Glimpses of the Tarot – 5

The Pope, The Tower, Judgement

This is the fifth post where I take a trio of Tarot cards, bringing us up to 15 cards covered plus the Fool, who featured in his very own post ‘The Fool and his Feast’ on Jan 3rd. In each one, I write both about the character of the individual cards, and also how they might operate together as a triad. Another two to go after this one!

Our cards today are The Pope, The Tower, and Judgement. (Line drawings above are by Robert Lee-Wade, as illustrations in my book Tarot Triumphs.) They do look a tough trio, with a stern-looking priest, a tower struck by lightning, and the dead summoned to judgement. But I hope to give a wider view, and room for thought which goes beyond the conventional interpretations. In this series, I’m honour bound to follow the cards in the sets of three which I drew ‘blind’ at the start of the project – no putting them together in ways which I find personally pleasing! It also gives me something to wrestle with, and I always see something new by placing them in context with one another. I’ll start today by showing how they join forces, and follow by saying more about each one individually.

From the French Madenie pack

The Pope

The Pope, or the High Priest as he is sometimes called, is no. 5 in the traditional sequence of cards. Although he’s depicted as a specific religious leader, it’s important to broaden the definition out to that of a teacher, perhaps a priest as a spiritual teacher, but really any form of teaching and learning. Protestant countries at one stage in history couldn’t abide the notion of a Pope, and changed him to Jupiter in their Tarot packs, but I think the figure of a Pope symbolising spiritual instruction, or wise teaching of any kind, serves the purpose far better. He is something of a giant; his students are pictured as tiny in comparison, which is in keeping with the custom in late medieval times to portray a spiritual master as much larger than his followers.

Above, the Pope in the historic 18th c. Italian Bologna deck, created as a woodblock print for general use, and below in a more lavish set of early Renaissance paintings, commissioned for an aristocratic family. (Known as the French ‘Charles VI’ cards, these are now considered to be Italian, possibly made in Ferrara, in the 15th c.)

The Tarot Pope is thus a giant to his disciples, just as an important teacher (male or female) can loom large in our own lives, remaining a permanent inner signpost to guide us long after direct contact has ceased. Every card in the Tarot has its duality of meanings – there are two ends of the stick, as it were, for each Tarot Trump – and a teacher who fashions our way of thinking can thus also become an obstacle to moving forward, or prevent us from making our own discoveries. So the Pope in a Tarot reading may represent either wise instruction, or rigid expectations and dogma. Likewise, every Tarot card can signify either a presence on the internal or on the external side of life: is the Pope a teacher who is ‘out there’ as a real person in the world, or does he represent your inner values and moral standards as they have been formed? In a reading, it will be important to try and determine this. But as an image, the best way to contemplate him is as a symbol who represents the knowledge which can be imparted through teaching, plus the skill of listening, and the value of formulating what we learn.

The Tower is also known as ‘The House of God’. This image is from the popular modern reproduction of the Marseilles Tarot pack.

The Tower

In Tarot card no. 16, lightning strikes the tower with a tongue of fire; the walls are breached, men fall from the heights, and stones rattle down to the ground. This dramatic scene gives us a real jolt – the suddenness of the disaster! But is it necessarily a disaster? Or, again, does the Tarot show us two sides of the coin, since being released from the Tower may end a form of imprisonment?

From the 18th c. Swiss Tarot pack

As I researched this image, I realised that it has a rich historical and mythical base, and I became fascinated with the history of tall tower building and related disasters, from the Italian towers of San Gimignano, built in the spirit of competitiveness which sometimes tumbled to the ground, to the lightning strike on York Cathedral, shortly after a controversial archbishop was installed. As we know, lightning is attracted to such tall edifices, and its the power has been both feared and honoured in many different cultures. In Russia, it is the province of both the Slavic thunder god Perun, and of the prophet Elijah.

The tall towers of San Gimignano, originally built for defence but then as a status symbol, going higher and higher
The parish church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, whose tower was struck by lightning in 1638

I didn’t have to go far from home to visit the scene of one dramatic and historic lighting strike. In the church of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, on Dartmoor in Devon, four painted boards commemorate just such a catastrophe. One Sunday in 1638, lightning struck the church tower while the people were at prayer. Stones crashed down, fire burnt through the church and congregation. And yet the great marvel was that while some worshippers were badly burned or even killed, others walked away unharmed. Money melted in one man’s purse, but the purse itself wasn’t damaged. Those who made this inscription, a hundred years later, wondered at the workings of God’s mercy and of fate.

Among the rest, a little child which scarce knew good from ill
 Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still.
 The greatest admiration was, that most men should be free
 Among so many dangers here, which we did hear and see
 The church within so filled was with timber stones and fire

The tale of the lightning strike at Widecombe in 1638, and the diverse consequences of the fire and falling stones. It was painted a hundred years later by two of the church wardens, so probably relies to some extent on folk memory.

So how might we look at this Tarot card as a tower struck by lightning? The image itself has recognisable sources in medieval illustrations of the sin of ‘Pride’, and the act of a lightning strike as a message of divine retribution for human arrogance, draws on the Bible story of the fall of the Tower of Babel, which was a vain attempt by humans to scale the heights of heaven. It thus was shattered as punishment for their impudence. But the result – a diversity of languages – may not be entirely a bad thing. Creativity may be generated as the prison of old ideas – or an old language – is split open. New cultures, new ways of seeing the world thus arise.

The Tower in a reading can signify an external shock, and perhaps a sudden ‘bolt out of the blue’. Circumstances may change abruptly, and there will be changes. But it may also indicate a sudden inner revelation, a realisation which breaks down old constructs and opens the way to new horizons.

Judgement

And yet…according to this card, the real transformation comes later, as if emerging from a hectic dream of disaster into a state of new awakening. The 20th card of the Tarot pack depicts the moment when the Angel summons the ‘sleepers’ to rise up and move into a sphere where they gain new life, but a life which is determined to some extent by their previous actions. The call comes, and thus we pass through judgement to a different state of being. Plainly, we have to find interpretations which go beyond the Christian image here, and which can also be applicable to everyday life rather than interpreting the ultimate nature of karma, life and death. It is about the way that such re-awakenings can take place in our own lives, in contexts both great and small.

Reproduced from the elaborate Visconti-Sforza pack, Italian, mid 15th century

To expand the interpretation of ‘Judgement’, this is how I rounded off the relevant section in Tarot Triumphs:

‘So, in the context of the Tarot Triumphs, this card shows a stirring and quickening of life. What seemed to be dead is shown to live; what has died is reborn, or is about to be reborn, in another form. We can apply this trumpet call in a reading to anything from a phone call from an old friend, to an unexpected job opportunity, or indeed to a powerful realisation that it’s time to wake up to the real meaning of life. It could indicate an impulse arising, a message or a surprise. But although I have suggested that the waking up is the main focus of the card, nevertheless Judgement does imply another layer of significance within the symbol. Whereas the card of Death suggests the end of a phase, a life, a relationship or whatever else is implied, Judgement points to what comes afterwards. Death hints at new life ahead, but Judgement takes us into the realm of accountability and understanding. After the first awakening come trials and tests. Can the old friendship survive in a new phase of life? How demanding is this new job? What ordeals and possible sacrifices must be faced in order to achieve true inner transformation? The trumpet of the angel promises new life, but the judgement of truth, too.’

A more primitive image from the Vieville pack

While looking for new material for this post, I found myself greatly moved by a piece of music composed for this very scene. ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’ from Handel’s Messiah captures a sense of awe and wonder, especially through the voice of this remarkable singer, Dashon Burton. I already knew the piece well, but had never thought of it in this context before, or heard it performed with such beauty and immediacy. I invite you to take a few minutes out of your busy life to and enjoy it. ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised…’

Time to wake up!

Combining these three cards, what is the collective message they bring? Working my way once more through them, I realised that it’s the call to ‘Wake up!’ The teacher figure of the Pope may awaken or re-awaken our thirst for knowledge or spiritual insight. The wake-up call of the Tower splits open our current reality, as the stones come tumbling down. Judgement indicates that instead of permanent sleep, there is the chance of waking to new life. It is a chance that we might have to choose to take, though. All three cards indicate potential security traps, which can hold us back in our present mode of being. I dare say a nice bedroom high up in the Tower with a lovely view would keep many of us happy, and give an illusion of security, until lightning strikes. Shall we take the chance to start on something new, or will we just slavishly try to rebuild the old? As far as Judgement goes, being ‘buried’ in everyday life and its routines might seem a peaceful option, and we might not welcome being aroused to a new world, even by an angel with a trumpet. And while the Pope as a teacher may keep us alert for a while, stimulated by the interest of learning new things, it is all too easy to shut the door on further knowledge because, after all, we know it all already. Don’t we?

Dig down into most spiritual or esoteric teachings, and you will usually find the instruction to ‘awaken’, often hiding in plain sight, as it is in the Christian gospels. ‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ Mark 13.37. Many teachers of Tarot see the complete deck as a pathway to awakening and completion, rather than just a fortune-telling game.

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot 1

Glimpses of the Tarot 2

Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Glimpses of the Tarot 4

The Fool and his Feast

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