Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Scary Cards, Part 1- The Major Arcana

Ah yes, the so called scary cards. These are the cards that you don't want to see in a reading. Do they promise toil and trouble? Or is it something else? Here I'll examine the four most commonly dreaded cards, and hopefully show why they're not really that scary- the Tarot reflects the world around us, and like a mirror, is neutral. It's up to us to play the hand we're dealt (pun not really intended) and learn what we can from it.
The first thing to remember in any reading is that the cards themselves are neither good nor bad- they simply reflect forces and energies at work in our lives. Calling them good or bad depends largely on the context they occur in, and what that means for us- whether this is in line with what we wish to see, or whether it is not.
First, let's examine the Death card. This one comes from the Halloween Tarot, and I used these cards because, well, they're kind of whimsical and cute, and hopefully reflect the fact that the things we may be afraid of may not be that bad after all.
First, let's examine some of the imagery of this card- much of it is common across decks. We have the iconic skeleton, here without his horse and armor. He holds, of all things, a watering can. On this watering can we see a pentacle, a symbol of the elements combining. In other words, there are a couple symbols of life here- on a card called Death. It looks like Death is watering the pumpkins, tending them so they'll grow. In the background we see an ankh- another life symbol. The vulture watching on the fence is likewise a life symbol, as the vulture eats carrion- life from death, one might say. And there are big sunflower-like plants behind the fence as well. All these life symbols translate to the meaning of this card. Death isn't so much an end  as it is a transformation. Though not present on this card, some decks incorporate a butterfly somewhere on the card. Butterflies come from caterpillars, and are often used as a symbol of transformation and renewal, and this too is a part of Death's message. It's time for things to change when we see the Death card in a reading. The skeletal figure we see is an indication that yes, change can be scary. We move from the comfort of the known into uncertainty and changes. However, going back to the butterfly, we see that the butterfly can't stay in the cocoon forever- in order to spread its wings and fly, it needs to come into that new state of existence. And when the Death card comes up, it's a message that change is needed and though this change may be difficult, in the long run it's for the best. Again, it's up to us what we make of that change, and whether that change can be a positive force or a destructive and worrisome one. For comparison purposes, let's look also at the Rider-Waite version of Death.
There's that same skeletal figure, but examining the symbolism in this card, we see a few other aspects of the card. First,Death here rides as a conqueror, like an inevitable force. He seems to be taking out kings and commoners, impartial to their station in life. But look at the bishop in this picture. He doesn't seem to be afraid, and perhaps is welcoming Death, knowing the change he'll bring and knowing this too is a necessary part of life. In the distance we see the sun, either rising or setting- likewise, a symbol of change and its inevitability,. When the sun sets, remember that it sets only to rise again- night follows day, and from endings come beginnings. It falls to us to use this time of change, like the vulture in the previous card. Kind of an odd analogy, I know, but think of it in terms of death leading to new life; the vulture uses the death of its food to sustain and continue life, and we too can use the change Death brings to make a better place for ourselves.
Next up, let's consider the Tower. This is a card that indicates destruction and a tearing down. Here is the Halloween Tarot version of this card, which likewise contains some interesting symbols.
The ghosts in the house don't look particularly happy to be there- is this because of the lightning bolt crashing into the top of the house, or is it because they are stuck in the house? The fence around the house indicates perhaps that it's a difficult place to get into, and apparently a harder place to get out of. The message of the Tower is both tearing down and renewing. Think of the destruction the Tower indicates as renovation and demolition. The space needs to be cleared out so that new construction can begin on that site. Often what's torn down is a facade, or a false front- the things we build up, either intentionally or not, that perhaps have outlived their usefulness, and are now simply in the way. Though these things are comfortable and known, again the change they indicate is in and of itself neither good nor bad- it's up to us to determine whether or not we can make use of the change, and build upon the foundation that remains here, and use the space to build something new on the cleared space.
The next card is one that has several aspects to it- The Devil. The Devil is interpreted as a figure of addiction, and being stuck in a cycle of self-destruction and negativity; the things we'd either like to let go of and can't, or the things that we allow ourselves to be bound to. Here again is the Rider-Waite imagery of this card.
Hardly a pleasant-looking figure, the Devil has two figures chained to the pillar he crouches on. But looking closely, the chains around their necks seem a lot like they're loose- those figures could perhaps just as easily slip the links over their heads and be on their way. The horns and tails indicate corruption-whatever it is that holds them to the Devil was originally something good, yet through warping and misusing it, they became trapped. So where's the positive here? The Devil can be a teaching figure, as well. Like the rest of the cards, the Devil simply reflects the situation. When we see the Devil in a reading, it's a call to examine what it is that holds us to our present circumstances- and how we can change that very set of circumstances. It's often a bit more subtle than addiction or something that may well seem readily apparent. It could be negative, self-defeating thought patterns. In psychology, there's a concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy; if a person expects to fail, they may unconsciously undermine their efforts, or not try- the result is, of course, failure. This then becomes interpreted as something wrong with themselves, or the world around them- either way, they expect to fail, so they do, and thus reinforce their own hopelessness. Bringing this to light can be a difficult and painful thing to do, but it also calls for courage and strength to examine the situation for what it is- and in this way, finally moving forwards and past the things that have kept us stuck spinning our wheels.
Finally, a card with some less negative interpretations is  the Hanged Man. This is a card calling for new perspective, and this new perspective is sometimes born of trouble and discomfort. The Hanged Man often is used to represent Odin, hanging on Yggdrasil, the World Tree for nine days. The story goes that he was wounded, left out unprotected in the elements, and in a great deal of pain. His cries reached all over the World Tree, and even the other gods covered their ears at the sound. So why did Odin do it? To gain understanding and the wisdom of the runes- because the suffering was worth it, in short. Here is the Hanged Man image from the Halloween Tarot.
The Hanged Man here is represented as a scarecrow, perhaps indicating that he was hung there without a choice in the matter, and cannot free himself. Sometimes the message of the Hanged Man is not a welcome one, as circumstances put us in a rough spot. Yet like most of the "scary" cards, this seems to point to forces beyond our control- we fear what we don't understand, and fear the unknown, as well as the impartial nature of fate. Yet again, through this suffering and trouble, new perspective can be gained. To go back to Odin, it was through this suffering that he gained the knowledge he was after. And this too is a part of the message of the Hanged Man- that we need to keep our eyes, so to speak, on the prize. Remember that the rewards are worth the work. More than anything else, we  can de-scary the Hanged Man by taking a longer view. What we see at present may be only the difficulty and trouble, but in the long run, what will we gain from that in terms of wisdom and understanding, and even strength of character? Hanging upside down is indeed one way to gain a new viewpoint, and in a more symbolic sense, the card represents things being shook up, turned upside down, and generally disrupted. But at the same time, it challenges us to examine assumptions and the things we take for granted in our day to day lives.
So in these cards, there is a theme of forces seemingly beyond our control- and indeed, we'll encounter things in our lives that are beyond our control. We are creatures of habit- we like predictability and stability, and when that stability is thrown to the four winds, we get scared and upset. But at the same time, change is a necessary part of life. And it's neither good nor bad, in and of itself. The message here is use that change as well as we can- determine where and how we can be most effective, and use the change around us to make the world we want. Change and growth may well be inevitable in our lives, like Death riding as an unstoppable conqueror. However, lamenting our situation and struggling to hold onto the past are not.