Glimpses of the Tarot

I’ve taken an interest in Tarot cards since I first came across them in the USA, at the age of 19. I was fascinated by their images, and over the following years delved into their meanings and history. When I wrote Tarot Triumphs in 2016, it was a chance at last to put together my research and findings, and to pass on what I had learnt from others too – in particular a unique divination layout called ‘The Fool’s Mirror’.

But it didn’t allow me to share the glorious images of traditional Tarot cards, which range from the opulent gilded cards from the royal courts of Europe, to the crude but vigorous woodcuts sold for popular use. There are many mysteries as to Tarot’s origins, and how it was used – you can find out more in my book – but the images have retained their power through the centuries, and are a colourful set of symbols in their own right.

And so I’m planning a series of occasional posts on Cherry’s Cache, which enables me to share images from my own sets of cards, and from digital resources. Along with this, I’ll post extracts from my book on the individual cards themselves, giving some snippets of their meaning, history and variations of imagery.

‘Cherry reading the cards’, oil painting by Robert Lee-Wade – in this case, not the traditional pack, but the renowned Rider Waite pack with its detailed symbolism. It suited Robert’s art better!

I prefer the traditional packs, which have been handed on down through the centuries, and adapted to different countries and cultures. They have a resonance, like traditional folk songs. Their river of time can carry me on its currents, whisper secrets in my ear, and speak to me of its past and future. The symbolism of the 22 Tarot Trumps, as the pictorial cards are known, echoes down through the centuries, if we do but listen to it, connecting us to an ancient way of knowledge.

Each post will put the spotlight on three individual cards – today’s cards are pictured above, in line drawings produced by my husband Robert Lee-Wade for Tarot Triumphs. I’ve allowed the cards to speak in the time-honoured way, simply by shuffling the pack, and using the order in which the cards appeared in, to define the sets of three, rather using the regular numbering of the 22 cards. These are from what is known as the Major Arcana, or the Tarot Trumps; the remaining 56 cards fall into 4 suits like regular playing cards, with one extra court card in each suit.

Tarot of Pierre Madenié, card master and engraver Dijon, 1709-1740

THE HIGH PRIESTESS (No. 2)
The image of the High Priestess, otherwise called the ‘Papesse’ or Female Pope, is very simple in one sense. A woman with a tall headdress sits before a curtain hung between two pillars, holding an open book in her lap. But she has aroused great debate and much learned research among Tarot historians. Does she represent Pope Joan, Isis, Sophia, the Virgin Mary, Faith and the Church, a prophetic Sibyl, a Sorceress or Pagan Knowledge? All have been proposed as candidates, along with a specific historical character, the heretical Manfreda who believed in creating female popes. After fighting my way through this thicket of possible allusions, and appraising their possibilities, I have arrived at the view that this card can best be understood not as one particular figure, but as an embodiment of wisdom and ancient knowledge, symbolised in female form.

Tarot from Bologna, 18th c, reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan

In the early Renaissance, for practitioners of philosophical or Hermetic traditions, such a figure of female wisdom was not only acceptable but essential to their cosmology. The headdress and book of the High Priestess were associated with the spirit of ancient teaching, and from that standpoint, she could quite readily have been equated by different interpreters with Mary, Sophia, Isis or the Kabbalistic Shekinah, each of these a feminine representation of wisdom, current in different strands of teaching and thinking at the time. She is not a historical counterpart of the Pope, or a renegade version of the Pope in female form. There is a case though for associating her with ‘Prudence’, a later personification of Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom; some of her attributes – book and triple crown, for instance – can be found in imagery related to Prudence.

Image of Prudence (top left) with book of wise teachings and disciples. From the illuminated manuscript ‘La Somme le Roy’ (early 14th c.)

So the High Priestess is a teacher of wisdom. And if you go past the trappings, you can also see her as the symbol of contemplation itself. She sits at the entrance to the temple, and is the keeper of its mysteries. In a reading, the card may suggest the need to tap one’s inner resources and to use silence wisely.

Classic image of ‘The Lover’ or ‘Lovers’ from the Marseilles Tarot. This was indeed produced in the Marseilles area of France around the 18th c., but was more widespread than that. A reproduction of a set in 1930 by Paul Marteau set this pack on course to be the typical ‘traditional’ Tarot for the 20th and 21st centuries.

THE LOVER (No. 6)
The usual version of The Lover clearly indicates a choice: which woman will the young man decide to marry? However, some earlier versions, notably the 15th century Visconti-Sforza pack, show what appears to be a wedding in progress, and in that particular case, the figures are presumed to be Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti. The couple were married in 1441, and the sumptuous set of Tarot cards may have actually been commissioned for their wedding. But the dilemma shown on the prevailing traditional image is not a straightforward, happy union; as with many of the cards, it poses a question for us to fathom.

From The Golden Tarot a historical reproduction of the beautiful 15th c. Visconti-Sforza pack. Here a wedding is taking place, perhaps of the patrons themselves

One common interpretation is that these two ladies represent Vice and Virtue. This is borne out by various emblems independent of Tarot packs, such as the one in Orbis Sensualium Pictus by Comenius (1658), where his illustration no. 109 under “Moral Philosophy” shows much the same picture, with the two women positively tugging the young man in different directions.

Comenius: his emblem ‘Moral Philosophy’ shows a young man being pulled in two different directions by Virtue and Vice.

But if we take this as a choice to be made, rather than purely a decision over love, it opens the way to broader interpretations. The question of a dilemma still remains at the heart of this image. The Marseilles Tarot version of The Lover (seen at the start of this section) is a masterpiece of cross tensions, within this Y-shaped formation, indicating this agony of decision. Here, Cupid’s arrow points towards the man’s left, and to the fair-haired maiden standing there. The Lover, though, looks to the right, towards the laurel-crowned lady with the severe face. She rests a restraining hand on his right shoulder, her left reaching out to him below, while the pretty girl on the left, in some versions crowned with flowers, touches his heart with her fingers. She looks forward, while Miss Laurel Crown looks straight into the Lover’s eyes. Both seem to say, ‘He’s mine!’

A magnificent emblem from the early French Tarot cards known as the Charles VI pack. This pack is now more reliably designated as Italian, possibly made in Ferrara, in the 15th c.

The card therefore may not always be about a relationship, but can also indicate a decision pending, a choice to be made in another area of life. Likewise, it could indicate a matter of choosing a particular path, and sacrificing another tempting way forward, in order to achieve the desired goal. And sometimes, the best choice is really very simple.

‘La Force’ – Strength: Marseilles Tarot

STRENGTH (No. 11)
The usual Tarot image for ‘Strength’ shows a woman bending over a lion, calmly but firmly opening its jaws. The French name for this this card is ‘La Force’, which means Strength, but not ‘force’ in the English sense of the word. Here, therefore, gentleness triumphs over ‘brute force’, which sets up one of those intriguing Tarot paradoxes: how can a woman tame such a savage creature without using force? Some versions of Tarot cards show this as a woman breaking a pillar in half or a man clubbing a lion, but these are crude allegories by comparison, and, to my mind, miss the point.

A savage version – and probably adrift from the original meaning. Card from the Schaffhouse Swiss Tarot deck. The style is more ornamental, and probably dates from the early 19th c. In the so-called ‘Swiss Tarot’, the High Priestess (Papesse) and the Pope are replaced by the classical gods Juno and Jupiter, so as not to offend Protestant sensibilities.

To understand this better, we can go back to the cult known as the ‘Mistress of the Beasts’ or ‘Lady of the Animals’. This portrays a woman presiding over wild animals, and in particular lions. Images are found as statues and paintings from ancient civilisations such as Crete, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, where ‘The Lady’ may be seen standing between lions, riding upon a lion’s back, or driving a chariot drawn by lions. There may not be a definite historical link to ‘Strength’ in the Tarot, but it shows that the archetype of woman taming beast resides deep within our culture. It’s also possible that this image derives more directly from the woman jongleurs, the wandering performers who travelled in mixed bands, and whose ‘entertainments’ included showing women taming wild beasts. As I’ve suggested in my book, the troubadours and jongleurs may well have played a part in shaping the Tarot.

Mother goddess flanked by two lionesses on a pithos from Knossos, 625-600 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens
A partially-restored Roman bronze statuette of the cult goddess Cybele, on a cart drawn by lions. 2nd c.A.D, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ‘strength’ shown, therefore, overcomes danger through gentleness, patience and persistence. This type of strength works through anything that is not direct force – through confidence, compassion, understanding, or quietness.

The Tarot of Jean Noblet is the oldest surviving ‘Marseilles’ type pack, produced in Paris in 1650.

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Tarot Triumphs can be bought from Amazon UK and Amazon USA as a paperback or Kindle edition

One thought on “Glimpses of the Tarot

  1. I love both these blogs – Your return to Birmingham reminds me of revisiting Newcastle a few years after studying there 1964-5. The train still arrives across the 19th C Stephenson Bridge, passing inches from the medieval castle, but much is unrecognisable. in 1964 it seemed almost like a mobilised industrial city, soot-covered, treeless and breathtakingly sculptural with its steep terraces, bridges, and the opulent architecture of Gray Street (which is now a Conservation Area). Just a few years later – the Swing Bridge seldom opens for coal barges, the blackened Tyneside marine debris and wooden warehouses were replaced by lawns and young trees. Still an exciting city, though fellow Newcastle alumnus John Richter said it was like putting flowers on its grave.

    On the subject of the Tarot & ‘Le Force’, I wonder if the man is sincerely trying to be nice, or is he going to pick up his club again when we’re not looking?

    Liked by 2 people

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