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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

Tarot: Meeting the Empress's gaze

Intégrisme II: Meeting the Empress's gaze

Some time ago, on a discussion board, I posted some critical reflections on Jodorowsky and Costa's La Voie du Tarot. At that time, I was still using a variety of decks, including the RWS, regularly.

I no longer use those illustrated decks nearly as often. I'm exploring why. And in the course, I'm also putting together some reflections on Flornoy's wonderful reconstruction of the Jean Noblet Tarot.

Decks you don't have to argue with

The use of any oracle raises obvious questions of authority. For me, this is key. To deal a handful of cards and hope to find insight and advice in what, to any external and objective opinion, is a merely random collection of symbols to which an entirely arbitrary set of meanings are attached, begs the question of why we expect insights from a game of chance. Anyone who uses the Tarot half seriously needs to answer this question for themselves.

Now, throughout my fairly long career of using the Tarot, and using esoteric decks, I have found myself arguing with the cards and their creators. Every esoteric deck raises this kind of issue. And perhaps non-esoteric decks do also; for every esoteric author on Tarot from Court de Gébelin forwards has chosen to amend and correct the Tarot and its history. Court de Gébelin decided that ignorant printers had put Le Pendu upside down. In his illustrations, he "fixed" it.

What this means in practice is that esoteric authors on Tarot - and esoteric users of Tarot - tend to argue with the cards.

Arguing with the cards: if I were not a Gemini, I might never have noticed. But I'm an air sign, which in the Golden Dawn tradition makes the suit of Swords my representative. And the RWS and Crowley traditions uniformly treat the Swords negatively. This seemed to jive with neither their numerological or elemental attributions too well. It seemed almost a personal affront. I'm a Swords person. Hooray for Swords!

(Their approach may, however, be following genuine traditions of inherited cartomancy. As such, we should tread cautiously before discarding it!)

Arguing with the cards: it offends modern sensibilities to hear that officials of several churches sought to suppress the Popess and the Pope from the Tarot, for sectarian or pious reasons. So what do most esoteric decks do? All English language esoteric decks I know of seem to suppress the Popess and the Pope, giving them names that strip away some of their lovely ambiguity.

Arguing with the cards: if you are Wiccan or neo-Pagan, you might take issue with some of the Christianizing imagery of the RWS deck, its Ace of Cups with a dove descending from heaven bearing a sacramental wafer marked with a cross. So instead you have paganizing decks like the Robin Wood tarot, a RWS tradition deck by a more recent fantasy illustrator, that removes all that. Somewhat oddly to me, the role of the male Wiccan cleric is given to the Magician rather than the Hierophant, who in the Robin Wood deck remains a Pope of sorts, though drawn unflatteringly. But Robin Wood remakes Judgment, with its traditional image of obviously Christian origin, into a new symbol of symbolic rebirth out of a cauldron.

The awesomeness of ambiguity

And the problem with this sort of remaking, the sort of thing that provokes argument, is that it also strips away ambiguities. And room for multiple interpretations is something that all oracles from Delphi forward have needed.

Compare Robin Wood's Judgment with the traditional image of the angel sounding the trumpet and the earth yielding forth the resurrected dead. This is an unambiguously Christian image, showing that the card is a product of an unambiguously Christian culture. Spiritual rebirth is one meaning it easily encompasses: "The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." (I Cor. xv:52)

That's one way of looking at it, informed by background and history. And there's another:

Tuba, mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum
Coget omnes ante thronum.

"The trumpet, casting its awesome sound through the tombs of the nations, summons all before the throne" where the dead will face the judgment of God. This is why the card is called Judgment. And in at least some traditional decks, at least one of the resurrected figures meets the prospect of this judgment with terror and panic. You can't get this out of a cauldron of rebirth.

This is why traditional Tarot is better than esoteric Tarot. All esoteric tarot decks begin with an interpretation of traditional images. As such, traditional tarot decks contain all the potential interpretations the esoteric decks make more explicit. And they also contain others that the esoteric decks exclude.

Meeting the Empress's gaze

The Popess remains one of the most enigmatic and intriguing images in the inherited cards. Almost all esoteric decks, following Court de Gébelin's lead, make her the high priestess of the mysteries. Historical speculations link her to the legendary Pope Joan, or a Visconti abbess who was executed for heresy.

The game players who assigned a value to the Popess were apparently not too impressed with her. They assigned her the rank of II, one above the Mountebank. And, though it is politically incorrect to say so in a post-feminist age, the idea of a woman wearing a papal tiara would have raised questions of legitimacy, of the sources of authority, to the people who created the cards. You are reminded of the story of the fisherman and his wife, and the magic fish who raised her to the position of Pope, until she reached too far and wanted to become the equal of God.

All of that gets stripped away when she turns into a High Priestess. Who would question the legitimacy of the priestess of the Mysteries? She wears a crown that is supposed to link her with Isis. The book she holds is changed: in the original, it might just be a symbol of native intelligence in the service of ambition, but here it becomes the scroll of sacred law.

Now meet the gaze of the Empress in Flornoy's Noblet tarot. This woman is no Venus. She does not suggest sexual receptiveness or fertility. This woman is very much an earthly monarch who is not amused. We can use her also as a token for the meanings assigned to this card by an esoteric tradition. But we don't have to.

Using traditional decks is not a matter of being snobs or fundamentalists. It's a matter of being open to multiple possibilities, of not being spoon fed the interpretations of a specific school. It is not austerity; it is liberation.


I haven't picked up the cards in a while, but this was very enlightening. I'll have to look at my deck a little more closely today. (not a very visual person, and often consider the title and position primarily, almost ignoring the art in question. That's probably odd.)
Are you familar with the book "PRACTICAL ASTROLOGY: A Simple Method of Casting Horoscopes, the Language of the Stars Easily Comprehended",by Comte C. de Saint-Germain? I recently bid on an older copy on ebay, but I didn't win, in part because I didn't know how rare that edition of the book is and so didn't have any idea of value. I bid out of curiousity; I know a bit about astrology, but next to nothing about Tarot. This book at least looked like an interesting place to start.
A reprint of that text would appear to be available as a publish on demand thing from Amazon:


The Amazon reviewer suggests that what the author has done is to create an "astrology" wholly independent of the stars, that uses numerology and tarot cards to substitute for what was then the rather tedious math of constructing a horoscope.

Since we now have computers to get that job done, the method would appear to represent more trouble than it's worth.

If you're interested in taking up Tarot, I'd recommend Paul Huson's Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Robert M. Place's The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination is also good, as is Gareth Knight's The Magical World of the Tarot.

Edited at 2008-04-26 05:33 am (UTC)


thanks much

thats for sure, bro