As we turn the calendrical corner and begin to emerge from Winter, we dwellers in the Northern Hemisphere will see our days lengthen and nights shorten.
Here’s a simple working to waken us
Whether through shamanic journeying, pulling some tarot cards, taking a meditative walk outside, or any other means you have of visiting your “inner council” place of deep knowledge, a useful question for this time is:
“Show me how to best use the energies of the coming year…”
If you like, add a defining phrase, such as “…for the healing my heart needs” or “…to assist those around me” or “…to support hands-on positive change for Mother Earth” or…
Whatever we think we “ought to” ask about, shape this to what calls you…
And, as a potent follow-up question, ask
And, whether you’re asking this of a power animal, or your cards, or a cloud or flame with which you’re scrying, may you hear the answer in your heart
Because wounds healed in spirit
In addition to teaching formal classes in both shamanism and Tarot, I’ve been facilitating a journey drumming circle for years. Attendees range from those who have just learned the basics of shamanic journeying through to some very experienced folks, so I’m always open to new ways to let us work together without turning that group into a class. This Tarot-based journeying started a few years ago in a smaller, more experienced group, when I asked my guides to show me a way to bridge the practices of shamanism and Tarot. I’ve been using this basic version in the large, open-attendence circle for about two years now.
I spread out both the Gaian and Wildwood Tarot decks, face down.
1. Everyone privately frames a personal question, then draws a card. Basic instruction: “If you do know Tarot meanings, just put them aside for a while.”
We’ve been using these journeys every couple months in the drum circle, and people are reporting wonderful, significant results. The relevance of the information gleaned is validating for all, the newer journeyers especially, and even more so in the partner-journeys. And it allows even the newest, less experienced journeyers to work on behalf of another person in a way that doesn’t feel risky.
This month we added an additional twist: With a new partner (and again working blind), journey to be shown a simple ritual your partner can do right away to help them follow through with what they’ve learned. Lots of crazy and meaningful results, and lots of laughter. I think our power animals love assigning rituals, especially irreverent ones!
If this sounds fun, please try it – I’d love to hear your results and innovations 🙂
Choosing Tarot decks for this: As mentioned, I use the Gaian and Wildwood decks. These both show characters who seem outside of time, with minimal verbiage. In the Wildwood Tarot, all of the Court Cards are animals. [You can use Google images to see more examples from each deck, and both are available as apps from The Fool’s Dog, a great way to see all the details.]
For me, this isn’t the time for the vampire decks, all-cats decks, plain-pip decks, or decks with heaps of glyphs, key words, and other writing. Other good decks might be the World Spirit Tarot or the Tarot de St. Croix – among other strengths, both have vivid art and are multicultural – but there are dozens of other great Tarot decks – Explore!
Bright blessings to all,
Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea…
(Antonio, Act 1, scene 1, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)
“At sea” turns out to be a vital point in The Merchant of Venice. To help finance his friend Bassanio’s courtship of Portia, the merchant Antonio borrows money, gambling on the potential gains from his various ventures. In fact,
…he hath an argosy bound to Tripolis, another to the Indies; … a third at Mexico, a fourth for England… But ships are but boards, sailors but men…”
(Shylock, Act 1, scene 3)
Shylock loans Antonio the money. Then, in subsequent scenes, we learn Antonio’s ships have all been lost at sea. Antonio is ruined and Shylock seeks to claim the macabre bond that Antonio agreed to, if the loan couldn’t be repaid: a pound of Antonio’s own flesh.
Antonio and Shylock ultimately land in court, with the latter ready to cut away a pound of the merchant’s flesh, when a young lawyer’s reasoned arguments reverse the decision against Shylock, saving Antonio’s life. The lawyer is actually Portia, in male disguise.
Where does the Tarot come in? Pamela Colman Smith, the artist of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (RWS), was also a professional designer of costumes and sets for English theatre companies. That could be why Smith’s Tarot dramatis personæ tend to look like they’ve escaped from a Shakespeare play, and why some images have such a stage-like appearance.
Look at the RWS’s 2, 5 and 7 of Swords; 2, 4, 9 and 10 of Wands; 2, 5, 10 and Page of Cups; and 2, 4, 6 and 8 of Pentacles: these cards’ foreground characters seem to be standing in front of theatrical backdrops, painted canvas panels that might be pulled up any moment to change to the scene.
Of greater interest is the fact that Smith was good friends with Ellen Terry (1847-1928), considered the greatest Shakespearian actress of her era. The clearest artistic Terry-Tarot connection is in Smith’s Queen of Wands, which is believed to be modelled on Terry.
More significantly, perhaps: Portia was one of Ellen Terry’s most acclaimed roles. Smith’s 3 of Wands, I’m inclined to believe, gives a nod to Antonio, the merchant whose many ships are at sea, their fates boldly ventured, but still so uncertain.
Pamela Colman Smith is known to have created her Tarot designs between April and October, 1909, a remarkably short time. Working so rapidly, would it be surprising if she drew on familiar theatrical sources? If she ever made notes on why she designed the Tarot cards as she did, no one has found those papers yet, which allows aficionados like me to wildly fantasize.
More coming about a different deck’s Three of Wands.
Oops. I quickly realized that Joan is a variation on Juan. I felt like crying.
This was during the early 1960s, before the rediscovery of so many female artists during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, a resurrection largely driven by the women’s movement. Like an archeological dig into history, there were all these amazing women artists hidden just out of sight, apparently ignored during their own lives and then further forgotten by time. That reclamation is often called herstory.
But guess what? Many of those artists were known, even respected and successful, in their own time. Here’s a tiny list of a few:
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)
- Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c.1656)
- Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717)
- Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)
- Rosalba Carriera (1675 – 1757)
- Angelika Kauffman (1741 – 1807)
- Mary Moser RA (1744 – 1819)
- Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun (1755–1842)
- Maria Cosway (1760 – 1838)
- Rosa Bonheur (1822 –1899)
- Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler (1846 – 1933)
I’ve seen popular books on art history from the late 1800s that mention many of these artists. Most weren’t been buried very deeply at all until the mid-1900s.
So what the heck happened?
H. W. Janson happened, known to generations of college and university art students as the Janson who wrote History of Art, which first appeared in 1962 and remained the standard art history text for decades.
The number of women artists Janson included? Zero.
This wasn’t an accident. Like Jane Austen’s Mister Darcy describing the rarity of “really accomplished” women, Janson said: “I have not been able to find a woman artist who clearly belongs in a one-volume history of art.” A revised Janson edition in 1986 finally included some women artists: By then, the wealth of research made it impossible to entirely exclude them. (You can find some references listed at the bottom of Wikipedia’s “Women artists” page, and see more images reaching much farther back in time at Suppressed Histories Archives.)
Art, and the absence and eventual re-emergence of women artists, is part of my background and studies, and more viscerally, part of my coming-of-age DNA. I’ve never forgotten this particular gender issue – the lie – but it no longer keeps me awake at night.
Fast forward, from art to shamanism, and Mircea Eliade. He was the author of Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (France 1951; in English 1964) an extremely influential popular text on shamanism. Having slogged through Techniques of Ecstasy myself a couple of times, I’d noticed the near-absence of women. I assumed ignorance or worse. It was worse…
Enter Barbara Tedlock’s excellent book, The Shaman in the Woman’s Body. While Tedlock’s focus is on the many powerful women working in shamanism in the world, today and throughout history, she does mention their relative scarcity in recent texts on historical shamanism. In fact, there’s so little mention of women in Eliade and most post-Eliade texts that I’ve had discussions with people – they’ve tended to be male people – who feel they can state for a fact that most shamans are male.
Yet, according to Tedlock, “[Mircea Eliade] never met a living shaman and thus had to depend on published sources.” That’s our expert? Bad enough, but far worse: Contrary to his own source material, Eliade “went out of his way to deny shamanic status to women.” The women that Eliade did mention were generally misidentified as “sorceresses,” or “possessed” or as being engaged in evil or just plain ineffectual practices. 1
And that wasn’t true. From Tedlock again:
One of the authors [Eliade] cited was Jan Jacob Marie de Groot. But de Groot, perhaps the most authoritative source on ancient Chinese religion at the time, had actually noted that women shamans predominated in early Chinese shamanism and that they were considered great healers… [Eliade’s] erasure of women from important religious roles was not even remarked upon for forty years. 2
Sure enough, working off Eliade and subsequent writers who use him as a primary source, many people come away with the erroneous impression that women practitioners are rare in shamanism. And that isn’t true. But Eliade’s prejudices have become a perpetuated lie.
Tedlock’s terrific book – another reclamation – mentions Eliade and “the disappearing act” as just one facet of her rich research. Her focus is on the amazing work that shamanic women have always done and continue to do.
Janson’s and Eliade’s: Have either of these particular old lies impacted your own work? While I love setting my own course, I’ve found that I like knowing that someone has gone before and “broken a trail,” made a path that I can perhaps follow, or at least know that someone else made an attempt. Although art and shamanism both are so inherently idealistic and alive and lit with passion, art can also be isolating, and so can shamanism. Obscuring a trail is a low-minded, sneaky deed. Done like this, it cuts away chances for inspiration and continuity and community.
I’m thinking of all this today because of Pamela Colman Smith, arguably one of the most influential artists in the world. And relatively unknown. She’s the artist behind the 1909 “Rider-Waite” tarot deck. Her work was shown in New York by Alfred Stieglitz at his gallery 291, years before he crossed paths with Georgia O’Keeffe.
Tarot people know Pamela Colman Smith, but she is still nearly unknown outside the realm of tarot. The tarot images she created have inspired dozens – probably hundreds – of other decks, and every day around the world, thousands of people look at her art, or derivations of it, as they have their tarot cards read. Influential and unknown.
For every trail we forge going forward, chances are there are multiple paths tracing back to earlier roots that can help inspire the way.
We’ve got to keep brushing away all the damn dust.
1 Tedlock, Barbara, Ph.D. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine. New York: Bantam Books, 2005, pages 63-64.
2 Tedlock, pg. 64.
A new series of Tarot classes starts this evening. Whee! I love the Tarot and I love sharing what I’ve learned by teaching others – it always brings new insights and realizations. Tarot has numbers, recurring themes within the suits, so many ways to convey meaning, but for me (the Art Major me) Tarot always comes back to the pictures.
Language is great – this writer tends to think so – but pictures… Pictures go to one portion of the brain, while language gets routed to another area. The image-storing brain-zone lets us think in pictures – and symbols and colors and all those bright and shiny visual ways – while the verbal-managing brain-zone handles the words and language. Both brain-areas are great, but clearly they’re different. And since that visual-area is designed for images, why not give it some?
Okay, here’s seventy-eight of them.
Sometimes, as we come to have more and more stored information about the Tarot in our heads, including how we might be able to verbalize these Tarot concepts to clients, we can forget to just look at the pictures.
Clients – especially those seeing the cards for the first time – certainly don’t forget to look. The images are fascinating, engaging, intriguing, perhaps scary or disquieting, maybe euphoric and encouraging. The images can be fraught with meaning more intensely personal to that client than all the stuff I’ve committed to memory. Even if I know three dozen variations of the subtext of each card, the new client sees only the “storyboard.” For them, until I speak, the pictures are doing all the work.
May I see with such fresh eyes each time I approach the cards.
Strength card from the Visconti-Sfroza deck, c. 1451-1453.
These symbols are cousins to each other. I have a new Tarot class starting, and I’ll be speaking about the lemniscate – the horizontal figure-8 symbol for infinity – found on some cards. In the Major Arcana, the Magician and Strength often contain lemniscates, and the Two of Pentacles traditionally incorporates a large lemniscate entwined around the two discs.
By comparison, the Möbius strip is simple, earthy, physical. It’s just a strip of paper, its ends joined to create a ring but – vital! – with a twist in the paper so that the outer side becomes the inner, and vice versa: It has no end. Find Möbius strip details here. Flattened out, the Möbius strip is the origin of the recycling symbol.
So far, these symbols may read like math or science, but spiritually their meanings expand: The Sun’s motion and our ability to track it and celebrate its turning points; the perpetual continuity found in the lemniscate and the Möbius strip; our awareness of our earthly presence, expressed in the recycle symbol, and so much more. Symbols are our visual tools, and in these, What goes around, comes around.
Analemma photomontage credit to Jailbird, via Wikipedia Creative Commons shared use.
More analemma action: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120920.html
Sept. 4, 2012: I was in San Francisco at the end of August to attend BATS – the Bay Area Tarot Symposium. On one evening, I went across to Oakland for an author event at The Sacred Well. A nice chance to sit and talk with folks about A Magical Tour of the Night Sky. As the guests and I discussed the stars and planets, the first-quarter Moon sailed across the sky. Visible! Other visits to the Bay area have taught me not to count on seeing stars there. The air is far more humid and likely to hold foggy sea breezes than this high and dry Colorado air that I’m accustomed to. But the Moon obliged – Thanks, Moon!
A couples of nights later, BATS had finished for another year, and I was back near my lodging, supping at Honey Honey and reading while twilight changed to night-darkness. Walking back up Post Street, craning around trying to spot the widening Moon between the buildings and along the cross-streets, I suddenly instead saw a bright light in front of me to the west.
Not a plane! A star! I looked carefully off to the star’s right, and sure, enough, faint but visible, I could make out the Big Dipper’s handle stars, it’s pan and the pointers and – big surprise – even Polaris. None of these were bright except for the first one, gleaming in the west straight up Post Street: Arcturus.
It was like walking around in a city in which you’re a stranger and suddenly running into an old friend. A beautiful addition to new friends, new experiences, new information, flavors, sights and sounds.
A sweet surprise, against all expectations: Familiar.