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10 August 2008 @ 02:39 pm
A lot of occult and esoteric writers make a big point of explaining that their writings and interpretations are not for "the masses," that only someone with genuine occult aspirations will be able to understand them and make use of them. There are those that make the same claim about the Tarot itself, as a whole system, that uses by "ordinary people" are misguided and doomed to failure.

This type of thing has a long history in the occult world, of course, and I've noted it in the past coming from both Waite and Crowley. But at least they both had a clear concept of who they thought was worthy to understand their cards and their writings: it was someone who was initiated into their occult orders (and, in many cases, who had reached at least a certain level therein.) That's easy enough. What isn't so obvious, though, is what the modern torchbearers of the occult tradition mean by their updated versions of the same claims. I don't think I've ever seen these people being clear on what they think characterizes a real esoteric seeker, and who qualifies. I've seen this sort of thing coming from everyone from Rachel Pollack to jktarot (warning on that link: if you're anything like me, reading it is apt to put you in a seriously bad mood).

I have to suspect that the purpose of these things is (consciously or subconsciously) to stroke the egos of people who consider themselves to be real esoteric seekers, while shaming those that don't. And therein lies my interest in the question, because I'm never quite sure where I stand and whether I'm supposed to feel ego-stroked or ashamed. I know Waite or Crowley would consider me to be a dabbler, and I'm okay with that. I mostly consider myself to be a dabbler. I just don't have the time to get seriously into these things. I don't like it, but there it is. A lot of esotericism falls into the "someday" category with me. On the other hand, I really do care about these things, I want to learn more, I have a broad idea of what my deficiencies are and how I should go about correcting them, and I occasionally make motions in that direction (see my last post for an example of precisely this). But when I do, I am so often confronted with this language decrying dabblers.

I want to clarify that I'm not looking for sympathy here, or comments saying "Aw, you're a real occultist, don't pay any mind to those mean people." I just don't quite understand this phenomenon, and why there's so much animosity to those of us who don't have the time and energy to devote to "serious" study, but who do want to study nonetheless.
02 August 2008 @ 11:54 pm
I recently read the book Dreaming the Future, by Clifford Pickover, which is a broad survey of divination methods. Some of the information in the book is interesting, and I like his approach (skeptical but open-minded), but unfortunately I don't feel I can wholeheartedly recommend the book because it's extremely poorly organized and has more proofreading errors than I've ever seen in a published book.

The most amusing part of the book deals with "The Antinoüs Prophecies," which are a set of nine prophecies that the author himself wrote in "Nostradamoid" style and gave to various people to interpret. In general, people fit the prophecies to world events, predicting things like World War II, the sinking of the Titanic, and the American Revolution. One particularly determined interpreter read each quatrain as describing the demise of IBM at the hands of Microsoft. (You can see the prophecies toward the bottom of this page).

The book also made me want to try automatic writing, not so much out of any desire to try to contact spirits, but just to see what happens.

But the most interesting thing in the book from my perspective was the short section on geomancy. I had heard of it essentially only in the Book of Thoth, in which Crowley says that the seven and eight of Disks are in the form of the geomantic figures Rubeus and Populus, respectively. I've had that on my (long) list of "things to figure out about the Thoth" for years, without doing anything about it. So the figures' appearance in Dreaming the Future was a pleasant surprise, answering a question I hadn't bothered to seriously ask yet.

I'm glad I started out with the Pickover book, because the Wikipedia article on geomancy is rather odd and incomplete, and seems to be written for the occult specialist rather than a general audience. Geomantic figures is more focused but probably a better introduction. The other important related web link I've found is Crowley's Liber 96 (html or pdf--the pdf version is easier to read). It's a more detailed resource than anything else I've found but apparently includes blinds (intentional inaccuracies to, as it says at the top of the html version, "baffle any one who may seek to prostitute it to idle curiosity or to fraud") so requires some critical reading. I've only skimmed it so far, so I don't know how obvious the blinds might be.

Geomancy turns out to be a method of divination in which you start by making 16 lines of marks on the ground, randomly, and then counting whether there's an odd or even number of marks in each row. Then you use that to build figures of four rows of dots, one dot for even and two for odd. These figures are combined in various ways. The four that are produced directly by your 16 lines of marks are called the Mother figures, which are combined to form Daughters, Nephews, Witnesses, and finally a single Judge. Each figure has a divinitory meaning. For example, Populus, which is on the 8 of Disks and is simply four rows of two dots each, relates to a gathering or assembly of people and to Cancer and the Moon, and is a neutral sign.

Where you go from here depends on how complicated you want the whole thing to be. Pickover's method simply uses the Judge as the final answer. Crowley's entails a lot of complex astrological calculations, and reminds me in its complexity of the Golden Dawn's preferred Tarot operation (more than a single spread), the Opening of the Key. It's interesting, and absolutely esoterically correct, but not terribly practical for use on a day-to-day basis. Meanwhile, Pickover's method seems a little over-simplified, not least because the way that the Judge is derived means that it's always going to contain an even number of dots--so half of the figures aren't even possible answers using his method. I suspect that as I play with it, I'll find some sort of middle road that's practical but incorporates enough complexity for me.
30 March 2008 @ 01:49 pm
I finally finished trimming my Thoth this week, and the results are stunning. I definitely recommend it. It's amazing how much the grey borders suck the color out of the cards.

I used an Exacto knife and a cork-backed ruler to cut them. I know a lot of people use scissors, but on the large cards I'd have had to do it in more than one stroke with any pair of scissors I own. The Exacto knife worked pretty well. It's not perfect, and in particular there are a few cards that the knife slipped on slightly. It's less than a millimeter in all cases, but it's still noticeable to the touch. Still, there's no noticeable bias in shuffling that I can determine, though I might have to be careful if I cut the cards.

After trimming, I sanded down the edges a bit with fine sandpaper. I was skeptical about this step, but it did help even them out, and got rid of some of the irregularities where I'd cut too little. I have yet to round the corners. For now I'm just enjoying looking at the geometry of the cards without the borders intervening. I will round them, though, because I'm worried about them fraying. They already are, a bit, after the sanding.

I did my first reading with the trimmed cards a few days ago, and it was incredible. The colors were incredible and the connections between the cards were clearer than I'm used to. One nice thing is that since I did study and use the cards extensively before trimming them, I know all the names of the pip cards and can choose to use them when that seems like the right thing to do. In particular, in this reading the 8 of Swords came up, and "Interference" was exactly what I was feeling. For me, it's not about getting rid of or ignoring the card titles; I know them, and I'll use them if they seem appropriate, just like all the other information that's not necessarily printed on the cards.

I haven't tried using them for meditation yet. I'm not sure how that would go. I think in that case, having the border might actually be helpful as a way of focusing yourself into the card. On the other hand, having the larger image would help a lot. One of the first things I thought when I bought and looked through the big deck, before trimming it, was that they would have been so much easier to meditate with. It's much harder to focus on the smaller ones.

Talking myself into trimming a deck was a big part of the reason I started the study that spawned this journal. It's grown into a lot more than that, obviously, and so trimming was kind of like icing on the cake. I would have been happy with what I learned even if I'd never trimmed. The degree to which the Thoth can speak once you've spent some time with it is incredible, and I have a hard time making myself use another deck.

I've been stuck for a while on trying to learn how the Trumps fit onto the paths on the Tree of Life. I think I'm finally unstuck, thanks to some helpful people over at Aeclectic, and hopefully will be moving forward (and posting more) now. I'm making it a goal of mine to actively learn and create, rather than passively take in what other people produce, which is a trap I'd been falling into recently.
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07 January 2008 @ 09:32 pm
I am very picky about my Tarot spreads. I'm not a fan of the novelty spreads--you know, like a spread called "The Key to His Heart" that's shaped like a key. (I made that up off the top of my head, but I'd be surprised if it didn't exist.) It's popular to bash the Celtic Cross these days, but I actually like it for what it does. If you want a detailed, many-card overview of a specific situation, then in my book it's as good as it comes, especially since it's stood the test of time so well. I learned the spread from Joan Bunning's site (linked above) years ago, and I prefer her take on the spread over anyone else's. What captures my imagination about her version the Celtic Cross--and any spread--is the symmetry, and the way that the positions reflect the meanings. In my opinion, some of the variants, particularly the one that has the "below" and "behind" positions as "distant past" and "more recent past," respectively, lose that.

What I don't like about most of the novelty spreads is that they lack that symmetry, that sense of fitting together, the sense that given some of the positions, others are inevitable. It lets you read the cards in pairs or larger sections, to follow a thread all the way through a reading. When we say something like "A figure in a card facing to the left is oriented toward the past," it only makes sense if we're seeing the past on the left side of the spread. It doesn't make any sense at all if the past is both to our left and below us, symbolically--much less if the past and the future are oriented on the spread only with respect to where someone thought they'd look good on the teeth of the key to his heart.

I don't use the Celtic Cross very often because I rarely feel the need for a spread that large. Generally, I use one card, a three-card spread, or something of my own invention in the 5-6 card range. When I invent spreads, it's always with the principle of symmetry in my mind. I suppose it's a reflection, in its way, of "As above, so below." If my spread is disordered, how can I expect to get clarity out of it? On the other hand, if I can put everything I want to know from this spread into its proper relation to everything else, then I've already begun the process of getting clarity out of it, even before I start shuffling.

And that's another part of why I rarely use the Celtic Cross. It's not just that it doesn't allow me to include the creation of the spread in the process of reading. It's more that in the context of a specific situation, when reading for myself, I usually already know the answer even in my conscious mind, and I just need the clarity of the reading situation to bring it out. So it's not necessarily to my benefit to do a large spread.

I keep saying that the Celtic Cross should only be used in a specific situation, and I want to clarify that. I know a lot of people use it for general readings, and that's actually a pet peeve of mine. If you use the Celtic Cross, it is going to focus on a specific situation anyway. It makes no sense otherwise--since when does a general overview of your life involve an outcome? How could we possibly have the hubris to try to sum up your entire past in a single card (or two, if you use that variation)? So if you want to know about a situation, for goodness' sake, ask about a situation!

That said, I actually think spreads of that size are more often useful for general readings. I like the idea of the astrological house spread, but in real life I'm not sufficiently familiar with astrology to get all the possible information out of that one. Instead, I actually favor using a ten- or fifteen-card (depending on how ambitious you want to be) four elements spread, with 2-3 cards per element and an additional pair/trio either for spirit or for an overview (but not both!) All of these larger spreads are ambitious and tiring, but that seems like the best way to get your energy's worth if you actually want a general overview.
06 January 2008 @ 06:10 pm
Here is a very interesting article about the correlation of Tarot suits to the four Western elements. I think it's fascinating to look at the other possibilities, other than the four used by the Golden Dawn and many modern Tarot readers. I also particularly like the author's suggestion of considering each suit as potentially encompassing all four elements. I'd never thought of that before, and I think it has the potential to open up readings interestingly, particularly with Marseilles-style decks.

I'll confess here that, despite my love for the Thoth and other decks that use the "standard" correspondences, I would actually prefer the swords-fire and wands-air correspondence. I came to Tarot via Paganism, where that way around is fairly common (I wonder when and why the split from Golden Dawn correspondences came about?), and it just makes more sense to me. I've gotten used to the other way around, though, and I might have to deal with some serious cognitive dissonance if I were to go back to doing ritual frequently--especially if I wanted to incorporate Tarot into it.

On the other hand, I respect the idea that any possible combination of correspondences *could* make sense, if you think about it right.
03 January 2008 @ 10:40 pm
I used to draw daily or weekly cards on a regular basis, but I've fallen away from that practice lately. In part, the Thoth study took its place, and in part it just got to be too time-consuming. I would draw a card in the evening, and then the next evening I would pull that card out of every deck I owned and write about whatever struck me in one, any, or all of the cards. Then I would pull out all of my Tarot books and write about anything that struck me in any of their descriptions of the card. I like looking back at those readings--they chronicle my life and thoughts of those periods. I could bring out anything from some minor occurrence in my daily life to my philosophy of life in general.

This was starting to get cumbersome when I had five decks and about ten books, and now I think it would be impossible. I miss doing that, but I simply can't use all of my decks at once anymore. I think it's partly because I quit, though, that I don't know my newer decks as well. It was a great way to get to know a new deck in a real situation. So what I'm going to do this year, is to follow the examples of Quirkeries and Tarot Dame, and draw a card a day from one deck only, using a different deck every week. I'm going to go through the decks in the order that I got them, so this week I've been working with the Röhrig Tarot.

I'm not going to post my readings here like AJ and Tarot Dame do, though--as I hinted above, they just tend to be too personal and cathartic for that. I do hope to post some thoughts on each deck, though.

As for my Thoth study, it's still moving along, sort of. I've been reading about the Qabalah and don't have much that's worth posting at the moment. I'm just waiting for it all to sink into my brain and start to make sense. That could take a while.
04 December 2007 @ 07:45 pm
I've been meaning to do this for a while. Livejournal only allows free users to have a maximum of ten links in the sidebar, and I know of far more Tarot sites worth visiting than that. Unfortunately, I rarely visit some of them because they aren't in my sidebar...and they aren't in my sidebar because I rarely visit them. So I'm just going to make a post with blogs, and link to that from the sidebar.

Shuffle, by Corrine Kenner
The Tarot Channel
78 Notes to Self
Tarot Dame
Marseille Music
Eye Rhyme
Roswila's Tarot Gallery & Journal
The Tarot Cafe
Willow Tree Tarot
Archertarot's Weblog
Tarot by Sonic
The Red Tent
Mary K. Greer's Tarot Blog
Arcana XV

And one in Spanish, for those that can read it:
El Intuitivo
02 December 2007 @ 10:20 pm
Last year, a good friend of mine received the Medieval Scapini Tarot as a gift. He asked me to sit down and look through it with him.

After I'd glanced at each of the cards, I handed it back to him. "It's nice," I said, "and I'd like to spend some time with it someday. But it's not a good beginner's deck at all."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Well, because it doesn't follow the Rider-Waite-Smith system, which is the standard system of Tarot interpretations in the English-speaking world, at all."

"And why should that matter?" he asked me with a puzzled look.

"Well, because all of the books are written with RWS in mind."

"So what? A beginner won't have read all of the books!"

It was like the proverbial lightbulb going on in my head. Of course a beginner won't have read all of the books, and they don't even necessarily have to. And even if they do, who's to say that having a deck that agrees perfectly with your books is necessarily a good thing? I've written a little before about the beginnings of my Tarot journey. I didn't start with RWS or a clone, and I actually think that's part of why I'm still interested today. In my opinion, one of the most interesting things about Tarot is finding the differences and similarities among decks, and trying to understand why they are the way they are. Obviously, that won't be the case for everyone, but it's doing a disservice to our beginners to assume that the opposite will be.

So now I believe there's exactly one criterion that makes a deck a good beginner's deck: It inspires a beginner. If it doesn't inspire you to know and/or do more, it doesn't matter how many books are written about that deck. It doesn't matter whether there's a coherent system behind it or not. It doesn't matter if it's a highly sought after out-of-print rarity or something you found on clearance. What matters is how you respond to it.

The only thing that makes the RWS a "good beginner's deck" is that it has inspired a lot of beginners. You read stories by people who came to Tarot in the early 1970s, bought the 1JJ Swiss, and didn't feel inspired by Tarot until they got the RWS instead. Does that make the 1JJ Swiss a bad beginner's deck? No, it means that it was a bad beginner's deck for those people. In general, I'll admit that it could be a difficult deck for beginners because of the non-illustrated minors--but who's to say that one beginner won't be absolutely inspired by those minors? I'm not willing to make that decision for someone else, and I don't think the rest of the Tarot community should be either.

EDIT: I should have been keeping up with my Tarot blogs. It turns out that Arcana XV wrote a very similar post recently. Good to know I'm not the only one that thinks this way.
01 December 2007 @ 09:20 pm
"My father found a tumor in his chest
It was his body, but it scared me half to death
It scared me back to life, just a little more awake
Miracles are brutal, but they never make mistakes."
-Stuart Davis, "Love Causes Cancer"
12 November 2007 @ 09:46 pm
The first Tarot reader I met in my adult life was a friend in college. He would occasionally read for our friends in a group, and had a fairly unusual approach, by the standards I've learned since. He used the RWS deck and Waite's original divinatory interpretations from the PKT, pretty much exclusively. At least in his hands, this produced almost laughably dramatic readings. We were, after all, a bunch of college students, 18 and 19 years old, generally middle class-ish, mostly interested in our hypothetical love lives and future careers. We were a laid-back, fairly drama-free group. And yet, hardly a reading went by without the appearance of the word "treachery." It wasn't exactly "You will meet a tall dark stranger," but it came close sometimes. (I don't think any of us wrote those readings down, so I can't say anything about whether they seem more realistic in retrospect; at the time they seemed highly unlikely.)

He explained this by saying that really, the Tarot was a better tool for exploring the fates of nations than the love lives of college students. Although he never shared these with us, he said that he sometimes did readings on the political issues of the day, with presumably more intelligible results than he got for us. Certainly there's more room for intrigue in politics.

When I started learning Tarot, shortly after this, I never had that problem. Of course, I bypassed Waite and the old divinatory meanings that he was drawing from pretty completely, especially at first. I found the Tarot easy to apply to my non-dramatic, mostly psychological problems.

But now that I'm learning the I Ching, I'm finding that I'm having the same problem that my friend had. The I Ching seems tailor-made to affairs of state, rather than to ordinary problems an a human scale. The term "chün tzu," which Wilhelm and Baynes translate as "the superior man," actually means "young nobleman," the person who (in my understanding) was originally supposed to be consulting the I. Naturally, a young nobleman in feudal China would have been directly concerned with politics. I'm not a young nobleman in feudal China.

For example, I recently drew Hexagram 16, "Providing for" or "Enthusiasm." The Image here, according to the Karcher translation, is:

Providing-for, advantageous to install feudatories to move legions.

I know it's not impossible to come up with a metaphorical interpretation for this, especially when you move to the Wilhelm-Baynes translation:

Enthusiasm. It furthers one to install helpers
And to set armies marching.

But the underlying image is still martial and political, and generally something I have no experience with. As I said, it's not that I can't apply this to my life; it's just that I find it more difficult than applying the images of the Tarot. Maybe it's just a matter of experience? I don't know.