In the image on the card, we see a well-dressed man standing on a balcony, a man who clearly exudes an aura of power, authority, and success. His position high above the town in his castle, his expensive attire, royal purple robes, and confident stance make clear that he is someone who commands respect.
Gazing out at the territory stretching out in front of him, he holds a small globe in one hand, gripping a wand in the other. He seems to be deep in thought. He turns the globe over and over in his hand as he contemplates a decision to be made, weighing each choice carefully in his mind.
Alternatively, he might be reflecting on his past, remembering the exploration and adventures of his youth, captivated by the memories of the battles won, success gained and victories had in days gone by.
Ask anyone on the street in the town below, and they would tell you that they envy this man, admire his accomplishments, and only wish that one day they might possess a fraction of his power, status, and wealth.
But ask this man himself? Well, he might tell you a different story… You would hear how he is bored, restless, uninspired by this life of comfort and stability. You would know how trapped he feels, chained to the earth by the work of his own hand, ruled by his own extensive possessions.
Even without a word, we can guess that likely feels trapped, even lost, without a goal to organize his efforts around. We can see this symbolized by the second wand, which stands to the right of its own accord, lacking a connection to life. It is held upright only by the metal shackle which binds it to the castle wall, making it unlikely to fall, yet also unable to be free.
Two of Wands Interpretation
When this card appears in a tarot reading, it can indicate the possession of great personal power, accomplishment, and success. It refers to the fruits of a brave and courageous soul, a heart that seeks the thrill of adventure and loves a good challenge, along with an original mind that knows how to make it all happen.
It can also refer to an ability to command respect, to act as an authoritative leader and influence others through the powerful force of his will and determination. The 2 of Wands may also reference a certain aura of “greatness” such a man (or woman) will naturally possess, along with the attention, admiration and influence inspired in those he comes into contact with.
Another possibility expressed by the 2 of Wands is that of being at a turning point, of reaching a critical juncture where a decision must be made in order to move forward. It shows a person at a crossroads, carefully weighing each decision, preparing to take action.
Finally, this card may also indicate being possessed by a troubling sense of ennui, of listlessness, of feeling bored and uninspired by one’s current circumstances. The Two of Wands can appear when we are more focused on the thrill of the chase, This comes up in situations where we care only about conquering, and lose interest once the challenge has disappeared.
If this is the case, we may want to ask ourselves what we gain from being in constant pursuit of “the next best thing.” While this pattern may at times be very gratifying for the ego, if we persist we may find ourselves locked into a destructive pattern of dominance and aggression, which ultimately leaves us and others feeling empty and unfulfilled.
It is a bright summer day in the countryside. We see a castle on a hill set against a backdrop of purple mountains, while beneath it, a river rushes forward relentlessly towards its destination.
High above in the sky, a hand emerges from a cloud, tightly gripping a tall wand. This phallic object exudes so much vitality that green leaves literally burst forth from the top in an exuberant display of primal life force energy.
Ace of Wands Interpretation
When this card comes up in a tarot reading, it likely indicates an auspicious new beginning for us.
The fiery energy of the suit of Wands blesses us with its passion, vitality, and enthusiasm. When we see this card, we can trust that we have the confidence, motivation and strength to move out in the world and make things happen.
This card can also indicate the presence of other qualities associated with the element of Fire, such as creativity, originality, and inspired self-expression. When the Ace of Wands comes up in a reading, it is safe to say that we can believe in ourselves and our capacity to find inventive solutions to any challenges before us.
The Ace of Wands is, above all, a card of enthusiasm, excitement and adventure. When this Ace comes up in a reading, it can inspire us to have faith in ourselves and move forward. With this attitude of self-assurance, we are free to embark on whatever adventure is calling out to us, and trust that we will be met with success.
It is a brilliant early summer day: the sky is clear, the sun is shining, and the earth seems to buzz with excitement and joy at the start of a new season. A young man bursts on the scene, singing a jolly tune as he goes along, happy as could be. A carefree youth, this wanderer has left the restrictive responsibilities of life in the town and set out by himself, determined to make his own way as he seeks out the adventure and excitement he just knows the world is sure to offer him.
A playful and high-spirited little dog trots alongside the youthful explorer, just as eager and enthusiastic about the joys that seem to await them somewhere just over the horizon.
However, there are dangers in the world that our innocent Fool is clearly unaware of. With his head in the clouds, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is standing at the cliff’s edge. Unfortunately, it seems he may have to learn the hard way (as most of us do) about the difficulties of life.
The Fool Interpretation
When this card comes up in a tarot reading, one interpretation is that we have literally been acting like a fool. We could be approaching our current circumstances with a brash attitude of careless disregard; we may be reckless in our behavior towards others and fail to consider the consequences for all involved.
However, there is another way in which we may behave foolishly, and that is simply through a lack of awareness. When this is the case, it is not due to a lack of care or concern, rooted instead in our innocence, a genuine naïveté that arises from our pure hearts and a sincere guilelessness.
This is related to yet another interpretation available to us for the Fool, which involves a childlike sense of wonder, awe and joy. This card speaks of boundless optimism, of a zeal for life that expresses itself in a carefree and cheerful sense of enthusiasm. It refers to the ability to maintain a positive attitude and open mind, even in the face of challenging circumstances.
On a more esoteric level, the Fool is associated with the unmanifest, the part of the universe that is characterized by limitless potential, from which all that is in creation is drawn and to which it will ultimately return.
Thus, this card can also signal the potential for new beginnings in our lives. At times, the Fool makes an appearance in order to encourage us to take a chance and start again. He asks us to throw caution to the wind and let the cards fall where they may.
It is said that “fortune favors the bold,” and there is no one out there more bold than this daring, dashing Fool of the Major Arcana. In this context, the Fool could be encouraging us to act courageously, for it is true that “as a man thinketh, so is he.” Think positive and act with high hopes, and life may very well respond with the same approving generosity in return.
Most tarot decks in use today, including the Rider-Waite, contain a standard number of 78 cards, which is then split into two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
The word “arcana” itself means “a deep or profound secret.” It is thought that each of these cards contains symbolic imagery revealing a powerful hidden meaning. These cards are meant to convey, through a pictorial language, the secret mysteries of the universe and our place within it.
The Major Arcana contains 22 cards, numbered from 0 to 21, all of which go beyond the more common, quotidian concerns represented in the 56 cards of the Minor to touch on the archetypal dimensions of our spiritual development.
Furthermore, we can look to the Major Arcana not simply as a set of 22 isolated archetypal ideas, but rather, as a mythic or heroic journey, one that each of us may choose to undertake as a route to greater self-knowledge and realization.
We can start by turning our attention to the first of these cards, The Fool. It is interesting to note that although this is the first of the series, it does not carry the numeral 1, but 0.
As we will see in greater detail in our next post dedicated to this card, the Fool likely carries the number 0 because it is representative of pure potential. As a symbol of the unmanifest, the Fool contains all possibilities within himself.
In some sense, the Fool exists outside of the trajectory represented by cards 1 through 21 of the Major Arcana. We can even think of the Fool as being the hero of the Major Arcana’s series of transformations. For it is the Fool which takes a leap of faith, from a place of unrealized potential into a life of action and consequence.
In fact, there are many commentators who have even called this series of 22 cards “The Fool’s Journey.” It is wise to keep in mind, however, that this is not merely a story about the Tarot’s naive protagonist. It is not the tale of a character in a land far from us; it is in fact our story, describing a journey each of us must go on as individuals on our way to greater awareness and self-actualization.
We all start out like the Fool, inexperienced and filled with boundless optimism, dazzled by the seemingly infinite options which glitter like stars on the horizons of our futures.
Each of us, like the Fool, takes a similar leap of faith into what is to come. As we move forward in time, each of us makes choices, acting on decisions that lead us through certain doors, decisions which simultaneously will close certain others.
Some sources, such as modern mystery school Builders of the Adytum and noted author Rachel Pollack, divide the Major Arcana into three distinct series containing seven cards each. Each series of seven represents three distinct stages or levels of experience and development: the conscious, the subconscious, and the superconscious.
Cards 1 through 7 describe our journey through the first stage of our conscious development. This first set of seven depicts the archetypal influences and developmental milestones we must master and achieve in order to be effective in the outer world of material achievement.
In the next set, cards 8 through 14 represent a turning inwards, where we must come face to face with elements of our subconscious minds and integrate them into our being to achieve further wholeness. We come into contact with what has as of yet remained latent beneath the surface of our daily experience.
“True, whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself….
The meeting with oneself is, at first, the meeting with one’s own shadow. The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty….
It is the world of water, where all life floats in suspension; where the realm of the sympathetic system, the soul of everything living, begins….
All those who have had an experience like that mentioned in the dream know that the treasure lies in the depths of the water and will try to salvage it.” — from C.G. Jung CW 9
Here, we must face the primal, chaotic life energies that constitute our subconsciousness. This experience can be deeply shocking and even terrifying, especially for a culture as unprepared to deal with these deep and powerful currents of psychic energy as the hyper-rational, patriarchal capitalist culture of today.
Finally, the last set of cards numbered 15 through 21 show the development of what both B.O.T.A. and Pollack describe as “superconsciousness”, or what some might call the transpersonal level of psyche. This level transcends the purely personal experience to encompass a union with the spiritual, universal and archetypal level of existence. In this stage, we move beyond our personal, individual life stories and connect with the mystery of the infinite, that which is greater than ourselves.
“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid–it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.”
–from C.G. Jung CW 12
It is here where we come into contact with what we might call cosmic consciousness. This is a level of development reserved to those who are brave and willing enough to take a leap of faith into the vast unknown.
It is interesting to note that the great majority of the human figures represented in these 22 cards are displayed in static, unmoving positions, almost as if they were posing for a portrait.
Only two cards portray figures in movement: Key 0, the Fool, and Key 21, the World.
This is likely meant to suggest a certain similarity between what is represented by the Fool and the World. Indeed, we find that the symbolic imagery represented in the World portrays our experience when we find that we have successfully traversed the various tests, challenges, and opportunities for growth shown in each of the previous cards of the Major Arcana.
Having integrated all of these lessons, we arrive at the World, liberated from our previous patterns, our illusions, and our limitations. We have freed ourselves from any inner restrictions and defense mechanisms, much of which had arisen as attempts to protect our ego from the incursions of a seemingly dangerous outer world.
When this happens, we find ourselves once again in a state of pure openness to the world, where we can experience a true receptivity and responsiveness to our experience as it arises moment-by-moment.
This is a state very similar to that of the Fool. Once again, we find that we are open to the fullness and totality of the world around us, at one with our environment and all that is. We have come full circle to once again embody pure potential and limitless possibility.
However, this state is in many ways much more powerful. Arriving at the World, we have gained the capacity to combine the wisdom of experience with a child-like sense of wonder, awe and joy. We are able to move beyond dualistic concepts and achieve union with what is beyond ourselves.
The purpose of this transcendent spiritual union with the Divine is not to escape our material and embodied physical existence, but to transform it. We are meant to use our higher spiritual consciousness in service of the mundane.
In true alchemical fashion, the purpose of this spiritual ascension is to bring what is gained above back down to perfect the world below.
“It rises from the Earth to Heaven, and descends again to Earth,
Thereby combining within it the powers of both the Above and the Below.”
–The Emerald Table
As we have seen, Major Arcana of the Tarot provides a profound symbolic representation of the soul’s journey from innocence to awareness. Although the Tarot is indeed a dynamic and powerful tool for divination, it is far more than that. The Tarot contains a profound message of transformation and redemption for those who have eyes to see it. We can use it as a tool for study, for quiet reflection, or for meditation on the archetypal principles underlying each of these 22 cards. If we can bring an attitude of intention, openness and receptivity to our work with these cards, the Tarot can be one of our best guides on the often labyrinthine journey of return to our highest selves.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
There have been countless tales told about the origins of the tarot, but undoubtedly the most popular of these was that it originated as a simple card game in late medieval Europe. Known as Les Tarots in Frances, or Tarocchi in Italy, this accounting of the roots from which the cards sprang states that it was nothing more than a parlor game that later acquired a much more unusual divinatory use.
Although nonetheless still shrouded in mystery, historians generally agree that the first Tarot deck as we know it today was in fact painted during the late 15th by an artist named Bonifacio Bembo in Milan. It is said that the deck he created had been commissioned to celebrate the wedding of two noble Italian families, and this deck, known as the Visconti-Sforza, still carries the names of his wealthy patrons.
Like those that would come after, this deck draws on some of the most common archetypal figures of the late medieval period, such as the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune, and the Devil. These characters were represented often in allegorical morality plays which were commonly staged during that time. These dramas often featured human protagonists intermingling on stage with personifications of more abstract concepts like Temperance or Death. The objective was to impart a moral lesson to viewers, with the hope that they would be inspired to live a more virtuous life.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that Antoine Court de Gébelin proposed a radically new theory for the time in his book, Le Monde Primitif regarding the true origin and purpose of these cards. He asserted that rather than being a simple card game, the Tarot was in fact a pictorial representation of the ancient philosophies of the Egyptian god Thoth (known later to the Greeks and Romans as Hermes or Mercury). According to him, the Tarot contained within them an ancient, hidden wisdom which could be discerned by those who knew how to interpret the various symbols depicted in the cards.
By the time Le Monde Primitif was published, the most common Tarot deck available or in use at the time was what is known as the Marseilles deck. This was in many ways simpler and more stylized than its predecessor, the Visconti-Sforza. The hand drawn images contained more of the abstract, symbolic imagery that became the precursor for what we see in tarot decks today.
For example, in this deck we see The Magician standing at a table with his ritual implements, wearing a hat bearing the figure 8, or infinity symbol, an innovation which would reappear later in the great majority of tarot decks in use today.
The most well-known and popular of these decks, the Rider-Waite, was created in 1909 by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In particular, occultist & scholar Arthur Edward Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith were responsible for the creation of this Tarot deck, and it remains one of the most popular decks in use even today. It has remained so popular due to its easily accessible symbolic imagery containing within them many of the principles and ideas held by the Golden Dawn. It was radically innovative for its time, as it was the first deck to ever feature pictorial, representational images printed on each of the 78 cards. In the past, what are known as the “pip” cards (or 1-10 of each suit) consisted only of an arrangement of a corresponding number of wands, cups, swords or pentacles (much like today’s common playing cards).
This addition of representative scenes from daily life made using the deck much easier, both for study and for divination. Waite and Smith had designed each card in such a way that each object, gesture, and even quantity carried some symbolic meaning that could lead to deeper insight and understanding.
However, some have argued that the real value of this deck lies in Smith’s evocative artwork, which itself requires little interpretation, and speaks directly to the unconscious mind itself. Each card of this new Tarot deck had the power to evoke a strong, clear impression or feeling in the observer that could give meaning on its own. This development was crucial in sparking a new era of popularity of the tarot and introducing many to this art of divination.
The Rider-Waite-Smith is still the most common deck in use today, not only by individuals and professional readers, but also among teachers, and in books and other reference resources. Among the many new decks which have emerged afterwards, more than a few are what is known as Rider-Waite derivative, meaning that they are simply artistic re-imaginings of the same basic set of images contained in the original.
The RWS deck is what I will primarily be using here as a reference for my posts on each of the cards and their meanings. It is the deck I first learned with, and it is also the deck I most often use in readings (both personally, for myself, and professionally with clients), although I have since acquired many others.
With that said, I did want to also mention another important and highly influential deck in use today. This deck, the Thoth tarot, is one which also has its roots in the Order of the Golden Dawn. It was developed quite a bit later than the Rider-Waite, in conjunction with the artist Frieda Harris during World War II, only to be published sometime in the late 1960s.
There are some, indeed, who take the Thoth deck to be the only “true” tarot, believing it more faithfully represents the secret teachings of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The artwork by Harris is stunning, and I have found the inclusion of the Hebrew letters and astrological associations very useful. From my personal experience, I have found it less useful in my professional readings, as these typically deal with common, everyday issues in my client’s daily lives. While I find the Thoth deck fascinating and intriguing, the more abstract nature of it makes it less easily applicable to the more common mundane situations encountered in a typical tarot reading.
The Prima Materia, or First Matter, is a difficult concept to define. It has been said that the First Matter is both everything and nothing.
According to D. W. Hauck , “It is the primal One Thing that existed before time, as well as the primordial chaos that contains all possibilities.” It is said that the First Matter carries the germ or seeds of all things that every existed or ever could exist in the future.
In the Emerald Tablet, the “One Thing” refers to the Prima Materia. This was then acted upon by the thoughts or word of the One Mind to create the material reality we can observe with our senses.
The Egyptian hieroglyph for the sound “kh” also symbolized the concept of the First Matter. It was the first letter used in the word khem , which means “black matter which is alive.” [It also the root of the word alchemy.] Other possible translations of this word are “placenta,” “fertile dirt,” or “living black soil.”
It can be thought of as the unmanifest, the part of God or spirit that is all potential, that contains all possibilities.
It the substance that we start with, the raw material that is perfected through the entire alchemical process known as the “Great Work.”
Of all the Ancient Greek philosophers, Plato was the one which had the most influence on subsequent ideas around the role of rhetoric and philosophy. A student of Socrates, he went on to found a school called The Academy, and was known for skepticism about the value of rhetoric.
This skepticism or mistrust of rhetoric likely had much to do with the circumstances surrounding the death of his mentor, Socrates, who was condemned to death by the Athenian court. Plato came to view rhetoric as merely a tool for manipulation. According to him, “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”
In this view, rhetoric was not concerned with truth but with persuasion. This was based on the idea that presentation and style mattered more than truth when it came to rhetoric. This put rhetoric is opposition to dialectic, which involved two parties presenting arguments in a discussion with the goal of determining the truth.
Plato was adamant about the opposition between rhetoric and dialectic, and that dialectic was a valuable practice which led to truth, while rhetoric was less honorable and concerned only with persuasion, often resulting in lies.
I’ve never agreed with his take on rhetoric, to be honest. From my understanding, rhetoric and dialectic are much more similar than Plato would admit. In a future post, I’ll get into more detail on the different ideas various philosophers had about the purpose of rhetoric and dialectic.
For now, I’ll say this about Plato: he had an idealistic viewpoint on what constituted truth, and believed that a rhetorician must first KNOW (philosophy) before he is to CONVINCE (rhetoric). Truth was determined through dialectic, or argumentation. Rhetoric was a tool to persuade or deceive, and therefore hardly worthy of the true philosopher.
According to Richard Tarnas, the archetypal is the spiritual and energetic. It was originally experienced by human people as “Gods” and “Goddesses,” and described in terms of mythologies.
The archetypal is about the essences and qualities that transcend the human.
These ideas were later expounded upon in Ancient Greece, with the philosophies of Plato and Plotinus, among others. They were forgotten for many years until their recovery by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Carl Jung.
Jung’s depth psychology explored the idea of the archetypal pleroma, the pantheon of archetypal energy, both within and without. It was Jung who recognized that we are in psyche. It informs not only us but all of nature. This is what is meant by the Anima Mundi, or world soul.
It was through myths that man tried to understand and convey its experience of this world soul. Myth, as well as dreams, are the narrative form of archetypal energy. According to Tarnas, this is how the cosmos pours its consciousness through us humans. The archetypes are thus the mediators of the cosmos, the way the Anima Mundi often speaks to us directly of its secrets.
Plotinus says that astrology is like a script that the soul of the sky is writing. Meaning is something that extends and permeates through all levels of reality and existence. We are living in a pan-psychic universe, and if we wish to, we can be active participants with this consciousness or sentience.
The cosmos gives us guidance on how we can participate constructively. The archetypes don’t “cause” human affairs or outer events to occur in some mechanistic way. Instead, it is open to our human participation.
It is as if the universe or nature is providing us with symbols or guideposts regarding the qualitative meaning of our unfolding. We can choose to participate actively in our own evolution by noticing and following the signs provided for us by the macrocosm.
After the Bellows Breath, you may want to follow up with another practice called the Dance of Sulfur.
Sulfur is a yellow powder which the alchemists believed symbolized the active masculine principle of fire. It was often used in laboratory alchemy in the form of sulfuric acid (also known to them as vitriol).
The Dance of Sulfur is an exercise to increase energy and circulate it in the body. Not only that, it is ideal for taking the emotions which arise in Roasting Cinnabar and the energy raised in Bellows Breath and expressing them in a healthy way. We can use the Dance of Sulfur to let go of pent up rage, aggression and other emotions that have been suppressed or held in our bodies for too long.
HOW TO PRACTICE
To begin, you can put on some music (some say angry or aggressive rock music works best) and start to dance. You can try any other type of aerobic movement that will increase your heart rate, like jogging in place or jumping rope, but I prefer to dance, as it really allows you to get into the music and feel the powerful feelings which have been brought up by other alchemical practices. Aim for at least 20 minutes of movement in this practice.
Try to leave thought and the conscious, rational mind behind. As much as you can, drop your awareness into your body, feel all the emotions coming up as the energy grows stronger and rises within you.
Once you feel you are in the moment and present in your body, start to imagine intense, fiery energy rising up in waves from below. You can then direct that fire energy to any areas of tension or pain in your body (either physical or emotional). Let the flames wash over you, consuming the stagnant ego structures of your past, and burning up and releasing any ideas, emotions or behavior you want to let go of.
This practice, along with the previous two, may be used alone or in conjunction. If you have the time, I recommend creating a ritual that combines Roasting Cinnabar, Bellows Breath, and the Dance of Sulfur (in that order).
When I have done this set of practices together in the past, I like to say a prayer or set an intention (whatever works for you), and I light a red candle to honor the rage and pain of the past, and to symbolize what will be consumed and released during the ritual. You may also want to conclude this set of practices with a ritual bath (salt baths are great for this). Visualize the salt water cleansing you of any remnants of anger or stuck energy, then picture all of these troubles leaving you for good as they are washed down the drain at the very end.