that the study of Qabalah must be terribly boring and 2) that I failed to recognize the relationship between Wicca and Qabalah.  Now, eighteen years since I first saw The Craft (holy shit, guys, the nineties began decades ago) I find myself completely absorbed in its study.  It began with the progression of my tarot course (because you can’t study Rider-Waite without studying Qabalah) and then I started seeing tiny parts of my Craft experience and training click into place (in frustratingly miniscule pieces at this point, but still).  It’s actually kind of blowing my mind.

A couple of years ago, I tried to read Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah, which went very poorly, but now that I’ve spent some time examining things through the lens of tarot (with materials from Wald Amberstone and BOTA), I think I’m ready to have another go at it.

This, again, is why I have so little sympathy for Pagans who purport to be “advanced” but claim that there “isn’t enough material out there.”  I made those very complaints myself in my early twenties, figuring that since I’d read most of the popularly available books with the words “Wicca” or “Pagan” in the title that there must not be enough advanced material.  And now I could practically weep, somewhere between elation and despair, with the knowledge that in fact there’s so much more to study than I could possibly ever begin to comprehend.

What have you found yourself surprised to be exploring along your path?

Leave my brain alone. Seriously.

I get really tired of being told by other woo people that I need to do less thinking.

 Have you heard this?

 “You’re thinking about this too hard—just go with your gut.”

 “This isn’t intellectual—you need to get out of your head.”

 “You’re making this too complicated—just go with your feelings.”

 Sure, there might be limits in certain circumstances where one can over-think (maybe), but I’ve always sensed a general sort of mistrust of things intellectual in Pagan and occult circles (woo communities).  Everyone’s all about their intuition and their feelings and there’s a tendency to discount the conclusions that must be reached through reason or complicated analysis.  Nevermind the sort of inherent problems that go along with the intellect/intution, mind/body dichotomies that we all take for granted, but the total discounting of (because I’m out of words) brainy approaches to magical stuff really grates on me.

 This is sort of embodied for me in my approach to tarot.

 Me, I could give a shit about what the cards “mean to you.”  Most readers seem to do their work intuitively, and that’s just dandy if that’s your approach, but I find a great deal of meaning in considering historical context and traditional symbolism.  I use the Rider-Waite because of its rich symbolic connections with the Golden Dawn and Kabbalah (or Qabalah, if we want to get a bit more New Agey), and because I think the history of this specific deck is fascinating.  So I bring that into my readings for other people, with great effect.  It turns out that when we consider (for example) the use of the color yellow in The Fool, and stop caring about what yellow means to you and you alone, there’s still a lot of really useful information to be gleaned (maybe even more).  I think that when people choose not to learn the systems in which the cards are based—instead relying upon feeling—a great deal is lost.  You might still be a great reader, but how much better could you be if you added these additional elements?

 Magic, Wicca, whatever, seems to work the same way.

 At our open circle the other night, we had two gentlemen (of varying levels of experience) engaging in a conversation about magical practice.  The more inexperienced of the two was trying to connect his budding practice to his work as an engineer, and finally the other (presumably more experienced) fellow simply told him, “You’re making this too complicated.”

 I can see where the latter was coming from, but what he essentially did was discount the guy’s understanding of magic as overly intellectual.  He told him later that he should just focus on “feeling it.” 

Well excuse me, but what does that even mean?

 It’s not my intention to disparage the sort of visceral or intuitive approach to magic that so many people advocate, only to politely observe that there are alternatives.  Intellectualism isn’t the sin that woo people so often make it out to be.

 This is why I’ve lost my shit at people (quietly, politely, demurely even) for suggesting that I meditate to “quiet [my] mind.”  That I’m somehow spiritually deficient if I don’t block everything else out and just focus on breathing or something. 

 My mind is my greatest asset.  It’s my favorite thing about myself and a hell of a lot more reliable than my feelings (which are usually stupid and not to be trusted).  Why on earth would I discount its input in my magical or religious endeavors?

Contemplating the High Priestess

I’m procrastinating writing an essay on the Ten of Swords, so here’s a thing I wrote yesterday about the High Priestess.  It’s written for Wald Amberstone and not a general readership, but I think the points still stand.  Fair warning: I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Judith Butler (whom I don’t even pretend to understand most of the time).  Also, for those of you who don’t know, I’m working exclusively with the Rider-Waite tarot illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Most other decks are simply reinterpretations of her work, so it stands to reason that, in a thorough study of tarot, we should cut out some of the middlemen.  At least for now.

So onward:

Before our last conversation, I would likely have delved into my contemplation of The High Priestess saddled with associations developed through my role as a high priestess.  You pointed out that when I’m functioning as such in a coven setting, what I’m really doing is more akin to the work of The Hierophant, and this was a profound realization for me.  This card, more than any so far, has posed a great challenge, because I have so much invested in what I think it means even before I really begin to study it.  I have to consciously let a lot go in order to engage in contemplation.

When I do, the central meaning comes to be about boundaries.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, not just between the twin pillars or between the world and the abyss, but at all boundaries.  And just as the melting point of ice is simultaneously the freezing point, boundaries are simultaneously a point of uniting and a point of division.  Boundaries sometimes feel harsh to us—they keep us out or keep us in—but without them we lose the ability to engage the world in meaningful ways.  We lose language, and, as a result, we lose identity and selfness.  As you said to me over the phone, there is no distinction without contrast.  Duality may be arbitrary, but it is necessary.  The High Priestess sits at the boundary, beyond which lies the Holy of Holies, the Mystery, the Abyss.  To gaze upon these is to be destroyed.  Without boundaries, there is no self.  I is no longer an I.

Still in contemplation, having had the above realization, I initially thought of the figure of the witch.  The witch is sometimes described as a “hedgerider”—a boundary-crosser.  She passes out of the town and into the wild places, produces unguents that separate soul from body so that it might travel to unseen places, and uses otherworldly magic to alter reality.  But that’s too easy, I think.  Boundaries like that allow her to retain her self-ness.  By engage in these activities, she actually reinforces her identity as a witch.  Paradoxically, by crossing boundaries, she reinforces them.  The Mystery guarded by The High Priestess is beyond that.

In the Archetypal Description, you state that, “She answers the questions that cannot be asked in words.”  Further, the Transcendent Interpretation reiterates this theme of silence.  The High Priestess is beyond words because there literally are no words.  Beyond the boundary, there can be no language.  Not only does the category of “witch” cease to exist, but so too do all categories: woman, human, self.  The question was, “Who is The High Priestess when The High Priestess is you?”  The answer is that The High Priestess is at the root of everything that makes me a self.  Every identity category that I occupy (student, woman, American, witch, daughter, coffee drinker, cat lover, on and on) only exists because it stands in contrast to something else.  I become The High Priestess every time I make distinctions, think of myself as an individual, use language, or otherwise exist in a world defined by duality.  Paradoxically, I am also The High Priestess when I don’t do those things (at which point I cease to be).

Tarot Nerd Alert

I’m working through the tarot correspondence course with Wald Amberstone.  Enrollment was my gift to myself last year when I won one of my department’s fellowships.  I reasoned that it’s no more money than a college class—just more interesting and potentially more likely to help me generate an income in the future (because plan B is still fortune teller).

It’s one thing to turn tarot study into school.  It’s another thing to further turn it into an outlet for my meditations on social theory.  The following section on The Magician was written after a long evening spent reading and considering Pierre Bourdieu.

It’s relatively easy to assert that the central meaning of The Magician is will.  Anyone who has been involved in any kind of magical practice or community for any length of time has heard that magic is change occurring in conformity to will, that one must possess will to work magic, that magic is only as strong as the magician’s will, etcetera ad nauseum.  These sometimes come to sound like platitudes.  They are true, of course, but I don’t think that many of the people making such statements (often casually and in the format of New Age self-help) are aware of just how profound a thing Will is.  In contemplating The Magician, I think about the role that Will plays (or doesn’t) in my own life.

When I was an undergraduate music major, I was involved in countless conversations about talent.  Brilliant musicians are often described by laymen as “talented” or “gifted,” and treated as though they possess something supernatural.  And, indeed, some people seem to possess inborn aptitudes that feel almost magical.  But in music school, we saw things very differently than the people sitting in our audiences or listening to our recordings.  Behind practically every “talented” musician are thousands of hours spent practicing, listening, and analyzing.  Students who were more “gifted” than others—prodigies—almost always came from musical families, where their training began sooner or was carried out in greater depth.  If not, they simply spent more hours sealed away in practice rooms than the rest of us.  Those who would chock things up to “talent” were often excusing themselves from working as hard (in the case of jealous classmates), creating theologies that justified their innate specialness (in the case of the prodigies themselves), or simply mystified and engaging in magical thinking (in the case of nonmusicians).  Usually, none of this is conscious—most of us believe in talent, even if intellectually we can explain it away.

I tell this anecdote because for me The Magician is that Will that creates the prodigy.  The prodigy makes it look effortless and mystifies his audience, even though intellectually we understand that, obviously, he practices a lot.  We would describe him as talented or gifted, but that’s never the whole story (and maybe not part of the story at all).  In the Transcendent Interpretation, you describe him as “the embodiment of surrender,” and this to me is most apt.  Keeping with my musician analogy, the prodigy is a prodigy at the expense of a great many other things.  I was no prodigy, but there were days when even I didn’t see sunlight because I was buried in a basement practice room all day.   Our Will drives us to be great at whatever our Craft is, but at great personal sacrifice.  We surrender much of what we would call “ourselves” in order to be great.

And most people, of course, are not prodigies.  Very few of us—an almost insignificant few—were graced with the social locations, time, and resources to pursue greatness.  But I believe (and a number of scholars in the fields of education, psychology, and cognitive science would agree with me) that we all possess that potential.  We are not all The Magician, but we all could be or could have been given the proper circumstances.

The Magician for me is the unshakable impulse to keep pushing myself to achieve.  Every time I lose the day, forget to eat, and finish whatever academic project I’m working on, and do so with joy, I am The Magician.  My work is not effortless, but it feels effortless and often looks effortless to outsiders.  My best friend thinks that I’m smarter than her, but the reality is just that I spend more time practicing the sorts of things that we associate with smart people: reading, writing, making connections, retaining information, etc.  I had to be taught how to do those things.  And it is Will that drives me to continue doing them.  It no longer even feels like a decision that I make every day—it’s just what I do now.

So the central meaning of The Magician is Will, but for me it’s more profound than just the decision to do something.  It’s heavier than the simple act of setting a goal and deciding to work towards it.  The Will of The Magician occurs at the point where what was initially a simple decision (“I’m going to play the violin.”) becomes so much a part of what you are that you almost forget ever having made that decision (“I am a musician.”).

Ronald Hutton, Cherry Hill, and Tarot

This past weekend was busier than most.  Morgan and I journeyed to the University of South Carolina for Cherry Hill Seminary’s symposium Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes.  Beginning on Friday and running through Saturday, the symposium featured a keynote from Ronald Hutton as well as papers and responses from Pagan Studies notables like Chas Clifton and Wendy Griffin.

My feelings about Pagan Studies as an academic field are extremely mixed.  Cherry Hill, as a seminary, produces work that is confessional.  I feel like I spent the weekend mostly sitting through personal stories of divine experience and community building rather than things that would pass for scholarship in other circles.  There was an awful lot of self-congratulatory talk regarding the establishment of a Pagan Studies group at the AAR (rather than any much-needed conversation on improving said group) and all of the new degrees that can be earned through Cherry Hill.

I don’t mean to sound so critical.  This is a seminary, after all.  The confessional has its place and I can appreciate the impact that an organization like Cherry Hill can have, but I worry that the confusion of this sort of theological work with the secular scholarship that is going on at universities and in other AAR groups will stymie Pagan Studies in the future.  I wasn’t the only grad student present who participates in the Pagan Studies AAR group against the advice of advisors (on the grounds that this group is not, to paraphrase, engaging in critical scholarship).  There needs to be a greater place for secular scholarship within Pagan Studies, performed by people with appropriate backgrounds in relevant fields.  I left on Saturday, accompanied by my graduate colleagues, somewhat discouraged and disappointed with some of what we’d heard.  It pleases me that this is now a field and there are other people interested (and in the throes of) pursuing this work, but we cannot only do it from the standpoint of practitioners.  Rather, we cannot do it only from the standpoint of practitioners if we wish to interact with scholars in other field and be taken seriously.

But!  Ronald Hutton was brilliant.  And charming.  And very British.  I got a book signed, got to have a chat, and Morgan was kind enough to indulge my fangirl impulses and take a picture of Hutton and I together.

Sunday afternoon was spent reading tarot at Divination & Desserts, the local fundraiser for Pagan Pride Day.  I worked last year, too, and this year was a marked improvement, due primarily to location.  I’m not particularly involved in the public community in Charlotte (largely because, as you can see from the website, the community exists primarily outside of the city limits), but I do poke my head in periodically.  I enjoy this kind of event.  It’s laid back, there’s lots of time to chat and get to know people, and everyone is open-minded (I don’t have to do much in the way of explaining tarot to people who are completely unfamiliar).  Plus drinks and dinner followed!  Along with some intense conversation about building a stronger community here in Charlotte.