Can we just address something?
There is such a strong tendency these days to make everything “fluffy”, nice, sweet, positive, unthreatening,… I get it, honestly, I do. We don’t want pain, strife, or any of those uncomfortable emotions, feelings or thoughts… But how realistic is this?
I have long noticed the same impulse amongst Tarot Readers. Nobody wants to give “bad news”. So those cards that are perceived as negative and “bad” are fluffed up: Death does not mean death, The Devil does not mean addiction, imprissonment or abusive relationships, The Tower does not mean annihalation, disaster and chaos, … But if Tarot is to be a truthful representation of our lives, and in our lives we have to deal with pain, sickness, heartache, death, betrayal,… then are we not doing ourselves (and our querents) a disservice?
I don’t always agree with this mollycoddling and pussyfooting around. People need the pain and hardship in their lives to be acknowledged and recognised. Have their feelings validated, not covered up with platitudes and buzzwords.If you worry about giving your querent some bad news and try to cover it up with lots of niceties, remember this: If they were not meant to know, the cards would not have shown it!!!
Now, does this mean our Tarot Readings should be laden with doom? No, of course not! I am simply asking that we acknowledge the “negative” and THEN see if we can reframe these experiences, turn them to our advantage as best we can, prepare for them, find a coping-strategy,… rather than just sponging over them and pretending like every card is wonderful and positive.
In the same manner, there are some cards that are universally perceived as positive, but that may in fact hold some sort of warning. I would like to acknowledge this as well. The Sun, for instance, is seen as heralding joy, good luck, warmth, happiness, births and marriages… but what about flying too close to the sun? Being blinded by the light? Getting burned… I have talked about incorporating both the positives and negatives of your cards in your Readings before when I discussed the use of Reversals. I stand by that.
Let’s look at some of the “bad” cards and see how we can shine a light on their darkness. Many cards within the Tarot can be seen as portraying negative events – I will concentrate on the 3 main “negative” Major Arcana cards: Death, The Devil and The Tower – although we also see these cards of pain, struggle, fear and strife in the Minor Arcana (just think about the 3 of Swords, the 10 of Swords, the 8 of Cups, the 5 of Pentacles, the 10 of Wands,…).
The main card that comes to mind when thinking of cards that people don’t like to see in their spreads is Death. Our aversion is so great, that sometimes, this card is not even given a name!
In the Tarot the Marseille tradition it was simply known as “the card with no name” and it may just be referred to as “13” or “Il Tredici” – The Thirteenth. Is it a coincidence that this card carries this infamous number?
“13” is a number with so many superstitions attached to it – it even has it’s own phobia (triskaidekaphobia). The theories surrounding the origins of this aversion to this particular number are varied. The main ones center around 2 stories whereby the 13th guest to a dinner table caused a great tragedy (Judas Iskariot at the Last Supper, after which he betrayed Jesus – and Loki in Norse Mythology, upsetting the balance of the 12 Gods attending a dinner – thereby releasing evil and calamity in to the world). Then there is the story of hundreds of Knights Templar being captured and slaughtered on Friday the 13th in 1307- France… 12 is also considered to be a “perfect” number (it is the basis for so many systems: 12 months, 12 hours day/night, 12 jurors, 12 in a dozen, monetary systems, measurements,…) so any number following it would be deemed “imperfect”! And if that’s not enough, there’s always Appollo 13. The idea that the number 13 is somehow unlucky is a largely Western phenomenon – and not everyone believes it (it’s my lucky number, hence the Tarotmum13!), but still I wonder if Death was put in the 13th position on purpose…
One of the main reasons I feel we have such an aversion to the Death card in Tarot in this day and age, is due to how society has evolved – when the Tarot was first conceived, death and dying was very much part of life. From a very young age, children were confronted with death. There were plagues, famines, wars, executions, mothers dying in childbirth, … and even much later on in our history family members would be looked after at home when they were sick and/or dying – in our modern day society death is much more hidden. Grandparents die in hospitals instead of in the family home surrounded by loved ones, even the children. Death becomes sanitised, sterilised, secretive and distant. Something we see on TV. This causes us to grow up estranged from death as an inevitable part of our journey through life. So when it DOES cross our path, we are less equiped to deal with it.
A detail I find interesting is that the red feather on Death’s helmet in the RWS deck is also found on the child in The Sun and on The Fool. Are these the same figures? Death and Birth are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and the Fool is journeying between them. Note how the feather stands up proudly on the child, full of promise, starts to droop on The Fool as he grows older and hangs down like a wilted flower on Death itself. From the moment we are born, we carry the seed of death within – it’s one if the few certainties in life that we will all eventually be leaving it – at least as we know it…
Modern day Tarot tends to view Death in a more metaphorical way – we see images of snakes shedding their skin or butterflies emerging from the cocoons spun in the caterpillars’ death-throws, cards emphasising rebirth,… But shrouded figures, skulls and scythes remain popular images, even if we are invited to merely look upon these images as heralding change and transition. Of course, any profound experience of loss, grief and mourning will bring with it a deep personal transformation – we can not be touched in the deepest parts of our soul and not be changed.Our most effective weapon to combat Death lies in the power of remembrance – as in the beautiful tradition of the Mexican Day of the Dead: Nothing or no one will truly die as long as they are remembered. So Live! Make memories to cherish and remember those we have loved and lost.
The Death card itself to me brings to mind the old adage “Memento Mori”, basically asking us to remember that we are mortal. This implies being happy to be alive, here, now – not to let ourselves be defeated by the bad times for at least we are still amongst the Living, and enjoying the good things while they last! It is a card of awareness, when you look at it this way… if nothing was ever BAD, would we appreciate the GOOD?
This brings us to the next card I want to address: The Devil.
It always surprised me that we find The Devil in Tarot, but not God. Everyone is frightened by the devil, even those who do not believe in God! If The Sun can be seen as the opposite card of Death, what could be considered the opposite card of The Devil? Looking at the RWS deck, I guess we could say that rather than “God”, it could be Love that conquers The Devil.I have looked at the undeniable symmetrie of these two cards before in my post on “Tarot Twins” – it makes sense: if you want to tackle your inner demons, deal with addiction, get yourself out of an unhealthy relationship… it starts with loving yourself enough to make these changes. Also, feeling loved by others can keep our darkness, loneliness, fear, etc at bay.
When we look at the image of The Devil, we see a change in some decks as to how he is presented. From the obvious demonic presence, Lord of Hell representations in the Tarot de Marseille and original RWS or Toth traditions, we see a lot of decks now where the Devil is represented by a suave figure, even handsome or beautiful to behold – suggesting the emphasis has changed from sin, hell and damnation towards temptation, seduction and indulgence. Same goes for those decks using the image of the snake tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
The old demon will never disappear though, people have a morbid fascination for seeing that what they fear – maybe because, in essence, it is much easier and safer to gaze upon a cardboard depiction of a separate Evil Entity, rather than face the ugly, twisted side of humanity, step out of our own shadows and truly examine our own flaws and weaknesses…However we view The Devil, we have to deal with him. Identifying your demons and knowing what you are up against brings great power. How do you defeat something you can not name? Once you dare to face your shortcomings, addictions, self-binding chains, unhealthy choices,… you can start to make a change.
One of the most important lessons The Devil has taught us, even since biblical times, is that we have a very powerful gift: that of Free Will.
We, as a species, are the envy of Angels and Demons alike, because unlike these celestial beings, we have been granted the right to choose, the possibility of self-determination and self-realisation. We are not cast in epic roles of Good or Evil, but we can inhabit the whole spectrum and even if we stray, we can turn around and get back on track. Let us not squander this amazing gift, but also don’t underestimate the strength, willpower and determination needed to wield it!
Now it is time to examine that other harbinger of doom, The Tower. None of us are happy when this card appears in our Readings, as we are aware of the turmoil and chaos it brings in it’s wake.
One way to look for positivity in a card like this is to take a look at other cartomancy systems and see how these “negative” cards are treated there. In the case of The Tower: in Tarot, this card usually shows a tall structure being hit by lightning, crumbling, with people falling or throwing themselves off in fear or despair. The Tower in Lenormand on the other hand, is just that: a tall, strong, defensive structure. Standing proud.It is often perceived as depicting our ambitions, our role in life, how we see ourselves or how we choose to isolate and/or insulate ourselves for protection.
So when we see that tower crumble, could it be that it’s only our defensive walls being broken down? I say “only”, but having your defences stripped away can be an agonising experience.
When something really devastating happens to us, we can no longer stay detached from it. We can not hide from the hurt and the emotional turmoil – it will not allow itself to be washed over by hiding behind phone-screens or losing ourselves in bingewatching Netflix series, you can not outrun it by jetting off to some exotic destination or any of the other escape mechanisms modern life affords us. You HAVE to face the chaos and destruction that leaves you reeling.
It is important here to remember that without chaos, frantic movement, particles colliding, explosive energy being released,… there would be no Life.
Babies are born in blood and pain, love hurts, growing pains are real and realising that something or someone you have put your faith in all your life is untrue can feel like having the rug pulled out from underneath you. Any one of these things can be a traumatic experience and should be acknowledged as such – do not patronise or be derogative about how these occurrances FEEL to anyone you might be Reading for – but DO help them to see how they can take this pain and use it – energy does not disappear but it can be transformed. In this way, breaking down old structures (be they defence mechanisms, established beliefs, relationships stuck in a stalemate,…), makes room for building new structures, ones that are more suited to who we are as a person NOW and that will not stand in the way but rather facilitate, protect and shelter our personal growth and development.From the biblical scenes of the tower of Babel – struck down by the wrath of a vengeful God, dispersing and dividing humanity by making them speak in different languages so they would no longer understand one another to come together as one and collaborate to build a structure that would allow them to reach the heavens – we can learn a different lesson than just not to elevate ourselves to a God-like status…
We all hide in our respective towers, speaking our own language – Each one of us struggles to truly know what others are going through. We might not fully understand but we can try… people are nothing if not inventive and adaptable.
Whether we are helping others to find their feet again after falling down, or clearing away the remnants of our own toppled towers so we can start building anew – we can and will survive!
So be open-minded and creative when helping your querent find suitable coping-mechanisms and help them see that, even though the landscapes may change, in the end, cataclysmic events allow us to come closer to being our true selves.
Sometimes, it might even be a useful and cathartic experience to topple your own tower…
Conclusion: Where it is certainly possible and even advisable to find a way to reframe these negative cards so that we can see a way to get out, through or over them, it is equally important to give them the respect they deserve. It will not do to simply white-wash them without recognising their impact on our lives.
I believe that the main strength of these “bad” cards lies in recognition of our pain, so that we can find a way to move through it, and in giving us fair warning so that we might prepare and adjust our path accordingly.