Monday, October 29, 2012

Fortune's Wheel

Chance and fortune are supposed to be the forte of us Tarot readers, yet Tarot is not so much about determining the whims of an impassive, arbitrary and uncaring future as it is understanding why things in our lives happen the way they do. Why do things both change and remain constant? To consider that, let's look at the Wheel of Fortune card- the Rider-Waite version has some interesting correlations:
 
On the wheel's outer rim we have a figure resembling Anubis (on the bottom), the Egyptian lord of the dead, indicating, perhaps, endings and things coming to a close in our lives, a snake on the opposite edge, symbolizing trouble and difficulties, and at the top, a sphinx armed with a sword, indicating intelligence and wisdom, and the ability to discern the best course of action in each situation. Outside of the wheel are four figures, each consulting a book- a lion, an angel, an eagle and a bull. Interestingly, they all have wings, also. However, these four figures represent the four aspects of humanity- the eagle representing far sight and intelligent planning, the bull representing strength, the angel representing dominion over the world (keep in mind, it's power with, not power over) and the lion representing willpower.
So with this, the message of the Wheel of Fortune becomes somewhat clear. The term fortune is perhaps a derivative of the name Fortuna, the Roman goddess governing luck, known as Tyche in Greek. Fortuna is also shown at the center of a wheel, as in the old manuscript of the Carmina Burana, later turned into an operetta by the composer Carl Orff-
The concept of Fortune's wheel, the rota fortunae in Latin, is a fairly common concept in medieval literature. It is spun by Fortuna, who usually is depicted outside the wheel. She spins it at random, causing misfortune to some and good fortune to others. However, as time went on, Fortuna's wheel became more of an allegory, telling how things of this world are transitory, and prone to change at a moment's notice.
Actually, this provides an insight to the meaning of this card- we are, it's true, sometimes subject to changes and forces beyond our control, much like the storm currently wending its way towards the east coast at this time of writing. However, the message here is not to blindly accept fate, blindly accept whatever changes come to us, and view ourselves as helpless pawns at the mercy of a much greater force. We know wheels turn, so can act according to that. True, some things come out of the blue, but we can do two things- first, be able to let go and accept change, and second, to prepare for that change. This isn't saying stock up on ammo and prepare for the zombie apocalypse, but rather the old adage about putting all your eggs in one basket, and counting your chickens before they're hatched. Be flexible, says this card- first, use the positive changes in your life to prepare for the future, and remember that during the bad times, things will get better. Luck, as they say, favors the prepared, and this to a large extent is the message of the Wheel of Fortune card.
In context, this is a card that bears examining. What surrounds it? The card itself indicates change, but whether or not first, we perceive that change as positive or negative, and second, what we do with it, determines whether it's for the best or not. Again, we are the ultimate authors and deciders in our own lives, either consciously or unconsciously. And this is one of the best uses to put the Tarot to- not to have someone tell us what to do, but rather to show us more options, and make a more informed decision.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Changing Seasons, The Analogy of the Cave, and The Suits

The end of the year is fast approaching, and at this point our thoughts possibly turn towards Oktoberfests, pumpkins and the coming winter. The same thing as last year, and the year before that, so on back as far as anyone can remember. Many sects of paganism mark these equinoxes and solstices, which developed based around planting, growing and harvesting seasons. Given that up until recently, people farmed and hunted for food and livelihood, it only seems natural that we would take note of these things and incorporate them into our own collective mentality, as well as base our calendar year around them.
I find it interesting that we can consider the four Tarot suits in the same way- anyone who's ever picked up a "white book", those little handy (in some cases, anyway) booklets that often are in the box with a Tarot deck may have noticed the suits generally fall into the same order, with some variations. The suits, as we know, represent different aspects of human experience and at the same time the process of manifestation and creation. How the steps occur can and does vary, though the suits generally are assigned a specific part of the process. To start, let's examine each suit and what role it plays in this process.
Going a little backwards, we might notice that in the decks the suit of Pentacles is almost always addressed last. This is because the suit of Pentacles is tied to the Earth, and with that Earth, the end of the line- physical manifestation of what began as an idea or impulse, all the way down to the physical component or physical change in the world. So from this, we can also conclude that all we see begins with an idea, or begins on a more abstract level, as of thought.
In many ways, we find a similarity to Plato's analogy of the cave- the four suits themselves find a place in this design as well.
In this example, we find the world as not directly being perceived- the prisoners see shadows, yet assume these shadows are reality. Yet at the same time, these shadows are just a reflection of something occurring on a "higher" level. In this case, it refers to the mental concepts generated by our senses and the experiences we gain from them- but the sensory experience we have is not the same as Plato's higher, more abstract concept.
So to relate this to the four Tarot suits, we find that first, we begin with an abstract idea. Most commonly this is assigned either to Swords or Wands- that is, Air, representing abstract thought and intellect, or Fire, representing desire and will. Emotion, responses and the spiritual side of things are related to the suit of Cups, relating to Water, and finally, manipulation of the physical world, creating change, occurs in the suit of Pentacles.
So again, how does this relate to the changing of the seasons? Well, let's look first at the Sabbats, and see what each one represents in terms of its position in the year. Every year we go through the same cycle, though we ourselves are perhaps that much older and wiser for the experience of another year. We can divide the year into quarters, as well: these are defined by the two equinoxes and the two solstices, which are the points at which we transition between the seasons. There is a narrative of growth and death, leading ultimately to rebirth, in the passing of the sabbats, and so let's begin with Yule- this represents the rebirth of the sun, on the shortest day of the year. We can tie Yule into the suit of Wands- they are frequently portrayed not simply as staves, but rather as living and growing branches, and this represents the potential of living things, and the initial spark that drives growth and change.
Next up (I'm looking only at the equinoxes and solstices here, though the cross-quarter sabbats also figure in to this) we can consider Ostara, which marks the point at which night and day are considered to be equal in length- a turning point. Here we can consider the suit of Swords- we have potential, but in order to move forwards, we'll need to put it into a design, give it direction and guidance, coming from a clear and true perception of the way things really are. A part of this is the reason why Swords correspond to intellect, that they pierce illusion and our own confusion, revealing things the way they truly are.
Now from here, we move on to the summer solstice, marked by Litha or Midsummer. At this point, the days are long and the nights are short, and it's very much the growing season. Here we have the suit of Cups, representing both spirituality, foresight (we can, at this point, generally foresee the lack or abundance of this year's harvest) and sustaining energy, much like the Water the suit of Cups relates to. The Cups suit is not wholly passive, as we can interpret what we see and change our direction, modify our plans, based on what we see there.
Now, finally, we come to the harvest, bringing us full circle back to Yule and the winter solstice again. The next equinox is the autumnal equinox, marked by Mabon. This relates, perhaps more than any other point on the year, the suit of Pentacles, which is related to the physical world, and what we work for and develop in that world. Here we see the harvest, things worked for becoming manifest, as well as any shortcomings or oversights we may have made coming to light. From here, we celebrate the death of the year at Samhain, yet with the promise of new life and new light, and the new year continues on.
In this, we see an order to the year, things moving towards a definite end, perhaps even spiraling upwards. Going back to Plato's allegory, again, a higher force governs all that we do. We, however, are not puppets, pulled by the hands of some outside, impartial and immovable Fate. Rather, we can make our own decisions and exercise free will throughout the process, make decisions and change the path we're on. Yet we find this too manifested in the four suits- again, it can begin with will, a desire to change, and this will in turn leads to a plan to change, finally resulting in that change. Again, the suit of Pentacles is often tied to physical manifestation, though we can see this in terms of sensory experience, and from here the whole thing begins again.
The point here is, what we see manifested within ourselves, as well as in the world, is just a reflection of something on a grander scale. This is perhaps the main point Plato was trying to make, that everything that happens on our own individual levels is mirrored on a higher level in the larger world. The Tarot is just that- a tool to mirror our own experiences, and as such, we can observe a consistent pattern across time and people. The sum total of all of this is that what begins with an impulse in our minds finally becomes manifest in the world. Thoughts lead to action, action to consequence, and we see these things reflected in the world around us, whether it be the year, or our own individual course through this life.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parzival and The Fool's Journey, Part 4- Journey's End

The story of Parzival goes on to cover the Castle of Wonders, finally coming back around to Parzival, and it's that part of the story I'll focus on now. We find Parzival continuing to wander, still searching for Munsalvaesche without success. Later, we learn that Parzival has been forced to wander to atone for not relieving the suffering of Amfortas the first time he was there, when he failed to ask the all-important question. So Parzival has wandered for four and a half years, lamenting his failure and always seeking to get back to the Grail Castle. Meanwhile, Amfortas is still alive and suffering due to his wounds, which, we learn, he recieved due to the fact that he loved a woman that the Grail did not prescribe to him- we learn also that on occasion writing will appear on the Grail, and that this has indicated that Amfortas fell for the wrong woman, and in fighting for her, was injured, yet remains alive due to the influence of the Grail.
This section of Amfortas' story is a telling one also. We see shades again of the Devil here, as Amfortas probably could have let this woman go and would have been fine. We aren't given too many details, only that Amfortas acted in defiance of what he knew the Grail was telling him to do, and not to do. So this being the case, it went the worse for him. Perhaps also Amfortas knew this, but nonetheless wanted to put his own interests first, despite it being not remotely in his best interest, similar to the Devil's principle of self-destructive or counter-productive designs.
After his time of wandering, Parzival is finally directed to seek out Trevizent, a hermit and more or less a monk. Parzival does this, and tells Trevizent everything- his heartbreak at feeling abandoned by God, and the desires tearing him apart- first, to get home to his wife and children, and second, to seek out and find the Grail. Trevizent here shows some good Hermit-ly advice (the 9th card of the Major Arcana I mean) by telling him to have faith, and follow through. Go find the Grail, do what you need to do, and put aside doubts. The Hermit represents the wisdom of solitude, and Trevizent demonstrates this here. Having essentially withdrawn from service to the world (Trevizent himself is a former Knight), he now has developed both life experience and an outside, impartial perspective on the situation. Trevizent finds a way to reconcile Parzival's conflict and doubt, which is one of the functions of the Hermit figure in the Tarot- a wise teacher, not necessarily one coming from conventional wisdom, as would be the case with the Hierophant, but rather based on life experiences and on contemplation of the world from as outside a position as can be held in this world.
Glossing over a bit of the story at this point, the story concludes with Parzival once again meeting Cundrie the sorceress, who kneels before him and tells him he is to be the new keeper of the Grail. His wife and children are escorted to the castle, which Parzival has once again found, and Amfortas dies in peace, having been relieved of his burden. Parzival assumes his place, and is now the new keeper- remember that the Grail grants eternal life, but can't cure gray hair. This is why Amfortas did not die, despite his injuries and pain.
Having come to this point, I find the Grail itself bears examination. First, what is the Grail? The Grail, to a large extent, is defined by what it does. It preserves life, grants healing and sustenance to everyone who uses it out of a pure intention. It's a force, perhaps the force in the world. To find it is to find one's true calling in life- a largely symbolic object. Yet also, this is why Amfortas was injured, or allowed to be injured, while in posession of the Grail. The Grail represents an underlying order and purpose to the universe- finding our place in the grand scheme of things, in other words.
Another question raised by this story is why do we need the Grail? It seems like Parzival could very well have abandoned his quest for the Grail that winter morning when the blood on the snow reminded him of all he had left behind. Yet he did not- why? Is it typical Parzival Fool-ishness? Rather, Parzival knew that, having had a glimpse of the Grail and all that it represented, things would never be the same for him. Once you see it, you can't un-see it. Perhaps, like Parzival, we all are called to some higher purpose. But before you go saddling up your horses and donning your armor, remember that it's not so much a journey as it is a viewpoint.
And this is what needed to change for Parzival- the viewpoint he had of himself and his role in the world. Munsalvaesche doesn't disappear, like Brigadoon or anything like that- it was always where it was. The problem was that Parzival spent four years running to find his legs. Not that this time was wasted, because we have seen that experience and learning are necessary to understand this- it's not an objective truth that can be learned from a book, but rather needs to be developed from within our own understanding. Once this happened, Parzival was able to go back to Munsalvaesche and claim the Grail- to demonstrate his own understanding, and ultimately to make use of this understanding.
In the final chapter of this story, we see the World card- completion and fullness. Parzival has reconciled the world of his own ambitions and that of the higher world, making them one. This too is a message of the World, wherein all the parts of the whole are reconciled, coming together- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So from this, we can see that much like both Parzival's story and the Fool's journey, that life is an upward process. We start perhaps not at ground zero, naive as the Fool, but as time goes on we find that every experience, including heartbreak and sorrow, can be turned to a good end. It falls to each of us to figure out what that purpose is. We're not thrown into the mix without clues, although the way is sometimes unclear for a reason- not that the universe needs to get its act together, but rather because there's something there that we need to uncover and figure out- not only for our own benefit, but also to pass it along to others. Could there be another Grail keeper in Parzival's future? It could well be, after all, the Fool's journey is indeed a circular route.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Parzival and The Fool's Journey, Part 3- Parting Ways

One of the challenges in relating Parzival's story is not the lack of symbolism, but rather that much like life, things rarely fit into the neat little categories we have in the Major Arcana. Often the symbols of the Tarot are not quite as clear cut, and people, relationships and situations can cover several aspects at any one time. Take, in our story so far, both Arthur and Gornemant- Arthur as the King must embody the code of chivalry he extolls to his Knights, and in so doing takes on both aspects of the Emperor and Hierophant; both a figure of discipline and rule, and also of conventional wisdom and structure. Likewise, Gornemant represents primarily the Hierophant, in his aspect of a teacher and mentor, but also likewise takes on Emperor/father figure aspects to the untrained Parzival. As the story goes on, we'll continue to see Tarot symbolism in Parzival's story, though often the boundaries between cards blur.
Having left Amfortas' castle, Parzival runs into Sigune, a lady mourning her dead Knight, who tells him a little more about the castle, and Amfortas. Again, Parzival is regretful that he didn't just ask the question on his mind when he first saw the lance and Grail. But unfortunately, he followed Gornemant's advice to the letter, and did not. We also learn that Arthur has left his castle, and is out hunting down the "Red Knight" (Parzival) who helped him out, in order to thank him and make him one of his Knights. Remember that after defeating the previous Red Knight, Parzival only sent the cup back to Arthur- he didn't deliver it in person. Here, in my opinion, we see the Justice principle at work- again, remember Arthur is very much bound by the code of chivalry, and cannot let this favor Parzival has done for him go, even if he wanted to. For every action a reaction exists- this more than anything else is the principle embodied and personified by the Justice card, and one righteous act deserves another, it seems.
One winter day, Parzival is out and about when he notices three drops of blood on the snow from a goose. Arthur is not far behind, and we discover that his falcons have wounded the goose. Parzival sees the blood on the snow and is reminded of Condwirarmurs and his home, as Arthur and his troops approach. Finally, Parzival is identified, brought to Arthur, and made a Knight of the Round Table.
At this point we meet Cundrie, the sorceress. She is pretty fearsome in appearance, being described as having a nose like a dog, a bearded face, and braided eyebrows. She rides a mule, but her appearance can be decieving, as she knows many languages, and has much information not readily available. She laments Parzival's failure to ask Amfortas the questions on his mind, and tells also of a "Castle of Wonders" where four hundred women are being held, and awaiting rescue. Parzival takes Cundrie's words to heart, and renounces his service to God. Meanwhile, Arthur and his Knights go off to take the castle and rescue the women, again being bound by their code of chivalry. Interestingly, Parzival does not go with them, instead vowing to return to Munsalvaesche and find once again Amfortas.
So at this point, what role does Cundrie represent? She seems to be almost a sower of discord, as her words cause Parzival to part company with the Round Table and to go off on his own. Again, we can see several aspects at work in this situation. First, the Tower- an event that tears down what has been built up, in this case Parzival's desire to be a Knight, and all that he has done towards that end. But at the same time, the Tower represents rebuilding, replacing the facades that have been built with things more true to our own destiny or path of life. So though Parzival renounces service to God, he has a new direction and goal, and from his sorrow finds new directions and new purpose. I also found elements of the Moon in this section of the story, where Parzival sees the blood on snow and realizes, perhaps, how the world really is. He has responsibilities back home, and a wife that needs him there- perhaps at this point Parzival begins to see clearly the things he has overlooked.
And in a much looser sense, we can see the Devil as well- the women trapped in this Castle of Wonders are as of yet unproven save for Cundrie's word. But like the Devil, who binds us to our current circumstances, it will take a good deal to get them free. Consider also Parzival's final decision in all of this too- to continue to hunt for Amfortas, instead of his first impulse- to go home. In some ways, this too represents Parzival's own Devil- at this point in the story we're left with a strong impression that things could have gone either way. At this point, Parzival rides off to search for Amfortas, and the remaining Knights and Arthur go off to the Castle of Wonders. In many ways Parzival's decision represents his own enslavement to his own mind and his own emotions. No doubt in time, returning home, or traveling with Arthur, Parzival would have come again upon Amfortas, and even perhaps could have enlisted Arthur's help and resources in the hunt, had he been patient and waited until this more pressing matter of the Castle of Wonders was done.
Traveling off on his own, Parzival wanders for four and a half years, finally encountering again Sigune, now a wandering hermit herself. As Parzival comes upon her, she has just been hanging out with Cundrie, of all people, who has given her food from the very same Grail that Parzival saw on his first encounter with Amfortas. Sigune urges Parzival to go chase down Cundrie, but he is unable to find her. He does encounter, and fights with, a knight from Munsalvaesche, which is not far away, though Parzival does not realize this at the time.
So at this point, Parzival has learned a great deal about the Grail, and the purpose and design behind his finding it. This is a somewhat bleaker chapter in the story, as we find Parzival first sinking into despair, realizing the chance he missed, and the breaking up of Arthur's Knights, as Parzival feels obligated to continue searching for the Grail. Remember that the Devil represents the things we can't or won't let go of despite this letting go being in our best interest. Yet at the same time, Parzival demonstrates the principle of the Hermit, who represents solitude, withdrawing and looking within the self to determine the best course, and to understand oneself, illuminating and clarifying your own path. Parzival's parting tells of a need to develop on his own, something that earlier on he has been noticeably lacking in.
Ultimately, the point is that the symbols, archetypes if you will, present in the Tarot are all around us- though they are not usually as clearly broken down and spelled out as we might like. Reading the Tarot, I find this too- sometimes the focus will be on a particular aspect of the card, or a particular aspect of the situation this card relates to- life is not so simple as to break down neatly into 22 categories.