History of Tarot, Oracles and Tarot, Tarot Card Decks, Tarot Card Meanings No Comments »

BYZANTINE box lid v8

This is my second tarot deck, published a few weeks ago. I have been using it (and the majority of people I read for have been choosing it) for the last week, and have been very pleased with how it reads. Because it’s much more illustrative than my Intuitive Tarot, I wasn’t sure how I would work with it once it came out – and the deck certainly does challenge my understanding of the established interpretations – but relaxing into the readings has allowed the deck to flower, as it were. For instance, the Tower (illustrated below) gives a very different take on the card – at least at first glance.


However, as the deck is based on Byzantine concepts and imagery, The Tower illustrates one of the Empire’s legendary figures, Simeon Stylites. As a very Christian society, a withdrawal from society was not only acceptable, it was lauded. Simeon chose a very definite withdrawal, to a tall pillar in the wilderness. However, people kept on following him and asking for advice and healing, so he chose a taller pillar … and so on. He spent 40 years on different pillars, his followers keeping him fed and sustained. So the meaning here, as in most decks, is of illumination and power, but it also speaks of human temptation and frailty (the serpent). Simeon chose his pillar after a divine revelation and then found he could not avoid his destiny, or the power that others ascribed to him.

A more conventional tarot image is The Hermit.



This is based on an icon from St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai which originally depicted Elijah. When I saw the image I immediately saw it as the tarot Hermit, even though the original did not have a lantern or staff. But without this icon, I would never have contemplated painting another tarot, so you might say he inspired me – or called me. John Matthews, who wrote the book, had also been called to produce a Byzantine Tarot some years previously, and it was the idea of collaborating on this deck that gave it the impetus it needed. But in a way, it was the Fool who really got it off the ground, at least for me.

The Holy Fool has always had a special resonance for me ever since 1973, when he appeared on my drawing pad when I was idly doodling one evening. That first image opened up a channel for me into the Otherworld, the rich archetypal place of dreams and imagination, and I have journeyed there ever since. So as soon as John and I had agreed we would collaborate, I keyed ‘Holy Fool’ into Google – and found, to my astonishment, that the Holy Fool was an established figure in Byzantine times. There are even books written about the Holy Fools of Byzantium (and Russia, which took over the mantle of orthodoxy after the Empire fell in 1453). That was all the confirmation I needed, and the Fool and the Hermit were the first figures I painted in this deck.

0-fool f2 Step sm

Three years later, the deck was complete, and I’d had the time of my life painting it! It’s now published by Red Wheel Weiser and Connections Publishing UK, and getting very favourable feedback.

I’ll post more about the historic Byzantine aspects of this deck shortly, as well as giving the spread I developed for the cards.



History of Tarot, Oracles and Tarot, Tarot Card Decks No Comments »

I went to the launch of the Nostradamus Tarot (The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus) last night at Watkins Bookshop (Cecil Court, London). Compiled by John Matthews and Wil Kingham, it’s a very interesting deck using images that were probably drawn by Nostradamus’s son using concepts of the man himself.

The basic artwork was taken from a book found only recently in the Central National Library of Rome. In this volume were 80 watercolour images, with arcane and sometimes heretical imagery (popes and cardinals doing strange things, often to monsters). The men who discovered the volume were excited to find the name ‘Michel de Nostredame’ on the title page, and published their findings as The Nostradamus Code (Destiny Books, 1998), and in 2007 a History Channel documentary was made on The Lost Book of Nostradamus.

This is where John Matthews and Wil Kingham came in. Neither the book nor the documentary had pointed out the similarity of the imagery to tarot symbolism. John Matthews, however, an acknowledged expert on the tarot, picked it up immediately, and began to collect the eighty images. He was not permitted to photograph the original volume, still held in the National Library of Rome, so piecing the deck together took some time. Indeed, one might call it a labour of love, as John slowly collated the images to fit with the Majors, facecards and suits, and Wil Kingham began to produce the collaged backgrounds, as well as bring the original sketchy watercolours into a fit state for publication. However, the more they worked on it, the more the whole thing fell into place, and the end result is a fitting tribute to the seer, as well as an excellent addition to the tarot.

What makes the deck sing for me, though, are the quatrains produced by Nostradamus – his prophecies or ‘Centuries’ as they are called – and translated  by Caitlin Matthews. These add an extra dimension to the tarot meanings for each card.

Tarot workshop

Learning Tarot No Comments »

Following their successful Foundations of Tarot last year, Hilde Liesens and Cilla Conway are running A Journey through the Major Arcana on the 21st August 2010. They will look at the origins, myths, history and lore of the tarot, while guided visualisations allow you to vividly experience the myths and archetypes of the Major Arcana as an initiatory journey through life. Practical demonstrations, exercises, and experiential practice will demonstrate how you can start to read the Tarot for wise guidance and insight into life’s challenges. People are always astonished at how accurate their tarot reading can be, using these methods.

The second workshop, on the Minor Arcana, will be held in September, allowing you to practice and get to know the cards. Then, using elemental correspondences, numerology, and the traditional meanings, Hilde and Cilla will offer practical methods to familiarise yourself with readings, spreads, reversals etc. Exercises and story-telling, drama and role play will enable you to read well without having to learn the meanings by rote.

Venue: Atlantis Bookshop, 49a Museum St., London WC1 (nearest tube Holborn or Totterham Court Road)

Date: 21st August 2010

Time: 10.30 for 11 a.m. – 5.30 a.m. with breaks for lunch and tea (biscuits, coffee and tea provided)

Cost: £50 for each workshop, £90 for both if paid in advance

To book: Atlantis Bookshop – 020 7405 2120

Tarot and Astrology

Tarot and Astrology No Comments »

For the last six months I’ve been producing illuminated manuscripts of the different astrological signs and have been fascinated by the links between tarot and astrology. The connections between the two systems are more tenuous than I originally thought, although there are some direct correlations between the symbols of the tarot and the ruling planets of the different signs – the most obvious being Saturn and The Hermit, and the Magician and Mercury (I’ll go into this in more detail in the future).

Astrological study stretches back thousands of years – to ancient Egypt and Babylonia at least, while early mankind would almost certainly have created their own star-lore. At that stage in our evolution, we probably used the right brain to a far greater extent than we do today, and those early people would have automatically assigned images to the patterns of stars. [In fact, the mythology of some indigenous populations shows an extraordinary, intuitive knowledge of the heavens – for example, the Dogon, who knew about the invisible companion to Sirius (for details, see]

The ancient astrologers identified the planets, attempted to explain heavenly events such as eclipses and comets, and assigned images and psychological characteristics to constellations which they identified by name based on local myths, and to the different planets.

This use of figurative imagery – together with an underlying animistic concept of the universe – continued for thousands of years, through the collapse of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations. In medieval times symbology was employed for religious and philosophical ends – the alchemists, for example, used figurative symbolism to describe the alchemic process. The tarot, appearing around 1415, used the same language. Like astrology and alchemy, the tarot referred to images that all understood – which Carl Jung called archetypes: the fool or jester, Emperors, Popes, Justice, Death, The Star, The Sun. (The Minchiate deck incorporated all the astrological signs, plus the elements and virtues – and was one of the first medieval packs to change the pages to ‘maid’ cards.)

Many recent decks place astrological symbols on each card, assuming a correlation which may or may not be useful. Crowley’s Thoth deck was one of the first to attempt a synthesis of all the magical systems – kabbalah, astrology, tarot and a few more besides. You can, of course, read tarot quite adequately without knowing any other system, but in future posts I will detail some of the parallels which can enrich your readings.

Working with the Tarot for Self-awareness (continued)

Self Development No Comments »

The Wheel - traditionally The Wheel of Fortune. An ancient symbol, the Wheel represents the cosmos, time, fate and karma. The medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune show man helplessly bound to the wheel of destiny, his fate either predestined, or, alternatively, subject to blind chance. In today’s Tarot, however, we can read it with a lighter touch: as the Tao, the ever-changing yet ever unified circle of existence.

The Wheel signals some new cycle of life: an opportunity to alter our perceptions, when we realize that the currents in the river of life are drawing us inexorably along whether we will or no. We can neither control nor fight the flow; all we can do is to allow ourselves to flow with it, in full awareness of what is involved.

The next stage on the path is XI, Strength. Some of the oldest decks show Samson killing a lion. The archetypal hero often has to battle with a primitive or wild man in order to come to his full power, while the lion itself is the archetype of strength, power, and majesty.

In self-development terms, Strength is the first test on the journey of the soul. Our choice to follow the Hermit’s path brings us into direct contact with the unconscious, that level of the psyche we usually encounter only through dreams. The first level we encounter is our animal side, the Id in Freudian terms – the child which rages to get its own way. The woman in the image, who can be thought of as the ego, does not kill the animal, but controls it with firmness and compassion. If we can manage this, the lion becomes our Ally.

XII – The Hanged Man. This is where we see that everything we’ve been taught, all our previous moral certainties – indeed all our previous ideas about who we are, what we want in life – must be re-examined.

The archetype of the Hanged Man is an old one. In ancient Greece, images of the god were often hung in trees to ensure fertility and a good harvest. Many of the gods linked to fertility were sacrificed in different ways – Tammuz (Ishtar’s consort), Osiris, Christ, and Odin, who hung himself upside down for nine days and nights in order to gain wisdom. Less well known is the story of Shemyaza, one of the so-called Fallen Angels, who fell in love with a mortal woman, Ishtahar. After Shemyaza revealed the true name of God to her, God imprisoned him in Orion, hanging upside down, for eternity.

Shemyaza © C Conway 2010

In self-development terms, The Hanged Man is shown as an initiate, like Odin, hanging herself as a sacrifice to growth in the new world she now inhabits. She must have the strength of mind to fly in the face of convention, or she can progress no further. As an initiate, it is also necessary to be able to surrender to chaos and the unknown.

XIII – Death. The ability of the initiate to surrender to the unknown is tested to its ultimate in the Death card. It is not physical death, but the mystery initiate quite often has to live through soliltude in utter darkness for a number of days. At the end of that time they would emerge as from the tomb, profoundly changed.  Every major change in our lives means a death of sorts; each time we end a relationship, change jobs, move house – even the end of the day or year – entails a little death. But without those deaths, we stagnate.

In archetypal terms, Death occupies an pre-eminent position: an inescapable destiny. In many traditions we find a river over which souls pass to the next life. In Greek myth the ferryman, Charon, rows the dead over the river Styx, while in Egypt the boat was guided by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming. In Roman and Celtic myth, the goddess Isis and Ceridwen were in charge of this strangely ubiquitous boat.


XIV – Temperance. The last of the virtues depicted overtly in the Major Arcana. The figure can be identified with Aquarius, the water carrier, or with Ganymede who became cup-bearer to the gods, replenishing the nectar of immortality when it ran low. Temperance is today depicted as angelic, its abilities alchemic: pouring one vessel into another, one quality with another to make a third, a synthesis of the two: water into wine, lead into gold, dark into light.

In self-development terms, Temperance is the deep inner balance of inner to outer, the first inkling of the integration which culminates in The World. It is the ability to temper unconscious emotions with conscious reason; to balance irrational, childish reaction with adult processing. This ability will be tested fully in the next stage along the path.

XV – The Devil. We see the archetype of The Devil in numerous old gods. Indeed, as Paul Huson points out in The Devil’s Picture Book, the gods of a dead religion often become the demons of the succeeding one. Pan, Baphomet, Cernunnos, Satan, all combine to give us the image we see in the Tarot. It is significant that many of these were fertility gods, as The Devil is about our darkest desires: greed, sexual perversion, envy, obsession – and the fear attached to these feelings. This is what C.G. Jung called the Shadow – all that we find unacceptable in ourselves and so repress from our consciousness. The Initiate has to acknowledge and integrate this shadow stuff.

The card reminds us that The Devil does exist – though not as an external agent; not as a dark angel who tempts us, binds us, forces us to do things we would never dream of (‘the devil made me do it’). But the Devil is within us. By projecting our unwanted shadow on others, and then acting out based on that distorted perception, we ourselves create evil. The Devil reminds us that each of us is capable of the worst excesses, of arrogance and greed, envy and murder. If we think we are exempt, we are deluding ourselves.

However, the Devil also holds out a promise of redemption. As the initiate, if we acknowledge our shadow side, and work with it when we encounter it, it becomes our teacher. That requires courage and honesty, the ability to see the dark and not deny or project it onto the outside world. Instead, draw it, write to it, dialogue with it, express it through your body or through a story. Then ask what it wants from you. Usually it wants acknowledgement, acceptance, and then the will to change and grow.

XVI – The Tower. Certain events, both personal and external, are so cataclysmic we can only stand, shuddering, and wait for the fall-out to clear. Hiroshima was such an event; 9/11 another. Both can be seen as diabolic or divine, depending on our viewpoint, but the magnitude of each makes it impossible to continue life as before. We may retrace the steps that led there, but there is no going back. However, the destruction is not wholly negative. As the lightning strikes, for a second we see Divinity in all its magnitude. Even as the old world crumbles, a new world is born.

As an archetype, the Tower is about hubris. It may remind us of the Tower of Babel, Atlantis or even Sodom and Gomorrah. By now, the initiate’s foundations should be firm enough to withstand the storms and destruction of the external world, no matter how apocalyptic. Even though our world can be shattered in a moment, we can rebuild. A new world can emerge from the old.

In self-development terms, this card refers to purification through loss, and the ability to withstand the worst storms. When we reach this level of awareness, we may wish to simplify, challenging any rigid, outdated structures or thought processes. The cosmic bolt from the blue is never something for which we can be prepared, but on the path this winnowing is essential.

XVII – The Star. The Star gives us real recognition of how far we’ve come. We emerge from the depth of the unconscious into the light of the stars. Now we experience a vision of wholeness, a deep gnostic understanding of eternity and renewal. This is the profound inner certainty that comes when we at last find ourselves connected to the mystic Centre. We become a channel for divine energy made manifest on earth.

Medieval Cosmology

The Star is about hope: the light that appears to call us to remember who we were born to be. Archetypally, the stars point the way to illumination. They are seen as luminous celestial beings with the ability to bring home and illumination. The story of the star of Bethlehem, and the Magi from the east, is well known. Other stories tell of how the stars were formed: the Greeks, for instance, saw the constellations as conscious, self-aware entitles who lodged in the dome of heaven. The Titan Atlas balanced this enormous dome on his shoulders, shifting it when the weight became too great, which caused the stars to rise and set.

In self-development terms, the Initiate now has a sustained connection to the Higher Self, that part of us which is aware of being divine. We need to ensure that our minds stay open, reflecting that inner light which allows problems to be resolved with ease and grace. Think about your highest dream – are there things you need to do in life? Miracles happen daily, though we often fail to notice them.

XVIII – The Moon. Like The Star, the Moon has been the subject of awe, ritual and story since humans first became sentient. From neolithic times the Moon was usually seen as the multi-faceted Great Mother – New Moon (Maiden – Persephone, Diana the Huntress, Artemis), Full Moon (Mother – Demeter, Isis, Astarte) and finally the Dark Moon (the Hag – Hecate, dark Ereshkigal, Juno). Even today we bow to the moon’s influence: we mark its passage from dark to full while the sea moves in its wake, while those of unsound mind are known to become even more disturbed at full moon.

Thus the Moon of the Tarot carries both dark and light aspects of the Goddess. The crab or crayfish crawling out of the pool refers to the dark of the moon. In this guise we encounter Hecate, a psychopomp who guides the Soul through the underworld. As the initiate, we have encountered Death already, but this is the crossing between sanity and insanity – a living journey through the underworld. Shamans, artists, and other seekers may cross that borderline, but there is always a risk that they will not return intact. The hospitals are full of people who have lost their way in that ambivalent, delusory realm.


The Moon is about a failure of nerve, delusion or deception. Often we may be taken in by feelings of grandiosity, paranoia, or megalomania as we look at the dizzy level we’ve attained. The challenge of this archetype is not to forget ourselves totally, in the waters of Lethe; but, somehow, remember our way back.

XIX – The Sun. And now the night ends and the sun rises, as it has since the dawn of time. The archetype of the sun is about light, warmth, life. Dawn is about birth, new beginnings; midday is warmth, growth, harvest; evening is the growing shadow, wilting, the coming of the night, death. The tarot image shows the solar twins dancing under the light of the midday sun, protected from its burning rays within a circular garden. The solar twins are found in a number of myths and are potential saviours.

By now the initiate is in a state of grace. The light floods in; we – the steadfast seekers on the Way – are transfigured and renewed. From now on that warmth, that heightened awareness, will not leave us for long – although being human, we may have times when we lose the certainty, the connection. But our vision is so clear now that nothing will get caught between us and the light.

XX – Judgment. The imagery here is mainly Christian – the Last Judgment, when the dead souls are gathered and their ultimate destination decided. The man and woman in the image are the twin souls in the Sun, grown to adulthood, with their divine child. The trumpet is the call to new life; the veils between the worlds lifts and we are redeemed. All the old polarities have been resolved, the child representing our new unified consciousness. Archetypally, the divine child is understood as the birth of new consciousness. Myths from around the world talk of a shining infant, its lambent gaze full of wisdom and compassion, who comes to bring salvation.

Judgment marks the near completion of the journey: rebirth, the reunification of the soul. In Jungian therapy this might appear in dreams as an angelic call, the ‘pearl without price'; the treasure now recovered; in alchemic terms it is the Philosopher’s Stone, the ‘pearl without price’.

XXI – The World. The culmination of the journey: the fully realised soul – the divine child grown to adulthood. This is the Anima Mundi, where male and female, dark and light, inner and outer, are integrated in unity, a synthesis of beauty and completion. The dancer – whom T.S. Eliot called the ‘still point of the turning circle’, is androgenous; s/he is the Coniunctio, the mystic marriage of matter, mind and spirit that was the ultimate goal of the alchemists. Here we move past the limitations of form into a timeless state of grace – of active and receptive love. It is both an ending, and a beginning.

The archetype of this awesome being is alchemic: engravings of medieval alchemy show the conjoined being as the end result of the Great Work. Once the alchemist had attained this level of understanding, it would be reflected in his alchemical work by the ability to turn base metal into gold.

0 – The Fool. And even now there is one final stage on the journey. As Eliot puts it,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This is the wise fool: the individual – and mankind itself – ready for the next stage of its evolution into a far more evolved being. A few phenomenal souls have reached that state – Buddha, Christ resurrected, perhaps Gandhi and Mandela; a select few!

Archetypally, the Holy Fool is seen in many traditions. He has transcended physical reality – all the world’s goods mean nothing to him. His vision is humane, wise, and numinous. He is Zero: the Nothing and the All simultaneously. At last, through the unknowable void, the future soul embraces time and matter to become manifest once more, and the cycle begins again.

And, perhaps, we can think of this not as a closed circle, but as a spiral, where the end and the beginning of each cycle do not meet, but begin again on a higher level.

Thirteen: Death or Rebirth?

Numerology meaning 4 Comments »

Number thirteen is the sixth prime number, and many cultures find it portentous, if not unfortunate. Its negative associations can be seen as far back as Babylonia and ancient China, when an extra 13th month had to be added every now and again to keep the seasons in line with the solar year. In China this extra month was called the ‘Lord of distress’ or ‘opposition’.

This association with the lunar vs solar year leads me to wonder whether it is yet another example of the patriarchal downgrading of everything feminine, which probably began in Sumerian or Babylonian times. The thirteen moons of the old calendar were always associated with the feminine for obvious reasons; so in order to ensure the patriarchy had no possible threat to its authority, everything to do with the feminine was subtly demoted – a situation which continues to this day.

However, not all cultures had found such negative connotations in the number. Egyptian lore posited thirteen steps that led up to eternity: at the thirteenth step, the soul was said to reach a state of completion. In Judaism the Torah states that God has thirteen ‘Attributes of Mercy’, while the Qabalah talks of thirteen heavenly fountains, thirteen gates of mercy and thirteen rivers of balsam in paradise. In ancient Greece Zeus, the thirteenth god, was seen as the most powerful of all the gods. However, in Norse mythology the gods numbered twelve, with Loki the trickster coming in as an uninvited thirteenth to cause the death of the hero Baldur. That, then, led directly to Ragnarök, the battle of the gods.

Christian tradition saw thirteen as unequivocally evil, presumably because Judas, the thirteen disciple, betrayed Christ. In classical and medieval times, this grouping of 12+1 was quite common, with the 1 being the leader, or fated to die (or both, as we see in the Christian story). In addition Christians associate thirteen with witchcraft, the number of witches in a coven.

In contrast, Gnostic lore suggests a thirteenth aeon which will bring about the completion and resolution of the previous twelve eras. Similarly, in Mezoamerica, thirteen also had favourable connotations: the Mayan calendar was lunar and they saw the thirteenth day as the turning point, its symbol being the butterfly. The calendar was divided into periods of 52 (4 x 13). There were also thirteen heavens and thirteen deities.

The early creators of the Tarot seem to have followed the more negative connotations of the number. They certainly ensured that number 13 was always associated with the Death card, although numbers fluctuated for the other cards. However, today the interpretation is more of transformation and change than bad luck. Every time we alter something in our lives, we encounter a little death; when we move, change jobs, even (according to Lisa Alther in Kinflicks) have sex. So the Death card is about mortality and a voluntary surrender of the old (in comparison with The Tower, which destroys the old in a flash, whether we will or no). It’s also about stripping away the ego, necessary if we are to move on spiritually. If the card is reversed, it probably indicates an inability to change, stagnation.

Number thirteen also relates to the Queens of each suit (not the Kings, as previously and erroneously inserted in the previous version of ’13’! Apparently no-one noticed this as I would have expected at least one comment, if you had).

As we’ve seen already, 13 is a number particularly associated with the feminine, so it is apt that we find the Queens occupying the 13th slot of the numbered cards.

The Queen of Swords is depicted as a stern-faced woman, sword at the ready. Standing on the beach with an active volcano in the background, we might see her as an ancient queen awaiting some major disaster – the immolation of Atlantis or Hera, perhaps. In the Intuitive Tarot her element is fire, and thus she combines a stringent intelligence with deep passion – a passion that is under strict control most of the time. However, in readings, you may find her as a divorcee or a wronged partner; she is often a woman in the grip of a potent anger which, although usually well-hidden, can sometimes explode into the open.

The Queen of Discs is a pragmatist. Dealing with business, money, things of the senses, she enjoys the good things in life, particularly her home. If she is a business-woman you’ll expect to find her very successful. She wheels and deals, brings people together, and then expects them to dance to her tune. She can be very controlling and does not enjoy people doing their own thing. Normally she gives the impression of being a rock for all around her, but this can be misleading. She’s more vulnerable and fragile than she thinks, and should ensure she has a good support network to call on.

The Queen of Rods is creative and highly intuitive. She can get a bit airy, floating over the hills like a butterfly, but if she can harness her gifts she can become a powerful healer or intuitive. As a mother she can be a bit scatty, but so charming no-one really minds (though her children may need therapy later!). Sensitive, perceptive, and creative, she can sometimes be a little arrogant (a trait she hides well). I often connect her to Ishtar, queen of all gods, who went down into the Underworld to challenge her dark sister, Ereshkigal, who (not surprisingly) took exception to this and hung her on a hook to die. Rescued by the god Enki’s servants, she was able to return to the land of the living – sadder and wiser.

The Queen of Cups, her arms open, bare-breasted, stands looking out at us in invitation, and challenge. Surrounded by the deep ocean, she is traditionally seen as warm, inviting and passionate. She is powerful, desirable; with a strong connection to her emotions and body; she can find herself ridden by her emotions (or hormones!), lacking much ability to think objectively. She often appears in readings where someone wishes to offer themselves fully, but are constrained by external circumstances to keep within clear boundaries. If she appears reversed, she may well have offered herself but been rejected. She can also be the devouring mother, preventing her children from living their own lives.

in the Minors

Twelve: The Sacred Gates

Numerology meaning 1 Comment »

Twelve: 4×3; 6×2; 7+5, 10+2. We should now be able to intuit why the number is so potent when we look at the combinations of these numbers. Twelve is a culmination of the first part of the journey through the Major Arcana: a gateway between the physical world and the unknown. The Hanged Man is a crucial card in the journey through the Majors. It depicts a man hanging feet uppermost from a tree, or, in The Intuitive Tarot, suspended within the web of space. A number of ancient myths describe gods hanging upside down to gain wisdom (for example Odin). In medieval times thieves and vagabonds were sometimes punished that way, so the original imagery may have depicted a thief (which may explain why the Hanged Man is shown in old packs holding money bags, or with money falling from his pockets). However, today we prefer to see the Hanged Man as surrendering to fate.

In the card we see a man, his arms outstretched, face serene. Hanging there, he realises that everything he has been taught, every idea he has had, needs to be questioned and – if necessary – jettisoned. Most people find that it is preferable to ignore the fundamental questions. The Hanged Man will always ask them.

The interpretation is in keeping with the number twelve, which has a long and august tradition of deep knowledge dating back to Babylon or before, often relating to the astrological signs of the zodiac. The ancient astrologers considered that the moon and sun both moved through twelve stations; they divided the year into 12 months; and saw twelve northern and twelve southern stars. Even in China the 12-sign zodiac and a 12-month year were used (though there were no similarity between western and eastern signs). As in Babylon,  the Chinese combined a decimal cycle with the duodecimal cycle.

The twelve signs of the zodiac have influenced civilization ever since – even our secular, over-sophisticated western culture still retains a basic belief in astrology. Until quite recently our own counting system and money utilised a duodecadic system, and the entire world still uses twelve and twenty-four as a basis for time, a throw-back to the time when many ancient cultures were duodecadic. We still talk of a dozen and 144 (12×12) is a sacred number in mathematical traditions (the twelfth Fibonacci number). Twelve was important in early Mediterranean cultures and the ancient Near East – the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible gives numerous examples of the number (the twelve fountains of water in Elim (Num. 33:9); the measurement, in cubits, of the wall of New Jerusalem shown by the seventh angel (Revelations 21:17); there were twelve tribes of Israel, and of course Christ had twelve apostles.

Islam considers twelve important in that the descendants of Muhammad are traced to the twelfth generation (the group Twelver Shia has ruled Iran since 1501); while the Bektashi dervishes wear headdresses with twelve wedges and have a duodecagonal agate on their belts. Finally, in ancient Egypt there were twelve gates to heaven and to the underworld where Re, the Sun God, spends the night. It is a coincidence that St John’s Revelations also describes twelve gates to the heavenly Jerusalem?

Returning to the Tarot, we find the Knights on their quest at number 12 of the Minor Arcana.

The Knight of Cups is the most emotional Knight – a dreamer, sometimes a bit lost, he is Parsifal on his Grail quest. He is the Knight who relates most to the Grail (with its 144 facets), and has a quiet inner strength and harmony. He is often shy and withdrawn and, reversed, can be incapable of finding his true self, continually searching for perfection and peace of mind.

The Knight of Rods (Wands), meanwhile, is the most creative, intuitive of the Knights. Like all the Knights, he is a searcher; like the Knight of Cups he is also an idealist but unlike the former, he often finds ways to express his ideas. He is a poet, a troubadour, a healer. If reversed he can become quite cynical, angry and driven.

The Knight of Discs (Pentacles) is practical, down-to-earth, realistic and sensual. He takes life as it comes and doesn’t enjoy thinking in philosophic or psychological terms. He is pragmatic, can be extremely attractive and entertaining, and reliable. Reversed, he can also can be pig-headed in the extreme, confused and insensitive.

And lastly, we arrive at the Knight of Swords. This Knight is a bit of an enigma. He’s often seen as the archetypal warrior: young, active, impetuous. Unfortunately this often means he ends up in difficult predicaments. He keeps a brave face on things, and usually appears strong, confident, and brave. This is his persona, a mask; the real man is often wracked with guilt, fear and anger. If he can look inside, he will find real substance there, but if he stays with the persona he will often end up empty, a husk.

ELEVEN: Master or Mute?

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There is a significant difference of opinion in numerological circles as to the significance of the number 11. Many consider eleven to be an angelic or master number, a number for delving into the mysteries. Others see it as negative, forever caught between ten and twelve. The association of eleven with negativity may have emerged with Babylonian myth, which tells of the struggle between Tiamat and the ordering gods. Here Tiamat (chaos) is supported by eleven monstrous beings. However, we might also wish to consider that this may simply be a myth from the early patriarchy, where Tiamat is seen as female, and the ordering gods as male.

Later on we find the Dionysiads, eleven women of ancient Sparta whose group formed to counteract the worst excesses of the Dionysian revels. In medieval times, St Ursula was supposed to have travelled to Cologne in a fleet of eleven boats, each of which carrying 1000 virgins (i.e. 11,000 altogether). Unfortunately it was a dangerous time and they were all martyred. Would this have something to do with the fact that the carnival season in the Rhineland begins at 11.11 on the 11th November each year?

It is probably not significant that soccer teams have eleven players – ten plus the goal keeper… But, we should consider the ‘eleventh hour’ – an hour of significance, and the last time changes can be made to avert disaster.


In the Tarot Majors, eleven is either Justice, or Strength, depending upon your deck. Arthur Waite transposed the two images for reasons he did not elaborate (although pictorially, Justice’s scales might be better illustrated as an 8, albeit on its side). (In the earliest decks Justice may well have been numbered 20, just before The World, so it’s an auspicious, well-travelled card.) If Justice is 11, it’s well-balanced by the two equal 11s on either side, and (at least in our day and age) we might think of it as mute. However, it is more usual to see Strength as 11, and here both aspects of the number are seen, with the angelic or master aspect holding a lion in check. This is fortitude, the inner strength that allows us to control the raging beast within. (The darker aspects of the number might be seen as the Id (the unconscious, powerful instinctive urges and instincts) being held in check by the super-ego or higher self). Thus eleven is about a dialogue with the unconscious, being able to release and resolve our unconscious energies.


In the Minors, the ‘mute’ aspect of the number is seen in the Pages, who symbolise young, tentative energy. The Page of Cups, for example, looks with concern at a large goblet being offered to her. She is not at all sure she will take the cup, even though it is an offering of love – and she is right to be concerned, as her youth may well preclude her ability to deal with the challenges of intimacy.


The Page of Discs (Pentacles) looks fixedly into a large coin. Again, she seems to need help but also may have shut herself away in order to concentrate on the issue. This Page, however, is grounded and sensible, and will probably make her decisions wisely – as long as she does not become too isolated.


The Page of Rods, in contrast, is creative and intuitive, but can become defensive and unhappy if she cannot find a way to express herself. She’s a poet or an artist, and because of that needs – more than any of the other Pages – to delve into her own unconscious. Like the Page of Cups, she’s caught between childhood and adulthood, but what calls to her is not growing up, it’s her soul. She can be quite angry, caught between her idealism and the way she sees the world outside.

Similarly, the Page of Swords is a truth-seeker, driven by the need to stay true. Like Joan of Arc, she will, if need be, go to war to ensure she stands fast by her own integrity. If the card is reversed, she is probably contemplating some action that would compromise that integrity.

The Pages, despite their youth, all feel under pressure to discover something about themselves – without realising that the eleventh hour will come and go many times in their lives, and each time it will leave them wiser and more true to themselves than before.

Origins of the Tarot – Dai Léon (Frog Books)

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Dai Léon’s Origins of the Tarot is a massive tome, the subtitle of which is ‘Cosmic Ordering and Principles of Immortality’. It is an academic book, and the reader may occasionally find the text confusing. Léon seems to wind round and round looking at the same issues from a different perspective each time. It is an engrossing read, as the Sufi/Neoplatonic influences behind the Tarot have not been so explicitly detailed previously and, as other reviewers have pointed out, it’s well overdue. In fact, once you’ve finished the book you may find you want to return to page 1 and begin again – and ‘know the place for the first time’

My biggest gripe with this book is the lack of paginated references. There is an index but none of it is related to a specific page, allowing Léon to make statements such as ‘Once rendered as Image-Exemplars and called Triumphant, those Attributes heralded a spiritual renaissance passed from Eastern Christian and Sufi societies to European spiritual orders. With that, a fourth-wave trans-rational, vision-logic age emerged. It advanced through its youth in centuries following and continues to mature in the twenty-first century.’ My mind immediately teemed with questions: Are we talking about the 15th century or before? Where can we find more about this trans-rational renaissance which passed from the Eastern Church to the West? How did it keep alive between the 15th Century and the 21st? etc. I’d prefer some specific sources – for example when he mentions the Caucasian mummies in the far west of China, which is one of my particular interests.

Having said that, it is a refreshing book, not least because Leon does not follow any of our previous accepted truths. In this way he forces us to step into the position of the Hanged Man, to question everything we’ve been told about the origins of the cards so many of us use day-in, day-out – without actually knowing much about them at all.

ISBN 978-1-58394-261-1

Tarot Archetypes

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If you’ve heard the term, but never understood it, you aren’t alone!

Although archetypes are fundamental to the way our minds work, they’re not that easy to explain. Carl Jung, who coined the term, didn’t make it particularly clear either. He said they are preformed patterns in the psyche, based on instinct – i.e. very basic, inherited thought-forms and ideas which have no specific content at first, but which gradually gain shape and substance as we grow. In other words, they are basic thought-forms we all, as humans, understand: like mother, father, balance, justice, the moon and sun. The archetypal aspect gives them a deeper, wider resonance – so the mother is the Great Mother: symbolically she becomes the earth mother, the Great Goddess, eternally fruitful and abundant, but also terrible and awesome in her power. The Hermit and the Hierophant are both aspects of the Old Wise Man, Jung’s Philemon, who exists in each one of us (he can also be an old wise woman). He gives wise guidance, information from the collective unconscious, and can sometimes be our inner critic.

(from Jung's Red Book)

(from Jung's Red Book)

The Sun is light, warmth, life; centre of our solar system, and symbolic of enlightenment, opening up, coming together…

As Jung says, the archetypes are ‘living psychic forces that demand to be taken seriously’, the ‘bringers of protection and salvation, and their violation has as its consequence the “perils of the soul” known to us from the psychology of the primitives’. (And not just the primitives: we ignore them or mess with them at our peril!)
The archetypes in the Tarot are real, but consisting of pure energy rather than flesh. They can affect us very powerfully. Our human interactions are often coloured by archetypal ‘projections’ – in other words, our unconscious takes something from within our selves and projects it onto another person. When we fall in love, we are usually in love with the contrasexual archetype within ourselves. The resonance this projected image has for us is potent in the extreme, which is why being in love is such an overwhelming experience. It also explains why, when we fall out of love, we realise that we never really knew the human we’ve been nuts about.
Jung identified various archetypes – the trickster, the mother, the father, and the old wise man. The Trickster – the Magician, of course. The Old Wise Man – the Hierophant. But think of Death, of Justice, the Devil, the Star, even the Tower, that shock of recognition that everything we’ve believed in has been a lie!


Jung wrote extensively about the I Ching and alchemy, but in all his work there is only one sentence about the Tarot. I find that really frustrating; he must have been swayed by its dubious reputation. Still, it is worth reading Jung – his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is a very accessible autobiography, and enables us to see a graphic description of how he made his discovery of the archetypal energies at work in his own life. His journal – The Red Book – has recently been published. At £120, it’s not cheap, but for anyone interested in his work it’s a must-have.