Izzy and Coffee Explain the Tarot

Still writing at work! Now with the bonus that I woke up every two hours last night and have turned to various caffeinated beverages to stay focused, or at least give the appearance thereof.

As an occasional reminder: if you like my writing, you can find more over on my Amazon page, Barnes and Noble, Sourcebooks, or other places books are sold. I don’t talk much about the Tarot there, but I do write about people in a variety of times and places getting it on while in the middle of occult hijinks; on Amazon, you can also find my 1930s con artist and elf romance and my non-romance YA novel, Hickey of the Beast. These reminders will keep showing up in text, because the alternative is actually updating the links on the right, and uuuugh.

Last week, I rambled about Temperance and existing in two different worlds. The first card today, The Devil, is in part what happens when Temperance fails, and is one of two successive cards that are usually some variety of bad news.

There’s not much variation in appearance on this one. The Devil, in some form (often horns, often fur, sometimes waaay too many eyeballs–Jesus, medieval art is fucked up) hangs out on an altar while a naked man and woman (who are also sometimes demons, or at least tieflings, judging by the horns) glare at each other while chained to his pedestal. Classically, the poses of all three figures parallel those of the Lovers. (Exceptions: Robin Wood has the man and woman chained to a locked chest, for the reasons below, and the Lisa Frank Tarot features a banana in sunglasses and a leopard-print bikini, flanked by a watermelon slice and a pineapple, also in sunglasses; this is the best depiction of the Devil ever, and is also one of the images on my Twitter feed.)

This isn’t one of the Fucking Obvious Tarot, because it usually doesn’t represent the literal Devil or even necessarily a bad influence, but the meaning is generally pretty simple and unvarying: fear and desire. To quote a teacher of mine, these are two sides of the same coin (for the science-minded, flight-or-fight falls into the first category, and the other two fs are in the second, where your nervous system is concerned–though fear can also increase desire, which is one of the reasons taking a date to a horror movie *can* be a good idea, if you’re into that sort of thing) and each of them has its place in the world. Fear keeps us from getting ourselves killed, and desire makes us want to stick around and enjoy life. (And replicate, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

But they can both be a trap. The hazards of fear are obvious; those of desire are more about going full Queen and trying to get *everything* or holding on too tightly when you should let go, like the story about the monkey and the jar full of nuts. Temperance is about balancing two worlds, but the Devil is about being focused so much on the here and now, or the material, that you don’t see the bigger picture, whether that’s the spiritual elements of life, the social or interpersonal damage you’re doing while you chase your goals or avoid what you fear, or just that a different thing over there would actually make you happier.  Notably, in most traditional depictions, the bindings on the man and woman are loose to nonexistent: they really can get out if they want.

The way I learned to read Tarot is that, when your hopes card and fears card come up, they generally refer to things you shouldn’t hope for or fear, either because they’re going to happen anyway or because they shouldn’t and should happen, respectively. One of the more valuable things my mom told me, for instance, after a breakup in college, was that at thirty I likely wouldn’t be the same person I was at twenty, and I probably wouldn’t want the same person, either. Likewise, most things that seem like the end of the world aren’t, and most things you think are the Holy Grail probably won’t solve all your problems. If the Devil comes up in a reading, it’s likely a sign to think about what you fear and desire, and how that might be holding you back.

Speaking of being held back…The Tower.

It’s a tower! It’s falling! Usually there’s lightning involved and also bodies plummeting from the windows. This, as you may imagine, does not mean anything immediately good, or at least anything immediately comfortable for the people involved. Danger, crisis, destruction, cats and dogs living together, and so forth. However…

Fact I picked up from a book on religious experience and have wanted to use somewhere for a while: in Ancient Greek, “apocalypse” literally means “uncovering.”

So you kind of know where I’m going here. If you don’t: think Ragnarok. Or the Masque of the Red Death. The tower is destroyed, and that completely bites in the short-term, maybe even the medium-term, but the destruction has to happen, because the tower in the image, whatever it was originally, ended up being a trap. Set up impregnable-enough walls and you have a hard time getting out, until some event comes along and shows you both that there’s a world outside and that the things you’ve built and hoarded can’t keep you safe.

In other words: if you buy into what the Devil’s selling, this card is a reminder that you can’t take it with you and that, if you eat right and exercise, you’ll die anyway.  It’s pain and loss, but it’s also freedom and a tough sort of enlightenment: an event that breaks down some kind of borders (physical, emotional, societal, mental) and literally lets some light in, or one that destroys what had to go and leaves the field clear for new growth,

Like the man said, a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

And when it’s finished falling, we have The Star, one of the most good-omened and in a way most complex cards in the deck.

Like Temperance, the central figure in this one has one foot on land and one in the water. Like the figures in the Lovers and the Devil, she’s naked. There are stars above her and a reflecting pool in front of her, and she’s pouring one flask into the pool, one onto the land (which is generally all verdant and healthy-looking). Everything’s calm and peaceful and very free: nobody is binding this woman, or striking her with lightning, or bothering her in any way.

There are a lot of meanings here. “Hope” is the most basic, and the one that comes up the most in some form, as do cleansing and renewal, wisdom through meditation and intuition, and occult adeptness. (Unlike the Magician, the woman here isn’t showing off for potential patrons; unlike the High Priestess or the Hierophant, she’s not serving a role in an organized community; unlike the Hermit, she hasn’t defined herself by shunning that community. She just kind of is, and knows what she’s doing, and does it.) As with Temperance, her feet show that she’s comfortable in two worlds at once, but she’s pouring all of the water out into different places, not balancing the contents between two containers. She’s not being careful about excess or not: I’d argue that she knows that part of life will work itself out.

In reading methods or decks where The Moon and The Sun can mean the experience of being female or male (respectively) or of finding the ideal partner of that sex, The Star (despite being the only one of the trio with a naked adult on it) means the experience of simply being a person, independent of gender. It might actually go further than that, and mean the experience of being a person independent of societal roles, reactions to or attempts to manage those roles, or any of the necessary “clutter” of mortal life. It’s being in the moment and the world, while knowing that there will be others of both, and being okay with all of that. Take a breath, do what you need to do, and trust that the rest will work itself out.

Next time: More Cosmic Forces!















Surprisingly Sober Tarot

Mostly because work is slow, yet inexplicably frowns on me doing shots at my desk. I did eat half a cup of “Pub Mix” from the breakroom, though, so there’s at least the symbolism of being alcohol-adjacent.

The first card today is Death. This is the card that’s always coming up in movies and either portending horrible things or having the medium explain patiently that actually it just means change. Rider, often skeletal, often on pale horse, corpses, sickle, etc.  The Robin Wood deck has a Ghost of Christmas Future-looking guy in a red robe in front of a blossoming white rose; the Lisa Frank deck has a bunny in a tutu riding a rainbow-maned unicorn and laying waste to all multi-colored teddybears in her path, because of course it does.

In one sense, Explanatory Movie Medium is right. Death very rarely means actual death or catastrophe (if there’s a card that unambiguously means things are about to go pear-shaped, it’s generally the Ten of Swords, and in some contexts the Devil or Tower); it does mean comprehensive, profound change; and it specifically means change that you don’t have a lot of say in. You know that platitude about how when God closes a door, he opens a window (or a dress, if you’re Roger Sterling in Mad Men)? This is that. And however you might feel about the window, the door is still closed. Thus, as one variant fortune-cookie ending in college used to go, ending the age of wonders.

Like the Hanged Man was kind of a bigger and more cosmic Hermit, Death is kind of a bigger and more cosmic Wheel of Fortune. Not only does shit happen, shit happens, on occasion, in a really decisive way that you can’t work around. There are forces in the universe greater than you are, and sometimes the answer is “No.” You can maybe prepare for it a little, if only by not getting too focused on any one particular path; you can’t fight it; and it’s probably better to roll with the punches than rage against the heavens.

Going with the parallel theme, Temperance, like Justice, is about balancing two sides. Where Justice involves making a decision about human issues of morality or law, though, Temperance is about keeping all aspects of life balanced: everything in moderation, including moderation, and so on.

The card shows an angel pouring liquid from one goblet into another. Usually they’re standing with one foot in a river and the other on its banks; with that and the wings, you get three of the four cardinal elements. In a card that means not getting carried away, it may be fitting that fire, and thus passion, doesn’t appear so much.

In the Thoth deck, this is Art, and while I still maintain my “Crowley was pretentious as fuck” stance, there’s a certain way in which this makes sense. If you take it as read that the two goblets contain different liquids (water and wine, traditionally), the angel is getting up to some quasi-alchemical, or at least alchemy-suggestive, business here. Art (magical or creative) is about combining different substances to produce something new, thus connecting with alchemy on the other end.

And, of course, this could all apply to making cocktails.

Yes, this can be the tiresome grownup card of tiresome adulthood, and mean balancing your budget and skipping the extra drink at the party–but the traditional depiction suggests more, and justifies its place toward the Cosmic Forces end of the deck. The one-foot-on-land, one-foot-on-water pose gets us back to the Scarborough Fair stuff I mentioned last time, and the wings add to it. This is, or can be, a card about living in more than one world simultaneously, whether that’s balancing normal life with cosmic awareness, working an office job but partying on the weekends, or, I don’t know, business in the front and party in the back.



The drink tonight: Bailey’s Chocolate Cherry, highly recommended!

The card: The Hanged Man.

Not the Hung Man; that’s a whole different archetype and I’m kind of amazed that hasn’t been a thing and that Crowley didn’t make that this card in the Thoth deck, but here we are, and I guess implied lion orgies went better in Edwardian occult circles than dick jokes did. Go figure.

Also, this dude is not hanged in the way we think about hanging. That is, not the immediately lethal way. He’s strung up by one heel, and dangles upside-down, hands behind his back, looking remarkably chill about the whole situation. (A.E. Waite, as quoted on Wikipedia, says “the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering,” which is Victorian for “the guy’s pretty damn relaxed, considering.”) Wiki also notes that this pose parallels the pitture infamanti of Renaissance Italy: apparently if you committed treachery or theft, you got sentenced to be publicly displayed in unflattering art, which I guess evolved over the centuries into “You’re So Vain” and drawing horns and a mustache on your ex’s photos.

In 1393, this was specified as a means of execution for traitors, so I guess it *would* eventually kill you, though the law also specified the traitor be dragged to the gallows on a plank behind a horse, which might have more to do with the actual means of death.

Basically, this card represents an ordeal of some sort, one that the querent might not be able to get through, and generally gaining wisdom through suffering, or trying to do that. (Odin on the Tree of Knowledge generally comes up here, for example.) Generally speaking, the ordeal in question is about patience and not trying to control the situation (very few of the Major Arcana, especially the later ones, are about Doing the Thing and striding manfully around punching people in the face and so forth, and the reason why may be a subject for another time). It’s also got tones of self-sacrifice for a greater goal, often a personal one, q.v. Odin etc.

There are a lot of means of self-sacrifice, though. This particular one stands out in two ways. One, like crucifixion a thousand-odd years before, we’re talking about a pretty shameful punishment in its society: the pitture infamanti were for traitors, thieves, and fraudsters; hanging in general was for peasants, whereas nobility got to get their heads chopped off. This is not a glorious martyrdom. Part of the ordeal in question might involve other people thinking you’re some variety of schmuck, or confronting aspects of yourself that make you feel stupid or bad.

Two, someone hanging from the tree is suspended between Heaven and Earth. Magic does a lot with what’s officially called “liminal space”: places and times that are neither one thing or another, like thresholds and sunset and that acre of land where the dickhead from Scarborough Fair wants a girl to plant crops. (I’m sorry, but if I’m going to make a whole goddamn impossible shirt, I want a better reward than being some dude’s “true love,” like, there are a bunch of hot men in the world and many of them can supply their own damn wardrobes.)  (And the added verse about “well at least *try* and true love demands impossible tasks” does not help: if someone wants a sufficient show of effort for effort’s sake, that person is pretty much never worth it and deserves to die alone.) (This has been a PSA from your local romance novelist. Love!)

Anyhow! So what you get here is the image of ignominious, passive self-sacrifice and being willing to undergo an uncomfortable period of suspension and inactivity, in order to bridge the gap between two or more worlds. There’s a lot of Jesus there, and also Odin, and maybe that one bit in Conan where he got nailed to the Tree of Woe and then Valeria had to fight off the dead to bring him back, if you kinda merge a bunch of scenes. Fittingly, this card begins an arc of three that are about, rather that the interaction of people and forces, either changes of state or being in two states at the same time–and which bridge the gap between the human world of the previous cards and the world of Greater Powers, or Universal Forces, or Really Weird Shit.

But I got super rambly about the Hanged Man, so I’ll do the other two next week.



Returning, With More Tarot

The holidays consumed me. Now there is a ginormous blizzard outside, and I’m in here with food and tea containing another of Dr. McGillicudy’s fine products, this one butterscotch liqueur. So let’s Tarot.

Appropriately for both the post-holiday withdrawal and my current Fortress-of-Solitude-but-without-Kryptonian-holograms surroundings, the first card we deal with tonight is The Hermit. This is just about always an old guy with a lamp and some mountains (unless you’re in weird genre-specific decks, where YMMV and will probably include anime dudes or giant orcas), and is one of a subset of the Major Arcana that I like to call The Fucking Obvious Tarot Cards. Like, there are some cards that seem to mean one thing and don’t (blah blah Death as transformation, we’ll get into it later), and there are some, especially later, that are abstract or weird, but The Hermit, The Lovers, Justice, and Temperance all at least to some degree are exactly what they say on the tin.

Of these, the Hermit is the most obvious. It means…being a hermit. Withdrawal. Solitude. Spiritual contemplation. A search for cosmic truth, or inner truth. Hanging out in a cave, letting your hair grow, probably developing some body odor issues, the whole fucking Jedi pension plan. (Go ahead, name a senior Jedi who wasn’t all about living in the kind of backwater isolation where you have to hike a mile and fight a giant centipede to get a damn Manhattan. Can’t do it, can you?) (I do not accept Extended Universe references.) (Also I know Star Wars Universe wouldn’t have a Manhattan, because no point of reference. Spacehattan. Whatever. Shut up.) The Lovers and Justice both have complications, but this dude is pretty straightforward; the complications in any given reading basically boil down to whether this is a good idea, and whether it means you or someone in your life.

It also makes a lot of sense for this card to fall where it does in the pattern, whether you think Justice or Strength comes before it. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how the cards go from specific types of people to the interaction between people, people and forces, whatever. Now we’re back to a lone person–but one who’s reacting to interaction, in that choosing-to-avoid-a-thing-is-still-engaging-with-the-thing pop psych sense. After the willing harmony of the Lovers, and the forced harmony of the Chariot, you get either Strength or Justice, which are some pretty strenuous cards even if they’re positive: important decisions about right and wrong, subduing another person or force to your will, and/or coming to terms with wilder aspects of yourself. (If you’re using the deck where Strength is Lust, well, orgies are tiring as well, or so I hear.)

The Hermit, then, is someone who’s been through all that–the “guy” aspect is probably down to patriarchy, but the “old” bit is crucial–and said, you know what, fuck that noise.  Get off my lawn. Not my circus, not my monkeys. This can be a card about spiritual insight and wisdom, as I said above, or it can be about the more mundane side of things: learning to mind your own business, to manage your own affairs, and to entertain yourself quietly so that you’re not the person everyone wants to kill on public transportation NOT THAT I HAVE FEELINGS ABOUT THAT.


The Wheel of Fortune

As far as I know, Vanna White has never appeared on any version of this card, which is really a pity in a way: if there’s one thing Tarot decks need, it’s more women in sequined dresses with eighties hair.

The card shows a wheel, of course. Sometimes it involves elements, sometimes Evangelists or astrological creatures, sometimes a person in various stages of being happy or unhappy. Often there’s a Sphinx at the top, or a person turning it.

“Shit happens,” is the essence of this card. The world is going to do what the world does, and there’s only so much anyone can do about that. The sphinx or person symbolizes the ability to cope with that through reason and wisdom–but part of reason and wisdom is knowing that luck doesn’t last, one way or another, and that you can’t count on it as a solution. Things can get better, but they don’t have to, so waiting for that shouldn’t be your plan. (Best Russian proverb I encountered doing research this week: “Hunger is not your aunt; it won’t bring you a pie.”)

In a reading, this card may mean that the querent’s luck is about to change. It also may just be a reminder that shit happens, ordinary life is full of ups and downs, and you do not have either a Great or Tragic Destiny.

Sequentially, this is the Tarot turning away from people again, and away from interaction or not, toward abstract concepts and weirdness. It might be one of the first bits of wisdom the Hermit learns.


Lady with scales and a sword, sometimes blindfolded. You can see some version of her outside most courthouses; if John Ashcroft and his legion of moral decency haven’t gotten involved, she often has her tits out.

If you’ve been paying attention since the top of the page, you’ll remember that this is one of the Fucking Obvious Tarot Cards. It’s…justice. Fairness, moral decisions, responsibility, balancing right and wrong, putting on a bat costume and lurking broodingly on top of tall buildings, et cetera. Even the complications aren’t so much complications as they are the dark side (look I know with the Star Wars references here, haven’t even seen TLJ yet, it’s just where my mind is at) of the archetype.

“Justice” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. We like to think of it as this ideal concept, unbiased and uncorrupted and balanced by mercy (and there’s a whole other magical sephiroth-y thing going on there) but that’s not how things always work. Fictionally, there’s Judge Frollo and Judge Doom and that bunch of evil undead judges Judge Dredd fought (and Dredd himself wasn’t a great guy, in the way of weirdo British comic “heroes” of the seventies and eighties), the Sheriff of Nottingham, and so on. In real life…well, McCarthy, the Inquisition, the Salem trials, and so on, plus I think we all know by now that white people see a *very* different face of the “justice system” than people of color do. On a personal scale, “justice” can sometimes mean “vengeance,” or just petty little Harper-Valley-PTA-style prying and judging.

There’s a reason–other than absinthe-fueled Victorian astrological wackiness–that this card and Strength get switched a lot. They’re both theoretically about abstract concepts, but they’re also very much about the way those ideas work around our interactions with other people. And, in part because of that, they’re notions that can cause a lot of harm when applied carelessly or inappropriately: the digitalis of principles, if you will. As I said above, even when they’re at their best, both Strength and Justice take a toll on everyone involved. Sometimes the aftermath leads to the Hermit. Sometimes it leads to the first card I’ll talk about next time, and one that’s in some ways the Hermit’s Extra-Strength counterpart: The Hanged Man.

Look at me, using a segue and everything.