Tonight’s episode brought to you by the rum cream in my fridge. Rum: one of the two best prefixes for “cream”. Cream: one of the two best suffixes for “rum”.
Having defined the Tarot, and been snide about major occult figures into the bargain (being snide about major occult figures being about a fifth of why I do anything ever), I will move on to the first three cards, or The World’s Most Awkward Threesome.
Card 0, Because The Tarot Thinks it’s Clever: The Fool.
This card has a guy, or a girl, or an enby person, or in one case a teddy bear in keytar sunglasses (look if you can’t guess this Tarot by now there’s little I can do for you) walking blithely along and about to fall the fuck off something, usually a cliff. Sometimes he (the “dude” interpretation is most common) has a white rose. Sometimes he’s playing a pipe, or dancing. Sometimes he’s got all his stuff in a bindle like he’s a cartoon hobo. Usually there’s a dog of some sort, up on its hind legs.
(In case you’re wondering, yes, there are like three Wizard of Oz tarot decks, and yes, Dorothy is the Fool in all of them, because of course she is. Also Baum’s mother-in-law was a Theosophist, so for all I know the whole story may be a complicated allegory to the Tarot, which implies that the World is Depression-Era Kansas if you go by the movie, which is completely goddamn appalling.)
So okay. The Fool belongs to the class of Tarot cards I like to call “completely fucking obvious” (see also Justice). It means…foolishness. Innocence. A certain blithe and childlike quality: it is totally the Manic Pixie Tarot Card. The Fool is somebody who doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of shit about what the neighbors will think or clearly this can’t be possible because everyone says it’s impossible or this will not lead to having a 401k and a good source of health insurance. He wanders along. He does what he feels like.
Sometimes this is good–new ideas, revolution, braving the unknown, taking chances without overthinking them, all great stuff. Sometime’s it’s not: it’s *good* to have a 401k and insurance. Societal rules can be bigoted and stupid, but they can also be stuff like “wear deodorant” and “let other people talk sometimes”. The Fool can mean “You are about to walk off a goddamn cliff, watch out!” or, more positively, it can mean that, yeah, you’re about to walk off a goddamn cliff, but in this particular case the universe will run on Looney Tunes physics and you can Roadrunner your way across as long as you don’t look down.
Card 1: The Magician
This card shows a guy (and it is nearly always a guy, and I will get into Tarot and gender politics later) at a table with the symbols of four elements on it: cup, sword, staff, and pentacle/coin. Usually there are roses and lilies. He’s dressed like “a magician”: in one Tarot I have, this involves Gandalf hair and white robes, in another a horned crown, and in a third, laser eyeballs, a pyramid, and a headband with an infinity sign on it. (It’s an odd deck.) (And actually not Lisa Frank, which features another bear, this one with a top hat.)
The Magician used to be The Mountebank, and either way is about using the sort of verbal, performative/communicative smarts that get called “Intelligence” in D&D. (You thought I wouldn’t bring tabletop games into this? You don’t know me very well.) It can mean creativity, originality, diplomacy, and trickery–all the attributes associated with Hermes, Thoth (hey it’s that guy again!), or Odin. Dude’s got all the elemental symbols because he can manipulate all the elements, and the red and white roses are also about balance–passion and purity, the body and the mind, rum and Coke, whatever.
Balance and/or opposing forces show up a lot in the Tarot–not in every card, but I’d say a good majority. If Tarot has an overall message, I’d say it’s “life is pretty complicated, and figuring out how to work with all those complications at once is key.” Or, as the King of All Cosmos would say: Earth really is full of things! (You thought you’d get away without a video game reference? Ha ha ha see above.) (The Tarot probably does not advocate rolling everything into a Katamari, in most situations.) (Although, The World.)
Anyhow, The Magician is about skills. Not only does the guy know things, he can do things with that knowledge. This could be good, if he’s you or a friend; this could also mean he could convince you to buy all-natural Viagra or let him crash on your couch for “just a couple days” and still be there a month later. Also, he may use his skills for or on other people, but fundamentally he’s a solitary act–a one-man show, at least where the issue at hand is concerned.
Card 2: The High Priestess
A woman, generally with a book or scroll, a crown or headdress, with lots of blue in the card and at least one crescent moon. If you get old-style decks, or those attempting to be old-style, she was originally The Popess, which is a great title and involves a lot of intra-Catholic-church urban legends and/or drama; she can also be the Virgin Mary or Juno, depending on how the deck designer feels about things in general. The Raider-Waite crowd were like “this is way too confusing for England, plus we’re waving our hands around about Greco-Roman-Egyptian-Hindu-and-maybe-Celtic-if-you’re-Yeats mythology” and changed it to the High Priestess, which is what most of us know today. (They also put in Masonic symbols, according to Wiki, if you’re into Masonry in either its actual or its weirdo-JFK-slash-Jack-the-Ripper-time-travel-conspiracy forms.)
The High Priestess is the WIS to the Magician’s INT. (As the meme goes: intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.) Her knowledge isn’t aimed at manipulating the situation, but understanding and coping with it. It’s largely personal and internal: this can be intuition, lived experience, direct perception, or mystical insight. It’s also generally about relating to other people, or to the community–to be a high priestess, you kind of need to have a coven or a temple or similar. If the Magician can control the situation, the High Priestess can guide people through it.
A note: neither of these is better than any other. I’m not about to get all “wymyn’s ways of knowing” on you, because that is bullshit, and if I ever non-ironically use the word “wymyn” please find and kill me. Frankly, I don’t believe that these cards have to have the genders they do (and the same goes for Emperor and Empress, when we get there, and for that matter the face cards in the minor arcana) but I’m full of SJW bolshevism. There’s no reason why abstract solitary intellectual practice can’t be a female thing, community-centered internal wisdom can’t be a male thing, or either of them can’t involve enby or genderqueer folks.
Moving on from smashing the patriarchy: the High Priestess can also mean a ritualized or sacred approach to sexuality. This is more of a subtexty thing, but because the original was all about having a chick in a place traditionally occupied by a (theoretically, although the Borgias) celibate guy, and the revised version was developed by a crowd of people who also were less-than-totally orthodox in their approach to sex (though still pretty straitlaced by modern standards, mostly), it’s a subtext that’s there.
These first three cards are about power, the self, and the community. The Fool’s power comes from ignorance; the Magician’s from knowledge; the High Priestess’s from wisdom. The Fool throws himself–ideally not his dog–into the path of whatever happens and just rolls with it–the ultimate drifter, untouched and untouching. The Magician manipulates and shapes; the High Priestess integrates and sees the bigger picture and the world around her.
This all leads up to the next set of three, which are about temporal power and then the maybe-valuable, maybe-sketchy union of temporal and spiritual, and also Robin Wood’s issues with organized religion.
Join me next time for Drunk Izzy Explains the Tarot, or, Holy Shit, I’m Actually Getting Vaguely Philosophical Here.